Recent studies have demonstrated the importance of the nutrient status of biochar and soils prior to its inclusion in particular agricultural systems. Pre-treatment of nutrient-reactive biochar, where nutrients are loaded into pores and onto surfaces, gives improved yield outcomes compared to untreated biochar. In this study we have used a wide selection of spectroscopic and microscopic techniques to investigate the mechanisms of nutrient retention in a high temperature wood biochar, which had negative effects on Chenopodium quinoa above ground biomass yield when applied to the system without prior nutrient loading, but positive effects when applied after composting. We have compared non-composted biochar (BC) with composted biochar (BCC) to elucidate the differences which may have led to these results. The results of our investigation provide evidence for a complex series of reactions during composting, where dissolved nutrients are first taken up into biochar pores along a concentration gradient and through capillary action, followed by surface sorption and retention processes which block biochar pores and result in deposition of a nutrient-rich organomineral (plaque) layer. The lack of such pretreatment in the BC samples would render it reactive towards nutrients in a soil-fertilizer system, making it a competitor for, rather than provider of, nutrients for plant growth.