To learn about soil required me to forget almost everything I learned about dirt. Most dictionaries define dirt as “a substance that soils a person or thing.” That’s not nice, because “soil” is another word for dirt! Such abuse. “She treats him like dirt.” “He soiled her reputation.” “There was dog dirt in the yard.” “Politicians collect the dirt on everyone.”
Both words come with shady backgrounds, too. Dirt is from drit, meaning poop. Soil comes from soiller, a wild boar’s wallow.
Forget all that. Although not entirely correct, think of dirt as crushed rocks (silt, sand, gravel, and clay) and soil as crushed rocks with living and formerly living things in it. The third (and least used) word for our study is loam. Loam is soil with good character and history. It has lots of humus. Humus adds stability, efficiency, and the sort of food, housing and entertainment that attracts a diverse neighborhood.
In lousy dirt (such as the natural stuff in Camp Verde) there is little besides the crushed rock. It usually looks gray, but may be reddish from iron oxide (rust) or even slightly yellow, blue, brown, or green from other excess minerals like sulfur, copper, manganese, etc. The important thing to remember for gardening or farming, though, is that you want black dirt. Very black. Light absorbing, non-reflective, unwavering black. Black soil results from organic stuff — things that have lots of carbon. (To visualize great soil, think of totally burnt toast.)
Farmers and gardeners have tried many ways to get this burnt toast into their dirt, and when the black of the soil wears off, they try to paint it back on with various chemicals, generally ammonium something, or something nitrate. Ammonium and nitrate are the plus and minus ions that contain nitrogen in the most usable form. You don’t need to know about ions, though. Just realize that plants use the black in the soil to make the green and the leaves on plants. When the soil turns gray, plants turn yellow.
It might sound strange, but the gorgeous, rich blackness in soil comes from death and decay. Part of God’s (nature’s, if you can’t accept a Supreme Being with intelligence) bizarre gift is that things must die to sustain life. As death happens, life happens. Think of it as “the never ending cycle of life,” just like in the Lion King. Death is the primary instrument of life. You can see it in the garden store, too. Blood meal, fish meal, bone meal, and various forms of poop all represent dead things for your garden’s health. That’s all it takes, sort of.
In spite of the simplicity of this, you will not necessarily get good soil by killing things, pets, or neighbors in your back yard. The next point to confirm is that the death needs coordination, balance, and some heat to do its thing. If you watch crime and forensics shows, you might think of it as cold blooded murder won’t properly rot. And that is also an unbalanced way to look at it.
Of course I must continue this. All we have so far is rocks and dead stuff. The next part, rotting and mixing, gets really exciting because this is where we introduce the stars of the story, who do most of their work while living!