Soil Physical Properties
Mud Girls playing in mud. More mud

Soils are porous and open bodies, yet they retain water. They contain mineral particles of many shapes and sizes and organic material which is colloidal (particles so small they remain suspended in water) in character. The solid particles lie in contact one with the other, but they are seldom packed as closely together as possible.


The size distribution of primary mineral particles, called soil texture, has a strong influence on the properties of a soil. Particles larger than 2 mm in diameter are considered inert. Little attention is paid to them unless they are boulders that interfere with manipulation of the surface soil. Particles smaller than 2 mm in diameter are divided into three broad categories based on size. Particles of 2 to 0.05 mm diameter are called sand; those of 0.05 to 0.002 mm diameter are silt; and the <0.002 mm particles are clay. The texture of soils is usually expressed in terms of the percentages of sand, silt, and clay. To avoid quoting exact percentages, 12 textural classes have been defined. Each class, named to identify the size separate or separates having the dominant impact on properties, includes a range in size distribution that is consistent with a rather narrow range in soil behavior. The loam textural class contains soils whose properties are controlled equally by clay, silt and sand separates. Such soils tend to exhibit good balance between large and small pores; thus, movement of water, air and roots is easy and water retention is adequate. Soil texture, a stable and an easily determined soil characteristic, can be estimated by feeling and manipulating a moist sample, or it can be determined accurately by laboratory analysis. Soil horizons are sometimes separated on the basis of differences in texture.


Anyone who has ever made a mud ball knows that soil particles have a tendency to stick together. Attempts to make mud balls out of pure sand can be frustrating experiences because sand particles do not cohere (stick together) as do the finer clay particles. The nature of the arrangement of primary particles into naturally formed secondary particles, called aggregates, is soil structure. A sandy soil may be structureless because each sand grain behaves independently of all others. A compacted clay soil may be structureless because the particles are clumped together in huge massive chunks. In between these extremes, there is the granular structure of surface soils and the blocky structure of subsoils. In some cases subsoils may have platy or columnar types of structure. Structure may be further described in terms of the size and stability of aggregates. Structural class is based on aggregate size, while structural grade is based on aggregate strength. Soil horizons can be differentiated on the basis of structural type, class, or grade.

What causes aggregates to form and what holds them together? Clay particles cohere to each other and adhere to larger particles under the conditions that prevail in most soils. Wetting and drying, freezing and thawing, root and animal activity, and mechanical agitation are involved in the rearranging of particles in soils--including destruction of some aggregates and the bringing together of particles into new aggregate groupings. Organic materials, especially microbial cells and waste products, act to cement aggregates and thus to increase their strength. On the other hand, aggregates may be destroyed by poor tillage practices, compaction, and depletion of soil organic matter. The structure of a soil, therefore, is not stable in the sense that the texture of a soil is stable. Good structure, particularly in fine textured soils, increases total porosity because large pores occur between aggregates, allowing penetration of roots and movement of water and air.


Consistence is a description of a soil's physical condition at various moisture contents as evidenced by the behavior of the soil to mechanical stress or manipulation. Descriptive adjectives such as hard, loose, friable, firm, plastic, and sticky are used for consistence. Soil consistence is of fundamental importance to the engineer who must move the material or compact it efficiently. The consistence of a soil is determined to a large extent by the texture of the soil, but is related also to other properties such as content of organic matter and type of clay minerals.


The color of objects, including soils, can be determined by minor components. Generally, moist soils are darker than dry ones and the organic component also makes soils darker. Thus, surface soils tend to be darker than subsoils. Red, yellow and gray hues of subsoils reflect the oxidation and hydration states or iron oxides, which are reflective of predominant aeration and drainage characteristics in subsoil. Red and yellow hues are indicative of good drainage and aeration, critical for activity of aerobic organisms in soils. Mottled zones, splotches of one or more colors in a matrix of different color, often are indicative of a transition between well drained, aerated zones and poorly drained, poorly aerated ones. Gray hues indicate poor aeration. Soil color charts have been developed for the quantitative evaluation of colors.

Lesson 4. Soil Chemical Properties

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