Pine sawdust biochar as a potential amendment for establishing trees in Appalachian mine spoils

Pine sawdust biochar as a potential amendment for establishing trees in Appalachian mine spoils


  • Christopher Warren Fields-Johnson The Davey Tree Expert Company
  • John H Fike Virginia Tech
  • John M Galbraith Virginia Tech
  • Rory O Maguire Virginia Tech
  • Susan D Day Virginia Tech
  • Shepard M Zedaker Virginia Tech
  • Joseph Eric Mathis Institute for Regenerative Design and Innovation



Early growth and survival of tree seedlings is often poor on reclaimed coal surface mines in Appalachia. Biochar produced in bioenergy generation has potential for use as an amendment to improve seedling performance. Mine soil was collected from a recently reclaimed coal surface mine in Wise County, Virginia and mixed with loblolly pine (Pinus taeda L.) sawdust biochar, simulating application rates of 2.3, 11.2 and 22.5 Mg ha-1. Unplanted leaching columns and 4 L tree planting pots were filled with these biochar-soil mixtures, plus controls of pure mine soil and pure biochar. For the tree planting pots, additional pots were created where the biochar was applied as a topdressing at the same application rates as in the mixtures. One-year-old seedlings of both American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis L.) and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia L.) were planted. Unplanted leaching columns were leached with collected rainwater for six months to simulate weathering. Trees were grown for one growing season. Black locust had higher average above-ground dry woody biomass (24.4 g) than American sycamore (17.0 g), and also higher below-ground biomass (61.0 g compared to 30.2 g). The pure biochar produced greater average below-ground biomass (99.9 g) than the pure mine soil (46.9 g). All of the biochar treatments produced greater average above-ground woody biomass (19.1 g – 33.4 g) than the pure mine soil (10.9 g). After weathering, biochar provided less available soil phosphorus, calcium and iron than the mine soil itself while increasing soil carbon and organic matter. High (22.5 Mg ha-1) biochar applications increased soil volumetric water holding capacity to 18.6% compared to 13.4% for pure mine soil. Naturally-occurring herbaceous biomass in the pots was negatively correlated with above-ground woody biomass at r = -0.483. Topdressing and full incorporation of biochar were not significantly different in their effects on biomass. Results suggest that pine biochar either broadcast at 2.3 - 22.5 Mg ha‑1, or mixed in planting holes with backfill soil, will promote faster above-ground growth and larger root systems in seedlings in mine soils. Further studies should test these methods in the field over multiple years and further refine recommendations of the rate of biochar to use and how best to apply it. New systems are being developed in Appalachia to produce biofuels and biochar from local biomass and to recycle biochar into the land base to enhance future biomass productivity. Applying 4 L of biochar mixed with the backfill of newly-planted trees is the top recommended practice for tree performance.


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How to Cite

Fields-Johnson, Christopher Warren, John H Fike, John M Galbraith, Rory O Maguire, Susan D Day, Shepard M Zedaker, and Joseph Eric Mathis. “Pine Sawdust Biochar As a Potential Amendment for Establishing Trees in Appalachian Mine Spoils”. REFORESTA, no. 6 (December 28, 2018): 1–14. Accessed March 1, 2024.