Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Use of raw and acidified biochars as constituents of growth media for forest seedling production

  • 266 Accesses

  • 1 Citations


In plant nurseries devoted to the propagation of shrubs and trees for landscaping, gardening or forestry it is first concern to produce robust seedlings which resist the stress of transplanting to soil. The selection of appropriate growth media is crucial. Biochar, the product of pyrolysis of organic matter, has been suggested as a new organic amendment for soil or for soilless growth media. Biochar is usually strongly alkaline. We studied the possibility of acidifying biochar with nitric and phosphoric acids. The effects of raw and acidified biochars in peat-based substrates on rooting and growth of cuttings of Rosmarinus officinalis and in sandy soil-based substrates on growth of Phillyrea angustifolia seedlings were compared. The physical and chemical characteristics of the growth media, and the growth and nutrient content of seedlings were analysed. Results showed that biochar acidification with nitric and phosphoric acids improves the pH and enriches the biochar with N and P without excessively increasing electrical conductivity. However, a column experiment showed that nitrate was readily leached whilst phosphate was tightly retained by biochar, which questioned the practical availability of these nutrients to plants. The agronomical assays showed that both raw biochar and acidified biochar improved rooting and growth of Rosmarinus cuttings. In Phillyrea, however, the acidified biochar did not affect plant growth whilst the raw biochar gave satisfactory results both for shoot and root growth. Results led to the conclusion that biochar without further treatment might be successfully used as growth medium constituent, even at large proportions, both in organic and in mineral substrates.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


  1. Abad M, Noguera P, Bures S (2001) National inventory of organic wastes for use as growing media for ornamental potted plant production: case study in Spain. Biores Technol 77:197–200

  2. Abad M, Fornes F, Carrión C, Noguera V, Noguera P, Maquieira A, Puchades R (2005) Physical properties of various coconut coir dusts compared to peat. HortScience 40:2138–2144

  3. Akhtar SS, Andersen MN, Liu F (2014) Biochar enhances yield and quality of tomato under reduced irrigation. Agric Water Manag 138:37–44

  4. Alexander PD, Bragg NC, Meade R, Padelopoulos G, Watts O (2008) Peat in horticulture and conservation: the UK response to a changing world. Mires Peat 3:1–10

  5. Altland JE, Locke JC (2012) Biochar affects macronutrient leaching from a soilless substrate. HortScience 47:1136–1140

  6. Atkinson CJ, Fitzgerald JD, Hipps NA (2010) Potential mechanisms for achieving agricultural benefits from biochar application to temperate soils: a review. Plant Soil 337:1–18

  7. Bargmann I, Rilling MC, Buss W, Kruse A, Kuecke M (2013) Hydrocahr and biochar effects on germination of spring barley. J Agron Crop Sci 199:360–373

  8. Bargmann I, Martens R, Rilling MC, Kruse A, Kücke M (2014) Hydrochar amendment promotes microbial immobilization of mineral nitrogen. J Plant Nutr Soil Sci 177:59–67

  9. Belda RM, Mendoza-Hernández D, Fornes F (2013) Nutrient-rich compost versus nutrient-poor vermicomposts as growth media for ornamental plant production. J Plant Nutr Soil Sci 176:827–835

  10. Belda RM, Lidón A, Fornes F (2016) Biochars and hydrochars as substrate constituents for soilless growth of myrtle and mastic. Ind Crops Prod 94:132–142

  11. Bigelow CA, Bowman DC, Cassel DK (2001) Nitrogen leaching in sand-based rootzones amended with inorganic soil amendments and sphagnum peat. J Am Soc Hort Sci 126:151–156

  12. Blok C, De Kreij C, Baas R, Weber G (2008) Analytical methods used in soilless cultivation. In: Raviv M, Lieth JH (eds) Soilless culture: theory and practice. Elsevier, London

  13. Bunt AC (1988) Media and mixes for container-grown plants: a manual on the preparation and use of growing media for pot plants, 2nd edn. Unwin Hyman, London

  14. Carmona E, Abad M (2008) Aplicación del compost en viveros y semilleros. In: Moreno J, Moral R (eds) Compostaje. Ed Mundi-Prensa, Madrid, pp 397–424

  15. Carrión C, García de la Fuente R, Fornes F, Puchades R, Abad M (2008) Acidifying compost from vegetable crop wastes to prepare growing media for containerized crops. Compost Sci Util 16:20–29

  16. Chan KY, Xu Z (2009) Biochar: nutrient properties and their enhancement. In: Lehmann J, Joseph S (eds) Biochar for environmental management science and technology. Earthscan, London, pp 67–84

  17. Cho MS, Meng L, Song JH, Han SH, Bae K, Park BB (2017) The effects of biochars on the growth of Zelkova serrata seedlings in a containerized seedling production system. For Sci Technol 13:25–30

  18. Cleary J, Roulet NT, Moore TR (2005) Greenhouse gas emissions from Canadian peat extraction, 1990–2000: a life-cycle analysis. Ambio 34:456–461

  19. Di Lonardo S, Baronti S, Primo Vaccari F, Albanese L, Battista P, Miglietta F, Bacci L (2017) Biochar-based nursery substrates: the effect of peat substitution on reduced salinity. Urban For Urban Green 23:27–34

  20. Doan TT, Ngo PT, Rumpel C, Nguyen BV, Jouquet P (2013) Interactions between compost, vermicompost and earthworms influence plant growth and yield: a one-year greenhouse experiment. Sci Hortic 160:148–154

  21. Dumroese RK, Pinto JR, Heiskanen J, Tervahauta A, McBurney KG, Page-Dumroese DS, Englund K (2018) Biochar can be a suitable replacement for sphagnum peat in nursery production of Pinus ponderosa seedlings. Forests 9:232. https://doi.org/10.3390/f9050232

  22. Dunlop SJ, Camps-Arbestain M, Bishop PA, Wargent JJ (2015) Closing the loop: use of biochar produced from tomato crop green waste as a substrate for soilless, hydroponic tomato production. HortScience 50:1572–1581

  23. EN- European Standards. Soil improvers and growing media. European Committee for Standardization (CEN), Brussels, Belgium [EN 13037 (1999) Determination of pH pp 11] [EN 13038 (1999) Determination of Electrical Conductivity pp 13] [EN 13041 (1999) Determination of Physical Properties. Dry Bulk Density, Air Volume, Water Volume, Shrinkage Value and Total Pore Space pp 25] [EN 13652 (2001) Extraction of Water Soluble Nutrients and Elements pp 19] [EN 15428 (2007) Determination of Particle Size Distribution pp 21]

  24. Forbes MS, Raison RJ, Skjemstad JO (2006) Formation, transformation and transport of black carbon (charcoal) in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sci Total Environ 370:190–206

  25. Fornes F, Belda RM (2017) Acidification with nitric acid improves chemical characteristics and reduces phytotoxicity of alkaline chars. J Environ Manag 191:237–243

  26. Fornes F, Belda RM (2018) Biochar versus hydrochar as growth media constituents for ornamental plant cultivation. Sci Agric 75:304–312

  27. Fornes F, Belda RM, Carrión C, Noguera V, García-Agustín P, Abad M (2007) Pre-conditioning ornamental plants to drought by means of saline water irrigation as related to salinity tolerance. Sci Hotic 113:52–59

  28. Fornes F, Carrión C, García de la Fuente R, Puchades R, Abad M (2010) Leaching composted lignocellulosic wastes to prepare container media: feasibility and environmental concerns. J Environ Manag 91:1747–1755

  29. Fornes F, Mendoza-Hernández D, Belda RM (2013) Compost versus vermicompost as substrate constituents for rooting shrub cuttings. Spanish J Agric Res 11:518–528

  30. Fornes F, Belda RM, Lidón A (2015) Analysis of two biochars and one hydrochar from different feedstock: focus set on environmental, nutritional and horticultural considerations. J Clean Prod 86:40–48

  31. Fornes F, Belda RM, Fernández de Córdova P, Cebolla-Cornejo J (2017) Assessment of biochar and hydrochar as minor to major constituents of growing media for containerized tomato production. J Sci Food Agric 97:3675–3684

  32. Gai X, Wang H, Liu J, Zhai L, Liu S, Ren T, Liu H (2014) Effects of feedstock and pyrolysis temperature on biochar adsorption of ammonium and nitrate. PLoS One 9:e113888

  33. Gaskin JW, Speir RA, Harris K, Das KC, Lee RD, Morris LA, Fisher DS (2010) Effect of peanut hull and pine chip biochar on soil nutrients, corn nutrient status, and yield. Agron J 102:623–633

  34. Gastón A, Soriano C, Gómez-Miguel V (2009) Lithologic data improve plant species distribution models based on coarse-grained occurrence data. Investigación Agraria: Sistemas y Recursos Forestales 18:42–49

  35. Gucci R, Aronne G, Lombardini L, Tattiani M (1997) Salinity tolerance of Phillyrea species. New Phytol 135:227–234

  36. Gwenzi W, Nyambishi TJ, Chaukura N, Mapope N (2018) Synthesis and nutrient release patterns of a biochar-based N-P–K slow-release fertilizer. Int J Environ Sci Technol 15:405–414

  37. Haase DL, Rose R (1995) Vector analysis and its use for interpreting plant nutrient shifts in response to silvicultural treatments. For Sci 41:54–66

  38. Haefele SM, Yonboon Y, Wongboon W, Amarante S, Maarifat AA, Pfeiffer EM, Konoblauch C (2011) Effects and fate of biochar from rice residues in rice-based systems. Field Crops Res 121:430–440

  39. Harfouche A, Baoune N, Merazga H (2007) Main and interaction effects of factors on softwood cutting of white poplar (Populus alba L.). Silvae Genet 56:287–294

  40. Headlee WL, Brewer CE, Hall RB (2014) Biochar as substitute for vermiculite in potting mix for hybrid poplar. Bioenerg Res 7:120–131

  41. Joseph S, Kammann CI, Shepherd JG, Conte P, Schmidt HP, Hagemann N, Rich AM, Marjo CE, Allen J, Munroe P, Mitchel DRG, Donne S, Spokas K, Graber ER (2018) Microstructural and associated chemical changes during the composting of a high temperature biochar: mechanisms for nitrate, phosphate and other nutrient retention and release. Sci Total Environ 618:1210–1223

  42. Kammann C, Ratering S, Eckhard C, Müller C (2012) Biochar and hydrochar effects on greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane) fluxes from soils. J Environ Qual 41:1052–1066

  43. Laird D, Fleming P, Wang B, Horton R, Karlen D (2010) Biochar impact on nutrient leaching from a Midwestern agricultural soil. Geoderma 158:436–442

  44. Lee JA (1998) The calcicole—calcifuge problem revisited. In: Callow JA (ed) Advances in botanical research. Academic Press Haranhan, LA, pp 1–30

  45. Lehmann J, Joseph S (2009) Biochar for enivronmental management: an Introduction. In: Lehmann J, Joseph S (eds) Biochar for enivronmental management. Science and Technology, Earthscan, London, pp 1–12

  46. Liang B, Lehmann J, Solomon D, Kinyangi J, Grossman J, O’Neill B, Skjemstad JO, Thies J, Luizaõ FJ, Petersen J, Neves G (2006) Black carbon increases cation exchange capacity in soils. Soil Sci Soc Am J 70:1719–1730

  47. Lucia De, Cristiano G, Vecchietti L, Bruno L (2013) Effect of different rates of composted organic amendment on urban soil properties, growth and nutrient status of three Mediterranean native hedge species. Urban Forest Urban Green 12:537–545

  48. Maher M, Prasad M, Raviv M (2008) Organic soilless media components. In: Raviv M, Lieth JH (eds) Soilless culture: theory and practice. Elsevier, London, pp 459–504

  49. Malby E, Proctor MCF (1996) Peatlands in biosphere. Peatlands: their nature and role in the biosphere. In: Lappalainen E (ed) Global peat resources. International Peat Society, Jyskä, pp 11–19

  50. Maronek DM, Studebaker D, Oberly B (1985) Improving media aeration in liner and container production. Comb Proc Int Plant Prop Soc 35:591–597

  51. Martikainen PJ (1996) Peatlands in biosphere. The fluxes of greenhouse gases CO2, CH4 and N2O in northern peatlands. In: Lappalainen E (ed) Global peat resources. International Peat Society, Jyskä, pp 29–36

  52. Mendez A, Paz-Ferreiro J, Gil E, Gasco G (2015) The effect of paper sludge and biochar addition on brown peat and coir based growing media properties. Sci Hortic 193:225–230

  53. Mendoza-Hernández D, Fornes F, Belda RM (2014) Compost and vermicompost of horticultural waste as substrates for cutting rooting and growth of rosemary. Sci Hortic 178:192–202

  54. Mills HA, Jones JB Jr (1996) Plant analysis handbook II. A practical sampling, preparation, analysis, and interpretation guide. Micro Macro Publishing, Athens

  55. Mukherjee A, Zimmerman AR (2013) Organic carbon and nutrient release from a range of laboratory produced biochars and biochar soil mixtures. Geoderma 193–194:122–130

  56. Ogaya R, Peñuelas J, Martínez-Vilalta J, Mangirón M (2003) Effect of droutgh on diameter increment of Querqus Ilex, Phillyrea latifolia and Arbutus unedo in a holm oak forest of NE Spain. For Ecol Manag 180:175–184

  57. Ojanen P, Minkkinen K, Penttilä T (2013) The current greenhouse gas impact of forestry-drained boreal peatlands. For Ecol Manag 289:201–208

  58. Omil B, Piñeiro V, Merino A (2013) Soil and tree responses to the application ofwood ash containing charcoal in two soils with contrasting properties. For Ecol Manag 295:199–212

  59. Otani T, Ae N (2001) Interspecific differences in the role of root exudates in phosphorous acquisition. In: Ae N, Arihara J, Okada K, Srinivasan A (eds) Plant nutrient acquisition. New perspectives. Springer, Tokio, pp 71–100

  60. Peng X, Ye LL, Wang CH, Zhou H, Sun B (2011) Temperature-and-duration-dependent rice staw-derived biochar: characteristics and its effects on soil properties of an Ultisol in southern China. Soil Tillage Res 112:159–166

  61. Pérez-Bejarano A, Mataix-Solera J, Zornoza R, Guerrero C, Arcenegui V, Mataix-Beneyto J, Cano-Amat S (2010) Influence of plant species of physical, chemical and biological soil properties in a Mediterranean forest soil. Eur J For Res 129:15–24

  62. Peterson JC (1981) Modify your pH perspective. Flor Rev 169:34–35, 92 and 94

  63. Petruccelli R, Bonetti A, Traversi ML, Faraloni C, Valagussa M, Pozzi A (2015) Influence of biochar application on nutritional quality of tomato (Lycopersicon sculentum). Crop Past Sci 66:747–755

  64. Pryce S (1991) The peat alternatives manual. A guide for the professional horticulturist and landscaper. Friends of the Earth, London

  65. Randall PJ, Hayes JE, Hocking PJ, Richardson AE (2001) Root exudates in phosphorous acquisition by plants. In: Ae N, Arihara J, Okada K, Srinivasan A (eds) Plant nutrient acquisition. New Perspectives. Springer, Tokio, pp 71–100

  66. Sáez JA, Belda RM, Bernal MP, Fornes F (2016) Biochar improves agro-environmental aspects of pig slurry compost as a substrate for crops with energy and remediation uses. Ind Crops Prod 94:97–106

  67. Sanchís E, Rubio JL, Mansanet J (1986) Soils and vegetation in Mount Dehesa de la Albufera (Valencia) (in Spanish). Rev Agroquim Tecnol Alimentos 26:435–450

  68. Sarauer J, Coleman MD (2018) Biochar as a growing media component for containerized production 1 of Douglas-fir. Can J For Res 48:581–588

  69. Schmilevski G (2009) Growing medium constituents used in the EU. Acta Hortic 81:33–46

  70. Spokas KA, Cantrell KB, Novak JM, Archer DW, Ippolito JA, Collins HP, Boateng AA, Lima IM, Lamb MC, McAloon AJ, Lentz RD, Nichols KA (2012) Biochar: a synthesis of its agronomic impact beyond carbon sequestration. J Environ Qual 41:973–989

  71. Tate HT, Page T (2018) Cutting propagation of Santalum austrocaledonicum: the effect of genotype, cutting source, cutting size, propagation medium, IBA and irradiance. New For 49:551–570

  72. Thomas SC, Gale N (2015) Biochar and forest restoration: a review and meta-analysis of tree growth responses. New For 46:931–946

  73. Xu X, Kan Y, Zhao L, Cao X (2016) Chemical transformation of CO2 during its capture by waste biomass derived biochars. Environ Pollut 213:533–540

  74. Yao C, Joseph S, Li L, Pan G, Lin Y, Munroe P, Pace B, Taherymoosavi S, Van Zwieten L, Thomas T, Nielsen S, Ye J, Donne S (2015) Developing more effective enhanced biochar fertilisers for improvement of pepper yield and quality. Pedosphere 25:703–712

  75. Zhang L, Sun X, Tian Y, Gong X (2014) Biochar and humic acid amendments improve the quality of composted green waste as a growth medium for the ornamental plant Calathea insignis. Sci Hortic 176:70–78

Download references


We would like to thank L’Albufera Natural Park and José Almudever from TENISPLANT S.L. for providing us with the plant material and for the use of their premises. We also would like to thank student Mauro Payá for his valuable technical assistance. This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

Author information

Correspondence to Fernando Fornes.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Fornes, F., Belda, R.M. Use of raw and acidified biochars as constituents of growth media for forest seedling production. New Forests 50, 1063–1086 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11056-019-09715-y

Download citation


  • Natural park nursery
  • Nutrient leaching curves
  • Phillyrea angustifolia
  • Plant growth
  • Rosmarinus officinalis
  • Rooting cutting