Many of us live atop ground that has been traversed, cleared, farmed, built upon, dumped on, regrown, etc. over the centuries. Records of ownership, deeds, etc., may not tell us the full story of what has occurred by the actions of nature or humans. Even getting a soil test on one portion of a property may not reveal what may have gone on elsewhere on a piece of ground.
Soil maps can be accessed online through various platforms, including the Galloway Township Environmental Resource Inventory, USDA, NJDEP and the NJ Conservation Blueprint websites. You can also get samples tested by the Rutgers Agricultural Extension in Mays Landing or even by test kits that you can send away for analysis. If major development is to occur on a piece of property, soil borings and even test pits are dug to closely examine the structure, consistency and layering. This is crucial to determine the health of the soil and also the water management potential for any project.
Many homes, since Colonial times, used backyards for their own little landfills; or to bury the residue from burning materials over time. Even Native American encampments or communities have left piles of materials that we have found from so many years ago. Toxic residues can persist in soil, even though microorganisms assist in some remediation. However, South Jersey has a sad legacy of illegal toxic dumping from chemical companies as well as general dumping in avoidance of proper disposal. Many of these have become hazard sites if not Superfund sites. Many are probably still unknown and may be causing harm to groundwater and soil health to this day.
Further, people may have done excavations of all sorts on properties for structures, pools, septic systems, etc. as well as tilling and land sculpting for farming. Amendments have been added, topsoil brought in from who knows where or stripped off and sold. So, things may have changed substantially over the years on your property; in many cases no one really knows for sure what their “soil inheritance” really is.
The point of this article really is that you should do your best to find out what the status of your soil is; for health and safety, for knowledge about what might best grow there, how to plan for stormwater management and for a start in improving poor conditions.
Four words that you should get to know are clay, silt, sand and loam. In understanding the behavior of each of these soil types, it’s largely a function of the particle sizes represented by each of them. Clay can be the bane of homeowners and farmers; the tiniest of particles with very little space between them. The clay pulls in water by capillary action and holds it, not allowing air to enter easily to dry it out. So, the clay doesn’t allow room for healthy root interaction and just keeps things wet around basements, in fields and gardens. Silt particles are a little bigger than clay particles, but often pure silt just makes things sticky and damp without supporting either organic life or water percolation. Then you get to sand particles and you have larger particle size and the tendency for water to pass through much more quickly, but very importantly, letting in more air. Sometimes the water passes through too quickly for roots to grab it unless they are adapted as water loving plants with deep root systems. Sandy soils can support more life because of the water and air, but it’s limited in scope of species types.
The ideal soil in most cases is the combination of clay, silt and sand for the structural “hat trick” called loam. Once you have loam for a good balance of air, water holding and water release, you can regulate nutrients for your plants. Your loam will do just fine with five to ten percent of it being made up of organic material. And, to further define terms, organic material is basically anything that was once living; like hay, grass clippings, compost, manures, leaves, wood chips, etc. The organics are key partners to the very important minerals of sand, silt and clay. They bring in and support the microorganisms that do the constant decomposing magic; making nutrients and biological processes like fungi available to plants, trees and therefore wildlife and right on up the food chain.
So, study your soil and find out what’s really going on down there. And remember, stop running cars, trucks, trailers and other machinery over your soil if you want it to be productive. That squashes out the air and water holding pore space that you need for soil vigor and balance!
Go Green Galloway is a volunteer organization dedicated to reducing the carbon footprint of Galloway through the promotion of energy efficiency and conservation, environmental education and the implementation of sustainable practices. We always welcome new volunteer members. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Mary at 609-742-7076. Also be sure to like our Facebook page.