Science of the Soil

Chromatography — A Window on Nature

by Matt Adams 


Since 2004 I have been practising the art of round filter paper chromatography (or chroma). The method was adapted and developed by E. Pfeiffer back in the mid 20th century as an holistic tool for assessing the more subtle processes and substances found within soil, compost and plants. I am using it as a tool to aid my investigation into the link between micro-biology of soils and the increased uptake of essential nutrients (including vitality) into plants. After five years of research, to which chromas have added a fascinating and useful addition, I can now show pictures which represent the many subtle process going on in Nature and the relationship between a healthy soil and a nutritious plant.


Our understanding of soil and nutrition is still limited. I believe chromas can help change this. A recent comment by Fred Pearce of the Environment Agency said: ‘we know more about the moon than we do about soil life’. When you consider that in a handful of fertile soil there can be more individual living creatures than there are humans on this planet you get the feel for something big. Further, within this same handful of soil can be a diversity of species that runs into thousands, all with a specific role to play from the bottom to the top of the soil profile and horizontally stretching across miles of land. It’s a vast ecosystem.

Dr McCarrison (an early pioneer of the organic movement) in the early 20th century was impressed with the health and vitality of the Hunza tribe, in what is now Pakistan. He was a medical doctor and in a lecture given to the Royal Society many years ago spoke about the quality of their food “There is something in the freshness and quality of food which is not accounted for by the known chemical ingredients of food – proteins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins.” Others, including Steiner have suggested there is more to nutrition than just physical nutrients. There are hidden qualities we just cannot see. This is why Steiner encouraged Pfeiffer to develop picture forming methods, so they could help us see!

One of the issues associated with soil and nutrition studies is that what we are looking for is either very small or is of a nature that current equipment and methods cannot detect. Because of this they can easily be missed or ignored! Modern intensive chemical farming, for example, was born out of a flawed experiment that failed to record and measure trace elements when trying to determine ‘what makes a plant grow’. Today, according to government records, we have lost over 40% of key minerals from the food chain since the 1940s and, almost certainly, an unknown quantity of trace elements. Could this be linked to a collapse in the soil ecosystem?

To find out we must begin to see more. Typically this requires investment in laboratory equipment e.g. a powerful microscope. For the average farmer or gardener this is just not an option. Chromas, originally referred to by Pfeiffer as the inexpensive microscope, can be used by almost anyone. However, I may be the only person in the UK practising this picture forming method. In Europe, particularly Austria and Germany, I believe it is more common. If you are already doing it or would like to learn how to I would be pleased to hear from you as I plan to begin running workshops in 2010. Some dedicated time is required but the process is relatively easy and costs are low. To help understand what’s involved I have described the process.

A rough guide to making a chroma:





Prepare your sample Soil is dried and ground, plants are chopped and mashed in a mortar and pestle. This is then transferred to a flask and submersed in an extraction fluid of sodium hydroxide and distilled water (a weak mix) for up to six hours. This extracts the many substances present in soil and plants into a liquid form. The picture shows carrot samples submerged in sodium hydroxide.








Prepare a 15cm filter paper with silver nitrate. A hole is made in the middle so a wick can be inserted and the paper is marked at 4cm and 6cm from the centre. The filter paper is then impregnated with the silver nitrate which comes up the wick in the centre and moves radially outwards until it reaches the first mark (4cm). The paper is then allowed to dry in the dark. Note, I have exposed this paper to the light to show the area covered. It also demonstrates the absence of any pattern if no extraction liquid is introduced.

Prepare the chroma developing box. This is used to control temperature between 25oC and 28oC and humidity at 80% plus which is easily done using the teapot and dishes of hot water. The picture I hope conveys the ‘we can all do this at home’ image. The box I made myself.

Once the extraction process is complete a small amount of the liquid is taken and poured into a small dish, set within a petri-dish. The prepared filter paper is fitted with a new wick and placed into the solution. The extraction liquid is drawn up the wick and moves radially outwards interacting with the silver nitrate as it moves. This is allowed to go past the 4cm mark until it reaches the 6cm mark. Typically this takes around 15 minutes.

Developing. Once the process is complete the paper is removed, wick taken out and the paper set down to dry. Some pattern can be seen almost immediately but it can take up to ten days to fully develop.

A) process is complete and ready to develop.

B) 20 minutes later more patterns emerge.

C) 60 minutes later the full diameter of the pattern is revealed.

D) 10 days later the chroma is fully developed. This picture sequence shows one set of results from a national growing experiment I conducted this year (2009) using carrots. These particular chromas were testing the same variety (Chantenay Red Cored), grown in the same soil side by side using organic seed (left) and non-organic seed (right). Can you see any differences?


How the chroma works In the only reference book I have found to date, written by Pfeiffer, he suggests that within a soil, compost or plant there can be hundreds or even thousands of processes taking place at the same time, creating many substances. The chroma method uses the property of filter paper to separate different substances (which are extracted in a solution) by way of capillary action. It then needs a reagent (silver nitrate) to ‘fix’ the fractions and make them visible. For example proteins are a substance, the quantity and quality of which are represented in a chroma by the spokes. Pfeiffer states “…they (proteins) are also an expression of life, for in ‘dead’ materials they disappear.”

Compare pictures 5 and 6.

Picture 5) Good results for:



Picture 6) Poor results for:





How to read a chroma

The chroma can provide a window from which to view and appreciate the complexity of Nature. Whilst the process of producing a chroma can be done by nearly anyone, to interpret the information is more difficult. This can take years of experience and I confess that today I am still learning. The expert is Angelika Lübke of CMC (Controlled Microbial Composting), Austria.

Some time after Pfeiffer’s death in 1961 the Lübke family were allowed access to his personal library and as a result carried on his work to become possibly the world’s leading experts in round filter paper chromatography. Over the years Angelika has acted as my ‘chroma guru’ from afar. She has helped and encouraged me in my own work by providing improved method sheets and interpretation guides. The following guide was provided by Angelika.

Within each chroma there are four zones of information which relate to the following (working from the centre to the outside) for Soil: 1) organic matter and physical structure, 2) fungal activity and mineral content, 3) bacterial activity, protein digestion and content and enzymatic activity, 4) Nutrient potential and carbon sources. In plants the zones relate to: 1) vitamins, 2) mineral content and essential oils, 3) protein content and amino acids, 4) Enzymatic activity and sugars.

Qualities are recognised by patterns (or form) and also by colour. For example desirable forms and colours include green, brown, orange, yellow and red. Cone-shaped patterns that show regularity, radial lines with good definition and fine wavy lines (within the coneshaped patterns) are good. Undesirable colours and forms include grey, blue, black and purple. Lumpy formation of the cone-shaped pattern, solid radial lines and general lack of patterns and formation are not good.

A picture paints a thousand words. Pictures 5 and 6 are examples of good and bad chromas. When compared we immediately see a difference between them. The general lack of patterns and formation in picture 6 suggest these soils and plants are very low in the potential to provide good health. The soil and potato chromas in both pictures 5 and 6 are related. I include pictures (7 & 8) of where they came from. Can you guess which chromas belong to which picture? In both cases the quality of soil has influenced the quality of the potato.

Picture 7) A conventional potato farm.

Picture 8) GREEN a Bio-Dynamic research garden

The carrot chromas are not from the same soil but are included as good and bad examples. The carrot chroma in picture 5 is healthy with lots of form and pattern. In picture 6 there is a general lack of form and complexity. The carrot sample used to produce this had suffered severe attacks of carrot root fly. It was definitely dead! Its nutritional value is nil.


It was Goethe many years ago who coined the saying “The whole is more than the sum total of its parts.”From these pictures we can see this to be true. When we look at both carrot and potato chromas, the ones with the most form theoretically will contain good quality proteins, fats, sugars, vitamins and minerals. When this occurs we also see a whole, complete picture that looks vital and fresh. To achieve this requires a healthy soil ecosystem and I believe the chromas are showing this. Therefore, I believe, the welfare of our soils can be shown to be directly related to our health.

The chemical revolution in agriculture bypassed many natural processes to show very quickly a significant increase in yields. Seeing is believing! The impact of intensive farming and growing methods has led to the systematic destruction or alteration of the soil habitat. Connected to this appears to be the decline in physical and non-physical nutrients in our food and subsequent increase in degenerative disease for all developed and developing nations. According to the McCarrison Society, “…brain disorders have now overtaken all other burdens of ill health” recently overtaking heart disease and cancer, as a result of poor nutrition. In part this may be connected to food choices, processing and lifestyle which is related to the way society thinks and the values we hold. Central to this are the issues surrounding food quality.

To date I have carried out over two hundred of these tests in various research projects I am involved with. These are designed to consider the link between a soils micro-ecology and the uptake of essential nutrients. The chroma is a subjective test but I use it to compliment other more conventional testing such as soil and plant chemistry and soil biology. Together this helps build the bigger picture because the chroma relates directly to these tests.

From the chromas I have developed I can begin to use them in many ways. First of all to verify and show that the chroma method can work. Secondly to develop a set of standards or guides that I can then use to correlate with further testing such as soil micro-biology and the presence and quality of nutrients in foods. There is also my own personal development which comes from practising this art form and being inspired to think about the many things we cannot see.

Other picture forming methods are of interest. Sensitive crystallisation (also developed by Pfeiffer), championed by Food Quality Health (a European network of Universities) is interesting and well advanced in achieving scientific acceptance; however the set up for this is costly. The Rising Pictures method dealt with recently in an excellent book by Janet Barker is also good, as is Kirlian photography. For me however, the chroma remains the method of choice at present.

I have used chromas that show easily seen differences to put forward my ideas. In practice the differences are not always so clear to see, or what we might expect. They do however, always make me think. The wider context for these studies is to promote a better understanding and improved relationship with Nature. No easy task! – but one I believe will be of increasing importance in the future as we begin to see and learn more about soils, nutrition and health.

Useful References.

Pfeiffer, Ehrenfried E. Chromatography Applied to Quality Testing, 1984, Bio-Dynamic Literature. Available through BDAA Office, Stroud.

Bio-Dynamic Agricultural Association

CMC Austria

Good Gardeners Association

McCarrison Society

Matt Adams is the Director/Coordinator of the Good Gardeners Association which promotes no-dig gardening and the growing of food for nutrition. He is a principle founder of GREEN (Gardens for Research Experiential Education and Nutrition) which began in 2004. Based in Stroud nr Gloucester this is a partnership initiative supported by the Hiram Trust and involves the Bio-dynamic Agricultural Association and the Good Gardeners Association.

Research designed and implemented by Matt for this project is attempting to track the flow of nutrients from soil to crop to help learn more about the role of soil micro-life in the uptake and quality of nutrients. In a bio-dynamic garden using different methods of cultivation there are no-dig, single dig and double dig plots. Therefore the only difference between them is the deliberate disturbance of the soil eco-system (or not, in the case of no-dig) to the corresponding depths of either one spade or two.

For more info on soil health, go to this page and scroll down to the ‘Environment section at the bottom.

See also: Throwing in the Trowel (an article from The Telegraph about Matt Adams and some other experimentation in ‘no-dig’ gardening)