The composition of soil

Soils consist mostly of sand, lime, and clay, with certain saline and organic substances in smaller and varying proportions; but the examination of the ashes of plants shows that a fertile soil must of necessity contain an appreciable quantity of at least eleven different substances, which in most cases exist in greater or less relative abundance in the ash of cultivated plants; and of these the proportions are not by any means immaterial. In general, the soils which are made up of the most various materials are called alluvial; having been formed from the depositions of floods and rivers. Many of them are extremely fertile. Soils consist of two parts; of an organic part, which can readily be burned away when the surface-soil is heated to redness; and of an inorganic part, which remains fixed in the fire, consisting of earthy and saline substances from which, if carbonic acid or any elastic gas be present, it may, however, be driven by the heat. The organic part of soils is derived chiefly from the remains of vegetables and animals which have lived and died in and upon the soil, which have been spread over it by rivers and rains, or which have been added by the industry of man for the purposes of increased fertility.

This organic part varies much in quantity, as well as quality, in different soils. In peaty soils it is very abundant, as well as in some rich, long cultivated lands. In general, it rarely amounts to one-fourth, or 25 per cent. even in our best arable lands. Good wheat soils contain often as little as eight parts in the hundred of organic animal or vegetable matter; oats and rye will grow in a soil containing only 1 1/2 per cent.; and barley when only two or three parts per cent. are present.

The inorganic portion of any given soil, again, is divisible into two portions; that part which is soluble in water, and thus easily taken up by plants, and a much more bulky portion which is insoluble.

Sir Humphrey Davy found the following to be the composition of a good productive soil. In every 9 parts, 8 consisted of siliceous sand; the remaining (one-ninth) part was composed, in 100 parts, as follows:

Carbonate of lime (chalk) 63 grains. Pure silex 15 grains. Pure alumina, or the earth of clay 11 grains. Oxide (rust) of iron 3 grains. Vegetable and other saline matter 5 grains. Moisture and loss 3 grains.

Thus the whole amount of organic matter in this instance is only 1 part in 200, or one-half of one per cent.; a fact which, in itself, would demonstrate the fallacy of supposing that decomposed animal and vegetable matter in the soil form the exclusive supply to growing plants.

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