humus (hyōˈməs) [key], organic matter that has decayed to a relatively stable, amorphous state. It is an important biological constituent of fertile soil. Humus is formed by the decomposing action of soil microorganisms (e.g., bacteria and fungi), which break down animal and vegetable material into elements that can be used by growing plants. Technically, humus, as the end result of this process, is less valuable for plant growth than are the products formed during active decomposition (see fertilizer). Because of its low specific weight and high surface area, humus has a profound effect upon the physical properties of mineral soils with regard to improved soil structure, water intake and reservoir capacity, ability to resist erosion, and the ability to hold chemical elements in a form readily accessible to plants.
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