Topsoil is the upper surface of the Earth's crust, and topsoil is usually not any deeper than approximately eight inches. The Earth's topsoil naturally mixes rich humus with minerals and composted material, which results in a nutritious substance on which plants and trees can thrive. Topsoil is quite possibly one of Earth's most vital resources, because topsoil is a delicate nutritional balance that provides food for many of the animals on Earth, either directly in the form of plant material or indirectly in the form of products from animals that eat plants. The lack of good topsoil would result in the lack of healthy plants which would result in the lack of proper nutrition for the animals. Therefore, topsoil is clearly a necessary component of the circle of life.
The nature of topsoil is quite delicate, but was inadequately understood until very recently. Traditionally, farmers rotated their crops because rotation seemed to create a better crop yield. They did not understand, however, why this was. In the 1930's during the Dust Bowl, farmers planted profitable crops again and again, rather than rotating the topsoil. By doing so, they accidentally stripped the topsoil of nutritive value. The soil, which was formerly topsoil, was no longer suitable for plants. Since plants hold topsoil to the earth, the effect was that even light winds would pick up whatever topsoil remained and transported it somewhere else.
Modern farming practices emphasize crop rotation to conserve limited topsoil. Farmers rotate crops; specifically allow fields to lay fallow, and plant nitrogen fixing plants to promote soil health. Many times farmers will also plow different materials into the topsoil to enrich the humus, and spread compost and manure on it to enrich the topsoil, thereby making the topsoil more nutritious and rich. Healthy topsoil has dark brown appearance and feels moist, and crumbly. Unhealthy topsoil will look gray and will feel the same all over. There are four main nutrients in topsoil: Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium. Ideally, all four should be present in topsoil to ensure that the topsoil is balanced and healthy. Each of these nutrients serves a vital role in helping plants to thrive. Nitrogen is the main nutrient which causes plants to grow and is needed to ensure the proper growth of leaves, branches, and stems. Weak, short, and the yellowing of leaves are signs that the topsoil might be lacking adequate nitrogen. However, too much nitrogen in the topsoil is just as detrimental to the plant and can cause, for example, excessive leaf length at the expense of shorter flowers.
Phosphorous is the nutrient responsible primarily with plant development. Deficiencies will be apparent through stunted roots while the leaves on the plants may appear green or purple.
Potassium is important for photosynthesis. In addition, it promotes flower and fruit development. The yellowing and eventual death of leaf tissue would be a pretty good sign that the topsoil is lacking potassium. The plant will also be more easily susceptible to diseases when lacking potassium.
Magnesium is a component of chlorophyll, which is the green coloring that enables plants to photosynthesize. If the older leaves on a plant are turning yellow, a magnesium deficiency could very possibly be the culprit.
All of these nutrients are present in healthy topsoil, but are too often missing in much of the topsoil today. There are a number of ways, both naturally and through the mismanagement of people, which can cause topsoil to be damaged.
Farmers who do not use environmentally friendly practices are personally killing their topsoil. In some areas of the world, such as Africa, and Australia, farmers work with only a few inches of precious topsoil and many different fertilizers. As the topsoil becomes degraded, more heavily concentrated forms of fertilizer are needed to restore the balance of nutrients in the soil. This ruined soil can take years to repair after it has been abandoned by today's farmers. Eventually, desertification is inevitable, since the topsoil has been completely destroyed, and growing good crops with this soil would be practically impossible.
Farmers are concerned about topsoil because it supplies the nutrients for their crops, but biologists also keep a careful watch of the global topsoil supply. Plants need healthy topsoil to survive, but topsoil is extremely easy to damage and ruin. An assortment of plants together with natural cycles of fire and water are necessary to maintain the topsoil. Plants hold topsoil to the Earth; water supplies nutrients to the plants; and the plants either die naturally or are burned in fires, thereby restoring nutrients to the topsoil. This is a natural cycle, and must be left alone to complete the cycle properly. When this cycle gets disrupted by farming, the results will often be disastrous.
In addition to being damaged by farmers, heavy rain can also damage topsoil through very heavy water runoff. Too much water on a clear land or prairie can damage topsoil significantly, because there are no plants to hold the topsoil down. As a result, major storms drag tons of topsoil off the Earth into rivers and the like, where it clogs the rivers and makes them unsuitable for fish. When the rivers reach the ocean, the sudden excess of nutrients will cause the fish in the ocean to die off. Many times this could stretch out to sea far beyond the mouth of the river.
In conclusion, topsoil is a limited resource which is getting more and more limited as time goes on. This can be attributed to nature, but even more so to the apathetic approach taken by many people today. Healthy topsoil is a necessary component of the way most of us live our lives, though many people may not even know it. By simply being friendlier to the environment, we can help ensure that topsoil will continue to be nutritional for generations to come.
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