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Improving the Soil with Clay/BioChar

January 2017 – by Kay Baxter

In all my years of gardening I have never had such a satisfying or easy job. This is the first season I have been able to plant seedlings into the garden, or seed in some cases, and just watch them grow.. apart from watering, and weeding occasionally.

I have seen no water stress, and it has been quite hot and dry all season, and none of the seedlings or plants have stopped growing at any point which has previously been  normal for me both heavy clay and sandy soils at times.. some kind of stress, and growth stops, often nutrient lack but could be lack of water or air in the soil etc etc

I have usually found, over my entire gardening life, that once my plants go in the ground I’m then watching for when I need to feed them again to keep them growing fast… in the past I used things like liquid fish to give them a boost or liquid comfrey.. in more recent times , I’ve used EF:Nature’s Garden, or EF:CalPhos etc and this season I made my own liquid fertiliser I called Kay’s Liquid Gold.

It worked, it was good but I don’t need it anymore!!!…. All of my plants are growing from day one and not stopping until they are ready to pick. Everything is growing faster and ready to eat earlier than I have ever had before, and I don’t need to apply any kind of foliar or solid fertiliser to keep them growing… and their brix levels are high. See chart below.

It is essentially about getting the basics right  … air.. 50% air in our soil, moisture, always moist… then carbon.. humus and biochar ….then minerals and microbes.

In my sandy soil I had the air once I double dug it, I had water to put on, I made a lot of compost….and I put on lots of fertiliser, albeit the really good stuff….. and it continued to be hard work…. We then added clay. Clay has a far higher cation exchange capacity than sand and that helped a lot. The higher the cation exchange capacity of the soil the higher the ability of the soil to hold moisture nutrients and microbes….then we added 5kgs of CHARGED biochar per sq m and that changed everything. Getting the carbon levels high enough to be holding the minerals and water and microbes was the key. We would have saved a lot of time and a lot of money if we had done that on day one!!!

If you too have less than ideal soil to be growing the nutrient dense food that is to nourish your family then I know now, how you can vastly improve it, in far less time than it took me.

It is all about air, moisture, Cation Exchange Capacity, carbon, minerals and microbes.. in that order!!!!!

In my super compacted sandy soil (old sheep paddock where sheep were set stocked for 100 years), if I were beginning a home garden again, and I was buying product to set myself up I would

  1. Cover area to become garden in plastic to kill the grass and their roots
  2. Lay out beds with pegs and string and double dig to incorporate air into the soil (clay soil the same thing)
  3. Buy charged Biochar (charged with balanced minerals and activated with compost tea..not just activated.. that is critical), and apply at 5kgs (ideal amount.. less is still very good) per sq m over the surface of the bed. At 30 cents a kg it is not exorbitantly expensive for a home garden at that rate.
  4. Apply clay …after having tested by Grant at EF to ensure it is the right kind of clay….at a rate of 2-3 cm over the entire garden
  5. Apply biointensive compost made according to my Art of Composting Booklet at an ideal maximum rate of 2-3 cm over entire bed surface… if my mineral levels are still very low because of poor soil to begin with this is the place I would now be adding Nature’s Garden as explained in Booklet
  6. . fork.. the biochar, clay and compost into the top 30cm of garden bed.
  7. Continue to apply highly mineralised compost each time you plant seedlings or Nature’s Garden. Balanced minerals or recycle your own humanure and urine.

The clay and the biochar and compost together will have raised the Cation Exchange Capacity of the sandy soil so much that this soil will now be able to

  1. hold the moisture for far longer periods, hold far more moisture.. far less issues with water stress, less often watering necessary.
  2. This soil will now have the capacity to hold onto the minerals and fertiliser applied so that if they are not all needed at time of application they will be electrically held until they are needed… because of the higher Cation Exchange Capacity created by the clay and the Biochar….. sand has a CEC of around 5, clay around 40, and Biochar of ????. The CEC is a reflection of the ability of something to attract and electrically hold onto either water or minerals
  3. This soil will now have the capacity to maintain the air spaces ( biochar is structural carbon that will not collapse)
  4. This soil now is now a perfect habitat for microbes and fungi with air, moisture and a place to live (cupboards in the biochar)
  5. This Soil will now have a high capacity for building humus and life (regeneration) because of the combination of biochar, clay and compost and the right moisture and air conditions

 

Above all else this soil is now able to easily grow high brix plants because the photosynthesis process is not held up by a lack of air, moisture or minerals, or microbes and so as our plants photosynthesis more and more efficiently they are able to sequester minerals and energy from the universe above them and the microbes and fungi in the soil below them and make high levels of sugars which in turn are stored in the soil and used in part to ‘grow soil’.. ie by getting things working to begin with the natural processes of life building itself.. following the laws of nature….are able to continue building soil and ecological health.

By following the basic laws of nature in all of this and putting in the energy to get things ‘going’ again, it is possible to create something that has the ability to take on a life of its own and continue to do the work for us, with some far less expensive and more locally, very locally produced nutrient sources to maintain the system. Ie our own recycled humanure and urine, plus compost made from the carbon crops grown in the garden. We are well down the track at this point of having created our very own Terra Preta dark earth.. by far the most valuable thing we could be investing in on this planet today, in my opinion!!!!!!.

 

PS… IF you don’t like the idea of the double digging, or that is what is holding you up then I suggest you read Shaked’s article following. He is achieving the same result using a different aeration method, which will work for some of us very well.

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Nutrient Dense Food and Carbon Sequestration using Local Sourced Fertiliser. Kay Closes The Loops – Part One

Spring is around the corner and I haven’t written a garden blog for a while, I have a new greenhouse /garden shed about to be ready for use and finally after months of agonising I’ve decided how to cut down the number of hours I require to spend in the garden to keep it looking incredible and producing large amounts of high brix food.

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Our garden is 200m2 plus 50m2 of perennial beds. I’m leaving the perennial bed as it is, Purple Asparagus, Purple de Jesi globe artichokes, sea kale, Hong Kong 3 rhubarb, Multiplying spring onions, Welsh Bunching onions and day lilies (edible flowers) All of these crops are highly productive, taste fantastic and are ready to eat just when we need them, Spring.

The rest of my garden feels too big now, we have come a long way in 5 years in terms of building up the soil and I feel as though I can grow just as much food in a smaller area, The biggest challenge of all is to stop bringing in fertiliser to keep the process of regeneration maintained in the soil and the health of the crops. This is a graph showing just how much we have built the soil in our home garden …. .. using the following strategies, over the past 5 years

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  • Learning to make compost that is actually useful, adding balanced EF fertiliser, plus clay, biochar, seaweed and clay shards
  • Using Environmental Fertilisers based on Reams soil tests

Utilising Biointensive practices whereby we grow 50% of the garden in compost crops each season

  • Growing carbon crops in the garden that unlock needed nutrients eg lupins and oats

I have decided that this year is the year I’m stopping buying fertiliser… and that feels like my biggest challenge ever, I’m also totally committed to growing soil and high brix food and I want to grow as much food on less area to save time.

When we came here the brix of the grass was 2, way too low to maintain our human health or for the soil processes to be regenerative.

This season I’m committing to going the extra mile to close the loops, now that we have got our brix levels up and soil building happening fast (and we’ll keep testing to watch what happens) my strategies are going to change a little… as follows:

  1. Continue to make high quality compost using carbon crops from the garden and compost heaps with a 60:1 carbon ratio and high quality ingredients (as described below)
  2. Begin consciously and carefully using all of our urine and humanure in the vegetable garden. It seems clear from the research (see below) that 1 person’s urine for 1 day is an appropriate amount to return to 1m2 of garden bed or soil twice a year. That means you could feed 175m2 of garden per year using 1 persons urine (balanced with the composted humanure as well) With 2 people in the household that means we can feed an area roughly 350m2 which is exactly what I have worked out that we need to grow all of our vegetables and grains in our soil this year. That means I can take 6 beds out of my rotation, 2 beds out of blocks 2 and 4 and 1 bed each out of blocks 1 and 3 in the rotation. Those beds I’m going to plant in the best perennial crop I know that can be regularly harvested throughout the year to make compost or mulch beds such as the perennials and the tomatoes and peppers and pumpkins
  3. Grow perennial alfalfa in 6 of my previous garden beds. Alfalfa is a serious contender for our most valuable dynamic mineral accumulator especially for unlocking and recycling calcium and phosphate which are the key minerals we need to be bringing into our soils.

A piece of research that has helped me take this step is this paper from the EcoSanRes Programme
and the Stockholm Environment Institute written about recycling human urine and humanure (READ HERE

After reading this and having watched the Kotare Village work through designs for recycling human urine and humanure for all toilets in our houses and the village and Koanga I now feel able to use the urine and composted humanure in ways I can talk about publicly and recommend.  Kotare Village is in the process of putting these plans through the Hawkes Bay Regional Council so when we have them approved, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime it goes something like this (it is very simple) collect the urine or most of it separately, in a urine only bucket or have a urine separator on the toilet system. It must not have fallen down through the humanure bucket, (it must be just urine) and then add a carbon source to it such as vermicast, sugar, humates, or biochar.  Adding a carbon source holds the nitrogen and means it stays in the root zone of the plants available as a slow release fertiliser, rather than being water soluble and washing into the water ways with the first rain. I don’t want to have to buy anything to do this and we are making biochar/bonechar on our house site twice a year, 200 litres at a time, so we are collecting the biochar/bonechar, storing it in barrels and then adding urine to charge the biochar/bonechar and lock up the nitrogen.

I’ll use that in place of fish fertiliser or a pick me up for all heavy feeding plants. The humanure we collect in buckets, which contain humanure plus leaves, a little dirt and a little wood ash and some urine so that it is moist. These 20  litre buckets are then tipped into a larger barrel. A house of two people will need 2 of these larger barrels. And after you fill up the first one put a lid on it and keep in a warm place while you fill up the second one. It will take 6 months for the first one to become friable compost ready to go on the garden and then swap over again. I’ll plan this so that the barrels of compost are ready to use either straight onto the garden at planting time or bed preparation time or into my usual compost heaps.

Either way the nutrients will be retained for the garden because we don’t let our compost heaps go over 50°c holding the carbon in the compost to be returned to the soil in the form of humus. (see Koanga Composting Booklet for more details here). One of the amazing things about our urine is that it is not only a fertiliser but it is a communicator through the microbes and the soil to our plants showing them what we need, to improve/balance our health. This may sound far fetched but Ayuverdic medicine as practiced in India for thousands of years recognizes the value and healing properties of our own urine. Our own urine on our own garden soil will communicate to our ecology in a way that is a vital part of the process of coevolution (part of the process of creating a regenerative ecology) it’s amazing, it’s free and we all have access to it!

So I’ll continue making compost, I’ll continue adding bone char and biochar to the compost as well as clay and pottery shards, seaweed,  and as many ingredients as I can that contain high levels of phosphate. The calcium will be the burnt crushed egg shells plus the bone char soaked in soldier fly liquid which unlocks the calcium and the phosphate

I’m sure we can do it, grow soil fast, grow high brix food and reclaim our health and that of the ecology around us. I’ll spend the rest of my life fine tuning this process and enjoying the journey…… stay tuned …. It’s exciting stuff!!!

I’ve used the Koanga Garden Planner to redesign my garden this spring to ensure I have the rotation systems in place, enough carbon crops to know I will be able to make enough compost to grow my soil, and the right balance of crops to ensure we have a balanced diet year round!!!

If you find all this stuff interesting then would love to know more please join us for a workshop or two this spring, Some of you might enjoy staying over during the week in between 2 workshops so you can do both workshops and have a good look around while you are here. Talk to Trena if you are interested in this at [email protected].

If this feels like your life journey, something you want to know more about to take back and teach and continue learning then maybe the last spot on our Spring Internship is for you!