Plant and Soil

, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 9–31 | Cite as

The effect of soil drying on humus decomposition and nitrogen availability

  • H. F. Birch


Respirometer experiments show that when a dry soil is moistened a characteristic pattern of decomposition occurs in which an initial period of relatively rapid decomposition (Stage 1) falls, during a few days, to a slow steady rate (Stage 2). This pattern is repetitive with successive dryings and rewettings and is common to all soils so far investigated. The magnitude of decomposition depends in the percent carbon in the soil and on the drying conditions, air-drying being less effective than oven-drying. Decomposition during Stage 1 conforms approximately to a first-order reaction and proportionate amounts of nitrogen are mineralised. A similar pattern of decomposition occurs under field conditions throughout successive wet and dry seasons.

Evidence is presented to show that decomposition involves direct microbial attack of the solid organic substrate and that the recurrent pattern of decomposition is due to the state in which the microbial population is left after drying and its subsequent behaviour on rewetting. The rapid decline in the rate of decomposition on rewetting (Stage 1) appears not to involve (1) the development of toxic conditions, (b) physical changes in the soil (since similar patterns of decomposition also occur with organic material alone or in sand) or (c) rapid decomposition of organic material made soluble by drying.

The operation and repetition of this pattern of decomposition in the field has important consequences in the rundown of soil carbon and the mineralisation of soil nitrogen particularly where well-defined wet and dry seasons occur. These consequences are discussed in relation to climate and certain agricultural practices.


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Copyright information

© Martinus Nijhoff 1959

Authors and Affiliations

  • H. F. Birch
    • 1
  1. 1.East African Agriculture and Forestry Research OrganisationKikuyuKenya

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