A new smartphone application allows growers, gardeners and landowners to get quick information about soil types and determine what to plant or where to build.

Larry Oldham, Extension professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at Mississippi State University, said helping clients in the field is easier than ever with the SoilWeb smartphone app developed by the Soil Resource Lab at the University of California-Davis.

“With the app, I can go out on a field visit and use my phone to get the soil series I’m standing on based on my GPS coordinates, which the app figures out automatically. It’s an enormous help for me in diagnosing issues that I may be called out to look at, and it enables me to develop a course of action,” he said.

Soil properties determine what landowners can do with a particular piece of property, Oldham said.

“A simple example is rice, which is grown on fine-textured clay soils, because they hold water. Other crops require soils that drain better,” he said.

Oldham said the app is helpful for agricultural consultants, Extension staff and gardeners, but identifying the type of soil is simply the starting point.

“You need someone to help analyze the data, to figure out if your soil is conducive to your plan or if you have to alter your plan based on your soil type. Do you want to plant roses, but you live on prairie soil? Will the foundation of your structure be stable? You’ll have to make some management decisions based on the soil type of your property.”

Master Gardeners may use the SoilWeb application to help them learn more about their own plot of ground or the area where they volunteer.

“The more they know about the soils, the better their community garden or volunteer landscaping projects will be,” he said. “It’s a great teaching tool.”

SoilWeb does not replace soil testing, Oldham said.

“SoilWeb gives you the physical properties of the soil, not the fertility status. Soil testing looks at the shorter term properties, the nutrients available for the current growing season. This information is much more sensitive to human management, previous fertilization and other manipulations of the soil,” he said. “Soil testing also tells you about acidity and provides recommendations based on the sample submitted.

“You can have multiple recommendations depending on what you tell the soil testing lab staff you want to grow, as different plants have different fertility needs,” he said.

Mississippi has eight of the 12 soil orders identified in the United States taxonomic system. These unique soils -- from the Delta’s soils formed by water action to the highly erodible loess soils in the bluff hills next to the Delta -- contribute to the state’s agricultural diversity.

“The intrinsic properties of the soil dictate what we do. The alluvial flatlands are suited for large-scale mechanized agriculture,” Oldham said. “Rolling hills are not favorable for that; they are more suitable for growing other plants. Knowing about soils allows us to manage the land better.”

Billy Kingery, agronomist and professor in MSU’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and in the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, said the information in the SoilWeb application is based on the national soil survey, a project which has required years of data collection and research.

“The Soil Conservation Service — now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service — came about when we had the national disaster known as the Dust Bowl,” Kingery said. “As much as we’ve heard about it, it’s hard to understand how significantly it impacted the nation. The recognition of the need to conserve natural resources came out of that disaster. It is necessary to know what soils we have and the interpretation of their uses to begin conservation planning.”

Organizations, including land-grant universities, the NRCS, the Extension Service, and the experiment stations, worked together to create the National Cooperative Soil Survey, he said.

“It’s not just a map of the soils, but a planning guide for the proper use of soil -- you can find guidelines for soils as building materials, places for structures, what kind of load the soil will hold, if that type of soil is suitable for a basement -- the range of uses for soil is vast,” Kingery said. “If you think about it from the standpoint of a parent, and all the things your kids do in a day, such as school, the ball field, the playground, and your house -- if those places had polluted water or flooding because the soil wasn’t considered before building, you’ll begin to see the importance of soils.”

An awareness of soils and conserving them is necessary for preserving this important resource.

“People think our natural systems are so robust they’ll always be available for our use, but I think they sit on a knife’s edge constantly,” he said. “The challenge of soil loss is never-ending. Think of the creeks that are getting wider and deeper as more intense storms come through with harder rains that can’t be absorbed quickly enough. Notice the wind blowing topsoil off of a bare field in winter. Whether you learn about soil from the SoilWeb app or from a conservation class, remember that we can’t sustain life without soil, so we shouldn’t take it for granted.”

For more information on soils and soil testing, contact the Extension county office or Delaney Johnson, the NRCS state soil scientist, at (601) 965-5209.