Apr 15, 2010
by Ramona Byron I once heard a joke that went like this: An arrogant agnostic once challenged God that he could do anything that God could do. God said "very well" and accepted the challenge. God rolled up some dirt and fashioned a human out of it, who then became alive and ran away rejoicing and praising God's name. The agnostic sniffed, and reached down for a handful of dirt so he could make his own "improved" version of a human, who would of course immediately begin praising the agnostic's name even louder. But God held up his hand to stop him before he could even get started. "Hold on there, young man," said God sternly. "You go make your own dirt." So I felt a little like an arrogant God-wannabe when I set out to make my own soil. Terra preta soil, to be precise. Unlike God, though, I had more than Chaos to work with initially. I had all of the ingredients made for me ahead of time, thanks to billions of years of star evolution to create the atoms of which the Earth, the soil, and we ourselves are all made; and millions of years of earth evolution to create the microorganisms that dwell in that soil and make it fertile for the plants that feed us. RAMONA'S RECIPE FOR HOME-MADE DIRT (TERRA PRETA SOIL): A partner with a lot of stamina (helps but is not absolutely necessary) Two sledge hammers A sharp, short hoe An earth-tamping tool A large umbrella with stand, for shade to work in Safety glasses Sun hats Some very understanding, forgiving, or just hard-of-hearing neighbors Several bags of charcoal – as many as you have the stamina or attention span for; it helps a lot to open the bags and leave them out under the sprinklers for a few days or weeks to get it good and wet, to make it easier to break up. I do not recommend mesquite, and it is devilishly hard and difficult to break. Use Cowboy brand or some other brand that does not have chemicals added. A large shallow bin for breaking the charcoal into Some concrete pavers to put under the shallow bin, to provide a firm surface for breaking the charcoal Some buckets, or plant pots to pour the broken charcoal into (or you can just dump it from the shallow bin directly onto the ground, for that matter) Some nitrogen (there is no science to tell you how much to use – just follow your instincts; my advice is to apply somewhat less nitrogen than charcoal) Some soil life (beneficial fungi, bacteria, nematodes, and earthworms) Compost Perlite Water Some organic fertilizer, if you want to jump-start things One citrus-flavored soft drink (for the terra preta and maybe one for you too) One cheap stale beer (for the terra preta) Some good cold fresh beer (for you) A strong back, or else a chiropractor who's on call A whole lot of glucosamine and analgesics for your back, whether or not you have a chiropractor A lot of shampoo, soap, a good scrubber, and hot, hot water because you're going to **seriously** need a shower when this is all done Now you have probably discerned from this list, that making terra preta soil is not for the feeble of body or faint of heart. I will get into the details of what to do with all of the above later; but I want to digress a bit first. First of all, my own high-stamina partner-ingredient for this recipe is Michael P. Byron, author of "Infinity's Rainbow: The Politics of Energy, Climate and Globalization" and "The Path Through Infinity's Rainbow: Your Guide to Personal Survival and Spiritual Transformation in a World Gone Mad." You can find links for these wonderful books on Mike's webpage at: http://www.michaelpbyron.com/. KNOWLEDGE IS POWER I most highly recommend Mike's books, and it's not just because I'm Mike's wife. It's because I care whether you yourself survive the coming crises of peak oil and the famine that is almost certain to result from it. Think about it – in the United States, over 90% of our food production and distribution is directly dependent upon petroleum; so when the oil goes, our agri-business supplied food also goes. Ignorance of this subject is not bliss – it is dangerously irresponsible and suicidally stupid. If you read Mike's books, you will be informed of what is going to happen, why, and what you can do to take care of yourself and your loved ones. Knowledge is power. THE GOOD EARTH Mike talks about terra preta soil in his second book, in the section titled "The Good Earth." Here's a short quote: Recently, in the deep Amazon basin region of north-central Brazil, archaeologists from the Central Amazon Project discovered evidence of an ancient indigenous soil technology that may hold enormous potential for post-petroleum civilization's fate. The area was first discovered by Europeans in 1542 when Francisco de Orellana entered it in search of the mythical golden city of El Dorado. He was not successful in his quest for gold; however, five centuries later, it appears that he may have unknowingly stumbled upon something even more valuable than gold: rich, self-fertilizing, and self maintaining soil. Terra preta soil is formed by incorporating biochar-locally produced charcoal-into ordinary soil. This activates the soil and enables it to permanently hold far greater quantities of minerals and nutrients than would otherwise be possible. This then sets into motion a complex and still not fully understood chain of events that include microorganism growths throughout the soil, which results in the soil becoming terra preta soil within several years. One Amazonian farmer has cultivated crops on terra preta soils for 40 years without ever adding any fertilizer. "That's incredible," an environmental researcher said. "We don't get that in Iowa." So. Well, then. Take that and stuff it, Miracle-Gro! FOOD NOT LAWNS Mike and I recently bought a home in Oceanside, California. We looked for a place with enough land to grow our own fruits and vegetables, adequate space for Mike's enormous tortoises, and still enough space left over for us to relax and unwind. We love this place. I had attended a fascinating event in the summer of 2007 that was sponsored by San Diego Food Not Lawns. I attended one workshop where the presenter showed pictures of his front yard, which was landscaped with food plants. The presenter made the point that you don't have to do everything at once – that you can take out the grass in small patches and just landscape in small, manageable sections. You can even leave paths of grass between the sections. You can use the tall plants like fruit trees to support other plants like pole beans, with the lettuces underneath because they like a bit of shade, so that the plants work together. His pictures were beautiful! So Mike and I committed ourselves to using only organic farming methods for our fruits and vegetables, and even for the grass. That's because the more that we have learned about the dangerousness of the chemicals that are slathered on people's food and yards, the less we want anything to do with it. This decision required us to do some extremely hard manual labor as we dug out waist-high weeds, one by one, then tilled and planted grass and vegetables. But we were determined to walk the talk. And the wisdom of our decision was made truly, wonderfully and visually worthwhile for us when one day we watched a tiny bird using our wet grass as a bird bath, and then drinking the water from the grass blades. That was when we were really glad that we had not used chemicals to kill the weeds, because we knew that our tiny guest was safe playing in our yard and drinking the water off of our grass. And by the way, I like to wiggle my own toes in the wet grass sometimes, and it is very good to know that it is chemical-free. And speaking of birds, we have a bird feeder right by the patio, and the finches come right up even when we're sitting out there. There are lots of mockingbirds back there, too. I've been trying to teach them the first few notes of the Marseillaise, but they don't seem very impressed with my whistling. Or maybe they just don't like the French. No accounting for taste, oui? In the front yard, we have so far planted a stand of banana trees, an apple tree, a mandarin orange, two papayas, and two blueberry bushes. There will be a small orchard there eventually. In the turtle and people parts of the backyard, we've planted a macadamia nut tree, three zinfandel grapevines, a coffee tree, an allspice tree, three cherry trees (one Catalina cherry and two Surinam cherries), a fig tree, and a lemon tree – so far. There will be more stuff coming in soon, no doubt. I'm nowhere near done with this yet. A WEED BY ANY OTHER NAME IS A PLANT We actually left the weeds on the turtles' side of the yard, but they've eaten almost all of them by now. We tilled the bare areas and planted clover and grass, carefully steering the roto-tiller around to avoid the weeds in order to leave them growing there for the turtles to feed on. And would you believe, we also planted MORE weeds in there! Actually, dandelion greens are about three times more expensive than other types of greens at the vegetable sections of the grocery stores, and they're way more nutritious – both for turtles and for people. So we transplanted dandelions into the turtle yard, and when one goes to flower, we thump the seeds back into it again! I've always said that the only difference between a weed and a plant is whether you want it where it is. If you want it, then it isn't a weed, no matter what it is or what the neighbors think of it (by the way, we made sure to buy in an area with no covenants like that). TERRA PRETA "FIRST DAY OF CREATION" We set out early one Sunday morning to make terra preta soil in the vegetable garden side of the back yard. We were out rather early because it was going to get hot later in the day, and we wanted to do the greatest part of the work while it was relatively cool. Banging on charcoal early in the morning on Sunday is the reason that my recipe for terra preta calls for either very understanding or else hard-of-hearing neighbors. Think drums, but without the rhythm or resonance that give drums their redeeming social value. Fortunately for us, no one called the noise police. I can tell you, we would never have gotten away with that in Germany, where I lived for two years (very **quiet** years – well, mostly), and where folks deeply resent it when people raise an unholy ruckus on Sundays. So there we were, crushing about eight bags of charcoal by hammering the pieces with heavy mallets, the earth-tamping tool, and the short hoe. This was HARD WORK, to say the least! We tilled the ground with a roto-tiller, spread the charcoal on the ground, added nitrogen, some fertilizer that contained beneficial fungi, some compost, some Perlite, and our secret ingredient -- some turtle poop. Mixed that all into the ground with the garden tiller, and planted three eggplant seeds, and a bunch of rows of mustard and lettuce, and some onions. The eggplants and onions are for us, but the mustard and lettuce are mostly for the turtles – for now at least. When we get really serious about using that garden for feeding ourselves, then the turtles will get busted back to eating weeds and clover from just their own side of the yard. This was about 300 square feet of terra preta garden. Of course, we will be doing this again and again, to gradually turn the entire vegetable garden into terra preta. You can use as much charcoal as you wish because the science doesn't say that there is any upper limit to how much to use; but eight bags for about 300 square feet of area should be the minimum, in my opinion. So you can do the math for the amount of charcoal that you will need to crush for the area you're trying to cover, and the amount of richness that you want to give to it. We looked like coal miners by the time all that charcoal-pounding and ground-tilling was all over. By the time I got done with my long shower, I was so tired that I could barely stand up. Mike made me go sit down and have a cold beer, and I got better after a couple of hours – or was it, a couple of beers? Probably both, and using them to wash down several glucosamines, of course. Surprisingly, I was able to get out of bed the following day, which I attribute to the glucosamine. SO DON'T FORGET THE GLUCOSAMINE! 'Nuff said. TERRA PRETA "SECOND DAY OF CREATION" Later, after several days of rest (after all, God himself took several of his kind of days to finish making his own dirt), I poured a mix of water, beer and citrus-flavored soft drink over the area. You pour one beer and one citrus-flavored drink into five gallons of water, and then sprinkle it over the ground. It is important that both of these be the regular and not the low-calorie or sugarless kind of beer and soft drink. Low-cal beer is made of rice and lacks the amount of yeast that regular beer has. The yeast in the beer feeds on the sugar in the soft drink, which then gives a jump-start to the beneficial bacteria in the ground. You can use cheap beer for this particular job – plants and bacteria don't have much of a palate, after all. TERRA PRETA "THIRD DAY OF CREATION" About a week later, I added the beneficial nematodes. I didn't add them on the same day as the beer because I suspect that nematodes can't handle their alcohol and I didn't want them to get soused in there. So while you're waiting for the beer to sink in (to the ground, I mean), you can store your nematodes in the refrigerator for a few days or even a few weeks. Appetizing – NOT. BE PATIENT Be aware that the charcoal has to absorb the nitrogen and nutrients before it can give any back to the plants. For this reason, it could be awhile before the terra preta becomes truly fertile for plants, so you have to be patient with it. That was the reason that I listed organic fertilizer as a jump-starter for the terra preta garden, to both feed the plants in the interim and to help load up the charcoal with nutrients. And that's how we made our own terra preta soil. There is not a lot of hard science on this, so there is plenty of room for improvisation in developing your own recipe. So good luck and happy gardening!