Soil biochar amendment in a nature restoration area: effects on plant productivity and community composition

T.F.J. Van de Voorde, T.M. Bezemer, J.W. Van Groenigen, S. Jeffery, Liesje Mommer

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Biochar (pyrolyzed biomass) amendment to soils has been shown to have a multitude of positive effects, e.g., on crop yield, soil quality, nutrient cycling, and carbon sequestration. So far the majority of studies have focused on agricultural systems, typically with relatively low species diversity and annual cropping schemes. How biochar amendment affects plant communities in more complex and diverse ecosystems that can evolve over time is largely unknown. We investigated such effects in a field experiment at a Dutch nature restoration area. In April 2011, we set up an experiment using biochar produced from cuttings collected from a local natural grassland. The material was pyrolyzed at 400 degrees C or at 600 degrees C. After biochar or residue (non-pyrolyzed cuttings) application (10 Mg/ha), all plots, including control (0 Mg/ha) plots, were sown with an 18-species grassland mixture. In August 2011, we determined characteristics of the developed plant community, as well as soil nutrient status. Biochar amendment did not alter total plant productivity, but it had a strong and significant effect on plant community composition. Legumes were three times as abundant and individual legume plants increased four times in biomass in plots that received biochar as compared to the control treatment. Biomass of the most abundant forb (Plantago lanceolata) was not affected by biochar addition. Available phosphorous, potassium, and pH were significantly higher in soils that received biochar than in Control soils. The rate of biological nitrogen fixation and seed germination were not altered by biochar amendment, but the total amount of biological N fixed per Trifolium pratense (red clover) plant was more than four times greater in biochar-amended soil. This study demonstrates that biochar amendment has a strong and rapid effect on plant communities and soil nutrients. Over time these changes may cascade up to other trophic groups, including above-and belowground organisms. Our results emphasize the need for long-term studies that examine not only the short-term effects of biochar amendment, but also follow how these effects evolve over time and affect ecosystem functioning.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1167-1177
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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