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Soil and Composting: biochar...anyone making it?

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ghopper
Brewster, MN
(Zone 4b)

March 29, 2009
3:36 PM

Post #6335371

We've just recently become aware of the biochar process here in SW MN. We're wondering if anyone has perfected a mobile unit? Do you make it as a group? Are others receptive to the idea of using it? Do you know of and downsides? How does one get the word out about this wonderful technology?
jimmyd61

March 30, 2009
12:00 AM

Post #6337532

I have not been making it, but rather "buying" it in the form of Cowboy Charcoal from Ace Hardware in 20 lb. bags (wood charcoal).
I must say it is challenging to pulverize it (for easier distribution) and takes some time but can say that in the spots in my garden where it has been mixed in, there are now a much higher number of worms. Looking forward to seeing how it pans out as far as results in the garden. The cool thing is I can add as I go until I reach the "standard" 10 lbs per square yard. Not there yet, but once it is done, it is done, so to speak.
Maybe Darius has designed something useful for pyrolysis by now and can share. Darius?
garden_mermaid
San Francisco Bay Ar, CA
(Zone 9b)

March 30, 2009
4:19 AM

Post #6338626

I can't find the webpage that had the homemade unit. It was basically a hole dug in the ground, with the metal basket from inside an old washing machine lining the hole. A weber grill lid was used to seal off the top. The user would start the wood buring in the hole and then cover with the weber top to create the charcoal. The vent on the weber top allowed him t control the airflow so that it burned, but not too much.
PuddlePirate
North Ridgeville, OH
(Zone 5b)

March 30, 2009
2:23 PM

Post #6339946

Jimmy, how small are the chunks when you're done pulverizing?
jimmyd61

March 30, 2009
8:28 PM

Post #6341388

PP:
Good question. It depends on how adamant I am when it comes to the pounding. The longer the better. I take a couple or three big handfuls of the charcoal (it is usually pieces of 2" x 2"). place it in a heavy duty metal bucket and lift the light end of a sledge hammer and start pounding with the sledge inside the bucket. It takes 3 or 4 minutes to pulverize, it seems. I use a rotational approach with the sledge and seems to work OK. There are usually some chunks left (10% or so) that are around an inch or so in dimension, but most of it is like powder. Don't try it on a windy day or near anything you don't want to turn black. Gloves should be worn. Also, I use my garden soil underneath the bucket to soften the blow to the bucket bottom. This is still experimental at this point. I imagine a more determined approach would warrant the use of a screen for culling the big pieces when transferring the crushed char.
I usually pour this char powder into another bucket and when it is about half full, I pour it into the garden liberally.
I do this for about 30 minutes or so before the body is tired and ready for a breather.
I would say it would take about 15 or 20 rounds of this to do a 20 pound bag of Cowboy Charcoal. Maybe a total of 3 hours or so with rest.
Just an estimate, though.
Like I said, once it is in the soil, it is there for good. This is the frame of mind I keep when I wonder if all the work is worth it or not.
I would imagine building a pyrolysis unit with something that is easier to pulverize would be worth the effort (something like chicken poo or dried leaves, peanut shells, etc.). If someone has any ideas about this pulverizing part that might make it easier, please share.
I did try my wood chipper but the loss to the surroundings were too much. I even tried soaking the chips first, but didn't get much better results.

hellnzn11
Rosamond, CA
(Zone 8b)

March 31, 2009
4:47 AM

Post #6343548

What is it and what is it for? Don't laugh me off the thread please.
WormsLovSharon
Las Vegas, NV

March 31, 2009
5:08 AM

Post #6343606

I had the same question. Can't you put in a canvas bag and pound it with the sledge hammer? Maybe run over it with your car?
ghopper
Brewster, MN
(Zone 4b)

March 31, 2009
1:56 PM

Post #6344598

hellnzn11 This is no laughing matter, it's maybe the best kept secret around. Darius does a better explination than I could do. Find her under Articles. The process gives you a soil ammendment that helps retain miosture, helps with the uptake of nuitrents, just a bunch of great things for the soil while at the same time, done properly, keeps carbon in the soil not in the atmosphere. Use your favorite search engine, after you read Darius for a greater understanding of the potential of biochar. We would love to see biochar info plastered all over every newspaper and TV in the country. Other countries are studying it's potential, as are we, but it seems to get no publicity.
A friend has done a few batches using corn cobs, twine and smaller sticks. She feels her setup is doing a good job of burning the escaping gasses as part of the fuel source. We live where all the farm groves have plenty of down branches that could be biochar instead of a brush pile to just be burned. Done on an industrial level it could be using any bio product that we now put in a dump.
We could be world leaders instead of followers if more funding could be steared this direction. Biochar use could have a tremendous affect in areas where the soil is poor and help people worldwide feed themselves.
Just do a bit of research on your own and see what you think. So far I haven't seen any reports of adverse affects, that's why I'd like to see more research before we blast ahead without enough knowledge.
Thanks for the soapbox! Lots of us can make biochar for ourselves, not drive to a store and pay someone else.
jimmyd61

March 31, 2009
1:59 PM

Post #6344615

I'm sorry, ghopper, for this thread taking off on a slight tangent, apparently due to my original post.
What is biochar? It is a natural charcoal, made from carbons (lumber, woody stems, even chicken poo though high in nitrogen) through a process called pyrolysis (basically superheating these substances in a closed system by a surrounding fire. The charred materials never touch or are exposed to fire except through its heat. There is very little oxygen in the closed system. Depending on the material used probably determines the amount that is powderized, particle size, etc.
Biochar was talked about in the last issue of Mother Earth News and has an article on line. Also, Darius had written an excellent article on this subject on this site and there may have been a discussion thread on it a couple of months back.
What is it good for? Apparently, the concentrated carbons created by this process are as close to an eternal source of food for beneficial microbes as there can be. From what I have read, it will last up to 1000 years. I think it tends to hold water rather effectively as well. It also sequesters carbon, and is thought to actually pull CO2 out of the atmosphere into the ground where it is buried (in this case, the garden). The Amazonian Indians used this type of system to grow food in a sustainable system for centuries. On the industrial side of things, there are processes that can not only make biochar but can manufacture a biofuel from the smoke created in the closed system during the charring process.
As far as the question from skwinter: I had thought of using the car thing, but haven't tried it due to the powder's tendency to uncontrollably "poof" into the air when agitated. It is hard enough as it to contain it in a decent sized bucket. The canvas bag might be challenged for the same reason.
Haven't given up on the car thing yet. Thought about two large pieces of plywood and placing the charred wood in between them and backing the truck over it. Then one could get a broom and dust pan and scoop it to an awaiting bucket. I sometimes have visions of biochar torpedoes shooting toward my neighbor's window!
I have come across a few links that discuss some simple methods of pyrolysis systems. I will see if I can find them and post their links.



jimmyd61

March 31, 2009
2:23 PM

Post #6344738

Here are some links:

http://www.holon.se/folke/carbon/simplechar/simplechar.shtml

http://www.biocharfertilization.com/

http://www.motherearthnews.com/Organic-Gardening/Make-Biochar-To-Improve-Your-Soil.aspx

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1864279,00.html
ghopper
Brewster, MN
(Zone 4b)

March 31, 2009
4:51 PM

Post #6345342

jimmy, you did a great job of explaining the pyrolysis sysyems! Thanks for the likes,too. The more I learn the more excited I get. Although I haven't worked with the char myself I'm wondering if some eye protection would be wise. And maybe a dust mask. My friend charred some horse apples today and was very pleased with the results. They charred quickly and crumbled easily in her hand. I suppose it isn't as longlasting in the soil but sure would be easy to incorporate.
PuddlePirate
North Ridgeville, OH
(Zone 5b)

March 31, 2009
6:28 PM

Post #6345770

Here's a list of all pages on this site that are tagged "biochar": http://davesgarden.com/tools/tags/tag.php?tag=biochar
jimmyd61

March 31, 2009
9:17 PM

Post #6346471

GH:
Thanks. I still have alot of "pulverizing" to do, and it may take some time before I see discernible results. Hopefully, it will happen, and then it will be time to relax!! Please keep us posted on your friend's experiences. Sounds like apples are alot easier to convert to powder than pieces of wood (ha-ha).
hellnzn11
Rosamond, CA
(Zone 8b)

April 4, 2009
5:41 AM

Post #6362262

I will check out these threads, Darius always has the answers. Thanks
ghopper
Brewster, MN
(Zone 4b)

April 10, 2009
2:17 AM

Post #6389454

This afternoon I watched my friend make a few batches of char. She used small sticks in one batch and about 2" branches in another. The sticks came out perfect, the branches weren't in quite long enough and a few needed to go back for a little longer. She is using metal pails with clamp on lids over a fire built in a half of a metal drum. It works well enough but the batches are so small. Jimmy, I'm wondering how you do yours. How long are your 2x4s? How tightly do you pack them? As soon as I can get 1 end cut from a couple of barrels I'm going to try the inverted barrel method. I'll bet a softer wood will smash up easier. The wood we will both be using is downed branches from boxelder and maple. We both have lots of mulberry and buckthorn and some ash. Can't wait to start cooking. By the way ,I read that under certain circumstances biochar can spontaneously combust. I need to find out more about that but in the meantime I won't plan to store it indoors.
hellnzn11
Rosamond, CA
(Zone 8b)

April 11, 2009
4:14 AM

Post #6394245

Good to know. Here in the desert you probably need a burn permit and God forbid anything gets out of control.

Am I understanding, you make a fire and burn the wood from inside a pot and let it heat up, but not directly burn the wood in a fire itself?
PuddlePirate
North Ridgeville, OH
(Zone 5b)

April 11, 2009
4:40 AM

Post #6394323

I wonder if biochar and lava sand provide similar benefits?
hellnzn11
Rosamond, CA
(Zone 8b)

April 11, 2009
4:14 PM

Post #6395657

Puddle, I lived in Elyria, Oberlin and Lorraine for about 11 years. It is a lot easier to garden where you live. Ya know no worms crawl out when it rains here.
PuddlePirate
North Ridgeville, OH
(Zone 5b)

April 11, 2009
7:03 PM

Post #6396259

hellnzn, it's a small world. Stuff does grow well here if you can just break through the doggone clay. What kind of soil do you have?
hellnzn11
Rosamond, CA
(Zone 8b)

April 12, 2009
12:16 AM

Post #6397234

Worse, Caleche, which is hard pan at the top 6 inches or more, (like cement), then it is a mixed bag of hard pan and pure clay. It sucks the boots off your feet when wet. Poor drainage is not good for most plants so it really sucks to garden here.

I talked to Darius about this and she told me what she has been doing which is not too different than what I did in the past, but people warned me about too much ash being bad, so I stopped. It is not the same as biochar though. I will check it out more. Fires here are not smiled upon, if they must be burnt over the course of hours. Touchy, which I am sure you have seen on the news for here.
ghopper
Brewster, MN
(Zone 4b)

April 12, 2009
2:02 AM

Post #6397648

You've pretty much got the drift, hellnzn. Have you checked out the links above? There is a ton of info around on biochar, some stuff is way too deep for me. So far I haven't heard anything bad. It is work. No doubt about it. But the results will be worth it.
Friend and I have slightly different setups, but our fires are contained in barrels. Done properly, you really don't have to burn a big, roaring fire. The gasses that come off of the char barrel burn along with your other fuel. It makes a roaring sound that is quite distinctive. And it doesn't seem like it takes as much fuel as you'd think to make the char. Of course burning permits can be quite srtingent, with good reason. Done in a sensible manner, in a sensible place you can do a char burn safely.
garden_mermaid
San Francisco Bay Ar, CA
(Zone 9b)

April 12, 2009
2:38 AM

Post #6397874

hellnzn11, have you tried planting some Soil Builder Mix from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply. That's a cover crop blend. We have adobe clay here. DH used a grub hoe and pick axe and barely made a dent. We filled the dent with water and it took three days to drain. We planted soil builder mix under a shallow layer of composted horse manure. The cover crop grew well and busted up the clay with its roots. We could easily get a garden fork into the ground after that.
hellnzn11
Rosamond, CA
(Zone 8b)

April 13, 2009
2:31 AM

Post #6401682

I have never heard of it, but we too have broken many a shovel and hoe, as well as had holes that took days to dry up and weeks later it still looked wet. My little fruitless plumb that was here 6 years ago, has barely grown.

What is a cover crop? Can I get it a feed place or is a nursery thing? How and where would I get it, how much is it. My old friend just stopped by and dumped off a 6 foot pile of horse manure, that is 1/2 decomposed, so I need to find this stuff, you are talking about, so I can grow roses better. My roses are not happy in containers and don't do well in ground here and when they do, it is for a year until gophers get them or they compact again. The gophers I am doing better with now, until I poison them, I put a huge can of jalapenos in the blender, add water and put it around my delicious plants and they run. I tried it as an experiment last year where I saw activity and had not enough time to wait to see if I caught it or killed it. It buys some time. They do not like it and it has not effected my plants adversely.
garden_mermaid
San Francisco Bay Ar, CA
(Zone 9b)

April 13, 2009
2:54 AM

Post #6401774

hellnzn11, a cover crop is a a crop that is grown to "cover" the soil while it is fallow and then is dug into the soil. It is often used in a crop rotation to add nutrients to the soil, such as with legumes to fix nitrogen. Cover crops can also be used to suppress weeds (by crowding them out) and to prevent erosion during the rainy season.

Here is a link to the Soil Builder Mix that we used:

http://www.groworganic.com/item_SCM120_Soil_Builder_Mix__Raw_Lb.html

Scroll down to the "additional information" box on the same page. There is a lot of good info on selecting and using cover crops available for download.
PuddlePirate
North Ridgeville, OH
(Zone 5b)

April 13, 2009
7:16 PM

Post #6404716

Here's a list of DG pages tagged "cover crops": http://davesgarden.com/tools/tags/tag.php?tag=cover crops

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