Soil is more than just dirt. It's a living, dynamic entity that consists of organic material with living organisms and inorganic minerals. Both play an essential role in plant health.
Although the term "organic" is mentioned often in gardening and with different meanings, the definition of "organic" that you learned in chemistry class applies when you are talking about soil. Organic soil components come from living or once living organisms that contain carbon, while inorganic components do not.
Soil contains organic material, both living and dead. Living microorganisms break down compounds, releasing nutrients in a form that plants can use. Soil also contains organic matter, which primarily consists of dead plant material, such as fallen leaves, grass clippings or old plant roots. According to the Iowa State University Extension, organic matter should form 5 percent of your soil. Organic material helps soil to retain water and nutrients around plant roots where they are needed.
Soil also contains minerals, defined as inorganic because they do not contain carbon. Plants need nutrients for many of their life functions and absorb them from the soil using their roots. Although plants need 13 mineral nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are the most important.
First published in 2000, Dawn Walls-Thumma has served as an editor for "Bartleby" and "Antithesis Common" literary magazines. Walls-Thumma writes about education, gardening and sustainable living. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and writing from University of Maryland and is a graduate student in humanities at American Public University.