Biochar for Soil Fertility with DIY Char Box Design

Reader Contribution by Tom Stephan and Barn Owl Boxes
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Growing up as a falconer, I climbed every hawk nest I could find at a young age. It was, therefore, natural that I would become a tree trimmer and later a tree service owner and now former certified arborist. This, by the way, is a certification program which is recognized as an expert witness for the U.S. Judicial system. Whenever I had a sick, infected or infested tree, I would call on an associate to return the vigor and vitality of my client’s trees. We would do this with a nearly 100 percent success rate, all without chemical fertilizers.

Soil Building with Mycorrhizal Fungi

Take soil compaction, for example; a common landscape malady. He would either hand dig or use an auger to drill 2-inch diameter holes in the drip line and backfill it with a recipe of fecal fertilizer, worm castings, and Mycorrhizal fungi spores. The worm castings have eggs and larvae in them which hatch when moistened. They feed on the fecal material, grow and spread, conditioning the soil as they do so taking the microbes with them in their gut and on their bodies.

These fungi and other microbes live on the net like absorbing root tips called the “rhizome”. The fungi break down coarse minerals to the molecular level — what I term “chewing up” the minerals, just as we use our teeth to process food. These minerals in a rainwater solution are now available and absorbed by the plants, helping them grow and compete with the neighboring trees and other plants for sunlight. The plants in turn provide the fungi with a place to live and food in the form of sloughed off dead cells. You will later see the mushroom caps coming up in the compacted soil.

Discovering Biochar for Soil Fertility

Unfortunately, my associate is now no longer with us. I had to perform that function myself. This at a time when I had just heard about an ancient soil fertility component called biochar. I began developing my own “activated” (inoculated) biochar and added to the organic tree health drip line mix.

Forests grow up, mature, become over mature and ultimately burn. That is the regeneration cycle, the “great circle of stuff” that the sage swine Poomba taught us about in The Lion King. The charred remains of the forest lie on its floor to become soil over and over as the cycle repeats itself. All species of plants and animals are evolved to utilize any and all resources at any stage of the regeneration cycle.

The U.S. government spy satellites in the late 1960s were showing blocks of South American jungle which were greener and taller that the surrounding forest canopies. Because these blocks were in geometric patterns, the intelligence officers knew they were human-altered. However, there were no humans to be found there. These sites were hundreds, sometimes thousands of years old. Ergo, these were ancestral human sites, so they alerted the archeologists.

The one thing the workers found to be common to all the sites of lush, green forest patches was that the dirt was black. The natives called it terra preta, which in Portuguese (some of the first Europeans to sail there) means “black earth”. Tested, this soil had unusually high carbon content. They surmised that these sites were once Mesoamerican dump sites, because this was also where they excavated terra cotta pottery shards, animal bones, and other organic materials. The natives corrected them: “No, these were their farms”.

These large cities of hunter-gatherer-farmers were where the masters at coaxing food from the surrounding jungle lived, growing vegetables such as corn 10 feet high, squash on the corn stalks, and other vegetables between the rows that fed millions of citizens, all from the poorest soils on the planet. Without biochar this would not be possible.

Ancient Biochar Technique

Their modern Native descendants showed the professors the ancient method of making terra preta. First, they would slash down a block of jungle. Then they would pile the wood and add their waste mineral products like dirt, bones for calcium and phosphorus, terra cotta for iron, copper, zinc etc., on the brush piles and log decks. Then, they burned it all slowly in pits, controlling the burn so that it thoroughly charred the wood but not completely burnt it to ash. 

The charcoal produced was now in a raw state and needed to be inoculated with soil microbes or “activated”. They partially buried the coal with fish offal, corn husks, fecal material and any and all refuse. The charcoal absorbs minerals and the beneficial fungi spores. Most of what plants need to grow are in the charcoal, the microbes release those nutrients slowly over time to make a layer of top soil nutrients called the “A horizon”.

Activating biochar first before use is key. If raw char is used, it will deplete the soil of nutrients by absorption for a few years. The cells that make up the charcoal are open ended from the burn. This is where all the elements that will make soil fertile are infused into the cells where they live and reproduce what I call “tenement apartments”. They persist there for many centuries feeding as the wood slowly decays. There is a cottage industry of workers that search the jungles for these ancient growing grounds. They dig it up and sell it as fertilizer.

Homemade Biochar with DIY ‘Bio Box’

A few years ago, I began fertilizing my house plants the same way. I purchased some red worms in a little tub sold for fishing bait. I dumped the entire contents, one in each potted plant. I added biochar and then some kitchen scraps now and then.

If you find a little milk at the bottom of the glass, in it goes, as does a little cooking grease, eggshells, coffee grinds etc. Even two or three dry dog food kibbles when the worms are hungry. The worms come up to feed and in turn condition the soil by making little tunnels that are laced with worm castings, nature’s fertilizer. These tunnels are perfect for roots to grow in. This indoor agronomy worked surprisingly well. One drawback is that sometimes house pets are interested in the potting soil, so it may not be for everyone.

Staring in thought last spring, I did not want to tear up my lawn to build a vegetable garden. I looked at the wooden fence, it was getting full sun. I thought of hanging terra cotta pots with vegetables in them but the sun heats up the soil and roots of the plants producing inferior harvests. So I built 2-inch-thick pine boxes which I charred and inoculated inside. I charred the outside and wire brushed it for aesthetics, raising the lignin grain.

Tomatoes were planted out holes drilled in the bottom of the box and added potting soil. I then hung them on the fence using a 16p nail in the sun. I added a charred lid to match with kitchen scraps on the potting soil and earthworms. Potato peelings, watermelon husks, coffee grinds, egg shells, any and all kitchen waste was introduced to the awaiting worms. I sold one to a fellow crafter.

A few weeks later, they complained that “It’s all grey inside with fungus!” I explained that this condition was exactly as I and nature had intended it to be. I call this invention the “Bio Box.” I believe it to be the first composting planter box. If you would like to see a photo of this creation please visit my site at Barn Owl Boxes.

Growth in Regenerative Agriculture

I wish to tell you another story now. This story is of a little boy who dreamed of getting an agronomy degree at a prestigious school in Guatemala. This so he could return to teach his clan to farm profitably, thereby raising them all out of abject poverty. This came to pass. He realized after he got his degree in Guatemala and then a business degree at the University of Minnesota that industrial farming was unsustainable because it robs the soil of life and pollutes it with glyphosate herbicides, insecticides and other “cides”.

So he took the ancient Indigenous way of farming and added the best of American industrial farming and scaled this new concept up. He called it “Regenerative Agriculture”. What I call “ReGenAg” for short. This first project was is called Finca Mirasol, and is still at his place in Northfield, Minnesota. I copied the plan verbatim and won a first place ribbon at the Southern California Agricultural Exposition, aka The Del Mar Fair, for Most Innovative Farming Method.

The boy turned farmer, professor, entrepreneur, organizer, is the famous Reginaldo Haslett Maroquim, a founding member and steering committee member at “Regeneration International” and founder and CEO of the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance.

I have recently designed and am working with a university on a loosely but improved rendition of his original design. This small farm will greatly reduce a farm’s acreage or footprint, while producing intense amounts of organic food. Through the use of biochar and fecal material provided by chickens and other livestock in blocks or panels, it will grow annuals, perennials with fruit and nut trees in infinity, totally without the need of chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

I call it the Food Forever Project. This new sustainable method of agriculture will derive all its irrigation from the atmosphere. Meant as a future humanitarian project, my vision is for all of the world to have healthy food and freedom for his or her family with profits from the sale of any surplus food.

Tom Stephan works in the arborist industry treating sick trees to improve their vigor and vitality through anti compaction and soil fertility. He is a former certified arborist, a master falconer, and has incurable minimalist tendencies. Connect with Tom at Barn Owl Boxesand read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts here.

GARDENING WITH BIOCHAR

The key to growing bigger, more productive, more nutrient-dense plants starts at ground level. Biochar, which is slow-roasted organic matter inoculated with compost, creates the perfect habitat for soil-enriching microorganisms. In Gardening with Biochar, longtime garden writer Jeff Cox explains what biochar is and provides detailed instructions for how it can be made from wood or other kinds of plant material, along with specific guidelines for using it to enrich soil, prevent erosion, and enhance plant growth. If you want to create long-term benefits for your garden through better soil, this is the book you want to pick up.

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GARDENING WITH BIOCHAR

The key to growing bigger, more productive, more nutrient-dense plants starts at ground level. Biochar, which is slow-roasted organic matter inoculated with compost, creates the perfect habitat for soil-enriching microorganisms. In Gardening with Biochar, longtime garden writer Jeff Cox explains what biochar is and provides detailed instructions for how it can be made from wood or other kinds of plant material, along with specific guidelines for using it to enrich soil, prevent erosion, and enhance plant growth. If you want to create long-term benefits for your garden through better soil, this is the book you want to pick up.