• T.R. Hutchinson-Owner Operator

Terra Preta de Indio: Black Soil Gold

Indian Black Earth as the Portuguese called it is the soils which pre-Columbian Native Americans grew vast amounts of food with greater yields than conventional soils available throughout Central and South America.

Rediscovered by explorers in 1879 and 1885, the soil was first described as being a very dark, black color and extremely fertile. Originally it was first speculated to be a volcanic ash type soil from the Andes mountains since it was found mostly in the higher regions of the Amazon basin and not subject to as much of water erosion as the rest of the basin.

Theories abounded for years and decades until it became clear through testing via carbon dating and archeological digs that this soil was made by man 7,000 years ago right up to the time of colonization.

This soil is high in organic matter (humus) and charcoal, mostly comprised of hard woods from cooler fires, the Natives in the region would keep their fires regulated to coals instead of open flames, the process of which would keep heat longer on a hearth and used less wood and produced less smoke than open flame fires.

They would then use various methods as has been posited by archeologists on continued work in the Amazon basin. It is currently believed that the Natives would add compostable materials together with human wastes in large clay vessels. These vessels would have all the household refuse thrown into it, kitchen scraps, charcoal, feces and urine. These would be sealed with a clay lid and left to ferment for a currently unknown amount of time before being broken open, the clay vessel eventually becoming part of the mix. What was left was a dark, rich earth that they had learned would increase the productivity of their fields.

This discovery by the Native Americans of the region led to a full industry in how they would manage and enhance their soils and sustain cities and suburbs of millions of people before Europeans arrived on their shores with diseases and the burning lust for gold.

What is important to note is how this soil works. The addition of the carbon (charcoal) which was crushed, most likely with a mortar and pestle type implement gave the soil enhanced moisture retention and greater bacterial surface area which served to facilitate a faster breakdown of nutrients into the soil from the compost.

Also, because carbon has pores, it facilitates the capture and holding of both toxic and beneficial nutrients for plant roots, some of which is shed with water percolating through the soil.

The ratio of carbon to compost seems to be around 10-15%, however some areas did show greater amounts. And an interesting fact about this soil is that in some areas it seems to regenerate itself. A fact which seems to be facilitated by the bacteria that decomposes the raw materials (sticks, leaves and other organics) from the surface into the soil.

By boosting the fertility of the soil you boost plant health and vitality which also increases your yields. While no exact numbers can be designated as research into the subject is not focused on yields (at this point in time) we can take heart in the fact that the current research is being done to see how well this can help us boost soil fertility around the world, which is a large problem for many reasons, and will also help us mitigate the effects of climate change with carbon sequestering.

What does this all have to do with the bees? Well, in the bigger picture, healthier soils, healthier plants, larger yields (more flowers) more nectar and pollen availability with greater nutrition for the bees, greater nutrition and pollen and nectar yields =more honey and healthier bees.

We’ve poured over many articles and gotten down to the basics of the current research which looks at the cation exchanges and how the fertility works, but we are focusing on how it works in practice for our pots, gardens and in the future fields.

As our apiary develops we plan for large scale manufacturing of Terra Preta through composting of our clippings from pruning our trees, to our fields of flowers, crops and chaff. With the addition of biochar to our composting regimen and then the addition of the resulting compost which is added to soils, pots or gardens we expect and have already seen a large boost to plant health and vitality. Plants grown in Terra Preta show nearly double the growth throughout the duration of the plants life when compared to native soil and bagged potting/top soil as well as a composting facility not far from our home which uses waste water treatment plant sludge from human wastes that has been treated and then processed for a soil amendment with the addition of top soil and compost from green wastes collected by our city.

I have been very impressed and ecstatic about the preliminary results of using biochar amendments in my soils. We currently now use a process of creating our own compost with the use of a composting tumbler which receives half a cubic foot per 27 gallon bin. We currently operate two bins, one bag of biochar is split between the two per batch, which gives us roughly the 10% after breakdown and the compost is ready.

We add bone meal and blood meal as well as earthworm castings, kitchen scraps and yard clippings, and when we’re short on material or we need additional brown material (carbon) we use straw, which counts as part of your brown. If your compost starts to smell, you need more carbon, if it needs more bulk add green (nitrogen). By adding your biochar to your compost you are inoculating your biochar. It is a very important step in this process because pure biochar that has no additions to it can suck in the nutrients of soil that it is simply thrown into, research and experience by other gardeners has shown that simply adding biochar to your soil can actually have a negative effect because of the leaching to “charge” the carbon.

We are also looking into the same process of waste management which the Native Americans used by adding fermented excrement to our compost, however, it has its own process and much more research needs to be conducted before we even begin this step, if we take part in it at all. We as Americans know that this is an extremely sensitive issue in our country and something our people don’t like to talk about, let alone think about, our citizens are quite happy and comfortable with flush it and forget it, we don’t want to see it or smell it once it leaves our bodies.

However, society is changing and the coming generations are happy to indulge in old practices brought into the future in grassroot efforts to address large problems in the world, such as climate change, reduced water sources, clean environments and a healthier world. Terra Preta has many applications to address a lot of these issues, from enhancing soil fertility, tackling climate change, reducing water needs for farming/gardening, to combating waste management for green wastes and bathroom wastes.

Our process right now is simplified to fit our space and our needs, and the resulting materials give honeybees a much needed boost by enhancing the plants that we grow to help feed them and ourselves. We all benefit with greater nutrition access and the bees benefit from healthier and more robust plants that produce a greater amount of nectar and pollen because they have the ability to do so from the ground up.

We are extremely happy to be taking part in this small experiment, showing its benefits on a small scale currently for the home gardener, and we’re excited to launch our business and show how this can work on a larger scale. And we’re happy that you’ll be joining us on this journey as our business grows, we will not only scale up our process, but we will be bringing you videos and workshops on how the to make the process work for your own advantages. It’s not just about the bees, its about the bigger picture, the larger web of life which we are all a part and connected to through many channels. While indirect, we are all still connected, from the bacteria in the soil, to the plants that grow for our food and products, to the waste we throw out.

We can all make this a better world if we pay attention the connections around us. Thanks for reading, I hope this article was insightful and we look forward to bringing you more content soon! Stay buzzy!

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