The most overlooked thing in the world

It's soil week on the blog - a whole week on soil, what it is, and why it matters.

spoonfulWhen I lived in London, I remember once needing to move a house plant to a bigger pot. For this I needed soil. I lived in a flat with no outside space, so I didn’t have any of my own. I took a tub and a spoon, since that’s all I had to hand, and went looking for some. I walked down the road, which was entirely tarmac and concrete paving slabs. There was none to be found.

I tried round the back of the flats, but it was more concrete, garages, bins. I had to walk 150 yards or so before I spotted any dirt: around the base of some trees, which were protected in a little fenced-off square. I had to reach through the railings with my spoon and scrape up what I could, feeling like I was committing some kind of crime.

Looking out the window of my study, it’s a similar situation. There’s the road outside, and the pavement. Almost all the front gardens have been removed here and bricked over for parking. The couple of trees that remain along the street come straight up out of the tarmac. Dirt isn’t welcome here.

We actually go out of our way to avoid dirt most of the time. We disapprove of things that are dirty, and put them in the bath or the washing machine. We teach the kids to wipe their feet and not to walk dirt into the house. Out in the garden, where we do have to work with the earth, we put our gardening gloves on to keep our hands clean. Flower beds have wood or stone edges to make sure that the dirt stays where it belongs, and to keep everything looking neat.  If we have to deal with soil, we consider it something to be managed and contained.

None of that is unreasonable behaviour, but it does have consequences for how we value soil. Dirt is possibly the most overlooked thing in the world. It’s literally overlooked of course, in that there’s a base layer of earth under everything. And it’s metaphorically overlooked too – ignored, forgotten, unappreciated. The expression ‘treated like dirt’ tells you all we need to know. Someone who has been treated like dirt has been shown a contempt and disregard that they don’t deserve – a disrespect that, by implication, dirt actually does deserve.

I want to help redress the balance a little. Today is World Soil Day, but I’m going to be publishing a post about soil every day this week. I think soil is amazing. I hope that by the end of the week you will share that view, and perhaps think a little differently about the ground beneath our feet.


  1. Very precious stuff, soil. We need to conserve it and improve it, and make sure we don’t loose it or impoverish it. Otherwise we’re finished, sooner or later.

  2. We also throw away and flush down the toilet the opportunity to make our own soil. The toilet bit is perhaps too difficult in a dense urban environment, but for anything else compostable, soil is easy to make. I have been making compost in our tiny terraced plot – total size 6x30m, mostly house – since 1991. All our patio pots – tomatoes, runner beans, salad greens, as well as flowers – are supplied and the used compost makes ever higher raised beds.

    1. Yes, the flushing toilet is one of those ubiquitous technologies that we take for granted, but from a sustainability point of view there are better options. And in fact, some of these are much more likely to develop in urban environments, where there’s the possibility of a market for waste.

      Food waste too is a crazy thing to be throwing away. I have two compost bins and a wormery on the go, and that takes care of my own patch of ground.

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