JOHN: Right. So now I’m glad I’m actually
inside, in a screened-in area; I’m not being bitten by mosquitoes anymore. And now we have
a special guest. His name is Josiah Han; this is his farm, those are his char piles, in
the char pit that you guys saw. And I definitely would consider this guy an expert on biochar
– he has been making it for a number of years and doing a lot of research, and improving
the results with the biochar. So, first I want to ask him – so Josiah,
so how did you get into making the biochar? JOSIAH: No one else could provide it for me,
so I just started making it myself. In 2008, there was an article in the National Geographic
magazine talking about soil health, and the declining status of soil health in the entire
globe, and that’s where I first learned the term “biochar”, and the idea of utilizing
waste organic materials to produce this charcoal product which could be used to improve spoil
for generations and generations to come and by doing so, could also help to sequester
carbon globally. And the idea was like, “Wow! For real? Does
this work?” Being scientifically minded, I had to test that first part first: “Does
it work?” And so I just started making it myself in the backyard. I was doing home construction,
and had lots of scrap lumber around, and just started making fire in many different ways
until I got better at it, and used lots of different black stuff, and started experimenting
with it – researching, experimenting, researching, experimenting. Started getting some good results
after I made some mistakes, and it was all led from there.
Eventually, it became my career, and has been for the past five years.
JOHN: Now, for those of you guys that don’t know, we’re going to ask him – Josiah,
what is biochar? JOSIAH: That is a great question. Biochar
is charred biomass. That is in its most simplistic definition. Now, I’m going to start embellishing
on that definition. It is charred biomass intended for use in soil. I’m going to add
some more, because that is when you’re talking about it in its – I produce it now, will
apply it to the soil. Well, what we found, looking into this whole biochar paradigm is,
biochar already exists in soils. JOHN: Really? Even in some people’s yards
right now, there is some biochar? JOSIAH: Yes. You probably have biochar in
your yard – a little bit at least. So, biochar is essentially charred biomass. And from the
time that biomass started inhabiting our planet, and lightning struck down – and for whatever
reason, fire was created – that created char.
JOHN: Hm mmm… JOSIAH: So, char has been part of our soils,
as long as soils have been supporting plant life. And some soils have remarkably high
amounts of biochar already, for instance, the North American plains – the Iowa, Illinois
kind of area – there is as much as 50% of the organic matter in the topsoil in the form
of pyrogenic carbon. A lot of people just say “biochar”, kind of because we’re
coming from the biochar world where we’re investigating this.
And so, now that term has been applied to charcoal in soil. So, what is biochar? We’re
still working on the exact definition that won’t take three pages. It’s been around
forever. It’s part of soils throughout the world to varying degrees. It’s something
that we’re now creating and using. And I think most people in the biochar industry
would also attach “sustainable” somewhere in there.
That was part of the idea when the seed was planted, it became this whole biochar thing,
the idea was, “Wow, it seems as though charcoal in soil is linked to healthy soils.” We
see a direct correlation there. And the world right now is experiencing a carbon imbalance
– much too much carbon in the atmosphere, and a loss of carbon from the soils.
JOHN: Hm mmm… JOSIAH: We also have a great demand for energy,
and a huge amount of wasted biomass. So we can take the wasted biomass, cleanly burn
that to create energy and biochar, take the biochar and put it in the soil, improving
farmland and sequestering carbon at the same time.
JOHN: Wow. JOSIAH: And all in a way that is not out of
sync with the planet, but in sync with the planet’s natural systems, because charcoal
is already part of the soil. And I think our best route to success with biochar is paying
attention to the ways in which it occurs naturally in nature.
Now, we can also embellish upon that, because well, we’re taking natural systems and redesigning
them. But I think it’s very important to start with that seed of biochar is not something
that we just totally created out of nothing. It exists, and has existed for a very long
time. JOHN: Wow. I mean, I encourage you guys to
garden by the practices of modelling nature – I’m trying to duplicate nature. Not
maybe as nature exists now after we’ve been here for hundreds of thousands of years, and
the topsoils are being eroded and getting the nutrients leached out of them – but
how nature would have existed; I’m trying to duplicate that in my garden. I think biochar
could definitely play a good role in doing that.
JOSIAH: Well, I’m going to interject for just a second right here – I thought of
something else, while we’re talking about that, is the initial term of “biochar”
came about in this whole next step evolved around terra preta. Right?
JOHN: Yeah, yeah. JOSIAH: And terra pretza soil is in the Amazon,
which are the most amazing example that we know of right now, of biochar’s use. And
it’s an exemplary model of how to use biochar properly. But what is important to recognize
is, that’s not the only example of humans’ use of charcoal to improve soils. What we’ve
now been finding – I say “we, as the biochar community – is widespread use of charcoal
in soils in both time and space. Many cultures around the world have been using charcoal
for a long time. It just seems that we, as a western culture,
have somewhat forgotten about this element of farming.
JOHN: Wow. So, you just mentioned charcoal, we’ve used charcoal as farming. So, can
somebody just go out and buy King’s Fern charcoal, and grind it up and put it in the
soil, and expect the same results – than to get a good, well-produced biochar?
JOSIAH: He’s good. Now I know why you watch him. (Chuckles). Yeah –
JOHN: (Chuckles). It’s cheap, man. The charcoal stuff is cheap –
JOSIAH: Yeah… JOHN: And the biochar, man, might cost me
more money. JOSIAH: Yeah, but no. Yes, but. Yes, but.
Yes, but. I put a “yes, but”, and the “but” would probably be in Caps Lock.
Because charcoal is produced with the intent of making a fuel product – that’s the
“coal” addition at the end of it. They’re not just calling it “char”, they’re
calling it “charcoal” – “coal” like a fuel substitute.
And if your intention is to produce a fuel, the oilier the better. The more oil content,
the higher BTU value, the more energy you’re going to get out of it – the easier it lights,
the quicker it burns – it’s great. If you’re trying to make a soil product
– those oils are not necessarily going to be your best friend. They can create biochars
that are hydrophobic, not hydrophilic. Hydrophobic, they’re scared of water – they don’t
play well with water. Those oils and tars are basically soot kind of compounds; they’re
very carbon-rich, and can basically throw your carbon-nitrogen balance out of whack
for a temporary amount of time. Now, they can be used to improve soils, but
they also come with them a big “yeah, but” kind of thing. And so, that’s just what
the charcoals are intended for use in soil. The briquettes – such as King’s Fern – often,
to a high degree, can be de-volatilized coal. So basically, harvesting coal from the ground,
de-volatilizing it and then adding some other stuff, and making a briquette for cooking.
Yeah, that’s a very low likelihood of helping your plants grow.
JOHN: So, don’t do it. (Chuckles). So, there are two ways of getting biochar – either
you can make it yourself, which I kind of showed you Josiah’s example, and how he’s
done it here himself; or you can buy it. And we’ll talk more about those two ways in
a little bit. But before we get into how to make it, why don’t we talk about the benefits?
He’s definitely done a lot of research about this.
So, Josiah, what would you say the main benefits are for a home gardener, or for farmers out
there that are watching, why it probably should be used in the farm or garden to improve the
crops, the yields, and all that kind of stuff? JOSIAH: If you use biochar, your life will
be much simpler – JOHN: (Chuckles).
JOSIAH: No, I’m kidding, kidding, totally kidding. Some people might try to portray
that, and it’s just another tool; it’s a fantastic tool, though. It’s a fantastic
tool, and I think that’s the most important thing to remember. There’s a lot of – initially,
especially – there’s a lot of excitement about like, “Wow, biochar.” And then sometimes,
it doesn’t quite meet what some people have created, this hype, and then, “Oh, biochar,
grrr,” and then it becomes negative. Well, it’s just a tool, but it’s a fantastic
tool. When – sorry, I just bit a mosquito – when done properly, and this is very often
the case – you get very increased water use efficiency –
JOHN: So, it retains the water, right? JOSIAH: Yeah, and helps against drought resistance
and all different kinds of things. But increased water use efficiency is one easily said. Increased
nutrient efficiency, meaning, with the same amount of nutrients, your plants will have
access to more of them – basically, the nutrients will be used more efficiently.
So, water use efficiency, nutrient use efficiency, and oftentimes, greater microbial activity
– a greater proliferation of beneficial microorganisms. But that’s a tricky one,
because it’s not like the biochar goes in there and starts saying, “Hey, I’m biochar,
and everyone’s got to be nice now.” But oftentimes, the physical properties of
the biochar can create a soil environment that is more conducive to the beneficial microorganisms
to do their job, such as greater tilth – this is another way of saying, the fluffiness of
soil, the ability to work in soil. So, greater tilth, which also directly relates to penetration
of water – the water’s ability to penetrate through soil; the ability of air to be in
the soil as well, because the soil really should be only about half soil, and the rest
of it should kind of be water and air space. So, biochar can really help with that. So,
basically, it’s working on physical, chemical and biological waste – it can physically
change the structure of your soil, loosening things up, creating more air space, which
can also lead directly to the biological component. Those biological components are also going
to be pretty darn happy about the chemical attributes of biochar, because biochar also
has an extremely high surface area. I’m going to try and put that surface area
into a mind’s picture there. I’ll often use a reference like, a gram of biochar – a
gram is going to be like a little tiny bit right there in my hand – a gram of biochar
can have as much surface area as a tennis court –
JOHN: Wow… JOSIAH: – to potentially as much as a football
field. JOHN: Wow.
JOSIAH: So, that’s if you were to unravel it, and flatten it all out, a really, really,
really high surface area. So, if you look at it under a microscope, it’s not just
like these flat little things. It’s not like a grain of sand or something, where you
have the surface area as what’s on the outside. Because the biochar is produced from material
that has a vascular structure – it has tubes and tunnels all the way through it.
So, although you have the exterior surface area, you also have the interior surface area
which is also active, because microbes – little bacteria are living in there, fungi can travel
in there; even root hairs can travel in there and pull the nutrients and water out of there.
The microbes, and everyone’s – it becomes a housing for microorganisms. A housing that
deals well with water and nutrients. An interesting part of the biochar is that
it’s largely carbon. And the fact that it’s carbon, this lends to the ability – partly
to the ability to work so well with these elements, is that…how do I explain this
one lightly? It plays well with others. JOHN: All right, Josiah. We just learnt that
the biochar has a lot of carbon. So, Josiah, I already added the compost to my garden;
I’m adding that, right? Why should I add the biochar that also has carbon?
JOSIAH: Very good question. Yeah, soil organic carbon typically just stops at that, as far
as the definition. But the soil organic carbon can have more than one type. One way to differentiate
that would just be to call it “pyrogenic carbon”, or some people would say “biochar”.
As I mentioned earlier, pretty much most soils throughout the world have some biochar, even
to a small degree left over from forest fires, grass fires, or fires of any kind.
Carbon in soil is a very important aspect and there is a difference between charred
carbon and uncharred carbon. JOHN: Hm mmm…
JOSIAH: One very interesting thing here is that the charred carbon is not biologically
degradable in the same that a compost carbon would be. So if you were to say, “Oh, I’ve
been using compost carbon, that stuff biologically degrades, and after a couple of years or decades,
it’s gone from my soil. Biochar lasts for a hundreds of thousands of years. Why don’t
I just use biochar, and I never have to worry about any kind of carbon ever again?”
JOHN: (Chuckles). JOSIAH: Totally wrong again. I would not suggest
that; there’s a balance. I think even if you’re putting the biochar in your soil
– and it’s a great source of carbon – it’s not going to react the same way in a natural
environment as a raw carbon would. Basically, this the biochar carbon is not biologically
degradable. Fungi and bacteria cannot break it apart and eat it for energy.
JOHN: Wow. So you talked about the two kinds of carbon. What ratios do you think for optimal
growth and optimal health of our plants, for optimal health of our planet should we have
in the soil of the charred carbon versus the uncharred?
JOSIAH: Well, this is uncharted territory – (chuckles).
JOHN: (Laughs loudly). See how much fun I have on my show? (Chuckles).
JOSIAH: (Chuckles) – But I’ll speculate anyways. Ill speculate anyways, because it’s
a new frontier in biochar science where the “front” of this is geared, and I’ve
been looking at some of the research articles coming out, and it does appear that there
seems to be an optimal ratio. If you’re using nature as a –
JOHN: Reference point… JOSIAH: – as a reference point, yeah. And
one example would be in the fertile prairies of America, the fertile Midwest band, there
is a high level of biochar – naturally created biochar – in the soils. And the ratios are
typically between 30% and 50% of the organic matter in the topsoil. Ok, I was interested,
so I did some very preliminary research into the terra preta soils that are so famous in
the Amazon, and there was very little research that I found that was very helpful with this.
But it seems to be so much similar – as though there is almost a 30% to 50% biochar
to regular raw or – maybe you could call it raw rather than “cooked” carbon.
So, I guess that would be like a two-thirds to a half percent of biochar-derived carbon
to organic carbon – raw carbon. JOHN: So, if we want that level of biochar,
or the “cooked” carbon – now you’ve got “cooked” and “uncooked” carbon
– how much should we be adding when we add it to the soil? Can you add too much biochar
to your soil? JOSIAH: I think too much biochar is a matter
of time. And it’s important to recognize, too, that soil is three-dimensional. So a
lot of research done on biochar will often list things as “tonnes per acre” or “tonnes
per hectare”. But it’s also important to think of it in volumetric terms as well,
as in how deep was that application done? And then over time, how long till you accumulate
that amount? Typically, I have found it safest to stay
within 5-10% of the volume where applied. If you’re only applying it in the top inch,
stay within 5-10% by volume in that top inch. In the top foot, 5-10% by volume in that top
foot. These are safe – this is a very safe and very effective place to stay.
Now, I’ve also done experiments on pushing it real far, because the images of the terra
preta soils in the Amazon – they’re black. They are black as night, in some cases. There’s
obviously much more than just 5-10% of biochar. And I’ve done this with my own gardening,
and done it when I’m potting as well, and I’ve found that over time, through incremental
applications, I’m able to continue to improve my soil with other additions of biochar, but
slow and steady. So I might start with 5-10%, then slowly add
it later as part of my compost, as part of my fertilizer, or sometimes with my potting,
with my new plantings. So slowly, the soil will accumulate to something more like possibly
as much as 20-30%, by volume. But I do not recommend starting with that right off the
bat. I have seen people that have gone – and I’ve been one of those people – that have
definitely gone too far. And part of what can happen with the too far,
especially on immediate terms, is it just disrupts a balance that you might have already
had. That balance might be a pH balance, a nutrient balance, microbial population, and
other things like that. Basically, disrupting your soil balance can have negative effects.
JOHN: Absolutely. So let’s talk about the pH, because I think that comes up a lot from
people in biochar: “If you add the biochar, it will mess up your pH.” So, is this true,
does it happen, and what would you say about that?
JOSIAH: Well, if your pH is 4.5 – and as we commonly find out here in Hawaii, with
a very low pH – the high pH of biochar is often very welcome. But biochar tends to have
a high pH. When producing biochar, it’s nearly impossible to not accidentally produce
a little bit of ash in it. Part of biochar is the ash that comes with it; it’s part
of the fire process. When you make an omelette, you break a couple
eggs or something, right? When you make biochar, you make a little ash out of it. I don’t
know, you can cut that out later, it’s horrible. But the ash has an alkaline – the ash is
what lends the biochar its alkalinity. So biochar will – depending on the producer,
the production style – it will typically have a high pH in of up to 8.5 to 9.5.
And when we incorporate that into the soil, it will raise your soil pH; it will bring
your soil pH up. Now, it’s important to remember that it’s the ash content of the
biochar which is causing that; the biochar is essentially pure carbon, and the temporary
shift in pH has most to do with the ash which is again – and I use that word – temporary.
But it’s important to pay attention to that, because disrupting your pH in a negative way
will give you negative plant growth response. So, again, 5-10% biochar – typically you’re
not going to find this to be an issue, although it does have a pH of, say, 8.5 to 9.5, it
will often have a low carbon – calcium carbonate equivalent, a low pH impact.
JOHN: All right, good. So it can be safe to use in small amounts, and if you use too much,
you’re probably going to mess some things up. So, let’s talk about how to get the
biochar, you can buy it from a hopefully reputable source, or you could make it yourself. And
just because you make it yourself, that doesn’t mean that it will be the best biochar.
So, what would you say, if you’re going to make it or buy it, what are some key factors
that somebody would want to look for, to make sure to get a good quality biochar? Because
I want people to be able to get a quality biochar that is actually going to give results,
and not something that they’re going to put in their soil, and mess everything up?
JOSIAH: Well, I’d say, if you’re going to make it yourself, don’t be scared to
mess it up a little bit. JOHN: (Chuckles).
JOSIAH: And here’s how you can help fix your goof-ups. Typically – well, when I
was first making biochar – I messed up quite a lot, but I was still able to get good results.
So, say I made a biochar that had very high pH, because it was half ash and half biochar.
That can be fixed; there are a lot of organic amendments that you’re going to use for
your soil that are going to have a low pH. And typically, by incorporating biochar with
your compost, most of the problem that you might find through a rookie producing biochar
– such as I was for many, many years – most of those can be solved just by incorporating
it with the compost and match the compost to help ease a lot of those things.
Making it yourself, a couple of key pointers are: typically hotter is better, if you’re
talking about your backyard. Now with large-scale industrial systems that can get very, very
hot, that is not necessarily going to be the case. For backyard production, you do want
it typically (…) hot. Always buy clean feed stock. Clean feed stock, clean feed stock,
super important. Dry feed stock, and be safe. JOHN: All right, very good. So you talked
about if you’re making it yourself, but what about buying a good biochar? There are
many companies out there, unfortunately. I wish it was available in every nursery; if
you go to the nurseries and you ask for biochar, they might look at you like you come from
the moon, or something, because most people don’t know what biochar rock is.
These cutting edge technologies that are really supposed to be in the earth, but after many
years of soil depletion, it may not be. And that’s why when you guys use them, for the
best results. So, what can somebody look for? JOSIAH: Look for Soil Wreath.
JOHN: (Chuckles). So this Soil Wreath, that’s a brand, right?
JOSIAH: Yeah, that’s a brand that I work with. That’s a brand that I work with, and
we’re trying to make it accessible to anyone that’s out there. And we’re also trying
to make products that are very effective and very easy to use. So we have a plain biochar
product, we also have some more user-friendly biochar product that’s 50% biochar with
compost, worm castings and kelp meal. And another biochar that’s gone through the
process that Keith showed you earlier in my backyard.
I’ve taken that basic process I’ve developed over the years of development out here in
Hawaii, and I’ve stepped it up a couple notches. And we’re taking that to the mainland
and market it for national distribution. But we’re not the only player in the field;
you should be able to find biochar, if you look hard enough, you should be able to find
some. And right now, we’re still working as an
industry on exactly how to set the bar, so that someone like you could just easily up
and say, “Oh, this is a good biochar, because it has this, that and the other.” But I
wish I could just say one word or one thing: right now, my best suggestion will be to you,
if you’re not going with our company – because I know our company, and I know what we’re
doing is good – then research the company that you’re buying it from.
Research them good, look online, do the best you can. Right now, that’s the best I can
give you, is do your own research. We’re working on as an industry, part of the reason
is because, like I mentioned earlier, it’s black, it’s black, it’s black, and then
it’s black again. You cook it low, you cook it high, ba da da da da.
So, you can’t just look at a biochar and say, “Oh, it’s good”, or, “It’s
not good”. Research the companies that you’re buying from.
JOHN: And another thing I would recommend from you guys, just being (…) just buy a
little bit at first and do some testing in some test plots, and see if you get good results
or not. If you get results, it’s probably something that’s going to work for you.
If you’re not getting the results, maybe try to find another brand.
Hopefully in upcoming episodes, I’ll actually feature the Soil Wreath products, and have
a special discount available for you guys out there. So, you guys could get it shipped
directly to you, because I know this stuff can be very hard to find.
All right Josiah. So, we just learned about the biochar, some maybe good companies to
buy it from. But what I specifically want to talk about now is the mature biochar that
I saw and shared with you guys, that had the fungal (…), the fungi in there, the tree
roots growing in there, I think I saw an earthworm earlier, and actually a whole bunch of insects
crawling around in there. And why is that matured biochar better than
100% biochar? JOSIAH: Well, because it’s got cockroaches
in it – JOHN: (Laughs loudly).
JOSIAH: But don’t worry, that’s the stuff for my backyard; it’s been sitting there
for like, six months. So, we won’t be selling you a bag with cockroaches in it, hopefully
(chuckles). Unless you want that, I mean, if there’s considerable demand, we’ll
consider it. So let us know. JOHN: (Laughing loudly). It’s got the insect
grass in there, and that makes it supercharged. JOSIAH: But really, the point of bringing
up the insects is, it’s great – and I hope that you guys can get that – is, if
there weren’t insects, and it’s been there for that long, it would lead you to be worried
about, “Why?” JOHN: Yeah, why are they avoiding it?
JOSIAH: There’s a jungle here in Hawaii; they would have to be avoiding it, to not
be there. So, earlier on, when I started producing biochar – I’ve been producing it since
2008, when I started – when I started commercial production that year, and was producing a
couple pickup trucks a week full of biochar, and have been consistently for years, in my
backyard. So, initially, I started offering a compost
tea inoculation for free. I was making compost tea for a papaya project I was doing for the
backyard, and so there was really no sweat off my back to just throw some compost tea
for inoculation in. And it sounds great, too – (theatrical stage
voice) – “…and now, for…”(chuckles). JOHN: (Chuckles).
JOSIAH: And then, at the same time we we’re doing some research with fish hydrolysate,
and we had this batch that was so gross, you could gag a maggot; it was just disgusting.
And so, I had this couple gallons, like, “Oh my God”, you know. But charcoal can be a
deodorizer, so I’m just like, “I’ll just get rid of it on here.”
And the coolest thing happened; I never saw this coming – it actually – not only did
the smell kind of go away pretty quickly, but it actually got hot.
JOHN: What?! JOSIAH: The pile of biochar got hot. It was
incredible. Thermophilically hot. It got hot because of microbial – you know, they’re
doing their thing, right? And so, it was really incredible. And this was like a “Wow”.
So here I took two gallons of fish hydrolysate, threw it on two hundred gallons of biochar,
mixed it in just a little bit, the smell changed from gag-a-maggot stink to a really nice,
earthy aroma in three to five days… JOHN: Wow.
JOSIAH: And the temperature rose within two days up to about 140, 150 degrees Fahrenheit.
And I was like, “Aaaahhhhh.” The lights really went on for that one, because I had
been playing around a lot with composting biochar already. I knew there was a synergism
there, we really needed to work on this, we had to get this. But I needed a product that
was mostly biochar and easy to (…) so, here it is. I can take almost pure biochar with
a lot of benefits. So, that has evolved over the years. Another
product I’m working with, it’s got 2% compost, 1% fish bone meal, its alive with
microorganisms, charged with nutrients, and transformed through the microbial actions
in a compost pile that I basically created in this pile of essentially pure biochar.
I’ve been doing that for years out here in Hawaii, and I think that’s part of the
reason that Hawaii Biochar Products is a company that was so successful and it has sold so
much material, because our material worked great in so many environments. And so, then
I’ve taken that, and advanced that for the mainland. We’ve taken that and advanced
that greatly for the mainland – still using the same compost-like process, but we’ve
got new ingredients, and the scene’s looking great.
The whole idea is basically, we want to mature this stuff. If there’s any oils, anything
like that left, we want the microbes to just eat them up and transform them into good things,
like humic acid, carboxylic function groups, and plant-available nutrients. We throw the
nitrogen in there to help with that, because there is almost always be some available carbon;
the nitrogen will offset that, they work together, make all kinds of good stuff.
So, when I did the calculations for the nitrogen content of this biochar – again, we’re
only going to need a tiny bit, but there is some amount of nitrogen fertilizer that was
being added to it – I found a 540:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio. This is pyrogenic carbon,
not regular carbon, right? But anyways, it’s a fun ratio, we think. And even with that,
we’re still seeing a nitrogen response when applied.
JOHN: Wow, that’s great. JOSIAH: And application rates. Very microbic,
that, but very interesting. So, what we found with this matured product is that it’s much
more soil-friendly. Its alive with beneficial microorganisms, it has some nutrients to give
– and not just some micronutrients, but a small amount of macronutrients as well – to
give, it’s not going to cause any tie-up; it’s actually got a little bit to give.
And the surface has been complexed with all kinds of carboxylic functional groups, and
a lot of the enzymes and residues left over from the microbial party that just happened.
JOHN: Wow. I definitely recommend using the mature biochar, instead of 100% straight biochar.
So, Josiah, is that the reason why sometimes people use the biochar, they just don’t
get the results, because it’s not fully matured, and once again, not all biochars
are created equal? JOSIAH: Yeah, a fresh, raw biochar can be
great stuff. And I don’t think you need to be totally scared of fresh, raw biochar;
it’s great. But it is a little bit more touchy, it is a little bit more – it has
to be dealt with with a lot more attention to detail, such as pH, nutrients, microbes
and some of those factors. Once it’s been matured and composted and highly blended with
other materials, it’s got a lot more freedom – you have a much wider window of application
rate and success rate, and stuff like that. And I hope it doesn’t scare you guys too
much about fresh, raw biochar. I can get fantastic results with fresh, raw biochar straight out
of the fire. There is no reason why you can’t get results from fresh, raw biochar. But you
can get bad results. And there’s been plenty of scientific research to show that you can
get bad results from using fresh, raw biochar. So I would highly recommend if you’re not
familiar with how to use that product successfully, that you first try something that’s been
blended, such as – I mentioned that we make Soil Wreath; we make a 50-50 blend, which
is 50% compost…I’m sorry…50% biochar with compost, worm castings and kelp meal.
It is easy – it is very, very, very easy to be successful with. The matured biochar
is much easier to be successful with, and it is still almost pure biochar. And we’re
also working on some other stuff, too, for you guys to use the easiest thing possible,
that you’re going to get the guaranteed results with. I don’t want you to, “John,
I used biochar, and it sucked.” Well, I don’t know the quality of the biochar, I
don’t know what you’re doing with this stuff, I know it’s going to work, and that’s
why I just say, go with the easy stuff. Unless you’re one of those gearhead mad scientist
dudes that wants to figure out if you can probably make stuff better than his stuff.
But, for the majority of us, like me, a backyard gardener with no scientific degrees, I’m
just gardening stuff, I’m just going to take the easy way out and just get this stuff
and use it in my garden. And actually, I’ve been using the Soil Wreath 50-50 blend for
actually quite some time now. All right, Josiah. So now I want to bring
up the “dark side” – (chuckles) – of biochar. There are some people reporting that
biochar is unsustainable, it takes too much energy to produce, it actually will negatively
impact plant growth, believe it or not. So Josiah, what would you say to some of the
reports or people saying that kind of stuff? JOSIAH: Well, biochar is not idiot-proof.
JOHN: Yeah. JOSIAH: And, it doesn’t have willpower – we
do. We have willpower. We can do evil, with a butterfly if we wanted to. So, biochar is
not just good because its biochar; it’s what we do with it. And there are some people
out there who think lots of bad thoughts and assume the worst. Now there has been – I’m
going to nail some of these top complaints right here.
JOHN: All right. Cool. JOSIAH: Well, first of all, there has been
a lot of debate – now this one personally gets me – there has been a lot of debate
about biochar not actually sequestering carbon… JOHN: Hmm.
JOSIAH: …as if it decays. As if it’s going to melt or disappear. Well, I don’t know
what to say to that – I mean really, it just sounds to me to be very ludicrous, and
that’s possibly because I have a scientific background which includes interest in archaeological
things. I mean, anyone who has done research on cave digs or archaeological finds – charcoal.
Man, they look for charcoal. JOHN: Actually they do. They’re carbon dating
it, right, to determine how something – how old it is, because it’s got the carbon in
there, still; it doesn’t have anything else. It has the carbon, right? (Chuckles).
JOSIAH: And I don’t think all carbon dating is charcoal, but yeah. I mean, that is your
prize, you find the charcoal, and lots of these things are thousands of years old. I
have personal experience here in Hawaii, where I excavated an old kiln that was – it’s
hard to say exactly, but it’s probably 100 years old. It was way beyond 50.
And okay, great, we found charcoal that’s more than 50 years old. But that charcoal
I found, it looked like it could have been produced yesterday…
JOHN: Wow… JOSIAH: …it was so clean, and so sharp-edged.
And there are pictures of it on the Hawaii Biochar website; I posted it. I just found
it so beautiful and stunning. And then there’s the terra preta soils; they we’re dead and
gone 500 years ago – wiped out by disease and guns, five hundred and something-plus
years ago. And those soils are still black – black with charcoal.
So the archaeological evidence…and so where this claim got started, I think – basically,
to me, it almost seems kind of like shady science – but basically, if you take charcoal,
there’s some amount of labelled carbon on that charcoal. Most of that is going to be
like soot and stuff. The soot is biodegradable. JOHN: Hm mmm…
JOSIAH: Right, so those oils and tars can be biodegradable – not very easily, but
they do biodegrade. And those are going to have a rather sharp thing, those are going
to be biodegradable within a few years, maybe even a decade. The rest of the carbon is not
going to be biodegradable…except for a much, much longer time; it’s not going to last
forever, but it’s going to last a long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long,
long time. We’re talking hundreds to thousands of years.
Maybe tens of thousands of years. Maybe even hundreds of thousands of years. So, if you
were just to measure for, let’s say six months – or maybe even if you were really,
really patient, you could wait two years – you’re going to see the decay rate over two years.
And you’re going to see carbon disappearing over the first two years.
And most of that carbon is going to be because of the soot stuff that’s left over, which
is going to give you a curve like this, and then you will apply it to the rest of things,
you say, “Oh, see, after 20 years, it’s all gone.” Well, that’s only accounting
for a very small fraction of it, and that’s the basic theory for where people might be
coming up with these numbers. And another one is, some people are producing
really funky black stuff and calling it biochar, and then testing it, and saying, “See? We
made this stuff, we call it biochar, we tested it.” And the only real way to test is put
the biochar in the ground, start the stopwatch, and wait. And from all evidence that I’ve
seen with any sort of pragmatic approach – archaeological, the terra preta – I think it’s a rather
childish debate, personally. And I have my curiosities as to intent. So,
then, let’s talk about negative effects in soil. Oftentimes, it’s been brought up
that biochar can cause negative effects in soil. Yes, it can. Biochar is not idiot-proof.
I too, when I first started playing with biochar, was able to get negative plant growth response.
I was so excited about biochar, I laid it down so thick in my garden…
JOHN: (Chuckles). JOSIAH: I laid it down so thick in my garden.
It was horrible – (chuckles) – it was a horrible crop, man, because I brought the
pH up in my garden, the soil. I brought my soil pH up to 8.2 in my garden.
JOHN: Oops. Sorry (chuckles). JOSIAH: Yeah, so that caused negative plant
growth response. There have other cases where you can get negative plant growth response.
I’ve done other analyses where you can find a growth curve, where 5%, 10%, 15%, 20% by
volume biochar in the soil media improves growth. 50%, 70% biochar by volume – negative
growth. JOHN: Hm mmm.
JOSIAH: Okay? So, it’s not like, “Ok, I used 5-10% biochar and got positive growth.
Well, I should use 50% biochar and I’ll get 10 times the growth!”
JOHN: (Chuckles). JOSIAH: Sorry, I wish it worked like that.
But it doesn’t. So we found that there is a “speed spot”, there is a magic thing
there, you know, not …. And some of the other topics on the terms of “biochar equals
bad” would be “unsustainable”. JOHN: Hm.
JOSIAH: So, biochar being touted as unsustainable. Sure, you could produce biochar unsustainably,
but why? Why would you? It’s so much easier to do it sustainably, actually, because – now
let me explain why I would say that. So “unsustainably” in my mind would be cutting down old growth
forest to produce biochar. JOHN: Wow, that’s just – that’s wrong.
JOSIAH: First of all, old growth forest will probably be more valuable as timber, if you
we’re to do that. Secondly, it’s probably – not probably – it’s vastly more valuable
left as an old growth forest. And third, there is so much biomass sitting around being wasted
on a regular basis for free. Some people even pay you to take their biomass. Why not use
that? There’s so much of that on this planet right
now. There’s so much of that on this planet right now, it’s incredible. It’s just
absolutely incredible. I was partly guided to biochar, because the house – some of
the wood you might see in the background – was built by me; I worked with a local sawmill
to get the wood for this house. And I can tell you, sawmills produce a lots
– they take a round log and they square lumber – there’s a lot left over. Just
from that one industry alone, we have plenty enough biochar for any near term use.
JOHN: All right, so you guys just learned that biochar is probably a good thing, I definitely
believe in it and believe you guys should use it. So the question comes up, “How do
you use it?” so, Josiah, how do you use biochar in your garden to grow more vegetables
and more fruits and more edibles around your yard?
JOSIAH: Five to ten percent is probably the most important thing to remember. Five to
ten percent by volume in all my years of playing with it in the backyard, and working with
clients – I was just talking with John about this earlier – through my backyard here
in Hawaii, I have produced about 600 pickup trucks full of biochar.
And most of that was sold directly to farmers here on Big Island. And so, I’ve heard a
lot of feedback from my clientele about their response, their experience with it. And that
has been a really productive thing that we as a community have learned together. So when
I say 5-10% by volume, I didn’t just pull that out of thin air. That has over time become
a very safe and substantial number that we’ve settled on.
I’ll embellish on that just a little bit: we’ve also found that as little as 2% by
volume can still be very significant. As much as 20% can still be very safe. Now, this is
where you start getting these outer ends where you have to use your head. And I would suggest
if you’re going to go there, try first with a few pots or a small part, and then extend.
For instance, I worked with a tomato farmer who was using it 30% with his greenhouse tomatoes,
fantastically. He had 30% in the bottom half of his pot to maximise the use of biochar.
Fantastic results, actually, almost ridiculous. Five to ten percent by volume.
JOHN: So, Josiah, let’s give an actual real world example, ok? So if somebody has a 4
foot x 4 foot square (…) garden, like many of you guys may have, how much biochar would
you add to it? JOSIAH: Uhhhhh, it’s late in the evening
for math. Let’s see, 5% is quarter inch, five inches deep. 10% is one half inch, five
inches deep. Most people’s hoes, or pick, often tillages something in that five inches
deep range. So that’s why I’ve normalized those numbers there.
So, quarter inch coverage to a half inch coverage, tilled in about five inches deep. So, then
you take that and you figure out the square footage. So if we have 12 square feet at one
inch of depth, that would be one cubic foot. If we’re only going for four – I mean,
I’m sorry – if we’re only going for one quarter inch, we cover 4 x 12, 48 square
feet. So for that 16 square foot garden, you only need a quarter of a cubic foot, which
is a typical garden bag, which is going to be about 1 ½ to 2 gallons, rough math – don’t
quote me on this. JOHN: (Chuckles). So, it’s usually sold
by about a cubic foot in the bag, right? So you just have like a half bag, add it to your
four foot by four foot range, then you’re probably good, right?
JOSIAH: Yeah, but we we’re talking about – we we’re just talking about this – soon
we’re coming out with a smaller bag to help you guys successfully use it. So a little
2-gallon bags might work. JOHN: So, now you guys know how much to add
– 5-10% – but how do you add it? I already have my plants planted, can I just side dress
it in, could I just lay it on top of the soil? Do I need to mix it up before I plant the
seeds? And that’s how I add it, before I plant the seeds in. so, what would you say
on that, Josiah? JOSIAH: Lots of different ways. Lots of different
ways you can add it. Typically, one thing you want to think about is, you want the biochar
to be well blended with your soil. It’s not a fertilizer that’s just going to melt
and distribute itself; you want to physically blend it with your soil. That will happen
over time, with bugs, and in general, but you want to blend it with your soil. This
is often best done if you’re in a temperate climate that has a winter season of significant
amount. You’ll actually want to blend it in the
fall, so that in the fall, when you’ve harvested everything before the big winter comes, you
want to blend it in with your soil, and let everything settle, and come springtime, plant
and you’re ready to go. If you have a large area, and you want to maximise the efficiency
of a small amount of biochar, you really only need to put it right down the row. You don’t
need to put the biochar in the aisles this year; you can get that another time.
So just apply the biochar right down the row. Another way to go is if you only have a really
small amount of biochar and you have a lot of acreage to do, use it just with the plantings.
JOHN: Hm mmm. JOSIAH: So, you can use it in the potting
media that you do your little seedlings in, or you can use it to have your special mix
there, so that when you put your plants in, you have your special mix there to tuck them
into bed with. JOHN: Definitely a good answer. So, another
question is, I know I have a lot of hydroponic and aquaponic growers. So how can, and can
biochar be used in aquaponics and hydroponics? JOSIAH: Absolutely, it can and has been. You
know, it can have qualities very much similar to perlite. The interesting thing is, it has
physical – it physically kind of looks like a black perlite or something, almost.
JOHN: Yes. JOSIAH: It kind of feels like a black perlite,
almost. But it has the kind of exchange capacity, more like of a vermiculite.
JOHN: Oh, wow. JOSIAH: Yeah. So, it helps hold the nutrients
in. So, that’s a picture and a half right there, right? So it has the physical feel
of the perlite, with the characteristic exchange capacities of vermiculite, and won’t go
muddy on you like the vermiculite does after a while. So, it can be very efficient to use
in the hydroponic and aquaponic media. In aquaponics, it can be used in the bio filter
– that’s the ebb and flow bio filter, or however your flushing system works.
It can also be used in the actual little trays that your plants are grown in. I’ve got
one client that actually uses that, and he put that back into the vermicasters and reuses
that again and again, because the voucher doesn’t decay; he just keeps using it again
and again. JOHN: Wow. So let’s talk about another way
that you can use biochar and incorporate it into your garden. That’s one of the ways
I’m going to start doing after this trip, because I’ve asked him a lot about this
– is actually adding it and pre-inoculating it in your compost, to not only increase the
nutrients in your compost, but also to get it in there so that when you have the finished
compost, the biochar is already in there. So, Josiah, how will adding the biochar help
your compost pile work more effectively? JOSIAH: This is one of my favourite things;
I’m so glad we got to this, and I hope that you’ve managed to keep your interest this
far. Working biochar with compost is a very synergistic thing – it can benefit the compost
and it can benefit the biochar, as well. What they’ve found, or what we’ve all found
when including biochar with compost, is that we can find reduced nutrient loss.
JOHN: Wow… JOSIAH: Oftentimes, the nitrogen volatilizes
off; you can smell it volatilizing off as ammonia.
JOHN: Yeah, I do. JOSIAH: Incorporating the biochar can and
has been shown to help reduce the loss of nitrogen through volatilization. What we’ve
also found is that it can increase the microbial activity. It can increase the microbial activity,
which often results in a reduced amount of time till the compost is matured. That’s
a big deal sometimes. So those two factors alone are really interesting, as well as the
aeration factor. Sometimes, like I mentioned earlier, biochar
is like perlite: it’s really fluffy, it has lots of air pockets in it, so it can help
create environments that are more conducive to your beneficial microorganisms and you’re
not so beneficial microorganisms. And as we’ve kind of gotten here, the biochar doesn’t
necessarily decay. So, it’s really interesting, the difference between your end product when
you use biochar and your end product when you haven’t.
I don’t know how to explain that in much easier ways than, “good”. You have to
try it. JOHN: (Laughter).
JOSIAH: So, one really interesting thing is that, not only can it improve your compost,
but in that same thing, you’re actually improving the biochar as well. You can be
dramatically improving the biochar. Anything that might have been bad about the biochar
in the beginning, such as a high pH if that is not desirable at that time, the soot and
oils and resins that may be there because of however it might have been produced – all
of that is going to be transformed in the compost pile.
And the biochar, having gone through the compost pile, will be proliferated with microorganisms,
charged with nutrients, and covered in all kinds of the wonderful things that makes compost
so great, such as the carboxylic functional groups, humic acids and folic acids, and enzymes
and all these wonderful things in compost piles. So, you put the two together, good
things happen. JOHN: Wow. So the last question I have for
you, Josiah, is what are the top three reasons why my users should start using some biochar
in their garden? JOSIAH: Water, nutrients and a healthy soil
environment. JOHN: Wow. The biochar will retain the water,
it will allow for more soil nutrition, and it’s going to encourage the beneficial microbes
and fungi. And that’s what I’m all about. So I teach you guys that natural method of
gardening and just trying to model nature, and I believe wholeheartedly that biochar
can definitely help you do that. I hope you guys enjoyed this episode here.
It’s gone a little bit overtime, but I’m glad, because there’s a lot of good information;
I hope you actually got to the end. If you like this video, please give it a big thumbs
up, and hopefully I’ll be able to work with the Soil Wreath Company to get a good deal
for you guys on the biochar, so you guys can get it directly mailed to you, because I know
it can be quite hard to find locally. So, once again, my name is John Kohler with
growingyourgreens.com, we’ll see you next time.
All: Keep on growing with biochar! JOSIAH: Aloha!