Bio Char, Terra Preta
Growing up as a falconer, I climbed every hawk nest I could find at a young age. It was therefore a natural that I would become a tree trimmer and later a tree service owner, now former certified arborist (w.e.#3031). This btw, is a certification program which is recognized as an expert witness for the U.S. Judicial system. Whenever I had a sick, infected or infested tree, I would call on an associate to return the vigor and vitality of my clients trees. This he would do with an almost 100% success rate, all without chemical fertilizers.
Take soil compaction for example, a common landscape malady. He would either hand dig or use an auger to drill 2″ diameter holes in the drip line and back fill it with a recipe of fecal fertilizer, worm castings, and Mycorrhizae fungi spores. The worm castings have eggs and larvae in them which hatch when moistened. They feed on the fecal material, grow and spread, conditioning the soil as they do so taking the microbes with them in their gut and on their bodies. These fungi and other microbes live on the net like absorbing root tips called the “rhizome”. The fungi break down coarse minerals to the molecular level what I term “chewing up’ the minerals, just as we use our teeth to process food. These minerals in a rain water solution are now available and absorbed by the plants, helping them grow and compete with the neighboring trees and other plants for sunlight. The plants in turn provide the fungi with a place to live and food in the form of sloughed off dead cells. You will later see the mushroom caps coming up in the compacted soil.
Unfortunately my associate is now no longer with us. I had to perform that function myself. This at a time when I had just heard about an ancient soil fertility component called “Bio Char”. I began developing my own “activated” (inoculated) Bio Char and added to the organic tree health drip line mix. Forests grow up, mature, become over mature and ultimately burn. That is the regeneration cycle. This the “great circle of stuff” that the sage swine ‘Poomba” taught us about. The charred remains of the forest lie on its floor to become soil over and over as the cycle repeats itself. All species of plants and animals are evolved to utilize any and all resources at any stage of the regeneration cycle.
The U.S. government spy satellites in the late 1960’s were showing blocks of South American jungle which were greener and taller that the surrounding forest canopies. Because these blocks were in geometric patterns, the intelligence officers knew they were man made. However there were no humans to be found there. These sites were hundreds, sometimes thousands of years old. Ergo, these were primitive man sites so they alerted the archeologists. The one thing the workers found to be common to all the sites of lush, green forest patches was that the dirt was black. The natives called it “Terra Preta” which in Portuguese (some of the first Europeans to sail there) means “Black Earth”. Tested, this soil had an unusually high carbon content. They surmised that these sites were once Mezzo American dump sites as it was also where they excavated terra cotta pottery shards, animal bones and other organic materials. They natives corrected them “No, these were their farms”.
These large cities of hunter -gatherer- farmers were masters at coaxing food from the surrounding jungle, they growing vegetables such as corn that was 10″ high, squash on the corn stalks and other vegetables between the rows that fed millions of citizens, all from the poorest soils on the planet. Without Bio Char this would not be possible. Their modern Indian descendants showed the professors the ancient method of making Terra Preta. First the natives would slash down a block of jungle. Then they would pile the wood and add their waste mineral products like dirt, bones for calcium and phosphorus, terra cota for iron, copper, zinc etc. on the brush piles and log decks. Then they burned it all slowly in pits, controlling the burn so that it thoroughly charred the wood but not completely burnt it to ash. The charcoal produced was now in a raw state and needed to be inoculated with soil microbes or “activated”. They partially buried the coal with fish offal, corn husks, fecal material and any and all refuse. The charcoal absorbs minerals and the beneficial fungi spores. Most of what plants need to grow are in the charcoal, the microbes release those nutrients slowly over time to make a layer of top soil nutrients called the “A horizon”.
Activating Bio Char first before use is key. If raw char is used, it will deplete the soil of nutrients by absorption for a few years. The cells that make up the charcoal are open ended from the burn. This is where all the elements that will make soil fertile are infused into the cells where they live and reproduce, what I call “tenement apartments”. They persist there for many centuries feeding as the wood slowly decays. There is a cottage industry of workers that search the jungles for these ancient growing grounds. They dig it up and sell it as fertilizer.
A few years ago, I began fertilizing my house plants the same way. I purchased some red worms in a little tub sold for fishing bait. I added- dumped the entire contents, one in each potted plant. I added bio char and then some kitchen scraps now and then. If you find a little milk at the bottom of the glass, in it goes, as does a little cooking grease, eggshells, coffee grinds etc. Even two or three dry dog food kibbles when the worms are hungry. The worms come up to feed and in turn condition the soil by making little tunnels that are laced with worm castings, nature’s fertilizer These tunnels are perfect for roots to grow in. This indoor agronomy worked surprisingly well. One drawback, sometimes house pets are interested in the potting soil, so it may not be for everyone.
Staring in thought last spring, I did not want to tear up my lawn to build a vegetable garden. I looked at the wooden fence, it was getting full sun. I thought of hanging terra cotta pots with vegetables in them but the sun heats up the soil and roots of the plants producing inferior harvests. So I built 2″ think pine boxes which I charred and inoculated inside. I charred the outside and wire brushed it for aesthetics, raising the lignin grain. Tomatoes were planted out holes drilled in the bottom of the box and added potting soil. I then hung them on the fence using a 16p nail in the sun. I added a charred lid to match with kitchen scraps on the potting soil and earthworms. Potato peelings, watermelon husks, coffee grinds, egg shells, any and all kitchen waste was introduced to the awaiting worms. I sold one to a fellow crafter. A few weeks they complained that “Its all grey inside with fungus!” I explained that this condition was exactly as I and nature had intended it to be. I call this invention the “Bio Box”. I believe it to be the first composting planter box. If you would like to see a photo of this creation please visit my site at www.BarnOwlBoxes.com
I wish to tell you now another story. This story is of a little boy who dreamed of getting an agronomy degree at a prestigious school in Guatemala. This so he could return to teach his clan to farm profitably, thereby raising them all out of abject poverty. This came to pass. He realized after he got his degree in Guatemala and then a business degree at the U. of Minn. that industrial farming was unsustainable because it robs the soil of life and pollutes it with glyphosphate herbicides, insecticides and other “cides”. So he took the ancient Indigenous way of farming and added the best of American industrial farming and scaled this new concept up. He called it “Regenerative Agriculture”. What I call “ReGenAg” for short. This first project was / is called Finca Mirasol, and is still at his place in Northfield, Minnesota. I copied the plan verbatim and won a first place ribbon at the Southern California Agricultural Exposition, aka ‘The Del Mar Fair” for “Most Innovative Farming Method”.
The boy turned farmer, professor, entrepreneur, organizer, is the famous Reginaldo Haslett Maroquim, a founding member and steering committee member at “Regeneration International” and founder and CEO of the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance. I have recently designed and am working with a University on a loosely but improved rendition of his original design. This small farm will greatly reduce a farm’s acreage or “footprint”, while producing intense amounts of organic food. Through the use of Bio Char and fecal material provided by chickens and other livestock in blocks or “panels”, it will grow annuals, perennials with fruit and nut trees in infinity, totally without the need of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. I call it the “Food Forever Project.” This new sustainable method of agriculture will derive all its irrigation from the atmosphere. Meant as a future humanitarian project, my vision is for all of the world to have healthy food and freedom for his or her family with profits from the sale of any surplus food.
Cheers to you! Tom Stephan.
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