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Advantages of biochar over hugelkultur?

 
                        
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I'm so confused!  It would seem that nothing could be in the charcoal that isn't in the wood to start with but this stuff lasting centuries?  I was going to try hugelculture  this summer but now wondering if it should be biochar instead!

People seem to be suggesting though, that hugelculture will work even in the first year so can someone clarify the advantages of charring the wood rather than just burying it? And while you are at it..sorry if these are silly questions..should the hugelculture wood be old or can it be relatively new, and how deep should it be buried?
 
Jordan Lowery
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there is nothing in the char that was not in the wood, it is not basically 100% carbon. the other compounds and chemicals were burned off in the pyrolysis process. the benefits to the char are increased microbial stimualtion( i.e. the char gives "houses" to the microbes. the char also has water holding capacity and a high CEC. so it holds water, and nutrients, then when needed the microbes "strip" the nutrients out of the CEC and trade the plant sugars for it. if i had to choose one i would choose the biochar, as it has many benefits that last years and years. though around here i do both. hugelkultur beds with biochar powder all through.

hugelkulture does work the first year, you just cant plant nutrient hungry plants, i find its better to plant legumes the first spring, then the summer too, and by fall i can plant things like brassicas. by next spring tomatoes, peppers all that stuff is on the list to plant. i prefer to use old wood. new wood has too many other uses.
 
Brenda Groth
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why (vs)..why can't you do both, I do both here..we have a lot of wood products on our property that get buried but we also heat with wood and have a lot of biochar that comes out of the furnace when we clean it weekly..that also gets buried..so we do both
 
Jami McBride
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Both - yes . . . . but they are different as Soil points out, so I would add it is best not to view them as either/or, but to see the uses and benefits of them, and apply as best fits your needs and situation.
 
Jordan Lowery
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the other benefit is if you live where there is not that many trees,and the ones that are there you dont want to cut down to make hugel beds. biochar can be made from a whole number of materials not just wood. the oddest thing i have made it from was dried chicken coop poop and straw. came out nice and black and powdery, no need to smash any large chunks up. so now i do it in the early spring when its dry enough but we still have rains for burn days. this year i chipped up the corn stalks and charred them up, back into the plot.
 
                    
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The biggest difference is that the high temperatures and lack of oxygen in the charring process lead to chemical changes that make the biochar resistant to microbial decay, and it has a very high surface area to bind water and nutrients (it opens up billions of small channels through the wood). So yes, biochar can last a long time in the soil, and it is more active in some respects.

Ordinary wood might also last a fairly long time, but the part that is protected from soil microbes (internal areas) is not contributing much directly to the soil - the inside of big chunks of wood are fairly inert until they get broken up, and at that point, they start breaking down.
 
          
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So far we've only done hugelkultur because we've been taking the
"whatchagot" approach.
What we "got" is no time to make biochar.

Although Soils comments about making biochar were intriguing!
Please please post more about how to make biochar...
 
Tyler Ludens
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I'm doing hugelculture because that is all I have the physical energy for.  Digging holes and toting logs is enough to keep me busy without adding making charcoal to my list of things to do!    So far it seems to be working well. 

 
Mekka Pakanohida
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Ludi Ludi wrote:
I'm doing hugelculture because that is all I have the physical energy for.  Digging holes and toting logs is enough to keep me busy without adding making charcoal to my list of things to do!     So far it seems to be working well. 



I'm with you. 

Although, someone please correct me if I am wrong, but it seems Biochar systems has more of a short term set up for use where as Hugelkulture is more for the long haul nutrient wise.
 
Jordan Lowery
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actually the biochar is the long run, a few hundred years or more if you practice no till systems. biochar is made to mimic the terra preta soils that the people in the amazon made. amazing stuff if you look it up.

im not bashing hugelkultur beds, i have many of them.
 
                            
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Now what? 

I would love to have a hugel bed (or 10 or 20), but I'm really worried about termites..they are definitely out here.  And now you're saying that I should burn the outside of the wood?

We burn wood for heat, but I have access to downed cottonwood for hugelbeds.  If I put a match to it, it'd be ash in a flash.

Sorry, this biochar is new to me.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Personally I don't think termites will be a problem if the logs are well-buried with compost/soil.

 
Jordan Lowery
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We burn wood for heat, but I have access to downed cottonwood for hugelbeds.  If I put a match to it, it'd be ash in a flash.

Sorry, this biochar is new to me.


your not just supposed to burn wood in the open, thats silly. all youll end up with is ash. were making charcoal, as people have done for hundreds and hundreds of years. your heating up organic matter without the presence of oxygen ( in this case wood, but it can be anything even your old clothes ), this way the material turns to pure carbon in form and not into ash, the volatile oils are often captured and can be turned into feul for generators, engines, etc.... big logs would not be good for biochar anyways, the logs would take too much effort into getting the right size for pyrolysis and after for application. its best to use the logs for hugel( old logs fresh wood is too worthy for just letting to rot) and the small side branches, leaves, sticks, etc.. for biochar. the medium sized logs can be saved for firewood if needed.

anything organic can be turned to biochar, thats whats going to make it so amazing successful. waste into biofeul and biochar, which will in turn help grow better crops and sequester carbon for decades. turning fresh raw material into char will only make our situation worse.
 
Mekka Pakanohida
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soil wrote:
actually the biochar is the long run, a few hundred years or more if you practice no till systems. biochar is made to mimic the terra preta soils that the people in the amazon made. amazing stuff if you look it up.

im not bashing hugelkultur beds, i have many of them.



Huh, this goes directly against what I was taught in anthropology about this practice.  I started reading the other thread in the soil area.. interesting stuff.  Sadly though, I do not believe I have the means for this for many years to come. 
 
Mekka Pakanohida
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soil wrote:
your not just supposed to burn wood in the open, thats silly. all youll end up with is ash. were making charcoal, as people have done for hundreds and hundreds of years. your heating up organic matter without the presence of oxygen ( in this case wood, but it can be anything even your old clothes ), this way the material turns to pure carbon in form and not into ash, the volatile oils are often captured and can be turned into feul for generators, engines, etc.... big logs would not be good for biochar anyways, the logs would take too much effort into getting the right size for pyrolysis and after for application. its best to use the logs for hugel( old logs fresh wood is too worthy for just letting to rot) and the small side branches, leaves, sticks, etc.. for biochar. the medium sized logs can be saved for firewood if needed.

anything organic can be turned to biochar, thats whats going to make it so amazing successful. waste into biofeul and biochar, which will in turn help grow better crops and sequester carbon for decades. turning fresh raw material into char will only make our situation worse.



Wow, this is the best description I have read so far.  I also find it interesting that I was contacted a little while ago by a blacksmith asking if he can make some charcoal here.  Seems I have much reading to do, and I thank you all for it.   

 
ronie dee
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Marianne wrote:
Now what?   

I would love to have a hugel bed (or 10 or 20), but I'm really worried about termites..they are definitely out here.  And now you're saying that I should burn the outside of the wood?

We burn wood for heat, but I have access to downed cottonwood for hugelbeds.  If I put a match to it, it'd be ash in a flash.

Sorry, this biochar is new to me.


If you live in area with sub-terrain termites it is recommended that you never bury wood. The buried wood will attract the termites and, when they are done with the buried wood, they will come for YOUR wood.

I am in a sub-terrain termite area and i have a wood roof. I don't think buried wood is an option. The char looks promising.
 
Jami McBride
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There is a lot of stuff about biochar on the Net, even many groups who have taken it to almost a religious level with their custom built biochar making stoves..... but it is good to remember that making charcoal is something done every day in third world countries by simple people, it doesn't have to be expensive or hard.  And many making it here use scrap wood, old pallets, construction cast off pieces, etc.

Soil is correct again you want med to smallish pieces not logs    Lots of videos to watch and get a feel for how it's done, but not to many doing it in the ground.  Seems the my char is better than your char group do the most filming *grin*
 
Tyler Ludens
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We have lots of termites "in the wild" but so far none have gone for the house (12 years).  This is even with buried wood under the house (old tree stumps the builder left under there  )
 
                        
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Thanks for all the responses! Now I have another question..I have some big round bales of straw originally used as a windbreak/shelter for horses. They are beginning to break down and look a little tattered around the edges and they are not being especially useful as they are.  First I was thinking to use them as mulch  but since it isn't chopped straw (too much of it to tackle with a lawnmower to chop!)  it will take forever to break down into humus. So then I was thinking to do a sort of hugelculture out of them but would have to  break them up to do it as I have no way to bury them as they are. So now I am wondering...

Is there any wayto go about making biochar out of them? My soil is extremely sandy and the biochar sounds wonderfully promising but  I'm not sure how a person would go about turning a 5x6 foot round bale into charcoal?  I have about 30 of them I would love to see helping develop this sad soil.  Right now they are working as a windbreak and stuff is starting to grow happilly around their feet  but I want to use them more productively.

Loose straw will probably burn like crazy.Bales which are still bales should tend to burn fairly slowly because of the density of the material but likely they burn well on the outside!! Would it be a reasonable thing to do to cover part of the bale with dirt  before lighting it on fire?  

I was wondering about doing something like: there is a fairly decent north slope not too far away. Perhaps dig out a bale size hole in the side of it and back the bale in so that basically the top and front were all that was open, and I would have a nice pile of dirt handy to cover the bale at the appropriate time. (How would I know when that was? argh!)  (It would also limit the possibility of the fire getting away from me!) After they were all eventually done I would have a super spot to make a winter cold storage place  Opinions? Other ideas on how to manage it? Or should I do something else entirely with the bales? Biochar is new to me so thanks for everyone's help!
 
Jordan Lowery
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are the bales all wet?
 
Tyler Ludens
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Personally I would use the straw as mulch.  You might also use some of it in compost heaps mixed with lots of fresh green weeds in the spring, or mixed with manure if you can get it, if you want to get it to break down faster.  Here in my climate organic material breaks down far too fast, I would love to have some mulch that didn't disappear in a couple months!
 
                        
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The bales have all been outside, stacked 2 high, to be a wind break. Until this fall they didnt show much affect from being out, and if a bale was broken open the straw inside was still gold and looking like it just came off the field.  This year though, we had rain constantly through the summer, including a 1 in a 100 year rainstorm  and now they are  turning dark grey around the outside and the moulds are clearly beginning to work their way into the bales (another reason to change them out, horses and mould are a really bad combination.)

Use them as mulch with chickens ranging over the mulch? there wouldn't be much green stuff but bugs and sunshine and exercise...then scatter some seed over after the chickens have been moved on?  The first priority is to find some way to keep the moisture available, there is so much sand the water just disappears and seeds that do sprout  shrivel up and die. The horses have found that almost anywhere will make a great dust bath.  I was also thinking about some sort of swales, but I don't know much about them either, just seemed as though if they worked in Jordan they might  work here.

The thing about biochar, as I understand it, is that it makes the soil more fertile by making the minerals more accessible to plants but less accessible to leaching as well as providing habitat for soil organisms and that was very appealing. I really don't know if there is much fertility in this soil..there isn't a lot of diversity around, it's almost all black poplar, although along the road allowance there is saskatoon berry, Manitoba maple and such as well. (And various other plants/shrubs I am trying to find someone to help me identify!)

I was told by a neighbor in a very kindly/patronizing way that nothing would grow there  so not only do I want to prove him wrong but I want to do it in a hurry so looking for the most effective way to go about this.

 
Jami McBride
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Ha!  Nothing like a challenge to get us motivated, hey Pam.

Seems for your soil, along with the biochar you will want to add a lot of green manures (chopped weeds/grasses, herbs, etc.), reg-manures and material for your ground 'litter' such as leaves, wood chips, and chicken processed hay.  The biochar needs to be fertilized before use, for example fill a 5 gal bucket with half pulverized BC and half urine, allow to sit for several weeks. 

BioChar is mineral negative when first created.  You must inoculate it before using if you want instant benefits, using urine is cheap and easy, but you can also add kelp or other mineral sources plus water to dampen.  raw milk cultured (allowed to set out for a couple of days) would be good too.  You want to jump start those microorganisms and minerals or it will remove what you have in the soil in order to balance its negative state before allowing any to be released.

The items listed above would all be good for inoculating your sand-soil so that rich soil can result.

Here is a link to a conversation about charring various materials in a metal trash can with lid  http://scienceforums.com/topic/10413-making-biochar/

 
Jordan Lowery
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The thing about biochar, as I understand it, is that it makes the soil more fertile by making the minerals more accessible to plants but less accessible to leaching as well as providing habitat for soil organisms and that was very appealing. I really don't know if there is much fertility in this soil..there isn't a lot of diversity around, it's almost all black poplar, although along the road allowance there is saskatoon berry, Manitoba maple and such as well. (And various other plants/shrubs I am trying to find someone to help me identify!)


the biochar itself doesn't give any fertility, its almost sterile as far as the soil is concerned. Its all the life that lives in the carbon that matters. some people call biochar "microbe apartments"  its where they take hold in all the nooks and crannies, where they live, they work, they "trade" with the plant. this is where the fertility lies. without them the char would grab nutrients, but it wont give them up very easily. you would still get the water holding benefits, and aeration, but without life its nothing imo.

so like jami said, you need to pre treat the char before it goes in, most people soak in a nutrient rich liquid, in compost tea, you can mix with compost.

jami is also right, you need lots of organic matter to go with the char at first to get the system going, from then on all you need is to keep adding mulch.
 
                            
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Thanks for the input, folks, it's always good to read differing opinions, glean info, etc.

Ronie, I agree, buried wood of any kind is kind of a no-go in our area unless it's treated.  I have even seen termite tunnels going up concrete walls to get to wet wood.  They can be pretty tenacious.  I read a long time ago, that you could bury scrap wood, add water and put a chunk of pipe in the hole so the top is above the soil line.  Then add sugar water every so often and it would attract ants to kill the termites that had been drawn there to begin with - kind of a low tech bait trap.

Soil, thanks for the great description.  The cottonwood is very soft, not suitable for firewood, usually used for pallet construction, etc.  The biochar sounds interesting, I'll keep reading.
 
ronie dee
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Ludi Ludi wrote:
We have lots of termites "in the wild" but so far none have gone for the house (12 years).  This is even with buried wood under the house (old tree stumps the builder left under there  )


Some builders used Chlordane to make a termite free zone around homes. I hope you never have to deal with the sub -T termites. I did and it wasn't easy.  Some homes are easier to treat then others. Mine is slab on grade and below grade on two sides...it is one of the hardest to treat.

Thanks for the info on termite predators Marianne. I didn't know the ants would kill the termites.
 
Tyler Ludens
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My dad used Chlordane under our old house back in the day.  I'll never forget the smell.   

To my knowledge our present building site was never treated for termites.

So far, so good.   
 
                            
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Chickens supposedly eat termites, too.  My free rangers would usually head to an old tree that we cut down.  It was filled with termites when we took the chain saw to it.

I have seen the ant war on termites before.  We had an old garage years ago and the frame on the doorway was pretty bad.  When we ripped it out, there were obvious termites and a boatload of ants.  Rain water had been getting behind the wood for a long time and everyone was having a picnic.

Where we live now, we tore down an old pole shed.  Most of the poles were completely rotted out and not even touching the ground anymore.  The crazy thing is that for two or three years, ant hills developed where the poles originally had been.  I'm guessing there was still some wood in the ground with termites, and the ants found them.  We just left the hills, and the ants have moved on.  There hasn't been ants there for a couple of years now.
 
                        
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wow   this biochar stuff is interesting  what a great link! thank you Jami.

A question about using urine to inoculate the biochar..I am assuming it should be diluted to  make sure the salts are not too concentrated when the biochar absorbs the liquid? I am on a prowl tomorrow to look for barrels...if I could get this started now it could be ready for the summer....
 
Jami McBride
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Some add water some do not.... It may be helpful to test your soil for salts, unless your in a really salty place you do not need to dilute it.

Here is another interesting read on the subject of inoculating with urine
http://sensiblesimplicity.lefora.com/2009/07/15/eco-charcoal-soil-to-fuel-revolution/

Soil - I forgot about compost tea - it's another thing to make, but if you've got some it sure is good.  And there have been some interesting studies done lately about the great benefits of spraying growing areas and/or fields with milk, seems to add all the right microbes
 
Jordan Lowery
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for those who have the resource, rice hulls make great biochar. around here you can buy a 6 cf bag of ruce hulls for about 6$. by far rice hulls are the easiest to turn into char, no need for a pyrolysis machine.

http://www.slideshare.net/mik1999/char2
 
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