Experimental Homestead

Experimenting with Biochar: pursuing the promise of charcoal as a soil ammendment

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I have this neighbor up here.  He’s always saying sustainability and permaculture and stuff like that, but I was surprised in a recent conversation to find out that he did not know the term, or concept of, biochar.  For others who don’t know, that’s a catchy marketable name for charcoal that is intended as a soil amendment, the claimed benefits of which I’ll delve into further on.  I’m not even sure I like the term biochar.  Why name something that already has a name?  Maybe so you can market it?  Charcoal with special properties?  Anyway, I guess I thought it was more in peoples consciousness than it probably is, and since my sustainably hip neighbor was unfamiliar with the concept, I got to wondering how many other people haven’t yet encountered the concept and thought I’d present some thoughts and information here in case I might be able to convince more folks to delve into experimenting with the idea.

I had seen some interesting, and even exciting, articles and videos on using charcoal as a soil amendment.  But, all the references were based on the discovery of terra preta, which are these human modified soils in the Amazon containing a large amount of charcoal.  The claim is that these soils are still highly fertile compared to the natural soils surrounding them, even after many hundreds of years of heavy Amazonian rains.  The mysteries of terra preta are still being prodded and examined, but clearly charcoal is a major player, and likely the key ingredient.  If it functions as advertised, adding char is a permanent improvement, unlike the treadmill of organic matter and nutrients that we add to our soils every year and which mostly flush away in the rain.  I’ve seen what happens to gardens when they are abandoned.  The fertility quickly declines remarkably fast and eventually disappears.  The possibility of making really permanent improvement to gardens, orchards and pastures is very compelling and worth some great effort. Continue reading

October 16, 2013 Posted by | Garden Stuff | , , | 21 Comments

Biochar in 19th Century Europe and North America: A partial review



(The comments in this article have been slightly updated and the title changed since first publishing.  The original title was: Some 19th Century References on Biochar Use in Europe and America, which was just sort of lame.)

Biochar, the promising expedient of adding charcoal as a soil amendment, is often represented as a recent discovery of a very ancient technique originating in South America.  But, the research I’ve been doing lately shows that its use probably has more of a history than we may think and may have been gaining momentum among European and American horticulturalists in the 19th century. I will present all of that research here after a short introduction.

As a keen experimenter, super geek and infoholic interested in what are now mostly considered archaic arts, I find myself frequenting online archives of old books to find knowledge on various subjects.  The most searchable and useful of these that I know of is the arm of our big brother known as Googlebooks.  This is an astounding tool for the type of research I do!  Wow!  I have collected over the last 2 and a half decades any interesting books I can find on various archaic subjects such as glue making, argiculture, electricity, casein, animal fats, tanning etc… Those few books have been hard won by perusing used book stores, flea markets, junk shops and yard sales, but in the end often amount to little in the way of information when I go to consult them on this or that subject.  Sometime a couple of years ago I ran across a reference to something called  biochar.  I had always wondered if charcoal might be either useful or detrimental when added to soil, so I looked into it a little.  I found a collection of enthusiastic experimenters making claims about the greatness of adding specially burned charcoal to the soil.  I was intrigued by some of the evidence, but it was all good news, which generally raises red flags for me and I was hesitant to jump in with both feet preferring to wait a bit for more research and more information, both old and new, to become available.  The information available on the net has exploded since then.  In the meantime, I’ve instructed everyone in the house to pick the charcoal out of the fire in the morning before relighting it and have also salvaged charcoal from campfires and brush burn piles and we have accumulated enough to start experimenting. Continue reading

May 18, 2012 Posted by | Food and Drink Making, Food Trees Fruits and Nuts, Forestry, Garden Stuff | , , , , , , , | 14 Comments