Joshua Finch

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since Apr 23, 2012
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Recent posts by Joshua Finch

From my understanding terra preta is a very unique anthropogenic soil creation method. Because of that, I am wary of attempts to sell biochar as "terra preta" by some companies and individuals. It appears to be the result of a specific process that may or may not be so easily to replicate. Also, due to the age of these deposits, they are highly developed soils in which the soil life community has adapted through many generations. Therefore, even mixing "good" biochar with nutrients, pottery, and animal products and putting them into the soil is not, in my opinion, going to immediately yield terra preta.

While the constituents may be superficially similar, a stumbling block remains: time. It takes time for soil to structure through the work of organisms that live there in interaction with plants and humans. My stance is the same on soil creation elsewhere: sheet mulching, addition of compost, rock dusts, other natural fertilizers, and organisms will not yield high quality soil immediately either. High quality soil is the result of inputs, care, and time. Natural processes can be aided, even accelerated, but immediate realization of high quality soil is simply not possible. Roots and fungi take time to grow. It takes time for earthworms and other soil organisms to burrow through the layers. It takes time for plants to alter the soil life community in their rhizosphere. We can put the pieces in place, but it still takes time to develop.

IMO, Terra preta is more than the sum of its material parts.


Here is how Charles Mann, the author of 1491, begins to explain terra preta:

"As a rule, terra preta has more "plant-available" phosphorus, calcium, sulfur, and nitrogen than is common in the rain forest; it also has much more organic matter, better retains moisture and nutrients, and is not rapidly exhausted by agricultural use when managed well. The key to terra preta's long term fertility, Glaser# says, is charcoal: terra preta contains up to sixty-four times more of it than surrounding red earth. [...] But simply mixing charcoal into the ground is not enough to create terra preta. Because charcoal contains few nutrients, Glaser argued, "high-nutrient inputs- excrement and waste such as turtle, fish, and animal bones- are necessary.

Special soil microorganisms are alsolikely to play a role in its persistent fertility."

-1491, second edition, p. 355-356

#Bruno Glaser is a chemist working at the Institute of Soil Science and Soil Geography at the University of Bayreuth, Germany

6 years ago
It truly depends on what you mean by "good" and "bad."

You can do everything right in the pyrolysis stage, but if your inputs are coming from clear cut forest, would that change your opinion as to what is "good" or "bad"?

The process itself is what separates biochar from charcoal, as well as biochar from activated carbon.

Many factors come into play in terms of the final biochar product. One of the best resources for understanding biochar, IMO, is the Biochar Journal. They do a very good job explaining what biochar is, what biochar isn't, and how it can be used. Like the permaculture adage "animals above plants," biochar needs to be inoculated with nutrients, water, and microbes before being applied to the soil. This can be done in many ways, such as including it in compost, vermicompost, adding feed grade biochar to livestock's diet, mixing with urine, adding it into the bedding of livestock's quarters, etc.

One of the founding entities of that journal has also played a huge role in getting the European Biochar Certificate (EBC) started. If you go to the EBC's website, you can find their requirements for certified biochar. There are only a handful of operators who have willingly undergone the process so far, but I think it will grow. Their criteria are strict, but clear and reasonable.

I have asked some biochar producers to provide me with information on the nutrients, heavy metals, pH, and other factors of their products. Some simply do not respond after you request the information. I think that having a standard- whether it be the EBC or something else- is very useful for consumers. All biochar is not created equal and, like the mycorrhizal fungi industry, there are too many people wanting to make a quick buck passing off inferior, diluted, or otherwise compromised goods.

At the end of the day: good biochar, IMO, is made from sustainable sources, in energy efficient pyrolysis systems. It is checked for contamination by heavy metals or concentrations of other potential health hazards (especially if it is to be sold). The biochar has a high surface area (say, at least 150m2/g) and has been put to at least one use before going into the soil.

Bad biochar is easier to make than good biochar. There are many deal breakers for me. Say the input source is in no way shape or form sustainable, then I'd say it is bad. If the inputs are transported over very long distances, again, it crosses a red line. If the biochar is being made on an industrial scale, say more than 2 tons a day, and there are no environmental safe guards, bad. If inputs are mixed and records for each batch are not taken. If the company producing it doesn't check for lead, cadmium, etc. or, if it does and attempts to cheat, then it is not any good.

So, as you can see, there are many ways of looking at biochar production and everyone's standards will differ.
6 years ago
In my experience, red clover does not spread by rhizomes and rather forms a sturdy crown with a taprooot. Those are also the plant characteristics given by Edible Forest Gardens vol 2. It will spread by seed, if you let it go to seed. The individual plants don't live more than 2-3 years (at least in USDA zone 7). We use red clover extensively.

If you really want to kill them, cut the plants before they flower this spring- that is, when they have the most compact herbaceous growth. Depending where you are, that could be late April. They will resprout, but cut them again at the same growth density. Do this all summer and gain valuable mulch material. If you cut them when they are in flower, be sure to do so just as they open their flowers. It is possible that if they will have enough energy in their stems to produce viable seed if you cut them at the wrong time. If they aren't allowed to gather enough nutrients, they will probably die by the following year.

Then you best be ready to seed with what you have planned, or else other more undesirable species are going to fill those gaps. That is for certain.

Still, I would imagine that if you are working for an herb company that it wouldn't be so difficult to continue chop and dropping where they are near plants (if you don't sheet mulch somehow). I wouldn't say this is a problem.
6 years ago
Great find! I'm sure I'm not alone is waiting for their book release... this is critical information. I'm glad they are taking their time to synthesize information from thousands of papers. I bet the final product will match Edible Forest Gardens in terms of credibility and information density.

6 years ago
Thanks for the additional information. I am still wondering what your goals are for the property? Are you deriving the bulk of your income from farm activities? Are the sheep a hobby or part of a business?

Without knowing what your goals are or what the site actually looks like (some kind of base map), it is difficult to speak directly.

Still, if I may offer some advice:

1) Spend time this winter figuring out what you would like to do on the property and whether or not it is feasible. Divide the property into permaculture zones of use with specific strategies for each and how they may or may not interact with one another.

2) Come to terms with the scale of the property and apply your time, energy, and resources towards implementing mainframe permaculture design issues revolving around water, access, and soil. I cannot emphasize enough how much of a boon passive water harvesting features are on a property. I also cannot emphasize enough how important it is that you pay close attention to access. Avoiding soil compaction through well planned access is paramount towards shifting your property towards a forest ecosystem.

3) Determine where you can intervene with the highest chance of success with the least effort, especially when it comes to paying attention to design details that improve the situation for the entire site.

4) I would focus on wind breaks. Instead of trucking around compost, manure, and soil amendments to the entire site and everyone getting a little bit (which decreases its effectiveness), focus on promoting design features. Wind breaks for the entire site are of paramount importance. If those get established, everything they shelter will grow better regardless of whether or not you can spare fertilizer for them or not. As your site is large, it will take some effort to determine which windbreaks are top priority. Still, develop some kind of hierarchy of which features are going to get the bulk of your attention. Focusing on fundamental design issues is going to reap the most rewards. That doesn't mean stop observing the entire site, but it does mean that spreading yourself thin just isn't going to achieve what you want.

5) Once you have focused on your wind breaks, I would recommend researching and becoming thoroughly familiar with Holistic Management (developed by Allan Savory). HM is its own holistic design process that is complimentary to permaculture, but is an independent, stand on its own idea. Develop a plan for managing your property and putting your sheep to use throughout the land to distribute that manure. If your sheep are receiving some kind of mineral supplement, it is possible that some of those trace minerals will make their way to the topsoil between your tree rows. You live in an ideal location for this kind of work.

6) You mention wanting to inoculate your soil with forest organisms, especially fungi. This is a good idea, especially if coupled with a clear cut plan on which patches of your property you are going to focus your attention on. One way to bring forest soil life into the system is to bring clean, fresh wood chips into a healthy forest where you have permission to do this. Layer the wood chips underneath the fresh leaf litter and mark the area somehow so you can remember where your substrate is. Come back in a year, in late fall (or even the following spring, you want at least one autumn to pass), and check the patch. The wood chips should be clearly bound together with fungal mycelium, and probably some roots. You can then take your now inoculated substrate back to your trees. If you have located the substrate under specific trees that match the ones you want to encourage, this could work better. Be warned that there is no telling exactly what species of organisms you are now trucking back to your land! This can just as easily bring undesirable organisms, but on balance, beneficial ones should outnumber the undesirable ones. Additionally, most of these fungi will be of the decomposer variety. There may or may not be some mycorrhizal fungi in there.

For transport, make sure that the substrate stays moist (but not drowning) and when you bring it to your land, that you immediately put it into contact with the soil and cover with a solid layer of mulch to protect the organisms from the elements.

Note: research about mycorrhizal fungi and what they do and what they don't do. There is a lot of misinformation from companies as well as good intentioned, but misinformed talk out there about how to promote them. Here are a few tips to get started: Never (I rarely use that word) spray mycorrhizal fungi on plants. They are obligate species. In all but rare occurrences, they need to be in direct contact with a symbiotic partner in order to grow and survive. Remove a mycorrhizal fungi from its partner species and it will die. They don't live on leaves. They live in the soil. The Rodale Institute has an "on farm guide" to producing your own endomycorrhizal fungi inoculant. It would be worth a look since they partner with the vast majority of species. Learn about how the disperse themselves (read: you cannot propagate them in compost or in compost teas) On the other hand, many of the trees you have planted will associate with ectomycorrhizal fungi. Research which ones, which species, and see about ordering some. Inoculate certain trees that will put ectomycorrhizal mushrooms upwind of the rest of your property and target species during their fruiting months to facilitate their spread throughout the property.

7) If you can, bring dead wood into the property. Not only wood chips, but logs of all sizes. Put them in direct contact with the soil. You don't have to build hugel mounds if you don't want to (although they could be very useful). If you can put logs into direct contact with the soil within a reasonable distance of the specific tree patches you are targeting, within a few years their roots will go into the logs and begin to milk the log for water and nutrients. Additionally, mycorrhizal fungi will go into the log and do the same. If the log is mulched so that it doesn't dry out as easily, then you are on your way. Do that a few dozen times around the trees you really need to get going for your windbreak and you have a cheap and effective boost to the soil life. Wood chips are great, but they are relatively expensive and decompose quickly. What you want to do is act like a forest.

8#) Another way you can do that is to take branches and do soil staking- simply staking branches into the soil near the trees to facilitate the soil life.

9) If herbivores are a problem in your area, find out how you can facilitate predation. Are there any locations that are suitable for raptors to nest? Is there standing (but not necessarily stagnant) water available on site for foxes and such? The bog you mentioned could be seen as a focal point in enticing the entire food chain to play a part on your property, depending on its relative location to the other features and locations on the property.

These recommendations rest upon the knowledge that the trees, shrubs, other plants and life on your property know what they are doing. As the designer, as the organism on site that can use tools and plan, it is our obligation (IMO) to play to those strengths. Help your plants help themselves and they will do the rest. Hope that helps!

edit- Tried to fix some of the typos. The rest will just have to stay unfixed.
6 years ago
Some more information about your climate zone and overall design would go a long way towards any recommendations.

Have you taken any soil tests for nutrient levels? While there are many schools of thought and one test cannot tell the whole picture, you may find that your soil lacks certain trace elements which could be alleviated through slow release rock dusts, etc. Given your investment of over 3500 trees and shrubs, I would highly recommend a targeted approach to the situation- if not for your sake but for those trees and shrubs!

If you have a design for the site, could you find a way to put it online so folks can take a look?

With information on your site conditions, location, climate, and overall design (and your goals), I'm sure you will find help here.
6 years ago
Mycorrhizal fungi rarely survive without their host species.

While it is possible to add mycorrhizal spores to a compost tea, they need to be put into close contact with the tree's root system to begin growing and create the symbiosis. It is then, perhaps, best to ensure that any transplanting of mycelial mass (which can probably contain more than one species, so be aware- as well as considerate of the origin of this mass' health) or inoculation with spores be done with this in mind. Putting mycorrhizal fungi spores onto the leaves/branches of a plant makes it much more difficult for those spores to reach the soil and the plant's roots. Many will probably die before they get to the soil.

Hard evidence of the presence of mycorrhizal fungi in your garden soil may be hard to come by, depending on the type of plant and its associate mychorrhizal fungi species.

I do not know of any endomycorrhizal fungi species that produce a mushroom. Instead, they release their spores underground. This group of fungi (of which there are many) associate with most plants including the majority of our favorite herbs, vegetables, and some shrubs and trees. If a compost pile or system is put into a garden setting and left to sit for at least a couple of years (endomycorrhizal fungi are usually slow growing), it is possible- though not guaranteed- that they will colonize the pile.

Ectomycorrhizal fungi, on the other hand, usually produce some kind of fruiting body- be it a mushroom or puffball. However, not every mushroom or puffball is of an ectomycorrhizal fungi species. These are probably the one group of mycorrhizal fungi with the most potential to reach a compost pile. Even then, they will more than likely not begin growing until they are in close proximity to a host species' root system. So if you have a pile of wood chips that has been colonized by fungi, they are, with a high level of certainty, not mycorrhizal; unless the pile of wood chips is a few years old and is close enough to an ectomycorrhizal fungi associated plant species. Again, spores of ectomycorrhizal fungi could blow in on the wind- and they do!- but unless a host plant is nearby, they more than likely not begin growing.

Mycorrhizae are wonderful and exciting. They can also be propagated in your garden. However, care should be taken not to conflate mycorrhizae and fungi. The terms aren't interchangeable. Putting spores of any mycorrhizal fungi into a compost tea and brewing it will simply not generate more mycorrhizal fungi.

Edit: I left a longer message in an older thread regarding commercial inoculants that may be useful:
6 years ago
I think this depends on just how much you want to take. I would recommend taking small portions, including a small amount of soil with the mulch, and treat it very carefully. Put it in your own mulch, if you have any. If you don't have any, you can mix the small amount of the soil into the root zone of your pioneer plants. Also, if you have any of your own compost, I would put that just above the soil you incorporated. Then put the mulch you borrowed on top of that. Then, put some herbage cut from your own property on top of that mulch. In this way, you may be able to inoculate your degraded soil with the microorganisms from the healthier bit of ground. You will also be mimicking a natural soil horizon development that feeds from the top down.

It could look something like this:

fresh chopped herbage
mulch from healthy site
your own compost if you have any
top, organic soil layer with healthy soil gently snuggled in (not broken into too many pieces which will further harm any fungi)
your own soil

As to the amount to take, only you can judge.

If you are able to spare anything in the near future, you can also bring some herbage/mulch material/compost back to the land that you are taking mulch from. You could also think about arranging any branches and logs into "catch logs" across the contour to help retain any leaves that fall, without really damaging the site and doing that much work.
7 years ago
Hey Milja,

Glad to see another poster from Finland here. I live in Espoo, but our apartment faces north-north east so it receives very little sun. Most of "my" gardening takes place in Purho, Miehikkälä, which is also Finnish zone 4. My family's summer cottage is there. We have two apple trees and a large number of currant and gooseberry bushes, along with some raspberry canes. Since I come from a very different climate, I've just been spending the last 2 years observing and tinkering around the edges: mostly trying to reform some less than best practices (such as never rotating crops...). I'm also involved in urban farming projects in Helsinki (such as the roof garden at Kaapelitehdas, interning with Dodo at their Kääntöpöytä (turntable) project, the Mustikkamaa edible park, and soon Stadin Puutarhuri (a marketgarden/farm in Helsinki).

I've been involved in someway or another with permaculture for the past 6 years and was certified in Sweden last year by Richard Perkins (Ridgedale Permaculture, formerly Integral Permanence). I'm putting some finishing touches on a potential permaculture diploma from the UK and may be doing some permaculture design as part of a small business in the near future. While I'm far from an expert (I reserve that for folks like Sepp Holzer, Martin Crawford, and others who have been doing this for decades), I'm always willing to share what I do know. If you are interested in seeing photos and a little bit of info about what I'm up to in Finland, you can visit my blog:

Feel free to send a purple moosage here too if you want.

Tervetuloa! (Minä puhun vähän suomea!)

7 years ago
Any tips for drying them?

I'm hoping that I'll find more this year than ever before and I want to send some to friends in Germany.

I'm finding it a bit strange that your able to collect so many in Alabama but I'm struggling in mushroom country to find more than 4 at a time! ops:
7 years ago