First, what is Biochar? How does it compare to just plain charcoal or activated charcoal?
Biochar is the new techie eco name for plain charcoal made from
renewable plant material (biomass). In its simplest form it would be
the leftover coals from a campfire. In newer technical applications it
could be the end product from commercial scale Pyrolysis Plants that
use everything from forest trimmings to chicken manure to city garbage
as the feedstock. You can see that, along with the wide range of
starting material, there is also a significant range of end product.
Coupled with this are the temperatures used and the length of time to
“cook” the biomass. Pyrolysis plants are able to maximize their
operations to produce mostly high-grade (low ash content) biochar, or
more sellable biofuels and nitrogen-based fertilizers with a resulting
low-grade biochar with very high ash content.
Charcoals made from coal are not considered biochar. Although fossil
fuels have their origin in ancient biomass, they are not considered
biomass by the generally accepted definition because they contain
carbon that has been "out" of the carbon cycle for a very long time.
This whole interest in biochars is driven in part by the growing concern that
the increased carbon emissions from modern agricultural practices
coupled with industrial pollution are contributing to global warming
and its dire consequences. Biochars not only retain much of the carbon
directly in the soil but also capture and retain carbon from the
atmosphere thereby having a carbon “negative” effect.
The interest in biochars for agricultural use stems largely from the fascination with the ancient/modern Terra Preta
soils of the Amazon basin in South America. These biochar soils act
like ocean coral reefs in that they provide a very rich habitat for a
wide range of soil microorganisms. Nutrients are held in the root zone
rather than being leached down by heavy rains. More amazing is that
these soils, like all living things, are somehow able to reproduce
themselves and can be selectively “harvested” without damaging them!
All together sounds like a win, win, win situation.
Consequently researchers, agricultural departments, innovative farmers,
and backyard organic gardeners alike are all scrambling to figure out
the secrets of the legendary El Dorado – no not of lost gold but of
In the fall of 2007 when we first learned about biochar we were
starting to get inquiries for charcoal for gardening. We thought at
first it was for soil remediation which has been a longstanding
practice. But on inquiry we were told it was actually to study the
impact on overall soil health and plant production. Having operated a
market garden and taught organic gardening I was immediately captivated
by what I was able to Google on the Internet. So began our introduction
to biochar. In 2008 we began to get more and more requests for
biochar and it was then that we introduced Charcoal Green
- an inoculated biochar. We are still on a steep learning curve but
take comfort knowing that even some of the experts at some of the big
name research departments knew nothing of biochars even as late as 2009! “How could that be possible?” they ask incredulously.
Nevertheless the fact of the matter is most reading this probably are hearing about it for the first time themselves.
We would like to invite you to the Gardens & Farms
page and scroll down to the Popular Links at the bottom of the page.
These links are just a springboard to get you started on your own
In 2008, in our ignorance, we offered activated charcoals to
interested customers eager to experiment with their own gardens. While
there was no concern that the activated charcoal would harm the soil,
still common sense tells us that the ancient Amazon civilizations only
had access to primitive biochars not to modern activated charcoals or
souped-up biochars. So if the plain stuff worked so good for them then
it should also work in the 21st
century. Well it does, but those folks had one great advantage over us
– they did not expect miracles the first year. They were willing to
work and wait for years before seeing the real fruit of the labors. Our
generation is not gifted with the same vision or patience. We like or
need to see significant results in one growing season or economics most
likely will drive us back to practices we would rather leave behind.
The reality is, tilling in plain raw biochar initially ties up soil
nutrients to a greater or lesser degree. So, some plant crops,
especially heavy feeders, will likely not show the same growth as they
would three or four years down the road. It takes about that amount of
time for the nutrients, Mychorizae, and other organisms to establish
their own ecosystem. While even modest benefits may be seen even the
first year (as seen in this row of corn planted in a back yard), the
practical benefits will either come in following years or by
supplementing the biochar from the beginning.
Activated charcoals are used to decontaminated soils by “loading” up
the charcoal with the toxic compounds. In the same way biochars take
some time to “load” up that eco-reef with nutrients before they are
available to the plants. So, as a work around to the time factor, you
will likely see more biochars coming on the market like Charcoal Green® BIOCHAR PLUS that come inoculated (pre-loaded) with nutrients and microbes.
Believe it or not plain raw biochar is hard to find (in 2009). As far as we know
we are the only retail outlet that offers inoculated biochar. We also offer the plain version of biochar Charcoal Green®PURE BIOCHAR made from an assortment of hardwoods. It ranges in size from ½ in. down to dust in 30lb bags. Please check the Gardens and Farms page.
Because this biochar gardening is still new for most of us we really
want those customers who purchase biochar to give us some feedback. Field trials with tomatoes, sweet corn, soy, wild birdseed,
flowers have already shown very good results with Charcoal Green® BIOCHAR PLUS,
but we need more pictures and statistics. In the meantime we hope all
you gardening experts will think more black thumb and not just green.