Waena Gardening with Biochar

SUBHEAD: Biochar creation of terra preta appears to work with Waena style permaculture gardening in Hawaii. [Publisher's note: This is a long article that is made of several blog entries spanning 2008-2010 that chronicles in-the-field use of biochar in on the Big Island.] Image above: Still from video below showing black terra preta in otherwise poor Amazon basin soil. By Jay Fitzgerald from 5 December 2008 in Sensible Simplicity - (http://sanityandsimplicity.blogspot.com) December 5 2008 Ecoforming III--the key? If you're interested in such things, you must educate yourself about terra preta. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_preta http://www.css.cornell.edu/faculty/lehmann/index.html Does this, or does it not seem like an ideal solution--and for those of us concerned with carbon sequestration it does that too. . . Of course one might need a more or less unlimited source of biomass ideally suited to charcoalization. . .guava?!? Of course! I'm attempting to kill two birds--actually several--with one big rock. Control invasives, encourage responsible agriculture--and retain forestation. . .this seems like a solution to me. Be sure you watch this video as well. Video above: Austrailian Experience "Biochar - Agrichar - Terra Preta" From (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzmpWR6JUZQ). Wednesday, December 24, 2008 Terra preta do haole and winter in Hawaii It has cooled off a bit finally and a the rainy season has started a bit, yet the weather is significantly different than last year. The Ohia are just starting to bloom now--it was early November last season. The north Pacific has some business going on as those in Washington state are aware for sure. The ice will sometimes blow in high in the morning--as in the photo, and fall as a mist at dawn. Pretty spectacular. Plugging away on the terra preta project, as it's a good project to mix in while getting rained off work. No information on how it works in the soil yet, as, of course, it isn't yet. But, I'm working away putting it into the soil on a regular basis. There are immediate changes one notices that I'll get to in a bit. After doing the research one will find that the "bio-char" isn't something that one can just willy nilly sprinkle on. While small amounts may be advantageous, one needs relatively high loadings to get the real big effects that one equates with terra preta. That figure seems to be around 10% in the top foot or so of soil, in the aerobic zone. So, I'm assuming that one needs to put down at least 1 lb a square foot to be in the running, and that's a big project. Not an insurmountable project, however, as in one run I make about 30 lbs of charcoal. It's not the sort of activity that takes a great deal of attention, so taking it on as a hit an miss sort of deal isn't a big problem. While the guava wood is nice, we're not shooting for a char like a hard fuel grade. Any old smaggy green will work if it has some cellulose in it. The soggier the material you process, the less complete a conversion you will get--in some ways that's apparently good. It's no big deal as if you have pieces in the mix that didn't completely burn you'll simply pitch them in to run the next batch. It's simply a manner of lighting a fire in a barrel full of wood, and when it gets hot enough choking the air off so you get charcoal and not ash. There a little talent to it but precious little. In the process, however discover a few things about why it was initially done. First, you'll note that you're likely to be making the charcoal near your garden, and the process can make a fair bit of smoke. Especially as the wood is pretty wet the smoke is heavy, and it will blow all around the garden, in essence fumigating it. It may well be my imagination, but it seems it's done a pretty fair job of chasing the bugs off, and there's no reason to expect that it wouldn't. Stone age pesticide. Secondly, once you apply the material, you find that you darken the soil appreciably. Of course, right? But the immediate effect is that the soil heats up a LOT faster in the sun and retains that heat. Higher earlier germination rates and a higher level of biologic activity can only result. So, the big questions--is this an ecologically benign activity? We're going to hear a lot about terra preta from big institutions soon and it's worth asking before it gets rammed down our throats. First, we have to admit--we are burning wood. Burning wood is bad for the atmosphere. Burning live trees is pretty questionable at any rate. The only way that terra preta is "green" is if it works--and that's likely a big if. The key is that you greate a soil so rich that it literally grows like an organism. Studies do show it can, and at a surprisingly high rate. Rather than the typical 1 inch a century in a wild environment that seems typical, the androgenic soils can grow at .5 inch a year. They do so by retaining and pumping down a lot of carbon which is near permanently sequestered. This is good. The data is incomplete, at this moment, but is perhaps the most encouraging technique I've seen in a long time, suggesting that it's actually a carbon negative activity, meaning there's less CO2 in the air when you're done, assuming you do the whole thing. At any rate if one were to cut a guava tree, char it, mix it in the soil, and plant some fast growing monster like a koa or monkey pod on the place, I doubt you could lose on that score. Secondly, and key to my message in this forum--is terra preta a sensible survival option? Remember, we're assuming that a sensibly minimalist and self-sufficient lifestyle may well become necessary. I've assumed from the start that the biosphere is going to suffer widespread damage--and my goal isn't to save it, but rather encourage and personally create small "arks," if you will. From this perspective, terra preta is an obvious winner. To maintain my goal of being under a 3 acre footprint, I will need to consciously "eco-form" an anthropogenic environment that works at a healthier and higher level of functionality than it might left unattended, or, rather, merely tended by pigs and birds. UPDATE: Things I've learned. It's amazing what you learn by doing rather than theorizing. Anyway, having worked in a whole bunch of charcoal into the soil now I've started to ask myself--why do I want this broke down? Isn't big chunks better than dust? In a tropical environ where rainfall abounds drainage is ofter a much bigger issue than fertility. . . I expect that a grain size much like that acetate shit they put in plants is about the place to be. It makes for quite a light and fertile soil very rapidly. Keeping it that way with annual loadings of new material that isn't mechanically degraded will contribute to the ultimate carbon load. In the mean time, however, there are near immediate effects to the amendment. UPDATE II: Having significant char loads in test beds at this moment I can conclusively declare that the biochar works. The most noticable effect is that fertilizer needs are vastly reduced. In test patches in un-chared soil triple 16 is near ideal for most everything I have up here. With char in the ground the triple 16 is nearly lethally strong--exactly as advertised. Since the goal is to ammend soil while I can and rely on leaf mold once the potash in the world is all used up, it is clear that the char will be a huge help to avoiding soil depletion. The ancient Hawaiians used char made from the false staghorn fern in the taro patches as a soil ammendment, by the way, and now so do I. Sunday, March 1, 2009 Waena farming in Puna, Hawaii The term "waena" stems from the Hawaiian term "waele" meaning "to clear of grass." In a cultural context waena style farming is an ancient practice of farming in an agriforestry setting. Historically it was most practiced in Kona, Ka'u, and Puna, but in the last century many of these techniques have been lost and the upland farms have been abandoned for lower level elevation properties and techniques. In some way my project here is rediscovering the wheel, but the the need is timely. Much of the valuable lower altitude agricultural land has foolishly been lost to development and a fair bit of the farms still in operation are somewhat vulnerable to drought and introduced pests. These issues do not face the prospective higher altitude farmer who works in harmony with the forest, and as far as I can see this may be one of the most valuable techniques for the would be homesteader/permaculturist in any mid to high altitude tropical environment. My acreage here near Volcano is in a natural state, with virgin forest and a good deal of natural topography. There are many peaks and ridges and holes to be found, with a vertical relief of perhaps 10 feet. Obviously many zones that require sensitivity the needs of various plants to flourish and it is easy to make mistakes. The major food staples of taro and sweet potatoes do very well here indeed--and to have one's nutritional needs covered with reliablity is more than many can hope for. The main advantage, however, is this--you don't screw up the ecosystem. There is no clearing or machinery involved, and if one were to cease production within a decade, for certain, the site would return to a natural state. This is no small thing and far more responsible and low impact than many "green" concepts out there. Of course yields are not as high, hypothetically, as they might be with a cleared lot and flat ground--but neither are the infrastructure needs. The vast majority of fertility and composts come from the site itself in a proven sustainable manner--the ohia trees are excellent soil builders--and with careful culling of limbs, thining, and utilization of biochar the whole makes for an uniquely viable system. Wednesday, March 4, 2009 Putting the "perma" back in permaculture One understands "waena" gardening when one understands that the skill involved is understanding each plant and cultivating it in a near natural state in a place that it flourishes. Most agriculture techniques or even permaculture techniques attempt to modify the local environment to suit the plant. Of course borders on each of these concepts become vague and blurred but--there is a big difference between walking out on ones property, finding a spot X, knowing that plant Y will grow in plant X, and planting plant Y--rather than attempting to cultivate plant Y on site X and using a cat to hammer the land into condition to do so. As James Lovelock often points out, one of the things that's difficult about the modern "eco progressive" movement in general is that by and large the majority of its proponents are middle to upper class urbanites. While they may be very educated about ecological issues in a theoretical sense, they are often very disattached from the realities and practical issues of a non-recreational life in harmony with the land. Just a little. One large and very well promoted permaculture project right down town Los Angeles comes to mind--while an amazing example of fine gardening--a farm kid would immediately ask how on earth one pays the mortagage on a square block of prime real estate worth 2000 bucks a square foot with bok choy. He may also ask where in this permaculture project one gets the water--to which the trendily dressed vegan anarchal-feminist will point to the pipe, of course, dummy. So what's special about waena? Not a great deal. It's another type of subsistance lifestyle(that's what they used to call permaculture before grant money was invented) that many of our ancestors lived. Subsistence lifestyles are by nature "sustainable" or people die. Plenty have died and still do and more will yet. This is one of those realities and practical issues of a non-recreational life in harmony with the land. But, as subsistence goes, waena is a particularly good style of a particularly fine climate, and the crops it relies on are particularly fine and reliable. As well, Hawaii is only a 100 or so years removed from this kind of lifestyle being commonplace, as opposed to perhaps 500 in Europe, so the idea of working within a natural state and the means of doing so aren't so lost or alien. Since any sort of better or survivable future will require a restoration of as much of the natural state as we can--pressing new land into service for agriculture, even permaculture, is simply not a tenable option. Saturday, June 27, 2009 Biochar II The initial garden beds I've established with biochar are getting close to a year old at this point, and I've got a bit of data and miscellaneous observations to report. The biochar I'm using is primarily charred guava, homemade in steel drums. I've probably at this point produced a ton or so of biochar. There's about 1 pound per square foot of it mixed in jungle soil that's on the average of 8 inches to a foot deep. That may seem like a high loading to some, but very high carbon contents are key to the game and one could go twice that, I'm sure. Observations: Immediately but perhaps not obvious: Soil is black. It gathers and retains much more solar radiation. Germination rates are higher and faster. Initially I was pretty concerned that the biochar was having a toxic effect on growth. Many of the plants were showing what appeared to be a nitrogen deficiency, slow growing, yellowed leaves, and puny. These effects have disappeared. I can project two reasons why this may be the case. 1) The clean charcoal is in the process of absorbing such nutrients from the soil, so a temporary scarcity is bound to occur. 2) One may produce a P-K surplus or imbalance where the majority of the plant growth is dominated by root growth. The plant eventually recovers and flourishes, but initially things look rough. I'd suggest at this point not applying biochar to the soil directly, but rather applying biochar to a composting process--and then applying the whole mix of compost and innoculated biochar. This seems to produce much greater and immediate results. Any casual observation of the microfauna levels in the treated soil as opposed to jungle soil will leave one with no doubts about the healthy effects of the biochar. Small fungi abound, and are not present in the latter. Clearly there's a great deal of aerobic activity(odor) where the jungle soil is so anaerobic in places it stinks like sewage. All in all the reports seem to bear true. I'd suggest one will see about a 20 to 30 percent growth yield over untreated soils. For those of us who intend to as much as possible function in the absence of(or minimal usage of) commercial fertilizers(organic or not) and follow a food forestry model, biochar is an absolute godsend and really makes it look much much more viable. As well, we've turned every invasive plant on the island into a valuable commodity. Over the next few months my goal is to move from the "concept farm" of perhaps 10000 square feet to about an acre and semi-commercial status. Proof of concept has really been had, and I'm pleased to be able to report that this sort of concept is unquestionably a do-able, sustainable, and profitable enterprise. Table taros will be a big part of that project and finally I've enough clean planting material to make that jump. So far, the primary crop out here is U'ala Piko sweet potatoes with a few others thrown in the mix. As much as possible no-till practice. Yields at 9 months are reliably .25 to .5 lbs per square foot. No pest trouble yet to report. Topdressing only with small amounts of 10-20-20 special and trace elements. Some lime applied, as well as clean wood ash. I harvest the sweet potatoes when they're large enough to start poking out of the ground. The chickens find them for me. . . .and meanwhile most everyone out there is bitching about the terrible economy and that "the kids here have no future". . . Friday, August 21, 2009 Feeling Hopeful The garden/farm has really been coming along, making great strides at every turn, or so I'm pleased to report. The "Forest Garden" concept clearly can be demonstrated as a viable one at this point. Over the next 6 months or so the 8000 or so square foot concept garden will be expanded over perhaps an acre and a half. Food self-sufficiency for myself is pretty well in the bag at this point, and grocery store runs are far and few between. For longer term true sustainability to include fuel inputs and cashflow adequate to my needs I'll need to press in about another 40 or 50000 square feet. All things being equal I should be there by this point next year. 50k of forest garden should sustainably produce .25 per square foot of salable produce annually. There's no additional cost in that, or at least minimal cost, as I'm producing materials on site for planting. There will likely be the addition of lime and trace minerals, but all in all things look pretty good. Biochar has been very important. One step at a time. Ultimately it looks as if as the improvement in the soil quality improves, yields per square foot may well double. I'd say there a very stong possibility that a dedicated couple or individual could make a modest but sensibly comfortably and secure, and very satisifying living farming in this manner. Proof should be in the bag by next August. I find this very hopeful indeed. My primary goal from the onset of this blog was to both advocate and demonstrate an alternative but viable in which one can work for a sustainable(I mean sustainable in the real sense) future not only for myself but for Hawaii and even the world. This is an effective model. There may well be others, and I'd enjoy seeing them, but few out there are much past the dreamer/concept stage. We need to do better than that. I'm strongly of the opinion, uncertainties included, "Forest Gardening" at least in Hawaii is perhaps one of the most promising--and hopeful, humanely hopeful--projects one could take on. It's also been very helpful to meet so many others in the last 5 months with the forum and all of us in this very active group have learned a great deal from each other and all of our individual projects have been greatly advanced. It's tough to go it alone for sure, and it's nice to not worry about that anymore, at least locally. Anyway, thoughts after coming back from the shop with a very heavy basket of goodies. Saturday, September 26, 2009 Got Guava? Here's an excellent current research piece on biochar production. A little weighty but well worth one's time. http://www.biochar.org/joomla/images/stories/SteinerPhDSummary.pdf This describes the technique I've found to work best on my site. Monday, February 1, 2010 Biochar again Be sure those of you interested in biochar(and if you're not, shame on you!) take a look at Ben and Debs result on their first biochar experiment. The data speaks for itself. Again, anyone interested in biochar is welcome to get a hold of me and I'm more than willing to share what I've found to be the most effective and practical manner to produce it for a small farmstead. I'm more than willing to put together a demonstration if any would desire it. Here's the link. Check it out. http://washedashore.com/eggsntea/2010/01/farm-update-4/ See also: Ea O Ka Aina: Sacres Shrines & Skinny Chickens 8/26/09 Ea O Ka Aina: Searching for Terra Preta 8/7/09 Ea O Ka Aina: Soylent Black 1/11/09 Ea O Ka Aina: Black is the New Green 2/28/09 Island Breath: Rethinking BioChar 10/15/07 Ea O Ka Aina: What to do about Peak Phosphorus 4/24/10 Ea O Ka Aina: Food and Population 2/1/10 Ea O Ka Aina: The Story of P(ee) 2/11/10 Island Breath: Peak Phosphorus is Upon Us 6/24/08 .


Anonymous said...


Can you get us an interview? There are a lot of people talking about charcoal right now but no body really has any practical experience.

Juan Wilson said...


We can look into such an arrangement, but you left no way of getting in touch with "us". That's why we ask you to log in, or at least leave a name.

Obviously, that's vital if you want a direct response.

Juan Wilson - Publisher

Viagra said...

Great gardening!

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