Jeff Norton, vice president of business development for V-Grid Energy Systems, says biochar — a captured carbon produced from agricultural waste — offers lawn care operators (LCOs) a way to get more out of their fertilizers as prices continue to soar.
Norton and Ben Pease, turfgrass agronomist with The Andersons Plant Nutrient Group, share the benefits of biochar and how LCOs can incorporate them into their lawn care operation.
Pease tells LM that while biochar has been around for a while, lawn care operators are just recently starting to come around to adding them into their regimens.
“Even if people don’t use them, they’ve at least heard of them and have maybe thought about using them,” he says. “As straight nutrient prices are rising, LCOs are looking for ways to offset that increase in cost without decreasing their quality of service.”
According to Pease, biochar allows LCOs to keep costs steady and maintain quality by enhancing nutrient retention. Pease says that biochar also improves soil structure and moisture-retention abilities, setting biochar apart from similar products, like humates.
Biochar serves as what Norton calls a “hotel for microorganisms” and offers a healthy microbiome for turf.
“We find that by amending soil with biochar, we explode both the population and diversity of those microorganisms,” he says. “So it offers not only water retention and nutrient binding, but the porosity hosts those organisms that provide a natural benefit to the soil.”
V-Grid’s biochar product, Persist, utilizes pistachio shells as feedstock. The shells create energy through a process called gasification, which leaves biochar as a coproduct.
Norton says V-Grid recommends a 10 to 20 percent application by soil volume. He also says biochar isn’t a season-specific product, so LCOs can apply it anytime.
“Once it’s in the soil, it stays there; that’s the point. It’s captured carbon,” he says. “So, once you get it applied, you have that benefit in the root zone for a long period of time.”
Because there aren’t many fertilizers that come with a biochar portion, according to Pease, LCOs should make an application when there’s already another project going on, like establishing a lawn or overseeding.
“The best time to apply them is when you’re doing aeration or any other kind of cultural practices like seeding or something like that,” he says. “If you can get some of that product into those aeration holes, you might see some of the benefits sooner.”
Incorporating biochar into the soil with a simple broadcast spreader also works for LCOs interested in biochar, but who aren’t aerating or overseeding anytime soon, Pease and Norton say.
Give it time
Pease says a common question he hears from LCOs who use biochar is, “Why am I not seeing a difference?”
“Biochar isn’t like nitrogen, where there’s going to be a drastic difference in the short term,” he says. “It’s really a long-term game. If you’re applying these with one of your applications every year, over time, you’re going to get healthier and improved soil and plant health.”
Biochar, Pease says, offers an overall benefit for the system that will show a difference after a few seasons of application.
“It might not be an overall visual change,” he says. “But I would say after a couple of seasons of a biochar application, you’ll see an improvement in your water-holding capacity and your porosity. That, in turn, will help your standard nutrient applications go further.”
For LCOs looking to incorporate biochar into their program, the sustainability factor can be a major selling point for customers, Norton says.
“It’s an all-natural product,” Norton says. “If I want to promote how my business is sustainable and provides environmentally friendly solutions to customers that are cutting edge, I think including biochar in your activities gives a really good story to tell, and it’s a good marketing point to connect with your customers.