Page:EB1911 - Volume 25.djvu/365

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349
SOIL


the action of living organisms is the cause of the production of nitrates is supported by the fact that the change does not occur when the soil is heated nor when it is treated with disinfectants which destroy or check the growth and life of bacteria. The process resulting in the formation of nitrates in the soil is spoken of as nitrification.

The steps in the breaking down of the highly complex nitrogenous proteid compounds contained in the humus of the soil, or applied to the latter by the farmer in the form of dung and organic refuse generally, are many and varied; most frequently the insoluble proteids are changed by various kinds of putrefactive bacteria into soluble proteids (peptones, &c), these into simpler amido-bodies, and these again sooner or later into compounds of ammonia. The urea in urine is also rapidly converted by the uro-bacteria into ammonium carbonate. The compounds of ammonia thus formed from the complex substances by many varied kinds of micro-organ- isms are ultimately oxidized into nitrates. The change takes place in two stages and is effected by two special groups of nitrifying bacteria, which are present in all soils. In the first stage the ammonium compounds are oxidized to nitrites by the agency of very minute motile bacteria belonging to the genus Nitrosomonas. The further oxidation of the nitrite to a nitrate is effected by bacteria belonging to the genus Nitrobacter.

Several conditions must be fulfilled before nitrification can occur. In the first place an adequate temperature is essential; at 5° or (f C. (41 "-43" F.) the process is stopped, so that it does not go on in winter. In summer, when the temperature is about 24° C. (75° F.), nitrification proceeds at a rapid rate. The organisms do not carry on their work in soils deficient in air; hence the process is checked in water-logged soils. The presence of a base such as lime or mag- nesia (or their carbonates) is also essential, as well as an adequate degree of moisture : in dry soils nitrification ceases.

It is the business of the farmer and gardener to promote the activity of these organisms by good tillage, careful drainage and occasional application of lime to soils which are deficient in this substance. It is only when these conditions are attended to that decay and nitrification of dung, guano, fish-meal, sulphate of am- monia and other manures take place, and the constituents which they contain become available to the crops for whose benefit they have been applied to the land.

Nitrates are very soluble in water and are therefore liable to be washed out of the soil by heavy rain. They are, however, very readily absorbed by growing plants, so that in summer, when nitrifica- tion is most active, the nitrates produced are usually made use of by crops before loss by drainage takes place. In winter, however, and in fallows loss takes place in the subsoil water.

There is also another possible source of loss of nitrates through the activity of denitrifying bacteria. These organisms reduce nitrates to nitrites and finally to ammonia and gaseous free nitrogen which escapes into the atmosphere. Many bacteria are known which are capable of denitrification, some of them being abundant in fresh dung and upon old straw. They can, however, only carry on their work extensively under anaerobic conditions, as in water- logged soils or in those which are badly tilled, so that there is but little loss of nitrates through their agency.

An important group of soil organisms are now known which have the power of using the free nitrogen of the atmosphere for the forma- tion of the complex nitrogenous compounds of which their bodies are largely composed. By their continued action the soil becomes enriched with nitrogenous material which eventually through the nitrification process becomes available to ordinary green crops. This power of " fixing nitrogen," as it is termed, is apparently not possessed by higher green plants. The bacterium, Clostridium pasteurianum, common in most soils, is able to utilize free nitrogen under anaerobic conditions, and an organism known as Azotobacter chroococcum and some others closely allied to it, have similar powers Which they can exercise under aerobic conditions. For the carrying on of their functions they all need to be supplied with carbohydrates or other carbon compounds which they obtain ordinarily from humus and plant residues in the soil, or possibly in some instances from carbohydrates manufactured by minute green algae with which they live in close union. Certain bacteria of the nitrogen- fixing class enter into association with the roots of green plants, the best-known examples being those which are met with in the nodules upon the roots of clover, peas, beans, sainfoin and other plants belonging to the leguminous order.

That the fertility of land used for the growth of wheat is improved by growing upon it a crop of beans or clover has been long recognized by farmers. The knowledge of the cause, however, is due to modern investigations. When wheat, barley, turnips and similar plants are grown, the soil upon which they are cultivated becomes depicted of its nitrogen ; yet after a crop of clover or other leguminous plants the soil is found to be richer in nitrogen than it was before the crop was grown. This is due to the nitrogenous root residues left in the land. Upon the roots of leguminous plants characteristic swollen nodules or tubercles are present. These are found to contain large numbers of a bacterium termed Bacillus radicicola or Pseudomonas radicicola. The bacteria, which are present in almost all soils, enter the root-hairs of their host plants and ultimately stimulate the


production of an excrescent nodule, in which they live. For a time after entry they multiply, obtaining the nitrogen necessary for their nutrition and growth from the free nitrogen of the air, the carbohydrate required being supplied by the pea or clover plant in whose tissues they make a home. The nodules increase in size, and analysis shows that they are exceedingly rich in nitrogen up to the time of flowering of the host plant. During this period the bacteria multiply and most of them assume a peculiar thickened or branched form, in which state they are spoken of as bacteroids. Later the nitrogen-content of the nodule decreases, most of the organisms, which are largely composed of proteid material, becoming digested and transformed into soluble nitrogenous compounds rwhich are conducted to the developing roots and seeds. After the decay of the roots some of the unchanged bacteria are left in the soil, where they remain ready to infect a new leguminous crop.

The nitrogen-fixing nodule bacteria can be cultivated on artificial media, and many attempts have been made to utilize them for practical purposes. Pure cultures may be made and after dilution in water or other liquid can be mixed with soil to be ultimately spread over the land which is to be infected. The method of using them most frequently adopted consists in applying them to the seeds of leguminous plants before sowing, the seed being dipped for a time in a liquid containing the bacteria. In this manner organisms obtained from red clover can be grown and applied to, the seed of red clover ; and similar inoculation can be arranged for .other species, so that an application of the bacteria most suited to the particular crop to be cultivated can be assured. In many; cases it has been found that inoculation, . whether of the soil or of the seed, has not made any appreciable difference to the growth of the crop, a result no doubt due to the fact that the soil had already contained within it an abundant supply of suitable organisms. But in other instances greatly increased yields have been obtained where inoculation has been practised. More or less pure cultures of the nitrogen-fixing bacteria belonging to the Azotobacter group have been tried and recommended for application to poor land in order to provide a cheap supply of nitrogen. The application of pure cultures of bacteria for improving the fertility of the land is still in an experimental stage. There is little doubt, however, that in the near future means will be devised to obtain the most efficient work from these minute organisms, either by special artificial cultivation and subsequent application to the soil, or by improved methods of encouraging their healthy growth and activity in the land where they already exist. •

Improvement of Soils. — The fertility of a soil is dependent upon a number of factors, some of which, such as the addition of fertilizers or manures, increase the stock of available food materials in the soil (see Manure), while others, such as application of clay or humus, chiefly influence the fertility of the land by improving its physical texture.

The chief processes for the improvement of soils which may- be discussed here are: liming, claying and marling, warping, paring and burning, and green manuring. Most of these more or less directly improve the land by adding to it certain plant food constituents which are lacking, but the effect of each process is in reality very complex. In the majority of cases the good results obtained are more particularly due to the setting free of " dormant " or" latent " food constituents and to the amelioration of the texture of the soil, so that its aeration > drainage, temperature and water-holding capacity are altered for the better.

The material which chemists call calcium carbonate is met with in a comparatively pure state in chalk. It is present in variable amounts in limestones of all kinds, although its white- ness may there be masked by the presence of iron oxide Liming.

and other coloured substances. Carbonate of lime is also a consti- tuent to a greater or lesser extent in almost all soils. In certain sandy soils and in a few stiff clays it may amount to less than \ %, while in others in limestone and chalk districts there may be 50 %o 80% present. Pure carbonate of lime when heated loses 44% of its weight, the decrease being due to the loss of cartoon dioxide gas. The resulting white product is termed calcium oxide lime, burnt lime, quicklime, cob lime, Or caustic lime. This substance absorbs and combines with water very greedily, at the same time becoming very hot, and falling into a fine dry powder, calcium hydroxide or slaked lime, which when left in the open slowly combines with the carbon dioxide of the air and becomes calcium carbonate, from which we began.

When recommendations are made about liming land it is necessary to indicate more precisely than is usually done which of the three classes of material named above — chalk, quicklime or slaked lime-— is intended. Generally speaking the oxide or quicklime has a 'more rapid and greater effect in modifying the soil than slaked lime, and this again greater than the carbonate or chalk.

Lime in whatever form it is applied has a many-sided influence in the fertility of the land. It tends to improve the tilth and the