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Practically all physical, chemical, and biological processes in soil show some dependence on

organic matter. Because of this importance, organic matter has earned respect as the "life
blood of soils".


Determination of Organic Matter Content by Dry Combustion

Dry combustion analysis of organic matter in soils is accomplished by

measuring the weight loss in a soil sample following high temperature
treatment. Heat oxidizes organic matter to CO2 and H2O which escape from the

C6H12O6 + 6 O2 + heat à 6CO2 + 6H20

(Organic Matter)

You are provided with two soils, soil A and soil B, both from somewhere in the
school grounds. One is from a garden that uses compost, one is from a playing
field. They have been gently heated to remove water


1. Tin can 1. Weigh the tin can. Record your

2. Tripod results in the table
3. Gauze 2. Place a small plastic beaker full
4. Heatproof mat of soil A into the can then
5. Small plastic beaker weigh and record below.
6. Large spatula for stirring 3. Place the can with the soil
7. Access to a balance for onto the gauze, light the
weighing Bunsen, then heat strongly for
five minutes, stirring
occasionally with the spoon.
5. Leave the can to cool for 5
minutes then reweigh
6. Repeat this with soil B

Soil A Soil B

1. weight of soil and can before


2. weight of can/g

3. weight of soil/g
4. weight of soil and can after
5. weight lost (organic matter)/g
=1 - 4
6. organic matter, %

Percentage organic matter = mass loss x 100

Mass of soil before heating

1. Why did the soils change color after extensive heating?

2. Which soil do you think is better for growing crops? Why?

We could prepare this beforehand

Soil is made up of a mixture of sand, silt, clay and rotted plant (organic) material. Different
soil types have differing percentages of each. The jam jar soil experiment helps you to
understand what the proportions of these are for the soil you work with. You should try this
experiment with soils from different areas and compare the results to see how soils vary. Try
it also with the soils you get in bags from garden centres for growing seeds and see how that
varies from your garden soil.

Step One

Take a clean, straight-sided jam jar and fill it about a third of the
way up with the soil you are experimenting with. Also have
ready another jar of clean water and a stirring stick.

Start off with a jar a third filled with soil

Step Two

Now add the clear water until the jar of soil is almost full.

Add water stir and stir thoroughly

Step Three

Now use a stirring stick to stir up the mixture really thoroughly.

Stir the mixture thoroughly

Step Four

Now leave the jar for one hour so the contents settle out and the water can start to clear.

The soil jamjar experiment

Step Four

Now the water has settled out, you should be able to see
different layers appearing. Sand particles are the biggest and
weigh more than silt - so the bottom layer will be the sand
part of the soil. Any pebbles will also be at the bottom. Next
up is the silt layer. Silt particles are smaller than sand and
weigh less so they appear over the sand. If you were able to
separate out any clay particles they are the smallest and will
be on top. If your soil is really thick clay then you may just be
left with clay lumps at the bottom, Next up you will have the
water. This is likely to be discoloured. The colouring is likely to
be rotted plant (organic) material that is soluble (it's
dissolved). Finally, at the top will be floating organic material which isn't fully rotted.

What you can do is now use a measuring tape to measure the height of the total soil and
water (say 10cm), and then the height of each layer (say the silt is 1cm). Then you can work
out the percentage of each part of the soil. This is called the soil texture. For silt for example
the sum is 10cm divided by 1cm all multiplied by 100 to get the percentage (so 10/1 x 100 =
10%). Finish off by drawing a pie chart of the different proportions, and as noted above
compare the results with other soils.

If you found this interesting have a look at the related Jam-Jar experiment in the Activity
Sheets section, as well as the other activities there!