From Oil to Soil

Guest Post by Donna Balzer

Boost your soil, save your back and protect the environment this spring with biochar

Al Chomica, formerly from Calgary, is explaining to me over the phone how biochar, a new garden product he is testing, holds both minerals and soil life firmly. He has been making biochar for years, but this spring he is excited to try a new commercial source.

Biochar, a natural long-lasting form of soil humus, is created from burning organic matter in a low-oxygen environment. It is not wood ash. It is the hard part left over after the fire. Chomica says it stockpiles food in the soil, saves your back and will improve the world.

Robert Lavoie, a petroleum engineer, agrees. In 2015 he received approval for his soil supplement, Airterra Soil Matrix Biochar, from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and has found his first major retail outlet, Golden Acres, where his product sells for about $19.95. Web site

“Soil Matrix Biochar is a charcoal made intentionally for soil amendment using very controlled conditions so you get a very consistent product,” he said.

Back in 2008, Lavoie was busy giving media interviews about a large carbon capture initiative in Alberta when somebody at his church gave him a note with a single word: biochar. And suddenly, after years spent working to capture carbon from the air, the savvy, carbon capture specialist entered the world of soil.

Lavoie, who is really proud of his garden and “can’t wait to get out there,” turned away from oil towards soil, developing the Soil Matrix product.

The book Terra Pretta by Ute Scheub (2016 Greystone Books) mentions all the same benefits Lavoie and I discussed. For every per cent of humus stored in a 100 square-meter plot of land, one ton of CO2 is sequestered. That’s a tonne of carbon stored every time soil organic matter, including biochar, is boosted a single percentage point.

Lavoie thinks gardeners and farmers will be happy to hear biochar holds the carbon it pulls from the air, but he thinks they will be more impressed by biochar’s soil amendment features. Improved water holding capacity, mineral storage, providing a home for beneficial microbes, stabilizing soil acidity levels and removing toxins from the soil matrix are just some of the listed benefits of biochar.

SOIL MATRIX BIOCHAR IS A CHARCOAL MADE INTENTIONALLY FOR SOIL AMENDMENT USING VERY CONTROLLED CONDITIONS SO YOU GET A VERY CONSISTENT PRODUCT.

Lavoie suggests Soil Matrix Biochar be infused with worm castings, grain flour and water and left to sit for two days. His inoculated biochar is then mixed with extra compost and applied in a two centimeter layer on mulch or soil. Inside it can be used as soil for African Violets or topdressing for houseplants.

The only disadvantage, it seems, is that biochar won’t improve already excellent soils. It is meant for bad soils. Unfortunately, we have plenty of those in Calgary.

So how will Chomica use his first batch of compost-prepped biochar? “I’ve had the dubious honour of digging (the soil) out of all my vegetable beds,” Chomica said. “I took 21 wheelbarrows of soil from the carrot bed alone. That’s a lot of soil to shovel. And all I did was enrich it: I mixed in compost and beefed it up as best I could.”

This year Chomica is going to save his back and skip the digging. Instead, he’ll add the prepped Biochar as a top dressing to create a forever soil. “I am not going to dig again.”

Retired and living in the mild climate of Nanoose Bay on Vancouver Island, Chomica is looking forward to getting started right away. I imagine he’ll already be sitting in his hammock by the time the rest of us get started gardening and improving our soils this spring.

Donna Balzer is starting a new program for aspiring new gardeners. Check out www.growfoodcalgary.com for more information.

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