The mineral components of soil, sand, silt and clay, determine a soil’s texture. In the illustrated USDA textural classification triangle, the only soil that does not exhibit one of these predominately is called “loam”. While even pure sand, silt or clay may be considered a soil, from the perspective of food production a loam soil with a small amount of organic material is considered ideal. The mineral constituents of a loam soil might be 40% sand, 40% silt and the balance 20% clay by weight. Soil texture affects soil behaviour, in particular its retention capacity for nutrients and water.
Sand and silt are the products of physical and chemical weathering; clay, on the other hand, is a product of chemical weathering but often forms as a secondary mineral precipitated from dissolved minerals. It is the specific surface area of soil particles and the unbalanced ionic charges within them that determine their role in the cation exchange capacity of soil, and hence its fertility. Sand is least active, followed by silt; clay is the most active. Sand’s greatest benefit to soil is that it resists compaction and increases porosity. Silt is mineralogically like sand but with its higher specific surface area it is more chemically active than sand. But it is the clay content, with its very high specific surface area and generally large number of negative charges, that gives a soil its high retention capacity for water and nutrients. Clay soils also resist wind and water erosion better than silty and sandy soils, as the particles are bonded to each other.
Sand is the most stable of the mineral components of soil; it consists of rock fragments, primarily quartz particles, ranging in size from 2.0 to 0.05 mm (0.079 to 0.0020 in) in diameter. Silt ranges in size from 0.05 to 0.002 mm (0.002 to 0.00008 in). Clay cannot be resolved by optical microscopes as its particles are 0.002 mm (7.9×10−5 in) or less in diameter. In medium-textured soils, clay is often washed downward through the soil profile and accumulates in the subsoil.
Soil components larger than 2.0 mm (0.079 in) are classed as rock and gravel and are removed before determining the percentages of the remaining components and the texture class of the soil, but are included in the name. For example, a sandy loam soil with 20% gravel would be called gravelly sandy loam.
When the organic component of a soil is substantial, the soil is called organic soil rather than mineral soil. A soil is called organic if:
- Mineral fraction is 0% clay and organic matter is 20% or more
- Mineral fraction is 0% to 50% clay and organic matter is between 20% and 30%
- Mineral fraction is 50% or more clay and organic matter 30% or more.