Making Biochar to Improve Soil

By making biochar from brush and other hard to compost organic material, you can improve soil — it enhances nutrient availability and also enables soil to retain nutrients longer.

| February/March 2009

Last year, I committed one of the great sins of gardening: I let weeds go to seed. Cleaning up in fall, I faced down a ton of seed-bearing foxtail, burdock and crabgrass. Sure, I could compost it hot to steam the weed seeds to death, but instead I decided to try something different. I dug a ditch, added the weeds and lots of woody prunings, and burned it, thus making biochar. It was my new way to improve soil—except the technique is at least 3,000 years old.

What’s biochar? Basically, it’s organic matter that is burned slowly, with a restricted flow of oxygen, and then the fire is stopped when the material reaches the charcoal stage. Unlike tiny tidbits of ash, coarse lumps of charcoal are full of crevices and holes, which help them serve as life rafts to soil microorganisms. The carbon compounds in charcoal form loose chemical bonds with soluble plant nutrients so they are not as readily washed away by rain and irrigation. Biochar alone added to poor soil has little benefit to plants, but when used in combination with compost and organic fertilizers, it can dramatically improve plant growth while helping retain nutrients in the soil.

Amazonian Dark Earths

The idea of biochar comes from the Amazonian rain forests of Brazil, where a civilization thrived for 2,000 years, from about 500 B.C. until Spanish and Portuguese explorers introduced devastating European diseases in the mid-1500s. Using only their hands, sticks, and stone axes, Amazonian tribes grew cassava, corn, and numerous tree fruits in soil made rich with compost, mulch, and smoldered plant matter.

Amazingly, these “dark earths” persist today as a testament to an ancient soil-building method you can use in your garden. Scientists disagree on whether the soils were created on purpose, in order to grow more food, or if they were an accidental byproduct of the biochar and compost generated in day-to-day village life along the banks of the Earth’s biggest river. However they came to be, there is no doubt that Amazonian dark earths (often called terra preta) hold plant nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium, much more efficiently than unimproved soil. Even after 500 years of tropical temperatures and rainfall that averages 80 inches a year, the dark earths remain remarkably fertile.

Scientists around the world are working in labs and field trial plots to better understand how biochar works, and to unravel the many mysteries of terra preta. At Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., microbiologists have discovered bacteria in terra preta soils that are similar to strains that are active in hot compost piles. Overall populations of fungi and bacteria are high in terra preta soils, too, but the presence of abundant carbon makes the microorganisms live and reproduce at a slowed pace. The result is a reduction in the turnover rate of organic matter in the soil, so composts and other soil-enriching forms of organic matter last longer.

In field trials with corn, rice and many other crops, biochar has increased productivity by making nutrients already present in the soil better available to plants. Results are especially dramatic when biochar is added to good soil that contains ample minerals and plant nutrients. Research continues (track it at The International Biochar Initiative), but at this point it appears that biochar gives both organic matter and microorganisms in organically enriched soil enhanced staying power. Digging in nuggets of biochar — or adding them to compost as it is set aside to cure — can slow the leaching away of nutrients and help organically enriched soil retain nutrients for decades rather than for a couple of seasons.

4/29/2016 12:46:04 PM

Interesting article, but why must we continue to invent new words for things that have been practiced and have gone on for ages. Just because it is being rediscovered does not mean we need a new word to make it sound like a new breakthrough. Farmers have been using ash and charred wood for ages, it just went out of fashion when all the chemical adiditives were being marketed which did not require for thought and knowledge that was possessed by the "ancients". Its good to rediscover past knowledge, don't give a new name to make it seem new.

6/4/2013 3:02:56 PM

Sorry about the extra posts,MEN has it backwards on posting.


6/4/2013 3:01:01 PM

Climate Change?

mother earth news fair 2018 schedule


Next: April 28-29, 2018
Asheville, NC

Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!