Skip to main content

Story: Soils

The soil is only a thin skin covering the land, but it is vital for all life. The more we learn about New Zealand soils and their role in the ecosystem, the more wisely we can use them.

Story by Allan Hewitt
Main image: Pukekohe market gardens

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

What are soils?

Soils are the natural materials on the land's surface that directly support plants and bacteria, and indirectly support all animal and human life.

Soils are made up of:

  • topsoil (the dark layer that you can see), which has a lot of microbes and organic matter from previous plant growth
  • subsoil, which has a variety of colours and textures depending on drainage and past weathering
  • underlying rocks.

How they form

Soil builds up over time. Through gradual wearing and chemical decay, rock breaks down into smaller particles – gravels, sands, silts and clays. During this process nutrients are released, and become part of the soil. Many New Zealand soils are made from a build-up of fine, wind-blown sediments, volcanic ash or pumice.

What soils do

Soils store water and nutrients for plant growth, and absorb water that could otherwise cause erosion and floods. Soil microbes help release nutrients used by plants. Soils also store carbon, so less carbon dioxide is released into the air.

Using the soil

New Zealand depends on soils for much of its wealth. Irrigation, drainage, and adding fertiliser has made its soils better for growing crops and pasture, and for grazing farm animals.

Types of soils

New Zealand has 15 main types of soil. They include:

  • Brown soils, which cover 43% of New Zealand. These form on mountains and hills, and down to moist lowlands.
  • Pumice soils, found mainly in the central North Island. The pumice was ejected during past volcanic eruptions, including a huge eruption at Taupō, about 1,800 years ago.
  • some ancient soils, which are more than 50,000 years old, and some very young soils, which have new sediments added every time there is a flood.
  • a very small area of Anthropic (artificial) soils. These are created over landfills, or from other earth works.

Types of soil vary and form patterns across a landscape.

How to cite this page:

Allan Hewitt, 'Soils', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/soils (accessed 25 June 2017)

Story by Allan Hewitt, published 24 Sep 2007