Have you ever thought about making soil from scratch, the way you can make bread from scratch?
Is it even possible to do such a thing in a single life time?
As you might be able to guess, I think outside of the box most of the time, and I have actually put some time and effort into trying out these questions just to satisfy my own curiousness, (the cat died by the way).
Along the way, I did discover some ideas that sort of work but mostly I found many ways to not create soil from solid rock.
In the end I found it much better to let Mother Nature make it and then I can come along and build on her work to make her soil better, faster than her methods allow to happen.
For those of us that don’t have a thousand years or even 500 years, this is probably the best choice for us to be able to gain some benefits from our work in a short time span.
First we need to understand that soil is comprised of three main (basic) parts which are;
Ground up rocks (minerals), organic matter and living organisms both micro and macro.
When we have this magic substance we find that plants grow very well and produce things that are pretty and also things we can eat.
Most plants have a set of conditions that they prefer so much that only in those conditions will they produce a maximum amount of either pretty (flowers and foliage) and or yummy (fruits and vegetables).
Nature uses wind and water and lichens (a fungus/bacteria symbiotic organism) as her “dirt” makers,
the lichens not only crumble solid rocks into small particles but they also add humus materials (lichen poop) which mixes into the new dirt,
this sort of new soil is easy to find in cracks in rocks that have been populated by lichens.
If you go to the bottom of a mountain you will find what is called a “scree field” this is rock that cracked and water was trapped in those cracks then the water froze, expanded and broke the chunks of rock off the mountain rock.
If you look closely in these fields of broken, fallen rock, you will find smaller particles down in the pile, this is pulverized rock created from the concussions of rock after rock falling onto the layer below.
If you have ever seen the Grand Canyon, you have seen one of the most spectacular water/wind erosion sites on the planet (there are several others just as spectacular around the world),
the dirt from erosion events usually is found either at the bottom of the main rock formation or if water is present, the water usually moves the dirt far away and deposits it where the water slows enough for the particles to drop out of the flowing water.
All of these processes take thousands of years to build enough dirt to be of use to humans.
Microorganisms consist of all the too small to see with the naked eye critters usually single cells that may or may not connect in chains (algae is one example of chains of single cell organisms).
Of all the microorganisms bacteria are the smallest and interestingly enough they are also the only organisms that can dissolve individual minerals from chunks of rock (to a bacteria even a single grain of clay (the smallest particle size of dirt) is large enough to house an army of bacteria.
Bacteria use enzymes they secrete to perform the task of dissolving rock for the mineral contents so they can ingest (eat) the minerals. Inside the bacteria’s body each mineral is broken down into the individual atoms and what the bacteria doesn’t use is excreted (pooped).
Other bacteria might use these excretions but more likely they will be utilized by other types of organisms such as fungi or amoeba or flagellates such as prokaryotes and eukaryotes (members of the protozoa family).
In the chain of who eats who in this micro world the list starts at the bottom with bacteria which is fed upon by fungi which is fed upon by a small host of predatory organisms like the amoeba, flagellates and on and on until we get to the macro organisms
like nematodes all the way up to the worms, which eat all the lower organisms they find in the soil they process through their bodies.
Every time some organism is eaten the left over nutrients are excreted, building up a free nutrient base in the soil (dirt + microorganisms + organic matter).
Organic matter is what gives our soil the ability to hold water in suspension it usually is located in the tiny spaces that lie between the dirt particles, since dirt usually has a mix of particle sizes, some areas will let water seep deeper than other areas.
Sand is about the largest particle size we recognize as being dirt, the next step down in size from sand is silt,
after silt come the clay particles which are so small they can pack together tight enough that water has a hard time slipping through the particles of clay because they can leave spaces smaller than a single water molecule.
Good soil will have some of each of these rock particle sizes in quantities equal to particle size, which leaves lots of room for our organic matter which leaves room for lots of water molecules and even air molecules.
Now we have the recipe for soil from solid rock, it is time to see if we can duplicate all the processes Mother Nature uses or at least come up with, to do this we will need some rather serious equipment.
We are going to need:
Adjustable pressure rock crusher
Stock pile of solid rocks, granite, sandstone, lava rocks (these are the main types found on earth) Note: sandstone is usually ocean floor that has been under enough pressure to fuse together (sedimentary rock)
Stock pile of organic matter
Stock pile of microorganisms and worms
Large container for mixing ingredients and a tool for mixing these ingredients (shovel should do nicely)
Ear muffs to protect our hearing and a good respirator to protect our lungs and safety glasses to protect our eyes. Lab coat- optional.
We go out and find a place with good soil (known to be so because it is from a preselected garden that also has bed rock near the surface) we shovel up 2 cubic yards of this soil which leaves us with more exposed bed rock.
We label this collected soil “Control Soil” and put a lid on the containers that hold it.
Then we take some hammer drills fitted with chisel bits and break up a large enough quantity of the bed rock and we put that into buckets and label these “Test Sample” and we head back to our laboratory.
Now we have everything we need to proceed with this experiment of creating soil from solid rock.
Which means all that’s left to do is fire up that rock crusher and start feeding our rocks into the hopper.
What happens is, we end up with smaller hunks of rock and some sand sized rocks and really fine rock dust.
We then adjust the rollers of the rock crusher tighter together and run the small hunks through a second time and we end up with more sand sized particles and fine rock dust.
We then adjust the rollers tighter again and run some of the fine rock dust through because we are trying to create clay sized particles,
but what we end up with is only silt sized particles, since we don’t want to take as long as Nature,
we decide to call this good since we can’t get our rollers in the rock crusher to mesh any tighter.
In the world of soil, this could be considered a partial failure since we don’t have a way to grind the rocks into clay.
However, we go out an acquire a different type of rock crusher, this one is a heavy steel drum that uses several different sizes of steel balls inside and as it rotates the balls break the rocks into smaller and smaller pieces, the longer we let it run, the smaller the particle size becomes.
So we load it with our fine rock dust and turn it on, go home and get some sleep because we want this new machine to run for at least 8 hours as we try to grind rocks to clay.
We come back the next morning, shut down the machine and open the hatch so we can look inside.
Lo and behold, we have something that looks like dry, powdery clay, bring out the microscope!
We take a sample of our newly created material and smear a bit on a slide, stick that slide on the microscope table and take a look.
The particles are nice and small and uniform. We check our slide against a Known Standard slide and woot!
We have created clay out of our fine rock dust.
Now all we have to do is mix our different particle sizes in a good ratio, add the right amount of organic material (compost) then add our microorganisms and we should have soil.
The operative word here is Should.
So we take our control soil (50% sand, 25% clay, 20% silt (the fine ground rock dust) and 5% organic matter, mix it all until we have a homogenous mixture and we take three samples from our new soil and at the same time we take 3 samples from our control soil.
One sample of each gets put into a beaker and purified water is put into those beakers so the soil is covered by 10 ml of water we mix these then pour each sample into a centrifuge vial, and we spin the heck out of them so we have solids at the bottom and supernate at the top,
which we draw off with an automatic pipette and place this liquid into a bank of 5 (for each sample) test tubes.
Next we run our supernate samples through a mass spectrometer and compare the results of our soil against the control soil and we find out we have differences in mineral makeup and we also have differences in organic matter makeup.
This is actually expected since we are trying to make our own soil and we probably used different rocks (even though they were collected at the site of the soil) than nature did when nature made our control soil.
Notes are recorded in the lab book.
Our non-living soil is a bit different but the numbers are acceptable for our purposes in this experiment.
Next is to add our organisms to our soil mix and match the numbers of each organism to our control soil numbers.
With the aid of the microscope this is actually fairly easy to do, just time consuming.
As always the lab book is filled out with all the details for each of our two samples.
Now we take these samples and plant two seeds of the same species in each, add water and set them in the germination cabinet for seven days since that is how long these seeds are supposed to take for germination to occur.
And I'll be back with the rest of this experiment soon.
Mass spec. Check.
Rocker crusher (big chunks). Check.
Rock crusher (small chunks). Check.
I've met many SEM's & mass spectrometers. Rock crushers are new territory. I want them!!! My internal Rube Goldberg gears are ramping up. The hillbilly river is the perfect power source. The rest is easy.
Argue for your limitations and they are yours forever.
Over here we require contractors by law to use silt traps with their constructions. further to this, some woke farmers are starting to use them in their drainage systems. I don't imagine they have much use for all the silt they collect, and suspect much of it winds up as landfill.
It's a serious business these days. Someone built a house with no trap on my street a few years ago and polluted a stream. They got hit with a $15 000 fine.
Anyway, I think silt will be very easy to source - just ask around a few construction companies.
If I wanted silt, I'd go straight for the stuff collected from farm runoff. Loaded with free fertiliser.
Just go to the marble counter top manufacturer and get their grindings. That’s what I did. They had lots. I Also take the talc ( also known as talcum powder) dust from my soapstone carvings, cuz it’s high in Oxygen atoms (8-10 per molecule) and put it in my plants.
Nicole please do not plug in the cement mixer!
Haha, you made it seem more accessible.... how to get a rock crusher, big investment if we want to make a garden and do not work professionally with it all the time!
Interestingly, as I live in a sloppy place with a lot of rock.... and some of this rock is not basalt, it can be crushed with a catterpillar... and my goal is to make soil with a catterpillar at my place, and crush as much as I can of the soil and mix this with organic matter, which will include burried trunks as low as I can. The thinner on top.
Of course this will not let me with sand-size particles! Unless somebody gives me more practical solutions to do it...
I have the idea I can ask what other machines the guy who will do the catterpillar job has, just in case, because anyway, I know that here in the island, they MAKE SAND! And also mix for concrete. But the machines are HUGE! Also I would make noise and the neighbours will complain, and digging and cruching the soil this way is not authorized, I'd bet!
Recharging soil is undoubtedly easier, but that is also not the point of the thread.
I think to do this in any quantity, the equipment would need to be huge, like making clay and mixing soil in the rotating drum of a cement truck. I was suspending practical disbelief, personally, so that the thought experiment could work itself out.
But bringing practical implementation to the fore, there are many mining operations that produce ground granitic material in Northern Ontario, which is often disposed of in piles surrounding said mines. I think that some sorting and screening of particle sizes would be necessary, and some silt and clay would be required, however that is done in practice, but if after the mixing is accomplished it is mainly a bacterial process, and that carried out by healthy soil organisms, this could actually be a way to turn a destructive, polluting process to some good, and through a vital soil life web ramp up industrial site reclamation.
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-Robert A. Heinlein
The massive erosion caused by agriculture is actually providing a source, on a ridiculous scale, for silt and clay. Someone versed in a hydrogeomorphology type discipline might even be able to predict where the buildup will be in many waterways possibly allowing collection points to be established before it hits the coast. Rock dust likewise might be trapped out in waterways and self sorted by currents.
Many aquaculture facilities have silt traps. This might be really good stuff.
Where water slows down, particles can drop out of the water column and settle. The slower the water the finer the particles that might settle.
This (recycling silt) is the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach. But it is a vast resource to potentially tap.
Organic matter (the basic term for anything that grows or did grow and (it can include animal carcasses) can take several forms once it is incorporated in the soil.
Most of us either use this as mulch or turn it into compost and use that as either a top dressing (mulch) or we use it as an amendment (worked into the soil, no matter how lightly we turn the soil).
Compost is really the first step of decomposition allowed to complete the composting cycle, where fungi, bacteria and all the other predatory microorganisms are nearing the completion breaking the organic matter into smaller mineral chains and free protiens.
This material is wonderful stuff and can be used to make teas, amend soil or top dress soil.
Humic substances are organic compounds that are important components of humus, the major organic fraction of soil, peat, and coal.
Humic acids, in isolation, are the result of chemical extraction from the soil organic matter, and in recent decades their importance in nature was brought into question, since they are products of a chemical procedure.
New definitions refer to the components of the soil organic matter as humic substances or in a continuum of organic compounds in a supramolecular frame.
The findings suggest that the term "humic acids" should be avoided.
This is not because the acid–base potentials of humic substances are untrue but rather because by themselves they do not provide a complete theoretical framework to describe or explain all aspects of soil organic matter chemistry.
For example, a humic substance may play a hormonal role in plant development without being coagulated by an acid–base reaction.
Humic materials can act like hormones, or like enzymes, or they can stand alone in the role of protein construction or break down.
“Humus” can work either as an acid or as a base too.
“Humus” is also not to be confused (as it usually is) with fulvic acids which are created by the breakdown of rock minerals and remain soluble where “humus” is prone to coagulation (the binding of humus molecules with other organic chemicals).
Thus most people who talk about humus from a gardening knowledge base are not (more likely than not) actually talking about humic materials but rather another, more decomposed, form of compost.
When we try to build our own dirt from rocks, the roles humic substances contribute become apparent very quickly.
Our soil, even though comprised of all the basic building blocks for soil, will not support plant life as well or as completely as nature’s soil because of the humic materials not being present.
Now if we could let lichens do their work (since these wonderful organisms can create humic materials for us and usually they are the primary humic material processor),
we would end up with soil as good as nature, but by letting the lichens do their job, we are letting nature do the work and thus negating the idea of human built soil.
The synthetic humic materials have been found to not work quite right when used in soil that isn’t being “designed” for a particular plant or set of plants.
The world of microbes is so necessary to life, forms we humans are aware of in the macro world, that if the micro world didn’t exist, neither would any living thing.
Bacteria are at the base of all life on the blue planet.
They were the first life form to spring into existence so if you think about it, the fact that they are still the predominant life form show just how important these organisms are.
When bacteria get together with fungi there is a powerful synergy that comes into being and minerals are not only processed but they are also transported and transmuted because of the symbiotic relationships these two organism types form.
The oldest fossils on earth are of bacteria colonies and as you start the journey towards today, you can see that fungi life forms are the second oldest fossil creator then comes the marriage of bacteria and fungi into lichens.
Plants and animals could not exist without the foundation organisms and they are also the reason we have soil.
In the great soil experiment, it was found that while we can indeed create dirt and we can add all the life forms that turn the dirt into soil, there is still something missing and that thing is so intangible that we can’t devise a way to measure it as yet.
We are getting closer to identifying this “mystery” link, but until we do, our man made soil has to spend time so that those missing items can be manufactured by the microbiome we installed, if we didn’t get the organism numbers right, the result will be a longer “gestation” period.
These findings mean that while we can take soild rock and create a series of substances that end up with all the primary ingredients of the soil Mother Nature creates.
We fall just short of the goal because we are still learning all the minute interactions of mineral and bacteria, fungi and all the other microorganisms that make up the soil microbiome.
We are moving along far faster today than we were even five years ago, but we aren’t there yet.
The journey is fascinating and it follows one of the greatest quotes I know.
“The more I learn, the more I realize how little I really know”.
and there will probably be more since this experiment is ongoing.
I gotta say, I'm really interested to hear how this develops - so please do let us know if you carry on with the experiment!
We've got a lot of stone in our soil - and a lot more stone just under it. After reading some of your earlier posts - but before I read this one - I had been wondering if I'd be able to crush up the stones much as you've done here and return it to the ground so that I could have stone-free topsoil, at least.. where I want to plant things that are a little less tolerant, like root veges.
A friend I spoke to (used to be a more classical soil scientist in her younger days) said I might have troubles with that plan as the greywacke we have here is very low in phosphorus, and I'd end up needing to add in a lot of amendment.
The area here is mostly made out of shingle fans from the river, formed from quaternary moraine gravels (Canterbury Plains - specifically near the Waimakariri)
I'm wondering, from some of your comments above, if perhaps this is not such a good plan after all and maybe I should look to build up on top
[I've also got a scifi bent and enjoy the idea of terraforming things, so having some science-based ideas behind that is always fun too!]
After you have mixed all of your ingredients together, you will need to have living plants growing in it to sustain the microorganisms so they can build soil aggregates... then you will have the beginnings of actual soil.
It's a pleasure to see superheros taking such an interest in science. And this tiny ad: