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Soil is an integral part of the environment and vital to life on Earth. It is slow to develop and difficult to rebuild. Soil performs essential ecosystem functions, including flood prevention, water storage and nutrient cycling for plant growth. Soil is home to myriad creatures of wondrous proportions and inconceivable diversity.

Soil is an amazing three-dimensional body on the earth’s surface that develops in place over time. The most recent survey of Benton County describes 180 different soil map units that vary based on these soil formation factors: 1) the temperature, moisture, plants and organisms in the mineral soil environment, 2) relief or topography of the landscape, 3) the organic matter or mineral parent material from which the soil evolves, and 4) the length of soil development time.

You can read the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s description of your site’s soils. Browse the Benton County Soil Survey or visit the NRCS Web Soil Survey, an online, interactive soil information source. These excellent references highlight physical and chemical properties, and water and soil features that influence agricultural and engineering considerations for land use.

Monitoring your soil has important benefits. The better you understand your soil, the more likely you are to adopt practices that increase water-holding capacity and improve plant health. Furthermore, an understanding of your soil’s capability will help you lower production costs and reduce frustration. As you incorporate effective management practices, you will reduce environmental impacts with consequences far beyond the scope of your own property.

Soil Assessment

  • Field observations and routine analysis

    Field observations and routine analysis are the basis of an informed soil management plan. A basic characteristic you can test at home is the soil texture, or proportions of sand, silt, and clay. Use this brochure to determine your soil texture.

    Determine Soil Texture

  • Observe your soil

    Observe your soil during the same month each year to watch for changes in soil over time. Use the Willamette Valley Soil Quality Card (EM8711) to document field observations such as structure, compaction, earthworms and weeds. This card is available online along with a user guide that describes assessments and management effects on soil.

    Soil Quality Card

  • Testing

    Whether you perform home testing with a garden store kit or send a sample to a lab, the answer you receive is directly related to the soil you collect. Laboratory soil analysis is like a medical blood test. The results indicate where to focus time and inputs that improve soil productivity. Parameters measured might include pH, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and organic matter. To reduce variability in sample results, collect soil from one management unit only – that is an area of the landscape that has the same soil texture and the same management history. This brochure describes how to collect soil samples for laboratory analysis. Once you have received your soil test results, use this OSU guide to interpret them.

    How to Collect Soil Samples

Heath standing in a field with soil testing equipment
Heath standing in a field with soil testing equipment

Soil Management

  • Reduce soil disturbance.

    Tillage has long been used for weed control and seed bed preparation. Too much soil disturbance leads to compaction and destroys the soil structure. Good soil structure has pore space for water storage, reduces erosion, and does not inhibit root growth.

  • Add organic matter through amendments or living roots.

    Organic matter feeds the soil biological community that in turn builds soil structure. Increase soil organic matter through the direct application of amendments such as compost, manure or mulches, and through the use of cover crops. Frequent use of manure can result in high levels of soil phosphorus and potassium which can contribute to poor water quality. Keep living roots in the soil year-round.

  • Never leave the soil bare.

    The use of cover crops is a key soil-building practice. They protect the soil surface between cash crops or near perennials. Cover crops are planted to reduce erosion, attract pollinators, break up compacted soil, supply nutrients, smother weeds and discourage pests.

  • Support belowground biodiversity.

    Growing a mixture of plant supports the diversity of life below the soil. Some organisms prefer green wastes while others use woody brown debris for energy and body building. Provide a variety of plant materials to restock the soil organisms’ nutrient needs.

  • Use chemicals with caution.

    The overuse of fertilizers and pesticides can impact soil organisms. Understand the effects of chemicals before you apply them and follow the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Concept: Right Source, Right Rate, Right Time, and Right Place.

kid hands with soil
kid hands with soil

Regenerative Landscaping

Your landscape can make a real difference in the climate crisis battle! Even a small urban landscape provides many important ecosystem services and benefits for you.

Compost/Soil Building

Soil Lessons

Related Blog Posts

Prairie Soils for Sustainable Restoration
Teresa Matteson | April 8, 2021

Can information from the soil explain why some prairie restoration efforts are more successful than others? In 2016, the Prairie Soils for Sustainable Restoration project set out to find the answer, thanks to funding from Oregon Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Conservation Neighbor: Andy Gallagher
Teresa Matteson | December 29, 2020

Andy Gallagher first came to Benton SWCD looking for conservation-minded people in the Willamette Valley.

Book Review: Gaia Girls: Enter the Earth
Heath Keirstead | July 2, 2020

Gaia Girls: Enter the Earth has an optimistic message of standing up for your beliefs and it’s a great adventure story written for 9-13 year olds.

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Related Resources

For additional information, we recommend:
  • Soil Texture Brochure

    Use this brochure to determine your soil texture.

  • Sample Collection and Handling Guide

    This brochure describes how to collect soil samples for laboratory analysis.

  • Student Soil Quality Card 1

    Use this card to determine soil quality at home or at school.

  • Student Soil Quality Card Teacher Guide 1

    Background information for use with the student soil quality card.

  • Soil Texture

    Learn why soil texture is important and how to use your hands to determine the texture.

Program Contacts

Teresa Matteson
Teresa Matteson
Resource Conservationist I
541-753-7208 ext. 204
Copyright ©2013- 2021 Benton Soil & Water Conservation District. All rights reserved.