graphic: boy and girl hold up pants which have recently been dug up from the ground graphic: girl hold up pants which have recently been dug up from the ground

What’s happened to my planted pants?

So, you may have just dug up your pants, or are about to venture out to try and remember where you planted them 8 weeks ago! When they are safely retrieved, be sure to take a good look at them - what do you see? What are your pants telling you about the health of your soil? 

We talk to Soil Scientist, James Dowers who can help unlock the secrets of soil...


I've just dug up my pants and they've changed very little - why is this?

When cotton decomposes in soil, it's predominately a biological process. So, if they've not broken down, it's because there's been no biological activity.  That's the top headline. But, then you'll probably ask why is there no biological activity? This is tricky to answer without having a look at the soil where the plants were planted. But here are some pointers...


Consider the environment. Were the pants buried in a soggy patch? We have had a wet spring so this may have had an impact. Waterlogged soil isn't great for bugs and microbes as they cannot breathe in these anaerobic conditions (anaerobic = without oxygen), so they won't have been able to break down the cotton. These conditions may have been made worse in clay soils which tend to hold more water than loam or sandy soils.


You may have planted the pants in sandy soil. Sandy soils with little organic matter aren't ideal habitats for microbes and fungi. If you don't know your soil type, you can find out by completing activity 2 'Layers of Soil' in the Plant Your Pants Digital Activity pack. 


You would probably see a difference if the land has been treated with fertilisers, they may have helped your pants decompose! You see, microorganisms feed on carbon but also need nitrogen (N) to grow, and fertiliser contains a lot of nitrogen. When there is no fertiliser in the soil but there is some high-carbon material to break down like straw (or cotton!) microbes will mine the nitrogen they need by breaking down soil organic matter that has N hidden away in it. So, if N is supplied from elsewhere, i.e. human outputs or fertiliser, then microbes do not necessarily need to go to the extra effort of searching for it and can focus on munching organic matter with a high carbon content – like your pants! It's a complex relationship between microorganisms and chemical elements which is why soil scientists like me exist - there is so much yet to be discovered in the world beneath our feet!

Other chemicals...

Weed killers and other herbicide sprays sometimes used in farming and in gardens contain glyphosate, a chemical designed to protect crops and plants from unwanted 'pests'. Although many studies have been conducted, there's yet no definitive evidence to suggest that fertilisers have a negative impact on microorganisms. So, it's unclear if pants buried in an area that has been sprayed with glyphosate will have been impacted. One theory is that the decomposing weeds if they are dug into the earth, will add organic matter and therefore support microbial life. But, (there's the 'but' again!) there are some studies which have found that glyphosates can damage fungi - a very fragile yet vital network that's responsible for breaking down organic matter, which includes cotton!

If you want to find out more about glyphosate and its impact on soil, The Soil Association have this easy-to-read guide.

Pant material...

Were your pants 100% cotton? If not, then worms and microbes will not find this material appetising! If your pants are 100% cotton there's a strong possibility that they have an elasticated waistband. The elastic is a man-made fibre which isn't organic - it may be the only thing you find when you dig up your pants!

With this in mind, it's really important you retrieve all the remaining pant / cotton materials from your soil and dispose safely.


Wow - my pants have nearly disappeared, does this mean my soil is healthy? 

By the sounds of it, if you have very little pant material remaining, it means that the microorganisms have had a feeding frenzy! If this is what's happened to your pants, it's a good sign that your soil is active and full of life. This is great news but there are things you can do to protect your soil and continue to improve it.


How do I protect or improve the health of my soil? 

One of the best ways to look after your soil is to feed it regularly with fresh manure or compost. This helps add structure and nutrients to the earth, providing a thriving habitat for all the visible and invisible life that helps keep our soils healthy.

The Soil Association has this brilliant guide, '5 ways to save your soil' wherever you are, whether you have a window box or an acre of land.


James Dowers is soils and nutrients research scientist at ADAS, the UK's largest independent provider of agricultural and environmental consultancy, policy advice and research and development.

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