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Bartlett Tree Experts Explore the Benefits of Biochar

Kelly Fite, Ph.D.

A modern take on an ancient method of soil improvement has been shown to have an outstanding effect on tree survival rates – stemming the losses most landscapers have had to accept as inevitable and alleviating stress conditions, a known prerequisite to pest and disease attack.

Biochar is a form of charcoal used to improve soil nutrition and growing conditions. It can be made from woody biomass that has been heated and charred with a restricted supply of oxygen, a process called pyrolysis. It captures atmospheric carbon, locking it into the soil for hundreds of years.

Thanks to its microscopic honeycomb-like structure, biochar provides the perfect habitat for beneficial soil microorganisms, such as mycorrhizal fungi, to flourish. Biochar also acts like a sponge, lessening the risk of drought stress and reducing the frequency of irrigation. It helps to retain mineral nutrients that would otherwise be leached away by rain and does not decompose, staying in your soil for decades.

Knowledge of biochar has been around for millennia. Studies of soil at sites throughout the Amazon Basin suggest that ancient Amazonian civilizations made a primitive type of biochar and added it to the soil to help grow their crops.

It’s not just the ancient civilizations that recognized the potential of biochar. This year, Dr Glynn Percival, Plant Physiologist at Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory in the UK investigated the benefits of biochar on the health of transplanted trees. Biochar formulations were tested in the UK throughout the 2012/13 growing season. They found that with the addition of small percentages of biochar, tree health was vastly improved. Not only did 60% more transplanted trees survive; they displayed significantly increased photosynthetic efficiency, better growth, and a larger canopy area.

These trials followed three years of research here in the US where Bartlett scientists applied biochar to trees on urban street, suburban sites and other challenging soil environments, demonstrating the product’s effectiveness even in the harshest conditions.
Biochar is ideal for amending soils around existing trees, transplanting new trees and is suitable for all tree and shrub types. Its easy- to-apply formula promotes quick establishment and reduces losses; encouraging vigorous root growth and healthy soil biology.

Posted May 15, 2014

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