Soil Structure

The following is a quote from:

Soil Survey Division Staff. 1993. Chapter 3 - Examination and Description of Soils. In Soil Survey Manual, United States Department of Agriculture Handbook No. 18 pp157-163.

Soil Structure

Soil structure refers to units composed of primary particles. The cohesion within these units is greater than the adhesion among units. As a consequence, under stress, the soil mass tends to rupture along predetermined planes or zones. These planes or zones, in turn, form the boundary. Compositional differences of the fabric matrix appear to exert weak or no control over where the bounding surfaces occur. If compositional differences control the bounding surfaces of the body, then the term "concentration" is employed. The term "structural unit" is used for any repetitive soil body that is commonly bounded by planes or zones of weakness that are not an apparent consequence of compositional differences. A structural unit that is the consequence of soil development is called a ped. The surfaces of peds persist through cycles of wetting and drying in place. Commonly, the surface of the ped and its interior differ as to composition or organization, or both, because of soil development. Earthy clods and fragments stand in contrast to peds, for which soil forming processes exert weak or no control on the boundaries. Some clods, adjacent to the surface of the body, exhibit some rearrangement of primary particles to a denser configuration through mechanical means. The same terms and criteria used to describe structured soils should be used to describe the shape, grade, and size of clods. Structure is not inferred by using the terms interchangeably. A size sufficient to affect tilth adversely must be considered. The distinction between clods and fragments rests on the degree of consolidation by mechanical means. Soil fragments include (1) units of undisturbed soil with bounding planes of weakness that are formed on drying without application of external force and which do not appear to have predetermined bounding planes, (2) units of soil disturbed by mechanical means but without significant rearrangement to a denser configuration, and (3) pieces of soil bounded by planes of weakness caused by pressure exerted during examination with size and shape highly dependent on the manner of manipulation.

Some soils lack structure and are referred to as structureless. In structureless layers or horizons, no units are observable in place or after the soil has been gently disturbed, such as by tapping a spade containing a slice of soil against a hard surface or dropping a large fragment on the ground. When structureless soils are ruptured, soil fragments, single grains, or both result. Structureless soil material may be either single grain or massive. Soil material of single grains lacks structure. In addition, it is loose. On rupture, more than 50 percent of the mass consists of discrete mineral particles.

Some soils have simple structure, each unit being an entity without component smaller units. Others have compound structure, in which large units are composed of smaller units separated by persistent planes of weakness.

In soils that have structure, the shape, size, and grade (distinctness) of the units are described. Field terminology for soil structure consists of separate sets of terms designating each of the three properties, which by combination form the names for structure.

Shape.—Several basic shapes of structural units are recognized in soils. Supplemental statements about the variations in shape of individual peds are needed in detailed descriptions of some soils. The following terms describe the basic shapes and related arrangements:

platy: The units are flat and platelike. They are generally oriented horizontally. Platy structure is illustrated in figure 3-26. A special form, lenticular platy structure, is recognized for plates that are thickest in the middle and thin toward the edges.

prismatic: The individual units are bounded by flat to rounded vertical faces. Units are distinctly longer vertically, and the faces are typically casts or molds of adjoining units. Vertices are angular or subrounded; the tops of the prisms are somewhat indistinct and normally flat. Prismatic structure is illustrated in figure 3-27.

columnar: The units are similar to prisms and are bounded by flat or slightly rounded vertical faces. The tops of columns, in contrast to those of prisms, are very distinct and normally rounded, as illustrated in figure 3-28.

blocky: The units are blocklike or polyhedral. They are bounded by flat or slightly rounded surfaces that are casts of the faces of surrounding peds. Typically, blocky structural units are nearly equidimensional but grade to prisms and to plates. The structure is described as angular blocky if the faces intersect at relatively sharp angles; as subangular blocky if the faces are a mixture of rounded and plane faces and the corners are mostly rounded. Figure 3-29 illustrates angular blocky units.

granular: The units are approximately spherical or polyhedral and are bounded by curved or very irregular faces that are not casts of adjoining peds. Granular units are illustrated in figure 3-30.

Size.—Five classes are employed: very fine, fine, medium, coarse, and very coarse. The size limits of the classes differ according to the shape of the units. The size limit classes are given in table 3-13. The size limits refer to the smallest dimension of plates, prisms, and columns. If the units are more than twice the minimum size of "very coarse," the actual size is given: "prisms 30 to 40 cm across."

Grade.—Grade describes the distinctness of units. Criteria are the ease of separation into discrete units and the proportion of units that hold together when the soil is handled. Three classes are used:

Weak. The units are barely observable in place. When gently disturbed, the soil material parts into a mixture of whole and broken units and much material that exhibits no planes of weakness. Faces that indicate persistence through wet-dry-wet cycles are evident if the soil is handled carefully. Distinguishing structurelessness from weak structure is sometimes difficult. Weakly expressed structural units in virtually all soil materials have surfaces that differ in some way from the interiors.

Moderate. The units are well formed and evident in undisturbed soil. When disturbed, the soil material parts into a mixture of mostly whole units, some broken units, and material that is not in units. Peds part from adjoining peds to reveal nearly entire faces that have properties distinct from those of fractured surfaces.

Strong. The units are distinct in undisturbed soil. They separate cleanly when the soil is disturbed. When removed, the soil material separates mainly into whole units. Peds have distinctive surface properties.

Table 3-13. Size classes of soil structure

Shape of structure
Size Classes Platy1
Prismatic and Columnar
1 < 1 < 10 < 5 < 1
2 1 - 2 10 - 20 5 - 10 1 - 2
3 2 - 5 20 - 50 10 - 20 2 - 5
4 5 - 10 50 - 100 20 - 50 5 - 10
5 > 10 > 100 > 50 > 10

1. In describing plates, "thin" is used instead of "fine" and "thick" instead of "coarse."

The distinctness of individual structural units and the relationship of cohesion within units to adhesion between units determine grade of structure. Cohesion alone is not specified. For example, individual structural units in a sandy loam A horizon may have strong structure, yet they may be less durable than individual units in a silty clay loam B horizon of weak structure. The degree of disturbance required to determine structure grade depends largely on moisture content and percentage and kind of clay. Only slight disturbance may be necessary to separate the units of a moist sandy loam having strong granular structure, while considerable disturbance may be required to separate units of a moist clay loam having strong blocky structure.

The three terms for soil structure are combined in the order (1) grade, (2) size, (3) shape. "Strong fine granular structure" is used to describe a soil that separates almost entirely into discrete units that are loosely packed, roughly spherical, and mostly between 1 and 2 mm in diameter.

The designation of structure by grade, size, and shape can be modified with other appropriate terms when necessary to describe other characteristics. Surface characteristics of units are described separately. Special structural units, such as the wedge-shaped units of Vertisols, are described in appropriate terms.