20 December 2016

Biochar, our new trick in the garden

As is usual for us at this time of year, we're spending a bit of time cultivating our future food. Often I think about how much we get from our garden for the time we put into it. For days or sometimes weeks we'll do nothing but harvesting - these days we are gathering lettuce, zucchini, herbs, kale, peas, some carrots and a disappointing few, but delicious, strawberries. (Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower will come in next week.) Then we have spurts of energy in there, and work hard for an hour, or two or three, sometimes day after day.

Biochar: it's for real

I'm always on the lookout for promising new ways to make the garden easier/better/more productive. One idea that's intriguing me and my fire-loving husband is biochar. Biochar is this: chunks of charcoal, preferably pea-sized, that have sat around in compost for a while before being incorporated into the soil.

The magic of the stuff is this that it locks up carbon in the soil (in the form of burnt wood), and is an excellent storehouse for two vital soil elements, microbes (sourced from the compost) and water. These goodies are housed in the charcoal's hollow channels that were originally the vascular structures in the tree that was burnt.

I keep reading about it in slightly alternative magazines, but please don't make the mistake of putting it in the same category as aerated compost tea or burying stuff in cattle horns (my apologies if I'm mistakenly putting those in the loopy category). This is a real thing - Massey University even has a research centre looking into it. Here's an 11-minute interview with one of the researchers.

How to make it

Note that this is a very down-home method. If you've listened to the interview in the link above, you'll realise that this method is very crude! For example, there are optimal temperatures at which to make the charcoal, and we have no idea how hot our fire gets.

1. Burn some wood incompletely to make charcoal (my husband does this as we sit around a fire that makes an ugly bald patch in our lawn - but it's worth it and is always a social occasion). Burning prunings is a good way to use them up. We put the chopped-up prunings in old milo tins with holes bashed in the lid. Another way to do it would just be to turn the hose on the fire while the burnt wood is still in lumps, before it burns away into ash.

Us with neighbours around a fire.

Milo tins, collected from a workplace tearoom

2. Once the charcoal is cool, it's ideal to crush it up into pea-sized chunks. We haven't done a lot of that because it's probably a horribly dusty process. We might sort out that side of it out one day, though. It tends to break up quite small during the composting process, anyway.

3. Chuck it in the compost heap or bin.

4. Distribute the compost in the garden once it's ready. The biochar chunks will be strewn throughout the soil.

I saw a weed growing out of a piece of biochar in the garden today. I'm not sure what that proves, but it seemed proper! There is good stuff in that there biochar!

Splashes of colour

Our garden's doing really well so far this year. It's the tomatoes, beans and cucumbers I'm looking forward to most.

(Plenty of garden photos here - scroll down if you just want more words!)

Climbing beans
Rampant tomato plants with NZ spinach in the foreground

Little carrot seedlings

A cabbage awaits harvest

The tomato garden from the other side

Most of our tomatoes are black - although they're supposed to be
yellow underneath and dark red on top. They're  'Eclipse Fireball'. 

Will the broccoli be ready before Christmas?

A zucchini plant happily feeding from the compost bin next to it

In the meantime, we have plenty to eat, and I'm loving the splashes of red in either corner of the garden: red alstroemerias flowering in one corner, and chickens with red combs in another. One fills the vase, the other fills our bellies in the form of eggs, and they both fill my eyes with beauty and my soul with happiness.

Ironically, I nearly lost one to the other shortly after I brought the baby alstroemeria plant home from a church fair. Chickens love alstroemeria leaves!

10 December 2016

On milking cows and international holidays

A part of me has a huge desire to take my children to Europe - to visit friends, to experience some of my favourite places, and to discover some new ones. My husband won't go again - he's sworn off international travel unless it's vital for work reasons, because of the greenhouse gases it releases. I worry about that too, but reckon the amount of meat we DON'T eat these days more than makes up for it. (Fortunately I've discovered some awesome bean and lentil recipes, which I'll share here one day.)

At my friend's cheerful doorstep

I've learned that what people choose to do depends very much on what the people around them do. So if your neighbours all suddenly start recycling, you're more likely to recycle, too. In that vein, my desire for an international trip is probably subconsciously fed by Facebook photos of my friends with their children in exotic locations.

So it was refreshing  recently when I went to visit my dear friend Veronica. She's not on Facebook, her house is full of children and animals (sometimes including lambs and pet rats), and I don't think her family's travelled more than two hours from home since I met her about nine years ago.

I can't keep my hands off this dog's soft, soft coat.

This is what I find there: smart, resilient hard-working children. Children who can speak three languages, change a nappy, make a meal, crochet, excel at their musical instruments. The barely-a-teenager does voluntary work, knows exactly which high-flying career she wants and is already working towards it, and can't wait to milk their new calf when it matures and make cheese with the milk. Children who can make do with what they have, but know how to get what they want.

The family's vege garden has old carpet between the beds.
Delicious peas, and waist-high grass in the background.
They are seeking more stock to eat it! The sheep can't keep up with it.

Their house is not going to be in Home and Garden anytime soon. But I love that the artwork was all done by the children (who are lucky enough to have private art classes), that the family allows their heart to be repeatedly broken when they hand over the dogs they train as mobility assistance dogs (you've never met such well-behaved dogs), and that much of what they have has been built, knit or sewn themselves (including their very house, which they virtually rebuilt after it was moved onto its site).

Veronica herself is kind, beautiful, even more likely that me to be in clothes scavenged from a dump shop, and fiercely intelligent.

So when a little whisper comes to me that the travel would be good for my children and they will better off for it, I just remember her family. Comparing children is probably not fair, but I do find myself spotting quite a few that spend a lot of time in front of screens and are learning more about gaming and social media than what I consider are basic life skills: growing food, managing money, cooking a meal, cleaning a bathroom, reading widely, working hard.

I still don't know whether we'll divert funds and energy into an international trip, but if we don't, Veronica's family is my reminder that my children will be perfectly okay without it.

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