Soil structure

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Geology and geophysics

Soil structure is determined by how individual soil granules clump or bind together and aggregate.


Natural aggregates that can be clearly seen in the field are called peds. Clods, on the other hand, are aggregates that are broken into shape by artificial actions such as tillage. The surfaces of peds persist through cycles of wetting and drying in place. Commonly, the surface of the ped and its interior differ as to composition or organization, or both, because of soil development. Earthy clods and fragments stand in contrast to peds, for which soil forming processes exert weak or no control on the boundaries.

Structure is very important since (along with soil texture) it affects the porosity of the soil. A dense structure will greatly reduce the amount of air and water than can move freely through the soil. Also, it will affect the plant's ability to propagate roots through the soil.


There are five major classes of structure seen in soils: platy, prismatic, columnar, granular, and blocky. There are also structureless conditions. Some soils have simple structure, each unit being an entity without component smaller units. Others have compound structure, in which large units are composed of smaller units separated by persistent planes of weakness.


In platy structure, the units are flat and platelike. They are generally oriented horizontally. A special form, lenticular platy structure, is recognized for plates that are thickest in the middle and thin toward the edges. Platy structure is usually found in subsurface soils that have been subject to leaching or compaction by animals or machinery. The plates can be separated with a little effort by prying the horizontal layers with a pen knife. Platy structure tends to impede the downward movement of water and plant roots through the soil.


In prismatic structure, the individual units are bounded by flat to rounded vertical faces. Units are distinctly longer vertically, and the faces are typically casts or molds of adjoining units. Vertices are angular or subrounded; the tops of the prisms are somewhat indistinct and normally flat. Prismatic structures are characteristic of the B horizons or subsoils. The vertical cracks result from freezing and thawing and wetting and drying as well as the downward movement of water and roots.


In columnar structure, the units are similar to prisms and are bounded by flat or slightly rounded vertical faces. The tops of columns, in contrast to those of prisms, are very distinct and normally rounded. Columnar structure is common in the subsoil of sodium affected soils. Columnar structure is very dense and it is very difficult for plant roots to penetrate these layers. Techniques such as deep plowing have help to restore some degree of fertility to these soils.


In blocky structure, the structural units are blocklike or polyhedral. They are bounded by flat or slightly rounded surfaces that are casts of the faces of surrounding peds. Typically, blocky structural units are nearly equidimensional but grade to prisms and to plates. The structure is described as angular blocky if the faces intersect at relatively sharp angles; as subangular blocky if the faces are a mixture of rounded and plane faces and the corners are mostly rounded. Blocky structures are common in subsoil but also occur in surface soils that have a high clay content. The strongest blocky structure is formed as a result of swelling and shrinking of the clay minerals which produce cracks. Sometimes the surface of dried-up sloughs and ponds shows characteristic cracking and peeling due to clays.


In granular structure, the structural units are approximately spherical or polyhedral and are bounded by curved or very irregular faces that are not casts of adjoining peds. In other words, they look like cookie crumbs. Granular structure is common in the surface soils of rich grasslands and highly amended garden soils with high organic matter content. Soil mineral particles are both separated and bridged by organic matter breakdown products, and soil biota exudates, making the soil easy to work. Cultivation, earthworms, frost action and rodents mix the soil and decreases the size of the peds. This structure allows for good porosity and easy movement of air and water. This combination of ease in tillage, good moisture and air handling capabilities, and good structure for planting and germination, are definitive of the phrase good tilth.


Some soils lack structure and are referred to as structureless. In structureless layers or horizons, no units are observable in place or after the soil has been gently disturbed, such as by tapping a spade containing a slice of soil against a hard surface or dropping a large fragment on the ground. When structureless soils are ruptured, soil fragments, single grains, or both result. Structureless soil material may be either single grain or massive. Soil material of single grains lacks structure. In addition, it is loose.

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