The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Biochar a dud in temperate regions

Biochar beside an onion seedlingDo you remember the biochar craze from a few years ago? Everyone from Mother Earth News to the Extension Service was touting charcoal's benefits as a soil amendment, and if you're like us you probably tried it in your own garden.

After a few trials, my conclusion was that biochar didn't provide any visible benefit to our soil beyond a very slight warming effect for extremely early spring crops. And, to my surprise, science now backs that assertion up. A comparison of over a thousand biochar studies concluded that biochar has no discernable benefit in temperate regions (although it does help a lot in tropical soils where high heat and rainfall mean that organic matter decomposes and nutrients leach away in short order).

Sifting biocharSo will I stop sifting charcoal out of my wood ashes to apply to the garden? Probably not. Like any other source of organic matter, biochar improves soil texture over the long run, and processing the waste from our wood stove only takes about half an hour per year.

But I'm glad I didn't burn wood specifically for the purpose of creating biochar. After all,
hugelkultur builds soil fertility even more and is a good fit for already punky wood. So bury that wood instead of burning it if you want to boost your soil the best!

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Thanks for posting this! Down here in the humid subtropics, where my acid "soil" is a fine white quartz sand, I've been dragging fallen branches to my burn barrel from all over the neighborhood for a year, to turn them into charcoal, as a base layer for each new garden bed: I dig the bed, put in 3-4 inches of charcoal, then dump a few weeks' worth of kitchen compost on top and cap it with store-bought composted manure. Where I've dug the holes deep enough, this seems to be working pretty well. I'm counting on the charcoal layer to keep the added compost from washing right out, hold onto some water, and maybe preserve some organic matter there for the years to come. I love the idea of hugelkultur, but it doesn't work here. You'd hesitate to pile up that much wood anywhere near your house, because of termites. And it wouldn't last more than two years-- you'd have to keep piling it up year after year, and where would you get all that wood from? If there's anywhere biochar is appropriate, it's here-- and I'm glad the study agrees!
Comment by Cord Thu May 4 09:07:26 2017
My understanding is that biochar is not necessarily useful as a fertilizer by itself, but rather it provides charge sites for cations to attach to. It increases your soils TCEC (total-cation-exchange-capacity), so you would still need to add whatever your soil is missing, and replenish those things when your plants have removed them. And some things are water soluble and are going to leach away anyway. I read the book "The intelligent gardener" and in it he likened it to "how big is your food pantry". The larger your TCEC the less often you have to refill it and the longer it takes to deplete the soil. My questions about biochar are more about if they help to maintain and balance soil nutrients, assuming you balance those nutrients to begin with, and if in the long run you have to use fewer external inputs because more of your nutrients are captured and subsequently made available to the plant.
Comment by Anonymous Thu May 4 12:58:16 2017
I'd like to see the studies plotted on a map. They say that tropical soils are avid and low fertility and temperate ones aren't, but in Australia most soils, even in temperate areas, are acid and low fertility. Is it the climate zone that makes the difference, or the soil type?
Comment by Alex Thu May 4 18:10:59 2017

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