The Science of Soil

The Science of Soil

What is Soil?

Soil is the outermost part of the Earth’s surface, where plants grow. Without it we could not survive! Soil is made up of rock material of various sizes (from powdered rock to sand, pebbles and stones). Soil also contains minerals, rotting plants and animals and living organisms. It contains all the nutrients required for plants to grow and survive!

Why is soil so important?

Plants need soil to grow, not just for the nutrients that the soil provides but also as an anchor, a stable place where the plant can place its roots and support its growing structure.

The soil has many other important functions too…

  • Soil acts as a natural water filter, cleaning water as it passes through it
  • The soil provides billions of organisms with a place to live
  • The soil is very important in the cycling of nutrients – especially carbon and nitrogen

How is soil made?

There are a lot of factors that influence how soil is made. The first of these is what type of material the soil is being made from… the type of rock that the soil is made from is called the parent material.

Other factos that influence how soil is made are…

  • the weather,
  • the topography of the land,
  • what living organisms are around and….
  • time!

Did you know… it can take up to 1,000 years for just one inch of soil to form?


Soil is made when the parent material (rock) is broken down by the weather (wind, rain, sun, snow) eventually forming fine powder, sand and small rocks. The decomposition of organic matter and the activity of a variety of organisms help to improve the soils nutritional quality.

The soil is like a big recycling plant

Soil is not just for growing plants. It contains billions of other living organisms too… some can be very small like bacteria, fungi and algae and some can be very large like insects and even mammals.

All of these inhabitants help to break down dead plants and animals so that all the nutrients contained within them are returned to the soil.

Did you know… that in a tablespoon of good soil there are as many as 50 billion bacteria?


The earthworm plays a vital role is maintaining healthy soil and is often called “nature’s plough”.

Did you know… there are approximately 3000 species of earthworm in the world?


Learn more at home… make a wormery

You will need…

A large see-through container, sand, soil, worms, leaves and other vegetation, card or paper.

What to do…

  • Fill a large, see-through container with alternative layers of soil and sand.
  • Put a layer of leaves on the top.
  • Add enough water to keep the soil damp.
  • Collect some earthworms from your garden and add them to the wormery.
  • Cover the outside of your container with a large piece of card or paper to block out the light.
  • Put the wormery in a safe place and check on it every day- remember to keep adding water to keep the soil moist.
  • You should soon notice that the different layers of soil and sand are getting mixed together.

What is happening?

The earthworms mix the layers of sand and soil as they move through the wormery. This helps to distribute nutrients throughout the soil, making it more fertile.

Remember to return the worms safely back into the garden once you have finished.

Or you can watch the “how to” video…



A version of this article originally appeared in Science Spin, Issue 63, March/April 2014

The Carlow Walking Festival – a family review (Part 2)

The Carlow Walking Festival – a family review (Part 2)

The second half of our Carlow Walking Festival experience involved a family cycle along the tow paths of the river Barrow. Despite the activities of the previous day we were up and out of bed early in anticipation of the day ahead.

We collected the bikes from the Waterside Bike & Hike in Graiguenamanagh. A family run business, we found Brian and his wife extremely friendly and helpful, making sure that the bikes were correctly adjusted for each of us before we headed off. They have a good range of good quality bikes for all ages including tow along bikes for adult and child and child seats. They also provide all helmets, hi viz vest and any other equipment required, ideal for the tourist or traveller who doesn’t want to be bringing all those things with them.

Bike and Tree

From the moment we set off I could tell it was going to be a good day, the scenery was stunning for the entire journey. The children were delighted with the freedom to cycle under their own steam and the adults were pleased with the safety element…. no traffic to worry about, so we could let the kids off.

Green Road 1

Every corner we turned seemed to fill our eyes with yet another glorious scene. There is always something special about being surrounded by water, trees and nature… this path had them all in abundance.

Green Road 2

The adult-child tandem bike was perfect for our youngest, he got to cycle when he wanted, or just sit back and enjoy the ride. My husband tells me you could really feel the benefit when he did pedal, but it didn’t happen all that often!

Green Road Start

Just a few minutes into our journey we came across our first lock and we all jumped off our bikes to explore. To the children’s delight a barge came along just as we did, so they got to help work the gates. As well as being a great novelty for the kids it was a wonderful way for them to really understand how the system works.

Helping with the lock

It was a pity to see part of the trail lined with Himalayan balsam. This non native species is a vigorously invasive plant that has spread from cultivated gardens into our natural landscapes. The plant, in its native environment is used to arid and difficult conditions and has adapted to such a harsh habitat by producing thousands of seeds, in the hope that a small few will prosper. Unfortunately, in the Irish climate all the seeds have a high success rate and the plant spreads rapidly.

We showed the children how the plant disperses its seeds, the seed pods become dry and taught until they pop under the slightest pressure, flinging the seeds into the air. We thought it was so cool we even took a video, although I think Sir David Attenborough may have made  a slightly better version.

We were delighted to spot a red squirrel along the path, it was on the other side of the river but we watched it travel through the trees for quite some time before it disappeared from view. The red squirrel is a native species but its population and distribution are on the decline since the grey squirrel was introduced. The grey squirrel is larger and has taken over much of the red squirrels habitat so seeing one on our cycle was a real delight. The red squirrel is more active than its grey cousin, needing to consume about 5% of its body weight in food every day to maintain its high metabolism. The presence of the red squirrel showed the local woodland was obviously healthy and well maintained as it supported the red squirrel’s diet and there was obviously no invasion from the grey squirrel in the area.

Brian had told us that once we reached the fourth lock we were nearly at the Mullichin cafe where a welcome respite was on offer. I have to admit we all speeded up once we reached the lock, the thoughts of some well deserved cakes were a great incentive.

St Mullin's lock

The Mullichin cafe is located about four miles down the green road and is a real oasis in an already fertile spot. Situated beside the river Barrow it has plenty of space outdoors to enjoy both the beautiful food and scenery.

St. Mullins Outside

Even in October there were people enjoying the outdoor seating, I imagine this is a thriving spot in the Summer months.

St. Mullins

Once again there was a sign to detail the flora and fauna to be found in the area. The children pointed out everything they had seen.

St Mullin's Sign

We were told the food was good in the Mullichin and it definitely didn’t disappoint. The kids tucked into hot chocolates and a variety of cakes. There was even a gluten free option which I decided to have along with my cappuccino and it was delicious. The staff of the cafe were exceptionally friendly and easy going and the interior was bright and inviting. There was even a play area of small children. We had a great chat with the owners, who were on site and hands on. They took a few minutes to answer our questions and filled us in on some local lore and information.

St Mullin's Refuel

With our tummies full of the lovely baked delights we started our return journey.

Return Cycle

But there is always time for another bit of lock exploring!

St Mullins Lock 2

We loved this “tree top house” we came across along the route. The children said it looked like the best tree house ever.

Tree Top House

Even the odd shower didn’t dampen our spirits and there was plenty of trees around to provide a natural shelter. I was dry and smug while I took this photo of the rest of the family running for shelter.


I was really taken by the beautiful bridge in Graiguenamanagh and loved this view as we rounded the corner at our journey’s end.

The Bridge

Would we go back again? Most definitely! Next time we might consider an Ecology Bike Tour with Waterside Bike & Hike. Talking to Brian before we set off we could tell he was an expert on the local flora and fauna, it would be great to tap into all that knowledge on one of the guided tours as he knows just where to stop to spot such elusive locals as otters or a kingfisher. Travelling to any new area is always enriched when you get to know more about the local history too.

The tow path of the Barrow river also stretches upriver as far as the grand canal in Co. Kildare so there is so much more to explore. The safety element was a big plus for me, with so many traffic free miles of path on offer. You really couldn’t pick a more picturesque area for a cycle and once again we were struck by the friendly and helpful nature of Brian and his wife at the Waterside and all the staff at the Mullichain cafe. You may go for the scenery, the food and the outdoor activities but you will stay for the banter, the craic and the genuine friendliness of the people you meet there.

There were plenty of other activities over the festival weekend, not least of all… plenty of walking, as the name suggests. If you want to check out what else was on and what other people though you can read Dee Sewell’s review of the walks she attended over on her Greenside Up blog. Una Halpin of Wildways Adventures lead a walk and also took her son on another, she wrote about both here.

Disclaimer:  I was invited on the blog tour of the Carlow Walking Festival by Green and Vibrant. I was provided with accommodation and activities for the purposes of review but received no other compensation for this post. All views expressed are my own, or that of my family.

Mystery Creature revealed – the Panda Ant

Mystery Creature revealed – the Panda Ant

This week’s Mystery Creature was cracked in record time by Eco Evolution. It was the Panda ant, did you get it? Here are five facts about this interesting little insect…

photo: Chris Lukhaup
photo: Chris Lukhaup

Five Panda Ant facts….

  • Firstly the Panda Ant is a misnomer, as it is not an ant at all, but a wasp of the family Mutilidae.
  • It is sometimes called the “cow killer” because of the strength of its sting, which, it has been said, can take down an animal the size of a cow.
  • The Panda Ant exhibits sexual dimorphism – the male is a lot bigger than the female and is predominantly nocturnal. The female is more active during the day. It is only the females that are wingless and also only the females that have stingers.
  • Panda ants feed mainly on nectar.
  • Despite the fact that the female lays about 2000 eggs a year the species is considered endangered. The majority of the young ants are eaten by ant eaters. Those that do survive have a typical life span of 2 years.



Autumn, Equinox and resharing

Autumn, Equinox and resharing

Happy Autumn Equinox! With all this lovely weather we have been having it was easy to forget it. I thought it was apt that the weather became more chilly today as it is the official Autumn Equinox, marking, for many, the start of Autumn.

I have written before of how we Irish like to define the seasons in our own bizarre ways. The same post also describes what an equinox is, if you want the nitty, gritty detail. Personally, I judge the seasons more by the cues in Nature and I certainly have noticed the birds starting to gather for their migration, the days beginning to shorten and the leaves on the trees beginning to change colour. I always thing the colour display of Autumn is worth the colder nights and darker days.

Did you ever wonder why and how the leaves change colour? Well it turns out I wrote about that too, in my first ever blog post. Today I get to share it with you again while joining in a blog linky by lovely fellow Galway blogger, Aedin, over at Minis and Mum, as she invites people to share their first ever post in celebration of her lovely blog’s three year anniversary.

So here is a repost of mine…



It’s funny how Autumn comes around every year and I realise how much I love this time of year…. it’s as though I seem to forget I like it all throughout the other seasons.  Of course we have had a particularly nice Autumn this year in the West of Ireland and maybe that has re-enforced my happy memories of the season.  The days have been bright and crisp showing off all the beautiful colours in all their glory and splendour.

photo credit: Stellas mom via photopin cc
photo credit: Stellas mom via photopin cc

I grew up in Co. Wicklow surrounded by some beautiful deciduous woods and forests and this Autumn has really brought my childhood memories flooding back.  My mother brought us often to the woods as children and we would hunt around for hidden treasures and delights to bring home and turn into some “masterful” collage in homage to the season.  There was also the foraging, a distinctive primordial instinct in us all, there is nothing as pleasing as returning home with your bounty… be it blackberries or sweet horse chestnuts- to be turned into jams and tarts or painstakingly peeled off all nasty layers to reveal  the divinely sweet, fruity, nutty delight beneath.  In fact the joy that came with eating the nut always made it suddenly worth your while to start the arduous task of peeling all over again!

…and I hope that I will never outgrow the delight of running, kicking, shuffling through a crisp new crop of fallen leaves!

As many people know, the lovely green of most leaves is caused by the pigment chlorophyll… green in colour (obviously) and capable of using sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into energy (sugar) for the plant.  However, when the sunlight hours fade coming into winter so too does the chlorophyll in the leaves of trees, or, to be more precise, the pigment begins to degrade and is not replaced.  Once the green colour is gone other pigments that are often present in the leaf come into view… carotenoids are pigments responsible for the yellow/orange colour of leaves, anthocyanins are responsible for the redder colour of leaves and tannins are responsible for the brown colour of leaves.  There is, within this pigmented system, a sense of hierarchy, at least in part.  But did you ever wonder about the science behind those wonderful colours?  I did… why the green suddenly disappears, where does it go and how do the other colours get there in its place? So, if like me, you ever wondered about these things… here is some insight into the why and what of Autumn!


photo credit: looseends via photopin cc
photo credit: looseends via photopin cc

Carotenoids are the pigments responsible for the orange colour of carrots. If carotenoids are present their colour tends to dominate leaving the leaves yellowy and orange.

In the absence of carotenoid, anthocyanin is the dominant pigment. Anthocyanin (the same pigment found in red onions, red grapes, red apples and red cabbage) is a natural pH indicator, meaning that it can change colour depending on the levels of acids or bases/alkali in its environment.  In fact one of my favourite experiments that I often do with children is to demonstrate this colour changing using anthocyanin extracted from red cabbage (but that’s a whole other blog in itself).  At the beginning of Autumn the levels of sugar in the leaves tends to be quite high, increasing the acid levels in the leaves, this strengthens the red colour of Anthocyanin if it is present in the leaves.

At the end of Autumn the leaves die off and the levels of carotenoids and anthocynins die off too, leaving another pigment to dominate… and this is the brown pigment of tannin, the same pigment that give a cup of tea it’s colour!

So there you have it… next time you are crunching through those leaves you may wonder why you are suddenly thinking of carrots and cabbages and cups of tea!!!


There are lots of lovely “first steps” posts to read in this linky, just click on the image below to find some more.

Minis and Mon - First Steps Liny
Minis and Mum – First Steps Linky


Should we be burning plastic – that’s the burning question?

Should we be burning plastic – that’s the burning question?

What chemicals are released when we burn plastic and what effect can each one have on our health?

Bonfire night on St. John's Eve
Bonfire night on St. John’s Eve

The weather has been great here in Ireland recently and I love the smell of the warm Summer air in the morning. On Tuesday morning when I stepped outside I did not get the smell I expected. It was a harsh, burning smell and it took me a moment to realise what it could be. The day before was 23rd of June and people around my area often celebrate St. John’s Eve by lighting bonfires and gathering the communities together. To be honest I had never heard of this tradition until I moved to Galway but I think it adds a lovely social element to the community. What I don’t like is the small number of people who use it to burn off their plastic waste… and that was the reason for the smell I got on Tuesday morning.

I should add, I am no saint myself… I have absent mindedly thrown the odd crisp bag or wrapper into the fire at home. What harm can it do, right? Well, I have done a little research and it can do a lot more harm than most of us might think.

The graphics below explain what chemicals are released when each of the seven plastic groups are burned, the effects these chemicals can have on our bodies and some very startling facts!



Bisphenol ABPA research articlesDioxinHydrogen Chloride in firesDangers of burning plastic and rubberHome burning of plastics and waste


If you want to find out more on this subject check out these great blog posts…

 Burning of waste – not in my backyard

A new breed of gansters.