Manipulating the Quantity, Quality, and Manner of C Addition to Reduce Soil Inorganic N and Increase C4:C3 Grass Biomass


Address correspondence to R. D. Jackson, email


Applying C to soils has been proposed as a plant community restoration tactic because it has been shown to immobilize inorganic N, which should confer a competitive advantage to slower growing plants that are often key components of the desired plant community. Disparate experimental and survey results have led to questions about the appropriate quality and quantity of C to apply. We conducted a single-season glasshouse experiment in three soil types to determine how the quality (sugar, sawdust, sugar + sawdust), quantity (1 and 5 kg sugar or sawdust/m2), and mode of application (surface applied or mixed into soil) of C affected soil inorganic N pools, net mineralization rates, and aboveground biomass of coexisting C3 and C4 plant species. Carbon applied as sawdust mixed into the soil resulted in the highest level of immobilization in the short term (6 weeks), but all combinations and rates of sugar and sawdust application resulted in immobilization over this period. In the long term (24 weeks), most amendments immobilized N and suppressed aboveground biomass of the C3 grass, Bromus inermis, but the high rate of sugar resulted in the strongest immobilization and C3 suppression. However, this treatment also maintained the highest soil inorganic N pool at season’s end, which calls into question its effectiveness if longer-term benefits are desired. Neither net mineralization rates nor soil inorganic N pools were correlated to the ratio of C4 to C3 plant biomass at season’s end indicating that the mechanisms for favorable plant response to C addition are not understood.