Impact of Biochar on Moisture and Nutrient Retention in Long Island Nurseries

Project Overview

Project Type: Research Only
Funds awarded in 2019: $83,949.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2022
Grant Recipient: Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Dr. Deborah Aller
Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County


  • Additional Plants: ornamentals


  • Crop Production: application rate management, crop improvement and selection, nurseries, tissue analysis
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil analysis, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    1) Problem, Novel Approach and Justification: Farming is an integral part of the identity and economy of Suffolk County; ranking third in New York State in total sales of farm products and first in horticultural products. However, the intensity of agricultural production and the regions sandy soils that are susceptible to leaching, make the ground and surface waters of Long Island vulnerable to contamination. Producers must adopt best management practices that minimize agricultural inputs to waters to ensure the sustainability of Suffolk’s agriculture industry. Biochar, a carbon-rich material intended for soil application, is a relatively new product for the ornamental horticulture industry. Its large surface area and high porosity decrease soil bulk density and increase porosity, enhancing water and nutrient retention. However, the application and impacts of biochar on nutrient and water retention in field and container nursery crops is limited, with currently no recommended application rates of biochar in ornamental production. This knowledge gap limits larger scale adoption by the nursery industry.

    2) Hypothesis and Research Plan: This study aims to investigate the effects of biochar on nutrient availability and water retention in field and container nursery production. We hypothesize that biochar and biochar rate will impact moisture status and nutrient uptake by the crops and that retention will increase as biochar application rate increases. Biochar rate trials will be conducted in field and container production at four different nurseries. Experiments will be established for three years in California privet and Douglas fir production, and two years in boxwood, hydrangea, and switchgrass container production. The container trials will also examine biochar incorporation method impacts on water and nutrient retention. Soil and plant data will be collected and in-situ soil sensors will record soil properties.

    3) Outreach Plan: At a local level, details of this research will be communicated to growers through our monthly Agricultural News publication, and conferences including the annual Long Island Agricultural Forum. A field day will be hosted at a cooperating nursery to introduce other growers to biochar use and management. Research results will be shared with the broader nursery industry through presentations at regional conferences and submission for peer-reviewed publication will culminate the project.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This is an innovative project that aims to enhance understanding of biochar’s impact on both field and container nursery production. Working directly with nursery growers in Suffolk County, our goal is to evaluate if biochar can contribute to on-going agricultural stewardship efforts by increasing nutrient availability and soil water retention, and decreasing leaching losses. The knowledge gained would increase accuracy of biochar use recommendations and rates for nursery producers both within the County and regionally.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.