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  • Writer's pictureJere Folgert

What is Biochar? Does it Grow Better Garlic?

Updated: Jan 26

Buckle up, plant parents, for a deep dive into the world of biochar, the coolest (literally) kid on the gardening block! This charcoal-like superhero isn't just for grilling anymore – it's a powerhouse soil amendment with some serious science cred.


What is biochar, you ask? Imagine roasting wood chips or other organic matter in a controlled, oxygen-deprived environment. No flames, just slow heat like a nature's own kiln. This process, called pyrolysis, unlocks the magic of biochar. It traps carbon within its porous structure, like a tiny sponge for good vibes. This not only helps combat climate change, but also gives biochar some seriously cool properties for your garden.


Think of biochar as a microscopic party platform for your plants. Its porous surface offers a cozy haven for beneficial bacteria and fungi, the ultimate party crew for healthy soil. These microbial maestros help break down nutrients, making them readily available for your plants to feast on. Biochar also acts like a sponge, soaking up excess water and releasing it slowly, preventing droughts and floods in your miniature Eden.


But the fun doesn't stop there! Biochar's dark color helps absorb heat from the sun, warming the soil in chilly weather and giving your plants an early start on the growing season. And get this – some studies suggest biochar can even suppress harmful soilborne diseases, keeping your green friends safe and sound.


So, how do you use this wonder-material in your garden? It's like a choose-your-own-adventure story! You can mix biochar directly into your soil before planting, sprinkle it on top as a mulch, or even add it to your compost bin to turbocharge its decomposition. The possibilities are as endless as your garden beds!


Remember, biochar isn't a magic bullet. It's best used in conjunction with other good gardening practices like composting and proper watering. But when you add this charcoal champion to your soil mix, you're giving your plants the VIP treatment – a spa day for their roots, a Michelin-starred feast of nutrients, and a cozy blanket of warmth when the nights get frosty. So, go forth and biochar your way to a thriving, happy garden!



Have you heard of biochar? Does it have the potential to grow bigger, better garlic?


Biochar

What is Biochar?

Biochar is a charcoal-like material produced from the thermal decomposition of biomass in an oxygen-limited environment. It is a stable form of carbon that can be used to improve soil health, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and sequester carbon in the soil.


Biochar is made by heating biomass, such as wood, manure, or crop residues, in the absence of oxygen. This process, called pyrolysis, converts the biomass into a solid material that is rich in carbon. Biochar is typically black or dark brown in color and has a porous, granular texture.


Biochar has a number of potential benefits for soil health. It can improve soil structure, increase water retention, and reduce nutrient leaching. Biochar can also help to suppress soilborne pests and diseases. In addition, biochar can help to sequester carbon in the soil, which can help to mitigate climate change.


Biochar is a relatively new technology, and there is still much research to be done on its potential benefits and risks. However, the available evidence suggests that biochar has the potential to be a valuable tool for improving soil health and mitigating climate change.


Here are some of the potential benefits of biochar:

  • Improved soil structure. Biochar can improve soil structure by increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil. Organic matter helps to bind soil particles together, which creates a more stable soil structure. This can help to improve drainage and aeration, and it can also make the soil more resistant to erosion.

  • Increased water retention. Biochar can increase water retention by increasing the amount of pores in the soil. These pores can hold water, which can help to improve plant growth. Biochar can also help to reduce nutrient leaching, which can help to improve water quality.

  • Suppression of soilborne pests and diseases. Biochar can help to suppress soilborne pests and diseases by creating a hostile environment for these organisms. Biochar can also help to improve the growth of beneficial microorganisms, which can help to suppress pests and diseases.

  • Sequestration of carbon. Biochar is a stable form of carbon that can be used to sequester carbon in the soil. This can help to mitigate climate change, as carbon is a greenhouse gas.

Overall, biochar has the potential to be a valuable tool for improving soil health and mitigating climate change. However, more research is needed to fully understand its potential benefits and risks.


Can Biochar Help Garlic Plants?

Overall, biochar is a promising new tool for improving the growth and health of garlic. It is a natural and sustainable product that has a number of potential benefits for soil health and crop production. Garlic is a delicious and versatile vegetable that is packed with nutrients. It is also relatively easy to grow, making it a popular choice for home gardeners. However, garlic is susceptible to a number of pests and diseases, which can reduce yields and quality.


Biochar is a charcoal-like material produced from the thermal decomposition of biomass in an oxygen-limited environment. It has a number of potential benefits for soil health, including improved water retention, increased nutrient availability, and suppression of pests and diseases.


Research has shown that biochar can also help to improve the growth and health of garlic. One study found that biochar application increased garlic yield by up to 20%. Another study found that biochar application reduced the incidence of garlic rot by up to 50%.


Biochar is a promising new tool for improving the growth and health of garlic. It is a natural and sustainable product that has a number of potential benefits for soil health and crop production.

Here are some of the ways biochar can help garlic:

  • Improved water retention. Biochar can increase water retention by increasing the amount of pores in the soil. These pores can hold water, which can help to improve plant growth. Biochar can also help to reduce nutrient leaching, which can help to improve water quality.

  • Increased nutrient availability. Biochar can increase nutrient availability by providing a surface for nutrients to bind to. This can help to improve the uptake of nutrients by plants. Biochar can also help to reduce the loss of nutrients through leaching.

  • Suppression of pests and diseases. Biochar can help to suppress pests and diseases by creating a hostile environment for these organisms. Biochar can also help to improve the growth of beneficial microorganisms, which can help to suppress pests and diseases.

  • Increased crop yields. Biochar can increase crop yields by improving soil health and plant growth. Biochar can also help to reduce the incidence of pests and diseases, which can also lead to increased yields.



A Fun Story : Using Biochar for Growing Garlic


"There once was a gardener named George who was always looking for new ways to improve his garlic crop. He had heard about the benefits of using biochar, so he decided to give it a try.


George bought a bag of biochar and spread it around his garlic plants. He watered the plants and waited for the results.


A few weeks later, George was inspecting his garlic plants when he noticed something strange. The leaves were turning brown and the plants were starting to wilt.


George was puzzled. He had followed the instructions on the biochar bag, so he didn't understand what was going wrong. George decided to call a friend who was an expert on biochar. His friend told George that he had made a mistake. Biochar is a very effective soil amendment, but it needs to be used in moderation. If too much biochar is used, it can actually harm the plants.


George learned that when too much biochar is used in a garden, it can have a number of negative effects, including:

  • Reduced plant growth. Biochar can bind to nutrients in the soil, making them unavailable to plants. This can lead to reduced plant growth.

  • Increased soil acidity. Biochar is a slightly acidic substance. When added to soil, it can increase the soil's pH, which can be harmful to some plants.

  • Increased weed growth. Biochar can provide a habitat for weeds. This can lead to increased weed growth in the garden.

  • Reduced water infiltration. Biochar can increase the soil's bulk density, which can reduce water infiltration and make it more difficult for plants to get the water they need.

George also learned that it is important to use biochar in moderation to avoid these negative effects. A good rule of thumb is to add no more than 10% biochar by volume to the soil.


George was relieved to hear that his mistake was not fatal to his garlic. He removed the biochar from around his garlic plants and watered them well. The plants started to recover and eventually produced a healthy crop of garlic.


George learned a valuable lesson that day. He learned that it is important to read the instructions carefully before using any new product in the garden. He also learned that biochar is a powerful tool that can be used to improve soil health, but it needs to be used in moderation.


The following year, George fully incorporated the correct amout of Biochar into his soil. That year, he noticed his garlic plants thrived after using biochar. The plants were healthier and produced larger bulbs than ever before. George was so impressed with the results that he started using biochar in all of his garden beds.


Not only did biochar improve the health of George's plants, but it also helped to improve the soil in his garden. The biochar helped to retain water and nutrients, which made it easier for George's plants to grow. In addition, the biochar helped to suppress weeds and pests.


George was so happy with the results of using biochar that he started telling all of his friends about it. He even started selling biochar to other gardeners in his community. George's success story is a testament to the power of biochar. Biochar is a natural and sustainable way to improve soil health and crop production. If you're looking for a way to improve your garden, biochar is a great option to consider."




Definitions of Biochar

Biochar is defined as a carbon-rich product obtained when biomass, such as wood, manure, or leaves, is heated at relatively low temperatures (<700°C) in a closed container with little or no available air. This heating process is termed pyrolysis Biochar is a stable solid, rich in carbon, and can endure in soil for thousands of years. Independently, biochar can increase soil fertility of acidic soils (low pH soils), increase agricultural productivity, and provide protection against some foliar and soil-borne diseases. (source: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128115084000198 )


Just to be clear, biochar is NOT ash. Ash is not typically a desirable soil amendment—it is just too salty. Ash is the result of typical open burning or oxidative (meaning oxygen-rich) thermal decomposition of biomass. In an oxidative process, almost all the carbon volatilizes as carbon dioxide, leaving behind primarily mineral components of the biomass rich in potassium and other salts.


Biochar technology shows promise in improving soil quality, as well as reducing waste and producing energy as a byproduct. This “newly found” organic fertilizer is a safe, effective soil amendment with a plethora of benefits from increasing water retention and soil microbes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Biochar is short for “biomass charcoal.” Biochar, a specialized type of charcoal where it's structure is extremely porous. This porous surface is what gives biochar its numerous benefits in the garden, as it creates sites to hold nutrients and moisture, and habitat for microorganisms.


Biochar is produced by thermal decomposition of organic material (biomass such as wood, manure or leaves) under a limited supply of oxygen (O2), and temperatures typically between 300°C and 700°C under oxygen-deprived conditions, a process known as “pyrolysis. This process mirrors the production of charcoal, which is perhaps the most ancient industrial technology developed by humankind. Biochar's primary application is use as a soil amendment with the intention to improve soil functions and to reduce emissions from biomass that would otherwise naturally degrade to greenhouse gases.” This 2,000 year-old practice converts agricultural waste into a soil enhancer that can hold carbon, boost food security, and increase soil biodiversity, and discourage deforestation. The process creates a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water. The interest in biochar stems from the fact that this pyrolysis residue may have myriad uses as a soil amendment to, among other things, sequester stable carbon in soil, provide water and nutrient adsorption capacity to soils, and even suppress soil-borne plant pathogens. Many research projects around the world have been, and are underway to explore its potential benefits and limitations.


Biochar is found in soils around the world as a result of vegetation fires and historic soil management practices. Intensive study of biochar-rich dark earth in the Amazon (terra preta), has led to a wider appreciation of biochar’s unique properties as a soil enhancer.


Biochar in the Garden

Biochar is a type of charcoal that is made from organic matter. It is a valuable tool for gardeners because it can help to improve soil fertility, reduce erosion, and suppress weeds.


Biochar is made by pyrolysis, which is the process of heating organic matter in the absence of oxygen. This process creates a stable form of carbon that can be used to improve soil quality.

Biochar has a number of benefits for the garden. It can:

  • Improve soil fertility. Biochar helps to improve soil fertility by adding organic matter and nutrients to the soil. It also helps to improve soil structure and drainage.

  • Reduce erosion. Biochar helps to reduce erosion by holding the soil in place and preventing it from being washed away by rain or wind.

  • Suppress weeds. Biochar can suppress weeds by competing for sunlight and nutrients. It also helps to create a hostile environment for weed seeds.

Biochar is a valuable tool for gardeners. It can help to improve soil fertility, reduce erosion, and suppress weeds. It is easy to make and can be used in a variety of ways in the garden.

Here are some of the ways to use biochar in the garden:

  • Add it to the soil. Biochar can be added to the soil before planting or after harvesting. It can be mixed with the soil or added to the top of the soil.

  • Use it as a mulch. Biochar can be used as a mulch around plants. It helps to suppress weeds and retain moisture in the soil.

  • Use it as a potting soil amendment. Biochar can be added to potting soil to improve drainage and fertility.

  • Use it as a compost amendment. Biochar can be added to compost to improve drainage and fertility.

Biochar is a valuable tool for gardeners. It can help to improve soil fertility, reduce erosion, and suppress weeds. It is easy to make and can be used in a variety of ways in the garden.





What Does Biochar Look Like?

In terms of physical attributes, biochar is black, highly porous, lightweight, fine-grained and has a large surface area. Approximately 70 percent of its composition is carbon. The remaining percentage consists of nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen among other elements. Biochar’s chemical composition varies depending on the feedstocks used to make it and methods used to heat it.


How is Biochar Made?

Materials, such as wood chips, leaf litter or dead plants, are burned in a container with very little oxygen. As this mass burns, they release little to no contaminating fumes. This "burning process" is called pyrolysis. During pyrolysis organic materials, During the pyrolysis process, the organic material is converted into biochar, a stable form of carbon that can’t easily escape into the atmosphere. Biochar is an efficient way of converting carbon into a stable form and is cleaner than other forms of charcoal.





What are the Physical Attributes of Biochar?

In terms of physical attributes, biochar is black, highly porous, lightweight, fine-grained and has a large surface area. Approximately 70 percent of its composition is carbon. The remaining percentage consists of nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen among other elements. Biochar’s chemical composition varies depending on the feedstocks used to make it and methods used to heat it.


What is the History of Biochar?

The concept of biochar is rooted in an ancient Amazonian practice. The word "biochar" is a late 20th Century English neologism derived from the Greek word βίος, bios, "life" and "char" (product of carbonisation of biomass, as charcoal). Although biochar technology is considered a more recent strategy for carbon sequestration, the practice of adding charred biomass to improve soil quality is not new. This process is modeled after a 2,000-year-old practice in the Amazonian basin, where indigenous people created areas of rich, fertile soils called terra preta (meaning “dark earth”). These ancient fields of biochar are still incredibly fertile. Today’s technology creates a similar product, but using cleaner burning machines. Biochar is touted as a potential solution to greenhouse gas emissions. There are numerous methods to dispose of biomass waste being used today, such as composting, incineration, and slash-and-burn. Of all the many methods of waste disposal, creating biochar is currently considered to be the most environmentally friendly. It is the only method that does not release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and the resulting product sequesters atmospheric carbon in the soil for thousands of years. By using biochar in your garden, you are supporting a new technology with the potential to make a huge difference for Mother Earth.





What are Applications of Biochar in Garlic Production?

Biochar can be an important tool to increase food security and cropland diversity in areas with severely depleted soils, scarce organic resources, and inadequate water and chemical fertilizer supplies. Chemically, biochar does not add any nutrients to the soil. Its benefits come primarily from its unique structure. Although it is a source of carbon, it can take thousands of years to break down fully. However, it can improve organic matter content by creating a better soil for organic matter to build up.


Soil degradation is a major concern in agriculture globally. To address this burgeoning problem, researchers suggested applying biochar to degraded soils in order to enhance their quality. Some of the ways that biochar may help improve soil quality include:

  • enhancing soil structure

  • increasing water retention and aggregation

  • decreasing acidity

  • reducing nitrous oxide emissions

  • improving porosity

  • regulating nitrogen leaching

  • improving electrical conductivity

  • improving microbial properties


Biochar also improves water quality and quantity by increasing soil retention of nutrients and agrochemicals for plant and crop utilization. More nutrients stay in the soil. In addition, biochar helps balance pH, it reduces the need for fertilizers, and minerals are delivered to plant roots more easily, and “carbon sequestering” reduces the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Biochar is also found to be beneficial for composting since it reduces greenhouse gas emissions and prevents the loss of nutrients in the compost material. It also promotes microbial activity, which in turn accelerates the composting process. Plus, it helps reduce the compost’s ammonia losses, bulk density and odor. Biochar attracts and retains water molecules, thus improving the water holding capacity of the soil. It is especially useful in this respect for areas with low rainfall and soils with poor water retention. It decreases nutrient leaching and increases cation exchange capacity (CEC) so nutrients are more available for plant roots to take up. Biochar has a negative charge that binds to nutrients such as calcium, potassium and magnesium. This also results in reduced soil acidity (a higher pH). The nutrient binding means that less fertilizer is needed. Since there’s less run-off of nutrients, it is safer for groundwater and surface water too.


Does Biochar Benefit Soil Biology?

Biochars have the potential to immobilise heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, and hormones; prevent nitrate leaching and fecal bacteria into waterways; and reduce N2O and CH4 emissions from soils. Perhaps the most striking example of biochar in action is the rich soil known as “terra preta” (black earth) in the Amazon basin, where over a thousand years ago natives burned jungle plants and branches in slow smoldering piles and combined the charcoaled remains with manure to enrich nutrient-deficient clay soil. Unlike compost, biochar does not decompose and its benefits can last hundreds of years. The terra preta remains fertile to this day.


How do I use Biochar to Improve Soil Quality?

Biochar is applied to agricultural soils using a variety of application rates and preparation techniques. The rate of application and preparation of the biochar will largely depend on specific soil conditions as well as on the materials used to make the biochar. It is often recommended to mix biochar with compost or other materials to inoculate it with nutrients and beneficial organisms. The recommended method for applying biochar will vary depending on how healthy or nutrient-depleted your soil is. Before you use biochar in your own garden or farm, you should first consider the state of your soil. For more information on how to apply biochar on different kinds of soils, check the guidelines on International Biochar Initiative and Wakefield Biochar.


What is Charging or Activating Biochar ?

The porous structure of biochar creates the perfect habitat for soil microbes and beneficial fungi to flourish. Although the microorganisms will eventually move into the biochar, you will see an even bigger benefit if you “pre-charge” or “activate” your biochar (this process is also sometimes called inoculating, maturing, culturing, or charging the biochar). This optional step is done prior to incorporating the biochar into your garden, and has the added benefit of preventing excessive nutrient binding (where so many nutrients become bound up with the biochar in the soil that not enough are available to the plants for a short time. Eventually, the biochar will affect a nutrient gain, once the binding evens out). Aim for up to a one-inch layer of biochar, mixed to a depth of at least six inches to get it to the root zone. Keep in mind this is a one-time operation; You only need to add it once, because it will last for a lifetime.


To activate your biochar, the preferred method is to mix it into your compost pile as you build it. You can add as much biochar as you will need for your whole garden, up to a maximum of an equal ratio with the compost. Not only does this improve the effects of the biochar when it is added to your soil, but it also improves the compost process itself – resulting in a shorter composting time, stimulated microbial activity, reduced gaseous emissions, and reduced odor. If you use soiled farm animal bedding in your compost piles, you can “double-charge” biochar by spreading it up to an inch thick in the fresh bedding. By the time it is spent, collected, composted, and ready to spread on your garden soil, it will be well activated. Another effective way to activate biochar is to include it when brewing your own compost tea. Just stir it into the water before adding the other compost tea materials, and brew as per the regular instructions. You can potentially use a shortcut to activate biochar.


If you don’t have the time to activate your biochar by either of these methods, you can choose from a few shortcuts. A week or two ahead of when you will use the biochar, mix it with finished compost, organic fertilizer, worm castings, humates, and/or mycorrhizae. Incorporate biochar with any of these just prior to adding them to the soil. Irrigate, and wait a week or two before planting. If you choose not to activate your biochar, you can instead encourage microbes to “move in” to the biochar’s porous surface by wetting it down before mixing it into the soil. However, even if you don’t do anything to the biochar before incorporating it into your garden, you will still see the benefits of increased water retention, microbial activity, organic matter, nutrient retention, and improved soil structure.





Biochar and Garlic?

Biochar has been shown to have some benefits in the garden and it might be a good amendment for soilless potting mixes, but here is the problem. Should we all be adding biochar to our garlic patch? Maybe not? Biochar is not one product. It can be made from many different input ingredients, in many different ways. The result of each process is a different product with its own special characteristics. There are no standards so you can’t pick up a bag and say, “this is the one that will work best in my soil type”. You are left with buying a bag of something and hoping it works. You have the same issue with buying compost – who knows what is really in the bag? Biochar has the potential to increase fertilizer efficiency, remove pollutants and pesticides, increase soil moisture, increase soil pH, increase soil microbe populations, and increase cation exchange of soil. But there is one big difference between compost and biochar. Unlike biochar, compost decomposes in a few years. A bad batch of compost is a short-term problem. Biochar may not last a thousand years, but it certainly lasts a lifetime. What do you do if you add a bad batch to your soil? Many studies have shown that too much biochar is harmful to plants and soil. You can’t correct this problem without removing the soil. It may be more beneficial in acidic soil where the increase in pH is desirable. It has also been shown useful in reducing compaction in lawns and poorly drained soil. If you want to try it, start small and use some test areas. Keep the amounts small. Document the product you use so you can buy the same product again. Compost seems to offer most of the same benefits without the downside.


P.S. Want to learn more about biochar? Check out the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) website – they're the ultimate biochar gurus! https://biochar-international.org/


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Mr. Jere Folgert is the owner of GroEat Garlic Farm in Bozeman, Montana. GroEat Farm is a small, sustainable family farm located in the beautiful Hyalite Foothills, in the shadows of the Gallatin Mountain Range. The hardneck varieties that they grow on their farm flourish, due to the combination of the very cold winters, heavy snowpack, moist spring, temperate summers, and the nutrient-rich and dynamic alluvial soils, washed down from the Gallatin Mountain Range.



www.groeat.com
Hardneck Garlic Farm with BioChar



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