Solutions for Self-Reliance

Septic Tank Magic and Biochar Charged Seedlings


The thermometer is expected to get into the 30’s (F) this week.

I take that as a sign that it’s time to wrap up the Robb homestead for the fast approaching Yankee winter — although last year we had a Georgia shirtsleeve-winter.

Before I head outside for the rest of the afternoon, here’s some questions and insight from the greater, online resilient community to think about.  If you have something to contribute, please do.


A Cold Weather Biogas System?

First is a question from Ron in Ireland.

He’s got plenty of compost and manure and he’s looking for the design of a biogas system that will work in a moderately cold climate.

Any ideas or pointers?  I’m currently researching this topic but I don’t have a definitive solution yet.  So, it’s wide open.


Keeping A Septic Tank Pristine

Resilient systems have the ability to continuously improve your situation.  It makes doing well easy.

Here’s a small example: by treating your septic system as an ecosystem, can save you hundreds of dollars a year (and prevent a multi-thousand dollar catastrophe).  It is also the kind of system and system care that would be well suited for biogas production (which makes you energy resilient).

Reader Vandy graciously contributed insight on how to do this.

I lived in Massachusetts for 12 years and only pumped my septic tank twice, the first two year, until I had the courage to stop. When I sold my home 12 years later and had the obligatory “open top inspection” the tank was pristine and empty. The inspector was shocked and wanted to know how I’d managed this feat.

When we purchased the house the septic tank was already 10+ years old. It had been pumped annually.

  1. I reasoned that a septic tank was like a terrarium, a closed system.
  2. I imagined what I could do to keep the bacteria and other shit and garbage eating organisms alive. So, I crafted a plan based on my organic, non-polluting commitment to the earth.
  3. I didn’t allow any but the tiniest food scraps down the sink. All of our food waste, raw and cooked, went into our compost piles.
  4. I refrained from pouring any cooking grease or other oils down the drain.
  5. I used only all “natural” unscented phosphate free laundry detergents, dish washing powders and liquids, shampoos, bath soaps, etc.
  6. No chlorine bleach. OK, only the very occasional load of laundry water containing bleach went down the drain.
  7. I never flushed sanitary napkins or tampons down the toilet, though I suppose some of our house guests might have done that.   Essentially only feces and pee and unbleached recycled toilet paper went down the toilet.

Summary: By thinking of our septic as a closed living system, we managed to keep it sludge free.  After 22+years of operation, the leech field was good as new and the tank’s cement walls weren’t etched. And, we saved $300 each year since we didn’t need to pump the tank 🙂 

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, experiences, and information and creating resilient communities.

JOHN ROBB:  Thanks Vandy!


How to Use Biochar to Supercharge Your Seedlings

Biochar is what charcoal is called when it’s used for improving soil.

Specifically, it’s an organically inert solid that is produced by smoldering (low heat) biomass. Why should you produce it? Biochar is an excellent soil amendment that can last thousands of years.

When mixed with existing soil, it improves water and nutrient retention as well as increasing the population and activity levels of beneficial microbes.

The downside (or upside depending on the type soil you have) is that since it’s ~10% ash, it’s somewhat alkaline. So either treat it before using it or use it as a liming agent.

There’s lots of ways to use biochar.

Resilient Communities contributor Jan Steinman uses biochar in his seed starts.

NOTE: Jan is from EcoReality, a cooperative eco-village located in the South Gulf Islands in British Columbia, Canada. EcoReality is currently looking for members, both financial and participatory. See: for more.

Here’s his recipe. It’s a great demonstration of innovation under constraint and well worth the read.

“We solicit wood stove ash from around our locale, even offering to pick it up.

Then we sift the ash for charcoal chunks (aka biochar, when it’s added to soil). We then grind the charcoal bits into ~0.5 cm chunks. We then mix the chunks with “anthropogenic organic liquid urea” (aka urine, it’s your option on what you use, but this formula works extremely well and costs nothing) to charge it.

NOTE: This formula is a variant on “organic” soil mix recipes for seedlings.

The “charged” biochar is then mixed in with green sand, goat manure and coir to create our seedling soil mix.

This soil mix is then fashioned into tiny 8 cubic cm blocks. We use these tiny blocks for our seeds and use flood irrigation from the bottom to promote root growth. Note how closely they can be packed together on the trays.

The next stage is to make 125cc mini-blocks (about 2″ cubes). At the 125 cc stage, we don’t add expensive external inputs like green sand, but rely more on bottom fertigation for nutrients.

The block maker we use has a dibble in the center (the hole in the block seen above) that makes it simple to directly insert an 8 cc starter blocks into the 125 cc block.

Starting with micro-blocks really saves our mixture, using only 6% as much as planting directly into 125 cc blocks. It also saves immensely on greenhouse space and care labour when everything is in a smaller space.

Here’s Carrie and Ben transplanting lettuce micro-blocks into mini-blocks. As you can see, with each planting we make, we’re adding biochar into the soil.”

Thanks again Jan!


Resiliently Yours,



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