Category Archives: Biochar

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.