For our sake, it’s time to stop treating soil like dirt!

What is the difference between soil and dirt?

soilinhand280Essentially, all soil is primarily composed of three substrates (or a combination of them) which are clay, sand and silt. These come from decomposed rock and minerals brought to us by mother nature over eons.

To varying degrees, soil is rich in nutrients derived from decomposed organic matter, fungi and microorganisms. It is dark and crumbly…and alive.

It’s an ecosystem that feeds and nurtures us, and supports the incredible diversity of life on our planet.

“It is impossible to have a healthy and sound society without a proper respect for the soil.”

— Peter Maurin

On the other hand, “dirt” is lifeless soil, bereft of nutrients and organisms needed to sustain life.

If you live in a recently developed area of Frederick County, the odds are you live on top of dusty, lifeless fill dirt. This is courtesy of developers, who generally take the path of least resistance. The development process usually begins by stripping the top soil to create a blank landscape on which to build. (You can buy it back later from Home Depot.)

As they work, developers re-grade the desert landscape they created, often trucking in fill dirt and bulldozing it around to contour and mold your yard according to their site plan. New residents, attempting to plant a tree in their yard, often find they can’t put a shovel in the ground without hitting rocks. To no surprise, this frequently leads to paying an expensive lawn service to try to establish and maintain a green lawn.

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So why does this matter?

In addition to other problems, lifeless fill dirt compacts easily, and is ineffective at absorbing rain and runoff, contributing to stormwater management problems and local flooding.

soilhealthgraphic280Healthy soil however, is permeable and absorbs ample amounts of rain and surface water. That helps reduce flooding and erosion, while simultaneously recharging groundwater.

Groundwater is vital to the health of our individual and community wells, and helps sustain healthy creeks and streams. Without nutrients and less able to hold moisture, fill dirt also dramatically reduces the health and viability of our lawns, and the shrubs, trees and gardens we plant.

This often correlates with the increased use of pesticides and fertilizers, as well as supplemental watering. In essence, without healthy soil, such as what was there before construction, our lawns, shrubs and trees must be continually maintained with artificial means rather than nourished naturally in healthy soil.

And, of course, a lot of those chemicals find their way into our our streams and rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay, not to mention our drinking water.

There’s another noteworthy benefit to growing grass and plants in rich, healthy soil. All those small organisms in living soil bind and sequester carbon from our atmosphere. In that respect, there’s no doubt that soil health in our communities is just as important as the soil in our farms.

But careless development practices don’t need to be the status quo anymore.

Recently, I began a dialogue with County Executive Jan Gardner, other elected officials and a major local developer explaining to them the myriad benefits of maintaining good, quality soil in developed land, discussing the many benefits of incorporating quality soil into the final grading of residential and commercial developments.

To that end, I have suggested that one goal could be to formulate best practices into a legislative initiative put forth by the county in the upcoming general assembly session. Such practices would include a requirement that developers leave top soil in place, or incorporate subsoil into the final grading of yards and other open spaces.

I find that many people I speak with are not even aware of this problem beneath our feet. This must change, because developments are not isolated tracts of land. Our sustainable and purposeful stewardship of the land we live and work on directly affects the health of our planet, which is something we all need to take seriously.

Business-as-usual development practices are failing us.

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

— Wendell Berry, in “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture”

We need to change our mind-set from a scorched earth approach to one that fosters sustainable land stewardship. Please read the Soil Based Fact Sheet published by USDA for more information, and let your elected officials know you support healthy soil.