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Entries in soil amendment (2)


Soil Basics revisited

Understanding "the basics" of soil is no small matter.  One of the most basic problems with soil is compaction.  For many of my clients, the soil around their homes has been virtually ruined by what took place when their house was built or renovated.  Many (all?!) builders/contractors think of soil as dirt and make no effort to protect it or renovate it after they're finished.  Around here, most of the new development is infill development, so virtually the whole lot is disturbed - by tearing down the old house, by cutting down all the trees, by building an addition, by installing a pool.  Their machines churn across what might have been relatively undisturbed soil, often when the soil is saturated after a hard rain, creating ruts that are virtually impossible to correct.  They dig a new foundation and turn the existing soil-profile upside down in doing so.  What used to be subsoil is now on top.  When they're done, they flatten out the clay-ey subsoil, put back a couple inches of the "topsoil" that they allegedly scraped off at the beginning (is it full of weed seeds now?? has it been tested? what is its texture?  has compost been added?), throw down some "contractor's mix" el-cheapo grass seed and poof - there's your new lawn!  This is what we refer to as "urban soil".

Urban soils are typically inhospitable places for trees, other plants, and their oxygen breathing microorganisms.  Human activities, such as those described above, as well as grading and even foot traffic leave urban soils much more compacted than natural soils.  Typically 40-55% of the volume in a healthy forest soil consists of pore space.  This pore space consists of varying proportions of air and water depending on the weather.  With compaction, soil particles are pushed together and fill up pore spaces, so pore space in urban soils often goes down to 20-30%.

Soil compaction is generally estimated by measuring bulk density, which is the mass of dry soil divided by its volume, expressed in grams per cubic centimeter (gms/cc).  Compacted soil has less pore space and therefore higher bulk density.  Surface bulk density of most undisturbed soils ranges from 1.1 to 1.4 gms/cc, depending on the soil texture (clay, sand and silt fractions).  The bulk density of urban soils often ranges from 1.5 to 2.0 gms/cc, just slightly less than the bulk density of concrete (2.2 gms/cc)!  
The reduced porosity of compacted soils results in a lower water-holding capacity and reduced infiltration rate, so compacted soils produce much more stormwater runoff than undisturbed soils.  In many urban areas, pervious areas, like "lawns", produce almost as much runoff as impervious surfaces because they are so compacted. The reduced water holding capacity of compacted soils also renders plants more prone to drought and results in more extreme summer soil temperatures.
Compaction also drives oxygen out of these soils to suffocatingly low levels and oxygen-dependent soil microorganisms can no longer survive.  Without adequate soil organisms, urban soils generally have a lower organic matter content and lower nutrient retention than natural soils.  Soil compaction also limits root penetration and growth. Once soil bulk density exceeds 1.4-1.7 gms/cc (depending on soil texture), roots are no longer able to penetrate soil, and vegetation growth becomes limited.
That's one of the reasons that the "landscaping" your contractor installed before you bought your new house or moved into your renovated one has declined every year!



I.C.Y.M.I. Biochar is the New Black

More from the NYS Arborist Meeting in January:

Mr. Hendrickson, the guru from Bartlett Tree Research, mentioned a magic ingedient in passing that I didn't know anything about - biochar.  It turns out that biochar has a rich history (no pun intended) as a soil amendment that "magically" makes plants and trees grow and that even helps soil structure and health.


Here are some facts:

Biochar is formed from organic material (otherwise know as garden waste) by pyrolysis: a thermochemical decomposition of organic material at high temperatures (390 - 570 degrees F) in the absence of oxygen.  It involves the simultaneous change of chemical composition and physical phase, and is irreversible. The word is coined from the Greek-derived elements pyro "fire" and lysis "separating".  In general, pyrolysis of organic substances produces gas and liquid products and leaves a solid residue richer in carbon content, char - aka biochar.  Pyrolysis differs from other high-temperature processes like combustion and hydrolysis in that it doesn't involve reactions with oxygen or water.

Biochar as a soil amendment has an ancient precedent - "terra preta", discovered in the 1950s by Dutch soil scientist Wim Sombroek in the Amazon rainforest.  It still covers 10 percent of the Amazon Basin.  As the nonprofit U.S. Biochar Initiative explains, “biochar has been created and used by humans in traditional agricultural practices in the Amazon Basin of South America for more than 2,500 years.  Dark, charcoal-rich soil (known as terra preta, or black earth) supported productive farms in areas that previously had poor and, in some places, toxic soils".  

Over the past 10 years, researchers have been investigating terra preta, now called biochar, as an agricultural resource. Typically when biomass decomposes or burns, virtually all of the carbon stored in the plant is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.  But when biochar is produced, roughly half of the plant’s carbon is retained as stable carbon in the biochar.  The other half is released as wood gases, which can be used as an energy source. This biochar cycle puts carbon from the atmosphere back into the earth, puts it to positive use in the soil and increases the amount of time it stays there.



Here's why biochar is "magic":

  • It provides a combination of moisture management and a way to store microbial food and plant fertilizer.  When there is an excess of water, food and fertilizer, biochar stores them.  When there is a deficiency, it slowly releases them back into the soil, where the plant or microbes can take advantage of them.
  •  It persists in the soil for years, greatly reducing(eliminating?) the need for re-application.  It is much more persistent in soil than any other form of organic matter that's applied to soil.  This is referred to as "stability" by the soil scientists.
  •  It is highly adsorbent.  It sops up humic acid, a food for soil microorganisms, and humic acid itself binds to fertilizers, keeping them from leaching out of the soil.


"What is special about biochar is that it is much more effective in retaining most nutrients and keeping them available to plants than other organic matter such as for example leaf litter, compost or manures. Interestingly, this is also true for phosphorus which is not at all retained by 'normal' soil organic matter". (Lehmann, 2007) 

from Cornell webpage; references as cited on that page

  • It is also highly adsorbent of water.  In conditions with greater than 60% relative humidity, it absorbs water.  And in conditions less than 40% relative humidity, it releases water.  So it is an enormous stabilizer of relative humidity in soil, which means less watering.
  • It is a way to "recycle" organic waste, and the off-gas can be used as fuel.
  • You only need a little, and it can be added as a soil amendment to existing planting beds, like tree wells.


But there are caveats as well:
  • The vast majority of research has been into biochar's effects on agricultural soils and crop yields.  Until very recently, there has been little research on biochar in urban and suburban soils, trees and shrubs.  Agricultural crop research goes a lot faster than urban tree growth research - that will take years.
  • All biochar is not created equal - it matters what organic matter was used to make it and whether it has been tested for contaminants and properly de-watered.
  • This is not a plug - but Bartlett uses biochar as part of their soil improvement and root invigoration treatments.  Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories is collaborating with the Morton Arboretum to look at the effects of adding biochar to existing tree wells in Chicago.
  • Mr. Hendrickson said that Bartlett has a supplier that they have vetted extensively.  


Here are some of the initial findings that Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories and the Morton Arboretum have publicized for biochar:


  • Biochar can have a measurable positive impact on both soil quality and plant growth.
  • Biochar works best in combination with compost.  Biochar itself doesn't provide nutrients, but compost does.  So when you mix them together, you're "charging up" the biochar with nutrients.  Their research also suggests that biochar improves the performance of compost - i.e. when the two are blended, trees and shrubs show better growth than with either of the two alone.
  • More is not necessarily better - in fact it can be deleterious.  (like anything!) Their research is trying to determine the optimal amount, but they already know that a little bit goes a long way.
  • Biochar may also promote disease resistance - this is only preliminary greenhouse-based research but will be looked at in future studies.

To find out more:

soils.org is an interesting website - this link will lead you to a story about the Morton Arboretum work on tree growth using biochar

And, of course, Cornell has a lot of expertise - this link will provide you with both information and lots of references