The inorganic fraction of soil may include various sizes and shapes of rocks and minerals; in order of increasing size these are termed clay, silt, sand, gravel, and stone. Coarser soils have lower capacity to retain organic plant nutrients, gases, and water, which are essential for plants. Soils with higher clay content, which tend to retain these substances, are therefore usually better suited for agriculture. In most soils, clay and organic particles aggregate into plates, blocks, prisms, or granules. The arrangement of particles, known as soil structure, largely determines the soil's pore space and density, which translates into its capacity to hold air and water. Organic matter consists of decomposed plant and animal material and living plant roots. Microorganisms, living in the organic portion of soil, perform the essential function of decomposing plant and animal matter, releasing nutrients to be used by growing plants.
Besides organic matter, soil is largely composed of elements and compounds of silicon, aluminum, iron, oxygen, and, in smaller quantities, calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium. Factors determining the nature of soil are vegetation type, climate, and parent rock material; geographic relief and the geological age of the developing soil are also factors. Acidic soils occur in humid regions because alkaline minerals are leached downward: alkaline soils occur in dry regions because alkaline salts remain concentrated near the surface. Geologically young soils resemble their parent material more than older soils, which have been altered over time by climate and vegetation. For advice and information on soils, consult state agricultural experiment stations and their publications.
Undisturbed soils tend to form layers, called horizons, roughly parallel to the surface. The Russian system of soil classification, from which most others derive, is based on the distinctive horizons of the soil profile. The A horizon, the surface layer, contains most of the humus. The B horizon contains inorganic compounds formed by decomposition of organic material, a process known as mineralization; the material is brought to the B layer by the downward leaching action of water. The lowest soil layer, the C horizon, represents the weathered mineral parent substance.