Most soils are far from uniform and contain particles of different sizes. Soil texture refers to the proportions of different particle sizes. Texture is a basic soil property because it strongly influences the soil’s ability to retain and transmit water and air, both of which are essential to plant growth. Sandy soils may drain too rapidly and dry out quickly. At the opposite extreme, the pore spaces of clay-rich soils may be so small that they inhibit drainage, and long-lasting puddles result. Moreover, when the clay and silt content is very high, plant roots may have difficulty penetrating the soil.
Because soils rarely consist of particles of only one size, textural categories have been established based on the varying proportions of clay, silt, and sand. The standard system of classes used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is shown in Figure 1. For example, point A on this triangular diagram (left center) represents a soil composed of 10 percent silt, 40 percent clay, and 50 percent sand. Such a soil is called a sandy clay. The soils called loam, which occupy the central portion of the diagram, are those in which no single particle size predominates over the other two. Loam soils are best suited to support plant life because they generally hold moisture and nutrients better than do soils composed predominantly of clay or coarse sand.
Soil particles are seldom completely independent of one another. Rather, they usually form clumps called peds that give soils a particular structure. Four basic soil structures are recognized: platy, prismatic, blocky, and spheroidal. Soil structure is important because it influences how easily a soil can be cultivated as well as how susceptible a soil is to erosion. Soil structure also affects a soil’s porosity and permeability (the ease with which water can penetrate).
This in turn influences the movement of nutrients to plant roots. Prismatic and blocky peds usually allow for moderate water infiltration, whereas platy and spheroidal structures are characterized by slower infiltration rates.