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Soil Structure

Soil Structure

The way in which sand, silt, clay, and humus bond together to form peds. Four major
structural forms are recognized: block-like, platey, prism-like, and spheroidal. Platey structures
are formed of thin, horizontal layers. Prism-like structures are called columnar where the tops are
rounded, and prismatic where the tops are level. Spheroidal structures are called crumbs if highly
water absorbent, and granular if only moderately so.

Soil structure is the shape that the soil takes on based on its physical and chemical
properties. Each individual unit of soil in the overall structure is called a ped.

Soil structure is determined by how individual soil granules clump or bind together and
aggregate, and therefore, the arrangement of soil pores between them. Soil structure has a major
influence on water and air movement, biological activity, root growth and seedling emergence.

Contents
• 1 Overview
• 2 Soil structure and management
o 2.1 Practices that influence soil structure
o 2.2 The impacts of improving soil structure
• 4 Types of soil structures
o 4.1 Classification
• 5 Soil colour

• 6 References

Overview
"Soil structure" refers to the way the separates are attached together. Soil separates do
not act in the soil as individuals, but as partners, or aggregates. Aggregates are the clumps of soil
separates. When aggregates are bound together into larger masses they are called PEDS. "Soil
texture" refers to the proportion of soil separates (that is, the amount of sand, silt and clay in a
soil).

It is very difficult to change soil texture; however, soil structure modifies the influence of
the texture, and soil structure is relatively easy to change or alter especially when the soil is
being cultivated. Soil clods can be broken apart by wetting and drying, and by freezing and
thawing. Cementing agents which bind soil separates together include microbial gums, iron
oxides, organic matter, and clay.

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

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Soil Structure

of peds persist through cycles of wetting and drying in place. Peds prevail in the B soil horizon,
though they can occasionally be found in other horizons too.

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 that can move freely
through the soil. Also, it will affect the plant's ability to propagate roots through the soil. The
implications for Soil health are clear.

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.

Soil structure describes the arrangement of the solid parts of the soil and of the pore space
located between them (Marshall & Holmes, 1979). It is dependent on: what the soil developed
from; the environmental conditions under which the soil formed; the clay present, the organic
materials present; and the recent history of management.

Charman & Murphy (1998) consider soil to be of good structure, from an agricultural
perspective, when it is of “an aggregated, low density/high porosity condition”. However, strict
definition of good, from either an agricultural or catchment perspective, is not straight forward.
We can say though that a well structured soil will enable robust biological activity by readily
accepting, storing, and transmitting water, gases, nutrients, and energy; and by providing
adequate and suitable surfaces and space for life and biochemical exchanges.

Aggregation of primary soil particles is a critical determinant of soil structure. Clay


colloids - minute particles (diameters smaller than 2 micrometres) play a significant role in
aggregation between the full range of soil particles (Leeper & Uren, 1993). Adhesion between
particles is via electrostatic force (flocculation) or cementing substances, such as organic matter
and minerals.

Other factors important in considering soil structure are: the stability of aggregates under
wetting and drying conditions; the stability of aggregates to physical disturbance; the fabric and
nature of the aggregates; and the profile form (referring to variation in the layers throughout the
soil profile).

Soil structure is determined by many factors, including climate, physico-chemical


processes, and biological processes. Weather cycles have a significant effect on the structure of
soil. Freezing and thawing, wet and dry, clay translocation, and other various pedogenic — soil-
forming — processes affect the whole soil structure to differing degrees throughout the whole
structure. The effects are the greatest in the top layer, where the exposure is direct.

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Soil Structure

The phase changes of water — solid, liquid, and gas — have a dramatic effect on soil
structure. These phases are influenced by the temperature of the soil. Running water causes soil
from one location to erode away and be deposited in another location. The freeze-thaw and the
shrink-swell process that water phase changes determine change the volume of the soil.

Biological processes include the influences of organisms of various sizes in the soil. The
amount of organic matter in the soil is a factor how soil aggregates and separates into peds.
Animals that live in the soil help pack the soil together in different ways. The secretions of these
animals also influence the structure of soil.

Another consideration in discussing soil structure is the ability of the soil to support plant
life. Soils are made up of four different components: minerals, organic matter, air, and water.
Soils that contain 90 percent mineral and around 10 percent organic matter, also called humus,
are able to support plant growth well. Soils that contain small amounts of organic materials have
a difficult time sustaining plant life.

Soil structure and management


Practices that influence soil structure

Traditional agricultural practices have generally caused changes in soil structure which
have compromised aggregation and porosity. This is usually termed soil structure decline.
Charman and Murphy (1998) propose two categories of soil structure decline: cultivation and
irrigation.

Soil structure will decline under most forms of cultivation – the associated mechanical
mixing of the soil compacts and sheers aggregates and fills pore spaces; it also exposes organic
matter to a greater rate of decay and oxidation (Young & Young, 2001). A further consequence
of continued cultivation and traffic is the development of compacted, impermeable layers or pans
within the profile.

Soil structure decline under irrigation is usually related to the breakdown of aggregates
and dispersion of clay material as a result of rapid wetting. This is particularly so if soils are
sodic; that is, having a high exchangeable sodium percentage (ESP) of the cations attached to the
clays. High sodium levels (compared to high calcium levels) cause particles to repel one another
when wet and for the associated aggregates to disaggregate and disperse. The ESP will increase
if irrigation causes salty water (even of low concentration) to gain access to the soil.

A wide range of practices are undertaken to preserve and improve soil structure. For
example, the NSW Department of Land and Water Conservation, (1991) advocates: increasing
organic content by incorporating pasture phases into cropping rotations; reducing or eliminating
tillage and cultivation in cropping and pasture activities; avoiding soil disturbance during periods
of excessive dry or wet when soils may accordingly tend to shatter or smear, and; ensuring
sufficient ground cover to protect the soil from raindrop impact. In irrigated agriculture it may be

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Soil Structure

recommended to: apply gypsum (calcium sulfate) to displace sodium cations with calcium and so
reduce ESP or sodicity; avoid rapid wetting, and; avoid disturbing soils when too wet or dry.

The impacts of improving soil structure

The benefits of improving soil structure for the growth of plants, particularly in an
agricultural setting include: reduced erosion due to greater soil aggregate strength and decreased
overland flow; improved root penetration and access to soil moisture and nutrients; improved
emergence of seedlings due to reduced crusting of the surface and; greater water infiltration,
retention and availability due to improved porosity.

It has been estimated that productivity from irrigated perennial horticulture could be
increased by two to three times the present level by improving soil structure, because of the
resulting access by plants to available soil water and nutrients (Cockroft & Olsson, 2000, cited in
Land and Water Australia 2007). The NSW Department of Land and Water Conservation (1991)
infers that in cropping systems, for every millimetre of rain that is able to infiltrate, as maximised
by good soil structure, wheat yields can be increased by 10 kg/ha.

Types of Structure
Granular Structure:
This photo shows a well-granulated A horizon.
Granular structure is the most beneficial form of soil structure
for plant growth. Granular structure aggregates are formed by
the breaking apart of larger aggregates through the physical
processes of wetting and drying, and freezing and thawing.
These aggregates are then cemented together by the by-
products of the microbial decomposition of organic matter,
which are called microbial gums. The more microbial gums,
the greater the aggregate stability. The way to obtain microbial
gums is by adding organic matter to the soil; thus, plant
residues contribute indirectly to better soil structure.

In the 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. Granular peds are

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Soil Structure

Platy Structure:
Platy structure is often found in the E horizon
(below the A) where water moves laterally through the
soil. Platy structure can be detrimental because it restricts
root and water penetration.
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.

They are found most frequently in the C, E, Bs and K horizons as well as in sesquioxides
(very old soils that are rich in iron and magnesium).

Blocky Structure:
Blocky structural peds are found most
frequently in the B horizons. They have been
created by the wetting and drying and freezing and
thawing cycle of the B horizon. The clay films also
act as a binding agent for the blocky aggregates.
The B horizon can often be determined in a profile
by looking for the location of blocky peds which
can be readily seen. Blocky can be either angular
(sharp ped edges) or sub-angular (rounded ped
edges).

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.

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Soil Structure

Prismatic or Columnar Structure:

Where the blocky peds are longer than


they are wide, the prismatic or columnar
structure is identified (common only in B
horizons). They are often the first structure
formed in a soil, because their formation only
requires vertical cracking in the soil.

In the 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 the 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 and soils rich in swelling clays such as the semectites and the kandite Halloysite. 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.

Structureless:

C horizons generally lack any structural


aggregation. Their lack of structure is termed "massive."
Massive structure is hard to break apart and appears in
very large clods. Where very sandy soils lack
aggregation, or the soil particles don't stick together the
structureless condition is termed "single-grained." Single
grained always accompanies a loose consistence.

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Classification:
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Soil Structure

Structure refers to the arrangement of soil particles. Soil structure is the product of
processes that aggregate, cement, compact or unconsolidate soil material. In essence, soil
structure is a physical condition that is distinct from that of the initial material from which it
formed, and can be related to processes of soil formation. The peds are separated from the
adjoining peds by surfaces of weakness. To describe structure in a soil profile it is best to
examine the profile standing some meters apart to recognize larger structural units (e.g. prisms).
The next step is to study the structure by removing soil material for more detailed inspection. It
should be stressed that soil moisture affects the expression of soil structure. The classification of
soil structure considers the grade, form, and size of particles.

The grade describes the distinctiveness of the peds (differential between cohesion within
peds and adhesion between peds). It relates to the degree of aggregation or the develoment of
soil structure. In the field a classification of grade is based on a finger test (durability of peds) or
a crushing of a soil sample.

The form is classified on the basis of the shape of peds, such as spheroidal, platy, blocky,
or prismatic. A granular or crumb structure is often found in A horizons, a platy structure in E
horizons, and a blocky, prismatic or columnar structure in Bt horizons. Massive or single-grain
structure occurs in very young soils, which are in an initial stage of soil development. Another
example where massive or single-grain structure can be identified is on reconstruction sites.
There may two or more structural arrangements occur in a given profile. This may be in the form
of progressive change in size/type of structural units with depth (e.g. A horizons that exhibit a
progressive increase in size of granular peds that grade into subangular blocks with increasing
depth) or occurrence of larger structural entities (e.g. prisms) that are internally composed of
smaller structural units (e.g. blocky peds). I such a case all discernible structures should be
recorded (i.e. more rather than less detail).

The size of the particles have to be recorded as well, which is dependent on the form of the peds.

Table 9.6.1.1. Classification of soil structure considering grade, size, and form of particles.

Grade Abbreviation Description


Structureless 0 No observable aggregation or no orderly arrangement of natural lines of weakness
Weak 1 Poorly formed indistinct peds
Well-formed distinct peds, moderately durable and evident, but not distinct in
Moderate 2
undisturbed soil
Durable peds that are quite evident in undisplaced soil, adhere weakly to one another,
Strong 3
withstand displacement, and become separated when soil is disturbed
Form Abbreviation Description
Granular gr Relatively nonporous, spheroidal peds, not fitted to adjoining peds
Crumb cr Relatively porous, spheroidal peds, not fitted to adjoining peds
Peds are plate-like. The particles are arranged about a horizontal plane with limited
Platy pl
vertical development. Plates often overlap and impair permeability
Block-like peds bounded by other peds whose sharp angular faces form the cast for the
Blocky bk
ped. The peds often break into smaller blocky peds

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Angular Block-like peds bounded by other peds whose sharp angular faces form the cast for the
abk
blocky ped
Subangular Block-like peds bounded by other peds whose rounded subangular faces form the cast
sbk
blocky for the ped
Column-like peds without rounded caps. Other prismatic caps form the cast for the ped.
Prismatic pr Some prismatic peds break into smaller blocky peds. In these peds the horizontal
development is limited when compared with the vertical
Column-like peds with rounded caps bounded laterally by other peds that form the cast
Columnar cpr for the peds. In these peds the horizontal development is limited when compared with
the vertical
Particles show little or no tendency to adhere to other particles. Often associated with
Single grain sg
very coarse particles
A massive structure show little or no tendency to break apart under light pressure into
Massive m
smaller units. Often associated with very fine-textured soils.

Angular and subangular blocky Granular and crumb Platy Prismatic and columnar
structure structure structure structure
Size
[mm] diameter [mm] diameter [mm] width [mm] diameter
Very fine <5 <1 < 1 (very thin) < 10
Fine 5 - 10 1-2 1 - 2 (thin) 10 - 20
Medium 10 - 20 2-5 2-5 20 - 50
Coarse 20 - 50 5 - 10 5 - 10 (thick) 50 - 100
Very > 10 (very
> 50 > 10 > 100
coarse thick)

Soil Color:

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Soil color is a property that will give important information about the soil's
characteristics. Note the page from a Munsell color book and the Earth Colors book. Soil color is
determined by comparing the color of the soil to the chips in the soil color charts. Soil color
consists of 3 parts: hue, value, and chroma

Hue is the dominant spectral color of the rainbow - yellow, reds,


orange. The value is the relative darkness or lightness, and the chroma is the purity or strength of
the color. In looking at the page on this slide and in your book, hue is given in the upper right
hand corner of the Munsell page (10YR) and bottom of the Earth Colors page.
Value is expressed as the numerator of the fraction and is along the left hand margin of the page.
Value is the relative darkness or lightness of the soil color.
Chroma is along the bottom, and is the denominator of the fraction. Chroma is the relative purity
or strength of the color, low chromas have dull colors, while high chromas have bright colors.
So a color of 10YR 3/2 has a hue of 10YR, a value of 3, and a chroma of 2. Coloring soils,
like texturing, takes practice. You also need to be able to note the
Munsell notations and determine what kind of soil horizon the
color might represent.

The significance of soil color relates to the properties we can


infer from certain colors.
This soil has a dark surface color- 10YR 3/2 - which indicates a
high organic matter content;
the second layer has a 10YR 3/3 color, which indicates not as
much organic matter;
the subsoil is 10YR 4/4, a typical brown color, and the 7.5YR 4/3
is similar, but redder; and
the parent material is 10YR 5/6, which is typical for Des Moines
Lobe glacial till.

In the laboratory you will have a chance to practice your "soil coloring"!

References:
This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Government
document "http://soils.usda.gov/technical/manual/contents/chapter3.html".
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Soil Structure

• Cockroft, B & Olsson, KA 2000, Degradation of soil structure due to coalescence of aggregates
in no-till, no-traffic beds in irrigated crops,
• Australian Journal of Soil Research, 38(1) 61 – 70. Cited in: Land and Water Australia 2007,
ways to improve soil structure and improve the productivity of irrigated agriculture, viewed May
2007, <http://www.npsi.gov.au/>
• Department of Land and Water Conservation 1991, "Field indicators of soil structure decline",
viewed May 2007
• Leeper, GW & Uren, NC 1993, 5th edn, Soil science, an introduction, Melbourne University
Press, Melbourne
• Marshall, TJ & Holmes JW, 1979, Soil Physics, Cambridge University Press
• Soil Survey Division Staff (1993). "Examination and Description of Soils". Handbook 18. Soil
survey manual. Soil Conservation Service. U.S. Department of Agriculture.
http://soils.usda.gov/technical/manual/contents/chapter3.html. Retrieved 2006-04-11.
• Young, A & Young R 2001, Soils in the Australian landscape, Oxford University Press,
Melbourne.
• Charman, PEV & Murphy, BW 1998, 5th edn, Soils, their properties and management, Oxford
University Press, Melbourne.

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