The Components of Soil: Organic Matter

Written by naima manal
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The Components of Soil: Organic Matter
Organic matter enriches the soil. (Walter B. McKenzie/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Organic matter is a complex soil component that develops from the breakdown of carbon-containing materials from living plants, animals and microorganisms. As a part of the cycle of life, the decomposition of leaves, grass clippings and animal and microbial waste is used by soil macro- and microorganisms, and the end product enriches the soil. The presence of organic matter in soil balances the soil's pH, acting as a buffer to acidic soil conditions and making the soil's condition conducive for plant growth.

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Living Organisms

Organic matter in soil includes the living microorganisms, soil insects and worms that live in the soil and thrive on its organic material. The continual process of these living organisms feeding on the organic matter in the soil, and their subsequent waste excretion, creates a lighter, aerated soil that benefits the plants at the root level.

Nonliving Components

The ecology of organic matter is composed of nonliving components that primarily consist of dead and decomposing plant parts, insects, microorganisms and animals. The decomposition of these components, even without being a food source for the living organisms in the soil, continuously enriches the soil with recycled, ready-made nutrition for emerging and growing vegetation.

Humus

At its end stage of decomposition, the organic matter becomes humus. Humus benefits new and existing plant life in several ways. It aerates the soil, as does its decomposing precursors, it enriches the soil with oxygen and nutrients that are readily absorbed by the plants and its presence in soil combats disease-causing agents that cannot survive in the face of its oxidising, or oxygen-producing, properties.

Nutrients

The microorganisms in the soil feed on the organic matter, and in the process, they break it down until it releases its nutrients into the soil. These nutrients include phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur. Organic matter gains a negative, anion charge that makes it pull and bind to minerals, such as potassium, magnesium and calcium, in the soil, making them readily available for plant absorption through its roots, as explained by the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment in Tasmania, Australia.

Soil Erosion

Organic matter's role in soil greatly influences the occurrence of soil erosion. Soils that support large amounts of vegetation and that contain a lot of organic matter do not experience erosion as much as soils that contain minimal amounts of organic matter. As plant food, the higher the presence of organic matter in soil, the more readily it can support the growth of vegetation, which means the presence of more roots growing in the soil. The abundance of roots in the soil act as binding and anchoring networks that prevent soil erosion in the face of wind, rain or in minor flooding conditions.

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