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Soil Physical and Chemical Properties

Soil Properties

1. Soil physical properties

  1. horizonation
  2. soil color
  3. soil texture
  4. soil structure
  5. soil consistence
  6. bulk density

2. Soil chemical properties

  1. Cation Exchange Capacity
  2. Soil Reaction (pH)

Physical Properties

a. Horizonation

Soil “horizons” are discrete layers that make up a soil profile. They are typically parallel with the ground surface. In some soils, they show evidence of the actions of the soil forming processes.

O horizons are dominated by organic material. Some are saturated with water for long periods or were once saturated but are now artificially drained; others have never been saturated.

A horizons are mineral layers that formed at the surface or below an O horizon, that exhibit obliteration of all or much of the original rock structure, and that show one or both of the following:

  • an accumulation of humified organic matter intimately mixed with the mineral fraction and not dominated by properties characteristic of E or B horizons
  •  modification as a result of the actions of cultivation, pasturing, or similar kinds of disturbance

E horizons are mineral layers that exhibit the loss of silicate clay, iron, aluminum, humus, or some combination of these, leaving a concentration of sand and silt particles. These horizons exhibit obliteration of all or much of the original rock structure.

B horizons are mineral layers that typically form below an A, E, or O horizon and are dominated by obliteration of all or much of the original rock structure and show one or more of the following:

  • illuvial concentration of silicate clay, iron, aluminum, humus, carbonate, gypsum, or silica, alone or in combination
  • evidence of removal of carbonates
  • residual concentration of sesquioxides
  • coatings of sesquioxides that make the horizon conspicuously lower in value, higher in chroma, or redder in hue than overlying horizons without apparent illuviation of iron
  • alteration that forms silicate clay or liberates oxides or both and that forms granular, blocky, or prismatic structure if volume changes accompany changes in moisture content; or brittleness

C horizons are mineral layers which are not bedrock and are little affected by pedogenic processes and lack properties of O, A, E or B horizons. The material of C layers may be either like or unlike that from which the overlying soil horizons presumably formed. The C horizon may have been modified even if there is no evidence of pedogenesis.

R horizons are layers of hard bedrock.

Transitional horizons are dominated by properties of one master horizon, but have subordinate properties of another. AB and B/C are examples of transitional horizon designations.

Reference: Soil Survey Staff, 2003. Keys to Soil Taxonomy. USDA-NRCS.

b. Soil Color

In well aerated soils, oxidized or ferric (Fe+3) iron compounds are responsible for the brown, yellow, and red colors you see in the soil.

When iron is reduced to the ferrous (Fe+2) form, it becomes mobile, and can be removed from certain areas of the soil. When the iron is removed, a gray color remains, or the reduced iron color persists in shades of green or blue.

Upon aeration, reduced iron can be reoxidized and redeposited, sometimes in the same horizon, resulting in a variegated or mottled color pattern. These soil color patterns resulting from saturation, called “redoximorphic features”, can indicate the duration of the anaerobic state, ranging from brown with a few mottles, to complete gray or “gleization” of the soil.

Soils that are dominantly gray with brown or yellow mottles immediately below the surface horizon are usually hydric.

Soil color is typically described using some form of color reference chart, such as the Munsell Color Chart. Using the Munsell system, color is described in reference to the color’s “hue”, “value”, and “chroma”. Hue describes where in the color spectrum the soil color exists, which for soils includes the colors yellow, red, blue, green, and gray. Value describes the lightness of the color. Chroma indicates the strength of the color. In a Munsell notation, the color is written in the order hue-value-chroma. The color “5YR 4/3” is an example of a Munsell notation, where 5YR is the hue, 4 is the value, and 3 is the chroma.

c. Soil Texture

Soil texture refers to the proportion of the soil “separates” that make up the mineral component of soil. These separates are called sand, silt, and clay. These soil separates have the following size ranges:

  • Sand = <2 to 0.05 mm
  • Silt = 0.05 to 0.002 mm
  • Clay = <0.002 mm

Sand and silt are the “inactive” part of the soil matrix, because they do not contribute to a soil’s ability to retain soil water or nutrients. These separates are commonly comprised of quartz or some other inactive mineral.

Because of its small size and sheet-like structure, clay has a large amount of surface area per unit mass, and its surface charge attracts ions and water. Because of this, clay is the “active” portion of the soil matrix.

For all mineral soils, the proportion of sand, silt, and clay always adds up to 100 percent. These percentages are grouped into soil texture “classes”, which have been organized into a “textural triangle”.

Soil Textural Triangle

Soil texture can affect the amount of pore space within a soil. Sand-sized soil particles fit together in a way that creates large pores; however, overall there is a relatively small amount of total pore space. Clay-sized soil particles fit together in a way that creates small pores; however, overall there are more pores present. Therefore, a soil made of clay-sized particles will have more total pore space than a will a soil made of sand-sized particles. Consequently, clayey soils will generally have lower bulk densities than sandy soils.

Collectively, the soil separates of sand, silt, and clay are called the “fine-earth fraction”, and represent inorganic soil particles less than 2mm in diameter. Inorganic soil particles 2mm and larger are called “rock fragments”.

When the organic matter content of a soil exceeds 20 to 35% (on a dry weight basis) it is considered organic soil material, and the soil is called an organic soil. As this material is mostly devoid of mineral soil material, they cannot be described in terms of soil texture. However, the following “in lieu of” texture terms can be used to describe organic soils:

  • “peat”; organic material in which the plant parts are still recognizable
  • “muck”; highly decomposed organic material in which no plant parts are recognizable
  • “mucky peat”; decomposition is intermediate between muck and peat

d. Soil Structure

The soil separates can become aggregated together into discrete structural units called “peds”. These peds are organized into a repeating pattern that is referred to as soil structure. Between the peds are cracks called “pores” through which soil air and water are conducted. Soil structure is most commonly described in terms of the shape of the individual peds that occur within a soil horizon.

Types of Soil Structure
Graphic Example Description of Structure Shape
Granular – roughly spherical, like grape nuts. Usually 1-10 mm in diameter. Most common in A horizons, where plant roots, microorganisms, and sticky products of organic matter decomposition bind soil grains into granular aggregates
Platy flat peds that lie horizontally in the soil. Platy structure can be found in A, B and C horizons. It commonly occurs in an A horizon as the result of compaction.
Blocky roughly cube-shaped, with more or less flat surfaces. If edges and corners remain sharp, we call it angular blocky. If they are rounded, we call it subangular blocky. Sizes commonly range from 5-50 mm across. Blocky structures are typical of B horizons, especially those with a high clay content. They form by repeated expansion and contraction of clay minerals.
Prismatic – larger, vertically elongated blocks, often with five sides. Sizes are commonly 10-100mm across. Prismatic structures commonly occur in fragipans.
Columnar – 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.


"Structureless" Soil Types
Graphic Example Description of Structure Shape
Massive – compact, coherent soil not separated into peds of any kind. Massive structures in clayey soils usually have very small pores, slow permeability, and poor aeration.
Single grain – in some very sandy soils, every grain acts independently, and there is no binding agent to hold the grains together into peds. Permeability is rapid, but fertility and water holding capacity are low.

e. Soil Consistence

Soil consistence refers to the ease with which an individual ped can be crushed by the fingers. Soil consistence, and its description, depends on soil moisture content. Terms commonly used to describe consistence are:

Moist soil:

  • loose – noncoherent when dry or moist; does not hold together in a mass
  • friable – when moist, crushed easily under gentle pressure between thumb and forefinger and can be pressed together into a lump
  • firm – when moist crushed under moderate pressure between thumb and forefinger, but resistance is distinctly noticeable

Wet soil:

  • plastic – when wet, readily deformed by moderate pressure but can be pressed into a lump; will form a “wire” when rolled between thumb and forefinger
  • sticky – when wet, adheres to other material and tends to stretch somewhat and pull apart rather than to pull free from other material

Dry Soil:

  • soft – when dry, breaks into powder or individual grains under very slight pressure
  • hard – when dry, moderately resistant to pressure; can be broken with difficulty between thumb and forefinger

f. Bulk Density

Bulk density is the proportion of the weight of a soil relative to its volume. It is expressed as a unit of weight per volume, and is commonly measured in units of grams per cubic centimeters (g/cc).

Bulk density is an indicator of the amount of pore space available within individual soil horizons, as it is inversely proportional to pore space:

Pore space = 1 – bulk density/particle density

For example, at a bulk density of 1.60 g/cc, pore space equals 0.40 or 40%. At a bulk density of 1.06 g/cc, pore space equals 0.60 or 60%.

The addition of even a small percentage of organic soil material to a mineral soil can affect the bulk density of that soil. Compare the two soil samples below:

Soil “A”: 100% mineral soil material; bulk density = 1.33 g/cc

Soil “B”: 95% mineral soil material and 5% organic soil material; bulk density = 1.26 g/cc

The difference in bulk density relates to a difference in “particle density” of mineral soil material versus organic soil material. The average particle density of mineral soil material is 2.65 g/cc, which approximates the density of quartz. Conversely, the average particle density of organic soil material is 1.25 g/cc. Organic soil material weighs less than mineral soil material, so it will lower the bulk density of a mineral soil when added, as it reduces the overall weight of the soil.

2. Soil Chemical Properties

a. Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC)

Some plant nutrients and metals exist as positively charged ions, or “cations”, in the soil environment. Among the more common cations found in soils are hydrogen (H+), aluminum (Al+3), calcium (Ca+2), magnesium (Mg+2), and potassium (K+). Most heavy metals also exist as cations in the soil environment. Clay and organic matter particles are predominantly negatively charged (anions), and have the ability to hold cations from being “leached” or washed away. The adsorbed cations are subject to replacement by other cations in a rapid, reversible process called “cation exchange”.

Cations leaving the exchange sites enter the soil solution, where they can be taken up by plants, react with other soil constituents, or be carried away with drainage water.

The “cation exchange capacity”, or “CEC”, of a soil is a measurement of the magnitude of the negative charge per unit weight of soil, or the amount of cations a particular sample of soil can hold in an exchangeable form. The greater the clay and organic matter content, the greater the CEC should be, although different types of clay minerals and organic matter can vary in CEC.

Cation exchange is an important mechanism in soils for retaining and supplying plant nutrients, and for adsorbing contaminants. It plays an important role in wastewater treatment in soils. Sandy soils with a low CEC are generally unsuited for septic systems since they have little adsorptive ability and there is potential for groundwater.

b. Soil Reaction (pH)

By definition, “pH” is a measure of the active hydrogen ion (H+) concentration. It is an indication of the acidity or alkalinity of a soil, and also known as “soil reaction”.

The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14, with values below 7.0 acidic, and values above 7.0 alkaline. A pH value of 7 is considered neutral, where H+ and OH- are equal, both at a concentration of 10-7 moles/liter. A pH of 4.0 is ten times more acidic than a pH of 5.0.

The most important effect of pH in the soil is on ion solubility, which in turn affects microbial and plant growth. A pH range of 6.0 to 6.8 is ideal for most crops because it coincides with optimum solubility of the most important plant nutrients. Some minor elements (e.g., iron) and most heavy metals are more soluble at lower pH. This makes pH management important in controlling movement of heavy metals (and potential groundwater contamination) in soil.

In acid soils, hydrogen and aluminum are the dominant exchangeable cations. The latter is soluble under acid conditions, and its reactivity with water (hydrolysis) produces hydrogen ions. Calcium and magnesium are basic cations; as their amounts increase, the relative amount of acidic cations will decrease.

Factors that affect soil pH include parent material, vegetation, and climate. Some rocks and sediments produce soils that are more acidic than others: quartz-rich sandstone is acidic; limestone is alkaline. Some types of vegetation, particularly conifers, produce organic acids, which can contribute to lower soil pH values. In humid areas such as the eastern US, soils tend to become more acidic over time because rainfall washes away basic cations and replaces them with hydrogen. Addition of certain fertilizers to soil can also produce hydrogen ions. Liming the soil adds calcium, which replaces exchangeable and solution H+ and raises soil pH.

Lime requirement, or the amount of liming material needed to raise the soil pH to a certain level, increases with CEC. To decrease the soil pH, sulfur can be added, which produces sulfuric acid.

Reference: Brady, N.C. 1990. The Nature and Properties of Soils. Macmillan Publishing Company, NY, NY.

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This page last updated January 30, 2014