Q: What is biochar? How does it work?

Answer: Biochar is any charred material that comes from plants or animals and can be used as a renewable source of energy. Biochar is produced from a process of pyrolysis. The resulting charred biomass is inoculated with either animal manures, compost or vermicompost. Biochar is used as a soil amendment to increase the bioactivity of the soil. The research on biochar has shown a wide range of results on plant growth and substrates. At N.C. State University, pine wood chips and rice hulls have been used to produce biochar and research has been done on using biochar as part of a soil mix for growing tomato transplants. Though biochar appears to have a positive effect on plant growth, the expense of producing it is prohibitive for most farmers. To produce or to purchase biochar on a scale needed by most farmers makes using biochar less attractive at this point in time. With more research, it may be found that the benefits of using biochar as a soil amendment to add microbial activity outweigh the expense of producing and purchasing it. Biochar costs about $200 dollars per cubic meter. Currently there are no industry standards for producing biochar, so there is a wide variability in quality. More information about the research project may be found here: https://projects.ncsu.edu/project/woodsubstrates/documents/press/investigate-two-biochars-in-soilless-sub.pdf

Q: I like watching the birds and feed them during the winter months. The only problem is that they tend to cause problems with the germinating seeds in my garden later in the spring. What can I do to discourage the birds from visiting my garden during seed germination?

Answer: Bird watching is a great hobby and for many of us provides a great connection to nature. Some people say that you can predict the weather by observing bird behavior. Birds and other animals do react to changes in barometric pressure, so weather prognostication could be attributed to our feathered friends. While birds may need to be fed during the winter months when seeds, insects and worms may be scarce, it is a good practice to wean the birds from your birdfeeders as spring comes into flower. Depending on the species, hungry birds can be part of your insect control program and can eat 850 to 2,000 insects a day. Sometimes birds can be pests. Crows especially like to eat germinating seeds and can lay waste to your hard work of planting in a very short time span. Sparrows like to take dust baths in dry garden soil and will destroy a newly planted garden as they go about their cleaning chore. One practice to protect your newly planted seed bed is to lay some pieces of burlap over the newly seeded area and wet it down. Remove the burlap when the seeds have germinated. It also will help to use a water breaker and lightly wet down the bed area when you finish planting if it is too large for you to cover completely with burlap. Keep the soil nice and evenly moist till germination and maybe the sparrows will find another dust bath area more appealing.

Another practice is to place a scarecrow in the garden to frighten the birds away. It is a good idea to add pieces to your scarecrow that will flap in the wind and may even make some noise that birds would be scared of. Materials such as pie pans or strips of reflective mylar ribbons work well. Move your scarecrow periodically to fool the birds. Birds can learn and become habituated to anything that is used for a long time in one place. Other practices are to place a large plastic owl on an 8 foot high post to simulate a predator bird keeping an eye on its territory. There are also eye-spot balloons which can be moved around in the garden to keep the pesky birds at bay. Recordings of distress calls or the calls of predatory birds, which repeat at regular or random intervals and operate on battery or solar-power, can be quite effective. Because flocking birds are very responsive to the signals from others in their flock, a distress call from one bird is a sign to all the others that an area is unsafe. It is a good idea to use multiple tactics that reach more than one sensory mode of the offending birds. For example, combine the moist burlap covering with eye-spot balloons. This is likely to be more effective than using one tactic alone.

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Mary Jac Brennan is the agent for fruit and vegetable horticulture for small farms and local food for the Forsyth Cooperative Extension. Contact Mary Jac about commercial production, local foods, and sustainable agriculture questions. For information on home and gardening issues, contact the Forsyth Cooperative Extension office at maryjac_brennan@ncsu.edu or call 336-703-2850.

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