Yesterday I shared how I made potting soil. I also posted a video recently on how I used primitive charcoal making to create biochar I could add to the thick clay as nutrient bunkers.
When you want fast charcoal, it’s hard to beat a raging fire, but that’s not the way to get the most charcoal or the highest-quality coals.
In my neighborhood the local farmers make cooking charcoal like this:
That fire ended up burning for two weeks or so, then they harvested bags and bags of charcoal from inside of it.
This fellow uses a similar method I would love to try:
One of the preferred charcoal woods around here is Gliricidia sepium, but locals also use cinnamon, sea grape and even mahogany, though the latter is preferred for lumber instead of charcoal.
The finished charcoal is hard and rings with a high “clink” when struck. It’s beautiful stuff.
Almost any wood can be made into charcoal, but softer woods aren’t particularly good for cooking as they burn up too quickly in a fire. Instead, I use those for biochar.
Why Primitive Charcoal Making? Why Not Make Something Fancy?
If you have a biochar kiln you can convert everything to char, even weeds, but it’s hard to do that when you’re raking coals around.
Really, I’m totally low-tech in my gardening and homesteading. I even failed at tower gardening. I’ve learned my lesson. If it’s complicated and requires electricity, plumbing, welding, solar, etc. – I’m going to screw it up.
Instead of just telling you all how lousy I am with tech, I should probably spin it and brag about how “sustainable” I am. Or claim I’m “embracing the rich simplicity of the past.”
But no, I’m just good at breaking things. Heck, I barely even drove my new van and it broke.
Fortunately, I can make lots of charcoal by gathering branches and open burning, or digging it into the ground and covering for a slow burn that gets me a lot more higher quality charcoal.
I’m planning to grow hedges of Gliricidia for this kind of primitive charcoal production once I get a new homestead. That will be a ton of fun. I love chop-and-drop.
I want to do the same with Inga trees in an alley cropping system.
I did an open burn and managed to get over 15 gallons of biochar. It’s mostly from fast-burning materials like palm fronds and bamboo, with a big of hardwood and random sticks thrown in.
If you throw charcoal directly into your beds it soaks up the minerals for a time, lowering or even eliminating your yields; however, if you “charge” it first with some minerals and nitrogen, it acts like a reserve in the soil. Or that’s the theory as I understand it.
Being rather insane, I decided to soak the biochar in seawater and Epsom salt. And urine. And some compost. I only soaked it for a couple of hours, though, which may not be enough.
Biochar wasn’t the only amendment I added to the garden beds. I also sifted some compost with my redneck compost sifter, AKA a carefully bent hunk of hardware cloth:
Some of the compost is being reserved for a new batch of potting soil I’m going to make to pot up some of my compost pile fruit trees, but some of it we put in the garden beds along with the biochar. Biochar and compost – what a wonderful combination!
Rachel helped with this part, even after all her vigorous broadforking.
There are few things I enjoy more than working in the garden with my wife.
Having a task in front of us and getting it done together is better than watching a movie or hanging around smoking a hookah. I think. We’ve never actually smoked a hookah together, so that’s just conjecture, really.
Next on the agenda is planting… when we do that, I’ll share it as well.
Stay warm and have a great Sunday. We’ve been unable to make it to church for weeks now due to our car and I really miss it. I hope you are part of a good fellowship… and also have a working vehicle. Eventually we’ll be back to our normal Sabbath routine. Not worried. We have food, gardens, a beach within two miles walk… hard to feel too bad about a busted car.
And we definitely have “two or more gathered together” in the name of Jesus here on our homestead.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.“
I’ve asked that question and have been asked that question many times. But I never bothered giving biochar a real test. I threw some into my gardens and some into my compost but never really made a lot, added a lot or paid any real attention to the long term pluses or minuses.
Fortunately, I have friends that do conduct experiments… like Steven:
It’s interesting that his lettuces died… and then in a subsequent year, the leeks went nuts.
Raw charcoal/biochar does seem to have a negative effect when first used as it sucks up the nutrition in the soil.
Later, however, it acts as a soil reserve for those good things as well as in-ground condo developments for beneficial bacteria and fungi.
I plan on making a big batch of biochar and then soaking it in my anaerobic compost tea before adding it to some of my struggling garden beds.
Alternately, I’ve heard you can soak biochar in urine to turn it into a long-term fertilizer. Or just use urine right in the garden, as I demonstrated in yesterday’s video:
Throwing biochar in a compost pile and then later applying the finished compost to your garden gives your plants both the benefits of biochar and the benefit of compost. This is a method I know many gardeners practice.
Simple Biochar Making
Though you can create special biochar kilns and really geek out about making biochar, I approach it more like I approach most composting and just light a big fire, then let it burn a bit, rake it around, then water it out with the hose and gather the charcoal.
Steven has a nice trench method for making biochar I would try if it wasn’t so devilishly hard to dig holes here because of the clay and rocks:
Biochar, no matter how you make it, has promise as a long-term soil amendment. Steven’s experimentation is pushing me to try some experiments of my own. It’s monsoon season right now so I haven’t gotten together enough dry wood to really make awesome biochar, but one of these days it will be clear for a few days in a row and I’ll get to light up a nice fire.
Then it’ll be time to start some crazy biochar action in the garden. So, to answer the question “does biochar really work,” it seems the answer is “yes” based on Steven’s research. More testing is in order, however, as these is a wide range of application amounts possible and great differences in soil and crops.
Anyone else feeling like making a fire? I’m psyched.
I recently visited ECHO and saw this mulberry hedge:
Mulberry trees aren’t just great sources for delicious berries – they’re also good for feeding animals. Some varieties even make leaves that are a good cooked green for the table – but you’d have to ask my friend Josh Jamison at H.E.A.R.T. about that. He’s growing a wide variety and testing them for flavor.
Pruning mulberry trees can be done repeatedly. People freak out when they hear the maximum height some species can attain, then say “I’ll never plant that tree in my yard!”
Quit living in fear. You are the gardener. You control the height of your trees!
I recently posted a video showing some heavily pruned mulberry trees and how they’ve grown sideways, making them quite pickable:
You can also bend the branches down like I did with some of my peach and mulberry trees up in North Florida:
Of all the trees you can grow, mulberries are one of the easiest, most productive and most versatile.
Imagine planting a hedge of them tightly together like in the top image, then cutting as needed. This mulberry hedge could provide you with:
Limbs for biochar
Leaves to eat
Berries to eat
Biomass for the compost pile
Fuel for a rocket stove
Fodder for goats
…and I’m sure there are many more uses I haven’t thought about yet.
You can make tight hedges like these with other trees and shrubs as well. Good candidates include osage orange, moringa trees, cassias (great for planting in lines between row crops – compost and nitrogen-fixation!), cassava… heck, you could do this with a big mix of species and just see what happens.
I made some with Ricky and Winky a few weeks ago, as you probably saw from my previous post. Rick basically takes a ton of branches and logs, gets them blazing, then covers the half-burned fire with a bunch of wet leaves and pine needles… then waters the heck out of it for hours.
Of course, this is also a great excuse to drink beer, smoke cigars and burn stuff.
Rather than making a big barrel or something that actually takes infrastructure, Rick’s method makes for easy biochar cooking – and it’s based on his own experimenting, which makes it double-plus-good. Hurray for experimenters. I went home with four buckets of char from one of his previous burns… and there was still plenty left behind.
I’ve read conflicting reports as to biochar’s effectiveness, with some trials showing poor results and others showing the opposite. It seems the very best way to make biochar effective is to mix it with some kind of nutrients or compost so it can be colonized by fungi and bacteria. Soaking it in compost tea, worm tea or urine is also apparently a good way to kick-start it.