Can You Dig It? Words for Dirt and Soil

There are buckets full of words to describe the stuff under your feet, so grab a shovel and dig into this list!

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definitions & notes only words
  1. bedrock
    solid unweathered stone beneath surface deposits of soil
    Underneath the topsoil, the bedrock yielded large, pristine footprints over 100 million years old.
    is what you find when you dig down below the soil: solid rock, the Earth's crust. It's also used metaphorically, to refer to ideals, principles, or other concepts that are fundamental to a person or institution's identity.
  2. clay
    water-soaked soil; soft, wet earth
    In London, which is mostly built on clay as opposed to Manhattan’s rock, they require ample foundations.
  3. compaction
    the act of crushing
    You need paths separate from growing beds to avoid soil compaction.
    Compacted soil is hard, like a dirt road or dried lake bed. It's difficult to dig, and not suited to planting crops.
  4. compost
    a mixture of decaying vegetation and manure
    Cuba became something of an organic farming pioneer in the 1990s, developing techniques like worm composting, soil conservation and the use of biopesticides, to replace imported supplies and large scale monoculture.
    Compost is decomposed plant matter, turned back into nutrient-rich soil by bacteria and fungi. Many gardeners have a compost pile where they put kitchen scraps and garden waste to break down, adding it back to the soil the following year. In Old French, composter is the verb for treating fields with manure to fertilize them.
  5. decompose
    break down
    If nothing decomposed, the earth would pile up kilometers-deep with the bodies of animals and plants.
    To compose something is to create it or put it together in some way, so decomposing is the act of breaking something down, as in a fallen tree rotting and returning to the soil.
  6. erosion
    the process of wearing or grinding something down
    Goat teams need to work with land managers to achieve an appropriate level of vegetation removal that will reduce fire damage without causing erosion or biodiversity loss.
  7. gravel
    rock fragments and pebbles
    Today, the grave of the former Kingston Steel Drum looks unexceptional from Route 125, just an old gravel pit built up with fill.
  8. lava
    rock that in its molten form issues from volcanos
    There are low-lying lava plains formed when volcanoes erupted 10 million to 1 billion years ago.
    Lava is Italian, from lavare meaning "to wash." This seems strange until you know that, similar to English, a wash is also a stream caused by torrential rain, and that's what certain kinds of lava flows look like.
  9. loam
    a rich soil consisting of sand, clay and organic materials
    This entry-level bottle is from vines grown on loess and loam on gentle slopes.
  10. muddy
    soft and watery, of soil
    “It’s also difficult to send the patients to hospital because the roads are muddy because of the rain.”
  11. mulch
    small pieces of organic material spread on soil
    A path with mulch, gravel, brick, pavers or flagstone with edging will encourage a stroll.
    If you've seen circles of wood chips around the bases of trees in a landscaped area, that's mulch. It prevents weeds and helps the soil retain water. Mulch comes from the Germanic word mölsch, meaning "wet."
  12. organic
    having properties characteristic of living beings
    Produce grown this way typically sells at prices that, while generally higher than those of classic intensive agriculture, are lower than soil-based organic growers.
  13. porous
    full of holes
    Basically Virtually everywhere they look, scientists are finding microorganisms living in porous rock deep underground, both on land and under the seafloor.
  14. sediment
    matter that has been deposited by some natural process
    Colonies of photosynthesizing bacteria, which boosted early Earth’s oxygen, created the layered formations by depositing carbonates and trapping sediment in ancient, shallow seas.
    Like silt, below, sediment refers to tiny particles of earth that settle to the bottom of a body of water. Sedimentary rock is one of the three major types of rock.
  15. silt
    mud or clay or small rocks deposited by a river or lake
    These summer floods, sustained by monsoon rains in the highlands of Ethiopia, delivered irrigation and silt, both critical to Egypt’s agrarian society.
    Silt is the product of runoff or erosion: tiny particles of rock and clay carried by water to a low spot where they settle. Over millions of years, layers of silt can become compacted by the pressure of more layers and turn into various types of sedimentary rock.
  16. soil
    material in the top layer of the surface of the earth
    They switched from being hunter-gathers to being tillers of the soil and herders of animals.
  17. stratum
    one of several parallel layers of material
    In east-central Arizona, 110 miles from Flagstaff, the Petrified Forest adjoins the Painted Desert, 7,500 square miles of badlands and hills tinted lavender and red by Triassic Age strata.
    Stratum means "layer." If you've ever seen a road cut through a hillside, or been on an archaeological dig, you've seen horizontal layers of different types of rock or soil: kind of like a layer cake.
  18. volcanic
    relating to eruptions of gas and lava from the earth's crust
    Indonesia is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions because of its location along the Pacific “Ring of Fire.”
    Lava from ancient eruptions can become various kinds of soil depending on how it breaks down and mixes with other materials over time.
Created on June 27, 2020 (updated July 16, 2020)

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