Terra Pretta...Charcoal Use in Soil

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After reading Bill's posts about Rodale's compost work with leonardite dust and the essay by Rebecca Lines-Kelly that mentioned terra pretta, I started looking into the use of charcoal, crushed or dust, as a compost and soil amendment. Has anyone used charcoal dust or have any thoughts or results?
http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org /
http://www.eprida.com/hydro/ecoss/background/charbenefits.htm
Charlie
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The value especially of ash and somewhat of charcoal after a forest fire in the long process of a forest's natural recovery is in no way duplicated with horticultural charcoal products, so post-forest fire studies have no applicability in the garden unless you plan to burn everything and let it recover naturally over a great many years starting with a slick layer of liverwort for the first couple years.
Here's an article of mine on horitcultural charcoal as a soil additive: http://www.paghat.com/charcoal.html It's a complex issue but in general charcoal would not be useful or helpful, and for the marginal exceptions, still not the best of all possible choices.
-paghat the ratgirl
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On Thu, 10 Apr 2008 11:52:09 -0700, snipped-for-privacy@paghat.com (paghat) wrote:

This is not about ash or post-fire studies. This is about torrified biomass incorporated into the soil. Read the articles and investigate and you will see the difference.

We are not talking about container gardening and we're not talking about activated or horticultural charcoal.

This is not an option amongst multiple choices. This is a singular issue I am investigating, and it's effects.
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The article isn't just about container gardening. And just because wood charcoal & soil. is shipped up from South America doesn't make it magically different from horticultural charcoal in soil. The same scientific realities do apply.

The amazon rain forest product being shipped to American rubes is forest fire charcoal mixed with dirt. It has no magic properties except in the imaginations of rubes who buy it at premium price. It's not magic charcoal different from any other wood-based charcoal.
"Scientific" promoters of the rain forest charcoal product, such as Dr. Mingxin Guo, work for the product manufacturers. He dazzles rubes with phony jargon like "biochar" to give it all a mystic-scientific feely-touchy tone, provides non peer reviewed articles to sundry marginally scientific websites who all run the same photographs & variants of the same text, but it's entirely ad copy for a product with no distinctive properties that would separate it from any other mix of soil and charcoal. And to assess the value of charcoal requires no special considerations for the fact that it's from South America.
Now and then Mingxin Guo's "data" says something true, such as about charcoal "persisting in soil for hundreds to thousands of years." Like perlite and plastics. But when he twists this data to indicate that inert ingredients improve organic soil content, bare in mind when the organic content is charcoal, it is totally inaccessible for use as a plant nutrient -- for thousands of years.
The true value of charcoal no matter the brand or ad copy attached is for its porosity. Its worthless as a filtering agent or nutrient, and displaces rather than contributes to the nutrient content of soil. Stop mistaking ad copy for valid information.
-paghat the ratgirl
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On Thu, 10 Apr 2008 22:41:19 -0700, snipped-for-privacy@paghat.com (paghat) wrote:

Why would you assume that I would think shipping this from SA is in any way a good idea and why would you assume that I assign magical properties to this?

See above response.

I supplied other links to research other than those of Dr. Guo. And once again, I am not speaking of charcoal from SA.

To which "ad" do you refer? It appears you are being a bit presumptuous about my mental acuity.
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In article

> To which "ad" do you refer? It appears you are being a bit > presumptuous about my mental acuity.
Not at all. Ad copy POSING as scientific articles are sent to websites with "science" in their web address titles and used pretty much as-is by the webmasters. They are then encountered by gardeners who actually do attempt to find independent sources not generated vendors, but are easily tricked by these vendor-provided articles to websites supported by vendor ads and so very open to vendor generated articles nowhere on them identified as such. When you see pretty much the same information -- even the same wording -- on five or fifty sites, you know it was vendor-generated. No law requires you to be warned. So you do have to be careful, and it does look to me like you got some of your beliefs from carefully reading disguised ads about "biochar," a term popularized by vendors and about 99% of the time associated with garden ammendment products shipped from South America.
This "biochar" product has only one value: adding porosity to soil mixes. This MIGHT enhance water retention (no better than many another product) and it more certainly enhances oxygen content in soil which PROBABLY assists in microorganism health (to the same degree as wouold ground up tulfa rock or perlite). These are not controlable benefits even in the best of cases, as they microorganism health is not something predictably improved by porosity which might already be sufficient in soil. One of the claims is that because charcoal is inert, it is "better" than organic materials that break down because it doesn't break down so adds permanent porosity.
But the ad-writers muddle this information to make it sound like the charcoal adds nutrients (it doesn't) rather than supports nutrients in the same way as would any porous material, whether inert like ground tulfa or charcoal (and never a nutrient) or temporary in its porosity like bark or pete (which does break down producing nutrients in the process).
SOMETHING has to be broken down by microorganisms for the soil to generate nutrients, so the idea that porosity provided by material that never breaks down is better is highly questionable. And ammendments such as perlite, charcoal, and tulfa almost always reduce the quality of soil in the long run, but a very few studies exist to indicate charcoal assists microorganisms longer than tulfa, much longer than perlite, so vendors can make the authentic if misleading claim that their product is best. When pointed out woodchips would do it better still the answer is "woodchips break down, charcoal doesn't, so is a longer lasting benefit," problem with that reasoning being that the soil MUST include organic material in the process of breaking down and charcoal will NOT cancel out the need for renewal the better ammendments. So the "biochar" vendor gambit is always partially a ruse with just enough truth to it to befuddle the public and permit authentid studies to be selectively quoted to support the ad copy.
I would not personally use a charcoal product for anything but epiphytes in pots, and even then only as a minor ingredient. But such choices are for each gardener to make with the best information they can obtain. I do ukse natural ash however as a weak potash direct in the garden or in the compost heap.
-paghat the ratgirl
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snipped-for-privacy@paghat.com says...

Look it up on wikipedia and follow the links.
There seems to be more than just porosity and displacement at work.
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The wiki "biochar" article in fact ain't all bad -- it's primary focus on porosity helping the lifecycle of beneficial microorganisms such as beneficial fungus, as would many another soil ammendment, is pretty clear. It fails to note that beneficial fungus even more requires a porous substance, such as decaying wood, to thrive, and charcoal as an inert soil ingredient fails on that score.
Wiki articles are by amateurs and amended by amateurs, however, so really a lot like reading this newsgroup. And the author of the wiki article muddles the article a lot in praising charcoal for "cation exchange capacity" and mistakenly suggesting this increases "uptake of minerals." Obviously copied from some article on water filtration without fully understanding the ionization process, no such process occurs with any type of charcoal mixed in soil.
The wiki article then derails completely in repeating a vendor claim for "terra preta" (charcoal, soil, and ground up terra cota crockery) having a capacity to purify entire rivers, lakes and oceans. This is one of the vendor claims very few copiers of that information copy, as the absurdity is pretty extreme. It closes with the claim that biochar, meaning terra preta in this case, removes "neutralizes" toxins "to an increased ocean pH" (which, if it could alter the pH of entire oceans, would make it about the most dangerous stuff on earth), which really very fabularly confuses two varied vendor whoppers of the highest order of gullibility.
The article that starts well and quickly descends into the most laughable mythology is her: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biochar read it quick because anyone, including vendor representatives or random true-beleiver gardener, is at liberty to anonymously revise it to be either less inaccurate or more inaccurate any day of the week.
The promotion of half-truths, errors, or outright lies has been very expertly orchestrated by a united consortium of vendors called Biochar International. They hire scientists to run both the organization for athe promotion of biochar products and the same scientists to do research for the organization that pays a sizeable percentage of their annual salary, getting "research" "published" either on the net or in non-peer-reviewed journals, then citing this nonsensical research as proof of all & sundry.
The same industry promotional organization also trumped up the International Biochar Initiative with the purpose of convincing government agencies to buy terra preta (and seem to have successfully hornswoggled the Australian gaovernment out of millions, but the real success will be if they can ever trick the American government into becoming a big buyer).
The very intelligently promotion and growing popularity of terra preta biochar means the stripping of rainforst topsoils as an added exploitable resource after South American forests have been stripped of all plant life and nothing remains BUT the soil. Selling this as environmentally friendly for the garden is one of the modern advertising community's great successes -- kind of like successfully selling panda skin rugs as a method of saving the pandas.
-paghat the ratgirl
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We have always added wood ash to our root crop efforts. Carrot, Potatoes , sweets and salsify I guess it is because of below info..
It's not that we are that smart but my dad studied these issues hard about 1940 after he burned his garden with too much nitrogen.
Here is an interesting story concerning Potash.
Bill
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potash
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On Apr 10, 11:41am, Charlie wrote:

There are some interesting articles on this site. It's a Canadian company working in conversion of biomass into energy.
http://www.dynamotive.com/en/news/media.html
Dora
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wrote:

Thanks Dora
Useful indeed. This is quite new to me and seems to hold much promise, this issue of biochar as soil "rejuvenator". Cripes, I thought I was sorta on top o' things. ;-)
Years ago Mother Earth News had plans for, and drove around the country a truck that ran on wood gas. Same principle, though they were benefitting from the wood gas.
Charlie
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Uh......so....what are you saying? This appears to be a good thing or a bad thing or no thing a'tall?

It is a cool word, though I hope it doesn't attract the attention of The Watchers. ;-)
Charlie
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<Charlie> wrote in message> After reading Bill's posts about Rodale's compost work with leonardite

Funny you should mention this... I was just reading news headlines at sciencedaily and found this: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080410153658.htm
I think I should read up on this a bit more and maybe try some in may little plot. Thanks for the links. Chas
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wrote:

It's looking good to me, the more I read. A confluence and consensus of ideas. Hmmmm...interesting.
Charlie, just another Chas ;-)
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On Apr 10, 8:28pm, Charlie wrote:

From what I recall, they haven't yet succeeded in recreating the terra preta soils. Bio char comes close, but the fertility only lasts a couple of years whereas the actual terra preta soils in the Amazon just keep going and going.
I read a bit about terra preta after having gone to a talk on antique roses given by Odile Masquelier (sp?) last fall. She uses charcoal in her compost recipe linked to the site below. If nothing else, the garden pics are worth a boo. http://labonnemaison.org/en/faq.htm#engrais_
I'd recently read about terra preta in 1491 by Charles Mann, so did a bit of reading for a while, then it was Christmas. Plus I got stuck on NPK but that's another monologue.
My understanding is that biofuel/biochar producers are going after the agricultural market because farm soils have been depleted of carbon with the use of nitrogen fertilizer. (Not sure how this works or if I got it right, but I read it somewhere so anyone wishing to enlighten, please do.) However, there is a problem with distribution. No way are cheap farmers going to pay the price for hauling and applying large amounts of biochar (they have to do that by machine). I think they should be selling it to horticulturalists. All they'd have to do is bag it, sell it by the overpriced bag, and we'd dig it in by hand. We'd ask for more if it worked even if we didn't need more and maybe even if it didn't work. Dora
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wrote:

OK. I think my problem here is one of terms. What exactly is biochar? Does charcoal, chunks of charcoal produced in a retort qualify as biochar?
What I had in mind, was simply the crushing of oak lump charcoal ($4 dollars US/10 lb bag) and screening it to no larger than 1/8 in, utilizing dust as well as the small particles. I'm looking at long term soil improvement and this seems to fill the bill.
Damn, this is turning into a major thinkfest. :-)
But, the way I am thinking, this will do no harm and any benefits derived are accomplished with little effort upon my part.
Am I missing something?
Charlie
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On Apr 10, 9:22pm, Charlie wrote:

Biochar is produced as a result of pyrolysis, which as far as I can figure out is at higher temperatures and faster than the process used for producing charcoal. Biofuel is produced as a result of the process - I think we'd need a chemist to explain why. However both biochar and charcoal are produced without oxygen and both processes produce carbon as an end product.

Take a look at that compost recipe on the labonnemaison site. I was thinking of doing much the same, but I'd probably end up having to pound up charcoal briquettes.

Yeah. It makes me wish I'd paid more attention in chemistry. I only get so far with this stuff and then my head hurts.

Well start small. I've also read that charcoal can have an effect on soil pH. Dora
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wrote:

Sounds like a plan. Even though some have misgivings about the efficacy of using charcoal, at the worst, I can see no harm. I see Billy set the record straight on briquettes. Do you all have lump charcoal there. Royal Oak brand is what we have available here.
Did you see the recipe that Bill posted a while back on what roday was doing, adding gypsum, clay and leonardite coal dust to compost and the ability of the resulting compost to better retain nutrients?

Yeah, same. I often base my ideas on getting a consensus of a bunch of articles and research, some of which I scarce understand. Of course, there is the danger of making the data fit the intended results. ;-)

I am assuming that the lime in the recipe balances the pH effect of the charcoal.
Care Charlie
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You got one right! "Activated" carbon for aquariums (not recommended for any gardening purpose) could lower water pH of the water slightly (until porosity is clogged with impurities in under 15 minutes), but wood or bone carbon -- vis, horticultural charcoal -- when added to soil has no such effect either on water or soil either one. Charcoal is next to inert and changes nothing, at most adds porosity to a soil mix. If the charcoal were to be burnt to ash it could heighten alcalinity, not acidity, if mixed with soil.
-paghat the ratgirl

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On Apr 11, 10:53am, Charlie wrote:

All I've seen is in really small bags, intended for 'sweetening' pot soil. Of course larger bags could be elsewhere. I just haven't come across it or didn't notice it.

No. My main problem is drainage - I've got one part of the garden where I seem to lose whatever goes in there. (Oh muscari are so easy! they said. Yeah right.) So I'll stick with wood chips, zeolite, compost and used potting soil for a while until I loosen it up.

Welcome to the internet. There is a lot of contradictory information out there. For my part, I don't know enough or have enough experience to say whether charcoal would work or not. That recipe is really the only instance I've seen of it being used, and it is being used on alkaline soil.

Do you get your soil tested at all? I'd get it tested before and after just to see what your experiment does in objective terms. Might as well make a science project out of it. Dora
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