Highly weathered soils in Hawaii are low in fertility, negatively affecting plant growth. The potential of biochar for improving soil nutrient availability to crops is promising, and prompts a new study.

Two biochars at 2% (w/w) made of lac tree (Schleichera oleosa (Lour.) Oken) wood and mixed wood (scrapped wood and tree trimmings) with and without vermicompost or thermocompost at 2% (w/w) were added to an Ultisol (Ustic Kanhaplohumult, Leilehua series) and an Oxisol (Rhodic haplustox, Wahiawa series) of Hawaii. In each soil two additional treatments—lime + compost and un-amended soil—served as the control. Chinese cabbage (Brassica rapa cv. Bonsai) was used as the test plant in two greenhouse plantings, which had a factorial completely randomized design with three replicates per treatment. The results indicated that soil acidity, nutrient in the soils, plant growth and nutrient uptake were improved by the amendments compared to the control.

The combined additions of biochar and compost significantly increased pH and EC; reduced exchangeable Al; reduced Mn and Fe in the Oxisol; increased P, K, and Ca content of the soils; and increased Ca, Mg and Fe uptake. Exchangeable aluminum in the Ultisol decreased from 2.5 cmol+/kg to nil; Mehlich-3 extractable P, K, Ca, Mg, Fe, and Mn in the Ultisol increased by 1478%, 2257%, 1457%, 258%, 125% and 72%, respectively compared to the un-amended soil, while the same nutrients increased or decreased in the Oxisol by 180%, 59%, 308%, −14%, and −36%, respectively.

Shoot and total cabbage fresh and dry matters increased by 94%, 96%, 107%, and 112%, respectively, as compared to the lime plus compost treatment. Cabbage growth in the Ultisol amended with the lac tree wood biochar and vermicompost was almost twice over the lime and vermicompost treatment. Essential nutrients in the plant tissues, except for N and K, were sufficient for the cabbage growth, suggesting increases in nutrients and reduced soil acidity by the additions of biochar combined with compost were the probable cause. It is recommended that locally produced biochars and composts be used to improve plant nutrient availability in the highly weathered soils.

Access the full study at Agronomy.