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

How to activate biochar

Pouring biochar into a bucketTraditional terra preta, on which current biochar research is based, was made by mixing charcoal, bones, pottery shards, human waste, and other trash together in a pit, and recent studies have shown that it's best to mimic this by adding some sort of high nitrogen fertilizer to your charcoal before applying it to the garden.  Applying biochar to the soil without adding nitrogen to it first can sometimes stunt your plants for a short time, a bit like mixing fresh wood chips into the soil, since microorganisms have to use up nitrogen to break down the carbon.  Adding manure, compost, or urine to the biochar counteracts that initial decline in plant growth and may also tempt microorganisms to move into their biochar condos faster.

If you're in a hurry for great soil, an alternative method of activating the biochar is working it into your compost pile.  A few studies have suggested that biochar helps speed up the composting process (probably by increasing microorganism populations), and when you put the biochar-compost on your garden, the biochar will already be full of hard-working microbes. 

Finally, don't forget to soak your biochar before application.  This isn't technically part of the activation process, but everything will go more smoothly if you fill those pores with water.  And if you do decide to grind your charcoal, pre-soaking it is supposed to make biochar easier to work with both during the grinding and application process.

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This post is part of our Biochar in the Backyard lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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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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