Making Terra Preta Soil: Ramona's Recipe for Home-Made Dirt
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)
- 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!