Is It Dirt or Soil?

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Man working soil

Soil sciences student weeds his section of garden at the Agroecology Farm.

Is it Dirt or soil? This question takes me back to my days as a student taking high school agriculture courses. When someone made a comment about dirt my agriculture teacher would always say “dirt doesn’t grow plants soil grows plants.”

Every time I hear the word dirt, I recall my high school ag teacher’s words. So, what’s the big deal whether you call it soil or dirt? Well it’s not that big of a deal, but it is interesting and worthwhile to know the difference. I turned to the Soil Science Society of America to define the difference and who knew they do actually have explanations for soil and dirt ­­– spoiler alert my high school agriculture teacher was right.

According to the Soil Science Society of America soil is the unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of the earth that serves as a natural medium for the growth of land plants. Dirt is soil that has lost the characteristics that give it the ability to support life. Dirt can also be soil that has been displaced for example on the bottom of our shoes or on our clothes.

The fact that dirt is soil that has lost its ability to support life speaks to the reality that our soils have limitations and we have the ability to degrade or build this precious resource. Is it a big deal to call soil “dirt?” I don’t think so but is it a big deal to grow plants in dirt instead of soil? You bet it is. As you start thinking about next year’s crop, landscape project or garden remember that success depends on good stewardship and it starts with what’s right beneath your feet.