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Biochar and Gardening

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 Plantsthat 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 biochar.

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 research.

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 
CharcoalGreen® 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.