How to Talk About Soil at a Dinner Party

Illustration by Alice Tait


It's spring and you want to talk about soil. But how? Here's a glossary of dirty talking points to get you chatting up a storm at your next soireé...

TOPSOIL The cream on top of our farmland, topsoil is the uppermost layer of dense, nutrient-rich soil best for growing food. Depending on the health of the farm, topsoil can be anywhere from 2-8 inches deep.

EROSION The bad news is we’re losing the ground beneath our feet. While some erosion is natural, industrial farming, deforestation and grazing have multiplied this erosion by 10-40 times around the globe. As a result, the U.S. is losing almost 3 tons of fertile topsoil per acre every year.

ORGANIC FARMING Soil health is fostered via the use of compost, organic matter and manure while excluding, or strictly limiting, the use of synthetics.

COVER CROPS The first rule of preserving soil is to keep something growing in it nearly all the time. Cover crops such as clover, buck- wheat and legumes are grown to add nutrients (e.g., nitrogen) to the soil between food plantings.

NO-TILL FARMING Do not disturb. This mode of farming allows soil to be left alone to fill up with worms, fungi and other living and decaying organic materials.

MANAGED GRAZING Grazing animals (such as cows and sheep) in a rotation so that grass is allowed to grow back partially has a positive effect on soil.

PERENIAL CROPS Crops that don’t need to be replanted hold the soil in place. Their continued growth also sequesters carbon and absorbs runoff.

AGROFORESTRY Trees are the ultimate perennial crop. Farms that incorporate trees into their landscape often have much healthier soil.

How to Talk About Soil at a Dinner Party