23rd Aug 2023 -

With every step you take, you’re likely stepping onto a complex world of life and scientific wonder. Soil and its trusty partner in nutrient recycling, compost, form a fundamental element of our global ecosystem and are packed full of more life than you could ever imagine. 

Here are 20 of our favourite facts from the world of soil and compost.

Unearth Your Curiosity With 10 Intriguing Soil Facts You Never Knew

Close up photograph of man holding soil in both hands

At first glance, soil might not seem like the most exciting subject. But, in reality, soil is an incredibly complex and vibrant ecosystem, providing the foundation for virtually all life on earth, while teeming with secret stories and untold mysteries.

From the bustling metropolises of microorganisms to the unseen battle against climate change, soil is a world filled with wonders. As a dynamic, living entity, it guards our planet, hosts an impressive array of life, and influences everything from local ecosystems to global climate patterns.

Are you ready to dig beneath the surface? Here are some astonishing facts about soil that will give you a newfound appreciation for the ground beneath your feet.

1. The Diversity of Life

You may feel alone while hiking through the wilderness or tending your garden, but each step you take is over a bustling metropolis of microscopic life. It's estimated that a single teaspoon of soil could contain more organisms than there are people on Earth. This includes bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes. This rich biodiversity is a testament to the soil's dynamic ecosystem that sustains all forms of life on Earth.

2. Time Takers

Creating fertile soil is a long-term investment that nature makes over hundreds to thousands of years. It can take up to 1,000 years to form just 1 cm of topsoil, the layer that fuels the growth of plants and microbial life. This slow-burning process involves the weathering of rocks and the decay of organic matter, reminding us to preserve and value the soil we have, with some warning that the current level of nutrient-rich topsoil is dangerously low.

3. The Soil Underneath Cities

Did you know that there's a special type of soil found exclusively in urban areas? This soil, known as "Technosol," forms on surfaces affected by intensive industrial activity and human-made materials. For instance, Technosols may develop on top of pavements, buildings, or in places with high concentrations of heavy metals and organic pollutants. Studying Technosols helps urban planners and environmental scientists understand and manage pollution in city environments.

4. Soil in Shades

The UK, despite its relatively small size, hosts a surprising variety of soil types, each varying in colour, texture, structure, and mineral composition. This includes the fertile loam soils of the southeast, the peaty soils found in the uplands of Scotland and Wales, or the sandy soils characteristic of East Anglia. This varied palette is a testament to the multitude of processes and factors influencing soil formation, including climate, organisms, topography, parent material, and time.

5. The Ancient Storyteller

Soil layers, or horizons, are like pages in a history book. Each layer can reveal fascinating stories about the past - from climate changes to former uses of land, and even ancient civilizations. Archaeologists often rely on soil profiles to understand how human activity has affected the landscape over time. Some buried soils, known as paleosols, can even date back millions of years, providing invaluable insights into Earth's prehistoric environment.

6. The Impact of the Ice Age

The Ice Age significantly influenced the formation of UK soils. As glaciers advanced and retreated, they ground up rocks, creating fine material called "glacial till" or "boulder clay." This is the parent material of many UK soils, particularly in northern and eastern regions.

7. A Carbon Haven

Soil isn't just a breeding ground for life; it's also one of the planet's largest carbon storehouses, holding approximately 2,500 billion tons within it, over four times the amount of carbon stored in all the world's plants and trees combined. This vast underground carbon bank plays a pivotal role in mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thereby buffering the effects of our carbon emissions.

8.  The Silent Crisis of Soil Erosion 

Soil erosion is a ticking time bomb for global food security and environmental health. Each year, we lose an estimated 24 billion tons of fertile soil due to erosion, a rate much faster than nature can replace it. The causes are predominantly human activities such as deforestation, overgrazing, and improper agricultural practices. This silent crisis threatens our ability to preserve biodiversity and grow enough food for an expanding global population.

9. Worms Are Our Soil Saviours

Earthworms, often called the 'engineers of the soil,' play a vital role in maintaining soil health. They tunnel through the soil, aerating it and improving its ability to hold water. As they digest organic matter, they recycle nutrients and create rich, fertile casts (worm waste) that improve soil structure. Charles Darwin himself was fascinated by worms, stating: "It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played such an important part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures."

10. The Importance of Peatlands

The UK is home to around 13% of the world's blanket bog, a type of peatland. These peatlands are incredibly important for carbon storage, storing more carbon than all other vegetation types in the UK combined. They also support a wide range of wildlife and help regulate water quality and supply.

From Trash to Treasure: 10 Fascinating Facts About Compost

A close up photograph of a leaf covered din rain droplets

Compost, often described as black gold, represents one of nature's most fascinating recycling processes. It breathes new life into kitchen scraps and garden waste, turning them into a rich, nutrient-filled soil conditioner that can turbocharge your garden and contribute to a healthier planet.

Far from just being decomposed waste, compost is a living, breathing ecosystem, teeming with billions of microscopic organisms. The power of compost extends beyond our gardens, with it fighting diseases, reducing waste, and even helping to mitigate climate change.

Here are ten fascinating facts about composting, digging deeper into its vital role in our ecosystems.

1. The Rich History of Composting 

The roots of compost can be traced back to at least the early Roman Empire. The famous natural philosopher Pliny the Elder provided a detailed account of compost preparation in his work "Naturalis Historia". Over centuries, farmers, gardeners, and civilizations worldwide have harnessed the power of composting to enrich their soil, grow healthier crops, and recycle organic waste, demonstrating the time-tested value of this natural process.

2. A Signature Scent 

Surprisingly, compost has a connection to the luxurious world of perfumery. A unique kind of compost, known as "mellis", is used to grow the Rosa centifolia in the Grasse region of France, the world's perfume capital. Mellis is a mixture of local soil, sheep manure, and the spent botanicals previously used in distillations. This compost gives the roses their distinct and highly sought-after fragrance, which is used in some of the world's most expensive and luxurious perfumes.

3. Waste Not, Want Not

In a society driven by consumption, composting offers a practical solution to reduce waste and its environmental impact. In the UK about 40% of the average household bin's contents are suitable for home composting. Rather than sending these materials to landfills where they generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas, composting provides a low-cost, eco-friendly alternative that enriches our soils while helping combat climate change.

4. The Heat of Decomposition

One of the fascinating aspects of composting is the heat it generates. As the organic matter in a compost pile breaks down, it can reach temperatures up to 160°F. This heat, generated by the action of countless microbes breaking down organic matter, not only speeds up the composting process but also helps to kill off weed seeds and disease-causing organisms. This means that a well-managed compost pile can yield a safe and richly nutritious soil amendment.

5. The Compost Microbial Universe

Much like soil, a well-maintained compost heap is teeming with microbial life. Each gram of compost can house up to 1 trillion bacteria, along with countless fungi, protozoa, and other beneficial microorganisms. These tiny compost dwellers play a crucial role in breaking down organic waste into nutrient-rich compost. They form complex food webs, exchange nutrients, and contribute to the suppression of certain diseases, creating a universe of life in our compost bins.

6. The Disease Fighter

Not only is compost a soil enhancer and a waste recycler, but it also plays a vital role in combating plant diseases. Many beneficial microbes in compost, like Trichoderma and Bacillus species, can suppress plant pathogens by competing for resources, producing inhibitory substances, or even attacking the pathogens directly. This natural form of disease control can reduce reliance on chemical pesticides, contributing to healthier soils and a safer environment.

7. The World's Largest Compost Heap

The world record for the largest compost heap goes to the city of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, but the UK isn't far behind. In 2016, West London Composting in Harefield created a compost pile that measured 225 metres long, 20 metres wide and 7.6 metres high, making it one of the largest in the world. Such large-scale composting operations are critical for managing organic waste and creating valuable soil amendments for agricultural use.

8. Compost and Crime Scene Investigations

Believe it or not, compost heaps are sometimes used in forensic investigations. Due to their high temperatures and abundant microorganisms, compost piles can speed up the decomposition of organic materials. Forensic scientists use this information to estimate the time of death in certain crime scenarios, making compost heaps an unexpected tool in solving criminal cases.

9. Compost Tea

Compost tea might sound like an earthy brew, but don't reach for your teacup just yet! This nutrient-rich extract from compost, prepared by steeping compost in water, is a popular organic fertiliser and plant health booster. It's full of beneficial microbes and nutrients that can enhance plant growth, improve disease resistance, and enrich soil biology. By brewing and using compost tea, gardeners can supercharge their plants while maintaining soil health.

10. The Power of Composting in Space

The concept of composting isn't just limited to Earth. Scientists at NASA have been researching and testing ways to compost in space. With missions to Mars and prolonged space travel becoming more of a reality, managing waste and growing food in space has never been more important. A closed-loop system, where food waste and human waste can be composted and used to grow plants, could be a key component of long-term space travel and colonisation of other planets.

Sowing Seeds of Knowledge

With a myriad of microscopic life, an array of colours, and its crucial role in carbon storage and food production, soil is an underappreciated hero in sustaining life on Earth. 
Explore our website for more useful resources, or browse our fantastic selection of soil and compost for sale.