Organic gardener Ken Bourne of Forest Grove is on fire about a substance he cooks up in his backyard called biochar.
It’s basically charcoal made from wood and other organic debris, which when added to garden soil, boosts the nutritional value for plants and makes things grow like crazy.
People of the Amazon have been producing and using this soil-enhancing material for thousands of years, creating it by smouldering agricultural waste in pits or trenches.
Bourne learned about biochar from his dad, who learned about it from his father, who was a charcoal-maker by profession. His grandfather produced charcoal for various estates in England, where the substance was used as an additive to dog food.
“Granddad’s charcoal got rained on one time and it was unusable, so he tossed it on the garden and things grew like mad,” says Bourne. “He didn’t know why it worked.”
Bourne, who owned garden centres, garden nurseries and florist shops in England before moving to Canada in the early 1980s, has been using biochar as a soil amendment for 50 years.
He produces it in a barrel burner, which is topped with an afterburner that he has fashioned from a sawn-off barrel. The afterburner burns off the resulting gases rather than letting them into the atmosphere and is a key component of the process.
“The burning gases produce high heat which roasts the wood quickly, otherwise it would turn to ash.”
Bourne mixes the finished product with compost where it works to enhance bacterial growth. The working bacteria pump an abundance of nutrients into the soil, which are easily absorbed by plants.
“Veggies grown with more nutrients contain more nutrients.”
He tests the nutrient content of his homegrown produce regularly and says their sugar content is consistently higher than normal.
He notes biochar in the soil also absorbs and filters pollutants out of the water, keeping the water table healthier.
The burning of wood waste and the associated gasses, as opposed to letting the waste decompose, also prevents a significant amount of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.
Bourne is concerned about the effect the vast amount of decomposing beetle killed pine trees is having on the earth and he’d like to see some turned into biochar and returned to the soil.
“When waste is left to decompose, it creates carbon dioxide and the trees (decomposing beetle-kill pine) in the Cariboo alone is equivalent to the pollution every car in Canada would produce in five years.”
Currently, he says, biochar is relatively unknown in Canada, but its potential to reduce global warming is enormous. Established mindsets are one of the hurdles to be cleared first.
“We’re a chemical-dependent farming society now and we put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we used to.”
He has proven the growing potential of biochar in his own garden where raised beds, pumped full of the material, support densely planted crops of vegetables with ease. He estimates that a 48-square-foot (4.5 square metres) bed produced 1,000 carrots in one planting this season.
Bourne estimates he made close to 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms) of biochar and gave a good chunk of it away to other gardeners.
In doing so, he hopes to enlighten and encourage people to make their own burners and use biochar rather than chemicals to help their gardens grow.
He’s optimistic it will catch on.
“I believe that 10 years from now people will know what biochar is.”
People can check out Bourne’s blog on the Internet for more information about biochar. It’s located at www.kenbourne-organicgardener.blogspot.com.