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Does carbon limitation reduce nitrogen retention in soil?


Artificial soils made from waste materials offer an alternative to imported natural topsoils, notably in large-scale groundwork and reclamation projects. Benefits include diversion of waste from landfill and recycling. Nonetheless, there is limited information on the characteristics needed to support plant growth in the long term, particularly the existence of a sustainable nitrogen reservoir. Therefore, we assessed the efficacy of nitrogen cycling and retention within an artificial soil composed of 25% sand, 10% clay, 32.5% composted bark and 32.5% composted green waste over 52 weeks. Leachate was analysed for nitrogen species and nitrogen concentrations, and two of the soil columns had fertiliser added after 26 and 48 weeks. Results show that nitrate concentrations decreased from 6.73 to 0.36 mg N L−1 after 2 weeks, due to poor retention of this anion in soil, and remained low for 6 months, before increasing up to 5.87 mg N L−1 after week 26. This sharp increase in dissolved nitrate was preceded by a decrease in the ratio of dissolved organic carbon to dissolved organic nitrogen in the soil leachate. This finding indicates that the soil had become carbon-limited, leading to mineralisation of organic nitrogen by soil organisms and excretion of nitrogen. We also found that fertilisation of the soil did not alleviate carbon limitation and nitrogen loss was greater in fertilised soils, indicating nitrogen saturation. After the onset of carbon limitation, the dissolved nitrate concentrations in both the fertilised and unfertilised soils were close to exceeding the European Union threshold of concern for nitrate groundwater and river pollution. Thus, while the deployment of artificial soils is a viable option for landscaping projects, loss of nitrogen may be environmentally significant and soil management protocols must take account of both the carbon and nitrogen status of the substrate.

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We are grateful for the comments of the Reviewers and Editors, which improved the manuscript considerably. The support of the Eden Project Green, Science and Foundation Teams is also gratefully acknowledged. This work was supported through a European Social Fund studentship awarded to HKS.

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Correspondence to Mark F. Fitzsimons.

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Schofield, H.K., Pettitt, T.R., Tappin, A.D. et al. Does carbon limitation reduce nitrogen retention in soil?. Environ Chem Lett 16, 623–630 (2018).

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  • Artificial soil
  • Nitrogen
  • Nitrate
  • Organic nitrogen
  • Carbon limitation
  • Fertilisation