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Science of the Total Environment 609 (2017) 446–455

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Characteristics and applications of ecological soil substrate for rocky

slope vegetation in cold and high-altitude areas
Hua Xu a,b,⁎, Tian-Bin Li b, Jian-Nan Chen c, Chia-Nan Liu d, Xiong-hua Zhou b, Lei Xia a
Key Laboratory of High-Speed Railway Engineering, Ministry of Education, School of Civil Engineering, Southwest Jiaotong University, Chengdu, Sichuan 610031, China
State Key Laboratory of Geohazard Prevention and Geoenvironment Protection, Chengdu University of Technology, Chengdu, Sichuan 610059, China
Department of Geoscience and Environmental Engineering, Southwest Jiaotong University, Chengdu, Sichuan 610031, China
Department of Civil Engineering, National Chi-Nan University, Nantou 545, Taiwan


• Ecological soil substrates were devel-

oped to provide a favorable environ-
ment for vegetation on the rocky slopes.
• The compositional effect by individual
compound on properties of substrates
was investigated by orthogonal array
• The mechanical properties, nutrition
facts and growth of vegetation of the op-
timum substrate was validated by a
field test.
• The optimum substrate is appropriate
for ecological restoration on the steep
rocky slopes in cold and high-altitude

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Ecological restoration of steep rocky slopes generated by road cutting is usually difficult especially, in the cold and
Received 7 May 2017 high-altitude environment, which is unfavorable for the growth of vegetation. With the focus on slope vegeta-
Received in revised form 16 July 2017 tion, an ecological soil substrate, synthesized with polyacrylamide (PAM), carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC), and
Accepted 17 July 2017
Fly ash (FA) as the main components, was developed for spray seeding on the rocky slopes in cold and high-
Available online xxxx
altitude regions, to provide a favorable environment for vegetation growth. The compositional effect of individual
Editor: F.M. Tack compound addition on the growth of vegetation and substrate properties was investigated using an orthogonal
array experimental design. Based on ANOVA and orthogonal analysis, an ecological soil substrate (PCF) with
Keywords: 400 g/m3 PAM, 600 g/m3 CMC, 1500 g/m3 FA, and 50 L/m3 of water was decided as the optimum PCF substrate.
Synthesized soil The optimum PCF substrate was then sprayed on a steep rocky slope in a cold and high-altitude region in Sichuan,
Vegetation China, for two years. The vegetation, as well as the physico-chemical properties, nutrient content, and mechanical
Rocky slope properties of the field soil substrate, were examined over this duration. The field verification shows that the pro-
Cold and high-altitude posed PCF substrate is able to provide desirable nutrient contents and excellent physical and mechanical proper-
ties for vegetating the steep rocky slopes in cold and high-altitude areas.
© 2017 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

⁎ Corresponding author at: School of Civil Engineering, Southwest Jiaotong University, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China.
E-mail addresses:, (H. Xu).
0048-9697/© 2017 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
H. Xu et al. / Science of the Total Environment 609 (2017) 446–455 447

1. Introduction as rocky slopes in cold and high-altitude regions, where the germination
and growth of vegetation are limited by the temperature, insufficient
Construction of railways, highways, dams, and mining facilities pro- water, and nutrients (Xu et al., 2009). The aim of this study is to develop
duces several steep rocky slopes due to the massive road cutting in- appropriate soil substrates for wide purposes, especially ecological res-
volved (Xu et al., 2007; Xu et al., 2009). As a consequence, natural toration of steep rock slopes in cold and high-altitude regions, which
disasters, such as soil erosion, landslides, and debris flow, could poten- present the worst case for the use of soil substrates.
tially occur during the construction or service life of such infrastructure.
Conventional engineering techniques for slope protection, such as an- 2. Material and methods
chor bolts and grouted revetment, provide excellent short-term en-
hancement to the slope stability, but do not offer a long-term solution 2.1. Components of ecological substrates
for erosion control, due to the very low vegetation coverage on the
slopes (Ahlstrom et al., 2016; Schreit and Andreas, 2016). Therefore, The external soils are usually synthesized by mixing adhesion bind-
ecological techniques, considering both mechanical strength and eco- er, fertilizer and water absorbent with base soil (Merlin et al., 1999;
logical restoration, are key for slope protection (Gao et al., 2007). Cano et al., 2002; Rowe et al., 2005; Gao et al., 2007). The most widely
The construction of infrastructure in the western part of China pro- used adhesive binder is cement which can provide high adhesion to
duces several naked rocky slopes, which have no ambient surface soil the rocky slope (Gao et al., 2007). However, cement cannot be easily de-
to maintain the growth of vegetation (Gao et al., 2007; Xu et al., graded and will likely to induce environmental issues, such as high pH
2009). The most commonly used ecological techniques for slope protec- effluent and heavy metals (Van Der Sloot, 2000). The commonly used
tion are hydraulic seeding and external-soil spray seeding (Gao et al., fertilizer is inorganic compound fertilizer (nitrogen, phosphate and po-
2007; Xu et al., 2009). Hydraulic seeding, with the advantage of high tassium as main contents), which can provide nutrition for vegetation
mechanization and efficiency, has been used widely in the early-stage instantly (Cano et al., 2002; Rowe et al., 2005; Gao et al., 2007). Howev-
applications for ecological restoration on rocky slopes (Carr and er, the inorganic compound fertilizer could induce soil acidification and
Ballard, 1980; Montoro et al., 2000; Bochet and Garcia-Fayos, 2004). hardening which will destroy the structure and chemistry of the soil
However, Bochet and Garcia-Fayos (2004) found that the efficiency of (Wallace, 2008). The commonly used water absorbent are water absor-
hydraulic seeding application was low for slopes steeper than 45°, due bent polymers, such as polyacrylamide (PAM) hydrogel, which can ef-
to poor attachment and nutrient deficiency. External-soil spray seeding fectively bound water and generate high pellet degree (Rowe et al.,
is a modified version of hydraulic seeding. In this method, the external 2005; Gao et al., 2007).
soil (or substrate) includes base soil, fertilizers, soil conditioners, In this study, some components, including polyacrylamide (PAM),
water retention agents, adhesive binders, and seeds (Gao et al., 2007). carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC), and fly ash (FA), with additional
It can coat the rocky slopes in the form of a 100 mm-thick substrate water (Wadd.), were added to the base soil (loamy soil) to provide suit-
layer, with nutrient and water supplies for seed germination and able adhesion on the rocky slope, in addition to water and nutrients. A
growth (Gao et al., 2007). mixture of forest humus and loam (1:10 by weight) was used as base
Although external-soil spray seeding is a useful technique for the soil for the substrate. The soil was sampled from the field site (men-
ecological restoration of rocky slopes, problems such as substrate tioned in Section 2.3) with the following physical properties: density
spalling and vegetation degradation still exist during its practical appli- = 1.3–1.5 g/cm3, water content = 6–8%, and organic content = 3–5%.
cation (Gao et al., 2007; Liu and Han, 2007; Zhao, 2012). An inappropri- Other loamy soils with similar properties can also be used as base soil.
ate substrate soil might induce failures such as low adhesion, water and The choice of components is based on how environmental-friendly
nutrient deficiency, and poor adaptability to harsh climates. The critical and economical they are. Therefore, biodegradable (i.e., CMC) and
issue is deciding the components of the appropriate substrate soil. recycled materials (i.e., FA) are preferred as additives to the substrate,
Previous studies have focused mainly on the feasibility and improve- and the maximum load of additives in the substrate is b 2.6 kg/m3.
ment of external-soil spray seeding by evaluating the vegetation germi-
nation and growth (Merlin et al., 1999; Cano et al., 2002; Rowe et al., 2.1.1. PAM
2005). Cano et al. (2002) used a mixture of short fiber mulch, soluble PAM is a long-chain polymer with flocculation characteristics
chemical fertilizer, organic tackifier, and a commercial seed mixture of (Vysotskaya et al., 1990). PAM has been widely used to improve the sta-
grasses and herbaceous legumes for hydraulic seeding on a rocky bility and erosion resistance of clayey and sandy soils (Vinten et al.,
slope (N50°) in northwestern Spain. The study showed that the local 1983a, 1983b; Trout and Ajwa, 2001; Lentz, 2003; Lentz and Sojka,
topoclimate had a strong impact on the growth of vegetation. Rowe 2009a, 2009b; Sepaskhah and Sokoot, 2010). Asghari et al. (2011) stat-
et al. (2005) studied the use of hydrogel or slate processing fines treated ed that PAM could improve the moisture curve of soil on the slope, and
with blocky quarry waste for tree planting. The results showed that tree sustain a high, saturated hydraulic conductivity by forming stable ag-
survival improved with the treatment by slate processing fines but not gregates. PAM could attenuate the soil erosion, increase the water infil-
with hydrogel. The failure of the hydrogel is due to shrinkage, which is tration, and decrease the slope runoff (Sepaskhah and
likely due to the lack of soil-forming material and extreme environment. Bazrafshan-Jahromi, 2006; Sepaskhah and Mahdi-Hosseinabadi, 2008;
The aforementioned studies presented the feasibility of using external Lentz and Sojka, 2009b). Busscher et al. (2009) found that PAM could in-
or amended soil, however, only a few studies have focused on the effect crease the number of soil pellets, which could disturb the bulk structure
of composition on the ecological restoration in external soil, as well as of stiff soil and reduce the permeability of the soil. In the ecological sub-
its long-term performance and adaptation to the environment. Gao strates, PAM has three functions: (1) improve the soil structure and en-
et al. (2007) studied the compositional effects of substrates such as ce- hance the number of soil pellets, (2) improve the stability of particles
ment, peat soil, chipped wood, inorganic compound fertilizers, and and pore structure, (3) improve the permeability and field capacity of
water-absorbent polymers. By examining the physico-chemical proper- soil.
ties and plant growth, they determined the appropriate substrates by
the orthogonal array method. The optimum substrate was verified on 2.1.2. CMC
a rocky slope with a gradient of 50° in a warm and low-altitude region CMC is a non-ionic water-soluble gel with a great proportion of hy-
for 100 days. However, only the vegetation coverage and soil loss in droxymethyl and amide groups, and it can be biologically degraded
the field test were investigated, and long-term nutrient and water con- (Avera, 1989; El-Mohdy, 2007). CMC has good water absorption and ad-
tents, and root growth data were not reported. In addition, the optimum hesion, and can be cured at room temperature (20 °C). CMC has been
substrate might not be applied directly to the harsh environment, such used widely in agriculture for soil improvement as a water-retaining
448 H. Xu et al. / Science of the Total Environment 609 (2017) 446–455

agent (Avera, 1989; El-Mohdy, 2007; Raafat et al., 2012). Ali and Inst Table 2
(2011) showed that the addition of CMC to the soil enhances the Orthogonal design of the study.

water retention capacity of soil by decreasing the volumetric density Substrate Orthogonal design Compositions
of soil as well as the connectivity and diameter of the pores. Wu et al. no. matrix
(2015) found that adding CMC to the soils can decrease the permeabil- PAM CMC FA Wadd. PAM CMC FA Wadd.
ity and enhance the water retention capacity of soils. In this study, CMC (g/m3) (g/m3) (g/m3) (L/m3)
is used as an adhesive binder to improve the water retention capacity 1 1 1 1 1 200 300 500 10
and aggregation of substrates. 2 1 2 2 2 200 600 1000 30
3 1 3 3 3 200 900 1500 50
2.1.3. Fly ash 4 2 1 2 3 400 300 1000 50
5 2 2 3 1 400 600 1500 10
Fly ash is a by-product from coal combustion process. Due to its fine 6 2 3 1 2 400 900 500 30
particle size (b0.075 mm), light weight, high water absorption, and ad- 7 3 1 3 2 600 300 1500 30
equate nutrient content, fly ash has been widely used as an additive for 8 3 2 1 3 600 600 500 50
ecological restoration in mining sites (Ram and Masto, 2010). Fly ash 9 3 3 2 1 600 900 1000 10
contains the essential nutrients (e.g., Si, Al, Fe, K, and trace elements)
for vegetation growth, and can effectively improve the soil fertility
and promote vegetation growth (Ramesh and Chhonkar, 2001; Gupta thoroughly mixed and filled in the cuboid planter boxes as the base
et al., 2002; Ram et al., 2006). In addition, fly ash could effectively im- layer, 2) another 10-mm of PCF substrate with 30–35 g/m2 (approxi-
prove the soil structure, air-water permeability, and field capacity, de- mately 80 seeds) of Festuca arundinacea seeds was placed on top of
crease the volumetric density, and enhance the efficiency of cations in the base layer. The planter boxes were then moved to a 53° (H:V =
the soil, while inhibiting pests and diseases (Ram et al., 2007; Pandey 0.75:1) artificial slope to simulate a steep slope, under room tempera-
and Singh, 2010; Ram and Masto, 2010; Ram and Masto, 2014; ture (20 ± 2 °C). Festuca arundinacea, a cool-season, long-lived, peren-
Shaheen et al., 2014). In this study, fly ash was used to provide nutrients nial species, was selected as the representative plant for cold and
to the ecological substrate. high-altitude regions. Festuca arundinacea has been widely as an orna-
mental grass in the ecological restoration of western China, and was
2.1.4. Additional water used for field verification as well (mentioned later in the Section 2.3).
Water is essential for the germination and growth of vegetation The germination rate and height of Festuca arundinacea, as well as
(Taylor et al., 1982). Liquid water ensures the transportation of nutri- the pellet degree and field capacity of the substrate, were used as
ents and improves the growth of vegetation (Bakass et al., 2002). Al- index criteria for the determination of optimum PCF substrate.
though the loamy substrate soil might have a certain water content,
additional water should be added to the ecological substrate to meet 2.2.3. Determination of vegetation growth and substrate properties
the objective of long-term growth of vegetation. In the present study, Germination rate and plant height were the main indicators to de-
an appropriate level of water addition was required for the germination termine the plant growth. Germination rate was calculated after
and growth of vegetation as well as for achieving a better pellet degree. 10 days using Eq. (1) (Brenchley and Probert, 1998).
Based on the aforementioned physical and chemical characteristics
of PAM, CMC, and FA, these components have different roles in the eco-
logical substrates. This study is aimed to take the advantages of each Germination ð%Þ ¼  100 ð1Þ
component to develop ecological substrates with good nutrient and
water retention capacity as well as high stability on the rocky slopes. Ex-
perimental tests were conducted to determine the optimum propor- where A = number of germinated seeds and N = number of total seeds
tioning ratio for each component. tested. The height of the plants was recorded on the 30th day of the
tests, by measuring the distance from top of the substrate to the spear
2.2. Laboratory experiments to determine the optimal substrate leaf. The average values as well as the standard deviations were report-
composition ed in this study.
Pellet degree and field capacity are important physical indicators of
2.2.1. Orthogonal design nutrient and water retention in the PCF substrate. Pellet degree was de-
Laboratory experiments were designed to investigate the optimum termined by the wet-sieve method in ASTM D6572-2012, and the field
combination of compounds in the PCF substrate. An orthogonal array capacity was measured following the method described in Wilcox
design (L934) with four factors, i.e., PAM, CMC, FA, and Wadd., was de- (1939). Both methods require the specimens with less disturbance,
signed, and three levels of each factor were used in the investigation. therefore, to minimize the boundary effect, specimens were obtained
The compositions for each level are shown in Table 1, and the orthogo- in the center of the box and trimmed using a steel-cutting ring with
nal design matrix is listed in Table 2. The nine substrates were placed in inner diameter = 62 mm and height = 20 mm.
a cuboid planter box (L × W × H = 1 m × 0.5 m × 0.1 m), and triplicate
tests were conducted for each substrate (total 27 tests). 2.3. Field test to determine the performance of optimum PCF substrate

2.2.2. Experimental set up 2.3.1. Site description

PCF substrates (100-mm depth) were placed in the cuboid planter To evaluate the performance of the optimum PCF substrate in a cold
boxes in two steps: 1) 90-mm of PCF substrate without seeds was first and high-altitude region, field tests were conducted on a rocky slope at
the westbound road of Zhe-Gu mountain tunnel (K7+008–K7+063,
Sichuan, China) along state highway 317 (N 31°50′49.37″, E 102°38′
Table 1
Properties of each level in the laboratory experiments. 22.45″). The Zhe-Gu mountain tunnel is located on the northwest
Sichuan-plateau, with an altitude of 3300 m. The average annual precip-
Levels PAM (g/m3) CMC (g/m3) FA (g/m3) Wadd. (L/m3)
itation is 910 to 938 mm, and temperature varies from −3.8 to 3.3 °C,
1 200 300 500 10 with extreme temperatures of 31.1 °C and −30 °C.
2 400 600 1000 30 The testing site was a steep (45–55°) rocky slope composed of meta-
3 600 900 1500 50
morphic sandstone and slate with no soil cover but a fractured surface
H. Xu et al. / Science of the Total Environment 609 (2017) 446–455 449

Fig. 1. Test slope before the substrate placement (a) and schematic view of the field test (b).

(Fig. 1a). The maximum height of the slope was 30 m and the total area nutrient contents and mechanical properties. The evaluated nutrients
is approximately 1000 m2. include: total nitrogen (NT, Kjeldahl method; Bremner and Mulvaney,
1982), available phosphorous (PA, molybdenum blue method; Bray
2.3.2. Field test setup and Kurtz, 1945), available potassium (KA, Hudcova, 1979), organics
To maintain the stability of the 30 m-high test slope, the slope was (CO, organic carbon; Mebius, 1960), and carbon nitrogen ratio (C/N).
divided into upper and lower sections: (1) the lower section, 20 m ver- Shear failure is the main failure mode of ecological substrates on the
tically above the highway pavement, was constructed at H:V = 0.5:1, rocky slopes (Wang et al., 2016). The total shear strength of substrates
and (2) the upper section, 10 m vertically above the lower section, against shear failure is composed of the shear strength of the pure sub-
was constructed at H:V = 0.75:1. A 1-m wide platform was maintained strate and the root development of vegetation (Ma'Ruf, 2012; Mazzuoli
between the two sections. The schematic view of the field test on the et al., 2016). The shear strength of the pure substrate (no vegetation) as
rocky slope is shown in Fig. 1b. The slope was protected by rockbolt well as the vegetation-substrate complex (i.e., samples from field test)
and wire mesh. After the rockbolt and wire mesh were setup on the were tested in this study. The shear strength tests were conducted fol-
slope, 100-mm deep substrate with optimum composition and seeds lowing ASTM D3080-11, under normal stresses of 50, 100, 150, and
was sprayed on the surface of the slope. The substrate was sprayed in 250 kPa with a displacement rate of 1.0 mm/min.
two steps: first, a 70–80-mm layer of substrate without seeds was
sprayed on the surface of slope as a nutrition layer, and then, a 20–30- 3. Results
mm substrate with seeds was sprayed on top of the nutrition layer.
The seed mixture included bluegrass, ryegrass, Festuca arundinacea, The results of orthogonal experiments (L934) on the nine different
and alfalfa (weigh ratio = 1:1:4:4) at a total density of 350 g/m3. Non- combinations were analyzed using Statistical Product and Service Solu-
woven textiles were used to cover the substrate after spray seeding to tions 11.0 (SPSS) and shown in Table 3. The average value and standard
avoid mass loss due to precipitation and solar damage. After 30 days, deviation of the triplicate tests are presented in the table. The analysis of
the vegetation coverage on the slope reached approximately 90%, and variance (ANOVA) for the orthogonal experiments showed that each
mass loss of only 0.1%–0.6% was found in the field investigation, which factor (i.e., PAM, CMC, FA, and Wadd.) had a strong impact on the growth
indicates a good erosion resistance of the PCF substrate. The field test of vegetation and substrates properties, with most p values b 0.05
found that the substrate reinforced by the wire mesh was stable for (Table 4). The test results are presented in the following sections.
use as an external soil substrate for ecological restoration, and no col-
lapse and peeling was observed during the testing period. 3.1. Effect of PAM on the PCF substrates

2.3.3. Determination of nutrient contents and mechanical properties The PAM content in the substrates had a strong impact on the germi-
Substrates were sampled periodically during a 23-month (two hy- nation rate, plant height, pellet degree, and field capacity, with all the
drological cycles, starting in April) period after spray seeding, for ANOVA p-values b 0.05 (Fig. 2). As PAM content increased from 200 to
600 g/m3, the pellet degree increased from 64% to 84%, and the field ca-
pacity enhanced from 220 to 340 g/kg. The pellet degree increased
Table 3
sharply (71% to 84%) between the PAM content of 400 and 600 g/m3,
The results of orthogonal experiments on the nine different combinations.
while the increase in field capacity was even more obvious (from 220
Substrate Germination Plants height Pellet degree Field capacity to 299 g/kg) between the PAM content of 200 and 400 g/m3. The germi-
no. rate
nation rate and plant height showed optimum values at PAM content of
Ave. (%) Std. Ave. Std. Ave. (%) Std. Ave. Std.
(mm) (g/kg) Table 4
1 40.3 2.1 29.3 1.5 61.3 0.6 178.2 2.4 Significance (p-values of ANOVA) of the factors on the growth of vegetation and substrate
2 55.7 2.5 45.0 1.7 64.8 1.2 227.6 2.2 properties.
3 74.7 2.3 55.3 2.1 66.7 0.9 253.3 2.0
Indices PAM CMC FA Wadd.
4 90.3 3.1 60.0 1.7 67.1 0.7 266.7 2.5
5 60.3 2.1 45.0 1.0 72.0 0.7 313.1 1.9 Germination rate b0.001 0.31⁎ 0.002 b0.001
6 70.7 1.5 30.3 1.2 73.6 1.0 317.9 2.4 Plant height 0.001 b0.001 b0.001 b0.001
7 69.7 1.5 69.7 0.6 81.8 0.8 314.0 1.5 Pellet degree b0.001 b0.001 0.12⁎ 0.007
8 80.3 2.3 30.3 1.5 83.1 0.6 338.2 2.1 Field capacity b0.001 b0.001 b0.001 0.89⁎
9 50.3 2.5 25.9 1.5 87.5 0.7 368.0 1.3
⁎ No significant differences (p N 0.05).
450 H. Xu et al. / Science of the Total Environment 609 (2017) 446–455

Fig. 2. Effect of PAM content on the (a) growth of vegetation and (b) substrate properties.

400 g/m3, and decreased from 74% to 67% and from 45 to 42 mm, re- germination rate as well (p b 0.05) (Fig. 4). The plant height increased
spectively, when the PAM content increased from 400 to 600 g/m3. significantly from 30 to 56 mm as the FA contents increased from 500
The test results indicate that excessive PAM content could suppress to 1500 g/m3, while the field capacity and germination of the plants in-
the growth of the plants. Therefore, considering both plant growth creased slightly. However, no significant impact of FA on the pellet de-
and the substrate properties, a PAM content of 400 g/m3 is recommend- gree was observed, which was also supported by the ANOVA for
ed for the optimum PCF substrates. orthogonal experiments (p = 0.12). The results indicate that increasing
FA contents could promote the growth of vegetation, leading to higher
3.2. Effect of CMC on the PCF substrates germination rate and height, which should be beneficial for ecological
restoration in harsh environments as there would be fast vegetation
The addition of CMC was shown to improve the pellet degree and coverage during a short period. However, an increase in the FA contents
field capacity in the substrates, with the p-values of ANOVA b 0.05 in could also reduce the void ratio and air permeability of the PCF sub-
both cases (Fig. 3b). The pellet degree and field capacity increased strates due to the fine particle size of FA as well as increased cost of
from 70% to 76% and from 253 to 313 g/kg, respectively, as the CMC con- the substrate. Therefore, in this study, a FA content of 1500 g/m3 is rec-
tents increased from 300 to 900 g/m3. In particular, the field capacity of ommended for the optimum PCF substrate.
substrates increased sharply (253 to 293 g/kg) as the CMC contents in-
creased from 300 to 600 g/m3. However, the CMC contents had a nega- 3.4. Effect of Wadd. on the PCF substrates
tive impact on the plant height (p b 0.05), but showed no significant
impact on the germination rate (p = 0.31) (Fig. 3a). The plant height The effects of water addition on the germination rate, plant height,
decreased from 53 to 37 mm as the CMC contents increased. As CMC and pellet degree are shown in Fig. 5. The Wilcox method (Wilcox,
is a binder material for the stability and erosion control of the substrates, 1939) for field capacity requires saturation of substrates during testing,
600 g/m3 of CMC showed a higher plant height than 900 g/m3 of CMC. and the effect of water addition is masked by the testing method. There-
Therefore, a CMC content of 600 g/m3is recommended for the optimum fore, the effect of Wadd. on the field capacity cannot be observed and re-
PCF substrates. ported in this study. Based on the analysis for significant effects, the
Wadd. showed a strong impact on the growth of vegetation (p b 0.05).
3.3. Effect of FA on the PCF substrates As Wadd. increased from 10 to 50 L/m3, the germination rate increased
from 50% to 82%, and the plant height also increased from 33 to
The test results indicate that the an increase in the FA contents could 48 mm. However, the plant height increased only by 1 mm when the
promote plant height (p b 0.05) and influence the field capacity and Wadd. increased from 30 to 50 L/m3. The pellet degree reduced slightly

Fig. 3. Effect of CMC contents on the (a) growth of vegetation and (b) substrate properties.
H. Xu et al. / Science of the Total Environment 609 (2017) 446–455 451

Fig. 4. Effect of FA contents on the (a) growth of vegetation and (b) substrate properties.

from 74% to 72% when the Wadd. surpassed 30 L/m2, which is likely due 25.0 mg/kg during the entire testing period, while the available K and
to the dissolution of pellets by excessive water content. It can be pre- organics decreased from 913.3 to 249.3 mg/kg and from 9.2% to 7.5%, re-
dicted that if Wadd. increases beyond 50 L/m3, the pellet degree is likely spectively, between days 7 and 430 days, but increased and stabilized at
to decrease, while little or no increase in plant height would be found. 400 mg/kg and 7.8%, respectively, at the 690 days. The C/N ratio de-
Therefore, for the aforementioned reasons, a Wadd. content of 50 L/m3 creased from 13.6 to 10.4 by the end of 180 days, which is due to the de-
is recommended for the optimum PCF substrates. crease in organics and increase in total N. However, the C/N ratio
increased after 430 days and stabilized at around 12.1–12.7.
3.5. Field performance of optimum PCF substrate
3.5.3. Mechanical properties of the optimum PCF substrate
3.5.1. Physical properties of the optimum PCF substrate The vegetation-substrate samples were taken nine times from the
Samples were taken five times (at 7, 30, 90, 180, and 270 days) after field site during the 23-month testing period (at 7, 30, 90, 180, 270,
spray seeding, using a steel-cutting ring with inner diameter = 62 mm 420, 480, 570, and 690 days). The shear strength and cohesion of the
and height = 20 mm in the middle of the slope. The physical properties pure substrate stabilized at 61.3 and 13.6 kPa, respectively, while the
of the optimized substrate of field samples are shown in Table 5. The friction angle reached 25.5°, which are higher than the typical values
unit weight of PCF substrates was between 12.3 and 14.3 kN/m3, for bare land (12.7–16.9 kPa and 8.1°–11.8°, respectively), as reported
which is approximately 1.1 to 1.6 times that of clay minerals (Holtz by Li et al. (2013).
et al., 2011). The water content varied between 23.7% and 53.8%, The temporal trends for the shear strength and strength parameters
while the void ratio and specific gravity of soil particles were relatively of substrate-vegetation complex are shown in Fig. 6. The test results are
stable over the testing period, with values around 63% and 2.59, respec- compared to understand the contribution of roots to the substrates. An
tively. The pH of the substrate remained between 7.3 and 7.5, and the increase of shear strength and strength parameters was observed dur-
field capacity ranged from 180.4 to 582.8 g/kg, indicating that the sub- ing the first 180 days. After 180 days, when the plants were relatively
strate had a strong capability for water retention. The test results indi- mature and the slope was well covered by the vegetation (Fig. 7), the
cate that the physical properties of PCF ecological substrate provide total shear strength of the substrate-vegetation complex was higher
appropriate hydrological environment for the growth of vegetation on than the shear strength of the pure substrate. The maximum shear
the slope. strength and the maximum friction angle both occurred at 180 days,
at 95.9 kPa and 33.9°, respectively. The cohesion increased to a maxi-
3.5.2. Nutrient contents in the optimum PCF substrate mum value of 33.9 kPa at 570 days and stabilized thereafter. In general,
The nutrient contents for the PCF substrate from the field tests are the shear strength and strength parameters of the substrate-vegetation
shown in Table 6. Samples were taken six times (at 7, 30, 90, 180, 430, complex are significantly greater than the maximum values of the sub-
690 days) after spray seeding. The total N content increased from strate (dashed line in Fig. 6a) during the testing period. It indicates that
0.39% to 0.44% between days 7 and 180, and decreased to 0.35% at the growth of vegetation enhances the shear resistance of the substrate.
690 days. The available P increased continuously from 10.1 mg/kg to
Table 5
Physical properties of the optimized substrate.

Time Unit weight γ Water Void Specific pHe Field

(days) (kN/m3)a content w ratio e gravity Gsd capacity
(%)b (%)c (g/kg)f

7 13.5 41.7 63.0 2.59 7.4 247.9

30 14.3 53.8 64.0 2.56 7.3 582.8
90 13.9 45.6 63.0 2.56 7.4 292.3
180 12.3 23.7 65.0 2.69 7.4 324.0
270 12.8 24.9 60.0 2.55 7.5 180.4
Following ASTM D7263-09.
Following ASTM D2216-10.
Following ASTM D7263-09.
Following ASTM D854-14.
Measured by Themo 5-star pH Meter.
Fig. 5. Effect of initial water contents on the growth of plants and substrate properties. Following Wilcox (1939).
452 H. Xu et al. / Science of the Total Environment 609 (2017) 446–455

Table 6 Huttermann et al. (1999) stated that, under arid conditions, the veg-
Nutrient contents in the optimized substrate. etation growing in the soil with 0.4% PAM treatment lived twice as long
Time Total Available Available Organics C/N as the one growing on plain soil. Under dry conditions, the germination
(days) nitrogen NT phosphorous PA potassium KA Co (%)d ratioe and height of plants increased as the PAM content increased (Li et al.,
(%)a (mg/kg)b (mg/kg)c 2005). However, the addition of PAM also increased the permeability
7 0.39 10.1 913.3 9.2 13.6 of substrates, which would enhance the evaporation and affect the veg-
30 0.41 10.9 679.3 9.4 13.2 etation growth. Lentz and Sojka (1994) found that addition of 0.07 g/m2
90 0.45 8.6 540.0 8.7 11.3
PAM could increase the permeability of soil by 15%. In this study, the re-
180 0.44 11.6 504.8 7.8 10.4
430 0.34 20.8 249.3 7.5 12.1 sults showed that the pellet degree and field capacity increased as the
690 0.35 25.0 422.5 7.8 12.7 PAM contents increased. When PAM increased from 200 to 600 g/m3,
Kjeldahl method following Bremner and Mulvaney (1982).
the pellet degree and field capacity increased from 64% to 84% and
Molybdenum blue method following Bray and Kurtz (1945). from 220 to 340 g/kg, respectively. However, when PAM increased
Following the method described by Hudcova, 1979. from 400 to 600 g/m3, the germination and height of the plants de-
Following the method described by Mebius (1960). creased from 74% to 67% and from 45 to 42 mm, respectively. Therefore,
Carbon nitrogen ratio.
under the premise of better growth of vegetation, 400 g/m3 of PAM is
the optimum content for the PCF substrates.
A close examination of the root growth was conducted after 360 days.
The root was observed as well developed on the test slope (Fig. 8), 4.1.2. The selection of optimum CMC content
with a taproot length of 0.2–0.6 m, and a penetration depth in the In this study, CMC is used as adhesive binder to improve the stability,
rock cracks up to 0.5 m. The fibrous root attached closely to the under- water retention capacity, and aggregation of substrates. Gebauer and
neath rock thus forming a complex of substrate, root, and rock. Coughlin (1971) stated that CMC can improve the strength and erosion
Seasonal effects on the shear strength and strength parameters control of cement pastes. Lu et al. (2009) added 1% CMC in asphalt ce-
could be observed, based on their temporal fluctuation behavior. For ex- ment and found that the CMC can effectively improve the stratification
ample, at 420 days (during spring), the melting snow and increased pre- and settlement of asphalt.
cipitation enhanced the water content of the substrate, and the shear The results showed that, as the CMC content increased from 300 to
strength and friction angle decreased to 76.3 kPa and 24.2°, respectively. 900 g/m3, the field capacity and pellet degree increased by 60 g/kg
However, during winter (570 days), due to the drier condition of the (from 253 to 313 g/kg) and 6% (70% to 76%), respectively. The trend is
substrate, the shear strength and friction angle increased again to similar to the findings of Ali and Inst (2011), which added 2%–4% of
91.2 kPa and 29.8°, respectively, with a subsequent decrease again in CMC into the soil and found that CMC contents induced higher void
the next spring (at 690 days). ratio and field capacity in the soils. Wu et al. (2015) found that the ag-
gregates increased with increasing CMC contents. However, excessive
4. Discussion CMC could induce soil hardening and limit the air permeability, thus,
inhibiting the growth of vegetation (Wu et al., 2015). In this study, a de-
4.1. The optimum PCF substrate creasing trend was observed for plant height with increasing CMC con-
tents. Therefore, to maintain the growth of vegetation as well as a high
4.1.1. The selection of optimum PAM content adhesion of substrates to the rocky slopes, 600 g/m3 is recommended as
Johnson and Piper (1997) found that the structure of PAM can ad- the optimum content for CMC.
sorb gravitational water to maintain high moisture content. John et al.
(2005) found that PAM could help the soil aggregates maintain high nu- 4.1.3. The selection of optimum FA content
trition by enhancing the sorption of organic matters and prohibiting the In this study, fly ash had no obvious effect on the aggregation, but
decomposition of organics. In this study, PAM helps improve the pellet enhanced the growth of plants. The height of the plants increased by
degree and field capacity of the substrates. Therefore, under the premise 26 mm (from 30 to 56 mm) with an increase in the fly ash content
of better vegetation growth, higher pellet degree and field capacity of from 500 to 1500 g/m3. Goyal et al. (2002a, 2002b) added fly ash to
the substrates are expected. the topsoil of a coal mine and found that it could improve the growth

Fig. 6. Shear strength, cohesion (a), and friction angle (b) of the vegetation-substrate complex.
H. Xu et al. / Science of the Total Environment 609 (2017) 446–455 453

Fig. 7. Vegetation condition after spray seeding (a) at 7th day and (b) at 180th day.

of certain plants, such as Robinia pseudoacacia, eucalyptus, and poplar. the growth of vegetation on the rocky slope, 50 L/m3 of Wadd. is recom-
Gupta et al. (2000) found that the mixture of fly ash and poultry manure mended for the optimum PCF substrate.
could improve the amount of vegetation growth by 26% in a soil with se-
vere erosion and malnutrition. At the same time, the field capacity of 4.2. Field application of PCF substrates
substrates increased slightly (from 278 to 293 g/kg), which is similar
to the observations by Ghodrati et al. (1995). The fine particles of fly The optimum PCF substrate (400 g/m3 of PAM, 600 g/m3 of CMC,
ash could improve the pore structure and permeability of the soil by re- 1500 g/m3 of FA, and 50 L/m3 of Wadd.) presented a high field capacity
placing the coarser particles and accumulating in the soil matrix (Truter (180.4 to 582.8 g/kg) during the testing period, indicating that the sub-
et al., 2005; Ram et al., 2007). Ghodrati et al. (1995) found that fly ash strate had a strong capability for water retention. Even during relative
could improve the structure and field capacity of sandy soils by increas- dry winter season (180th to 270th day), the water content was N20%,
ing the micro pores in the soil matrix. In addition, fly ash is able to re- which is adequate for sustaining the survival of vegetation.
duce the crust on the soil surface, and improve the air permeability The pH of the PCF substrate was within the range of 7.3 to 7.5, which
and germination of vegetation (Ram and Masto, 2010). However, due is the ideal pH range for the growth of vegetation (Tang et al., 2013).
to the possible clogging of pores by fly ash, excessive fly ash could re- From the analysis of the nutrient contents of PCF substrate, during the
duce the air permeability, regenerate the nutrition lost by water erosion, 23-month sampling period, the PCF substrate had NT between 0.34%
and increase the cost. Therefore, 1500 g/m3 of fly ash is the suggested and 0.44%, PA between 8.6 and 25 mg/kg, KA between 249.3 and
content for the optimum PCF substrate. 913.3 mg/kg, and organic carbon between 7.5% and 9.2%. The aforemen-
tioned values are greater than those of a traditional agriculture field
4.1.4. The selection of optimum water addition (Rasul and Thapa, 2004). Therefore, the PCF substrate could provide ad-
The results showed that water addition had a strong impact on the equate nutrition for the growth of vegetation and no extra fertilizer is
germination. The germination rate increased almost linearly from 50% needed. After 360 days, the roots could penetrate into rock cracks and
to 82% with an increase in Wadd. from 10 to 50 L/m3. Hosseini et al. form a composite with the substrate and the rock. The vegetation can
(2009) found that a decrease in Wadd. induced lower germination then absorb nutrition not only from the substrate, but also from the frac-
rates as well as delayed germination. In addition, plants with earlier ger- tured rock (biological weathering), which is similar to the growth of
mination had a better growth. Therefore, appropriate water addition is vegetation on a natural slope.
essential for germination. In this study, when Wadd. b 30 L/m3, there The cohesion and friction angle of substrate were 13.6 kPa and 25.5°,
was no statistical effect on the pellet degree (p N 0.05). However, as which are generally higher compared to the values for bare land, report-
the Wadd. increased to 50 L/m3, the pellet degree decreased slightly ed by Li et al. (2013). The field test found that the substrate reinforced
from 74% to 72%, which is likely due to the soil dilution by high water by the wire mash was stable for use as an external soil for ecological res-
addition. Therefore, water addition N50 L/m3 is not appropriate, due toration, and no collapse or block falling was observed during the test-
to potentially low degree of aggregation. To ensure enough water for ing period. The cohesion and friction angle of the vegetation-substrate
complex can reach up to 33.9 kPa to 29.8°, respectively, much higher
than the typical values for soil-vegetation complexes (maximum values
of 31.4 kPa and 24.4°, respectively) (Li et al., 2013). With increased plant
growth, the roots can help reinforce the substrate on the rock surface.
With the joint reinforcement by rockbolt, wire mesh, and roots, the veg-
etation is able to grow steadily for a long term.
Based on the field verification tests, the optimum PCF substrate with
desirable nutrient contents, and excellent physical, chemical, and me-
chanical properties, is an appropriate material for ecological restoration
of the steep rocky slopes in cold and high-altitude areas.

4.3. Recommendations and error analysis

The ecological substrate in this study presents good adaptability and

performance in the field verification test. However, a few recommenda-
tions are made for its applications and the future studies on ecological
substrates. First, the substrate is relatively vulnerable for 1–3 days
Fig. 8. Penetration of roots in the rock cracks after 360 days. after spraying, and therefore, maintenance is necessary to avoid any
454 H. Xu et al. / Science of the Total Environment 609 (2017) 446–455

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