Brown Thumbs, Anyone? Putting the “Earth” Back in Earth Day

If you’re one of those lucky souls who emerged from the womb with two green thumbs up, then we tip our hats to you.

For those of us who worry that one stray glance in a plant’s direction will cause it to shrivel on the spot (or who simply haven’t had much success in the growing department), the solution is actually quite simple: Know thy soil.

Turns out, soil is kind of cool—when you get past the concern that it’s just plain dirty, and instead get to know the full picture of its power.

Soil science: the CliffsNotes version

This vastly under-appreciated resource has a lot going for it—and for your gardening endeavors.

For starters, soil is more than mere dirt or topsoil. It is made up of solids, liquids and gases whose many unique properties change over time. Soil also provides air to plant roots and performs critical water regulation. As The Morton Arboretum‘s soil scientist Bryant Scharenbrock explains, nearly every drop of water in our rivers, lakes, estuaries and aquifers has traveled through or over soil.

Perhaps most compelling for the would-be ace gardener, though, is the fact that soil contains and supports life—lots of it. There is more biodiversity underground than above in the Midwest, where the soil below one square yard of woodland could contain over 200 species of insects, crayfish and spiders and up to 1,000 species of soil animals in total. By breaking down organic matter to make nutrients available for plant uptake, these tiny critters can do a lot of the heavy lifting in your garden, if you let them.

Here are a few ways to give a thumbs up to healthy soil:

  • Compost kitchen scraps and leaf litter to feed the soil (and reduce unnecessary waste while you’re at it).
  • Let your kids dig in the garden to see soil organisms like beetles, springtails and millipedes in action as they perform essential soil functions.
  • Visit the Field Museum’s Underground Adventure to explore an immersive (aka human-scale) environment of worm tunnels and soil chambers.

One green family activity: Make soil crayons 

The more kids can learn to appreciate the intrigue of soil, the more they’ll appreciate its role in your garden and, ultimately, the ecosystem as a whole. We love this DIY soil crayon developed by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service because it’s fun, interactive and helps illustrate how unique different soils can be, even in terms of color. You’ll need 45 minutes and close to 20 materials, but the surprisingly vibrant results are bound to make an impression on parent and child alike.


Psst: For more on the science behind all this, read the soil myths.