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Humic acid and fulvic acid are two of the three ingredients that make up humic substances in soil's organic matter. Humic acid is only soluble in water at certain pH levels, while fulvic acid is soluble in water at all pH levels. The third ingredient, humins, is alkaline and not soluble at any pH level.
Humic acids are the major extractable elements of the humic substances that, along with non-humic substances, make up soil organic matter. They are black or dark brown in color and the result of secondary synthesis reactions. They are also considered to be of high molecular weight. The level of humic acid in soil affects the fertility of the soil, because it controls the water-holding capacity. The more humic acid, the better the soil retains moisture and the better plants grow.
Fulvic acid remains in the solution after the process of acidification removes humic acid from the soil. The color ranges from light yellow to yellowish brown and it is of lower molecular weight. It is also the byproduct of decaying microorganisms in the soil. Some scientists believe fulvic acid can chelate toxins and render them harmless.
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Humic acid is technically not a fertilizer, although in some walks people do consider it that. Humic acid is an effective agent to use as a complement to synthetic or organic fertilizers. In many instances, regular humic acid use will reduce the need for fertilization due to the soil's and plant's ability to make better use of it. In some occurrences, fertilization can be eliminated entirely if sufficient organic material is present and the soil can become self sustaining through microbial processes and humus production.
The activities of beneficial soil microbes are crucial for the sustainability of any soil and plant growth. Humic acid stimulates microbial activity by providing the indigenous microbes with a carbon source for food, thus encouraging their growth and activity. Soil microbes are responsible for solubilizing vital nutrients such as phosphorus that can then be absorbed by the humic acid and in turn made available to the plant. Additionally, microbes are responsible for the continued development of humus in the soil as it continues to break down not fully decomposed organic matter. This in-situ production of humus continues to naturally add to the humic acid base and its benefits.
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The term "humus" dates back to the time of the Romans, when it was frequently used to designate the soil as a whole. It was later applied to the organic matter of soils and composts, or to different fractions of this organic matter; as well as, to complexes formed from a variety of natural organic substances. Humus compounds are complex natural organic compounds that are formed in soils from plant residues, by a process of "humification". Humus materials are complex aggregate of brown to dark colored amorphous substances, which have originated during the decomposition of plant and animal residues by microorganisms, under aerobic and anaerobic conditions, in soils, composts, peat bogs, and water basins. Chemically, humus consists of certain constituents of the original plant material resistant to further decomposition; of substances undergoing decomposition; of complexes resulting from decomposition, either by processes of hydrolysis or by oxidation and reduction; and of various compounds synthesized by microorganisms.
"Humic acid " is the commercial term often used to refer to the combined humic and fulvic acid content found in these naturally occurring deposits. Humic acid is known to be among the most bio-chemically active materials found in soil.
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When applied to clay soils, humic acid can help break up compacted soils, allowing for enhanced water penetration and better root zone growth and development. When applied to sandy soils, humic acid adds essential organic material necessary for water retention thus improving root growth and enhancing the sandy soil's ability to retain and not leach out vital plant nutrients.
As mentioned above, one way plant growth is improved is through the structural improvement of both clay and sandy soil allowing for better root growth development.
Plant growth is also improved by the ability of the plant to uptake and receive more nutrients. Humic acid is especially beneficial in freeing up nutrients in the soil so that they are made available to the plant as needed. For instance if an aluminum molecule is binded with a phosphorus one, humic acid detaches them making the phosphorus available for the plant. Humic acid is also especially important because of its ability to chelate micronutrients increasing their bio-availability.