Posts tagged #Biochar

Peeling Oak Bark for Tanning Leather and Apple Breeding Update

Here are a couple of recent videos I did on the stuff I do around here.  One is a short update on labeling and protecting fruit that was pollinated earlier this year as part of my apple breeding project.  I talk a little about the breeding parents and related stuff, but it's pretty straightforward and short, with a quick visit to my new pig. The second is a follow along while I cut down, cut up, and peel the bark off of a tan oak tree that is infected with the organism involved in sudden oak death.  I use the bark for tanning skins.  I'm working on a book right now on tanning with plant materials like bark, various leaves and pods and stuff like that.  Writing, research and experiments around that project now consume most ofmy time, energy and thought.  In the video I show a few pieces of leather tanned with oak bark, peel the bark, split the wood and clean it all up.  There are few things I'd rather do with my time than that type of forestry work.  Splitting wood, playing with wood, using my axe, burning brush to make charcoal, etc..   is all my idea of a good time!  woo hoo!  It's really hard for me to cut these videos down and focus them in.  There are so many satellite topics I want to talk about!   Definitely some stuff coming on axe use, wood splitting tutorials, forestry and forest ecology, and lots of tanning and skin working stuff.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNFZiu4mSts

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KX8g0Yt0ZmI

Simple, Efficient, Cheap, Flexible Biochar Trench Video, and Frankentree Trailer

Coming next weekend!  I guarantee the actual video is less exciting than the trailer, but it is much more edifying!  This video will just be an introduction to the idea, and the benefits of frankentreeing.  I will certainly put together a much more technical video in the future.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoVp4eMrYXo

Below is my second fast motion video on the two simple biochar methods I've been experimenting with.  A few notes...

Fuels:  I suspect that pieces larger than about 3 inches are better either split down or charred by another method, and chips might be better done in a TLUD or some such device.  I haven't tried either in the trench though, so that's just speculation.  I doubt that large wood will char well in the trench because it takes so long to char all the way through, but chips might be just fine if fed pretty constantly in thin layers.  As long as everything you're putting in turns to charcoal and you're not getting a lot of ashes or a lot of smoke with it, you're doing well.  I've done green and dry wood.  Dry is better of course.  I think the jury is still out on green wood.  The one I did mostly with pretty green wood was a very hot, large pit and the wood was brushy allowing for the ingress for large amounts of air.  It was still pretty sluggish and I'd certainly tend to let the stuff dry for a summer first if possible.

Wood size and shape:  It's hard to say without actually measuring things, but the trench seems to have a very efficient conversion ratio (wood to charcoal with low ash production) if the material is of a nature that it can be laid thickly and flat onto the coals, and of course if it is tended adequately.  This method takes a little more effort than last week's open burn, since you have to dig a hole, but it handles certain materials better.  I've done a number of these now and have found that they don't handle tangly brush all that well.  I did pretty good with douglas fir limbs, but not with oak, madrone and similar branches that have a lot of twigs poking in every direction.  The fir limbs are pretty linear and stack into the trench closely enough to get by.  If the fuel doesn't lay into the trench well, it will allow too much oxygen to reach the coals and result in more ash formation.  So, really tangly stuff that takes up a lot of volume of space might be better burned in an open pile, or reduced in size and shape to fit into the trench better.  When I take trees down, I typically limb up the 2 1/2" to 3" branches and larger, setting them aside, while anything smaller is brush for burning.  So, I'll usually end up with a pile of each, larger stuff with little to no brush for the firewood pile or the trench, and small tangly stuff for the open pile method.

A trench burn using mostly untrimmed douglas fir limbs worked adequately well.  Better than very spreading tangly type branches, but not quite as well as lengths and chunks of wood without any small branches.
A trench burn using mostly untrimmed douglas fir limbs worked adequately well. Better than very spreading tangly type branches, but not quite as well as lengths and chunks of wood without any small branches.

Trench v.s. Pit Shape:  You could just dig a round pit, and that might be good for small wood, and especially small chunks like lumber cutoffs, but the long shape allows burning of long wood without cutting it up which can be a huge savings if long wood is what you've got.  It of course works fine for short wood too.  I haven't done a burn in just one end of the trench, but it seems like it should work fine as long as the open end of the fire has wood added to it same as the top.  If nothing else, the trench could be blocked with dirt of bricks for small burns of short stuff.

Other options:  FYI, this is based on the Japanese Cone Kiln concept, and you can also do it in other containers, like a webber BBQ for micro scale (be sure to seal any holes on the bottom).  I think you could also use an old wheel barrow body.  You can see Backyard Biochar for more on the cone kilns and other simple methods.

The burn requires maintenance, but not constant maintenance, so bring a book or a project to work on.

Summarizing:Between this and the open burn pile method in last week's video, a lot of wood types that most people have access to can be charred easily, with a minimum of preparations, planning or technology.  Considering the simplicity and low inputs of these two methods, there seems little reason not to turn the woody resources that accumulate around a homestead, or even backyard, into charcoal instead of ash.   That is my main message here.   You could of course turn smaller stuff into compost, but since charcoal can serve some of the purposes of organic matter in the soil (nutrient reservoir, microbe housing, moisture holding and soil texture changes)  but permanently with a one time applications, it's worth considering charring it in your webber for a while, or some of it at least.  It's not a complete substitute for organic matter, but it should, in theory, help you get more out of the organic matter and other nutrients you add to the soil in the future.  I add some organic matter to the soil, but I consider the most important the plant roots that are left behind after every crop.  

Anyway, that's more than enough said.  Most of what you need to know is in the video...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1jAo7qd_Q8

Posted on October 4, 2014 and filed under BioChar, Forestry, Garden Stuff.

Simple Biochar Production, and Grape Reviews, a Few Videos

Yay, burn season is here!  Just uploaded a few videos.  A couple of short grape variety reviews, The pretty darn good Glenora and the excellent Reliance (of which I'm eating some right now, and they're super tasty!).  And a somewhat long winded, but cool, video of burning a top lit open burn brush pile to make biochar (Which Kelpie of Backyardbiochar calls TLOB).  This is one of the two charring methods I've been messing with, the slope sided pit (or container), and the open top lit piles.  I think each has it's merits, but probably more importantly, each might be better suited to certain materials that people commonly have.  Both can be scaled up and down in size and neither should produce a ton of smoke if the wood isn't either soaking wet or green.  A pit burn video should be forthcoming.  Hopefully I'll get better at shooting and editing video, learn to talk faster and develop a video personality at some point.  In the meantime, pop some popcorn and check it out. No Guinea Pigs were harmed during the making of these videos, although some chickens were verbally assaulted.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVs75-A7PEo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOZ1XNtNRf4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rARhQV7wmwI

Soil Banking With Biochar: proposition for a migrating latrine system aimed at permanent soil improvement

"The idea is to have a sort of trench system that would serve both as a latrine, and as a means of permanently improving the soil."

This proposal is built around the concept of using charcoal to permanently improve soils.  If you’re not familiar with that idea, a little reading on biochar might be helpful.

(EDIT: Ok, I just posted this yesterday, but the original title sucked, so I had to take action.  The more I've thought about this idea today, the more I'm inclined to think that viewing it as just a latrine is way too limiting.  A system of soil improvement like this could serve to accommodate all sorts of rubbish and organic refuse.  I always thought that if I built a nice outhouse someday, that I'd make a sign for it that said Bank of Fertility (make a deposit:).  I like that concept.  I'm going to go with the term Soil Banking for the concept of a migrating soil improvement  system using an open trench.  While making daily deposits of doodie makes eminent sense for such a system, there are so many more things that could be tossed in the mix.  All people who live in the country that don't have access to landfills, have rubbish heaps or pits of some kind.  What I'm proposing is that we use that open pit, and the material added, to a high level of advantage toward the end of permanent soil improvement.  At this point, I can only see a big open pit, placed in the right area, to be an outstanding opportunity.  The idea of permanent soil improvement, made possible by the addition of charcoal, is really compelling.  Dead animals and parts, rotten wood, old natural fiber clothing, shells, bones, ashes, seedy weeds that are best not put in to the compost, anything else that plants or soil life can feed on that the chickens can't eat, or that we don't want to put in the compost for whatever reason, and of course poo and charcoal, all added as they occur.  And of course adding whatever other amendments, like lime, rock powder or trace minerals might make sense too, depending on circumstances.  Over many years, this system could add up to an ever expanding bank of super soils that will probably continue to be superior for decades, if not for centuries.  So there it is, Soil Banking.  "What should I do with this dead maggoty possum?"  "put it in the soil bank with a few scoops of charcoal and some dirt"  "yeah, okay, I was going there to make a deposit anyway!" "righteous dude, high five!"  Now back to regularly scheduled programing.)

I’ve been knocking this idea around in my head for a while.  Actually, maybe it’s been knocking me around it just want's me to think that I'm knocking it around.  It started when I was thinking about ways to use the pit after pit burning charcoal in a long trench.  The obvious use was to bury the biochar in it instead of digging another hole for that.  After all, it’s one thing to make all that char, but then you have to dig it into the soil, which is a butt load of work.  In this climate, outside of irrigated garden beds, I think getting the char pretty deep is probably a good idea.  After june, soil moisture is scant near the surface.  If the char was buried lets say only 12 to 18 inches deep, that puts it in the zone where roots are mostly on idle for the summer.  No moisture= no root activity to speak of.  Charcoal is a great retainer of moisture, but it’s not that great.  I’m talking about unirrigated areas for orchards and perrenials, or maybe for dry farming crops.  If the char was more like 3 feet or 1 meter deep, it would be of much more benefit to plants in the summer season.

Tree planting site, modified by digging a large pit to 2 feet deep, burning charcoal in it, crushing the charcoal and mixing it in as the pit was re-buried.
Tree planting site, modified by digging a large pit to 2 feet deep, burning charcoal in it, crushing the charcoal and mixing it in as the pit was re-buried.

Once I thought about it for a bit, I realized it doesn’t make a ton of sense to keep digging new pits just to burn the charcoal in.  it’s not like I’m probably doing the soil any favors by cooking it anyway.  A central permanent burn area, with a more permanent pit arrangement would probably make more sense, or just burning by any number of methods wherever the wood happens to be.  Charcoal is light, so moving it is not an issue.  Moving brush and wood is a whole lot more work.  In most situations, it’s probably not relevant how the wood is charred, the idea of using the burning pit as a latrine was just a path into this idea.

So let me just hit you with the basic idea and then we can bat the details around a little.  The idea is to have a sort of trench system that would serve both as a latrine, and as a means of permanently improving the soil.  Once the pit is dug, there are limitless possibilities for amendment with all sorts of substances, and for changing the soil’s physical composition.  That’s pretty neat!  Also, normally, it would be a fair amount of labor to mix in all of that stuff all at once.  As a latrine though, you’d be mixing it in gradually day by day while doing something you have to do everyday anyway.  Lets say you wanted to end up with about 20% charcoal in the soil.  One poop, one scoop of charcoal, four scoops of dirt and small amounts of whatever other substances you might want to toss in there like lime, wood ashes, sand, phosphate fertilizers, trace mineral fertilizers, organic matter, etc.  I’m already digging holes for the current pit latrine used here on the land, but this system would utilize part of that labor to a more useful end.

This system makes sense to me for soil improvement with biochar under my type of conditions.  It seems likely that the terra preta soils of the amazon might have been made with some similar approach... like pits into which compostables, broken pots and excrement might be disposed of and covered gradually with dirt and charcoal.  I'm not experienced enough with using biochar here to be totally convinced this method will be worth the effort, but I think there is a very high probability that the results will be awesome, easily high enough to jump right in and make the investment to try it.

I’ve never really gotten the latrine scene together here.  We’ve always used a pit toilet- dig a pit, drop in a little dirt or organic matter here and there till it’s full, and move on.  I’ve tried to put them where I want to plant a tree, but it doesn't always work out.  The one site I have actually planted directly on, the tree died, twice even!  That might just be due to drought, but suffice to say, it hasn’t worked out very well for me as a system.  Also, I’m not convinced that even a pit full of manure is really a very permanent soil improvement, and it will have a limited window of fertility.  I’ve thought to eventually build something like the Ecosan drying pit toilet system, but that could be some time away in the future.  Thinking back now, 8 years of being here most of the time day in and day out, I could have improved a lot of soil using my new proposed system.  The pits would fill up quickly, because so much dirt would be added back daily.  It’s a lot of digging, but it’s easier to dig a wide trench than to dig a single deep and narrow pit.  Also, it is assumed that soil improvement is an important goal, so the digging is not superfluous work.  It is also spread out over much time.  Consider digging char into a 40 foot long x 5 foot wide x 3 foot area all at once versus over the course of a year or so.  The trench could be dug in sections as needed, or when convenient.

This walnut tree, flanked closely by two latrine pits is starting to take off this year.  I think the roots have probably hit pay dirt.  Overall though, planning to plant trees over latrine sites hasn't worked out that well, and it's a short term soil improvement.
This walnut tree, flanked closely by two latrine pits is starting to take off this year. I think the roots have probably hit pay dirt. Overall though, planning to plant trees over latrine sites hasn't worked out that well, and it's a short term soil improvement.

In the days before plumbed toilets, public latrines were a major issue in population centers.  I’ve smelled enough latrines to know how horrid the stench must have been.  It was proposed to use charcoal as a deodorant and the resulting sludge sold as fertilizer.  I think this method was probably successful where implemented, but it wasn’t too long before they started washing it all away into rivers and off to the ocean, which of course we mostly still do today, just in a somewhat more refined, but also much more resource intensive way.  Point being, charcoal is the ultimate deodorizer.  Imagine an outdoor latrine with no odor.

Having been called on that day to attend a meeting of the Board of Health, held at the workhouse, I was at once struck with the intolerable and sickening effluvinm which, arising from the sewers, cesspools, and privies, pervaded every part of the establishment; and which, with the chlorine, which was being evolved in every direction for the purpose of correcting it, formed a compound of villanous smells, which no stomach but one accustomed to it could for a moment tolerate. Your very active and efficient inspector, Captain Hanley, told me that he had done everything that could be thought of, and had spared no expense to try and have the nuisance abated, but that all his exertions were useless. I then begged him to send down and purchase a few loads of peat charcoal, which were selling at the market; and having told the master how to employ it, the suggestion was at once adopted, and though the material was not of the best description, nor “ recently prepared,” in a very few hours the most delicate and practiced nose could not have detected the slightest offensive odour. Since then the master, with very praiseworthy attention, has had a large pit of the charcoal prepared every week, and by its occasional use through the grating of the sewers, and by sprinkling it over the nightsoil in the privies, the workhouse is, as far as entire freedom from every noxious and offensive effluvinm, a model to every other in the kingdom. In every respect the results have been most satisfactory. Instead of paying from five to ten pounds, every half year, for having the privies cleansed; and having itself and the whole surrounding neighbourhood at the same time poisoned for weeks by the intolerable stench ; the establishment has that task now performed by the paupers, without the slightest reluctance on their part;—and the contents of the sewers, cess-pools, and privies are now collected into inodorous and innoxious heaps, or mixed with the other refuse of the workhouse until removed by the contractor; which, before, he absolutely refused doing, but which he now considers the most valuable portion of what he contracted for.

Also, adding significant amounts of dirt on top of the daily deposits would completely cover them, so flies would not likely be an issue either.  Ov course you could tweak the amount of soil added in order to either improve more soil in a shorter time, or to make the latrine last longer to the end of digging less.  I’m seeing this more as a way to improve a lot of soil at this point, so thinking of finding the minimum amount of poo to maximum amount of dirt and charcoal added back, while still ensuring good results.

So, one issue with burying charcoal in the soil is that it is a nutrient magnet.  The first time I did it, the lettuce I planted afterward failed to thrive.  It was pretty bad, I mean it barely grew and produced nothing really edible.  The most recent garden bed I amended with charcoal, I added a lot of chicken manure and compost teas to as it was being dug in, in order to charge the charcoal up so it wouldn’t just suck everything up leaving nothing for the plants.  That bed is doing well in it’s first year.  Once it’s charged up, this property of charcoal to catch and hold nutrients becomes a benefit rather than a liability, possibly the most important property of biochar, but it must be charged somehow.  The latrine system should provide a nutrient rich environment to charge the charcoal up as it’s added.  I would probably add stuff in this order:

poo

ash

charcoal

amendments

dirt

organic matter (if added at all, probably a little forest duff at least, if just for innoculation with diverse soil organisms).

The current outhouse structure can be carried by 4 people or rolled on logs by two, but it is far too heavy and awkward to be moved frequently by one person.  I’m thinking that a more tent like arrangement would be better suited to my trench latrine plan.  I though originally of some rails that the covering slid on, but I think that a more simple and elegant solution is needed. I’m thinking for my style a couple of planks with a space in the middle to use as a squatting toilet and a light frame covered with a section of plastic billboard tarp could be plenty cozy enough.  The tent covering would need good anchorage from winds... maybe sand bags or cinder blocks which bungee to the frame?  We’ll see.  No need for a door most of the time, depending on the site I guess, but an old sheet should work okay.

Ye 'ol outhouse, a loo with a view.
Ye 'ol outhouse, a loo with a view.

The great majority of us are wasting the nutrients we excrete.  This state of affairs makes not a bit of sense at all.  For homesteaders, finding some way to utilize the nutrients that are leaving our bodies seems like it should be something of a priority.  We can’t afford to hemorrhage nutrients out of our living systems and we shouldn’t even if we can re-import them from somewhere else.  While saving urine to use as a fertilizer will catch the vast majority of the useful plant nutrients leaving your bodies, and is a great first start, doodie also has a lot of good stuff that can be turned to advantage.  This system seems very promising to me.  It’s going to be too much work for some people, but for tough and scrappy homesteader types and less “developed” cultures and areas, it is probably fine.  The prospect of the opportunity to create super soil zones by utilizing immediately available resources and a trickle of labor from already daily activity, gets me all hot and bothered and would light a fire under my ass to go start digging if said ass wasn't glued to a chair most of the time.  I mean that shit is exciting people!

My proposal is really for a system which modifies the soil to quite a depth, but I suppose it could be used in a shallower form too.  For a system that required more upfront investment, but less labor over all, the ecosan system with charcoal added to the ash might be a good way to go.  Briefly, the Ecosan system uses two pits.  Urine is diverted out of the system and collected in containers for direct use.  Each time a solid deposit is made, a handful of ash is added to cover it, help dry it out, and alkalize it, all of which kills off microorganisms.  The collection chambers are ventilated to encourage drying.  Once one pit is “full” it is closed off to dry completely, and the other side is used.  By the time pit two is full, six months or more later, pit one is completely dry and innocuous.  If charcoal was added, it would pre-charge the char as well and the whole lot could be pulverized as a very rich, fertilizer for use primarily on annual crops.

Here at Turkeysong I could see running both systems eventually.  I’m pretty tough, and am used to inconvenience from years of re-training my entitlement set points.  I'll spare you the details, but trust me, I have gotten through the worst of times with the most inconvenient toilet and living situations, like no toilets at all and extremely ill, rain or shine, day and night.  But, um, honestly, tough or not, I’d rather sometimes have a close outhouse to visit!  Inconvenience isn’t the goal or noble in and of itself.  Sometimes simple solutions are still the most elegant ones though and being constantly besieged by convenience can make us into weak and whiny people.

I’m pretty opposed to the idea of indoor bathrooms.  Digging little holes in the forest or crapping in a trench might seem crude, but pooping in your house just seems plain uncivilized to me.  I could see both the Ecosan and trench systems eventually operating simultaneously in a place like this.  The cozy, luxurious Ecosan, (maybe with a door, or a light and some reading material even!  How about a stereo, wide screen t.v... wifi...) close to sleeping quarters for late nights and rainy days, and the biochar trench latrine for the rest of the time, or for special soil improvement projects.

I hope this idea will appeal to someone enough to try it out and we can see what the profits and pitfalls might be.  Obviously, making a bunch of charcoal is in order, quite a lot actually.  The good thing is that once it's made, it keeps forever.  I managed this past winter and spring to experiment a little with the top down burn pile and pit methods of charcoal production.  Both are easy and accessible and can be used with random scrappy brush.  I’ll leave you with the super condensed version of both, but stay tuned for more on those in future posts or videos.

Top down piles:  Pile brush in a tall narrow pile.  A tall narrow pile is more work, but it burns better than a mound shaped pile.  Light from the top which produces way less smoke.  Throw unburned pieces from the outside into the center as burning progresses.  When most of the wood is charred and no longer flaming, douse with water.

Top down pile, ready to light as soon as rains start.   See this pile burn here!

Top down pile, ready to light as soon as rains start.  See this pile burn here!

Top down pallet pile.  Notice how little smoke there is.

Top down pallet pile.  Notice how little smoke there is.

Pit:  dig a pit with sloping sides.  For long wood, dig a long pit so you don’t have to cut the wood.  start a long narrow fire in the bottom.  Add wood in layers.  When burned down and not producing much flame, add a layer.  try to cover the layer below well, but each layer should be only about one stick thick, not piled up.  this system doesn't work very well with very tangly torturous type brush.  Conifer limbs with the needles on are fine, but oak brush with branches pointing in every direction and taking up a lot of space in every direction needs to be broken down a bit.  This system works by smothering the previous layers with new fuel.  Just remember to try to have the new layer close down on the top of the old one to smother the coals below so they don't continue to burn.  When very little flame is left and the pit is full, douse with water.

Burning charcoal in a trench. There is a trench, this is the end of the burn when it's full of charcoal.   Video here .

Burning charcoal in a trench. There is a trench, this is the end of the burn when it's full of charcoal.  Video here.

I think the pit is probably more efficient in the wood used to charcoal produced ratio than the top down pile style--- but it seems to require a little more work and attention too.  I’m not really sure yet.  In both cases, don’t wait for every single piece of wood to be charred before extinguishing.  You will end up with some un-charred wood, but you can always re-burn it.  If you wait for every single piece to be charred before extinguishing it, the wood that is already burned down to coals is rapidly turning to ash, effectively reducing the total charcoal yield.

I’m somewhat annoyed with myself for not "having my shit together" already.  But, when we have to always be pioneering new ideas and systems, it’s not always easy to get it together, and I have a lot of challenges to face so I'm cutting myself some slack.  I’m convinced that urine diversion is the first step and anyone who has hung around this blog much knows I just won’t shut up about that.  Next, something like the ecosan system and/or a system like I’ve just proposed that amends soil as it goes along, should make maximum use of our leavings.  And that should be the goal.  We are so fixated on disposal, and the idea of excrement being a valuable resource is so totally foreign, that it is often difficult to find language that can really get across the way we should truly be thinking about the issue.  Like I said, it makes no goddamn sense to extract the very essence of the soil, that which plants make their bodies with, and then throw it away.  Not only should homies like us be building our infrastructure around a new paradigm, but as a society, we should be thinking toward decommissioning our old systems and implementing new ones that honor our daily discharges as the very valuable resources they are.  My trench latrine will certainly not appeal to the timid, but it can’t be that hard to come up with a design that tops the current practice of pissing and shitting in a ceramic bowl of water in the house!  Like omg, that shit is nasty.  And said bowl has to be cleaned by some unfortunate person, like ewwwwww.... If we can put people on the moon as they say...

Summary:

*Dig a trench or pit, up to a meter deep.

*Use a light moveable cover.

*I'll probably use planks for a floor with a space left open to squat over.  An elegant solution and highly flexible.

*Add charcoal, dirt and/or other nutrients and amendments with each deposit. shoot for 15% and up of charcoal if possible.

*Find a poo to dirt and charcoal ratio that makes maximum use of droppings and fills the hole quickly.

*If a trench is used, expand the trench as the previous section is filled up.

*Be stoked that you've done something agricultural that may actually last for a really long time, unlike standard impermanent soil improvements.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YV-1To9DkJQ

Sloping Pit Charcoal Kiln and Agave Roasting

charcoal cone pit headerIn the comments on the biochar experiment post, Lars mentioned Japanese cone kilns.  I checked them out on Kelpie’s cool blog, Green Your Head and they do indeed look way cool.  Although slapping a crude one together out of sheet metal would probably be pretty easy, Lars had just simply dug a pit in the same shape.  I tried Lar's pit idea the other day, burned some charcoal in it, and learned a few things that I want to pass on.  This is slightly premature compared to most of my post, which are typically backed by a bit more experience and contemplation, but I'd like to get this idea out there more.  There is very little posted about it anywhere on the net, but it seems very promising, accessible and meets a lot of criteria for a good charcoal production system with very little effort. Commercially available cone kiln from Amazon Japan

Part one.  Sage, Agave and fishes (which have little to do with charcoal production.)  If you are interested in burning charcoal and have a short attention span from internet overstimulation, skip ahead!

When I was in my 20’s I spent a lot of time backpacking out of Big Sur, on the coast of Central California.  One of the common plants is Black Sage, White Sage’s little known, and much more potent sibling.  I've always loved Black Sage and much prefer burning it to the white.  When I moved here, I got some cuttings from someone and rooted them so I could have it around me.  The scent still evokes a lot of fond memories from those good times out in the mountains.  At the time, I lived in the Santa Cruz mountains and used to pick Black Sage and tie it into smudges.   I now have quite a few plants growing, and tying Black Sage smudge sticks is one of many crafty cottage industry occupations that help bring in a little income around here.  Most sage bundles are tied with cotton thread, wrapped in a spiral.  That was way too domesticated for me  back then, so I tied mine off with another plant I harvested in the Big Sur area, Yucca.

Black Sage

When I’d go out backpacking, I’d always harvest some yucca leaves on the way in to camp, pound them on a log by the river, and wash them clean of pulp to extract the long fibers.  I’d twist those fibers into a cord, attach that cord to a stick, add a couple feet of fishing line on the end.  The hook was nearly always a crude fishing fly I'd make by wrapping on whatever bits of feathers or fur I spotted on the hike in.  My fishing kit fit in a tiny pouch, and that’s all I had to carry.  My crude makeshift fishing rig worked awesome!  Wow did those fish bite.  Anything that remotely resembled a bug in the water got hit.  That is elegance.  extremely effective, low input, low cost, less junk to carry, connects me with the environment, builds skills, very little landfill material.  Anyhoo, I always brought out some extra fiber or yucca leaves with me when I eventually made my way back to civilization, and ended up using yucca to tie up my sage bundles.  The practice stuck.

There are several ways to process yucca.  You can pound it fresh with a wood mallet on a smooth log and repeatedly wash and scrape it.  (the pulp is soapy, so you can wash your clothes or dishes while you’re at it.)  The pulp is somewhat tenacious though, so it’s easier to clean off if it is softened by either cooking it, or rotting in water in a process known as retting.  Retting in water is pretty easy, but it takes a long time, and boy does it stink!  The fibers don’t absorb the smell at all, but hands sure do.  If left soaking too long, the fibers are also attacked by bacteria and weakened.

Up around these parts, there isn’t any yucca, but my neighbor Rob grows a lot of Agave americana, a large plant related to yucca which is also used to make tequilla.  Agave americana is not the best agave species for fiber, but it is decent and good enough for tying sage bundles.  I recently harvested some leaves over at Robs garden, an impressive meandering wild affair built up on a bare skim of soil over a serpentine rock  outcrop and consisting only of the toughest most drought resistant plants.  I wanted to bake the leaves because the last batch I tried to ret didn’t work out that great, and it’s winter so it could take months to ret a leaf that is 2 to 3 inches thick in some sections.

agave leaves

 Ok, on to the charcoal kiln:  I couldn’t just build a cone kiln.  As soon as I saw the shape of the cone, I knew I’d be spending a lot of time cutting wood to fit it.  That is a problem with many charcoal making apparatus.  Fuel sometimes has to be reduced to a certain size.  I figured that the principal of the Japanese cone kiln ought to work just as well (and actually better for my purposes)  if the shape were longer.  With a longer kiln pit, much less wood cutting would be entailed.  I don’t mind doing work to get what I want.  I’m not workophobic.  I like cutting wood.  But I like getting shit done too, and cutting longer wood means more wood cut at the end of the day, which equals more charcoal.  I also like efficiency.

 So I put agave leaves and charcoal pit together.  I could dig a long pit kiln, burn the long wood and use the residual heat to roast long agave leaves to soften them up for processing out the fiber.

Ideally the kiln would have been even longer for even less wood cutting (UPDATE: which I've now done and it was great for long unprocessed limbs with twigs and all), but I didn’t have a ton of wood set aside to fill it this time around, and didn’t need a huge pit to cook the leaves in.  I think the opening was probably about 6 feet long and sloped down from there on all four sides.  I didn’t screw around trying to make it nice, even though I had already generated ideas about how to best build and run such a pit.   This run was all about observing what did happened, rather than second guessing exactly what was going to happen.  I knew I’d learn something by just digging a hole and going for it.  I lined the bottom of the pit with bricks to retain heat for roasting the agave.  It is sometimes possible to use just the heat stored in soil to cook things in the ground, but I knew it wouldn’t be adequate in this case, especially since the ground was already wet.  I had doubts that one layer of bricks would even provide enough mass for heat storage, but I just left it at that.  I think more mass would have been better, but it worked okay.

The fire was built and maintained until the pit was fairly full.  The coals were then raked out (most of them anyway) and a few scrappy sacrificial leaves laid on the bottom against the hot bricks and coals, followed by the remaining leaves.  About a gallon of water was thrown on for steam, and the dirt was piled back on as quickly as possible.  No really, as quickly as possible, like all out, fast as you can.  (No pictures of putting the pit together, since I was rushing in order to retain precious heat.)  The charcoal was quenched with water on the ground.  A small brush fire was built on top of the pit for about 8 hours to keep heat in.

This is toward the end of the burn.  I could have fit at least two more layers, but I was running out of wood.  Note the close spacing and attempt to cover the top pretty well in order the shield the coals below from receiving too much air.

fire

Here is some of what I learned.

The cone kiln concept works.  The principal is so simple that I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of it before and almost surprised that I didn’t think of it myself.  You start with  a fire and establish a layer of coals covering the bottom.  When each layer is almost burned to coals, another layer is added.  Each new layer effectively uses up incoming oxygen before it can get to the coals below, thus putting them out, or causing them to barely burn.  You can see this effect in a brush burn pile.  Generally there is a good pile of unburned charcoal in a burn pile when the flames subside, and it takes up to a day or more to finish burning out.  That is with piles that are managed for less smoke by piling stuff on one layer at a time as the fire burns, which is how I usually do it.  I don't like making piles way ahead and burning them, because lizards, frogs, salamanders and snakes all move in and get burned up.  A brush pile is a wildlife magnet.  Kelpie builds brush piles and burns them from the top down to reduce smoke and produce char.  The cone pit burns with very little smoke.  Low smoke is a huge departure from most primitive charcoal making methods, and one of my criteria for a good system of char production.  You could probably do this in many backyards without raising any eyebrows or calls to the fire department.

I think that using wood of similar size for each layer is important.  Each new addition should burn down fairly evenly, that is with all pieces burning at a similar rate.  If half the wood is one inch diameter and the rest is 3 inch, the one inch material is going to be burned to ash by the time the 3 inch stuff is burned down enough to add a new layer of fuel.  This principal probably would also apply to differences in wood species and condition, i.e. oak mixed with pine, or green mixed with seasoned.

The layer of wood added should be tightly spaced and/or thick enough to adequately smother the fire below.  Think of each layer of wood as an intercepting shield.  the shield should adequately cover and protect the layer below from infiltrating air.  I chopped the pieces to fit as necessary, and packed them pretty close together.  I left just enough room between pieces to let a little air in between them to keep it all burning cleanly.  More experimentation should be revealing as to what can be gotten away with.  At some point too much attention to detail is going to cost more than it gains.

Square corners are an issue.  I should have seen this one coming.  Square corners create cold zones.  Visualize fire in a rounded corner, v.s. in a square corner.  The rounded corner creates no cold zone and heat is radiated back into the fire in a parabolic effect, like a satellite dish, or solar dish cooker.  I had trouble filling the squared corners with wood in order to keep a hot fire in them.  The corners also ironically tended to burn out underneath once they did get going due to too much oxygen infiltration.  In short, they seemed hard to manage.  Not horrible or anything, but they seemed unpreferable.  I’m not sure one couldn’t effectively manage a pit with square corners, but it seems more finicky at the least.

The shallowly sloped walls are there for a reason.  I mean duh, we’re dealing with Japanese technology here, elegant and effective.  I think the shallowly sloped walls are there because they lead to more effective covering of the previous layer.  Wood on top extends out past the previous layer shielding it from oxygen more effectively.  I could tell I was having losses on one side that was dug with a pretty steep wall, making it more difficult to cover the lower layers adequately.  That's what it seemed like anyway.  Maybe some other reason will become apparent with more experience, but I think that is the reason.

Dirt is messy.  I dug this pit, barely cleaned it out, raked the charcoal out onto the ground and dumped water on it.  It was messy.  Lots of rocks and dirt in the charcoal,  and grass and leaves everywhere.  It would have been much easier to get the charcoal out of the pit if the sides were smooth and clean.  And, it wouldn’t hurt to have a clean area to rake coals out onto.  Dirt and rocks can be washed out by throwing all the charcoal in a tub of water and swirling it around for a second.  All the rocks and nails or whatever will fall to the bottom, and the charcoal is scooped out with a colander, but it’s a messy hassle.

I plan to test all of these observations and assumptions in the future.  For now, I feel like I know where to go next.  If you want to experiment with the cone kiln principal, here are some bullet points.

*Use shallowly sloping sides.  Just like the free standing metal kiln in the picture above.

*If you dig a long pit, make rounded corners.  More like a diminishing oval than a diminishing rectangle.

*Dirt can be dealt with and may not even be a significant hassle in some contexts, but if the kiln is to be used many times (as for biochar production) paving the sides with brick or pasting it over with a clay sand mix might be in order.  Adding that mass would also make the pit into an effective oven as well.  With the right sized pit and enough mass, you could cook large amounts of food, a whole animal, agave leaves, or whatever.  It’s nice to be able to use all that residual heat for something, even if it's just to set a pot of beans in there overnight.

Messy!

The metal cone kilns are way cool and have the obvious advantage of portability.  But they are also expensive, if you can even find one to buy outside of Japan.  You can probably have one fabricated out of stainless steel at a metal shop.  You could also probably whip a decent one up out of sheet metal with a pop riveter and a pair of metal shears, which I hope to get around to (caution, don't use galvanized metal.  Zinc is toxic when burned.)  It doesn’t have to look good, though the seams might need to be reasonably tight to prevent air infliltration.  The pit is very attractive as an idea.  Anyone can dig a pit, and many could effectively line it with stone or masonry.  A pit is going to be cheap or free, and you can use the residual heat to do other stuff.  One idea I had was to build an above ground pit.  Here I can only burn in the rainy season, so a lined “pit” built in a raised mound of well draining material like gravel or gravelly soil, would be ready to use all year, even when the ground is soaked.

My yield of charcoal to fuel burned seemed decent, and there were almost no unburned pieces remaining.  I think there may be room for improvement in yield with better management or feedstock, but I'm happy enough with what I got out of it.  I want to go other places with this concept eventually, with as much function stacking as possible.  For instance, burnt clay is also a great soil amendment and could be produced by lining the pit with clay and chipping it off to add a new layer each time the pit is burned.  Maybe a few shells could be added to make some agricultural lime while we’re at it.  Wish I'd thought of that this last time around.

Many char producing systems will only take one size/shape of wood.  In the cone system, it seems like each layer should be composed of pieces of similar thickness, but otherwise, there is a lot of leeway in fuel size and shape.  Some methods also use up extra fuel in order to burn the charcoal.  Not using extra wood to generate adequate heat, and being relatively efficient, are other good design parameters that the cone kiln, in spite of it's simplicity, seems to do pretty well with.  In producing char, it is probably going to be best to have a variety of options here for the different types of feed stock that might be produced on 40 acres of varied species, combined with pallet and scrap wood, wood chips I can scrounge up, etc.  For now, the cone kiln concept seems well worth pursuing further, and a great addition to the stable.  I'm actually pretty excited about it, because it possesses a lot of good points, combined with simplicity/accessibility.   I’ll leave you with some agave processing pictures.

(edit:  Since writing this, I trailed some links back to find Josiah Hunt is doing something similar in Hawaii.  His burning style is different, but pretty much the same concept.  Check it out.  https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/biochar-hawaii/ohoqDcuHMiQ )

Roasted leaves look like dead fish.

agave leaf structure

scraping agave fibers

Some cleaned fibers.

Finished smudge sticks.  Frequent discreet ties mean no unravelling.  My smudge sticks are ridiculously dense, ridiculously intense and won't unravel when you travel.

Posted on December 21, 2013 and filed under BioChar, Forestry, Garden Stuff, Uncategorized.

Experimenting with Biochar: pursuing the promise of charcoal as a soil ammendment

char header I have this neighbor up here.  He’s always saying sustainability and permaculture and stuff like that, but I was surprised in a recent conversation to find out that he did not know the term, or concept of, biochar.  For others who don’t know, that’s a catchy marketable name for charcoal that is intended as a soil amendment, the claimed benefits of which I’ll delve into further on.  I’m not even sure I like the term biochar.  Why name something that already has a name?  Maybe so you can market it?  Charcoal with special properties?  Anyway, I guess I thought it was more in peoples consciousness than it probably is, and since my sustainably hip neighbor was unfamiliar with the concept, I got to wondering how many other people haven't yet encountered the concept and thought I’d present some thoughts and information here in case I might be able to convince more folks to delve into experimenting with the idea.

I had seen some interesting, and even exciting, articles and videos on using charcoal as a soil amendment.  But, all the references were based on the discovery of terra preta, which are these human modified soils in the Amazon containing a large amount of charcoal.  The claim is that these soils are still highly fertile compared to the natural soils surrounding them, even after many hundreds of years of heavy Amazonian rains.  The mysteries of terra preta are still being prodded and examined, but clearly charcoal is a major player, and likely the key ingredient.  If it functions as advertised, adding char is a permanent improvement, unlike the treadmill of organic matter and nutrients that we add to our soils every year and which mostly flush away in the rain.  I've seen what happens to gardens when they are abandoned.  The fertility quickly declines remarkably fast and eventually disappears.  The possibility of making really permanent improvement to gardens, orchards and pastures is very compelling and worth some great effort.

Having trained myself to be somewhat cautious and critical of new and exciting ideas, I was naturally slow to adopt.  I was very interested though and began to save any charcoal I could for experimenting.  One day while researching heirloom apples, I found a 19th century reference to using charcoal in potting soil, which gave me the idea to search google books for the terms - charcoal fertilizer - ,.  I limited the search to the 19th century.  Bingo!  I found a bunch of very interesting references. Now that I had something besides the much recycled terra preta hype to fuel me, I was much more excited to experiment.  If you haven’t read that post, you totally should.  It’s quite fascinating.  You can skip my usual rambling and go straight to the accounts.  Biochar use in Europe and North America in the 19th century.  Since most of you won't actually click the link and read it, here is a tasty extract...

http://books.google.com/books?id=5L0EAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA43&dq=charcoal+fertilizer&hl=en&sa=X&ei=jhGCT4DbE-baiQLu_LSvAw&ved=0CFgQ6AEwATge#v=onepage&q=charcoal%20fertilizer&f=false

The Farmers’ cabinet, and American herd-book, Volume 11 From the Farmer and Mechanic Comparative Merits of Charcoal and Barn-yard Manure as Fertilizers. In the year 1788, my father purchased and removed upon the tract of land in Hanover township, Morris county, N. J. The land, owing to the bad system of cultivation then prevailing, was completely exhausted, and the buildings and fences in a state of dilapidation. The foundation of the barn was buried several feet beneath a pile of manure, the accumulation of years: little or none ever having been removed upon the lands. Even the cellar, beneath the farm-house, was half filled with the dung of sheep and other animals, which had been sheltered in it. The former occupant of the farm had abandoned it on account of its supposed sterility, and taken up the line of march for the Valley of the Miami, along with the first caravan of pioneers who accompanied Judge Symmes.

The barn, before referred to, was removed to another situation soon after its foundation was uncovered, by the removal of the manure to the exhausted fields; and its site, owing to the new arrangements of the farm, became the centre of one of its enclosures. During the seventeen years which I afterwards remained upon the farm, the spot could easily be found by the luxuriousness of the grass, or other crops growing thereon; though the abatement in its fertility was evident and rapid. On revisiting the neighbourhood in the autumn of 1817, I carefully examined the corn crops then standing upon the spot, and was unable to discover the slightest difference in the growth or product, upon that and other parts of the field. This was about twenty-eight years after the removal of the barn.

Upon the same farm and upon soil every way inferior, were the remains of several pit-bottoms, where charcoal had been burned before the recollection of any person now in the vicinity, and most probably, judging from appearances, between the years 1760-70. These pit-bottoms were always clothed, when in pasture, with a luxuriant covering of grass, and when brought under tillage, with heavy crops of grain. Eleven years ago I pointed out these facts to the present occupant, and his observations since, coincide with my own, previously made; that they retain their fertility, very little impaired, a period probably of about seventy or eighty, certainly not less than sixty-five or seventy years. Here then is an excellent opportunity of observing the comparative value of charcoal and barn-yard manures, as a fertilizer of lands. The former has not, after at least sixty or seventy years exposure, exhausted its powers of production, while the latter lost its influence entirely in twenty-eight years, and most probably in much less time.

I have since had many opportunities of’ observing the effects of charcoal left in pitbottoms, upon vegetation, one of which only,. I will relate. The last season, in the northern part of Ohio, was one of uncommon frost and drought . In May, the wheat fields, when promising a luxuriant crop, were cut off by frost;—especially in the valleys, and very much injured in the high lands—which was succeeded by the most severe drought ever experienced in the West. The moiety which escaped both these scourges, was afterwards very much injured by rust. Near the village of Canton, upon a farm on high ground, which had been mostly cleared of its timber by its conversion into charcoal, it was observed that upon the old pit-bottoms, the wheat grew very luxuriantly—was clear of rust—and had ripened plump in the berry; while in the adjacent parts of the field it was short in growth, the stem blackened with rust, and the berry light and shrivelled."

All the results are definitely not in on using charcoal as a soil amendment.  It is being sold as a panacea for the ills of the planet and human society, and large corporate interests are even becoming involved.  The biggest claim is that charring gajillions of tons of woody debris and burying it can help mitigate climate change.  About half of the carbon in woody material can be converted into charcoal, an extremely durable material capable, at least in some cases, of residing in the soil for thousands of years.  Not only that, but if that buried charcoal increases plant growth and fertility, as it is claimed, the extra abundant growth on previously less fertile soil will absorb even more carbon which could then be charred as well.  If the wood decays naturally, little of the carbon remains in the soil, but instead ends up back in the atmosphere.  While it seems hard to believe we could char our way out of the enormous quantities of carbon we've released in the last 00 years of so of burning fossil fuels, that is the hopeful claim of many biochar champions.  Other claims, relevant to us as gardeners, are increased water retention in the soil, reduced leaching of nutrients (because they bind strongly to the charcoal which is a virtual magnet for all types of substances) and therefore a decreased reliance on fertilizers, better and earlier soil warming, and Increased microbial activity (the miles of pore space and surface area in a piece of charcoal, rich with absorbed nutrients, providing a huge habitat for living things.).  One issue though, is how char will work when applied to differing soils in various climates.  The truth is that there is a lot we don’t know about the practical applications and benefits under varying circumstances. carefully designed long term studies might help, but If we wait for science, and possibly more relevant, its interpreters, we may be disappointed or behind the curve.  Besides, there are so many climatic/gardening style/fertilizer and soil type factors to account for.  You and I only have one agenda, to see if the stuff works in our soils and gardens.  I suspect that it will work for some of us, so lets just find out on our own.  It’s not really that hard to just try the idea out in small areas.  If charcoal amended areas of our garden consistently grow the giganticest healthiest plants ever, that's probably a green light to keep burying charcoal.

The first idea I was able to reject in order to move on was the idea that I needed special charcoal, burned in a special way.  The 19th century references were using whatever charcoal was available.  Most of it was probably slow burned in piles since that was the common method, but I feel pretty sure that whatever charcoal we can come up with is probably worth trying, even if it isn't ideal, (which I've seen no compelling evidence so far to say it's not.  Not that I've looked very hard).  It takes a lot of charcoal to reach a soil content of 10% in a significantly large area.  Save charcoal wherever you can get it.  Avoid the moulded “charcoal” briquets that people use to barbeque.  Those are made with coal and are actually “coke” briquets (coke is the term for the equivalent of charcoal made from coal).  I have been partially successful at convincing others around here to save the charcoal from the woodstove every morning, which adds up over a winter.  I also collect it from campfires and burnpiles.  Once a burn pile is down to just embers, it can be spread out and/or doused with water to prevent the charcoal from burning all the way down to ash.

this picture is just to keep you interested in case you have a short attention span ;)

I’m also planning to produce charcoal intentionally.  I have this friend that is always telling me about the newest best thing ever.  Biochar is one of them.  While this guy is much less cautious than me in accepting an idea as worth pursuing, while I was still getting excited about biochar, he was making 17 yards in one winter!  The guy gets mad respect for GSD (getting shit done) and pursuing his goals for self reliance.  Charcoal has traditionally been a very polluting activity producing enormous quantities of very dirty smoke.  This friend burns his in a barrel with a flue on top, which burns much cleaner than traditional methods of smothering.  He learned the method from this video.  The technique could no doubt be refined, but it is where I’ll be starting.  I'm also hoping to adapt the same kiln for lime burning, or making char and sea shell lime at the same time.  My friend added a fan which feeds into the bottom of the barrel.  Most other methods burn up some fuel all the way to ash in order to make the charcoal, but this kiln achieves two very important goals relatively well, efficient fuel use and low emissions.  I have some barrels and, time and energy permitting, I’ll be setting up a couple of these kilns and charring some wood chips.

My soil amending experiments have just begun.  This spring I ground up and buried some charcoal in a garden bed.  I divided this long bed into three 7 foot long sections.  Section one has about 10% charcoal in the top 10 inches of soil.  Section two has 5% and section three has none.  It is generally said that a certain percentage is required to start seeing real benefits, so adding a quantity to a small area rather than just spreading it out over a whole bed or garden seems like the way to go.  Some say that the charcoal should be pre-charged with nutrients because it is so adsorptive of plant foods that it will deplete the soil at first until an equilibrium is achieved.  I chose not to pre-charge to see what would happen, and so I could treat the control section the same as the charcoal sections.  I also dug the no-char section just the same as the other two sections, even going so far as to go through the same motion of sifting in the char that wasn't there.  I did add a sprinkling of woodash to the no-char section to try to imitate the small amount of ash present in the pulverized charcoal.

2x4's are use to roughly measure the depth of the charcoal.

char spread out

This experimental bed was planted to peas, spinach and lettuce, with the rows running the full length of the bed.  At first things grew well, but as time went on, it was apparent that the more charcoal there was in the soil, the less the lettuce and spinach grew.  The 10% charcoal end of the bed was a total loss as far as lettuce goes.  The Peas did okay through the whole bed, but not great.  It was difficult to discern much difference, but that was complicated by part of the pea row being attacked by birds and bugs.  Anyway, it appears that it is probably true that the charcoal should be pre-charged or it will sap the soil of nutrients in the beginning.  I would probably charge by mixing with compost or soaking in compost tea, except that sort of screws up the experiment of doing the same thing to all areas of the bed except for the charcoal content.

Although I’m very excited about biochar and plan to scale up production and experiments, I will approach it somewhat cautiously at first since it is a permanent addition and can’t be undone.  I will continue to plant primarily test plots as outlined above, but with variations in depth and quantity of charcoal.  Next I’d like to do a bed that has charcoal at varying quantity, up to 20%, but 24 inches deep instead of 12, and one with the same quantity of charcoal in each section, but dug in to various depths.  I also plan to bury some in the meadow to see the long term effects there.  finally, I’d like to see what happens if I just throw the stuff down on the meadow without burying it.  I plan to do dug control plots in all cases, because that eliminates the possibility that it is just the act of digging that is making a difference.  These few simple tests should yield up some fundamental information that can tell me whether to proceed to char everything I can get my hands on, or spend my time on something else.

If you can collect charcoal from burn piles, campfires or the woodstove, it doesn’t take all that much to put together a very small test plot.  It probably should be used in adequate quantity per area.  10% would be something around one and a half inches deep dug into 12 inches of soil.  I’m mostly planning to use 5%, 10% and 20%.  Grinding the charcoal can be a problem.  I have been using an old corn, bone and shell mill that someone gave me.  It grinds the charcoal to pea sized and down, which is what I decided I want for now, though it could be adjusted finer or coarser.  I’m tempted to do some tests with various sized grinds, and probably will eventually.  a hammer mill of the garden variety chipper shredder type would probably work and I’ve thought about running it over with a car or a heavy roller of some kind.

The Enterprise corn, bone and shell grinder in use for grinding oyster shells.  Works great for charcoal.

My first experimental bed is now planted to leeks for the winter as it's second crop.  I’ll continue to plant the whole bed uniformly to the same crops for comparison, and I hope by next growing season to be able to discern any obvious effects.  When you realize how much charcoal it actually takes to amend 100 square feet at even just 5%, you may be discouraged, but remember that this is potentially a permanent soil improvement.  Remember too that It can also be done in small sections as charcoal becomes available, so there is not necessarily a need for a heroic effort.  If it really is as useful as we all hope, it is also quite possible that it will be worth buying the charcoal if need be, though it seems ideal to figure out how we can char whatever debris we might have on the home place, including crop wastes.  Since the process produces quite a lot of heat, there seems to be great potential for working charring into home systems.  For instance one could potentially heat water, boil bark for tanning skins, make lime, cook, can food, dry food, heat greenhouses, heat living spaces, etc... all while producing char.  The trick is going to be figuring out char producing stoves and kilns of various kinds for these purposes, which use the fuel sizes and shapes that we have available.  Once that is figured out though, charring, rather than being an extra job will be integrated into homestead life.  That's a pretty neat vision.

Posted on October 15, 2013 and filed under Garden Stuff, Uncategorized.

Biochar in 19th Century Europe and North America: A partial review

(The comments in this article have been slightly updated and the title changed since first publishing.  The original title was: Some 19th Century References on Biochar Use in Europe and America, which was just sort of lame.)

Biochar, the promising expedient of adding charcoal as a soil amendment, is often represented as a recent discovery of a very ancient technique originating in South America.  But, the research I've been doing lately shows that its use probably has more of a history than we may think and may have been gaining momentum among European and American horticulturalists in the 19th century. I will present all of that research here after a short introduction.

As a keen experimenter, super geek and infoholic interested in what are now mostly considered archaic arts, I find myself frequenting online archives of old books to find knowledge on various subjects.  The most searchable and useful of these that I know of is the arm of our big brother known as Googlebooks.  This is an astounding tool for the type of research I do!  Wow!  I have collected over the last 2 and a half decades any interesting books I can find on various archaic subjects such as glue making, argiculture, electricity, casein, animal fats, tanning etc... Those few books have been hard won by perusing used book stores, flea markets, junk shops and yard sales, but in the end often amount to little in the way of information when I go to consult them on this or that subject.  Sometime a couple of years ago I ran across a reference to something called  biochar.  I had always wondered if charcoal might be either useful or detrimental when added to soil, so I looked into it a little.  I found a collection of enthusiastic experimenters making claims about the greatness of adding specially burned charcoal to the soil.  I was intrigued by some of the evidence, but it was all good news, which generally raises red flags for me and I was hesitant to jump in with both feet preferring to wait a bit for more research and more information, both old and new, to become available.  The information available on the net has exploded since then.  In the meantime, I’ve instructed everyone in the house to pick the charcoal out of the fire in the morning before relighting it and have also salvaged charcoal from campfires and brush burn piles and we have accumulated enough to start experimenting. Researching some other subject last year, I ran across a 19th century reference to putting charcoal in potting soil.  Having recently discovered that I could search a gigantic array of books by century, I did a short bit of poking around on the subject of using charcoal as a fertilizer (or fertiliser as the archaic spelling goes) and came up with quite a few interesting looking references.  I determined to go back and collect some of them systematically and have now finally done so.  I used the search “charcoal fertilizer” and spent many hours systematically sifting through 35 pages of results collecting snippets with references and URLs.  Presented below is sort of a reader’s digest version of what I thought were interesting sections.  I cut out a huge amount of material and anyone more interested might consult the Long PDF version and possibly also follow the URLs to see if anything else of interest is missing, or to view the broader context of the publication or discussion.  Also note that spelling is somewhat dicey.  I did a quick correction, but the text recognition software often makes mistakes.  If you plan to quote this material, I highly recommend that you consult the original references rather than relying on my selection of material and spelling correction. Having read this material, I’m ready to jump into char with both feet now and hoping to get started post haste.  What interests me the most I suppose was the enthusiasm of people with first hand accounts.  I feel and hear the same enthusiasm and indeed the same claims from biochar proponents now, only many of these older accounts were borne out of greater personal experience by farmers fit to judge the matter and sometimes over a longer period of time.  Another thing that interests me in the material is the repeated claim that everybody was privy to the fact that charcoal has a positive effect on plant growth as well as the claims of its widespread use.  These claims may be somewhat exaggerated, but my feeling is that there was a small boom going on which had gained some little momentum.  So what happened?  That is a question worth asking, but which is not going to delay my haste in beginning to make and use char here at Turkeysong. There was a debate about the action of charcoal and the role of carbonic acid which I’ve mostly deleted.  Also, the size of the charcoal that should be used is in debate.  I’m leaning toward powdered or at least very fine charcoal, but that remains to be determined.  Just how far a rootlet can penetrate a lump of charcoal is beyond my knowledge, but it would seem that smaller particles would give access to a much greater area. There are also, I noticed, many references to burnt clay as a valuable soil amendment.  This claim interests me a great deal.  For one, it would be possible, and probably easy, to add some clay or soil to a charcoal burn to make use of the heat to vitrify the clay.  I plan to look into this concept more and, if it seems promising, experiment along with doing charcoal burns which could produce burned clay and possibly lime at the same time. Some seem to claim that only charcoal burned in a certain way qualifies as biochar, these men were using whatever plain old charcoal they had or could get and, produced by the same slow smoky creosote producing methods that had always been used and are still mostly used the world over today.  That to me does not mean that charcoal burned more carefully, cleanly and thoroughly is not better than traditionally produced charcoal, I wouldn't know for sure, but rather that it is clear that regular ol’ charcoal works and that we might accordingly all do well to call this claim into question.  I feel at this point that we needn’t worry overly much about the source of our charcoal unless it is from a toxic industrial process which may be contaminated with toxic metals or chemicals.  It would seem likely that charcoal made by one or the other method would have more beneficial effects due to a greater total surface area or some other factor, and that we might go out of our way to “do it right” when setting up to burn our own.  However, there may be many situations where burning a brush pile in a manner which yields some charcoal might be the better choice over something more inconvenient or too high tech.  Intelligent adaptation always wins over dogma. I hope some people find this information useful and inspiring.  It is from the 19th century only.  I have not followed up any references mentioned and probably will not.  I got what I need out of it for now and have other things to do besides sit in front of a computer, such as applying the knowledge I’ve gleaned.  It would be interesting however to search in other languages of Europe and Asia.  A friend told me that in the sixties he knew loggers in Humboldt county that would burn huge brush piles and then bury the charcoal with their bulldozers to make lush gardens.  His claim is that they were after the charcoal specifically.  Another friend just told me that charcoal is or was buried in gardens in Japan.   Another friend from Guatemala claims that it is used there as well.  I’m sure there are interesting references and anecdotes from all over the world if one seeks them out. ________________________________________

 

The American wheat culturist: a practical treatise on the culture of wheat ... 1868

Charcoal Dust As A Fertilizer. Charcoal is composed almost entirely of pure carbon; and when small fragments are exposed to the influences of the weather, they undergo very little change during a long term of years. Still the roots of growing plants will lay hold of the small pieces of charcoal, and appropriate the substance contained in the coal to the growth and development of the stems, leaves, and seeds of grain, fruit, and vegetables. Experienced chemists assure us, charcoal, and particularly charcoal dust, has the power of attracting and fixing large quantities of ammonia, a substance which enters largely into the formation of useful plants, and of retaining this fertilizing material when buried in the soil, until the fine fibres of the roots of growing plants require it for promoting their growth. Charcoal has the power of attracting and retaining other gaseous substances besides ammonia, which are highly beneficial to growing wheat plants, as well as grass, vines, trees, and shrubs. Every observing farmer who has been accustomed to raise wheat cannot have failed to notice the luxuriant growth of cereal grain round about the places where charcoal has been burned, even more than thirty or forty years ago. The growing stems of wheat that are produced on such old charcoal-beds are seldom affected with rust; and besides this, the straw is always much stiffer than that which grows where there is not a dressing of charcoal. Before charcoal can promote the growth of plants of any kind, the particles must be thoroughly decomposed, and reduced to a liquid condition. For this reason, previous to the application of charcoal dust as a fertilizer to any kind of soil, the coal should be run through a mill that will reduce the small pieces to fine powder. And even when charcoal is thus finely comminuted by some mechanical means, the action of the fertilizing matter on vegetation will be very slow. .......... R. Ranson, Ashtabula County, Ohio, writes, touching pulverized charcoal, as follows: "I tried another experiment in 1860. My lands are coarse or loose gravel of rather poor quality. I sowed an acre of winter wheat (the blue-stem) preparing my ground as follows: "The field was sown with barley in the spring previous ; yield small (eighteen bushels per acre). I turned in the stubble the last week in August, harrowed it over, then took about eighteen bushels charcoal crushed fine, and top-dressed a strip through the middle of the acre over about one-third of its length; I then sowed on my wheat broadcast and harrowed it over twice. The result was, the heads when ripe were at least twice as long as where no coal was put on. I harvested all together; the yield was forty-three bushels. I think by applying about fifty bushels of coal to the acre as a top-dressing, made fine by grinding in a common bark mill, it would increase the yield at least four hundred per cent., if the soil is poor. "He further states he used burned clay and ashes in the fall of 1860, at the rate of about one hundred bushels of burned clay, taken from a fallow where timber had been uprooted several years by heavy winds. The soil on which the timber grew was burned together with the old roots and clay entwined, and perhaps some muck; the whole, ashes, clay and muck, after being burned as above, were hauled off in a wagon and put upon the wheat field as a top-dressing, and harrowed in with the wheat. The land was poor quality of gravel; the yield was about five hundred per cent. over the remainder of the field where no clay was put. I think there is no fertilizer ahead of this as a top-dresser." See Mixing Soils, second volume of Young Farmer's Manual. ___________________________________________

A Dictionary Of Modern Gardening”, by George William Johnson, David Landreth, 1847.

Charcoal Soot, a chief constituent of which is charcoal, has long been known as a very effective fertilizer; and burning has still longer been known as a mode of reducing stubborn soils to prompt productiveness. But both these sources of fertility might owe their efficiency to other causes than their affording carbon to plants; and it is only within these very few months that anything like a general knowledge has been diffused that mere charcoal is one of the best of manures. The fact has been known for many years to individuals, as, for example, to Mr. Barnes, of Bicton; but it is only very lately that gardeners generally have learned, and I am happy in being able to join my voice to that excellent cultivator’s in announcing, that - charcoal is a most efficient manure to all cultivated plants, especially to those under glass. Heaths, rhododendrons, cucumbers, roses, orchidaceous plants, hydrangeas, camellias, melons, and pine apples, have been the subjects of extended and most successful experiments. The advocates are too well known to require more than naming, for among them are Dr. Lindley, Mr. Barnes, Mr. Maund, Mr. Snow of Swinton Gardens, Mr. Stewart of Stradsett Hall Gardens, and Mr. Rivers. I think no cultivated plant would be unbenefited by having charcoal applied to the soil in which it is rooted. The following communication from Mr. Barnes shows, that carbonized vegetables are a better manure for onions than even bone-dust. “A piece of ground that was cropped with coleworts last autumn, (1843,) was cleared early, and the refuse trenched in during the winter. 95 feet in length and 10 feet in width, was planted with small onions on the 14th of February, which onions had been sown the second week of September in the previous autumn. They were planted in rows one foot apart, and six inches from plant to plant - with the intention of drawing every alternate one for use through the summer - but the whole nine rows did not get entirely thinned. The following is the weight when ripe for storing on the 1st of August. “Five rows grown where 4 lbs. of bone-dust to each row had been sown in a drill drawn 3 inches deep and filled up, and the onions planted over it - producing 420 lbs. weight of onions - each row yielding from 82 to 88 lbs. “The other 4 rows had applied to them of fresh dry charred refuse and ashes, made from the garden rubbish-heap, two common buckets full, weight 14 lbs. They produced 366 lbs. of onions, the rows weighing respectively 99, 89, 95, and 83 lbs. The last row being injured by a row of red cabbage growing near. “Many of the foregoing onions, which were a mixture of the Globe, Deptford, and Reading, measured in circumference from 14 to 16.V inches, and weighed as many ounces. I weighed 12 together, that turned the scale at 12 lb. 9 oz. I can only fancy what a wonderful saving and benefit it would be to the country, to char the refuse of old tan, chips, sawdust, ditch scourings containing sods, weeds, bushes, and refuse. By keeping the surface of the earth well stirred, no crops appear to suffer by drought that are manured by charrings, but continue in the most vigorous health throughout the season, never suffering materially by either drought or moisture”. On spring sown onions and on turnips, Mr. Barnes finds charred or carbonized vegetable refuse equally beneficial. Three rows, each 95 feet long, of the white globe onion, manured with bone-dust, weighed 251 lbs.; whilst three similar rows of the same variety, and grown under precisely similar circumstances, but manured with char-rings, weighed 289 lbs.

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Charcoal As A Manure 1860...........

Liebig gives the results of a series of experiments by Lukas on the use of charcoal as a manure, which seem to corroborate his opinion. From the facts which these chemists, however, adduce, it is evident that the beneficial action of charcoal, as a fertilizer, depends upon the presence of other substances besides carbon. Liebig notes (Organic Chem., p. 62) that "plants thrive in powdered charcoal, and may be brought to blossom, and bear fruit, if exposed to the influence of the rain and the atmosphere. Plants do no not, however, attain maturity under ordinary circumstances in charcoal powder when they are moistened with pure distilled water instead of rain or river water. Rain water must, therefore, contain within it one of the essentials of vegetable life; and it has been shown that this is the presence of a compound containing nitrogen; the exclusion of which entirely deprives humus and charcoal of their influence on vegetation.  It is ammonia, to whose presence in rain water Professor Liebig thus refers, in whose valuable work (p. 207) the experiments of Lukas will be found. From these we learn that in a division of a low hothouse, in the Botanic Garden at Munich, a bed was set apart for young tropical plants; but instead of being filled with tan, as is usually the case, it was filled with powdered charcoal, the large pieces of charcoal having been previously separated by means of a sieve. The heat was conducted by means of a tube of white iron into a hollow space in this bed, and distributed a gentle warmth, sufficient to have caused tan to enter into a state of fermentation. The plants placed in this bed of charcoal quickly vegetated and acquired a healthy appearance. As always is the case in such beds, the roots of many of the plants penetrated through the holes in the bottom of the pots, and then spread themselves out; but these plants evidently surpassed in vigor and general luxuriance plants grown in the common way; for example, in tan. M. Lukas then gives a list of several of the exotic plants upon which charcoal appears to have produced the most beneficial effects. It appeared also to promote the rapid germination of seeds. He then proceeded to try the effects of charcoal when mixed with vegetable mould, all of which answered very well. "The charcoal," continues M. Lukas, "used in these experiments was the dust-like powder of charcoal from Firs and Pines. It was found to have most effect when allowed to lie during the winter exposed to the action of the air. In order to ascertain the effects of different kinds of charcoal, experiments were also made upon that obtained from the hard woods and peat, and also upon animal charcoal; although I foresaw the probability that none of them could answer so well as that of Pine wood, both on account of its porosity and the ease with which it is decomposed. The action of charcoal consists primarily in its preserving the parts of plants with which it is in contact, whether they be roots, branches, leaves, Ac., unchanged in their vital power for a long space of time, so that the plant obtains time to develop the organs for its further support and propagation. ........In moist charcoal the seeds of the gardener are found to sprout with remarkable quickness and certainty, but after they have sprouted they do not continue to grow well in charcoal alone." - (7. W. Johnson's Modern Agricultural Improvements.) - J., in Cottage Gardener.

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Effect Of Charcoal, On Flowers 1875

All red flowers are greatly benefited by covering the earth in their pots with about an inch of pulverized charcoal. The colors (both red and violet) are rendered extremely brilliant. Yellow flowers are not affected in any way by charcoal

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The Cultivator  By New York State Agricultural Society, 1853

Experiments with Charcoal. We have been favored with the following extract from the forthcoming Report of the Survey of Essex County, by W. C. Watson, Esq., which will be read with interest: Enormous masses of dust or debris of the charcoal, accumulate about the iron works of the county, and create incumberances and deformities. It has been annually spread in vast quantities along the highways, constituting an admirable material for roads. An incalculable amount has been cast into the streams. The attention of men of observation and sagacity has been, within a few years, drawn to the use of this ingredient as a fertilizer. Experience has established its exceeding utility. In the midst of the disastrous drouth of last summer, while crossing a field in Moriah, occupied by Mr. Richmond, in pursuit of some Durham cattle I wished to examine, I observed a lot with its surface deeply and singularly blackened. -Upon inspection I found it thickly strewn with pulverized charcoal. The field presented a rich verdure, strongly contrasting with the parched and blighted aspect of the adjacent country. The following detail of this experiment, supplied at my request, attests the value of this material as a fertilizing principle. "The soil is loamy. The charcoal was applied on four acres of dry land, and one acre of moist soil, by top-dressing. The amount used was about one thousand bushels to the acre, spread on so as to make the surface look black, but not to incumber or obstruct vegetation. It was applied in September and October, 1850, at an expense by contract, of forty dollars. It was procured at a furnace, from a mass of pulverised charcoal left as useless, and was drawn one mile and a half. The effect was immediate. The grass freshened, and continued green and luxuriant after the surrounding fields were blackened by the early frosts. Although the last season had been so unfavorable for vegetation, Mr. Richmond realized one-third more than the ordinary yield of hay, and sufficient to repay the whole outlay. He thinks that he cut nearly double the quantity of grass upon this lot, that he did upon any similar meadow on his farm, and that the quantity of the hay is improved." The Hon. J. S. Whallon has made the most decisive and valuable experiments on this subject.  His operations were extended through several seasons, and were observed with great intelligence and discrimination. The result amply sustains the conclusions derived from the preceding experiment I may add that a similar application has been made under Mr. Whallon's supervisor upon another tract in Elizabeth town on a soil of lighter texture and with entire success. In this instance the charcoal was applied chiefly to a crop of oats. The action of this substance seems to be effected by its physical combinations and its chemical affinities. It attracts the rays of the sun and unites with the fertilising gasses of the atmosphere; it absorbs moisture, and combines as a new constituent in the formation of the soil. Almost imperishable, it must remain indefinitely, with no exhaustion of its properties, a perpetual invigorating agent in the earth. The succeeding extract from a communication of Mr. Whallon, elucidates his experiments and views on this very important subject: “I began the use of it in the year 1846, and first employed it as a top-dressing on a strong clay soil, which was plowed in the fall of 1845. I spread on about fifteen wagon loads of the dust to the acre, after the wheat had been sowed and harrowed one way. I was surprised to find my crop a heavy one, compared with my neighbor’s, raised on the same kind of land. The wheat was of better quality and yielded four or five bushels extra to the acre. I have since used it on similar land, sometimes mixed with barn-yard manure, and sometimes alone, but always as a top-dressing, usually on land seeded for meadow. ‘ The results were always the most favorable. I find my land, thus seeded, produces more than an average crop of hay and always of the finest quality. “I have also used the dust on loamy and interval land, with the potato crop. During the series of years in which the rot almost ruined the potato crop, I scarcely lost any potatoes from that cause, and supposed it was owing to the coal dust I used. My manner has been to drop the seed and cover it with a small shovel-full of the dust, and then cover with earth. In this way I have used all the coal dust I have been able to save from the coal consumed in a forge of five fires, and which amounts to about 250 loads per year.” In the colder regions of the Adirondacks, charcoal dust has been used with great advantage. The note of Mr. Ralph presents the experiment in tho following language: “As a top-dressing for meadows, charcoal dust and the accumulation of ashes and burnt earth left on old charcoal pit bottoms have been used here with remarkable results, and I judge from the trials which have been made, that this application has added at least one-third to the hay crop, where it has been used. It was remarked during the past very dry season, when vegetation was almost burnt up by the long continued drouth, that those fields which had been dressed with this substance were easily distinguished by the rich green color of their herbage.”

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The farmer’s magazine 1850

PEAT CHARCOAL. TO JASPER W. ROGERS, ESQ. TO THE POOR-LAW COMMISSIONERS OF IRELAND. Gentlemen,—In consequence of my being in temporary charge of the Workhouse Infirmary of this Union, I have had the opportunity of seeing your circular of the 16th instant, No. 61,763, 1849; and I beg to state—and I trust that the information will not be considered unacceptable — that your recommendation of the employment of peat charcoal as a deodorizer has been, at my suggestion, anticipated ; and, according to my directions, fully carried into effect, at the workhouse here, since the 3rd of May last, with the most gratifying and satisfactory results. Having been called on that day to attend a meeting of the Board of Health, held at the workhouse, I was at once struck with the intolerable and sickening effluvinm which, arising from the sewers, cesspools, and privies, pervaded every part of the establishment; and which, with the chlorine, which was being evolved in every direction for the purpose of correcting it, formed a compound of villanous smells, which no stomach but one accustomed to it could for a moment tolerate. Your very active and efficient inspector, Captain Hanley, told me that he had done everything that could be thought of, and had spared no expense to try and have the nuisance abated, but that all his exertions were useless. I then begged him to send down and purchase a few loads of peat charcoal, which were selling at the market; and having told the master how to employ it, the suggestion was at once adopted, and though the material was not of the best description, nor “ recently prepared,” in a very few hours the most delicate and practiced nose could not have detected the slightest offensive odour. Since then the master, with very praiseworthy attention, has had a large pit of the charcoal prepared every week, and by its occasional use through the grating of the sewers, and by sprinkling it over the nightsoil in the privies, the workhouse is, as far as entire freedom from every noxious and offensive effluvinm, a model to every other in the kingdom. In every respect the results have been most satisfactory. Instead of paying from five to ten pounds, every half year, for having the privies cleansed; and having itself and the whole surrounding neighbourhood at the same time poisoned for weeks by the intolerable stench ; the establishment has that task now performed by the paupers, without the slightest reluctance on their part;—and the contents of the sewers, cess-pools, and privies are now collected into inodorous and innoxious heaps, or mixed with the other refuse of the workhouse until removed by the contractor; which, before, he absolutely refused doing, but which he now considers the most valuable portion of what he contracted for. But the efforts on the health of the inmates of the workhouse are very far more satisfactory. I find that the numbers registered during the half year ending 25th March last were 353, of these 132 (or one 26 ll-13ths) died during that period. In the half year ending 29th September last, the numbers are respectively 4,262 and 68, or a mortality of one in 62.23-24ths, and of these 68.23 died between the 25th March and 4th of May—a period of little more than five weeks, before the charcoal was employed, while during the last four weeks in which I had the temporary charge of the Infirmary and Fever Hospital but three deaths have occurred; one from Phthisis, one from Variola, and the third, a poor bed-ridden idiot, from Chronic disease of the bowels. Giving the utmost credit to all the officers of the establishment for the extreme cleanliness and order which prevails throughout, the difference in the mortality of the two periods is so striking, and even startling, that I feel I am not assuming too much in attributing it principally to the improved and healthy state in which the atmosphere is maintained. It must also be recollected that the latter was the period during which cholera was so prevalent, and, though some rapidly fatal cases occurred in the town and neighbourhood, not a single one presented itself in the workhouse, where it was most likely and most dreaded to prevail.

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Country gentleman, Volume 33 1869

"NEW" FERTILIZER FOR GRAPES. It is interesting to observe how "old things become new," and how old methods and receipts are periodically revived. Many years ago there was a great stir made about the value of the pruning of the grapevine as a fertilizer for vineyards. Those of your readers that have read Liebig's Agricultural Chemistry will remember how emphatic hoe was in advocating the value of such matters. The California Farmer has lately been impressed with the importance of returning to the soil all the prunings and other waste matter; and the American Journal of Horticulture and some other periodicals give their endorsement of the system. That the prunings, finely chopped up and well plowed in, would be of value there is no doubt, although there are some drawbacks which have not been taken into consideration. Thus it has occasionally been suspected that decaying wood is apt to induce disease in the roots of vines if in contact with them. But the great difficulty is the labor involved. In this country of expensive labor we cannot afford to hire men or even boys for the purpose of cutting up our waste prunings. It is not impossible, however, that a very strong and powerful machine like a straw-cutter might be used. One such machine would serve a whole neighborhood and would reduce the cuttings to such a condition that they could easily be plowed under without any difficulty. Still after all it is a serious question whether it would pay. Our impression is that the benefit to be derived from the use of chopped up cuttings has been greatly over-rated. We tried the plan once, selecting out the smaller shoots and cutting them up with a straw cutter, while the larger we cut with a small hatchet. We applied the prunings of ten vines to the roots of five, and then we invested the amount which we thought we ought to have for our labor, in charcoal which we applied to the remaining five. We thought the charcoal produced the best results. Since that time we have disposed of our prunings of all kinds by converting them into charcoal and at the same time burning with them a quantity of heavy clay. The greatest difficulty is to make the heap sufficiently compact to allow it to be covered conveniently. This we accomplish by means of a few stout hooked stakes. After all the rubbish from the fall, winter and spring prunings, has been collected together, we lay a few stout branches or poles on the top. These poles are then pegged down by means of two or three hooked sticks applied to each pole, and in this way the mass is rendered so compact that it is easily covered with sods and similar matter. The heap after being kindled is allowed to smoulder away, more earth being thrown on as the fire progresses. Several days generally elapse before the work is finished, but at the end of that time we find ourselves in possession of several tons of material of the very best kind for fertilizing vines or any kind of fruit trees. It consists of a mixture of ashes, charcoal and burned clay, and our present opinion Is that there are no better fertilizers for fruit trees, and especially grape vines and peach trees, than just these three articles. As for the shoots and leaves which are removed during the summer, the proper place for them is the compost heap. In many parts of the country the cheapest plan no doubt is to go to the woods and make a lot of charcoal or buy the refuse of the charcoal heaps, and in that case of course the easiest way to get rid of the prunings is to burn them. Under any circumstances we are in favor of subjecting most of the prunings of our gardens or orchards to fire. We thus get rid of a great many Insects and their nests. The prunings of the apple, peach and plum trees; of currants, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, &c, should all be brought together in one heap and treated as described. The quantity which thus accumulates is astonishing, and still more astonishing is the amouut of clay which it will burn.

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The Plough, the loom, and the anvil, Volume 2, 1849

YET MORE OF PEAT CHARCOAL AS A DISINFECTOR AND FERTILIZER. “I then stated what I do now, that the fertilizing power of peat charcoal can scarcely be over-estimated. It acts upon all that the soil produces—I except nothing: and, to use the words of Dr. Lindley, in reply to a correspondent, (although the learned doctor was at first a doubter,) ‘ Use it for your onions, but it is good for every thing.’ (Hear, hear.) My own experiments have proved its value beyond a question, but I shall give you a few particulars of those made by two- gentlemen of large landed property in Ireland, who, immediately after my first publication on the subject, entered into correspondence with me, and closely followed out my “proposition—Henry Newton, Esq., Mount Leaster^ county Carlow, and James Russell, Esq., Danlivey House, county Donegal—and I beg to say that both were strangers to me until my publications came before them. Mr. Russell commenced his experiments in 1846. He tried it with all the usual farm produce except wheat, with uniform success, and as a top-dressing for grass land he had fully borne out all I had stated in that respect; but his trial on a field of four acres with potatoes in 1847, was very remarkable. They were planted in ridges, or, as termed here, ‘lazy beds;’ one-half the field manured with farm-yard manure, the other with peat charcoal only, about a handful thrown on each seed. The result was more than a double crop from the charcoal; and he informed me that he was himself so astonished at the fact, that he requested Lord Donegal to see and vouch it. At my suggestion he planted oats the next year On the whole field without any further manure, and he assured me the increase on that portion manured with charcoal was nearly in the same, ratio as the potatoes. Now, what is the cause? Simply this. The charcoal lay on the land throughout the winter. Every shower of rain that came brought it ammonia and common salt in abundance. This continued for the winter months, and when spring came, every grain was rich in nutriment, while it held moisture besides, to give it to the seed at once, and stimulate it into growth. Mr. Newton was most anxious to tell you these facts himself, but he arrived in London too late for our last meeting. He brought potatoes, of which I will tell you the history. In February last he planted a large field in drills, manured as usual, not then having charcoal; but in. April he got some, and, before the potatoes being earthed, he top-dressed a few yards at the foot of all the drills as far as he had charcoal. He authorizes me to state that the result was not only very nearly a double crop, but that there was not a taint in one of them, while all the rest of the field was more or less diseased. (Hear, hear.) I regret extremely that he was unable to “wait for the present meeting; but he also authorizes me to say he has now a crop of Swede turnips that cannot be exceeded, to use his own expression. Yet they were not sown till June/. No rain came for a month after; all the crops in his neighbourhood failed, and his were only manured with peat charcoal. In short, he has fully proved its value for all plants; like me, he excepts nothing. But I must tell you his reply to my inquiry as to his experience of its value for grass land. He said,1 Nothing can exceed it; and there is little or no labour in using it.’ My friend Fenwick swears by it, and he declares he will write his name on the best grass in the country with black charcoal, and it will be the greenest part of the field in ten days.”

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A cyclopedia of agriculture, practical and scientific: in which ..., Volume 1 1855

As a fertilizing application by itself, charcoal can never be injudiciously used, if the supply of the article is abundant. The qualities that make it valuable to manure, render it equally so to soil in cultivation, as a storehouse of the food of vegetation; while its physical properties may be made useful when it can be applied in sufficient quantities. For garden purposes, its special and peculiar effects upon the health of diseased, and the vigour and beauty of all flowers and plants, make it an acquisition much appreciated..... ...We are not, however, without direct experiment upon the subject of charcoal as a manure, beyond that which has been furnished by ancient authority or indirect practice. The American publications give many striking experiments with it. "It is frequently used for Indian corn at planting, also on grass land, and we have generally noticed that its effects were very favourable."—(Albany Cultivator, 1844, p. 142.) In a trial by Mr. Pell, recorded in the same Journal (1844, p. 183), land which had been manured with charcoal powder produced seventy eight and three-fourths bushels of wheat per acre. Some equally striking evidences of the fertilizing power of charcoal are given by Mr. IHepburn, of Jersey Shore, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. Many precise experiments with vegetable charcoal, and also with other carbonized substances, upon farm crops, have been made during the last few years, to a few only of which we are now able to refer. In an experiment made in 1841, by Mr. Fleming, Barochan, fifty bushels of wood charcoal increased the crop nearly three tons per acre:— In an elaborate experiment with twenty-eight substances, as top-dressings upon the hay crop, in 1842, by Mr. Maclean, of Braidwood, Pennicuik [Trans. High. Agr. Soc., July 1843, p. 30):— Nothing . . . yielded 125 per acre. 
Carbon . . 8 cwt." 230" 
Animulizcd carbon 8 cwt." 170" 
Soot . . 80 bus." 200" Upon a crop of white turnips, carbon was again tested in 1842, with success:— 30 carts of dung per acre . . . yielded 19 4 15 do., and carbon . . .5 cwt. " 21 9 15 do., and sulphate of magnesia 2" "19 10 15 do., and nitrate of soda. . H" "20 5 15 do., and common salt . . •" "25 4 15 do., and sulphate of ammonir. } '• "19 3 15 do., and gypsum . . . 3" "18 15 In this trial, it will be observed that five cwt. of carbon produced two tons, five cwt. of turnips more than an extra fifteen loads of dung, and exceeded all the other dressings except salt. Upon Oats, the crop dressed with carbon, Mr. Maclean states, "made considerable advances over the undressed portions." An experiment with charcoal, by the Earl of Essex, upon turnips and carrots, in 1844, serves to show the striking influence of charcoal pushing on vegetation. In this trial, No. 1, nothing; No. 2, charcoal and salt; and No. 3, charcoal alone, were sown on the 3d of June. The drought being severe, Nob. 2 and 3 vegetated quickly, and grew rapidly, while No. 1 appeared to make no progress. On July 17, the Earl of Essex exhibited a plant from each plot, which plants, he states (Jour. Roy. Agr. Soc., vol. v. p. 280), bore the following proportions to each other:—. "No. 1. Just coming into rough leaf. "No. 2. Eleven inches long, from end of root to the head. "No. 3. Twenty inches long, and as big as my little finger at the crown of the root, and very vigorous." Six acres of carrots were also sown by Lord Essex with charcoal, "the ground at tho time being dusty, and no rain falling for many weeks." Upon which trial he comments—" Carrots, under any circumstances of rain, <kc, seldom come up in less than four or five weeks; mine, in spite of the drought, were up in three weeks, and held their own during the drought." The sources from which charcoal, for farm purposes, may be obtained, and the several processes connected with its preparation, are subjects of agricultural importance. The supply of pure vegetable charcoal, through the ordinary commercial markets, can only be obtained at a price which excludes it from the list of purchased manures. It may, however, in a great majority of cases, be imported or prepared upon the farm, at a price that makes it an acquisition. The districts where timber is in abundance, or where clearings of wood are in progress, abundant supply of waste wood is not unfrequently at hand, and may be prepared very cheaply. Upon our own farms, we have, in a majority of instances, in the branches of useless trees, in the roots and branches of hedges which may be removed, and, failing these, in the loppings of trees and hedges, and other vegetable remains, material enough for the manufacture of a valuable stock of vegetable charcoal. The ordinary process of preparation is as follows:—.... ....."In the spring of last year," he remarks, "I collected a quantity of peat for various purposes, and part of it was charred, or burned. This mixture was applied to land about the beginning of May, to a sandy soil, for a crop of Swedish turnips. The quantity used was at the rate of at least 200 bushels per acre. We tried it against well-made stable manure, in a state like mould, to cut well with the spade, which was applied at the rate of about twenty tons to the acre, and spread into drills. The plants grew well in both cases. We tried to ascertain the amount of produce per acre from each manure, as late as the middle of January 1846; for, from the mildness of the season, the turnips till then appeared to be in a growing state, each plant having had about two square feet to grow upon. The surface was kept flat, and the ground chiefly worked with the Dutch hoe. The weight of bulbs fit for use, manured by the peaty mixture, was upwards of forty tons per acre; while those produced from stable dung weighed only about thirty tons."

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The Farmers' cabinet, and American herd-book, Volume 11 1847

From the Farmer and Mechanic Comparative Merits of Charcoal and Barn-yard Manure as Fertilizers. In the year 1788, my father purchased and removed upon the tract of land in Hanover township, Morris county, N. J. The land, owing to the bad system of cultivation then prevailing, was completely exhausted, and the buildings and fences in a state of dilapidation. The foundation of the barn was buried several feet beneath a pile of manure, the accumulation of years: little or none ever having been removed upon the lands. Even the cellar, beneath the farm-house, was half filled with the dung of sheep and other animals, which had been sheltered in it. The former occupant of the farm had abandoned it on account of its supposed sterility, and taken up the line of march for the Valley of the Miami, along with the first caravan of pioneers who accompanied Judge Symmes. The barn, before referred to, was removed to another situation soon after its foundation was uncovered, by the removal of the manure to the exhausted fields; and its site, owing to the new arrangements of the farm, became the centre of one of its enclosures. During the seventeen years which I afterwards remained upon the farm, the spot could easily be found by the luxuriousness of the grass, or other crops growing thereon; though the abatement in its fertility was evident and rapid. On revisiting the neighbourhood in the autumn of 1817, I carefully examined the corn crops then standing upon the spot, and was unable to discover the slightest difference in the growth or product, upon that and other parts of the field. This was about twenty-eight years after the removal of the barn. Upon the same farm and upon soil every way inferior, were the remains of several pit-bottoms, where charcoal had been burned before the recollection of any person now in the vicinity, and most probably, judging from appearances, between the years 1760-70. These pit-bottoms were always clothed, when in pasture, with a luxuriant covering of grass, and when brought under tillage, with heavy crops of grain. Eleven years ago I pointed out these facts to the present occupant, and his observations since, coincide with my own, previously made; that they retain their fertility, very little impaired, a period probably of about seventy or eighty, certainly not less than sixty-five or seventy years. Here then is an excellent opportunity of observing the comparative value of charcoal and barn-yard manures, as a fertilizer of lands. The former has not, after at least sixty or seventy years exposure, exhausted its powers of production, while the latter lost its influence entirely in twenty-eight years, and most probably in much less time. I have since had many opportunities of’ observing the effects of charcoal left in pitbottoms, upon vegetation, one of which only,. I will relate. The last season, in the northern part of Ohio, was one of uncommon frost and drought . In May, the wheat fields, when promising a luxuriant crop, were cut off by frost;—especially in the valleys, and very much injured in the high lands—which was succeeded by the most severe drought ever experienced in the West. The moiety which escaped both these scourges, was afterwards very much injured by rust. Near the village of Canton, upon a farm on high ground, which had been mostly cleared of its timber by its conversion into charcoal, it was observed that upon the old pit-bottoms, the wheat grew very luxuriantly—was clear of rust—and had ripened plump in the berry; while in the adjacent parts of the field it was short in growth, the stem blackened with rust, and the berry light and shrivelled.. The hint has not been altogether lost upon some of the farmers in the vicinity, and some of them are preparing to make an application of charcoal upon their lands; the result of which, when fully ascertained, I shall be happy to communicate to the public, especially if the facts above stated succeed in attracting the attention of agriculturists. Lewis Vail

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The New Jersey Farmer Vol. II, No. 1, September 1856  By Orrin Pharo

CHARCOAL AS A FERTILIZER. For two years past I have used some fifty loads each season of refuse charcoal, and being fully convinced that it pays, I wish to recommend it to my brother farmers. I have tried it on grass, corn and potatoes—hare tried it alone and in the compost heap, and in all situations it has proved faithful to its trust. As a top dressing for grass, it gives a green color and luxuriant growth.. Applied to half an acre of early potatoes the last summer, the yield was 75 bushels of as fine healthy potatoes as could be desired, that sold readily for one dollar per bushel, and yielded the best profit of anything raised on the farm. The virtue of charcoal mainly consists in its absorbing power. The purity of the air around a charcoal pit has long been known, and the colliers, notwithstanding their smutty appearance, are robust men. The secret of this purity of the air and the health of the colliers, lies in the fact that charcoal absorbs from the air the ammonia and other noxious gasses, unsuited for our lungs, but just the food for plants.— Every good housekeeper knows that if her boiling meat gives forth an unsavory odor, a piece of fresh charcoal put into the pot will not only sweeten the air, but will remedy that taint of the meat. In the same manner it acts when applied to the land. It absorbs from the air those gasses offensive to the nostrils, but the main food of plants. And this it will do, not once only, or for one season, but very possibly for a century. Where an old coal-pit has been burnt, the land never seems to wear out, and the first settlers point to the coal bottoms that are fifty years old, still by their exuberant vegetation marking well the spot where the wood was converted into coal. A fertilizer so lasting is well worth some expense at the outset. But where can we get it? some may ask. If any charcoal pits are burned in your vicinity, the bottoms will furnish three or four loads each of refuse charcoal, mingled with burnt soil. The latter is highly valued also as an absorbent.— Around furnaces and blacksmith shops, the waste charcoal also accumulates, and in many instances may be had for the carting. It may be found also around engine houses, thrown out from locomotiv«s. If none of these resources  are at hand, then use the best substitute possible, which is muck, or swamp mud, and double the manure heap by composting, and if the crops are not doubled, then my experience is vain.— Country Gentleman.

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The horticulturist and journal of rural art and rural taste, Volumes 18-19 1863

LEAF-MOULD, MUCK, AND CHARCOAL IN VINE BORDERS. 
BY FOX MEADOW. If Mr. Bright should ask Dr. Lindley for his opinion of the use of charcoal in the soil, (vine borders,) he could refer him to thousands of instances of it as an effective fertilizer, and especially to those plants grown under glass. Heaths, Rhododendrons, Cucumbers, and Melons, Onions, Roses, Orchidaceous plants, Camellias, Hydrangeas, Pineapples, and a host of other plants, have been the subjects of extensive and successful experiments; and we will vouch our word for it, that Dr. Lindley would tell friend Bright that charcoal may, with decided advantage, be applied to almost every known plant in cultivation.

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Waste products and undeveloped substances: or, Hints for enterprise in ... 1862

Apparently, however, much remains to be done before the delicate chemical processes required to obtain many of the valuable chemical products alluded to can be made commercially useful; but the employment of peat charcoal as a manure or fertilizer, as well as a valuable disinfecting agent, is now established, and is extensively used

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Friends' review: a religious, literary and miscellaneous journal, Volume 38  edited by Samuel Rhoads, Enoch Lewis 1885

Charcoal In Horticulture.—Not only florists but the growers of small fruits in Europe are making use of charcoal for promoting the growth of the plants they cultivate. It is not claimed that the charcoal is in any sense a fertilizer. It is an inert substance, and one not liable to pass into a state of decay even under the most favorable circumstances It endures longer when exposed to the action of the elements than any of the metals, except those that are ranked as precious. When it forms a union with the oxygen of the air it forms nothing but carbonic acid, which, though highly useful to plants, is obtained from the air without the trouble of producing it. It contains considerable potash and some lime, which the roots of plants will appreciate. Its principal use, however, consists in storing up moisture, fertilizing elements contained in water, and various gases, as ammonia, and giving them out as the wants of plants require. A barrel of freshly burned charcoal will absorb nearly its own bulk of soap-suds or liquid manure without presenting the appearance of being wet. The roots of the plants will pass between the pieces of charcoal, and will often penetrate them, and in so doing will be in a position to appropriate the substances in the pores. Charcoal is very desirable for placing in pots or boxes in which house plants are raised. It will retain many of the bad odors that are likely to arise from most fertilizers. It is also very desirable for garden beds, in which roses, annual flowers, and edible vegetables are raised. It is an excellent substance to bury in the ground where grape vines are planted. For placing in pots, boxes, and garden beds, it should be tolerably fine. For grape vines and large shrubs it may be in the form in which it is taken from the kiln, or is usually found in the market. For these purposes it should be buried quite deeply. Persons who sell or use charcoal often have considerable that is too fine for keeping up a fire, and will dispose of it at a nominal price. This will be very suitable for use in the house, or flower, or vegetable garden. Persons who have large graperies will find it to their advantage to burn their own charcoal.

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Southern planter, Volume 3 1843

CHARCOAL AS A FERTILIZER. It will be recollected by our readers, that in our last two volumes we have published several able papers upon the virtues of charcoal as a fertilizer of the soil, and of its supposed efficacy in the preservation of wheat from rust. One of these papers, by Judge Hepburn, particularly points out cases in which lands which had been dressed by charcoal had grown wheat free from rust, when wheat grown on other lands, contiguous, which had not been so treated, had suffered greatly from that cause. We allude to these circumstances now, with a view of introducing the subjoined paragraph to the notice of our readers ; by which it will be seen, that in France the same virtues have been ascribed to charcoal as in our own country. Of the precise mode of action by which this exemption from rust is produced, we are not prepared to speak positively ; but will claim permission to observe, that it may be owing to the very great affinity which charcoal is known to possess for ammonia, and the reluctance with which it gives it out after having once absorbed it. If the opinion which is now gaining strength and consequence, that the cause of rust is plethora, and that ammonia is one of the chief aliments or food of plants, be correct, the preventive properties of the charcoal may arise, first, from its absorption of ammonia as formed, and, secondly, from its yielding it slowly to the wheat plant in the last stage of the maturing of its stem, thus, as it were, hindering it from feeding to that degree of excess productive of repletion, and the consequent disruption of the stem of the plant. At all events, as the rust is one of the most disastrous diseases in its effects, to which the wheat crop is subjected, we think that the use of charcoal to a limited extent, by way of experiment, is worthy of the consideration of every wheat grower. If it should, on trial, fail of the anticipated efficacy, it can do no possible injury either to the grain or to the soil, and may be beneficial to the latter, in supplying it with silicate of potash, a substance of vast importance to all grain crops, and especially useful in giving strength and elasticity to the straw. With these remarks we will direct attention to the following paragraph : Charcoal As A Fertilizer.—We have been astonished at the enormous increase of the wheat crop in France within the last eight or ten years, and have devoted some attention to the investigation of the subject. It appears that charcoal—an article that can be obtained here for a tithe of its cost in France—has been extensively used, and with marked effect, in fertilizing the wheat lands in that kingdom. A correspondent of the New Farmers’ Journal, an English print, states that during a sojourn in one of the central departments of France he learned that some of the most productive farms were originally very sterile; but that for a number of years their proprietors had given them a light dressing of charcoal, which had resulted in a large yield of wheat of excellent quality. Since his return to England he has tried the experiment upon his own lands with the same happy effect. The charcoal should be well pulverized, and sown like lime, after a rain or in a still, damp day. Even in England, the writer says, “the expense is a mere trifle, in comparison with the permanent improvement effected, which on grass is truly wonderful.”— He states one other very important result from its liberal use. “I am quite satisfied that by using charcoal in the way described rust in wheat will be entirely prevented; for I have found in two adjoining fields, one of which was coaled and the other manured with farm-yard dung, the latter was greatly injured by rust, while that growing in the other was perfectly free from it.”—Buffalo Commercial Advertiser.

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Fruit recorder and cottage gardener, Volumes 7-8 1875

[Charcoal renders the soil light and triable, gives It a dark color, and additional warmth for early crops. The bed whereon charcoal has been burnt is always marked by a most vigorous growth of plants when it becomes effectively mixed with earth. It contains also small quantities of salts of potash and other fertilising salts. It absorbs both carbonic acid and ammonia from the air. and yields them to the roots of plants. It is most marked in its effects on plants which require abundant nitrogen. As it is indestructible, its beneficial effects last as long as it remains m the soil, sup. [.King the rootlets of plants with carbonic.acid, which Is renewed as fast as abstracted. Its good effects Begin to be seen when the dust is applied at the rate of forty bushels per acre. Charcoal is invaluable for destroying the odor of decaying animal matter, retaining the gases in its own substance ready to yield them up fur the use of plants. Hence, the best application of this substance is not directly to the soil, but to compost it with putrescent animal matters, urine or night soil, of which it will absorb all the odor and fertilising gases given off during their decomposition. Composted with the last named substance, It becomes Poudrette is second only to guano as a fertilizer.

ln striking cuttings or potting plants, fine charcoal is a valuable substitute for sand, plants rooting in it with great certainty. Plants will flourish in powdered charcoal alone with considerable vigor, and, added to the other materials used in potting, it is found greatly to promote healthy growth in most plants.)

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The American farmer: devoted to agriculture, horticulture and rural life  By Maryland State Agricultural Society 1861

Charcoal and Some of its Uses. There are various opinions afloat in regard to the value of charcoal as a fertilizer. As an absorbent of ammonia, carbonic acid, &c, it certainly has scarcely a superior. It is also pretty well ascertained, that it readily yields up for the use of the plant, the substances thus absorbed. But there are two features connected with its use which have always commended it to my favor. One is its mechanical effects upon the soil, rendering it more open and friable, and consequently more easily worked, and more open to the action of the atmosphere. The other is the warming effect produced where it is applied in any considerable quantity. A dark soil, we all know, has the power to a greater extent of absorbing heat than a light-colored one. This, in many locations, is a great desideratum. Many plants which it is desirable to grow, but which, for the want of a sufficiently warm soil, is next to impossible, may be cultivated by the use of charcoal. Its carbon yields no food to plants, consequently, even if applied in large quantities, it can do no harm, unless it renders the soil too light and open; not a very likely result. In gardens, therefore, I esteem it highly, and have found it, for the purposes briefly named above, most excellent.—Farmer and Gardener.

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British husbandry: exhibiting the farming practice in various ..., Volume 1  1847

A still better mode, when the quantity and quality of the manure, as in a farm, is an object. is to mix the gypsum with a considerable proportion of either charred peat, burnt clay, or any other substance containing a portion of charcoal; for by this plan the whole of the urine, of at least the shed-fed stock, is not only entirely preserved in the pores of the charcoal from putrefaction, but when carried on to the field it is gradually and steadily emitted, and becomes the food of growing crops. Of the use of charcoal as a fertilizer I shall hereafter have occasion to speak, and for these purposes an impure variety is profitably attainable, either in charred peat or refuse tanners’ bark, or even in the charred matters of clay on moist farms. Whatever doubt there may exist of the value of charcoal, in its tolerably pure state, as a manure, there is I am convinced, from the result of my own trials and observations, none as to its value for the purpose of forming a bed on which the ordinary manure of animals is prepared.

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Annual report of the Commissioner of Patents, Part 2 1855

Charcoal powder acts mechanically in absorbing ammoniacal gas, and also by its color in absorbing the heat of the sun’s rays, and retaining the heat by impeded conduction. When the charcoal is burned only to brownness, then it acts also chemically, being in a condition to form humus, and to undergo oxidation by the action of the atmosphere. Charcoal is undoubtedly a powerful fertilizer, and one of great duration, as is shown by the continued fertility of places where the aboriginal inhabitants of New England built their camp-fires more than two hundred years ago, while nothing peculiar to those spots can be discovered beyond the admixture of large quantities of charcoal and clam-shells with the soil.

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Farmers Magazine  By Joseph Rogerson 1848

PEAT CHARCOAL THE BEST DEODORIZER. In 1845 we brought before the public the facts which had come to our knowledge of the value of peat charcoal in its natural state as a fertilizer of the soil. It was then doubted, because Liebig and his followers had laid it down that all plants were indebted to the atmosphere for the carbon they contained—in fact, that inhalation gave to the general structure their mass of woody fibre, amounting, when converted into carbon, to from 40 to 50 per cent, of the whole. We doubted this assumption; and since, our doubts have been set at rest; for the Royal Agricultural Society offered a prize for an essay on the subject, and almost every farmer in the country now knows the value of charcoal as a manure, and that which was smiled at then, is not only admitted, but practised now. We feel no small gratification in having been the first to draw general attention in England to this most valuable fact; and we feel the same as regards the extraordinary value of peat charcoal as a deodorizer—but not only a deodorizer, hut the producer of a manure, the value of which we believe there is scarcely any means of estimating.

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Ohio Cultivator vol. 3 No. 1 Columbus, Ohio, January 1, 1847

Charcoal as a Fertilizer. Mr. Bateham:—Sometime since there was an enquiry in your paper, respecting the use of charcoal as a fertilizer. I have one word to offer on the subject, which is this: some 15 or 20 years since, while owned by another individual, there was much coal burned on my farm while in the act of clearing the land. The land since that time has undergone much tilling, with little or no manure and not much rest until lately; and notwithstanding the time that has elapsed, the places where the coal pits were burned, produce the best of crops of every kind whenever the fields in which they are found are tilled. I am so much pleased with it that I wish my farm was covered I 3 or 4 inches thick with pulverized charcoal. I think the benefits of it could never be exhausted. Respectfully,

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Journal: Appendix. Reports, Volume 6 1874  By California. Legislature

I sowed, on May sixteenth, six seed grains which had been steeped twenty-four hours in urine, and then coated with charcoal dust; and the same number similarly steeped, but not dried with charcoal dust. From the former, on May twenty-first, nine plants had come up; on the twenty-second, thirteen; and, on the twenty-third, two more, making fifteen in all. From the latter there were, on the twenty-first, five plants; on the twenty-second, eight; on the twenty-third, thirteen. It thence follows that the seed kernels treated with charcoal dust produced more and stronger plants than without. That fifteen plants should be produced from six kernels (planted one fourth inch deep) is in consequence of the size of the capsules. A large seed capsule may produce five plants; only a single plant sprouts from a very small one.

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Agriculture: twelve lectures on agricultural topics: delivered before the ...  By Alexander Hyde 1871

CHARCOAL AS A FERTILIZER. We have all noticed that where a charcoal pit has been burned the soil remains good for a long time. On the mountains of Berkshire we have seen white clover growing luxuriantly on the bed of an old charcoal pit, making an oasis in the desert of ferns and briars that surrounded it, and on inquiry we found that the coal pit must have been burned half a century ago. On digging into this soil we discovered the charcoal with little if any appearance of decay, and promising to do good service for half a century more.

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American journal of agriculture and science, Volumes 5-6 1847

PEAT CHARCOAL. The use of charcoal as a fertilizer is generally well known. Its expense, however, often precludes its use. To cut down a forest for the sake of the charcoal it would furnish for agriculture would undoubtedly be bad policy. As a substitute, however, for the ordinary wood charcoal, it is certainly important for many to know, that peat charcoal will prove an excellent substitute. In some respects it may be regarded as a superior article to wood charcoal, inasmuch as it will be obtained in a state of fine subdivision, and consequently in a state to operate to the best advantage. Most persons are perfectly familiar with the effects of charcoal upon vegetation. The great desideratum is how to obtain it in quantities, and at a rate to make it an object in husbandry. Surely no one can afford to buy coal, not because there is so much expense in making it, but on account of the value of the materials of which it is formed. Peat however, is a material lying in a waste, useless as it is, and in order to make it valuable, it is only necessary to raise from its half submerged condition, and char it

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Annual report  By North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station 1887

Last year we investigated a ease and found, on inquiry at Washington, that the government had given a man a patent on a method of making a “complete fertilizer,” the whole of which was to cover a large heap of pine-needles partly with earth, and then set fire to the pine-needles and burn them, as charcoal is burned. When they had burned all they would, you were told to mix the earth and charred mass together, which was your fertilizer.

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Commercial relations of the United States with foreign countries  By United States. Dept. of State, United States. Bureau of Foreign Commerce 1872

The first day of our trip, we saw the farmers engaged in burning stocks of millet, &c., in heaps of earth, as it is done in the manufacture of charcoal, in order, we supposed, to bring out their fertilizing properties. It a very likely then, that, in China, they have known the value of charcoal as a fertilizer long before us, It’s use for that purpose being among us of a recent date.

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The Gardener’s monthly and horticultural advertiser, Volume 9 Refuse Charcoal. 1867

The refuse charcoal, obtained from the rectifiers of spirits, from the Railroads where wood is burned in locomotives, from old charcoal beds, &c., is a very useful material in the garden. As a mulching about fruit trees I consider it very valuable. It keeps out frost in winter: it keeps the soil loose and moist in summer, and it does not afford a harbor for mice or insects. In the soil, it assists to promote moisture in a dry season;........ It is an excellent mulching for Strawberries, in winter or summer.

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The farmer's friend: a record of recent discoveries, improvements, and ...  By National Art Library (Great Britain) 1847

ON THE USE OF CHARCOAL AS A 
FERTILIZER. By Cuthbert W. Johnson, Eso., F.R.S. I Hardly deem it necessary to prove to any one the value of charcoal as a valuable manure; and if it was necessary to obviate the suspicion that there is any difference in the effect produced by the use of charcoal-ashes and the impure variety of these ashes afforded by peat, I am readily supplied with the means of doing so by a recent report by Mr. Peter Mackenzie, of West Plean, near Stirling. He tells us that he has been for some years past trying experiments with peat, charred peat, and peat-ashes, as a substitute for stable manure, and for many kinds of crop grown by farmers and gardeners. He remarks,—“ In the spring of last year, I collected a quantity of peat for various purposes, and part of it was intended to be charred or burned. It was not so well prepared for burning as I wished, a good deal of moisture being in it; however, a good fire was made of wood to begin with, and as the peat dried it was drawn to the fire, and in this way was kept burning for two weeks. It required little watching, only once or twice in twelve hours. The partially dried peat was drawn to the fire, because it was intended to have a quantity of charred peat and ashes mixed together, and in order to obtain both, the fire was kept in a smothered state to char the peat (let the farmer mark the distinction). It commonly burst through in some parts, and there supplied the ashes. When we had a quantity to begin with, the unburnt peat, and the charred, with the ashes, were all well mixed together; at least one-half of the mass was unburnt peat.” This mixture was applied about the beginning of May, to a light sandy soil, for a crop of Swedish turnips. The quantity used was at least at the rate of 200 bushels per acre. “ We tried it,” continues Mr. Mackenzie, “ against well-made stable-manure in a state like mould, cut well with the spade, which was applied at the rate of about 20 tons to the acre, and spread into drills, like the peaty mixture. The plants grew well in both cases. We tried to ascertain the amount of produce per acre from each manure, as late as the middle of January 1846; for, from the mildness of the season, the turnips till then appeared to be in a growing state, each plant having had about two square feet of surface to grow upon. The surface was kept flat, and the ground chiefly worked with the Dutch hoe. The weight of bulbs fit for use manured with the peaty mixture was upwards of 40 tons per acre; while those produced from stable-dung weighed only about 30 tons.

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Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, Volume 6  By Royal Agricultural Society of England 1933

(on peat charcoal as a fertilizer...) I have previously mentioned the power of charcoal as a fertilizer in hastening the germination of the seed, and on this account alone charred peat may with great advantage be used as a manure for root-crops. Its manner of application maybe broadcast by hand, or with the shovel; this may be better performed by means of a broadcast drill, or by drilling in rows at the same time as the seed by the common manure-drill. For the latter purpose it. is a cheap and excellent substance for mixing with the more expensive artificial manures previous to their application, such as guano, bones, super-phosphate of lime, &c. &c. Ashes are frequently added to artificial manures; but an objection to their being used in a dry state (which by the way is the only state in which they can be applied by the generality of drills) is this: that, should dry weather follow the sowing, the dry ashes, being under the seed, will retard its germination. It is perhaps hardly necessary to mention that the charred peat will require to be sifted before it is drilled. The large pieces that will not pass through the sieve can be pulverised by a rammer, or by drawing a garden-roll over them. The quantity used per acre will of course vary with the circumstance of the crop: when drilled in rows, with or without the addition of other artificial manure, the quantity need not exceed * Mr. Crosskill of Beverley has constructed an excellent implement for sowing manures, which, I believe, has been approved by the Royal Agricultural Society. from 20 to 40 bushels per acre; when drilled broadcast, from 100 to 150 bushels will not be a very expensive dressing. I have never made any very careful experiments with peat charcoal in comparison with other manures; but if we maybe allowed to judge from appearances, the results are evidently satisfactory. As an instance, on July 2, 1845, 40 bushels per acre of peat-charcoal were drilled with green-top Aberdeen turnips on a light sandy loam, the previous crop being rye and vetches mown for soiling. The young plants appeared above ground in a short space of time, and were singled out within a week, as soon as turnips of a quicker growing kind that had been drilled twelve days earlier with 14 cwt. of guano mixed with peat-ashes per acre; this was on the same description of soil, the previous crop being rye fed off with sheep, and the land then manured with 15 cartloads per acre of farm-yard dung; the other, in addition to the peat-charcoal, had been folded. The crops were good, but the cost of the peat-charcoal was barely one-half that of the guano, without taking into consideration the extra dressing of farm-yard manure.* Cirencester, Nov. 28, 1846. * The crop of turnips to which the peat-charcoal was applied in 1845, was fed off late in the spring of 1846; the land ploughed and subsoiled, and on May the 9th drilled with Belgian carrots; the seed being mixed with 2 bushels per acre of powdered wood charcoal: notwithstanding the dry weather the carrots came up well. The produce was about 1200 bushels per acre, and each bushel of carrots weighing 3 stone 3 lbs., will give upwards of 24 tons of roots per acre, exclusive of the tops. The only manure, besides the 2 bushels of charcoal, being the folding of the sheep while feeding the previous crop of turnips.

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The Journal of agriculture, Volume 1  By William S. King 1851 

ON THE USE OF CHARCOAL. BY COL. M. P. WILDER. I notice in the last number of your valuable periodical the request of Mr. Trimble, soliciting advice as to the advantages of charcoal, and the best method of using it as a manure. I reply with pleasure, but my experience has been on a limited scale, and my operations confined rather to the garden than the farm, on account of the difficulty of procuring it in sufficient quantity for the latter purpose. My attention was first drawn to the influence of charcoal, by the wonderful experiments of Baron Von Liebig, in the propagation of plants, and the facility with which cuttings were rooted in this substance. Its use became very general in Europe by amateurs and cultivators of plants, and for a time it was considered a great fertilizer. Chemists soon, ascertained, however, that its chief virtue consisted in its great porosity, being able to absorb 90 per cent, of its bulk of ammonia. As a medium for storing up the volatile portions of manure and compost heaps, and for absorbing the ammonia which descends in the snow and rain, it has probably no superior. But what renders charcoal still more valuable is its power of holding in reserve those subtle elements, and yielding them up only as they are wanted for the purposes of nutrition, and as the vital force of the root searches for food. It will therefore readily be perceived, that charcoal is not only valuable as a component part of manures, but that its influence, when applied alone, is highly beneficial. Instances similar to those quoted by Mr. Trimble, where large crops had been obtained from lands on which charcoal pits had been burned years' before, are frequently witnessed. In this vicinity a farmer has annually, for the last eight years, harvested extraordinary crops of hay on these charcoal lands, without the application of any manure whatever; and from the indestructibility of this substance, I know no reason why he may not continue to do so for the next twenty years to come. One of the most striking illustrations of its efficacy, when applied alone, that has come to my notice, was the experiment made by Mr. Hayward, of Sandusky, Ohio, many years since, and which, if I am not mistaken, was published either in the last volume of your Farmer's Library, or the first volume of The Plough, the Loom, and the Anvil. The facts I think were substantially as follows: — Mr. H., having prepared his coal by grinding in a mill, set apart seven lots of land for experiments, the soil and cultivation being precisely alike on each, except as it regarded the application of charcoal. The result was, that on the lots where fiftly bushels of coal were applied, there were twenty-five bushels of wheat obtained, while on those lots where there was no coal applied the crop was only five or six bushels. It will be borne in mind that there was no other manure administered to the crop, and that consequently the fertilizing properties must have been imparted by the ammonia which was stored up in the coal. This experiment was very satisfactory, but not more so than many others which we have witnessed, particularly in the application of charcoal to fruit trees, plants, and garden vegetables; and I have yet to see the first instance where charcoal formed a part of the compost, that vegetation did not grow luxuriantly,producing the increasing and quickening effects described by Mr. Trimble. In fact, it is no unusual circumstance to notice the roots of trees and plants either clasping pieces of charcoal, or piercing them through with their fibres. The best method, where any considerable quantity is to be used, would undoubtedly be to grind the charcoal, and I should prefer that one half at least should be as coarse as Indian corn. As to the amount which may be applied to the acre, I think Mr. Hayward’s experience will furnish a good criterion, although I have no doubt a larger quantity than fifty bushels to the acre, for the first dressing, might produce an increase of the crop. If charcoal is to be applied alone, and without manure, the time is not material, except that should be well incorporated with the soil, either by ploughing in, or harrowing, but not deeply. Mr. Trimble describes his soil as being “ generally a strong yellow clay based upon limestone.” Charcoal will no doubt prove valuable on these lands, but more so on light soils which allow the salts of manure to leach through; for clay is also a substance which holds securely the volatile portions of manure, and when made fine by the frost or otherwise, is a capital ingredient for the compost heap,

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Good housekeeping, Volume 2 1886

When the baskets have been selected, cover the bottom to the depth of two inches with little pieces of charcoal which serve a threefold purpose,—that of fertilizer, purifier and drainage. The dust of charcoal is excellent, beside, to mix with the earth for growing plants.

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American desert (The Western garden ..., Volume 1, Issue 2 - Volume 5, Issue 2 1893

Palm culture is not nearly so difficult as most people imagine. Nearly all the finest sorts thrive well in good, fibrous, yellow loam or soil composed of rotted sods, sand and old, well-decayed manure. A sprinkling of charcoal added to this will help to keep the soil fresh and sweet for the tender young rootlets.... ....I like to use broken bits of charcoal for draining all my pots, because when the roots reach down to it they feed upon it greedily, the tiny fibers clinging all about it; and then, too, the charcoal keeps the drainage and bottom soil sweet and healthful for the roots. My experience has been altogether with wood charcoal....

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The Horticulturist and journal of rural art and rural taste, Volume 24  edited by Andrew Jackson Downing 1869

Charcoal, already well known to be of inestimable value as an absorbent or disinfectant, and likewise containing abundance of nutritious food for growing plants, has also a remarkable influence on the color of flowers. This fact is too well known to gardeners to require much repetition. A few years since, a New-Haven gardener tried the experiment of the use of charcoal on the health of plants in pots in his greenhouse, and said that he could not possibly see the advantage of continuing under the old system without it. " The result of my experience is, that, when not using charcoal in growing roses, they have been more or less subject to mildew, and the roots of the plants more apt to be injured by fungus, whereas with the free use of that material they are not liable at all to be attacked. " And besides, when treated in this way the plants are remarkable for their freshness and beauty; the flowers are so much improved that they seem as though they had been “dipped in colors native well”. We observe that the subject is again being discussed with practical interest in France, and we quote a paragraph from the Revue Horticole, of appropriate effect. “ A correspondent of that journal says that not long ago he made a bargain for a rose-bush of magnificent growth and full of buds. He waited for them to blow, and expected roses worthy of such a noble plant and of the praises bestowed on it by the vender; but when it bloomed, all his hopes were blasted. The flowers were of a faded hue, and he discovered that he had only a middling multiflora, stale colored enough. He therefore resolved to sacrifice it to some experiments which he had in view. His attention had been directed to the effects of charcoal, as stated in some English publications. He then covered the earth in the pot in which it was, about half an inch deep, with pulverized charcoal. Some days after, he was astonished to see those which bloomed of as fine a lively rose-color as he could wish. He determined to repeat the experiment, and therefore, when the rose-bush had done flowering, he took off the charcoal and put fresh earth about the roots, and waited for the next spring impatiently, to see the result of this experiment. When it bloomed, the roses were at first pale and discolored, but, by applying the charcoal as before, they soon assumed their rosy-red color. He then tried the powdered charcoal in large quantities upon petunias, and found that both the white and violet colored flowers were equally sensitive to its action. It always gave great vigor to the red or violet colors of the flowers, and the white petunias become veined with red or violet tints ; the violets became covered with irregular spots of a bluish or almost black tint. Many persons who admired them thought they were choice new varieties. Charcoal has no effect on yellow flowers.”