We may call it “dirt” in conversation, and the word fits when the kids drag it into the house. But soil is the earth’s surface layer of mineral and organic matter with a vital role: nurturing plant life. Watching Hall County Master Gardeners at work, I’m always thrilled by the attention they give the topsoil, making sure none gets wasted during bed cleanups, and mixing it with compost to keep it active.
To view the effects of careless soil management, you don’t need to leave Georgia. Just go to the town of Lumpkin, west of Americus. On Route 39C, aptly named Canyon Road, you’ll find Georgia’s Providence Canyon State Park.
It illustrates an early 1900s agricultural disaster. Careless plowing and failure to protect the topsoil from erosion allowed storm water to carve deep grooves in the landscape. Over the decades, the grooves became valleys. Now they resemble a small version of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, with drop-offs as deep as 60 feet. Exposed bands of subsoil and weathered rock show beautiful colors. But the once-fertile topsoil is gone.
Occurrences of this type led Congress to establish the U.S. Soil Conservation Service in 1935, now named Natural Resources Conservation Service. Its website (www.nrcs.usda.gov) offers just about any information about soil types, treatment and protection that one might look for, including mobile apps. Advice on a local basis is available at Hall County‘s Extension Service (extension.uga.edu/county-offices/hall.html).
Its slow development of 1 inch per 1,000 years makes topsoil a nonrenewable resource. The first order of protection is not to pollute it. A pile of empty motor oil bottles in the woods indicates that someone has polluted the soil (and groundwater) badly, instead of taking the waste oil back to the store for recycling.
Another common problem is exposure to storm runoff. If soil has been disturbed for construction or landscaping, it needs a plant cover to prevent rain from washing it away. A look at the “Vulnerability to Water Erosion” map on the NRCS site shows how important it is to protect this resource. Note that the entire Appalachian region appears there in “very high” red, and North Georgia in second-highest orange.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.