China has a large area of inland saline-alkali land, equivalent to 40% of the total cultivated land in the country. The principal features of these lands are high salt content, high pH, and poor soil structure with low water infiltration and poor drainage. These conditions effectively prevent the exploitation of such land for agriculture. In this study, we have compared 17 soil conditioning agents for their abilities to promote seed germination and growth under both laboratory and field conditions. One of these, Hydrolyzed Polymaleic Anhydride (HPMA), was identified as a highly effective agent for soil improvement. Laboratory germination experiments and laboratory and field cultivation of a variety of plants both showed that addition of HPMA could significantly increase the germination percentage and plant growth rate. Distinct from other Ca-carrier agents such as gypsum, HPMA increases the dissolution of CaCO₃, which is abundant in the calcareous saline-alkali soils. This allows Ca²⁺ in soil solution to displace the over-abundant Na⁺ in the soil colloids. This process greatly improves soil properties such as the bulk density, which decreased, and the capillary soil rise height of water and soil water infiltration rate, which increased. Direct SEM and AFM imagery showed flocculent soil precipitation (soil aggregates) after HPMA addition, and a looser structure of those aggregates. The addition of HPMA also reduced the soil pH and EC. These changes in soil chemical and physical properties are a likely explanation for the soil improvement effected by HPMA. The high content of insoluble CaCO₃ in saline-alkali land such as that in northeastern China (up to 13%) favors the further exploration of HPMA as an ameliorative agent.
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