Saturday, May 30, 2009

Easy bamboo biochar

The other day, my internet friend Patrick popped up on Skype to tell me about a simple method of making biochar. He'd been to a talk in Tokyo, and he knew from my blog that I'd be interested. How did we used to manage without the interweb, and how impoverished would we be if it was taken away?

The trouble with this method is, most metal cans are of standard sizes, and they haven't been designed with charcoal making in mind. However, being one who takes a keen interest in places where rubbish accumulates, I managed to find an eccentrically-sized can that just fits through the hole in the top of my incinerator.

Cutting the bamboo to the right size took much longer than I had bargained for. A frog in the bushes got rather excited by the sawing noise and felt stimulated to compete. Consequently, there was a general cacophony this morning in the garden. Fitting the slivers tightly in the can also took a while and involved some hammering.

It seemed a shame to waste the space between the bamboo, so I pressed some spare rice husks into service as filler. (Is there any purpose to which rice husk is not ideally suited?)

I put part of a thick rice bag over the top of the can to get it into the incinerator without all the bamboo and rice husk falling out.

There seemed to be a lot of scrap wood and bamboo around the garden to use for fuel, but I made two trips to the bamboo grove anyway, to scavenge dead culms. In the end, I used a lot of fuel.

Ignition! Off to a good start...

Oh shit! I hadn't expected quite such intense calorific output...

Fortunately, I'd prepared two buckets of water and a watering can too. The heat was phenomenal, and when embers spilled out from the holes in the bottom, the already dry grass around caught fire very easily. I had to resort to the watering can a number of times, and if I hadn't been paying attention, the fire brigade would have been out.

The instructions say that you can easily tell when the pyrolysis gas catches fire, but perhaps because I had such a jolly old conflagration going, I had no idea. Not that I wasn't paying close attention either -- I was most anxious not to burn everything on our property to charcoal.

The seemingly vast quantity of fuel burned down to very little ash

After more than an hour of cooling, the inner can was still very hot, but not so hot as to reignite.

Since I hadn't observed pyrolysis, I was concerned that I might still have a lot of brown bamboo. But all of it was gratifyingly black, except for the tips of a few bits in the middle. The quality of the charcoal seemed to be very high -- clean, glassy and brittle. I expect it will be very easy to crush and mix into soil.

Judging by the way the bamboo was all bent and twisted, I suppose it must have got rather hot in the little can.

In general, this seems to be a good way of making charcoal, but next time I'll use much less fuel. Bamboo burns very hot and fast, so I believe the same result can probably be achieved without the 4 ft flame.


When I was a kid, I used to go to Bristol City Museum and see their displays of grotesquely large insects from exotic countries. I always thought, Ye gods!, what must it be like to live in a place where these things exist?

Now I know.

This thing is actually about as long as my index finger, held up for the sake of scale. However, to show the scale properly, I would have had to put my finger closer to this monster, and NO WAY did I want what it has on those hairs to get onto my skin. I already have enough grief at this time of year from the poison of the moth called the 'chadokuga' which leaves fantastically itchy blotches all over the parts of my body covered by clothing. Weird. Horrible and weird. And the chadokuga is just a small thing.


Last year, I was careless with the garlic I grew, leaving it lying around in the garden for a long time, then hanging up in the eaves of the pergola. Consequently, some of the bulbs were eaten by maggoty things and became unsightly. I think one reason for my carelessness was that I couldn't imagine needing so much garlic anyway.

However, as it turns out, the amount I made last year was just enough to see us through a whole year, and now as the last lot is coming to an end, the new lot is ready. This year I produced a bit more than last year, and I intend to be more careful with it, so there may be enough to bottle in miso as a tasty, breath-enhancing complement to fried rice and other dishes.

If you eat garlic and fancy trying your hand at producing veg, garlic is a good thing to start with. Just plant bulbs a few inches apart around October, mulch the ground very heavily, and forget about them until May. That's it.


Recently the missus has been claiming to hear sheep or goats. I pooh-poohed this idea because I get about the neighbourhood a fair bit and have not seen any cattle other than the black cows at the university farm over the way. I figured she was probably hearing one of the three bullfrogs that lives in our pond. The little teeny-weeny bullfrog has quite a squeaky voice that might be mistaken for a goat (if one was, say, of the frail sex).

However, I myself distinctly heard a goat while we were having our Pilates lesson, and snatching up the binoculars that sit in the living room, I espied two white spots on the grassy bank near the golf driving range. Come the weekend, I went over to have a closer look and found a mummy goat with a little frisky boy goat. She was on a rope, but he was running about all over the place freely, jumping straight up in the air at times like a mad thing. The bank is bordered on both sides by a lake and a drainage ditch, and at either end of the bank there are scaffolding fences with netting fitted.

At last, somebody has taken a sensible approach to mowing grass. While pleasantly bucolic in general, this area is blighted by the frequent noise of two-stroke weedwhackers. These are horrible things for both the user, who has to put up with the smell of the exhaust and engine-benumbed hands, and for anybody within several kilometers who has to hear the awful noise.

But the occasional bleating of goats is a very pleasant sound, and there are beneficial side products, like goat's milk cheese and ice cream. I'm hoping to see more initiatives of this sort in the neighbourhood.


We got the Honda Fit Highway Version. Not that we go on the highway much at all, but the package was going cheap for some reason. For those who take an interest in these things, it's a 1.3 l, front-wheel drive, small compact car. It comes with ETC built in, but no navi. It has steel wheels, but I got the dealer to agree to put second-hand aluminium wheels on when he gets hold of a set. It has UV-cut glass and diffusion headlights. It cost 1.5 million yen.

The brochures claim it gets 27 kilos to the litre but this isn't true. It gets at best 16.4 kilos, according to the fuel economy gauge that features prominently on the dashboard.

After having done some fairly exhaustive checks of specs and prices, we concluded that the Honda Fit was the closest we could get to an 'eco-car' for a family that only fills up the tank once a month, if that.

I'd still prefer an electric car...

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

G-g-golden Week!

Lest my dear readers think that I spend all my time toiling on my plot to grow fruit and vegetables, I present this little photo report of our Golden Week visit to the mother-in-law's. Belying its name, "Golden Week" is possibly one of the stupidest national vacations imaginable since it includes two business and school days, rendering it useless for serious vacationing. However, we make the most of the hand dealt us, and try not to fume too much when the man on NHK news declares that we are entering the 'Ogata Renkyu' -- the Big Collection of Days Off, Interspersed For No Good Reason with Days On.

Anyways, we got in our old car and drove to Matsuno on the border with Kochi Prefecture. There isn't much in Matsuno except rice fields, running water, dogs, monkeys, an onsen, a sake brewery, an aquarium featuring river fish, a farmer's market, and a very useful service whereby loudspeakers play a tape of 'physical jerks' at 6:00 am. Yes, that's really 6:00 am, when one generally hopes to be asleep. However, with help from the products of the sake brewery, one usually manages to sleep right through the physical jerks by the second morning.

The highlight of my trip this time was a visit to Nametoko Gorge, about 20 minutes by car from Matsuno. I went by myself this time, because apparently, on previous occasions, I’d made myself obnoxious saying things like, "Do you think we could make it to the next bend in the river before turning back?", and "One day, I'd really like to go right to the top", and "Oh, for Christ's sake, stop moaning everyone!"

Nametoko was a riot of colour. Mostly greens and browns in fact, but with some interesting, unseasonal red.

Some effort had been made to Shinto-ize the absolutely enormous rocks, but this petered out the further the pathway traveled from the carpark.

Where the Shinto stopped, the informal stupas started.

The fairly small river that runs through the gorge has cut some fantastic shapes out of the rocks. This little cove is often full of little children swimming in the summer, but it was too cold for that in May.

I was fascinated by the weathering on these rocks, but I'll understand if you're not particularly impressed. Being there and seeing how the hollow of leaves had left their stain on the rock told a compelling story of the Passage of Time.

I took a side route marked "Bad Path" that went straight up the side of the gorge to a waterfall that we've never visited before. Other than being steep and giving no indication really of where it was going, the path was superior in many ways to some that I've followed in life.

The trees along the way were certainly spectacular. This variety stood out in the sunlight like a streak of lightning.

The waterfall that the Bad Path led to was this huge wall of stone that the water ran down every which way. Somehow, most of it managed to pool at the bottom again to continue on its way.

The meandering path taken by the waters creates environments that appeal to certain forms of life that we don't generally run into in the normal course of things.

I was taken aback to hear what I thought was the distant barking of dogs. For a moment, I thought I might find myself in the middle of a boar hunt. But when I focused my ears, I realized that the sounds were much closer, and the whole bank of rock I found myself in was populated with no see 'um frogs hiding in the dripping wet cracks. My mobile phone video doesn't really do them justice.

The trees were in a magnificent state of confusion. Many seemed to be refusing to die in spite of calamities like being knocked over at 90 degree angles, finding themselves atop huge rocks without any soil for yards around, being crushed under fallen boulders and logs that actually succumbed, or being split and twisted by some unrecorded event in the 70s.

River of moss and stones

This tree, somebody had painted with great care.

If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you

Nietzsche might have said, "If you gaze into a giant rock, about 25 meters across and maybe more, the giant rock also gazes into you". The phrase doesn't have quite the same ring to it, but the effect of the gazing is, I think, much the same.