Experimental Homestead

Simple Biochar Production, and Grape Reviews, a Few Videos



Yay, burn season is here!  Just uploaded a few videos.  A couple of short grape variety reviews, The pretty darn good Glenora and the excellent Reliance (of which I’m eating some right now, and they’re super tasty!).  And a somewhat long winded, but cool, video of burning a top lit open burn brush pile to make biochar (Which Kelpie of Backyardbiochar calls TLOB).  This is one of the two charring methods I’ve been messing with, the slope sided pit (or container), and the open top lit piles.  I think each has it’s merits, but probably more importantly, each might be better suited to certain materials that people commonly have.  Both can be scaled up and down in size and neither should produce a ton of smoke if the wood isn’t either soaking wet or green.  A pit burn video should be forthcoming.  Hopefully I’ll get better at shooting and editing video, learn to talk faster and develop a video personality at some point.  In the meantime, pop some popcorn and check it out.

No Guinea Pigs were harmed during the making of these videos, although some chickens were verbally assaulted.


September 23, 2014 - Posted by | BioChar, Food Trees Fruits and Nuts, Garden Stuff | , , , , ,


  1. I only had time to watch the Reliance grape video So far. Awesome stuff! I just planted that variety this year, along with Himrod, Fredonia, and Marquette from my father in laws small vineyard. Steven, you should do a video about your homestead, death metal and all!! Hope all is well buddy, and that was a great shout out to the North American Scion Exchange. Hopefully by the new year the new website will be finished.

    Comment by autonomyacres | September 23, 2014 | Reply

    • I’ve got Himrod, but haven’t heard of the other two that I recall. This grape enthusiast that lives around here has tried out a lot of varieties and I got to go to a tasting at his house. I have a list of ones that I liked, but these are the only 4 that have gotten planted and borne fruit. Himrod is my least favorite of those 4, although, it’s still pretty good. Interlaken is very similar to Himrod, but seems more productive and a little better to me. My fruit buddy here thinks his Interlaken is the bomb for the quality/reliability ratio. Possibly not the best grape ever, but very good and very reliable and productive. Reliance has a level of flavor that I haven’t tasted outside of Muscat types. I’m not usually a big fan of muscats, but this grape has really grown on me, so I might revisit muscats now. I haven’t planted many grapes, just because I haven’t sited where I want them yet, but I was trying to test out varieties ahead of any major plantings so I’d get it right when planting permanent vines.

      Request for death metal homestead video noted…

      Yeah, well good job on staring the NASEx (snicker). I remember suggesting that you start a local scion exchange, and you started something way cooler and beneficial to a huge number of people. I’ll bet it’s going to grow very large pretty fast with the increasing level of fruit geekery going on out there. It will be nice to have a good functioning website for . The Yahoo group is pretty clunky to use. Full search ability would be awfully nice. I don’t want to spend the time to open and read all those trade lists.

      Comment by Stevene | September 23, 2014 | Reply

  2. Excellent summary of why the Top Lit Open Draft (or Burn) method is appropriate for most brush and hand-stackable forest biomass. I happen to use a more complicated TLUD apparatus for the truckloads of chips that arrive on my property, but more and more I am steering inquiring minds in this simpler direction when their feed stock supports it.

    Comment by John Rogers | September 23, 2014 | Reply

    • Thanks John. If I had truckloads of chips delivered, I’m sure I’d use a TLUD too. I certainly want one around. I have some barrels collected and hope to build one or two this fall, but it keeps getting sidelined. I’ve got spent tan bark chips from making leather, and occasionally I have wood chips, pine cones and other stuff that would be appropriate for that system. I also am dying to burn lime in one to see how that works, since it’s such a smoky undertaking by other methods.

      A sloped trench pit is awesome for long wood I’ve done a couple, one maybe 10 feet or so, and burned brush in them. It’s good for conifer limbs and other pretty straight stuff. Also, for the larger limbs, say 3 and 4 inches, that can have a few side limbs knocked off and yield a clean easy to handle “pole”. I’ll usually use that size stuff for firewood, but in excess I think a long pit is perfect for charring those. It’s supposed to rain again tonight, so with any luck, I’ll get a video on that system done too.

      I’ve also burned whole pallets stacked vertically and top lit. It would probably work a little better with some wood stuffed in side the spaces, but it worked pretty well.

      I think a lot of people are put off by the technical talk and speculation around biochar. I know I was delayed by some of the stuff I read early on, though I know things have changed a lot now and I’m not really up on what the general climate is. I think getting the message out that it doesn’t have to be a lot more complicated than a campfire or burnpile is going to get average people who are intimidated by making something out of metal, no matter how simple, to start charring stuff. I like what Kelpie is doing with the backyard biochar site. That seem like exactly what is needed.

      Do you have an opinion on char that retains tars and oils v.s. cleaner burned stuff? I’ve seen some interesting old stuff on using flue residues and such for fertilizer.

      Comment by Stevene | September 23, 2014 | Reply

      • I regard the oils and tars (that condense in the charcoal) as food for microbes. Eventually these “impurities” will be transformed and moved into other phases of the carbon cycle. So maybe the smoky char cannot be charged with as much compost tea nutrients when it’s so full of its own cooked goop. After some amount of soil time, I doubt you could tell which char was clean or which was tarry at the time of launch. This is my working hypothesis at the moment and I have not plans for testing it, beyond further reading. Some would rate chars on their CEC (cation exchange capacity), which tar would affect. I don’t quite know what to do with that angle.

        For the gardener, the tar is of little consequence. But in a filter application, the tar could be a problem. I suspect that the chars from centuries ago had a fair amount of tar and still did a great amount of good. Life is messy and it still works.

        Comment by John Rogers | September 24, 2014

      • “Life is messy and it still works” I like the way you think! That’s often been my observation too. You would think that the common clamp method use to produced charcoal in the 19th century would likely make pretty dirty charcoal, but my only micro-scale attempt at that method was a failure, so I wouldn’t know for sure. Some of those products are no doubt strongly anti-microbial. The cloth used to make a tube to funnel smoke into the hide bag when smoking braintanned buckskin, becomes saturated with smoke residue. Soaking one of those skirts in the brain solution that the hides are soaked in for tanning makes the solution last a whole lot longer, where it normally would rot very quickly. I was thinking that effect might be due to aldehydes (as in formaldehyde) which is probably the main tanning agent in smoke. Whatever it is, there is something in there that is strongly antimicrobial. So, in a way, it’s counter intuitive to add that sort of thing to the soil, and with only a little information, any soil microbe centric person might run for cover. Then, there are these accounts of using combustion residues as fertilizers, and I’m more inclined to go with that information for now and see what happens, especially given that other people seem to think they’re good as well.

        I have a friend who seems to think that the tars and oils in biochar and the worst thing ever for soil life. He also thinks ashes are very bad for the soil. Not sure where that came from, especially with our acid soils. And further, he is not sure how to get the biochar into the soil without digging which will disturb the soil food web. I’m inclined to dig less too actually, but it’s not as though a one time disturbance is going to have a negative impact indefinitely. He has just enough information from somewhere that his actions are shaped by it, but little faith in the resiliency of life and in the living armies in the soil, which are not static, but constantly shifting in response to current conditions, to rectify and make use of what is thrown at them.

        Again, for most people, probably whatever kind of char you can actually get made and dug in is currently the best kind. Just like the best camera is the one that you have with you, and the best time to plant is when you can actually pull it off. The details can be worried about later, or by someone else. I have a lot of things I’d rather do right now than become a biochar expert and I’m more inclined to allow that information to accumulate gradually. For now making my garden a mostly uncontrolled experiment to see what seems to work and not work. I have a measure of what really matters, which is plant response, and I can see that every day. The proof is in the eating of the pudding.

        Comment by Stevene | September 24, 2014

      • Your comments on the toxic properties of wood tar are well supported. When John Todd was searching for tough, talented microbes for his living machines (that ate toxic crud in polluted water bodies) he would include samples from rotting telephone poles (that had been soaked in creosote earlier in life). Wouldn’t it be handy for our garden soils to have the genetic aptitude to disassemble nasty compounds?

        Now that I think of the soil as a food web, I too, aim for minimal disturbance. So when I’m treating an area that has already been planted, say, in perennials, I apply a thin layer (3/8 or 1/2 inch) of char to the top of the soil, like a beautiful black carpet. Then I apply several inches of rotting mulch over the thin carpet. Lastly, I sing spirited work songs to the earthworms loud enough to be heard through the mulch.

        But when I am already disturbing the soil to plant a tree, I back fill around the root ball with an aged mixture of char and rabbit manure and the excavated soil.

        Comment by John Rogers | September 24, 2014

      • Do the earthworms come out of the soil? ’cause I think that means they don’t like it ;). In the garden, top dressing might fly, but mostly here we are very droughty and I tend to think getting the char deep is essential. Definitely so in unirrigated situations. I end up disturbing the soil quite a bit anyway, but not as much as the moles, which move a remarkable amount of dirt in the top 12″ every year. For garden beds I’m now going a full 20 inches and thinking I might go 30 to 36 eventually. For unirrigated fruit trees, I’d like to be going a minimum of 2.5′ and preferably 3′. I could see some debate ensuing as to the level of nutrient uptake at the lower end of that, but I’m inclined to think it’s significant. There is certainly not much in the way of nutrient or water uptake going on in the top 12″ past mid summer, because there is no moisture left. Even a large amount of char is not going to retain moisture in the upper layers for long given our long dry hot summers. So, that means full excavation and reassembly. But, I’m inclined to think that the soil web is not only going to recover, but be much improved over the long run, even if some of the less resilient or longer growing citizens of that community are disturbed in the short term. Again, I just want to see what happens and that’s what I’ll end up basing decisions on, rather than theory. I did one tree pit at about 2.5 feet deep and 5 to 10% rough estimate of char. That tree is doing quite well, and in a bad drought year. It’s leaves look plump and dark green and ther is plenty of growth. Some benefit may be due to the disturbance of the soil causing oxidation and fast release of nutrients from organic matter and dying organisms. Then there is the fertilizing value of the ashes from burning in the pit. Then I also added fertilizer as I went. Disturbing the soil also could help break capillary action all the way from bottom to top, retaining moisture much better than undisturbed soil. Lots of factors, but when we buried the cat in there a couple weeks ago, I noted some dense root growth around an area of higher char content. Time will tell. To be more sure of what’s going on, I’d have to dig an equal hole, with some ashes, but no char. I’m doing that in the garden some, but I don’t really feel it’s necessary to make useful observations for the most part.

        Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

        Comment by Stevene | September 24, 2014

      • I don’t see earthworms leaving the soil because I can’t see much of anything under the thick blanket of rotting mulch that covers the char. In my account I used earthworms to represent small scale biological tillage.

        But I do see earthworms of various size in my 10 inch plastic nursery pots that contain a roughly 50/50 mixture of aging rabbit manure and biochar. These pots sit out in the weather in the shade to ripen. I have seen no worm aversion which is a pretty good judge of character.

        I applaud your efforts to mechanically mix your char deep into the sub soil. I expect that the soil food web reorganizes itself quickly afterward. My no-till caution is mostly to not harm the shallow feeder roots of my tree crops which were in place before I decided to introduce char.

        Before I adopted this top dressing method, I considered smoothly poking deep holes in the ground into which I would pour (or inject) some sort of biochar /soil / compost mixture. Funnel, muzzle loader, syringe. I never got this past the thought stage.

        Though not directly related to the immediate issue, I’m wondering whether you are finding ways to feed small amounts of biochar to your chickens or other farm animals? This seems like an elegant way to add char to the garden– pooped out in small quantities embedded in manure. I’m told that this is becoming popular in Europe.

        Comment by John Rogers | September 24, 2014

      • I’ve definitely thought about how to get char down into perennial plantings too. It’s pretty harsh to dig any really large areas around a tree and cut the roots off. Besides, that could promote suckering in some species and rootstocks. Post holes might be an option but to cover much area, it’s still going to do some significant damage. I like the idea of driving in a pointed stake of some kind and filling that hole with stuff. For the most part, that ought to push the roots aside, A strong hydraulic device might be able to do that and pull it back out. I’m thinking of a tractor with a bucket maybe. You could drive it by hand, but the question is more could you find a way to pull it back out? The answer is probably yes, but it would have to be reasonably fast to be efficient enough… or maybe not, maybe just do a couple holes a day for a month and then move to the next tree. It’d be good exercise anyway. Of course I’m still thinking of going deep, you might not really need to, in which case it actually sounds pretty doable and like a great idea. I was thinking something like a 1.5″ to 2″ metal rod with a pointed end. When you pull it out, it should just leave an open hole large enough to pour stuff into easily. Pulling it out would probably be easy with a long lever. Maybe put a ring on the end to hook onto. I might play with that idea. I certainly would like to get some charcoal into some of my established tree roots.

        I know there are slurry injectors out there. Putting a slurry injector on a deep chisel plow you could rip the soil and pump the crevices full of inoculated char and minerals and stuff all at the same time. Do that at multiple depths and you could really do some large scale soil improvements fast. Someone out there must be doing that. That would be pretty awesome if you had those kind of quantities of char. I think actually digging it all up and putting it back together would probably yield better results, but thats prohibitive on a large scale. My ideal tree hole would probably be 10 foot diameter (ok, 15, why not dream big!) 3 or 4 feet deep, drilled and blasted in the bottom to another 4 feet before refilling with refuse and char to 30%. I think that would seriously rock. Blasting tree holes used to be common practice. Anyway, more realistically, 8 foot diameter, 3 feet deep and 10 to 20% charcoal if I can pull it off. That seems more doable.

        I’ve definitely seen old accounts of feeding charcoal to livestock just for their health and increased weight gain. Problem is, I don’t feed my chickens much. They get most of their own food. I put oyster shells in the driveway and drive over them, but they want to eat those. I feed them some food scraps, but I don’t see it worth the effort of trying mix in charcoal ahead of time. It’s a cool idea though. They also free range, so most of it would go to waste dropped all over the property.

        You must have made and applied a lot of char by now. How is that going for you? I’m mostly interested right now in applying significant quantities in specific places to get them up to really useful levels. But, I have a lot of new stuff I still want to put in, and plenty of room. And of course the garden beds can be done any time. I’m not pre-inoculating any of it so far. The last garden bed I just put manure in as I went and it grew really well the first year, maybe the best bed in the garden. None of the nitrogen drain effect as far as I can tell.

        Comment by Stevene | September 24, 2014

  3. Stevene,

    I really appreciate your articles, particularly this one. I have followed some of your links and they have opening my eyes to much I would not have known but for you. In addition, your gardening and fruit culture activities continue to fascinate me; I have done much of what you are doing, but to a more limited extent. At present, but for my berry fruits and persimmons, my fruit culture has died in spite of my electric fencing–due to the incursion of squirrels. The deer do little damage, fortunately.

    I am sorry about your having health problems. Fortunately, my only problem is residual foot and leg pain due to the pervasive Lyme disease that has affected so many people–even though medicine has failed to recognize that pervasiveness. I wish you better health and good healing. I wish I could see the fruits of your labors at your market places, but that is difficult, as we live north of Silver Spring, Maryland.

    The best to you.

    Ron Shansby

    Comment by Ron Shansby | January 10, 2015 | Reply

    • Thanks. I don’t usually have a lot of trouble with deer, but this one was particularly aggressive. We have Grey Squirrels. They only bother the nuts for the most part. I hear Red Squirrels can be a nightmare though.

      Comment by Stevene | January 10, 2015 | Reply

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