Skip main navigation

£199.99 £139.99 for one year of Unlimited learning. Offer ends on 28 February 2023 at 23:59 (UTC). T&Cs apply

Find out more

Let’s look at soils

A hand's on activity to examine our soil
© University of Exeter

We can learn a lot about soil health by examining the soil and its surroundings, and this article explains how. You can carry out this inspection in any outdoor location where plants grow (e.g. garden) but make sure you have permission from the landowner to access the site and dig a hole.

You will need a spade or other digging implement and a sheet of cardboard or polythene. If you want to share your findings on our interactive map in the following step, you’ll also need a camera. If you do not know the history of the site, it is recommended to wear gloves.

Step 1. Look at your soil and the plants growing in it. Take a photograph.

vegetables growing in raised beds

The vegetable beds in this photograph clearly have a healthy soil, as the plants are thriving.

Compacted soil, with tractor tread evident

The pasture in this photograph, on the other hand, has a poor soil. The soil is compacted (you can see tractor treads in the right-hand corner), plants are struggling to grow and there are lots of bare patches and stones.

Step 2. Freshly dug soil, on a piece of green polythene, with a hand crumbling it Dig out a block of soil, as wide and deep as the spade. Place the soil block on the sheet. Pull the soil apart and examine it closely. A lump of healthy soil, with some plant matter growing on it

A healthy soil will feel crumbly and be easy to break up into pieces It will probably contain lots of plant roots and earthworms (unless the soil is very dry or cold). How deep do the roots go? A hand holding a long earthworm

If the soil is very dry or compacted, it will not break easily into pieces. If it crumbles into fine dust, it is also a poor soil. A photo of someone holding very dry soil in their hands

A healthy soil often contains dark or fibrous specks or lumps. This is the organic matter, which are the dead remains of plants or animals. a photo of healthy soil, it has a variety of different colours of matter in it

In the photo below you can see two soils compared: can you see the differences in colour? The soil on the right is darker than the soil on the left because it has a higher organic matter content. A photo of two different soils side by side. The one on the left is much lighter in colour.

© University of Exeter
This article is from the free online

Future Food: Sustainable Food Systems for the 21st Century

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education