Put your foot down | Biochar makes compost faster

Put your foot down | Biochar makes compost faster

What is Biochar?

Biochar, or biological charcoal  is an organic soil conditioner. Its a carbon rich product made by putting any kind of plant material into a slow burning, oxygen-deprived environment.


Carbon Sequestration

Viewed through a certain lens, the greatest deficiency in Australian soils is carbon. Charcoal, biochar,is the stablest, longest lasting form of carbon available. And, charcoal just happens to be a by-product of the wood gasification process. German expert Dr Jürgen Reckin was recently sharing with us how he makes rich, black, fertile soil using biochar.

The creation of biochar is a carbon-negative activity. Every time biochar is put into the ground more carbon is sequestered, thus, providing a remedy to the harmful effects of fossil fuel emissions.

Biochar may represent the single most important initiative for humanitys

environmental and agricultural future.  Dr Tim Flannery

While attending South West Catchment Council’s Biochar Gathering at Bridgetown, Professor Paul Blackwell of DAFWA taught us that,

Throwing a handful of charcoal in each time you add to your compost is a good idea.

It’s the simplest thing you can do, and very effective.

Charcoal is a compost “accelerator”. The charcoal actually helps the beneficial microbes and fungi to get going, and keep going in your compost, and afterwards in your soil.

So where do you get the charcoal?

Dr Reckin, the world-renowned soil scientist we met in Germany simply buys BBQing charcoal from his local hardware store, and has created a backyard paradise.

Of course, the best source is always off your own land, so non-compostable materials like eucalyptus branches, walnut shells and “diseased” materials can be good feedstocks to be turned into charcoal at home/on farm.

How do you make charcoal?

That’s what Paul Blackwell demonstrated, with his 44 gallon drum home-made charcoal maker called a “Top Lit Updraft” (TLUd) cooker. He modified the 44 gallon drum with strategic cuts to allow just the right amount of air to come into the right places, and then fills it 3/4 with very dry, rough-cut woodchips. Next, he adds 1/4 of kerosene- soaked woodchips, and lights these on the top.

A very slow burning process begins to move down through the woodchips, and once it’s going properly, on goes the lid, and the top and the bottom are sealed with builders clay. You leave it to “cook” overnight, and in the morning hose it all down, add it to your compost, allow 3 months, and “hey presto – Biochar”.

Dung beetles, feeding biochar to cows, carbon sequestration

We also heard from innovative Manjimup farmer Doug Pow, who is feeding his cows charcoal, and employing dung beetles to completely transform the fertility of his land. The beetles naturally sequester dung, along with the charcoal, deep underground. Doug barely lifts a finger, or spends much more than a cent in the process. Like to hear more?

Here’s a great vid featuring Doug Pow chatting more about how he’s improving soil for grazing without having bought fertiliser in years.

Ecological gardens of France ~ Terre Vivante

Ecological gardens of France ~ Terre Vivante

To celebrate their 20th Anniversary, Terre Vivante, an educational garden farm in France held a special open day. Terre Vivante means “living earth”, and I’d wanted to visit ever since one of their lovely little preserving books fell into my hands. There was no public transport to the closest village. Simon and I thumbed a ride from a young couple, who went 15 minutes out of their way to drop us off to quiet, quaint little Mens, and our awaiting Couchsurfing host, Myriam.

It was going to be a blistering hot day. We hitched another ride from the village to Terre Vivante early on, with a lovely older couple who confessed they’d never picked up hitchhikers before.

They chatted with us on the way in, pointing out things to see, and insisting on going out of their way to show us where the restaurant was. It was very important, they stressed, to get there early. The lines would be very, very long from 12pm, they said gravely. They were right. We ate early, and oversaw the long lines smugly for hours thereafter.

The gardens were made all the more impressive by panoramic snow-capped mountains, which did seem all too far away under the hot sun. Huge crowds of eager punters listened to various talks, taking tours, punctuating the schedule with icecreams, beers, wine, du café, and a delicious home-made buffet lunch.

Terre Vivante turned out to be a different model to what we’d been envisioning with Stellar Violets to date. There was no way to visit anymore on a daily basis: it was only open to group bookings. The main revenue seemed to be generated by the publishing arm of the organisation. It all provided food for thought.

Experiencing the beautiful gardens, educational talks and workshops, and the people enjoying it all confirmed our own vision to create a beautiful, inspiring place for people to visit and enjoy.

We’re excited to be creating a place with similar values in our part of the world. Check out Stellar Violets Placemaking to read more about our current aspirations.

Hidden gardens of France that inspired Stellar Violets ~ Jardin Bourian

Hidden gardens of France that inspired Stellar Violets ~ Jardin Bourian

In the wilds of south-west France we find ourselves in the dappled shade of giant oak and ash trees, at the beautiful Jardin Bourian – a community and demonstration organic garden near Dégagnac.

We met one of the Jardin Bourian founders, Jocelyne Bécé, at Jacky Dupéty’s farm. Hearing of our interest to create a version of Terre Vivante in Australia, she invited us not only to visit Jardin Bourian, but also to stay at her beautiful house in the countryside.

As it turned out, Terre Vivante was also the inspiration for Jardin Bourian in the beginning.

Jocelyne told me this morning as we arrived that she and her late husband had had a dream to create “une petite Terre Vivante” – a well-known organic demonstrative garden near Mens, in Isère, France.

The name “Bourian” is inspired by the word “borie”. It means farm in “Occitan” – a completely different language to french, once spoken through the southern parts of France. 

Jocelyne said it was made illegal to speak local dialects when the government sought to nationalise the french language, so people only spoke it in villages and at home. And thus arose a time when it risked being lost altogether. Now, in some schools, it is being taught again, though many of the elders who spoke it fluently have already passed on. Some of the town signs in the region have two signs, for example, “Figeac” and underneath it, “Fijac”. The first word is Occitan. The lower word indicates how to pronounce it! Not an easy language to learn to write either, we’re told.

But back to the Jardin Bourian, now we know a bit about its name…

Behind me, about twelve people sit around the tables where we ate a delicious shared lunch after touring the stunning garden with our host, Jocelyne. They’re learning how to take cuttings. Several people have brought prunings from their own garden for the workshop. It’s a convivial, friendly group who’ve obviously lunched and worked together many times before.

The air is warm, fragrant, and the only traffic I’ve heard go by in several hours was a motorbike. Flowers spill from the garden beds, resplendent with lush green plants, dozens of beds featuring a mix of herbs and many edible plants. 

One bed shows a number of plants from which we derive textile dyes, including indigo from Nimes. “From Nimes” in french is written “de Nimes (pronounced Neem)”. And so evolved the name for a global fashion phenomenon, cotton ‘denim’.

The garden demonstrates different methods and approaches to organic gardening, including various kinds of mulch, composting, mounds, Ramial Chipped Wood and dry composting toilets. The goals are social outcomes and demonstrating huge diversity, rather than production. There is also a children’s club called “Les Petits Jardinieres” (The Little Gardeners). The maximum is currently set at six children, each with their own 1×1 metre garden bed, and a shared bed beside it.

In the beginning, Jocelyne tells me, a charity was seeking ways to occupy young people in the summertime, and thought they could create a garden. Having not idea how to do that, they approached Jocelyne’s husband, who agreed to participate on one important premise: it had to be organic. 

Three years on he had created a lovely garden. At this time, the charity decided to give up the project. So, what to do? The keen gardeners created a charitable organisation of their own, and now have over 100 members, who pay 10 euros a year to be part of the group.

A highlight is the Butterfly Garden managed by Teneke Aarts. It has a combination of nectar plants and feed plants for larvae. We’re here at the best time of year for it and it is absolutely beautiful. I’d love to create something similar at home with a nod to Jardin Bourian.

And yet another lovely feature is “le plessie”, woven garden bed edging, either dead or living. Dead ones last about three years and the living, obviously need water, food, and pruning to continue in good health. Willow is ideal for creating these and we look forward to experimenting at home.

Our heartfelt thanks to the gardeners at Jardin Bourian, for their kindness, warmth, and hospitality. A special mention is due to Jocelyne, for inviting two strangers to stay in her beautiful stone house, and giving us the opportunity to discover, and become deeply inspired a very special community garden.

making Mothers’ Day meaningful with Trees for Mum – 2014

making Mothers’ Day meaningful with Trees for Mum – 2014

My mum died from cancer when I was 18 years old. Overnight she slipped away, and our family of five became a family of four. After all the waiting, it was over, and there was nothing to do but slowly start to find our way through the dark.

I remember the first Mothers’ Day. There was nowhere to turn from the painful, pink promotional posters and cards, dangling from store ceilings like spinning daggers. Distraction was impossible. The shouting ads on radio and TV persisted for weeks, instructing me to, “Make Mum feel special, buy this now! And book here! Two for one! Bring the kids too!”

Somehow I moved through it, travelling and eventually finishing university with a story about her called Tulips, after her favourite flowers. Mum was an avid gardener. We laid her to rest under a claret ash in the garden she loved, and the trees there… at Dad’s place, I realise I say now… have grown tall and majestic.

Over the years I wandered, missing her terribly. Then one day I began to dream about planting trees for Mums. I took solace in imagining a huge parkland, where people could come and plant a tree for their Mum, or bring their Mum on a picnic. On a whim last year, I googled Trees for Mums, and found many others shared that dream. It was already a national event! It happens around Australia on Mothers’ Day, for any group who wants to organise one in their local area.

Stellar Violets held a local Trees for Mums event last year, planting persimmon and walnut trees along the verge of 21 Middlesex Rd. About fifteen community members came, friends, strangers, Mums and Dads (they brought the kids too!). Afterward, we shared a delicious morning tea. My heart just about burst with happiness that morning and for hours and days to follow. A painful day had become my most precious and meaningful day of the year. It felt profoundly good.

Today I ignore the meaningless consumerism and marketing calls. I’m pleased to announce Stellar Violets will host another event this year on Sunday May 11 2014, planting the verge at 757 Middlesex Road, near Manjimup. Laura Bolitho and Christian de Hahn were so inspired by our verge and Trees for Mums last year that they’ve offered up their verge, along with some funds and a little gumption, for this year’s event.

All are welcome to come and give a hand planting this site with trees, or even just watch, chat, and enjoy the atmosphere, from 9am ’til noon. BYO thermos, picnic rug and a plate to share for morning tea if you wish. After all, a cup of tea always tastes better when drunk outdoors!

Let us plant and beautify our districts and public spaces, and let the verges themselves become majestic parklands to honour and celebrate our Mums, their love, and the beauty they create in the world. Happy Mothers’ Day? Yes indeed.

New Year musings with a magnolia planting, and John O’Donahue

New Year musings with a magnolia planting, and John O’Donahue

“I’ve been squeezed dry,” I told a friend in Sydney yesterday as I hugged him hello.

I was invited to his garden on a whim to plant an “80 million year old” magnolia stellata, and celebrate with a glass of champagne. The original Granny Smith orchard once grew where it would be planted, where my friend’s house, and many others stand today.

I thought, yes, that will help me come back. And it did, a little, as gardening does. That’s two of those I’ve helped put into the ground in 2013. May she grow well.

I’d been running on empty for days, and badly needed my cave. Finally back home in the west “where heaven lies” a day later, this first day of the year, my entire being is sighing with relief. As I drove home from Perth, John O’Donohue’s musings were an inspiring salve; his eloquence and depth of perception move mountains in me.

On the benefits of meditation, after even just two weeks daily practice, he said:

Your mind, instead of being like a nuclear disco, becomes a place where some proportion is restored.

I was struck by the humour and gentle possibility conjure. It was just the thing to get this little ol’ lemon feeling like the juice is flowing back in. Inspired to rest a little, write, soul garden, create, and meditate.

Here’s to a year of restored proportion, within and without. For we all yearn for it soulfully, at some level, whether we know it or not. Here’s to cave time, and soul gardening. Seeding, planting out, tending, weeding, composting, harvesting. And so it must go, from season to season in our hearts and minds, as in the garden.

Recommended reading from Stellar Violets library by John O’Donohue: I return again and again to his book, To Bless the Space Between Us. There is something in there for all occasions.

High Satiety: how to take blue corn tortillas from garden to gay culinary abandon

Mexican Corn Tortillas from garden to gob!

To combat early spring chills, I’ve been getting hot under the collar over making Mexican tortillas from scratch. And I don’t mean just buying the “masa harina” flour – this is about processing it from whole, locally-grown Blue Hopi corn!

If you, like the kings and queens of yore, fancy a feasting experience of excruciatingly high satiety, you’re in good company.

Since early winter I’ve wanted, nay, obsessed, over growing and making a complete, nutritious, and delicious Mexican-style meal from scratch, all in our own backyard. I think it started when a friend made me a chipotle chilli (smoked jalapeño) black bean dip a few months back. I was left aching for more. And it was served with blue corn chips, which got me thinking…

I looked high and low for heritage ‘flint or dent’ corn seed, a relative rarity, it seemed, in Western Australia, and researched how to process it into “masa harina” flour.

The stakes grew high in June when Haag Rd Farm (Margaret River) Co-ordinator, Jema McCabe, came on the scene. Jema, with the help of enthusiastic farmhands Lilli and Jonathan, had grown a crop of Hopi Blue corn last summer! It was hanging, she told me, in the Haag Rd Farm shed, and she was wondering what to do with it. Jackpot! A few questions had to be answered before we could feast. I was patient, and persistent.

Question about a key ingredient: “food grade lime”. What on earth could that be? I called chemical companies, and my 85-year-old chemist friend, Michael Gill, to get to the bottom of it.

The lime, or calcium hydroxide, is needed to “nixtamilise” the blue corn. The process softens and loosens the hard, indigestible corn husk, and also transforms niacin, vitamin B2, and other nutrients into forms easily digestible for humans.

The lime I brought to the table came via Michael, friend, retired chemist, potter, silviculturalist of Smithbrook. It was labelled “Straight lime” in black marker. Do you think the straight part meant “straight from the shed”? He said it was from a bag of lime he was going to make plaster with,  and I was assured breezily it would be fine. Hmmm!

Jema got some fossil powder from the USA, and though it was unclear exactly what it was – the label read “safer than calcium oxide” – we decided to trial it too.

Stage one – the liming – took a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon in the Haag Rd Farm kitchen/sea container. We boiled the corn for 15 minutes in lime solution – two pots for two kinds of lime to test, and one pot with nothing as a control.

By the time the corn was boiling, it was already smelling, Jema said, like Mexico, and tortillas! We were on the right track. The control pot, with no lime, smelled like ordinary sweet corn does when on the boil.

Post boil, we insulated the pots in hessian and left it to soak overnight.

They were slightly softened, but still very bitey and whitish in the middle. From what we’d read that could be ok, as it’s better they are harder than too mushy. So we went ahead with the next stage: de-husking.Come Sunday morning, joined by Margies locals Dayna, and Brendan, we drained the pots and tested a couple of kernels for hardness.

The yellowy, gelantinous husk peeled away relatively easily, but did hold a little to the base of the kernel. Jema busied herself making an insane guacamole fusion dip of avocado, yoghurt, and umeboshi plums, while Dayna and I bent over for some time, concentrated, rubbing corn grains together to away with the last, somewhat stubborn husks.

I suddenly envisaged a dark future, with haggard, blue-ish grey shadows, seen fading into the blue corn fields at dusk. The Hunchbacks of Haag Rd!

Brendan arrived just in time to break us out of the freaky Hunchback reverie as he put the new hand grain grinder through its paces.

He noted the colour was certainly unique, “looks like Corn-crete”.

And he turned and he turned the handle, grinding up more and more promising purple-grey stuff. To everything, there is a season, Turn, Turn, Turn, we sang to keep up his spirits.

With a home made blood orange rosella cordial and sneaky nip of tequila to finish, the cracked corn team thus embraced Sunday afternoon in High Satiety, musing lazily and happily whether it would ever be possible to match the meal we’d just produced.

Recommended Reading

Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon

Where to buy traditional ‘tortilla corn’ seeds for Western Australians

Yilgarn Drylands Permaculture, Geraldton
Bee Winfield of MerriBee Organic Farm, Nannup

Where to buy “masa Harina” flour for making traditional tortillas, and chipotle products

Kakula Brothers, Perth or Kakhulas Sister, Fremantle

Special Notes

Once ground, all grains and seeds begin to oxidise, which depletes the nutrient value as time goes by. It’s best to use flours freshly ground – those less than a month old.

Of all grain or seed flours, “Masa Harina” tortilla flour is said to oxidise and lose nutrients particularly fast. This is another very good reason to learn to grow, nixtamilise, mill and eat your own home-grown “flint/dent” corn, or strike a deal with some growers in your local community to do it for you. The process isn’t hard – with a few friends it was light work and we had an absolute ball.


According to some sources, one can also burn sea shells or use pure hardwood ash as a liming agent. Recipes with quantities of lime to use and cooking times were somewhat challenging to find and highly variable!