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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/January 1899/Soils and Fertilizers


THE word "soil" is used in several arts and sciences to denote the material from which something derives nourishment. The meat broths and jellies on which bacteria are grown are soils for them, as the earth of a field is a soil for the ordinary farm crops; but in general we mean by soils the various mixtures of mineral and organic substances that make up the surface of the earth.

The object of this paper is to show as briefly as possible the way it was formed, of what it is composed, the manner in which it nourishes plants, and the rules that should guide us in replenishing its nutritious matter when exhausted. So broad a field can be but lightly touched, and the effort will be to give only hints from which rules for specific cases may be deduced.

When a sample of ordinary fertile soil is analyzed, it is found to consist of a number of minerals, of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in various combinations, water, and certain other ingredients dependent on the locality. Among the minerals the most important are potassium, sodium, lime, iron, and silicon, and the history of these is of the greatest interest.

Scientific students are generally agreed that the surface of the earth is but a shell inclosing a liquid, or at all events a highly heated interior. Originally the whole mass was fluid, but the surface has cooled more rapidly than the interior, and so a firm crust has been formed. As the central mass cooled, it contracted, and the crust became wrinkled and folded, as does the skin of an apple as its pulp dries, and, by this folding, great ridges were thrown up in some places and vast depressions formed in others. When the crust became cool enough for water to remain on it, most of the depressions were filled by it, and the "dry land appeared," not only on the crests of the ridges, but on the elevated plateaus about them, and thus oceans and continents were formed.

Had one of us seen the earth at that time he would have been loath to select it as a residence. Rugged, rocky ranges of precipitous mountains surrounded by stretches of naked rock made the landscape. Dense clouds from the tepid oceans dashed against the icy peaks, and torrents of water rushed back to the sea. Where the slopes permitted, the glaciers spread over wide areas, for no vegetation checked the rapid radiation of heat, and night brought bitter cold. The crust waved and fluctuated over the liquid interior as does thin ice under a daring skater, and as it fell the sea rushed over the land, only to flow elsewhere as the depressed area rose again. The freezing and thawing and the effects of wind and water in time produced a change. The rocks were riven and broken to powder, their nearly vertical slopes became less steep, and instead of bare rock the earth showed dreary morasses and stretches of sand.

Over these marshes vegetation began to thrive. In the sea there lived then, as now, a teeming population, animal, vegetable, and living beings that can with difficulty be assigned to either of these classes. Each of them, however, contained carbon, and many had built lime, phosphorus, nitrogen, and other valuable substances into their bodies. Where food was abundant these grew in vast numbers, and though many are infinitely small singly, their aggregate mass is enormous. Among the tiny organisms is one called the Globigerina, a being so small as to require a microscope to study it, but in the past, as now, growing in great numbers in the sea. The animal is soft and jellylike, but it forms an outside skeleton of shell of carbonate of calcium or chalk, a structure that protects it living, but entombs it dead. When death comes, the little Globigerina sinks to the bottom, and its tiny shell helps to cover the sea floor.

In the days of long ago these lived as now, and when some convulsion of Nature lifted the bottom of prehistoric seas, the Globigerina ooze was lifted as well, and thus the "limestone" formed. In our land a bed of this kind extends from Alabama to Newfoundland; thence, as the "telegraphic plateau," it passes under the Atlantic, rising into the chalk downs and cliffs of England; then, again clipping under the sea, it passes through Europe, and finally furnishes the marble quarries of Greece. Heat, water, and chemical action give a ceaseless variety to the forms of the limestone, but wherever found it shows the former seat of an ocean.

As soon as the "ooze" was lifted from below the sea it began to change. Some has been exposed to heat and has crystallized into marble, but for our purposes the most interesting changes have been wrought by water. Chalk, limestone, and marble—for these are chemically the same—are almost insoluble in pure water. But water is rarely pure; it dissolves many things, and among them the carbonic-oxide gas that every fire, every animal, every decaying scrap of wood is pouring into the atmosphere. The rain, charged with this gas, dissolves the limestone, but when the gas escapes the lime falls, as you know happens when "hard" water is boiled, for the heat drives off the gas. By this solution, however, the lime is scattered widely through the soil, and is rarely lacking in unfilled earth.

Besides lime, phosphorus is necessary in a good soil. This is widely spread in Nature, but its great reservoir is the ocean, that boundless mine of wealth. Many marine animals have the power of building it into their tissues, and the shells of oysters and other mollusks, the bones of nearly all animals, terrestrial and marine, and parts of other organisms, are composed of phosphates to a greater or less degree. In the ceaseless changes of level the primal oyster beds and coral reefs are raised to the surface or far above it, and the slow action of time begins to tear down the deposits and spread them widecast. Since that far-off time "in the beginning" no new matter has been put on earth save the small amounts of the meteorites, and the economy of Nature can allow not one atom to lie in idleness, but calls on each one to play its part ceaselessly, "without haste and without rest." A certain amount of a substance is disseminated through the earth; by rains it is washed into the streams, and thence to the sea. Here plants or animals eagerly await it, and by means of them it is again restored to the land, to begin again its endless round.

The metals most necessary for plant life are potassium, sodium, and iron; indeed, the very name of the first shows its importance. If the ashes which contain all the mineral constituents of plants be put in a vessel and water poured on them, a solution of lye will percolate through the mass. The word lye is an abbreviation for alkali, and when chemistry became sufficiently advanced, a metal was discovered in this lye to which the name potassium—i. e., potash-metal—was given. If seaweeds be burned and leeched in the same way we can obtain from the lye another metal, sodium, that is much like potassium, and that is one of the most widely spread substances on earth as its chloride, or common salt. Potassium and sodium enter into the composition of many rocks, and as these become eroded by weather they are scattered through the soil, whence their salts are extracted by rootlets and enter into the formation of vegetable tissue.

Behind these stands iron. The green coloring matter of plants is a very complex substance known as chlorophyll, the duty of which is to take carbonic oxide from the air, utilize the carbon, and restore the oxygen. Iron enters into the composition of chlorophyll, and to it is due the brown color of dead leaves. This metal is well-nigh universal, all the reds and browns in soils and rocks being made by it, and so it is rarely lacking anywhere.

So much for the metals in soils; but, important as they are, plants can not live on them alone. Among the nonmetallic bodies phosphorus stands high among essentials, and for it we are indebted to the sea and the interior of the earth. Many living creatures extract phosphorus from the sea water—combine it chiefly with lime, and use the phosphate for making skeletons or shells, as the case may be. After the death of the possessors the bones or shells sink to the bottom, as do the Globigerina, and in time are either lifted up, as were the limestones, and form "phosphate beds" like those of Georgia and Florida, or are dredged up and ground into powder with bones of land animals.

Much of the matter forced up from the interior of the earth contains phosphorus; indeed, it is the bane of Southern iron ores; but though iron masters dread it, farmers welcome it, as the rains and frosts crumble the phosphatic rocks and add them to the mass of débris that forms our soil.

Now let us take a test tube and put into it lime, potash, soda, iron, silicon, or sand, and phosphorus, add to it a grain of corn, and watch results. Under suitable conditions of warmth and moisture the grain will sprout, but when the store of food laid up in it is exhausted our little plant will die. It is obvious that something else is needed for a soil, and analysis shows that it is nitrogen, the gas that forms nearly four fifths of our atmosphere—a gas useless, as such, to animals, but essential to plants. Nitrogen is abundant in Nature. Besides being nearly four fifths of the air, it forms twenty-two per cent of nitric acid, forty-five per cent of saltpeter or niter, eighty-two per cent of ammonia, and about twenty-five per cent of sal ammoniac. Plants can not use nitrogen in its pure form, but one or another of these forms will be found in the soil, whence it may be extracted.

Now we have the chief articles of plant food, and it is necessary to know how they are to be used. A plant usually consists of two parts, one that appears above ground, bearing branches, twigs, and leaves, and another that remains below ground. It is this latter that concerns us now, and it is worth study. This lower part consists of a number of twigs called rhizomes, from which proceed a vast number of fine, threadlike rootlets, and these are the mouths of the plant, through which it draws nourishment from the earth about it.

Before any living thing can use nourishment from without, it must be dissolved, and this solution requires much preparation at times. Men, and other animals with a wide range of food stuffs, effect this by the secretions of the digestive organs; but most plants have no digestive apparatus, strictly speaking, and were they supplied with an abundance of the foods they most need, they would starve unless the food were in a suitable state for absorption.

The way in which Nature effects this solution is the key to many of her secrets, and it has been understood only within the past few years. If we have a piece of meat freshly taken from an animal we find it firm, coherent, and almost odorless. If it be put into a warm, moist chamber for a few days a great change comes over it, and it becomes soft, offensive in odor, and liable to fall to pieces. We say that it is rotten or putrid. If a bit of it be put under a microscope, it is seen to be teeming with bacteria, and these are responsible for the decay. Now, if a specimen of earth be examined, we find that it contains bacteria, that attack all kinds of organic matter, tearing it to pieces to get their food, and making many different things out of what is left. There is one sort of ferment that grows in apple juice and splits the sugar into alcohol and carbonic acid, forming "hard cider," and if the fermentation stops at this point the well-known drink results. However, there is another ferment called "mother of vinegar" that may get in, and, if so, a different kind of fermentation is started that forms acetic acid instead of alcohol; or the bacteria of decomposition may come in and the whole go back to its elements.

There is a wonderful provision of Nature shown in these stages. The bacteria—the organisms that produce decay—can not live in a strong sugar solution, but the ferments, like common yeast, can live in it, and they split the sugar into alcohol, carbonic oxide, and other things. In these another set can live, and when the first have died of starvation or from the alcohol they form, the second set step in and turn the weak alcohol into acetic acid. Acetic acid is a preserving agent, as our sour pickles show, but if it is not too strong there are some organisms that can live in it, and the whole process ends in decay. Now, it should be noticed that each of these organisms paves the way for the next by converting an unsuitable food stuff into a suitable one.

This familiar example indicates the lines on which Nature works. It is the same everywhere, and shows the advantage of specialization, of allowing some one with peculiar facilities for performing an act to do that exclusively, that others may profit by his skill. So long as each man sought and killed his food, cooked his meals, made his own clothing, weapons, and implements—in a word, lived alone—advance was impossible. It was only when he who was most skillful with the needle made garments for the hunter in exchange for a haunch of venison, that the hunter could practice marksmanship, and the tailor design a new cut for the mantle with which the warrior might dazzle the daughter of the arrow maker. It is the same in Nature. Some organisms possess powers of elaborating certain materials of which others are quick to avail themselves. Plants can manufacture starch, an article needed by animals, but of which their own capacity, so far as producing it is concerned, is very limited, and thus animals find it advantageous to avail themselves of these stores instead of taxing their own resources. Similarly, plants need the organic matters of the animal bodies, and wise agriculture supplies carbon, nitrogen, and other articles of food in the shape of animal and vegetable refuse. But this matter requires digestion; it must be made soluble before it can be absorbed, and but few plants can effect this solution unaided. The "Venus's flytrap," the sundew, the wonderful "carrion plant," and others, are equipped with elaborate apparatus by which they are enabled to capture, kill, and literally digest the insects that supply them with nitrogeneous food, but these are exceptional cases. Nature usually employs other agents.

The action of bacteria in causing decay has been said to be in general similar to fermentation—that it is effected by the bacteria in seeking their food. If oxygen be abundant, putrefaction occurs; if it be scant or absent, then fermentation takes place, for the tiny organisms require oxygen, and, if the air fails them, they pull to pieces the organic matters near them to obtain it. In doing this they get the nitrogen into such shape that the plants can use it, and thus digest their food for them. All organic matter contains carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen as a general rule, and to these are often united phosphorus, sulphur, nitrogen, and others, making very complex arrangements, veritable houses of cards, in fact, only held together by the strange power of life. When a leaf falls or a bird dies, some of these combinations are broken, and then the bacteria and other lowly organisms have full sway, for living matter is impregnable to all save a few of them. As oxygen or something else is taken out of the complex molecules, the compound falls to pieces, but as in the kaleidoscope the bits of colored glass tumble into endless varieties of symmetrical figures, so do the atoms fall into new combinations. If the keystone of an arch be removed, the stones fall apart; but atoms, unlike bricks or stones, can not stand alone as a rule; they must be united to something, and so, as soon as old associations are dissolved, new ones are formed. These new ones are those needed by plants, and thus is plant food digested.

The term "plant food" has been frequently used, and should now be distinctly explained, for merely stating the chemical elements is not describing the food. When a physician tells a nurse to feed a patient he does not order so much carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and the like, but specifies a soup, certain vegetables, and so on, detailing every particular; and the same should be done for vegetable invalids.

In medical practice a condition is recognized that is called scurvy. It is not exactly starvation, but is produced by lack of some food materials usually supplied by fresh vegetables. If scurvy appears at sea, no amount of meat, bread, cakes, or pastry will stop it; vegetables, and they only, will stay it. Sometimes a similar condition prevails among crops: some ingredient in a soil is lacking, and the others may be supplied indefinitely without giving the desired relief. To this may be attributed much of the fault found with fertilizers; for if the soil does not need a particular compound it is useless to apply it, and an excellent fertilizer is often blamed for not producing a crop on land already overstocked with it and crying for something else.

Let us suppose a field on which cotton has been grown for many successive years until it has become exhausted. Analysis shows that a crop yielding one hundred pounds of lint to the acre removes from the soil:

Nitrogen 20.71 pounds;
Phosphoric acid 8.17 "
Potash 13.06 "
Lime 12.60 "
Magnesia 4.75 "
Total 59.29 "

The weight of the whole crop from which these figures were taken was eight hundred and forty-seven pounds, so that cotton exhausts land less than any staple crop, if the roots, stems, leaves, etc., be turned under and only the lint and seed be removed. Of these the lint (one hundred pounds) takes 1.17 pound from the soil, and the seed 13.89 pounds, making 15.06 pounds net loss.[2] But ignoring returns that may be made in the shape of cotton-seed meal, etc., and lime, with which our soils are abundantly supplied, we see that nitrogen, phosphoric acid, and potash have been removed. Suppose the owner puts bone meal on his exhausted land: the phosphoric acid in the bone will supply one need, and an improvement results. On the strength of this, bone meal will be loaded into the soil again, and let us suppose the deficit not jet made up, the crop again shows improvement. Wow, phosphoric acid abounds in the soil, though the deficiency in nitrogen and potash has become steadily greater; so, when the customary bone meal is applied, the crop falls back, because the plants are starving for potash and nitrogen. They are like scurvy-smitten sailors, but many thoughtless farmers would attribute the decline to the maker of the bone meal, and say that its quality was not so high as formerly—an opinion similar to that of a sea captain who would ascribe to the poor quality of salt beef an outbreak of scurvy on his vessel.

As crops of any description extract potash, nitrogen, and phosphoric acid from soils, the question how they are to be replaced is an important matter, and its answer may be most readily found by studying Nature's methods. In parts of the Old World there are fields that are fertile in the extreme after thousands of years of tillage, and it is apparent that mere cultivation does not prove injurious. The tropical forests have something growing wherever a plant can find foothold—a population in which the struggle for food is secondary to that for light and air, and yet the soil supporting this vegetation is marvelously rich. Every leaf that falls remains where it fell until in the warm, moist, half-lighted forest it becomes a little heap of mold. The bacteria of decomposition require warmth and moisture for their life; light is deleterious to them, but they thrive in the dense shade of the jungle. The tangled web of roots, weeds, and vines retains the rainfall, retarding evaporation, and preventing both droughts and freshets. Receiving dead and broken leaves, boughs, and other vegetable products, and spared the washing of violent. torrents, the forest is inestimably fertile.

On a smaller scale this goes on universally. The annual weeds, deciduous leaves, and such matter, fall prey to molds and bacteria, by which they are made soluble. Snows and rains bear the products into the soil, and there other bacteria, clustering around the roots, form the acids needed to complete solution. Every one knows that "well-rotted" manure is better than that which is fresh, and many wonder at this, but the reason is apparent. In feeding delicate patients, physicians often prescribe predigested foods or the digestive ferments to aid enfeebled assimilation; and similarly the manures that have been thoroughly acted on by bacteria, or containing those capable of producing the matters that plants need, are of most value for nourishing vegetation.

In producing an article of any sort, the cheapness and ease with which it can be made is largely dependent on the shape in which the raw material reaches the factory. If a foundry can procure iron that needs only to be melted and cast, the owner can fill his orders more readily than would be possible if lie bad to reduce the metal from the ore; and Nature uses this principle over and over again. The importance of nitrogen to plants and its abundance in Nature have been mentioned, but it has also been said that plants can not use it directly, as most animals do with oxygen. The tiny bacteria intervene, and this they do in two ways: first, by causing decay of animal or vegetable matter containing nitrogen, and by this decay producing substances that plants can absorb; and, secondly, by producing little nodules or "tubercles" on the rootlets, through which the plant can take up nitrogen.[3] Now, when a plant is sated with nitrogen, it ceases to form these tubercles, and their formation is a sure sign that the plant is craving this article of food. When it is supplied, and its own life is ended, these form reservoirs from which other plants may be supplied, as new castings may be made from broken wheels. The great value of "green manuring" depends on the store of available nitrogen so laid up, but it is open to failure in one direction. The liability of fermentation to go to the acid stage from contamination with acid-forming ferments has been mentioned, an accident the possibility of which is impressed on us from time to time by sour bread; and similarly the organic matter turned under may undergo acid fermentation, rendering the ground "sour" and unfit for cultivation. The limits of this paper forbid the consideration of special fertilizers, but from the general principles laid down the rules for any special case may be deduced. A soil should contain a sufficient amount of potash, soda, lime, iron, and a few other minerals; phosphoric acid, nitrogen, organic matter, and, for some special crops, some other ingredients may be needed. When the soil needs renewing, there are two ways of accomplishing it. One way is to guess at what is needed; to buy fertilizers at high prices, without inquiring whether the soil needs the substances in that particular brand or not. Though very common, this is not a good plan. It is as though a physician were to give a patient any drug that was convenient, without inquiring into the disorder or the needs of the system, and it is followed by much the same result. That acid phosphate gave Farmer A a good crop, is no reason that Farmer B's land is also deficient in phosphorus. The same reasoning would teach that a heart stimulant that rouses a patient from shock would benefit one in danger of apoplexy, where the least increase in heart force might be fatal. A physician using such reasoning as the basis of his practice would not be considered a master of his art; and were he to attribute the fatal outcome of his logic to the poor quality of his stimulant, he would display criminal ignorance of drugs as well as disease; yet it is very common to see farmers put guano on a soil begging for potash, and then heap execration on the head of the dealer who sold the guano when the crop failed. To revert to a simile used above, a captain must not blame the salt pork for scurvy.

The other way to buy and use fertilizers is to ascertain what a certain crop needs; then find out whether these be in the soil, and to what extent. With these data the deficiency may be made good without the wasteful cost of the former method. State and Federal Departments of Agriculture furnish their aid freely and gladly, and already the signs are seen of the day when agriculture will take its place among the semi-exact sciences, and the present haphazard methods will become obsolete.


  1. An address delivered before the Richmond County (Georgia) Agricultural Society, on February 19, 1898.
  2. United States Department of Agriculture. Farmers' Bulletin, No. 48.
  3. Leguminous Plants for Green Manuring and for Feeding. E. W. Allen, Ph. D. United States Department of Agriculture. Farmers' Bulletin, No. 1