The Beauty of Biochar

backyard biochar

Clockwise from the top: biochar made from cardoon seed head, apple tree prunings, corn cobs, bone, bamboo, lumber ends, rabbit droppings in center. Click through photo to see larger image.

As part of our month-long focus on soil-building, today we explore biochar.

Biochar is charcoal that you bury in your garden. It does many of the cool things that compost does – it holds water and nutrients like a sponge, it encourages crazy fungal growth. But unlike compost, it cannot be eaten by soil micro-organisms. It lasts just about forever. Spend a winter making it, then enjoy the benefits for the rest of your life. And if you’re an environmentalist, there’s a side benefit: that carbon won’t go into the atmosphere, which helps offset global warming.


biochar beef bone

I learned how to make biochar at a SeaChar workshop. I was doing a story on biochar for public radio. One visual caught my attention and has stayed with me ever since – a blackened piece of charcoal in the shape of a corn cob. There was something about seeing an everyday object, rendered perfectly in total blackness, that took my breath away. As if the soul had departed this object, leaving behind a porous, blackened skeleton.


biochar rabbit poo

As we were shooting a biochar-making sequence for our book (we show you how to make biochar from garden waste in your backyard) photographer Harley Soltes became equally infatuated by the sculptural shape of biochar. He disappeared for nearly a half hour in the makeshift studio he set up in the back of my garage, arranging little piles of biochar. Someday, an artist will discover biochar and create an entire show based on biochar versions of familiar objects.


biochar prunings from my espalier apple tree

I’ve spent a lot of time writing about biochar, how to make it, how it works. But the fact is, it’s a novelty, a useful tool that’s too much effort for most gardeners. Someday you may be able to buy it in bags as a soil amendment, but for now, it’s a hobby for a rare group of enthusiasts, for whom those perfect black shapes become an obsession. It’s about achieving the perfect use of your garden’s waste products, and building the best soil you possibly can. It’s about the thrill of becoming carbon negative. And the thrill of playing with fire. I hate gender stereotypes, but I have to say: if you want to get a man interested in soil-building, and if that man likes to grill, introduce that guy to biochar. And show him this post, so he can enjoy Harley’s biochar porn.


biochar detail

If you live in the Seattle area, and you want to learn how to make biochar, respond below for a chance to win a free spot in one of SeaChar’s upcoming weekend workshops. Basically you’ll get a gift certificate to cover the tuition and materials, which you can redeem when a class fits your schedule. In class, you’ll make a “Garden Master” biochar stove in a metal shop. You’ll bring that stove home, along with the knowledge of how to make your own biochar from garden waste. SeaChar hosts a few workshops per year, usually on Saturdays. You can wait for dates to appear on the SeaChar blog or contact SeaChar for more information on future workshops.

Seriously, this workshop is awesome, like some kind of steam punk dream. The class participants work with metal and fire, and they’ve got soot on their faces, and they’re convinced they’re building something that will change the world. I loved every minute of it.

Update: Lauriel of - you are the winner of the random drawing for a free slot in the Biochar Class! You’ve been randomly selected from all the comments on this post.

21 Responses to The Beauty of Biochar

  1. Whoa, too cool! I’d love to learn more.

  2. Thank you for the chance to win. And get smarter! :)

    Wishing You Continued Success,

  3. Ooh that sounds awesome!

  4. I would love to learn more on this topic! Thanks!

  5. Sounds interesting and like something my 10 year old son would think is super cool! Thanks

  6. Biochar as art what a lovely concept , great post you guys , I
    m making progress on my production biochar kiln , I will keep you posted as this project evolves

  7. With two boys (well, three, if you count the husband) in the house, this would be a great way to get the whole family out to build up and fix the compacted, clay pad we call a backyard! Thanks for the opportunity!

  8. I’ve long been interested in biochar but haven’t had a chance to pursue it. The workshop sounds like a great opportunity! I hadn’t heard of SeaChar, so thanks for that.

  9. This is so cool! I was just eyeing a pile of cuttings that I wasn’t sure how to dispose of due to the woody nature of them. This is the perfect solution! Thanks for posting about this!

  10. I would love the opportunity to learn more about this! Thanks Joshua!

  11. Our garden would love some biochar and I would love to learn how to make it!

  12. I’ve been dreaming about biochar since I read about it in your book, but the stove was intimidating. This would be an amazing opportunity.

  13. I would like a chance to go to this with my mom!

  14. I’d like a chance to go to this with my mom!

  15. SO FUN! Please sign me up for a chance to win!

  16. I would love a chance to take this workshop! Love the photography, reminds me of a movement by zoo photographers to photograph animals on white backgrounds.

  17. What an intriguing idea!

  18. Pingback: Soil Building Link Up – Show Us Your Stuff! | Sustainable Eats & the Dancing Goat Gardens Communal Project

  19. Pingback: Biochar as art, some free bio-tech, and ‘char across the globe « Soil Reef Blog

  20. Pingback: The Beauty of Biochar | EvolveSustain

  21. (Better late than never?) I’m thinking that Trader Joe’s BBQ charcoal could provide the ‘char’ base for inoculating with the ‘bio’, i.e., compost tea, golden elixir, worm tea, etc, etc, etc. and voila, biochar for … ? $8 for 18 lbs?

    Regular BBQ briquettes are typically avoided because of the additives, but, per TJ’s description, theirs is “made from sustainably grown hardwood trees, with only cornstarch added as a binder… the ashes are pure enough to put in your garden”. (They don’t know about biochar… yet :)

    I think this is pretty ‘green’ .. the trees remove carbon dioxide while growing, and will keep it locked in the soil for centuries. Btw, very little is released during the making of the charcoal because of the secondary burning of the gases…. I think ;)

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