I have spent a bit of time exploring paper chromatography as a means of testing the quality of soil and compost, thanks to the help of my friend Nigel. Now I’m not planning to explain what it is all about. Those of you who have stuck with my blog are quite able to find that out for yourselves, and the following links should help you do that. Chromatography 1. Chromatography 2. Instead I wanted to record some of the thoughts and ideas that this new technique has generated, and where I may take it in the future.
I only heard about Chromatography this year, when I read about a course on biofertilisers, and chromatography, being run in the summer. The biofertiliser side appeared to be an expensive version of the free recipes that you can find online, or read about relatively inexpenively. Gil Carandang has a great site with loads of the recipes on it. There was the option to just do the chromatography, but at £115 for the day, and coming immediately before the Eastern Permaculture Gathering where I was due to speak, I passed on the opportunity. Luckily for me Nigel took literally the instructor’s comment that it was up to the course participants to pass on the technique, and earlier this month he came to my place and showed two of us the process for making the images. The three chromatography images below are from that session. However making the images is only part of the process, interpreting the chromas is the key, and there is a bit of an art to it. The second of the two links above has a pretty good explanation of what to look for in a chroma.
This is the image made using soil from my vegetable garden.
Chroma from my Polytunnel.
I have had a conventional soil test for the two soils above, but the chromas give me a view of the biological processes going on in my soil. It sort of looks in more detail at the ‘organic matter’ line of the soil test Shown in my Balancing Soil Minerals post, but without the need for a microscope, laboratory, or other expensive equipment.
From my best batch of compost. My use of clay in my composting process has meant that the images for my soils, and my compost, are very similar, which I love.
Further Research using Chromatography
Chromatography gives me a relatively inexpensive way of monitoring biological activity in the soil, and that opens up a whole range of potential experiments. For example, the effect of using different compost materials, surface application vs incorporation, the effect of using biochar, rockdust, lime, or any other mineral or organic soil conditioner. All could be potentially assessed using chromatography. There should also be the possibility of looking at which green manure crops have the most stimulating effect on soil microbes, both when growing, and when incorporated. Combining these with my ongoing soil testing should give me a really powerful way of optimising my growing practises. This is something that I’m going to think about further.
The main chromatography text is ‘Chromatography Applied to Quality Testing’ by E Pfeiffer. It’s a small pamphlet, and I ordered my copy through the Biodynamic Association website. Pfeiffer was a leading light in the Biodynamic movement. It took a while to arrive, so I read another Pfeiffer book ‘Soil Fertility, Renewal and Preservation, which was free to read online from the Soil and Health Library. I loved the rigorous way that the biodynamic ideas were tested, and chromatography sits within that testing. The research in the book, and the images in the chromatography pamphlet, suggests that there is something worth exploring in biodynamic practises. If you accept the analysis of the chroma images, then the preparations used in biodynamics work. If not, then chromatography is potentially flawed. I liked the holistic approach that the book takes, and one idea has stuck in my head like a catchy song. Pfeiffer talks about the cumulative effect of biodynamic parctises when applied to the whole farm. Better composting and treatment of animal manures lead to better quality of soil, and therefore food. The higher quality food and pasture leads to healthier animals, and an improvement in the quality of their manure, which further improves the land and quality of food. It’s this cumulative effect that has caught my attention, not just in relation to biodynamic practise, but to my smallholding in general. So I intend to read a bit more about biodynamics, and to think carefully about soil fertility across the whole of the smallholding, not just the vegetable and grain growing areas.