Biochar: Facts, Uses & Benefits

Biochar could be one of nature’s best examples of recycling. How else can we explain a natural process that turns waste material into a sustainable soil amendment?

What Is Biochar?

Biochar is like charcoal, and it’s made in a similar way. Unusable dead trees, woody debris and other organic materials undergo a low-heat process of slow burning (without oxygen) called pyrolysis. Researchers are actively experimenting with biochar for its possible uses to amend poor soil, store carbon, and absorb pollutants in contaminated soil.

The first known uses of biochar date to the ancient soils found in the Amazon called Terra Preta or dark soil. Scientists believe Terra Preta is the result of pre-Columbian Indians using their charcoal waste as a soil amendment and mulch thousands of years ago.

Because biochar stays in a solid form for many years, researchers are exploring how this black carbon affects soil health and plant growth. The results of research projects are encouraging for a number of reasons.

Benefits of Biochar

Some of the research shows that whenever biochar is used to amend dry infertile soil it increases soil fertility, decreases the amount of nutrient runoff, and improves the overall physical condition or tilth of the soil.

As a soil amendment, biochar also stores carbon in the soil and keeps it out of the environment. This leads researchers to consider biochar as a possible solution for reducing carbon emissions and fighting climate change.

Other research studies are looking at whether biochar can be used as a remedy for polluted soils. Scientists have found biochars can absorb a variety of metal contaminants from the soil, such as lead, copper and nickel.

Using Biochar

Current experimental uses of biochar include greenhouses mixing it into potting soil to take advantage of its water-holding abilities, tree care companies trying it as a sustainable way to improve the soil health around stressed trees, and foresters turning beetle-killed trees into biochar products as a way to reduce waste.

One of the key areas of research is matching biochars to their best use. Not all biochars are the same, and each kind differs in composition depending on the material it’s made from. For example, different types of trees will result in different kinds of biochars. Biochars are also made from straw, wood chips, paper pulp, animal manure, sewage sludge and other agricultural, forestry and industrial byproducts.

Another aspect of biochar is that it needs time to cure before use. To make up for the curing process that naturally occurs in soils over time, biochar can be prepped with water and mixed with compost and fertilizer before using as a soil amendment.

However, application rates are still being researched and standardized. Because there’s so much variability in biochars, it’s best to begin with a small-scale test to judge results before a large-scale application.

Researchers in the U.S. and around the world continue to study the practical applications for biochar. Their goal is to unlock its full potential for improving soil and helping the environment.

Here at Organic Plant Care, we’ve found that improving soil health is the key to healthy trees, lawns and plants. We’ve had good results using biochar as a top dressing for lawns in the New Jersey and Pennsylvania region. We apply it using a broadcast fertilizer for even application, and then water it well.

Call us today at 908-309-6611 if you’d like to explore the use of biochar to improve the health and vitality of your landscape.

Bill Grundmann

Bill is the owner of Organic Plant Care, LLC. He takes an integrated approach to tree care, focusing not only on the trees themselves but also on the surrounding environment, managing tree health from the "ground up" - healthy soil equals healthy plants. Bill is a New Jersey Licensed Tree Expert and NJ Approved Forester with over 35 years of experience in the tree care industry.