Five things you should know about biochar

Posted by Aiden McRae on

Introducing a powerful carbon-negative soil amendment for growing in the Yukon

(All photos by YukonGrow unless noted) 

 Biochar is a game-changer for the future of growing food in the Yukon. But not everyone is aware of this remarkable natural material that has been used for thousands of years. This article is the first in a new series of blog posts exploring the power of biochar. 

The ability to successfully grow food and work in balance with the environment has never been so necessary. In recent years, Statistics Canada reported that 17% of Yukoners experience food insecurity, and we’ve all seen those periodic empty shelves. Creating viable local food systems requires effort at every step of the cycle, beginning with the right expertise, practices and amendments required to improve the quality of northern soil. 

At YukonGrow, biochar is our first choice for boosting plant growth and mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration. Whether you cultivate a small hobby garden or operate a small to large farm, we are keen to share knowledge that you can use to harness the potential of biochar. To kick things off, we will introduce you to this powerful amendment and answer some common questions.

What is biochar?

Biochar is a solid black organic material varying in size from small chunks to powder. Rich in carbon, biochar is formed by pyrolysis of biomass, meaning that matter is cooked in a low oxygen environment. This process naturally occurs during wildfire cycles. Biochar can also be safely produced in a controlled kiln with professional expertise. 

biochar carbon

What is the difference between biochar and charcoal?

Biochar and charcoal bear many similarities and the two materials can be easily confused. However, biochar and charcoal have distinct properties and applications. The biggest difference comes down to the purpose for each form of carbon. 

Both materials are produced from biomass that is transformed by pyrolysis. However, biochar is produced under more controlled conditions than charcoal. Biochar is an ideal soil amendment, whereas charcoal is intended for cooking and barbecuing, and traditionally used for heating.


(Photo by Andrey Adreyev/Unsplash)

Some gardeners choose to use bits of charcoal from their wood-burning stoves for their gardening projects. Unlike the controlled pyrolysis process that creates biochar, the quality of this carbon material can be uncertain depending on burning conditions. This leads to a risk of adding unburned compounds to your soil, which could have a negative impact on the ecosystem. 

Another material that is sometimes confused with biochar is activated charcoal, which has excellent absorption properties. Chemical treatment enables this charcoal to effectively filter toxic compounds from water and gas. 

How does biochar function as a soil amendment? 

Adding biochar to the soil helps to hold essential nutrients and water thanks to its highly porous surface area. Soil will become more resilient during dry conditions. 

Carbon helps to activate nutrient exchange between the soil and growing plants; adding biochar to the soil accelerates this important reaction thanks to its electrical charges, known as a high cation exchange capacity (CEC). Beneficial microorganisms also use biochar as a reef from which they can stimulate growth and cycling of nutrients in the soil. 

Unlike peatmoss or other sources of organic matter, biochar does not break down easily and can effectively remain in the soil for centuries to millennia. The long-term presence of biochar in the soil translates to greater carbon sequestration. These unique properties foster vibrant living soils that in turn increase crop yields.

 magnified view of biochar

(A magnified view of biochar)

How does biochar take action on climate change? 

We’ve established that biochar is a powerhouse. But it also plays an important role in the big picture of carbon capture. Firstly, biochar has great potential to transform residues from forestry and agriculture activities that would otherwise go to waste and be burned. By putting waste to work, biochar contributes to a circular economy. 

Through pyrolysis, biochar captures carbon in a solid form, thereby removing it from the atmosphere. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognizes the pyrolysis process as one of six carbon-negative processes required to limit global emissions to 1.5°C. Adding this beneficial carbon back to the soil plays a huge role to draw carbon down from the atmosphere.


Why should you add biochar to your garden?

Biochar is an efficient, hardworking, multi-purpose material that can help you to grow food in a regenerative way, while serving the planet. The drastic climatic shifts and extreme events that are becoming more prevalent demand that we seek out the best tools that will help us to secure our food security. When we work together, we are more likely to foster self-sufficiency in our northern communities. Biochar is a simple yet mighty tool to put to use here in the Yukon.

harvesting potatoes

(Harvesting potatoes: Markus Spiske/Unsplash)

In our next blog post, we will explore practical ways to harness the power of biochar in your own garden. Sign up for our newsletter to receive new blog articles in your inbox!

To learn more about the Canadian-produced biochar products, including application advice, visit: https://www.yukongrow.com/collections/biochar  

 *Note that SoilMatrixTM biochar from AirTerra no longer is available.

Sources and further reading

IPCC Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 ºC 

What is biochar and how is it made? 

Biochar versus other forms of carbon

Biochar vs. Charcoal vs. Activated Carbon: What They Are & How They Work

This Is How Two Companies Are Making Better Soil For Crops

Stories of Yukon food security 

Food Security (Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research) 

Share this post

Newer Post →