Chromatography, Soil fertility, and Biodynamic Agriculture

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.

Chromatography

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.

Chromatography image

Using chromatography to assess the quality of my garden soil

This is the image made using soil from my vegetable garden.

Chromatography image

Chromatography used to assess the quality of my polytunnel soil

 

 

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.

Chromatography image for composy

Using chromatography to assess the quality of my compost

 

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.

Biodynamic Agriculture

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.

 

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9 thoughts on “Chromatography, Soil fertility, and Biodynamic Agriculture

  1. Andy

    Very interesting. Although not a scientist myself, I’m a programmer, I do like to know loads of technical stuff and now I’m into veg growing and slowly moving into the ideas of permaculture I find this type of thing right up my street although at present I have enough on my plate getting to grips with and learning about permaculture. I’ve book marked it all so I can follow up on a rainy day.

    Have only recently found your blog and have been going through it over the last couple of days and it’s given me much food for thought since my family and I have just started our little project. If you’re interested in how complete beginners try to become more self sufficient then http://ourlittlefield.blogspot.com is my little blog.

    Keep up the blog, I’ve now caught up on most of your posts and await the next 🙂

    I was most interested in your comments about no dig compared to digging, in a previous post, as I am a digger, we have very heavy clay, and my wife is into the no dig idea so we are experimenting with both ideas. Knowing and being able to determine the health of the soil is a fascinating area since without this knowledge you never really know whether your crop faired badly because of the soil or something else. Ruling in or out soil fertility seems the first area to look at as it could save a few seasons of not having things as good as they could be.

    Thanks for the blog posts!

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Andy
      Sorry about the delay in approving your comment, and replying. I;ve been doing more chromatography, and it’s been keeping me busy.
      If you’re interested in the chromatography, and are a social media user, there is a ‘chromatography beginners’ group on facebook, and I’m posting images there. I’m waiting for one mor ebatch of images to develop before posting here. Sadly the size of the image file seems to slow down the blog, which doesn’t happen on facebook, so I have to reduce the image file size here.
      The quality of image of undisturbed soil, and my garden beds is identical, which suggests that the problem with digging has more to do with the quality and quantity of compost, especially in the UK climate.
      All of the best
      Deano

      Reply
  2. Andy

    Interesting what you say about the soil disturbance. I have read what your comment was on the no dig system, which I agree with largely, and I have been looking for evidence myself to see if roots will go through my no dig beds (most of my beds I dig). I have left some sweetcorn in them to see if the roots went down into the clay soil. I feel that I need to dig the heavy clay and improve the soil.

    I’ve been going back through old early 1900 books about root systems and their experiments about soil which has been very interesting and when I’ve done that I’ll move onto learning about chromatography.

    One book (around 1900 – 1950) mentioned an experiment regarding soil and mycelium upon vegetables and concluded that there was no impact, then I read your blog about inoculating with mycelium to improve soil or seeds (can’t remember) but have struggled to find the previous book.

    I’m certainly interested in your thoughts about soil and digging as I’l like to get my soil as good as possible. I’ll have a look at Facebook.

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Andy
      The best thing that I can suggest is to create some beds that you treat with both methods, specifically to see what works and what doesn’t. My own experience, and my own research, tells me that digging, with enough good quality compost works better than not digging. SAdly there haven’t been any really good quality trials to find out for sure, as most people start trying to prove a method, rather than to find the truth. Were I starting from scratch again, I’d divide my growing area into equal sized parts, and conduct some proper trials on methods, soil amendments, and green mnaures, to see what was the most efficient combination, all the time aware that the results may only be applicale to my specific circumstances.
      Let me know how you get on.
      Deano

      Reply
  3. Andy

    I wrote “concluded that there was no impact” but meant to write “concluded that there was an impact”

    ….errr your captcha is driving me mad 🙂

    Reply
  4. Pingback: SOIL!!! {& some cool resources to check out} | Art on Location: Materials Lab

  5. Finlay

    Deano!
    How funny, I keep bumping into you by chance every now and again. You may not remember me, I visited your smallholding in 2012 I think with Neckie from Ecoworks on a permaculture design course. I can remember at the time you asking people if we knew anything about biodynamics. Later, we briefly met again at a permie land gathering thing. I’m now in my second year of doing a biodynamic apprenticeship at a farm in Leicestershire. And who’s blog should I come across when doing research for my coursework? It’s good to see your still intrigued by the whole biodynamics world, and keeping up the good work of permaculture research 🙂

    Reply

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