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Improving the Soil with Clay/BioChar

January 2017 – by Kay Baxter

In all my years of gardening I have never had such a satisfying or easy job. This is the first season I have been able to plant seedlings into the garden, or seed in some cases, and just watch them grow.. apart from watering, and weeding occasionally.

I have seen no water stress, and it has been quite hot and dry all season, and none of the seedlings or plants have stopped growing at any point which has previously been  normal for me both heavy clay and sandy soils at times.. some kind of stress, and growth stops, often nutrient lack but could be lack of water or air in the soil etc etc

I have usually found, over my entire gardening life, that once my plants go in the ground I’m then watching for when I need to feed them again to keep them growing fast… in the past I used things like liquid fish to give them a boost or liquid comfrey.. in more recent times , I’ve used EF:Nature’s Garden, or EF:CalPhos etc and this season I made my own liquid fertiliser I called Kay’s Liquid Gold.

It worked, it was good but I don’t need it anymore!!!…. All of my plants are growing from day one and not stopping until they are ready to pick. Everything is growing faster and ready to eat earlier than I have ever had before, and I don’t need to apply any kind of foliar or solid fertiliser to keep them growing… and their brix levels are high. See chart below.

It is essentially about getting the basics right  … air.. 50% air in our soil, moisture, always moist… then carbon.. humus and biochar ….then minerals and microbes.

In my sandy soil I had the air once I double dug it, I had water to put on, I made a lot of compost….and I put on lots of fertiliser, albeit the really good stuff….. and it continued to be hard work…. We then added clay. Clay has a far higher cation exchange capacity than sand and that helped a lot. The higher the cation exchange capacity of the soil the higher the ability of the soil to hold moisture nutrients and microbes….then we added 5kgs of CHARGED biochar per sq m and that changed everything. Getting the carbon levels high enough to be holding the minerals and water and microbes was the key. We would have saved a lot of time and a lot of money if we had done that on day one!!!

If you too have less than ideal soil to be growing the nutrient dense food that is to nourish your family then I know now, how you can vastly improve it, in far less time than it took me.

It is all about air, moisture, Cation Exchange Capacity, carbon, minerals and microbes.. in that order!!!!!

In my super compacted sandy soil (old sheep paddock where sheep were set stocked for 100 years), if I were beginning a home garden again, and I was buying product to set myself up I would

  1. Cover area to become garden in plastic to kill the grass and their roots
  2. Lay out beds with pegs and string and double dig to incorporate air into the soil (clay soil the same thing)
  3. Buy charged Biochar (charged with balanced minerals and activated with compost tea..not just activated.. that is critical), and apply at 5kgs (ideal amount.. less is still very good) per sq m over the surface of the bed. At 30 cents a kg it is not exorbitantly expensive for a home garden at that rate.
  4. Apply clay …after having tested by Grant at EF to ensure it is the right kind of clay….at a rate of 2-3 cm over the entire garden
  5. Apply biointensive compost made according to my Art of Composting Booklet at an ideal maximum rate of 2-3 cm over entire bed surface… if my mineral levels are still very low because of poor soil to begin with this is the place I would now be adding Nature’s Garden as explained in Booklet
  6. . fork.. the biochar, clay and compost into the top 30cm of garden bed.
  7. Continue to apply highly mineralised compost each time you plant seedlings or Nature’s Garden. Balanced minerals or recycle your own humanure and urine.

The clay and the biochar and compost together will have raised the Cation Exchange Capacity of the sandy soil so much that this soil will now be able to

  1. hold the moisture for far longer periods, hold far more moisture.. far less issues with water stress, less often watering necessary.
  2. This soil will now have the capacity to hold onto the minerals and fertiliser applied so that if they are not all needed at time of application they will be electrically held until they are needed… because of the higher Cation Exchange Capacity created by the clay and the Biochar….. sand has a CEC of around 5, clay around 40, and Biochar of ????. The CEC is a reflection of the ability of something to attract and electrically hold onto either water or minerals
  3. This soil will now have the capacity to maintain the air spaces ( biochar is structural carbon that will not collapse)
  4. This soil now is now a perfect habitat for microbes and fungi with air, moisture and a place to live (cupboards in the biochar)
  5. This Soil will now have a high capacity for building humus and life (regeneration) because of the combination of biochar, clay and compost and the right moisture and air conditions


Above all else this soil is now able to easily grow high brix plants because the photosynthesis process is not held up by a lack of air, moisture or minerals, or microbes and so as our plants photosynthesis more and more efficiently they are able to sequester minerals and energy from the universe above them and the microbes and fungi in the soil below them and make high levels of sugars which in turn are stored in the soil and used in part to ‘grow soil’.. ie by getting things working to begin with the natural processes of life building itself.. following the laws of nature….are able to continue building soil and ecological health.

By following the basic laws of nature in all of this and putting in the energy to get things ‘going’ again, it is possible to create something that has the ability to take on a life of its own and continue to do the work for us, with some far less expensive and more locally, very locally produced nutrient sources to maintain the system. Ie our own recycled humanure and urine, plus compost made from the carbon crops grown in the garden. We are well down the track at this point of having created our very own Terra Preta dark earth.. by far the most valuable thing we could be investing in on this planet today, in my opinion!!!!!!.


PS… IF you don’t like the idea of the double digging, or that is what is holding you up then I suggest you read Shaked’s article following. He is achieving the same result using a different aeration method, which will work for some of us very well.

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Tips for a Resilient Future

  • Plant European veges in summer as a back stop to the classic summer South American cultivars in a cold Summer you won’t starve! Plant carrots, beetrootlettuce. Starvation years in the past were years when the summers were not long or hot enough to grow the storage crops like pumpkins and corn. Four years ago we had a summer like that here in the Hawkes Bay, be prepared!

  • Chose dark green and red-leafed vegetables. Birds don’t touch these as much and they are more nutritious: Borecole, Ruby Chard, Black Navajo Sweet Corn, Blue Hopi and Bloody Butcher Flour corn
  • Build a sparrow trap – Recycle the sparrows to feed your chickens
  • Have bird protection systems in place, our systems include only ever feeding poultry in Grandpa’s Feeders so the birds do not breed up on chicken food then go to the garden, having rebar hoops and knitted bird netting on hand to use and re-use over many many years and also making bird traps to catch the sparows and recycle via the chickens. We’re building a list of tips that have the potential, if lots of people did them, to change our future, check out this interesting link on Earth Temperature Timeline

  • Maximize diversity you are not likely to lose them all. When you plant lettuce plant several cultivars, when you plant tomato always plant more than 1 cultivar, when you plant beans choose several they all have different qualities and succeed or fail based on differing environmental factors.
  • Always use heritage seeds! Climate change is built into them if they are also grown in biologically active soils
  • Plant perennials that produce a lot of food.. e.g Seakale, Globe Artichokes, Jerusalem Artichokes, Potatoes, Kumara, Garlic, rhubarb, asparagus, shallots, tree onions
  • Choose the easiest plants to grow that produce the most food – Leeks, Garlic, Cylindrical Beetroot, Jerusalem Artichokes, Globe artichokes, Bloody Butcher, Blue Hopi, Hokianga Red/Yellow, Pumpkins, Courgettes, Kale, Collards and Turnips
  • Learn to grow healthy soil and nutrient dense food – high brix, heritage seeds respond to climate! Our book, Growing Nutrient Dense Food will help with this journey.


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2016 Koanga Seed Internship – Building Food Security Through Seed Saving and Nutritional Resilience

This past Summer saw the first Koanga Seed Internship in New Zealand.. and that felt like a turning point for me.

I’ve taught the two week Seed Internships in both Australia and Jordon, but this year it felt like time to teach it here.

We had 6 women with us, who came from very varied backgrounds, but all on a mission. One woman, Merili, was from Estonia…. and she had been looking for such a workshop all around the world. She came to learn and experience as much as she could about seed saving so she could go home and begin a serious seed bank in Estonia! She enjoyed it so much she stayed on an extra 3 weeks afterwards to continue helping in the seed processing room which in late March is still very very busy (beans, peppers, watermelon, pumpkin and much more still coming in… all the corn to go yet) It was great for me to see that the systems we have set up for planning were able to be effectively used for the Northern hemisphere.

Processing seeds from all of our seed gardens is a super wonderful and addictive job to have and the experience of actually ‘doing it’ for real is hard to pass up… everybody loves working in the seed processing shed, and we will offer the possibility each year to those who do the Seed Internship to stay on as apprentices to help finish processing the new seasons seed, a great opportunity for serious hands on experience!

Cushla and Moana were on the Seed Internship as paid training by their employer, The Tuaropaki Trust, as part of their training in the process of Tuaropaki setting up a sister seed bank at Mokai. Cushla had been here for over a year I think, she has done the Urban Garden apprenticeship, the Growing Soil Food and Health Internship our PDC and lastly the Seed Internship. She is well equipped to go out and earn a good living doing this stuff as is Moana who was also here over a long period soaking it all up. We’ll miss them both and wish them well…. And we’ll be keeping in touch.

More and more we are seeing employers coming and asking us for people who have done previous training with us that they could employ. The work we are doing is seriously becoming recognized as a way to future employment… meaningful, satisfying, healthy, regenerative employment!

It’s not just the learning in the classroom but also the inspiration of seeing it really happening and also the experience of working in these designed systems and getting the confidence to go out and actually do it, from designing food gardens that could make a good living for you, whilst saving your own seed, or really and truly feeding your family by saving the seed then growing it, and not only that but fully nourish your family, or designing a seed garden capable of maintaining food security for your bioregion or an entire country, or learning the gift of preparing food that comes entirely from the garden, tastes incredible and is super healthy, or the art of growing soil….all of which are becoming valued skills once again.

We had another woman on the Seed Internship, Suzanne, who came to find the space to immerse herself in seeds and garden planning so she could come up with a detailed plan for how to feed and manage and nourish (based on being able to provide Weston Price levels of minerals vitamins and traditional fats) her extended family … which included saving seeds for all of the food crops. It is no mean feat to be able to realistically design a garden to feed an extended family, knowing it is done super efficiently so it can work in the time available, and so that there will be enough nutrition to maintain family health for the long run, which means also having the knowledge to build soil over time, and also in a way that saves the seed for all of the crops grown for food. That takes some skill and some careful thought and planning and Suzanne did just that and went home with spreadsheets and data bases and all the information she needed, as well as the confidence and the experience to make it real and possible. I see her seed growing becoming the core of a bioregional seed bank in her Bioregion and we will be watching her learning. For Suzanne the Seed Internship was a very important part of her learning here, she had previously done our PDC and several other workshops, and is coming back next Spring with her children to do the Bio Intensive workshop to ensure she is building skills and inspiration within her family to increase the chances of building family strength, health and happiness through food security.

Apart from the buzz of seeing serious students gaining serious skills to take back out into their lives I got a real buzz from two of our sessions in particular … they were were the conversations about hybrid seeds, the difference between F1 hybrids and open pollinates and coming to fully understand the profound differences between the two options and the session where we began to draw a series of pictures describing the life of a seed… to a seed … and learning more about what actually happens and how… and why … so we can support that process, to grow higher quality seeds… and food!

This is an Internship for people wanting to design serious gardens, food gardens, or self- reliance and resilience in an uncertain future, which must include seed saving… it could be a family garden, a bioregional seed bank or a national seed bank, a business or anything in between or a combination of all. It is an internship for those seriously wishing to take the plunge to reconnect with the age old circle/cycle of co-evolution… re-joining ourselves and our families to the earth and the sky of our place, via our food!

Half of the time on this Internship is in the garden and the seed processing room and we offer the possibility for 2 Interns to stay on after the Internship and work with the seeds in the garden and seed room to follow the processes until mid-April and gain more and more confidence to take back out there .

If you any questions about this Seed Internship do not hesitate to contact us, Kay will talk with you.

 Click Here to book your spot on the 2017 Bio-Regional Seed Bank Internship

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Kay’s Homemade Tomato Fertiliser Recipe

Based on my understanding that my soil is low in magnesium compared to calcium and they both need to be raised, and that tomatoes need a lot of both but balanced, as well as a lot of phosphate. We have high levels of potash and need more phosphate. The more microbes the better and we need nitrate nitrogen to get growth and ammonium nitrogen to encourage fruit set and filling.

  1. Apply 1 x 20lt bucket of compost per sqm of garden bed, along with 10 litres of urine (nitrate and ammonium nitrogen) charged biochar. U-bar all of this into the soil down to full depth of U Bar.
  2. Dig a large hole for each tomato plant 30cm diameter and 20cm deep. (4 plants per sqm) In the bottom of each hole place 1 cup of dried toasted crushed egg shells some brown and rest the white for a calcium phosphate boost with our Homemade CalPhos and 1 cup of urine soaked biochar .. mix these into soil around bottom of hole.
  3. Plant tomato plant, so that 2/3’s of its 30cm stem is in the hole covered with soil.
  4. Drench soil with 1 cup Kay’s Liquid Fertiliser (micronutrient boost with calcium and balanced major minerals, microbe food) mixed with 1 cup of Homemade Fish Fertiliser Recipe, and 1 Tbspn molasses, added to 9 litres of water (no chlorine)
  5. Install a dripper irrigation system
  6. Mulch heavily with a thick layer of fresh alfalfa and comfrey leaves (calcium magnesium potash and phosphate) on half the bed and organic high brix cow manure (humus building complexes and nitrate and ammonium nitrogen, plus balanced calcium magnesium and phosphate) on the other half.
  7. From then on I’m going to use my refractometer to test foliar applications and will apply weekly foliar feeds according to what my refractometer says. I’m going to try raw milk, sea salt, Epsom salts (in case I need more magnesium to balance with the calcium), CalPhos, my own liquid foliar, as well as foliar fish. I’ll test the brix of each end of the bed each week, then test various foliar possibilities, and decide what to use and keep in touch. I’m in the process of making all of these liquid fertilisers and will show you these processes and the results of the tests I have made on them by Bioservices as they come to hand.



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CalPhos Recipe

Let me first outline the steps to make CalPhos, below, using chicken eggshells. You can also use other calcium sources like seashells or bones.

  1. Pan fry eggshells (or seashells, or bones) until they are 50% brown/black.
  2. Grind or crush the eggshells, to achieve maximum surface contact.
  3. Put the eggshells into a jar or large bottle and pour in vinegar. The ratio of eggshells to vinegar is 1:5, volume wise. You will see a lot of bubbles appearing – that is an exothermic reaction in progress.
  4. Wait for the bubbles to subside, then seal up the jar or bottle.
  5. Ferment for 20 days.
  6. Filter out the eggshells.

The steps above are just a rough guideline. For more details of making CalPhos and how to use it, do refer to this excellent article from The Unconventional Farmer.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, let us step back for a moment and consider why we do the above. Some of us might be thinking, having to “ferment” the eggshells CalPhos for a few weeks is too cumbersome. Why not just dump crushed eggshells straight into the soil?

For sure, dumping crushed eggshells into the soil could work, by relying on the soil microbes to break down the parts, but this takes a long time. If we want a faster process, then we will have to accelerate it ourselves to make the calcium and phosphor immediately accessible to the plants.

Next, let us look into the chemistry of the process of making CalPhos.

The Chemistry Behind The Process

Our goal is to make calcium and phosphate compounds that are soluble in water so that plants can happily absorb them through their roots.

The chicken eggshell is made up of 95-97% calcium carbonate (CaCO3). The remainder being calcium phosphate, magnesium carbonate and proteins.

Calcium carbonate is insoluble in water and cannot be absorbed by plants. It can however, be broken down into soluble compounds such as calcium oxide (CaO), either by heating up calcium carbonate, or by dunking calcium carbonate into acid.

Let us explore these two methods of obtaining soluble calcium compound that is accessible to plants.

Method 1: Extraction by heat

The process of applying heat to calcium carbonate will release carbon dioxide (CO2), to form calcium oxide. Calcium oxide is soluble in water, but it is also unstable if left alone and will revert back to calcium carbonate when it fuses with carbon dioxide in the air. To keep the soluble compound stable, one can add water or vinegar (acetic acid). In fact, I would recommend that the eggshells are grinded first before applying heat; this way, we can maximize the preservation of calcium oxide.

Calcium oxide mixes with water to form calcium hydroxide (CaOH). All hydroxides are soluble in water. And like all hydroxides, its pH level is alkaline.

Mixing calcium oxide with acetic acid (CH3CO2H), on the other hand, will yield calcium acetate. It, too, is water soluble. Generally speaking, calcium acetate is acidic, and is known for its use as a neutralizer of fluoride in water.

Method 2: Extraction by reaction with acid

If eggshells were to be combined with vinegar sans heating, calcium acetate would be formed, just as it is formed when vinegar is combined with calcium hydroxide or calcium oxide. The minor difference being that the former reaction will produce carbon dioxide.

So, what about the Phosphate?

What about it? If you have that question in mind, you are on the right track! The eggshell also consists of calcium phosphate – a mostly-insoluble compound. That’s right! Most phosphates are insoluble in water, but they are soluble in acids, including vinegar. More importantly, heating phosphates will yield pyrophosphates. Pyrophosphates exhibit the highest solubilities among the phosphate compounds.

What this suggests, is that dunking eggshells into vinegar without prior heating will yield a pretty decent calcium acetate solution but the availability of phosphor to plants will be lower. This is in comparison to an acetate solution whose eggshells were heated prior to adding vinegar.

Bottom line

Heating up the eggshells is necessary unless your plants do not require immediate access to phosphor.

Here are the key points to take home from this article:

  1. Do you need to reduce soil acidity?
  2. Do your plants need immediate access to phosphor?

If you answered “yes” to 1, and “no” to 2, then heat up the eggshells and mix with water to get an alkaline solution. Your plants will obtain immediate access to calcium, but not phosphor.

If you answered “no” to 1, and “yes” to 2, then heat up the eggshells, mix with vinegar and let them “ferment” for a few weeks before use. Your plants will obtain immediate access to both calcium and phosphor. Don’t forget — the acetate solution is acidic and should be diluted appropriately before applying to plants.

So, figure out what you want to achieve. Your plants’ needs will decide which method to choose from.

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Kay’s Homemade Liquid Fertiliser

For a 20litre bucket you will need:

  • ½ kg of seaweed/kelp  meal or 2 kgs fresh chopped up seaweed (good levels of bioavailable calcium, and magnesium)
  • 1 large fresh cow pat
  • 2 dozen egg shells liquid , dried and crushed and  soaked in ½ litre apple cider vinegar (or even better home made vinegar)  until they dissolve or;
  • 6 kina shells or paua shells dried crushed and soaked in vinegar until they dissolve
  • ½ cup molassus


Place in bucket, top up with non chlorinated water and put in a sunny place with a lid on it. Stir daily for two weeks then take off enough top liquid to use in your back pack sprayer or watering can at a rate of 1:10. The liquid will need to be put through a filter so it doesn’t block up your watering can rose or sprayer.

 A 10 litre watering can or back pack sprayer will need 1 litre of liquid fertiliser, so you will have enough for  10 foliar feeds of a garden of 100 sq m  approx… it goes further with a back pack sprayer than it does in a watering can, but I prefer top use a watering can

For a 200 litre barrel you will need:

(If using this barrel then get a large 50mm tap installed 3-cm up from the bottom of the barrel to easily extract the clear liquid)

  • 5kgs of seaweed or kelp powder or fresh chopped seaweed ( chop with a lawn mower)
  • 10 fresh cow pats
  • 20 dozen egg shells or paua and kina shells dried and soaked as above in  5 litres of cider vinegar
  • 5 cups molasses

Follow instructions as above.

 The resulting sludge in the bottom of the container at the end of the season will be an excellent addition to your autumn compost heaps