Experimental Farm Using Activated Charcoal

Charcoal Gardens was purchased in March 2013 initially as a recreational property. The property had never been lived on and was essentially open range for cattle. We spent the first year clearing away deadfall along Deep Creek, burning, gathering piles and piles of cow pies, building fence, and raking more piles and piles of Cottonwood leaves in the fall. That winter we began our 48 ft by 36 ft monitor style barn with a 20 ft wide greenhouse along the south side. We were far enough along by summer 2014 to plant some tomatoes both inside and outside.




This area of NW Nebraska is relatively dry and windy. It is well suited for grassland for hay crops and grazing, but if there are sufficient spring rains, some farmers will attempt different grains or sunflowers. The soil is very fine and once exposed to the air quickly dries and blows away, so keeping the ground covered is critical to retain moisture and the soil itself. Starting off inside a greenhouse seemed the safest beginning.

We had a 100ft well drilled, which tested about 10 – 12 gallons/minute (much better than our 2.5 gallons/minute at our current home/business property). But we had no electricity. So we installed gutters on the barn to collect all the spring/summer rainwater into a 1650 gallon storage tank, and it proved just enough to get us through the garden season.

Besides being very fine and alkaline, the soil is not that fertile with very low nitrate (3 ppm), phosphorus (11 ppm), and manganese (2 ppm) levels. Organic matter is very low (1.2 %) and carbon content is even worse (0.51% by volume). Considering these factors, this property should be a very good site to demonstrate the benefits of organic gardening with an emphasis on adding substantial carbon content in the form of biochar.

Our planting method has been dubbed the Lasagna Carbon method. I hand dug a trench 40ft x 3ft by 2ft deep. I then layered back in thick layers of composted leaves, coarse grade hardwood biochar, dried cow pies, and earth, and repeated the process twice bringing it up to 6 inches from ground level. I finished off with a generous layer of our Charcoal Green® potting soil. Once prepared, the layers are never mixed. As the biomass compacts through the growing season and the soil level drops, I will have room for several years to add in more layers. I prepared another similar bed along the outside of the greenhouse, but used our backhoe to dig a deeper and wider trench.

I also planted a variety of fruit trees. Using the backhoe, I excavated large 3-4ft wide by 3ft deep pits. In these I first laid down a 6in layer of broken rock, then followed the Lasagna Carbon method described above, and finished with a very thick layer of leaf mulch. They are surviving in spite of insufficient water, grasshopper infestation, curious deer, and badgers. The orchard will get its own enclosure next year for the deer, raccoons, and badgers, and some chicken wardens as a first line of defense against grasshoppers, and Nosema locustae, an organic, naturally occurring grasshopper bait, and a drip water line. Everything working together, maybe we will be rewarded with enough for a peach pie next summer.

The soil was strongly alkaline (9.7), so on the outside bed I added natural sulfur prills intending to slowly bring the pH down over the next three years. As well as tomatoes, I planted some blue berry plants, and different cane berries. The tomatoes did exceptionally well, but the only berry plants to survive were the blackberries (soil still too alkaline).

Outside, I trained the heirloom tomato plants to a 6ft pole trellis. Inside I strung twine down form the 10 foot up roof rafters. I thought that they all had plenty of room to grow. Other projects took over and I was not able to properly prune and tie the plants. By fall most of the plants outside collapsed after reaching 6 ft and nowhere to go. Several of the plants inside made it to 10 feet. I never kept track of how many tomatoes we gathered, but we had plenty by the time we left for India, the end of October. Hundreds of tomatoes were left on the vine and froze before we returned.

2015 has been dedicated mostly to preparing the property for more serious experimenting in 2016. The rest of the greenhouse was prepared with similar trenches, hand dug down to two feet. Thankfully I had Willie to help with that project. They too were layered and then planted with more heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and some potatoes. Most of the tomatoes and all of the cucumbers were grown on twine strung from the 10ft roof rafters. For the rest of the tomatoes I used very large sturdy cages. I transplanted the outside bed with more tomatoes and some sweet corn. It was the year of the grasshopper. The plants outside never had a chance. By mid summer the ground seemed to move with four or five varieties of grasshoppers.
Inside the greenhouse, while the grasshoppers had a large open door to come in, they only did some minor damage to the potato plants. But it was obvious with all the plants we needed a larger supply of water.

While we have an abundance of wind we also have plenty of sunshine. We decided to go solar since hooking up to the grid was not an option. A solar system, another first, but we had expert help over the phone and Internet, and very simple assembly instructions. While I have years of experience with AC wiring, assembling the solar panels, inverter, DC wiring, and deep cycle batteries was all new.




I excavated a large cut into the hill next to the well, which was situated 140 feet from the barn. There we built a combo greenhouse and pump house with cement block. I trenched two five-foot ditches from the barn, one for the 4/0 underground service wire and Cat-5 cable to communicate with the electrical system in the barn, and the other ditch for the two-inch water pipe. From the pump house the service wire, Cat-5 cable, and water line extend another 250 feet to the new building site. God was gracious and everything worked well from the start, and there is plenty of power and water. Even found time to build a two-seater outhouse with a view.




We had a few left over cucumber and tomato plants and so, with little care, planted them in the prepared trenches in the partially underground greenhouse. Except for the doomed plants outside, everything grew well. Actually, too well. 






Again I was distracted with finishing building projects and I gave up attending to the plants after they all reached 6 feet. The cucumbers made it to 10 feet then began traveling along the horizontal support wires. After reaching their limit, a couple cherry tomato plants escaped through the polycarbonate roofing and out onto the roof. If the first frost had been delayed another seven to ten days I would have had pictures of red/purple cherry tomatoes basking on the roof - with no easy way to pick them. Inside, all the determinate tomatoes ignored their genes and didn’t stop growing until they hit the roof. Some of the plants that lost their grip on the twines, collapsed then decided to grow horizontally. In just a week the greenhouse became a confused jungle. To get to the cucumbers I had to use an eight-foot ladder. Most of the tomatoes became lost in the growth. The peppers produced well but the tomato plants grew into a jungle canopy over everything and so the peppers never turned red. 






It is almost December now, and thankfully everything has been hauled down and out. I still have to dig the potatoes, which did not do all that well (they did not get their share of water in time).

The only outside trial we did was in the early spring when it was still quite crisp outside. We marked out several 100ft x 10ft plots and spread activated charcoal powder over the one entire plot, and coarse hardwood biochar over another. One plot was kept as the control. The grass had all been mowed to the same height. We wanted to see what, if any, advantage the charcoal or biochar would be. Within ten days there was a noticeable difference. While the control plot did not seem to have grown at all, the two other plots were greening up nicely, with the coarse biochar doing the best. Since neither charcoal nor biochar had been worked into the soil, we concluded the advantage we were seeing was the heat factor. The blanket of black powder was capturing and radiating heat to the soil, giving the grass a head start over the control plot. But, as the days grew warmer the control plot began to catch up and by mid summer there was no obvious height difference.

This outdoor experiment only confirmed what some of our customers have known for years. A charcoal blanket over cold spring soils can quickly warm them up and even melt snow. The Parks Service has purchased charcoal powder to help control avalanches by melting snow to make snow packs more dense, and less likely to collapse. I am guessing that, to help ward of golf fever, some country clubs have purchased charcoal powder to melt off late spring snows, so golf devotees can see the greens. While we did not have to worry about any avalanches, we had just too much snow.




From charcoal pots inside in May, to outside charcoal plots in July,
to inside jars in September. 






2015 has been a very busy year with expanding and building, but even with the inattention the garden experiments have been very productive, and the fruit shared with many, and wrapped or preserved to be enjoyed later. No commercial fertilizer in any form was used. A substantial amount of organic matter was added (leaves), modest amounts of nitrate (dry cow pies), and carbon (biochar). Nothing that could be termed scientific, but overall, a successful beginning.


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