Effects of Soil Carbon Amendment on Nitrogen Availability and Plant Growth in an Experimental Tallgrass Prairie Restoration



Restoration of tallgrass prairie on former agricultural land is often impeded by failure to establish a diverse native species assemblage and by difficulties with nonprairie, exotic species. High levels of available soil nitrogen (N) on such sites may favor fast-growing exotics at the expense of more slowly growing prairie species characteristic of low-N soils. We tested whether reducing N availability through soil carbon (C) amendments could be a useful tool in facilitating successful tallgrass prairie restoration. We added 6 kg/m2 hardwood sawdust to experimental plots on an abandoned agricultural field in the Sandusky Plains of central Ohio, United States, increasing soil C by 67% in the upper 15 cm. This C amendment caused a 94% reduction in annual net N mineralization and a 27% increase in soil moisture but had no effect on total N or pH. Overall, plant mass after one growing season was reduced by 64% on amended compared with unamended soil, but this effect was less for prairie forbs (−34%) than for prairie grasses (−67%) or exotics (−62%). After the second growing season, only exotics responded significantly to the soil C amendment, with a 40% reduction in mass. The N concentration of green-leaf tissue and of senescent leaf litter was also reduced by the soil C treatment in most cases. We conclude that soil C amendment imparts several immediate benefits for tallgrass prairie restoration––notably reduced N availability, slower plant growth, and lower competition from exotic species.