Monday, December 15, 2008

Is compost the answer?

That depends. What’s the question again?

CAPCOG is the state designated planning agency for solid waste management issues in this region, and since I’d really like to know what’s planned, I’ve been exploring their website.

Household compostables are still the forgotten stepchild, but there are some (too limited) facilities in place for composting presorted grocery wastes and food scraps from cafeterias through at least one public/private partnership. And it turns out that TxDot—the Texas Department of Transportation—uses compost in its roadside landscaping. In great quantities, even.

There’s a PowerPoint presentation about it—those folks do seem to like their slides—which is where the title of this post came from.

I find it hard to fathom that this really is a question, but a look at that presentation serves to remind me that not everyone is as much a fan of compost as I. Good or bad PR? Yikes! How could using compost possibly be perceived as a bad thing? But then there’s the boldface on these captions

Compost IS NOT:
raw sewage sludge or manure

Compost IS:
a pasteurized, pathogen free, organic soil amendment

(Note that “pasteurized” only applies to hot compost, though it is wholly correct to use here, and that the word “organic” is technically true though not, perhaps, in the same sense as it will be read.)

Which I guess answers the question—compost could be perceived as “unclean” by those who do not understand the process, who think that all trash is filthy, and all those things consigned to the bin or heap are dirty.

In the bad sense of the word. –G–

Are the pro-compost people unintentionally undermining my small efforts, and those of my larger-scale peers, with their compost=pasteurized material equation? Possibly, though not necessarily; bokashi can be thermophilically treated, it simply need not be.

But I wonder if that equation might be part of the reason that Austin, unlike other green cities, does not subsidize residential compost bins (traditional, anaerobic, vermicompost, and/or bokashi).

Hmm. An answer leading to new questions; somehow, that fits.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bokashi tip of the day: rough pH test

May seem like an odd time to post this, but 1) I just thought of it, and 2) Planting season is never too far off. Thankfully.

Most of the bokashi retailers recommend that you let planter-finishing units rest for two weeks before planting. This is because fresh or newly cured bokashi is still acidic enough that it may burn plant roots. This same acid concern lies behind the recommended distance between trenches and gardens or trees. And some vermicomposters prefer to let their bokashi cure awhile longer than the standard ten days to two weeks before feeding it to the worms, also for fear of acids.

How acid is too?

Well, if a pinch of baking soda added to a tablespoon of moist bokashi (or compost) fizzes, then it’s definitely too acidic for garden safety—less than 5 pH. I can’t recall offhand what the ideal pH for redworms, though I seem to remember it being at least slightly dependent on the species of worm, but certainly you shouldn’t add any fizzy bokashi to a wormery.

BTW, that test works for soil, too, and it’s possible to test for alkalinity almost as easily: Dig up a scant cup of garden soil. Pick out any bits of inert or living matter, comb for consistency, and let air-dry. Add several drops of vinegar to dried soil to test for alkalinity—fizzing means pH over 7.5. Moisten some of the dried soil with distilled water until it’s very damp but not sopping and add a pinch of baking soda to a tablespoon of soil to test for acidity.

For more precise measurements, litmus paper’s probably the cheapest option.

Happy bucketing!


It is winter, right?

Feeling very much the gardener this December weekend as I carefully push the fallen leaves away from the stems of my young greens, harvest the next-to-last (I’ve said that before!) bit of arugula, set up the insulating globe for my tenderest potted herb, and decide to let the radishes keep going awhile longer. Venturing beyond my bucket garden, I’m planning on a collecting jaunt tomorrow, for spanish moss, holly, and mistletoe—the latter two for seasonal decoration, the first for a small venturing into hydroponics with EM, so I can have fresh lettuce and basil in February without going bankrupt. The last bucket of cured bokashi has been transferred to its planter, this time with barely-qualifies-as-dirt clay soil above and below and a measure of mature compost mixed into the bokashi middle layer. The apartment composter is open for contributions, complete with a sign in the laundry room explaining what not to add. And my place smells of rosemary, fresh as can be had and wonderfully fragrant and savory.

It’s hard to remember that we’ve had below-freezing temperatures and even a bit of snow, when the afternoon high nears seventy and the roses are going strong. Repulsive’s aggregate numbers are much reduced, but the curing bokashi started right back up again after the temperature rebounded, not even requiring a fresh infusion of microbes.

Winter’s traditionally down-time for composters, but I’m planning on bokashi’ing straight through the cold season. If and when it comes to stay. -G- Yet another benefits of the bucket: not only is it accessible in inclement weather, it’s apparently resilient enough to weather a brief freeze unhindered. And it’s easy to restart should it stall. Unlike, say, an outdoor wormery.

Imagine greeting spring with quantities of fresh-but-matured compost ready to nourish the garden!

Not too chilled, but still dreaming of spring...


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Recent bokashi sightings

Bokashi's spreading slowly here in the US, or so it seems. But Google, at least, finds more occurrences of the word now than it did a few months ago (and not all from this blog!).'s Organic Gardening section has a post as of Dec 01. The Bokashi in Australia livejournal community has a poll. Don't know how long Appropedia's had an entry on bokashi, but it's just been updated. And The Recycle Works has a podcast all about EM.

Which I guess is less a sighting than a hearing. Oh, well. Back to my buckets I go--I'm going to insulate a curing one, I think, see what happens.


Friday, December 5, 2008


The Three Six Rs

Ever heard of CAPCOG?

Neither had I, but I’m glad they exist—the Capitol Area Council of Governments handles issues that cross local county lines, from maintaining mapping systems for 9-1-1 to providing direct access to services for the elderly and beyond. From Homeland Security for a ten-county area to Waste Reduction Planning, all coordinated and cooperating.

Invisibly, to great degree.

Particularly in Texas, county of residence can be more important than city (and cities often span several counties). And there are areas of general concern for, say, the residents of Central Texas that don’t much affect those in the panhandle, or vice versa; I find it reassuring to learn that the obvious need for some mid-level association is being addressed by so-appropriately-named COGs.

But mostly, I’m happy to learn about my local COG’s efforts regarding waste reduction. I had been distressed by how little has been done to remove organics from the waste stream, and dissatisfied with airy promises of “Zero Waste”* achievements at some far-future date. CAPCOG has specific information, plans and past agendas, all accessible online should you know where to look.

And now, I do. This site is perhaps most useful for its new and frequently updated area map of recycling facilities—frugal eco-conscious Austinites should especially appreciate the dollar signs showing locations where recyclable materials may be sold!—but that’s certainly not all it has to offer.

Among other interesting materials on the website is a simple, not-too-new PowerPoint document. You’ve heard of The Three Rs—Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—but at least as far back as 2005, CAPCOG was discussing six:

*Reduce (source reduction)
*Repair (fix)
*Reuse (durable vs. disposable, as for example cameras and napkins)
*Recycle (everything else)

That final R may be beyond my reach. But isn’t it nice to know it’s on somebody’s radar?

There are several other interesting slides in that presentation, including the twelve master categories of material found in landfills and their percentages. And from their example plan, courtesy of the ever-forward Palo Alto, CA, comes my new rallying cry, conveniently for my post-title also composed largely of initial Rs:

Regional Resource Recovery Parks. Municipality-provided locations for the creation or expansion of privately or publicly run reuse, recycling, and composting businesses.

My neighborhood really, really, rrreally needs a bokashi farm…


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The bucket has no name

It lives in my garden. I feed it. It's not a plant. Is it a pet?

I talk to the household feline. Okay, lots of folks do that. I also say hello to the mulberry tree growing up through the porch (built around it, since it was here first!). On occasion, I have been known to cheer on some seedlings, thank a tomato plant during harvesting, etc.

"You," I said to the kombucha this morning, "ought to be ashamed. Chilly or not, you know you're supposed to be ready."

And later, to the contents of a curing bokashi bucket, "I've got your bed all picked out. You'll like it."

I'd love to say I got this from my mother, who calls to the measuring spoons as if she expects them to jump up from the drawer, but in fact, I don't much talk to inanimate things. (Except sometimes electronics, but with those, you never know. -G-) I talk to living things.

To plants. And to pets.

Not sure I'm capable of the mental gymnastics necessary to convince myself that the bokashi is really a plant of some sort--though I have no trouble classifying vinegar mothers and komucha SCOBYs as odd but useful "garden" denizens. I know they're not really plants, but close enough in that they contribute to my diet, you see. But none of them are pets, regardless of their tenure here. There's a line. I don't eat my pets, and I don't give my plants names.

Which leads me to a personally very disturbing place: none of the bokashi buckets have names, though some of the designs do. But the grub colony...

Yes, I did catch myself talking to Repulsive today. Nothing earth-shattering, just "How are you doing today?"

For the record, some of the aggregate-bits are settling in for winter, darkening toward maturity but showing no impulse toward upward mobility; others are still just as grubby as ever, though their appetites have slowed with the temperatures; and yesterday, I saw an adult flying around, securely oblivious of the calendar.

Overall, the colony is still very much living up to its name, though it seems to be only the younger sort that truly bother me, the designer-maggot-esque larvae. You know, the useful ones!

My bokashi buckets don't ask nearly so much of me. I don't have to take a deep breath and remind myself not to jump before opening them. They won't die if I leave them in the cold. There aren't animate bits to release out into the world (or not); they won't grow up and leave, or grow up and stay. And I can leave them alone for a week or two without needing to get someone to come in.

(Okay, there's a new demarcation point: pets require more frequent care. In the sense of tending, if not emotion.)

I've been trying to think of Repulsive as a different sort of bucket; not bokashi, not composting, but something in that general area. It's certainly a food digester! But then , the same can be said for the cat.

Sorry, Repulsive. My pet-sitter doesn't do grubs.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Tales from the Bucket: Time!

The folks over at Wriggly Wigglers asked how long it takes people to achieve compost from cured bokashi. Before, I would have said about a month. Now...yeah, about a month in warm weather, bit more in cool.

I do have to mention that there is some insect activity here, for the most part of the unseen and untroubling variety, but that’s to be expected in any “cold” compost situation. There is no odor aside from the faint forest-after-rain scent that good soil exudes, the giant possum lumbers right past the buckets on its (his? her?) way to wherever, and the gnats the bucket sometimes develop after being rained on will go away as soon as the top layer is disturbed. Snails and geckos may be more of a problem, depending on your area and tolerance for same.

If you’ve read more than a single post here, you already know that I live in an apartment and have no ground in which to sink a bottomless bucket for the conversion of bokashi into compost. So I’ve been experimenting with bringing the soil to the bokashi, rather than the other way around. It’s not necessarily an ideal solution for me—my supplies of soil are limited, and I have things growing in most of it—but it works.

This takes equal parts cured bokashi and soil, and I tend to use soil that isn’t at its peak but will still support plant growth (because my better soil has plants in it). The reading I did before first trying this was...confusing, shall we say, with some writers insisting on a minimum of ten gallons of soil per bucket of bokashi—if you assume that’s a five-gallon bucket, then two to one—and others using numbers familiar to me from traditional aerobic composing, though I’d never before seen them in relation to bokashi fermentation: “At least a cubic metre of soil” That’s something like twenty gallons. For one bucket of bokashi!

Not only do I not have that much soil, I haven’t got that kind of space. (Yes, that’s only the size of a large trash can. Still.) The reason for that figure in trad composting is to generate and sustain the desired thermophilic reaction—so the pile will heat up, destroying weed seeds, diseases, and other undesirables.

Hot compost isn’t feasible in small volumes without some technological intervention. Tumblers and activators, say. But my first bokashi buckets were vegetarian, none of them contained any weed seeds or diseased matter, and I don’t have any objection to cold compost for the most part. So I decided to risk it and tried two-and-a-half gallons each of cured bokashi and soil. It took about a month that first time, with summer heat, though unfortunately I don’t have an exact number for that one or the two that followed it. The photo above is what I tipped out of my Wriggly-spurred time-test bucket, begun one month ago today. It’s not quite mature yet, and some of the leafy bits introduced with the old soil are still identifiable, but the bokashi’d kitchen waste has all been converted into plant-pleasing compost, conveniently mixed with the soil already. Call it a month in warm weather, five or six weeks in cooler.

To Make Compost in a Bucket

1. Select your bucket.

Not, mind, a bokashi bucket! This method uses a large planter. Many of mine are five-gallon buckets with holes drilled in the bottom and sometimes lower sides, but any large planter should work, as would a smallish barrel or what-have-you.

This time, I didn’t add any drainage materials to the bottom; sometimes I do. Not sure if that affects the time (I’ll try to remember to test that someday). Drain holes are required!

2. Acquire a volume of soil equal to the amount of cured bokashi.

Cured here being defined as

a. at least seven days after the last addition of fresh waste, and
b. no longer producing more than a few drops of bokashi juice daily.

3. Put an inch of soil in the planter.

If you have mixed-quality soil, the worst of it goes here. Fill dirt is fine; a soilless potting mix is not.

4. Add bokashi and soil, mixed or layered an inch at a time, until within four inches of the top of the planter.

This is what will compost, so you’re looking for healthy soil microbes. If you have better-quality, fresh-from-the-garden soil, it goes here, not in the bottom. Compost breaks down faster the smaller the pieces, so smushing/chopping large pickled bits might not be a bad idea. Adding a bit of mature compost, unsterilized, should produce an even richer mix, and could substitute for most (if not quite all) of the dirt here though not in the outer layers, although I can’t yet confirm this from personal experience. (Another test!) It should also be possible to use less soil for this middle section and still produce compost, so long as soil microbes are adequately distributed, but again, no personal experience hereabouts for that. Equal parts, I can attest to.

5. Top with three inches of soil*.

6. Cover loosely, but do not seal, and

7. Set the bucket someplace out of doors, out of direct sunlight, and out of the way for at least one month (more in cooler climes). Near an existing, healthy garden would be ideal, but on a wood patio or shaded cement parking space works.

This produces an amount of compost-amended soil not quite equal in volume to the original ingredients, though the reduction isn’t dramatic. But though this is a great way to refresh tired soil, it’s not ideal for me, requiring as it does that I divert relatively large quantities of soil from my immediate gardening. So I’m still playing.

Back to the buckets!


*Two inches of soil and two of dried leaves would probably work, but I haven’t tested that yet. Two inches of leaves or soil alone does not create enough of an odor barrier to keep the raccoons and possums from sniffing it out.

[Edited Dec 01 to correct typo and clarify a phrase.]

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Step-Mother Nature?

Gather round, kiddies. "Once upon a time..."

Okay, maybe not. But once upon a time there was a bucket that failed. An outdoor bucket with a not-quite-good-enough seal, it was invaded by insects. Blecch. Those insects turned out to be Black Soldier Fly Larvae, unsung darlings of the non-landfill waste disposal world in temperate regions, and I've been trying, reluctantly, to accept them into my pre-garden practices since--the cost is right, and it beats feeding the landfill (if only by a hair). Besides, the grubs ate the failed bokashi. What else was I going to do with it?

One retailer suggests trenching the contents of an unsuccessful bokashi bucket fermentation with massive quantities of EM bokashi bran, others simply say to bury it in an area well away from plants or gardening. But I'm an apartment-dweller, soil- and land-poor; that's not an option for me.

Leaving the grubs to gorge was, so I did, albeit in a habitat halfway designed to kill them (ignorance, not cruelty! Though I wouldn't have minded if they'd died or "magically" disappeared). The end result of that was a mass of fat and happy grubs, and a bunch of partially decomposed matter you could smell from a mile and/or week away. My failure had gone epic, sealed up away from fresh air.

So what then?

Well, I sifted out some of the matter--wearing gloves, holding my breath, and not all that carefully, to be honest, but sifted nonetheless--to put in a planter. Tossed about an inch of old dirt in the bottom, then the leaf-and-bran-and-mess muck the grubs had been half-swimming in, then a three-inch layer of mediocre soil. The whole planter was then placed into another, larger container with some dried leaves at the bottom for padding (to keep the possums from tipping it over) and the drainage saucer placed on top, to keep the soil in place should the wind pick up.

Two weeks later, the result is a planter full of something that looks like it could have been dug up from beneath the pecan tree on the property: soil, a couple of limp and tattered leaves, small bits of stem or shell or something, a suspiciously rounded late-season gecko hastening away...

Is it compost? Not hardly.

Is it usable? Definitely.

If I were going to plant something in it immediately (first freeze warning tonight, so that's not going to happen, but if it were), I'd want to amend it with mature compost. Since it's going to rest until spring(ish), I'll be adding some AEM in the late winter, but leaving it otherwise alone to continue to break down or stabilize. And then I'll amend it with tired potting soil or soil-based mix and mature bokashi compost.

Am I pleased? You have no idea. Many years, I have more pots and planters than planting material to put in them. Dried leaves are free, so are BSFL, and that batch of bokashi'd matter had been failed anyway, so there was no additional cost there. From reclaimed matter, a bit of time, and the suppression of my shudder reflex , I MADE DIRT!!! And I can make more, too, if the weather cooperates. Without the stench, now that I know how to go about it.

Would I rather have compost? Yes. But I'll take this, too, and gleefully. It means a few more acid-loving crops are on the agenda for next year, what with all the dried leaves; this matter would not be suitable for some tender plants; and of course it couldn't be sold, as there are specific criteria for retail products. But you know what? I don't care about any of that. It's dirt!

Or a reasonable facsimile. And I made it. Granted, with the help of some disgusting wriggling things that still look, to me, like steroid-abusing maggots wearing articulated armor, but with a couple of inches of dried leaves on top, I can't see them anyway.

Grubs don't have faces "only a mother could love"; they don't have faces at all, so far as I know. (Don't ask me to get close enough to check!) But I could get seriously fond of their effectiveness.



P.S. Yes, there were grubs in the sifted-out muck; they migrated to the leafy padding beneath the planter, presumably eating as they went, and bedded down in the bottom container, where they were easy to harvest when the experiment was finished--I fed them, still in their leafy bed, to the landfolks' chickens.

P.P.S. Anyone know if there's an upper limit on the quantity of grubs a chicken should be allowed to eat? Seriously.

Freeze-Dried Laundry Is Not For Me

It's that time of year again: barely light during the morning rush hour, dark by the return trip...and now, it's cold. Freezing, actually. Here in Austin, the first freeze warning of the season is for tonight.

Which means I'll have to remember to grab the laundry off the line before sunset, tonight and every night until the weather warms again. Um. Really, what it means is that I'm going back to using the drier--while it is perfectly possible to line-dry clothes if the weather remains above freezing, even a touch of frost will affect the way the fabric feels, and I'm just not into crunchy clothing.

So, since I'm rarely home before dark during the winter, no more clotheslining.

Sadly, the drier isn't even placed to take advantage of the heat. On the positive side, I do enjoy a warm robe on a cold day. As does the household feline. And cleaning the winter quilts and blankets will generate a soapberry treat for my bokashi buckets, right?

Stay warm!


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Tales from the Bucket: Silo Buckets!

Testing Lisa’s Solution

This is the first of two (or more) reports on my Lisa’s Solution tests. I can’t yet talk about it as a composting technique, as I haven’t yet completed that stage; I can, however, talk about how it does in the bucket.

Compared to EM bokashi, Lisa’s Solution uses far less volume of inoculant-in-carrier; if you were even more crunched for space than I, or ordering product by mail, that might be something to keep in mind. Lisa’s Solution is not EM bokashi, and there are differences in performance. But that might not be a bad thing, depending on your needs. The big differences—for me, in one standard-bucket and a couple of mini-bucket tests, not necessarily generally—are:

1)No “bokashi juice”

I haven’t yet done a proper side-by-side, matching-additions test; it’s an apartment, not a lab. But very little fluid separated out in the Lisa’s Solution buckets compared with what I’m used to seeing. Which means that you could, if you wanted to, skip the whole spigot-and-sieve thing, and just use a standard-issue bucket with a bunch of absorbent material at the bottom. (In fact, Lisa suggests doing just that. It might not work well with EM bokashi bran, but with this powder, it’s feasible.)

Of course, that also means you’d forgo harvesting bokashi juice to feed your plants and pipes.

2)No cidery scent.

Lisa’s Solution has no aroma worth mentioning in its dry state. A successful bucket has a faint alcohol-to-vinegar smell, actually less perceptible than the equivalent EM bokashi cider-vinegar scent, but with some character of the more heavily scented matter still sniffable when the bucket is opened. With a bunch of cilantro stems, this is not a problem. If you’re attempting to treat the leftovers after a clambake...

In the bucket with masher—that is, with matter compressed upon addition but without a weight continually pressing down on the waste matter—odor was a recurring issue until sufficient volume of waste had been added to act as its own weight. This isn’t an insoluble problem, it only requires a shift in technique, and in fact this happens with EM bokashi bran as well, to a lesser degree. It’s just much more of a problem with Lisa’s Solution. Bluntly, if the stuff isn’t working quickly, the bucket stinks. Not just that “transient off odor” I’m so concerned with avoiding, but eau de trash-can. If you generate waste regularly, and/or choose a proper container to handle your waste volume, deep enough and not too wide, you should be able to avoid this.

One small test, the “coffee cart” mini-bucket (plastic coffee canister with lid, an inch of shredded newspaper in the bottom, used coffee grounds with filters and used tea bags plus a few lemon slices), worked better with Lisa’s Solution than it has with EM bokashi bran—that difference in moisture again—but then, I like the smell of coffee, which neither the powder nor the bran completely supresses.

Too soon for conclusions, but I’ve concluded that I need another term. EM bokashi is, more or less, a branded name—but there are a lot of people out there fermenting things in buckets. Many of them using one- or two-thirds of the EM major microbial triad.

Ensiling, in agriculture, is a preservation technique for animal feeds, anaerobic fermentation to prevent rotting/putrefaction. Akin to pickling. And, yes, the inoculant of choice is often one of our favorite li’l lactobacilli (yeasts can be assumed to be present in the fodder). All ensilage begins to heat up/break down upon exposure to air—in farm country, it’s not uncommon to hear about silo fires, when ensiled grains heat too quickly—which makes ensiled products great activators for compost piles...

Does this begin to sound familiar?

So from this post forward, any bucket-based kitchen-waste treatment other than EM bokashi may be tagged “ensilage,” or maybe ensiled bucketing. To differentiate it from(brand-name) EM bokashi, with its formula inclusion of photosensitive odor-eating bacteria.

Composting tests are underway, as is a mixed-waste mini-bucket (all early tests are vegetarian). One obvious bokashi/silage test is not: irradiated foods or food given an antimicrobial rinse might disrupt a bucket (especially if a lactobacillus-only inoculant was used). As I choose not to purchase such things, someone else will have to try adding them to a fermenting bucket, fermenting only those, etc.


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Anyone for a nice glass of soapberry wine?

[Please pardon the not-quite-on-topic post: I only have the one blog, but I’ve posted several comments on other people’s sites about soapberries, and it seemed only fair to give them a chance to reciprocate. -G-]

My hiking partner saw them first, though I was looking: soapberries. The Western Soapberry, Sapindus drummondi, is a local relative of the increasingly written-about soapnut, and can be used the same way (though if your recipe calls for shell-halves instead of weights or volumes, you’ll have to do some adjusting). Fair’s fair—Tamryn helped me harvest, I gave her a bottle of soapberry liquid soap and some directions for storage and use.

A smallish bottle, since I only make the stuff in small batches. The dried fruit lasts pretty much forever; the liquid is more convenient to use, at least for me. But it’s perishable...

Tamyrn lives in a multi-generational household, and I suppose someone just decided that the liquid soap belonged with all the other cleansers, in a cabinet someplace, rather than in the fridge or by the washing machine where it would be used quickly. So it sat, forgotten, an unpasteurized fruit juice. And it did as fruit juices so often do.

The bottle’s back in my hands now, or rather, in my cabinet. “You play with it,” she said. “You didn’t tell me it could ferment!”

“I did say it might spoil.”

“It fizzed!”

Quite vigorously, too. Maybe more of a cider than a wine. Probably an even better insecticide now, it still good for washing? Dunno yet, and there doesn’t seem to be much research about the topic out there (you can bet I looked!). Fermented soapberry liquid wouldn’t be nearly so perishable, and it would be very cool. And, while not the ideal holiday gift for most of my friends and family, I know at least a couple of people who might appreciate it. Rather more than gifts of berry-bits in bags. Always assuming it was usable for its intended purpose, that is.

There are references to people fermenting their soapnuts, whole, prior to use, but at periods of only a few days, and mostly apocrophyal at that. Some people’s washing-machine soapnuts begin to smell of vinegar, which doesn’t affect the washing, so maybe...


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Tales from the Bucket: the BioBucket

An early outdoor bokashi bucket failed for insects—the fit between my inner and outer buckets wasn’t tight enough, and every fruitfly in the neighborhood decided it’d make a wonderful hatchery.

Okay, I saw one fruitfly and a few tiny larvae, but where there’s one...and I didn’t spend much time looking. Tossed in some AEM, added a couple of inches of dried leaves I’d just swept up, put the lid on with another bucket on top of the whole to add weight, and tried to forget.

Eventually, of course, I needed those buckets. Inside? No swarm of fruitflies, no giant mutant vinegar eels, and no identifiable food waste except for a scattering of melon seeds. What I had was a whole bunch of Black Soldier Fly larvae in what looked like leaf mold.

A point to mention here: had I not failed the bucket already, it would have failed twice at this step, once for insects—BSFL look like steroid-abusing maggots wearing armor—and once for smell. Wet enough for grubs is too wet for EM. But there was no food waste visible, and leaves that had been whole were now as decomposed as if they’d spent six months in a pile.

Grubs. Black Soldier Fly larvae. Volunteers in the war on trash?

I may live in Texas, but I’m not a rancher, certainly hadn’t signed up for free-range grub wrangling. Worms can live in captivity all their generations, but these...

Coward that I am, I decided not to decide what to do about them just then, instead tossing the bucket’s contents in a trash bag with more dried leaves, a pint of mature compost I happened to have within reach, and some quick-fermented bran left over from another experiment. The possums found the bag that night, so the whole megillah (less their dinner) ended up in a different bucket, one not yet fitted with spigot and screen.

After two more weeks, I opened up the bag-in-bucket.


This cannot be called a success for bokashi or any other sort of compost, but if you wanted to raise Black Soldier Fly Larvae, you could do worse. -G- Turns out the things are predictably picky eaters, with no taste for plastic and not much for cellulose: Some of the grubs had left the bag through the possum-created hole, and more from the small gap in the drawstring-top, but none had eaten their way through. The bran seemed untouched, and during sifting, I found no kitchen waste except the battered but recognizable shell of a lime-half and several whole coffee filters, every grain of grounds gone but the paper not even nibbled.

That sifting was done with my breath held against the stench, and I was already composing my post as I worked: Fail! Grubs are not a viable alternative to bokashi bucket fermenting and composting. But—

If the goal isn’t compost, but rather keeping food waste out of the landfill, these things are a major success. Approximately three gallons of food waste went into the outdoor bucket, and nearly that many leaves were added on two separate occasions, plus almost a gallon of bran, call it twelve gallons of matter altogether, three from the kitchen and nine from the (barn)yard. The total mass of grubs etc. was about two and a half gallons, of which less than one pint total was identifiable kitchen remains (one half lime-shell; coffee filters). Though they didn’t digest their way through the whole volume of leaves, they did break down that matter into smaller bits, thus technically reducing that volume, too, as well as the outright conversion-via-ingestion.

The stench? Not their fault, mine. Dried leaves plus moisture create a heavy, compact layer through which odors cannot pass, but trapping isn’t the same as eliminating. Conditions weren’t right for EM in the bucket—initially too much air, and then too much moisture—and unlike the rhodobacters in EM, grubs can’t “eat” stench. With BSFL, it’s all about odor avoidance, based on their speed of eating—fresh waste is devoured too quickly to rot and stink—but the stench was already there, even before I overloaded their bag with cellulose. Plus, I provided no drainage for the latter stage, which meant it was much, much too wet for the EM I’d added to have a chance. So no odor-reducing microbes.

This time.

Yes, despite my revulvion for all things grubby, despite my qualms about mature BSF instars littering my landscape, despite the knowledge that if the racoons ever find them, I’ll achieve landmark Michelin Guide status in the masked-bandit circuit, I’m going to see what happens if I feed food waste to grubs in a proper habitat.

What, you ask, is a proper habitat?

Well, there’s always the retail option, the BioPod. But for those of us not interested in spending that much money for what might be only a passing impulse, there’s some homebrew alternatives. Your browser may not like this link, but try to check out the thread on Cannabis World. According to one bokashi-knowledgeable poster there, a bokashi bucket’s nearly perfect already—just add a layer of mesh between drain-holes and waste, to keep grubs from falling into the reservoir and drowning, and some holes in the top to allow mature, egg-laying BSF entry.

Personally, I think I’ll add a collection system rather than letting the mature migrating grubs just make a run for it, lest they lead the racoons back to the source (possums are defeated by lids; coons are not). And, seeing as winter’s on the horizon, I may invest in a thrift-store cooler if I can find one with a wide-mouthed spigot at the base; I’ve been doing some reading, and BSFL can overwinter in their active immature state. They’ll continue to eat so long as their habitat remains above 15ºC, and they generate their own heat, so an insulated colony could keep working through much of an Austin winter, and should be able to survive even the odd freeze.

Outdoors. Where all insects belong. Cheerily chewing through three pounds of fresh waste per two feet of surface area. Per day. Okay, so I won’t get any compost* out of that—but it wouldn’t end up in the landfill, either.

Queasily grubbing away,


*BSFL “compost” is a high-protein, partially digested friable substance not suitable for use as a planting mix. It does, however, make an ideal worm-growing medium, and at five percent yield, there’s not likely to be enough of it for disposal to be a problem anyway.

Further reading:

Thursday, October 23, 2008


The Wriggly Wigglers ask folks to “don your white lab coat and the nerdy scientist’s specs” to help answer an interesting question: Just how quickly does bokashi break down?

Not sure about the spectacles, but I must have a lab coat somewhere... D’you think I should mention that I sometimes skip that two-week curing phase? Well, maybe I’ll cure a bucket just for them. -G-


Great Big Bokashi Bin!

Judging by the image, this is a refitted trash bin. 240 liter capacity, with a divider down the middle, making two 120-liter sections. Have to admit, I don’t really see the advantage—yes, it’d take less space than separate very large bins, but how on earth do you empty one side without getting ferment everywhere? Still, I really like the idea of targeting restaurants and resorts for bokashi!

The G Warehouse also offers a “concentrated” bokashi grain, that quite intrigues me. Hey, bran is cheap, but less bran would be cheaper!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

I can haz bukket?

Okay, so I'm slow. It took me a while to realize that I'd gone from taking small bags of trash out every day or couple of days to taking tiny, mostly-empty bags of trash out every day or couple of days. And even longer to actually think about it, to wonder why I was still having to take out the trash every other day when I was pickling all my food waste.

Surely there wasn't anything left in there to smell bad?

But there was: cat food. The household feline prefers disgustingly gloppy commercial wet food, set out a spoonful at a time a couple of times a day by way of reassurance or treat or whatever. Usually, she eats it all, but now and then a bit escapes her, and in Texas, it goes bad quite quickly.

I'm not all that comfortable feeding the stuff to her anyway, though it's what she likes, and apparently my mind just couldn't stretch to encompass the thought of adding any remaining scraps and scrapings to my buckets. To my compost. To my garden. To me.

Maybe that's overly squeamish, but there it is. So the cat food is getting its very own micro-bucket, its contents destined for some non-gardening application, or at least not food gardening. On its own, gloppy wet food does not produce bokashi juice, though it does ferment; I think a compostable inner bucket should be a possibility. So that's the next test. Using a newspaper seedling pot, I think.

The buckets, they breed!


[image from]

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Off-the-grid bokashi?

Just found a new site dedicated to non-retail bokashi solutions. Homebrew bokashi starters.

I’ve been meaning to do a few non-commercial test-versions myself, though it’s not so high on the list of things to do as finding a satisfactory minimal-soil bokashi-to-compost solution. Have to say, though, this poster’s doing things I wouldn’t have thought of.

The process up right now isn’t one that appeals to me, but it makes interesting reading, and might suit some people’s situations. Also, fermenting newspaper? Very cool.

Hmm. If you combined the newspaper-fermenting technique with the newspaper cat-litter recipe from Allie’s Answers, using liquid soap made from local soapberries (and possibly omitting the baking soda), you’d have an impressively local bucket starter at, potentially, zero dollars spent... Someone want to try this?


I’d do it myself, but I’m all out of space!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Not technically EM(TM), but is it effective?


I am still quite new to bokashi, which is fairly new itself. Unlike Indore (optimized layering) composting, that’s been around long enough for knowledge to have been passed down through generations—I learned from my grandmother—bokashi is younger than I am.

Young enough to still be evolving. Lisa’s solution is “bokashi powder” made from flour instead of bran. Odd idea to me, to whom flour still equals food, where bran and other carrier agents may not, but it’s an interesting new development. I’m quite curious to see how well it works.

Thanks to Al Pasternak, who twittered about it first, and the unsung hero who mentioned the free sample offer. And, of course, to Lisa. There’ll be a new test-bucket set up soon.


“It’s only an effective composting method if you end up with compost.”

What to do with the bokashi after curing remains the # 1 question on the forums and open-comment sites I’ve been perusing, with few really satisfying answers beyond planter composting for those of us without gardens or at least access to bit of, y’know, earth. I did turn up a few remarks from couple of people who mix bokashi with large volumes of old soil-based potting mix or soil, cover, and wait, creating humus-rich planting material for next season; the fastest-reported conversion of those is under a month. Call it
plant-free planter composting:

When the first one [bucket of bokashi] is ready [full]-- usually about two weeks
-- it will smell a bit like fresh pickles. The fermented mass is then buried in
a garden bed or in a large (10-gallon-plus) container of soil. After two to four
weeks, the mass has been converted to compost and is almost undetectable.

Did this mean ten gallons of soil plus five gallons of bokashi? When I was in school, they used to call this an “exercise for the reader.” Meaning, go figure it out! So I did. From personal experience, I can now report that this works at a one-to-one soil-to-bokashi ratio, not sealed but simply lidded enough to keep out rain and raccoons.

Compost, from bokashi’d waste, without a bin. Yippee! Not, however, a satisfactory solution for me—my current test substitutes dried leaf matter for most of that soil, since dirt isn’t, for the landless gardener, anywhere near “dirt cheap”!

There are other post-bucket tests in progess, but I don’t want to jinx them by speaking writing too soon. -G-

Of course, it’s quite possible someone’s already done all of this, and I’m just behind the curve. Most of my information on the bokashi process thus far has come from various online sources—Dr. Higa’s books are not in the stacks at my local public library, but several of his reports and speeches are posted here and there, as are excerpts relevant to the home bokashi bucketer, and several bokashi retailers are making efforts to educate as well as sell. But as with any new technique, questions remain and there are lags in the passing on of new knowledge.

Even at cyber-speeds, where a decent twitter can spread, as they say, virally. (Is that faster than bacterially? -VBG-) If you have had success with bokashi, tell someone! Preferably someone who might follow your lead.

Back to the buckets,


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Call me the crazy bucket lady

I just joined BlogHer--well, about half a bucket ago. (What? You mean normal people don't measure their lives by their compost? -G-) My intro happened to include mention of my current multitude of cat litter containers, and my neighbors' likely opinion of same.

Turns out some of the newer locals haven't gotten past the fact that *I grow vegetables* to notice the brand names on my buckets, or the fact that some of them have lids instead of greenery:

"Is that a real pepper? I never knew you could grow food in a pot. Wow, no wonder you have so many..."

Um, yeah. I was tempted to mention that if I planted his head, I might grow cabbage, but if I can manage not to snark at the neighbors even when they steal my parking space, then rudeness in the face of cluelessness must certainly be avoidable.

I gave him a pepper and sent him on his way.

Though I grumble over the retailers who insist upon calling bokashi "indoor composting" when it isn't, I'm beginning to have more sympathy for them. How, exactly, would you explain bokashi to someone like him?

I'm growing compost in buckets by using magic dust. No, please don't call the folks in the white coats! I'll be good, I promise...

Friday, October 3, 2008

Dead but not buried

what to do with “failed” bokashi—first, be sure it’s really failed

One of the items I listed in my “instafail” post may be unfamiliar to a lot of bokashi folks, though veteran aerobic composters might recognize the trick: I mentioned adding molasses powder to encourage microbial activity.

When using EM bokashi bran, there’s normally no need for this, but meats and fats spoil very quickly in my climate, and it can take a while for the microbes to get up to speed at first. It might not have been necessary had I remembered to use a weight, or even if I’d added my usual extra couple of doses of EM bokashi bran for luck—enough to fully coat the matter should have worked—but should I ever decide to put “heavy” waste in a new bucket again, I will be adding molasses powder or some other natural sweetener. If it’s on hand anyway, there’s no reason not to use it to start a bucket so long as other waste is present; the microbes will eat the sugar first, but they’ll also be using that material to multiply very, very quickly, and once that simple sugar is gone, the microbes will begin to break down the more complex matter. (So there’s no reason not to use some. Too much...?)

Curious, I went searching to see if any of the bokashi retailers recommend this—and found one. Sort of. NaturEmporium’s sugar-related text isn’t about starting a bucket, but redeeming one:


*Check to make sure you are putting enough EM Bokashi [bran] in the bucket. You should be averaging about 3lbs. per 5 gallon bucket.

*Check to make sure the lid is always closed tightly. When air enters during the fermentation stage, unwanted microbes can enter and begin putrefying the food waste.

*Add a handful of table sugar and incorporate into the food waste. Wait a day and check for foul odor.

*It still smells. For a 5 gallon bucket, mix a small batch (one Liter) of pre-activated EM1 (1:1:20) and pour into bucket. Incorporate and let it sit overnight. Bury contents or incorporate into an existing compost pile.

I’m not sure about using table sugar, but that’s the right idea. Natural sweeteners, powdered or granulated, or liquid plus some dry matter to compensate. There is one possible caution for honey, which has microbes of its own; this is probably not an issue, but why make the attempt when you could eat the stuff instead?

At any rate, this is definitely something to keep in mind! If a bucket smells, add a bit of sugar. As I’ve noted before, I consider odor a failure—in a small apartment, it really is!—but this is simple enough to be worth trying before pronouncing the verdict. And cheap enough to suit me, too. -G-

So that’s the Tip of the Day, but I never can stop reading in the middle of the page. Good thing, too. This leaflet goes on to provide instructions for dealing with failed bokashi that I find rather intriguing, as it seems to imply that even spoiled/molded/beslimed matter can be redeemed quickly, given sufficient quantities of the ever-popular EM bokashi bran.


*White mold is good. This is beneficial fungus that helps produce antibiotics (to suppress pathogens) and antioxidants. When applied to the soil, this fungus will also help with water retention in the soil.

*Green or Black mold. This is not good. These are putrefying fungus and are usually the result of air infiltration, excess moisture, and/or not enough EM Bokashi.

-->Dig a hole twice as deep as the bucket. Get an equal amount of EM Bokashi (if your bucket is 5 gallons, fill a 5 gallon bucket with EM Bokashi).

-->Place ¼ of the EM Bokashi into the bottom of the hole. Add the contents of the “bad” bucket and cover with the remaining EM Bokashi.

-->Cover with 8 inches of soil and do not plant in for at least two weeks.

Of course, that method is burial in the earth, and I’m a landless bucketer, but I do happen to have quite ridiculous quantities of bran around just now, and that’s a standard trench-compost technique adapted for bokashi use—so perhaps I can adapt an above-ground anaerobic composting technique to incorporate outrageous amounts of EM bokashi bran...?

Off to experiment,


Thursday, October 2, 2008

Tales from the Bucket: Instafail

How not to start to bucket off right

It was a new bucket.

That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it! I’d just drilled the drainage holes for a nested bucket set that afternoon, and wanted to start it immediately. So I just tossed the day’s mixed kitchen waste in there, sprinkled on some EM bokashi bran, and went on with my life.

The next day didn’t happen to include that bucket (either I wasn’t quite finished with the last one or I didn’t generate any organics to speak of, I can’t remember now). Nor did the next. It might have been two or even three days between the first use and the next time I opened it.

I wish it had been three weeks—the smell might have faded a bit. I can’t imagine it could have gotten any worse!

So what did I do wrong?

Actually, more than one thing. And, yes, I am ashamed. -G- I’m still pretty new to bokashi, but not that new. I knew better. My mistakes, in no particular order:

1.I added meat scraps and fat to a new bucket.

Meat and fat can be added to a bokashi bucket, but it’s best not to do so until fermentation is already established. “Heavy” items—fat and protein—slow fermentation; I should have either pretreated those bits or added some molasses powder or AEM to ensure the process went fast enough to prevent putrefaction from taking hold. Or, more practically, I could have tossed the meat scraps in the fridge or freezer for a couple of days, until I was sure the EM colonies were happily engaged.

2.I did not add a weight to a new bucket.

For large quantities, the weight of organic matter itself serves to expel air, but for new buckets, and especially buckets where there’s a lot of surface area compared to depth, a weight will speed anaerobic fermentation.

3.I did not add an extra dose of EM bokashi bran for meat/fat.

It’s in all the basic retail instructions, I just forgot. Even if your mixed kitchen waste has more vegetable matter than meat scraps, at least one extra dose of EM bokashi bran is advised any time you add meat, fats, oils, or dairy.

4.I did not add a dose of EM bokashi bran per day.

I’m still not sure about this one, and it’s not universally accepted, but a lot of the retailers recommend adding a scoop of EM bokashi bran every day whether or not you add waste. This may serve mostly to allow gas to escape, or to ensure that you check the bucket so you remember to drain it as needed, but it certainly won’t hurt unless you’re short on “magic dust.” And in this particular case, it might have let me know there was a problem in time to correct it, by adding a whole bunch more EM bokashi bran or through some other rescue tactic.

So, mea culpa—the bucket failed, and it was my fault. But, hey, wasn’t it just a week ago I was wondering what I’d do with failed buckets? Now I know.

But that’s another post, I think.

Happy bucketing,

Sunday, September 28, 2008

It seemed like a good idea...

The great and beneficial Al Pasternak, who posted in the comment section (and through whom I found this post!), is too discreet to go posting company recommendations openly. So I’ve no idea what precisely he told blogger Betty about her in-bucket composting disaster, though I can guess at one line: “uh, no. That’s not EM.”

But I can see why she thought it might work.

Can you?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bucket Triage

If you think the bucket’s going bad, add more EM bokashi bran!

Hey, you know it’s going to happen. Sooner or later, mold or fruitflies or some other undesirable is going to get into the bucket, or something else is going to go wrong. This is not an argument against the process! Vermicomposters get soldier fly larvae when they’re lucky and maggots when they’re not, unless like me they manage to simply kill the worms; trad composters get muck and stench, not to mention they get maggots too, and ’possums; NatureMillers, I have no idea—aside from the noise, about which I’ve read uncomplimentary things, and the cost. For that matter, trash bags tear or spring leaks; raccoons and drunk teens overtun cans; weather or political climate may delay pick-up; and flies can find trash cans all too quickly... Compost or trash, now and then, things are going to go wrong.

What do you do when that “wrong” happens in your bucket?

1) Once-and-Future Trash

Obvious first option: throw it away. Empty the bucket into a trash bag, preferably out of doors. Wash bucket well and let dry before starting again. Examine your technique in an attempt to determine the cause of failure, and start again.

I’m still new enough at this that I can’t yet envision a failure so dire as to make this my first choice. (But then, I haven’t yet attempted to ferment a post-Thanksgiving deep-fried turkey carcass!) A typical anaerobic decomposition I’d probably just bury, assuming I had a decent grave-space. Trash might be the best option for an insect infestation, depending on the sort of insect. But as always, your mileage and all that—if you’re living in a high-rise, burial simply isn’t an option, and bucket o’ bugs is not the goal here. At least, not for that value of the word. Yecch.

2) Dead and Buried

The solution recommended by bokashi retailers: bury it deep. Beneath ten to twelve inches of soil, preferably, and if you have some EM bokashi bran to spare, seed the bottom of the grave and anoint the top of the mess with it before covering with soil. Do not water; do not place near plants; do not add to planters; do not disturb for at least three and ideally six months or longer.

3) Clap your hands!

No, sorry, that’s Tinkerbell; for bokashi, it’s

3) “Add more magic dust.” Vast quantities of EM bokashi bran. This is the one instance in which adding air is not discouraged—if your bucket’s gone bad, there isn’t enough fermentation going on, so why worry about disturbing it? Break up any masses if you can, add inoculant, drain if required, seal up bucket and set aside, outside, to rest undisturbed awhile.

How long is that while? Err on the side of caution! For most failures, I’d recommend that if you have a bucket system with a reservoir deep enough to permit it, you just leave the whole thing alone for at least three weeks. (Yes, the bokashi juice will smell bad. You’re not going to want to use it for anything anyway, not after a bad bucket, so just go ahead and dump some baking soda into the bottom when you can. And, as with the bran, be generous.) For some non-catastrophic failures, though, you might want to toss some more EM bokashi bran in there every couple of days. Again, depends on the kind of failure.

Causes and kinds of failure?

I define failure pretty conservatively. Odor is reason enough for me to fail a bucket—but it can often be corrected with an extra infusion of EM in some form. If I open a bucket to add more kitchen waste and there’s a stench, the waste gets put in the fridge or a new bucket; the failed bucket gets a bunch of EM bokashi bran or AEM and dry matter, at least three doses worth and often more, stirred in, and I set it aside for five days before checking again. So far, that’s resolved the problem, and I move on to curing and post-bucket stages. (I suppose I could resume using the bucket, but so far, have not.) If an extra infusion of microbes does not resolve the problem, then by the time I go back to check it will have become some other failure.

Insects in the bucket are more a problem indoors than out, but I’d as soon not see them anywhere. Ever. Fruitfly larvae will hatch in a slow-working bucket, though a vigorous fermentation will kill them (the eggs, I’m fairly sure about; the larvae, I can only assume). Depending on your personal level of squeamishness, you might try adding more EM bokashi bran, closing up the container, and giving the microbes a few days to work before you dispose of that bucket.

Blue or black mold is the result of an undesirable microbe outproducing the critters we want, and it means the environment wasn’t right for our prefered process (too much air, moisture, heat or cold), and that a colony of those undesirables was already established on some item before it was added to the bucket. Pretreating suspect foods often makes this a non-issue, but if it happens... Well, if you catch it early, you might fish out the offending bit and treat it separately, and correct the conditions for your larger bucket: moving to a different location for temerature, adding more bran to absorb moisture, draining the reservoir, etc. If the whole bucket’s gone—

You have begun anaerobic composting, and might as well keep going. Likewise if your bucket-contents are slimy and it smells like the inside of a Dumpster on a Texas summer day. But you wouldn’t let it get to that stage, would you?

Happy bucketing!
p.s. It’s no coincidence that anaerobic composting process looks familiar to veteran bokashiers. That’s why I chose that link! More on that later.

Baby Batches of Bokashi Bran

Making EM bokashi bran a quart at a time

The EM America recipe for EM bokashi bran produces vast heaping quantities of the stuff, and requires fifty pounds of wheat bran!!! Even the smaller retailer-provided instructions begin with eight or ten pounds of bran. Bran takes up a fair amount of space for its weight: At seven plus cups per pound of bran, ten pounds is something like five gallons—which is a larger volume than my trash can, apartment-dweller that I am. And that’s before you consider mixing space or the way bran expands as it absorbs fluid.

It is, however, perfectly possible to make EM bokashi bran without first clearing enough space to raise a barn. (Or even a garden shed. -G-)

My wheat bran, I think I mentioned, came from the bulk section at Sun Harvest. $0.69/lb. list price. That’s a much better deal than the small packages in the cereal aisle, at $2.19/10 oz., and even if you’re only fermenting occasional small buckets, you might as well make at least a pound of EM bokashi bran at a time.

Why? This is why I write about “practical minimum volumes” instead of simply minimums: sometimes, while smaller is possible, it doesn’t make much sense. You could make EM bokashi bran a pint at a time, but why bother? It takes the same amount of time and effort. Cost? Bran is cheap! And bokashi bucket fermentation is far more likely to be successful if you’re generous, even profligate, with your EM bokashi bran.

My current bucket is 3.5 gallons. It’s just about half full, and there’s already more than a cup of EM bokashi bran in there—more than recommended, but not by much. If you only have a pint of EM bokashi bran on hand, you may be reluctant to add a scoop for luck. To toss in some more because those leftovers had cream sauce. To pre-apply in a holding bucket...

By all means, go ahead and ferment EM bokashi bran in smaller containers if you can’t spare a big bucket for the month or haven’t anywhere to put one; but you might as well mix up as large a batch as you’re likely to need. The make-at-home instructions include drying the post-ferment bran for storage; assuming you have the space for that, you could make enough EM bokashi bran for the year, all at once.

Me, I’m not so into the drying, and it’s not actually required if the EM bokashi bran will be used soon. Sources differ about just how long the undried product can be held without spoiling or losing effectiveness, and I’ll post about it if/when I manage to spoil some, but it won’t be a baby batch that happens to! One pound of EM bokashi bran at a time is right for my needs: it’s enough for at least two apartment-sized buckets, can be mixed up in the kitchen in a single container, without fuss or any need for odd utensils, and gets used quickly enough that there’s no need to worry about drying it.

To make one baby batch of EM bokashi bran:

Mix 1 tablespoon molasses into

1 cup warm water. When thoroughly blended, add

1 tablespoon EM-1 inoculant fluid.

Pour into 1 pound wheat bran or other inert carrier and mix well. Seal container and set aside three to four weeks before using; ready when coated with an even layer of white mycelium. DO NOT OPEN TO CHECK ON EM BOKASHI BRAN until at least two weeks have passed (warm season in zone 8b, add time for colder seasons/climes).

*Note: for my bulk bran, 1 pound = 7.2 cups dry. I’m not that precise, seven to seven and a quarter cups works just fine. Mix it in a container that looks about a third again too large for the dry bran, as it will expand as it absorbs water. (One of those plastic 34.5 oz coffee canisters is pretty much ideal.)

Thanks to Scott I, who, in the comment section of someone else’s blog-post on bokashi, was kind enough to post an apartment-sized recipe conversion.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

(A)EM Before the Bucket

Adding AEM to kitchen waste as generated

It’s been chilly here in Austin. Unseasonably cool. Great lazing-around weather; not so great for playing with heat-loving microbes. Not that it’s been cold enough to stop the critters, just slow them down a bit. Of course, that means it’s also cool enough to slow putrescense...

The current test-bucket is outside for reasons of size. (It’s a 3 ½ gallon bucket with holes in the bottom, nesting in a five-gallon bucket not quite half-filled with dry leaves.) As it’s too tall for my kitchen, and not at all attractive, I banished it to the back corner of my outdoor space, figuring I’d do the traditional compost-carrying for which all those cute little “compost buckets” are designed.

Not that I have a cute little compost bucket—but finding a small lidded container to sit by my kitchen sink wasn’t exactly a problem. Nor did I have trouble finding things to put in it, with all my coffee grounds and tea bags, pear middles and celery ends, and so on through the day. But the container I chose was large enough to hold more than one day’s kitchen waste, and it was quite chilly by the time I got around to thinking about the bucket. Why not leave it ’til the morrow? Or the morrow’s morrow, even.

Well, there’s that rot-and-stench-and-disease issue, but a couple of days for compostables in a lidded container? Probably not much of a concern, especially in the cool. My grandmother used to refrigerate her compostable waste if weather kept her from the pile, and honestly, it was nearly that cold in the kitchen at one point!

Okay, not quite, but almost. In the container, at least.

So I added a tablespoon of AEM and stuck the lid back on.

Why did I add AEM? Because I could. -G- Granted, it’s not the perfect environment for the microbes that make up EM, but it was an airtight container with organic matter—what was the worst that could happen? I “wasted” a tablespoon of a cheap, perishable fluid?! Rot could have happened, but it was certainly no more likely with a bit of EM than without. And if it served to retard putrescense, even a little, that would be a very good thing. A thing worth knowing. And writing about.

Did it do any good? Well, it was cool out; perhaps those items wouldn’t have turned regardless. (I didn’t do a side-by-side test, nor am I planning to—but I’d love to hear from someone who has!) When I thought to check, though, there was no sign of spoilage, and a hint of cider-vinegar scent beneath the aroma of old coffee grounds.

So I decided to extend the impromptu test. Had a couple of strawberries turn in their container; retail bokashi bucket instructions exclude these and other molded/spoiled waste, though I read* that they can be added within limits and/or with “pre-treating” suspect foods.

Tossed ’em in and doused the whole with two more tablespoons of AEM.

Rocket science it isn’t.

Effective, it certainly seems to be. Under normal circumstances, those strawberries would have spread their rot to the other compostables within hours (voice of experience there!); the process is a little slower in open air than a container, and in chill than heat, but within twenty-four hours at even cool room temperatures, the rotten-apple effect is...impressive, to say the least.

And it’s no longer so chill as it was. So, surely, that coffee-container-turned-compost-bucket should have become a rot-farm. I was more than a bit apprehensive when I opened it this morning, holding my breath against the anticipated stench and everything. But I needn’t have bothered. The strawberries are still there, grey and furry and slimy-looking and altogether disgusting, but the spoilage seems not to have spread at all, and the odor, while nothing I’d choose for perfume, was not putrescent, strong, or lingering.

Which is incredible. Though new to bokashi, I’m not new to composting; over the years, I’ve tried all the tricks to keep odors down, from expensively packaged sawdust-and-charcoal mixes to baking soda straight from the box, and nothing short of freezing has ever kept turned strawberries under control until they could be added to a proper pile.

Based on this first experience, I’d recommend keeping a spray-bottle of EM/AEM by the compost bucket almost no matter what composting method you choose! (Not sure how grubs would feel about it, and worms don’t like acid, but aside from them, anyway.) Certainly it’s an extra step, and therefore not ideal for the bokashi bucket retail folks, who are trying to keep the process as dead-simple and guaranteed-successful as possible, but for those of us past that point, what’s the downside?

Keep back a bit of AEM when you make your EM bokashi bran, and use it in your holding bucket to keep odors down. The fact that the extra dose of EM might speed breakdown in a pile or bucket is beside the point.

Though a lovely bonus, wouldn’t you say?



Not In My Bucket—Yecch!


Worms Grubs eat my your garbage

Bokashi bucketing is supposed to cut down on the time it takes to produce finished compost (plus, with planter finishing and bokashi juice, my plants can get some benefit even before I have compost to give them). But I was wondering if there might be faster alternatives yet, and went searching. The NatureMill is pretty quick, all things considered, though I can’t see spending that much money. Some of the tumblers-with-activator have a nice turnaround (pun not intended). There are techniques to speed traditional composting, though I find them too labor-intensive, lazy composter than I am. Worms? Not too slow, but not nearly the quickest biological composters out there! For composters with strong stomachs, anyway.

I have no problem with vermicomposting—it’s not for everyone, and I’ve had one memorable failure at it, but generally I think it’s cool. (Even planning on trying again one of these days, as it’s a viable post-bucket composting method for cured bokashi.) While there are people who get shivers at the thought of wrigglies in their home, or even in boxes in the garage or wherever, I am not one of them.

This is another thing altogether. The BioPod Food Composter “can dispose of your scraps in 24-36 hours.” Which is nice, I guess, except for the mechanism: Soldier Fly grubs. And here’s some mathematics to warm your heart—or chill your blood:

For every 100 lbs of kitchen scraps you put in, 5 lbs of friable compost are
produced, plus a few quarts of compost tea, and approximately 20 lbs of

I admit that there are some intriguing possible benefits here. Non-pesticide insect repellant sounds great! And if I had a pet lizard or six, this might well be a perfect solution, turning kitchen waste into pet food for non-vegetarian pets and all. But I can’t embrace the idea. I don’t think I could even use the compost tea produced via this method on my plants. Don’t talk to me about how it’s natural, they’re not all that different from the sow bugs and worms that chow down on my compost, etc. Worms don’t bother me, nor do sow bugs, but grubs are different. These things look like mud-hued maggots to me, and I’d freak if I saw one of them in my worm bin (which happens sometimes in outdoor wormeries), let alone whole masses of them indoors.

And then there’s that “reassuring” text on the catalogue page...the copywriter did his best, I’m sure, but it still read to me as

Hey, don’t worry if they get loose, they’re natural! And it’s not like they can bite, they don’t have mouths.

Um, yeah. They also do not have an invitation into my home. I don’t care how useful they are. Your mileage, of course, may vary, and if this is what works for you, what keeps you from tossing your food scraps into the trash, I wish you all the luck in the world, and many successful grub-harvests, even.

Just...don’t ever invite me to your place, okay?



Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tales from the Bucket: Weekender Bucket One

WB1 was not exactly a success. Nor quite a failure,’s clear I have more work to do for that particular question set.

I’m still working on minimum volumes, and figured I’d tackle the minimum-contact issue, too. Would it be practical to keep a small bokashi bucket at a weekend place, or in some similar occasional-use situation? Not that I have a weekend place, you understand, but the basic bokashi bucket instructions assume a landowner producing organic wastes on a daily basis. And since this blog was born in part out of my frustrations with that first assumption (what DO the landless do with post-bucket cured bokashi?), I figured I might as well tackle some of the others, too.

The potential problems with an occasional-use bucket are obvious—gas and fluid build-up top the list—but I can see ways around them. If, in fact, they really do have to be worked around. Not that I’m planning on letting buckets explode just to prove it happens -VBG- But that daily addition in a standard bucket also lets gas escape. Without that?

The not-to-be-repeated Weekender Bucket #1 procedure:

*Add a small quantity of compostable waste
*Add AEM and dry matter at the usual levels (my EM bokashi bran not being ready)
*Expel air
*Leave undisturbed a week to ten days—unless bucket rocks to touch or failure evident

About five cups of matter, coffee grounds and melon detritus, mostly. (Meat, dairy, and oils all require a more vigorous fermentation, and since I wasn’t really sure this would work, I decided to leave them out. Once I get the basics down, I’ll revisit their inclusion.) The time is on the brief side, but with this so-small quantity, I expected a fairly quick fermentation. And, okay, I was a little worried that fluid might build up, and wanted to stop the test before the bucket flooded.

For any of my bokashi tests, I define failure as

*insect presence around the area (or in the bucket!)
*blue, blue-green, or black molds
*lack of characteristic bokashi aroma

None of that applies to WB1, though that last is rather questionable—there was more alcohol in the scent than vinegar. (Perhaps I should have left it to ferment longer. Next time.) I call this less-than-successful because, beneath that strange stale coffee-vodka aroma, there was a hint of incipient rot. The smell of fruit about to turn from overripe to disgusting. I’m impressed it hadn’t gone all the way to spoiled, but it was not an attractive alternative to simply trashing wastes or tossing them to the local scavengers.

Visibly, the waste was not so bleached-looking as in my successful buckets (I’m told that doesn’t always happen). White mycelium was visible in one section of the bucket, though not evenly distributed.

Which might have been half the problem, that lack of an even distribution. In which case, the same procedure using EM bokashi bran might work, as it’s easier to see any sections that might not have received their due share of microbe-carrier.

A weight might have helped, too, as the contents of this bucket were still fairly wet, and little bokashi juice had separated. In fact, I’m starting to think that weights may be necessary for all smaller buckets/smaller waste volumes—in a filled multi-gallon bucket, the weight of the organic matter itself serves to compress the mass so that air and water are expelled.

Also, the next WB test is going to include a much greater infusion of microbe carrier! Some of the bucket-kit instructions recommend adding EM bokashi bran every day, whether or not adding waste, and pretty much everyone says more EM bokashi bran is the first thing to try when fermenting is less than wholly successful.

It’s not like it really failed, after all; I figure it’s worth trying again, with adjustments. In order of expected improvement, that be:

  1. adding more EM (any form)
  2. adding a weight
  3. increased bucket time.

Watch this space bucket blog!

Final verdict: WB#1 not successful; process tweaking required, further tests planned. NOT PRESENTLY RECOMMENDED.

Oddly, writing that last paragraph made me feel like I’m working a government-funded study. You know, except for the funding. -G- And the first-person reporting. Let’s see, In order to evaluate the feasibility... Nah.

Off to play with my buckets,


Saturday, September 6, 2008

"a hole in the ground your money goes in?", wait, that’s inground pools, not compost trenches. Sorry. Long post coming up, broken into sections, but it’s a topic that comes up a lot in the forums:

The Cost of Doing Business Bokashi

Buckets weren’t a problem. Food waste I had—that’s what got me started on this!—but in order to start bokashi fermentation, I first had to have a supply of EM. A one-liter bottle cost me $20 at Whole Foods Market.

It might have been cheaper to purchase a small bottle online, but not by much after shipping, and besides, I didn’t want to wait. Whole Foods is just up the road from me, and since I shop there now and then, it didn’t even take an extra trip.

So I had the bottle in hand. What now? Directions for using bokashi buckets all begin with EM bokashi bran, not the liquid inoculant. But liquid EM is sometimes applied for large-scale composting... While it might not be cost-effective as a general practice, I saw no reason not to start my first bucket with EM inoculant straight from the bottle, plus a little dry matter to absorb the moisture.

It worked. (1) So the total cost of getting started was a bit of time to set up an airtight container with proper drainage (from materials I had around) plus that bottle. $20.

Much less than I’d expected to spend. A lot of the non-retail, consumer-generated text I’d read about bokashi mentioned the expense—repeated expense, lifetime expense, relatively high expense. That now-and-later expenditure seems to be the second greatest hurdle to acceptance in this country. Also, really contrary to the ideal of composting, all that consumism! A single $20 bottle is one thing, an initial investment as it were. But how often would it have to be repeated, or additional items purchased?

How much $$$ does it cost to bokashi?

That depends. Are you buying EM bokashi bran, or making your own from liquid EM inoculant?

If a two lb. bag of EM bokashi bran is sufficient to handle two to four five-gallon buckets worth of mixed kitchen waste and costs $25, (2) then the cost per five-gallon bucket is @ $6 - $12. (Of course, the end product of a bokashi bucket still requires handling in some form before it can be used, so those figures may yet increase depending on your post-bucket solution.) If you fill one bucket per month, which seems to be the average bokashi experience, and you’re generous enough with the EM bokashi bran to be certain even the leftover fast food will ferment successfully, it’d be $12/month.

Buying a bottle of EM inoculant and making EM bokashi bran is cheaper than purchasing it, but there are additional costs beyond the EM itself:

Organic blackstrap molasses or feed-grade molasses
Wheat bran or other inert carrier
(optional other ingredients)

[Pause for a necessary definition: AEM] AEM—Activated EM—is made by “feeding” EM inoculant with molasses and water, and optionally a few other things depending on the recipe and intended use. It should be used within a month, and can be used to make EM bokashi bran, possibly even with a shorter overall time-to-readiness than beginning with EM straight from the bottle. [We now return you to your regularly scheduled...]

Being an impatient sort, I started a gallon of AEM on the same day I started my first bucket of bokashi, using molasses I would have bought anyway, simply to have on hand—but for purposes of accounting, I paid $3.50 for that bottle, so $23.50 total. This AEM was intended to be the base for my home-made EM bokashi bran, as well as to give me some extra for various tests.

Since that first straight-EM bucket worked, I started the next with AEM, using about a tablespoon of liquid instead of the 15 mL bran recommended per inch or instance of waste added to a bucket, and tossing in the odd handful of shredded newspaper and dry leaves by way of moisture correction. So far, it’s been working fine, though it’s not something I’d really recommend in lieu of EM bokashi bran, which is simpler and can be dried for long-term storage.

Having said that, I suppose it could be done, if you had access to large quantities of cross-shredded newspaper or something similar, or you didn’t mind draining food wastes prior to bucketing. You’d need to buy a new bottle of EM-1 when it lost effectiveness, six months or so down the road, but until then: Total cost = recycled airtight containers, dry matter, water, and > $25.

Me, I’d be happier with EM bokashi bran; the simpler the process is, the more likely it is that I’ll keep up with it, make it a habit, and maybe even get other people started on it. “Toss a handful of magic dust on top” is simple. Easy. And easy’s worth at least a few cents to me. Not retail kit-prices, mind, nor even repeated bag o’ bran purchases, but a few cents beyond that bottle of EM inoculant.

EM Bokashi Bran
The basic choices are:
a) buy commercial EM bokashi bran for immediate and continued use
In which case there’s no need for those liquid ingredients, but you’ll be placing orders from now until you decide to stop doing bokashi

b) buy commercial EM bokashi bran for immediate use, plus EM incolant and additional ingredients to make EM bokashi bran for continued use

Initially the most expensive option but perhaps the most reasonable, especially for the beginning bokashier. EM bokashi bran was designed for the purpose, and is the most reliably successful means of producing fermentation rather than putrefaction within the bucket.

c) buy EM inoculant fluid and additional ingredients to make EM bokashi bran. And use liquid in the interim: Begin by making AEM; use EM + dry matter only until AEM is ready, then make EM bokashi bran; and use AEM + dry matter while waiting for EM bokashi bran to ripen.

The cheapest bran option, and therefore my chosen solution. At least for now. -G-


What does it cost to make EM bokashi bran at home?

Again, prices are dependent upon distributors, volumes, etc., and you might be able to acquire some materials for free. Sawdust is sometimes referenced as a substitute for wheat or rice bran, and though I have no ready source for that [curses!], the city does periodically give away free wood chips as mulch—perhaps they might be persuaded to toss in a few buckets of sawdust at the same time?

Are there other locally available alternatives I might use? Bran, rice hulls, all the options I’ve seen so far are dry, inert, consistently sized (naturally or after processing) and small enough not to hold air pockets in the bucket. High in carbon. Other requirements? Because right now, I’m thinking dry leaves run through a shredder! Or a food processor, seeing as I actually have one of those...and it’s not as if I’d need great quantities of the stuff. Hmm. Might check into that.

But for now, I’m using wheat bran, ordered through a local grocery store, since it seemed more efficient than scooping out pounds and pounds of the stuff from the bulk section. The listed price was $0.69/lb, and ten pounds of wheat bran, depending on particle size, will make something in the neighborhood of five large bags of EM bokashi bran—which is almost twice enough to get an average bokashi-ing household to the six month mark.

Why six months? Because that’s when the bottle of EM-1 would begin to lose efficiency, so no matter what option I chose, I’d be looking at a possible additional outlay at that point.

Ten pounds of bran brings my total EM investment just above $30. (Spigots, sieves, and stopcocks are all optional, hence a different category and a different post!) So call it $5.00/month –for enough supplies to ferment the kitchen waste of a four-person household, plus two starter-packs to give as-yet-unsuspecting victims friends and neighbors.

And landlords! Maybe I can get mine to underwrite my bucket costs—since the city’s about to raise its trash fees, this might be a good time to make the pitch. -G-

If I were making absurd-in-context quantities of EM bokashi bran, the per-unit price would, of course, be even lower. My numbers don’t take economies of scale into account because I’m focused on my own needs. I’m looking for the lowest-cost, highest-reward options suitable for my particular circumstances: urban Texas apartment-dweller, container gardener, limited access to living soil and limited space. Unlimited curiosity!


(1) Turns out that success was less assured than I’d assumed—where EM has been improperly treated during storage/shipping, it may not activate quickly enough to outrun putrefaction if used straight. Also, even properly handled liquid EM inoculant may be initially slower in its effects than desired. I now make AEM first, for all applications.

(2) Non-random figures, though not universally applicable. Price varies by distributor and location, but this is what a 2.2 lb. bag would have cost me, with tax and shipping. Averages from retail and customer-generated text. In-bucket usage depends on environment and type of matter bucketed among other variables.

(3) Yes, I’ll be testing smaller batches for practical minimum volumes again. The giant economy size isn’t a good option if you have to rent it a storage locker!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

What makes some microbes “Effective” anyway?

...and what is it they’re doing so effectively?

Since the EM technology we use for EM bokashi was created by Professor Teruo Higa, I’ll just quote him on the subject. (The full text of the presentation is available at FutureTech, if you’re interested.)

...EM is developed using three principal organisms, namely Phototrophic
bacteria, Lactic acid bacteria and Yeasts. These three types are indispensable
for EM and even if other species were not included, these would develop
coexisting forms with other beneficial organisms in the environment. This
happens, as EM is not made under sterile conditions, but using simple technology
in many difficult environments. Thus, the EM of today consists of these three
principal types, which is subsequently enriched naturally by other species such
as filamentous fungi and Actinomycetes. The fundamental principle is that the
three principal species must be abundant in EM and the pH of the solution must
be below 3.5. This is the technology and if this combination is found, that
solution, made anywhere will develop the beneficial effects of EM.

...The technology of EM is based on holding the three principal species together at
a very low pH, when most species of microbes die.

...EM is now made in all continents from the three species I mentioned earlier,
which are isolated from the respective environments.

...This microbial solution can convert all wastes into very good fertilizers in a
short time.

There’s a lot more, of course, in various presentations, interviews, articles, and his An Earth Saving Revolution I & II, but the short answer is: EM is a combination of Phototrophic bacteria, Lactic acid bacteria and Yeasts grown in a low pH solution, used to speed the breakdown of organic matter.

EM is the core of the bokashi process, but not all EM is destined for a bucket. It’s used as a cleanser, in animal feed*, to reclaim radiation- and chemical-contaminated land...generally speaking, to correct imbalance in the natural environment on a microbial level. Or to create a desired one. As in a bucket full of kitchen waste.

Which is likely more than you needed to know. EM is the stuff you need to make bokashi bucket fermenation work—without it, you just get rot.


*And in non-US countries, as people-feed, too.

Friday, August 29, 2008

the baby bokashi bucket

What is the minimum volume for a successful bokashi fermentation?

Pickles aren’t pickled any more. All right, so some still are—the good ones!—but more and more often these days, cucumbers are preserved in vinegar and sterilized at high heat, rather than truly pickled.

Why is that on bokashislope? Maybe because it’s dinnertime -VBG- Seriously, it’s because I just realized why I’ve been getting some blank looks when I talk about pickling kitchen waste. I thought it was an easier way to explain bokashi than “anaerobic bucket fermentation via Effective Microbes,” but my explanation hasn’t been successful in getting the point across, because people don’t know what it means.

[Heavy sigh.]

Pickling, in the old sense, is fermentation in brine. The active microbes in pickling are lactobacilli. (They’re in bokashi, too!) There’s more info on making old-fashioned pickles here.
Of course, the end result is a little different from those bokashi buckets...

EM for bokashi has three main components—phototrophic bacteria, yeasts, and lactobacilli—working together, often with other microbes, to break down matter. As opposed to pickling, which uses salt to preserve matter altered by the lactobacilli (as well as to regulate the rate of fermentation). So my “pickling kitchen waste” isn’t a perfect explanation anyway.

But it is an easy way for me to approach this new idea. I understand pickling; I’ve had a fair amount of experience with it and other sorts of kitchen-based fermenting over the years. Talk to me about mother cultures and starters, and I can follow along fairly well. As opposed to considering osmotolerance in indigenous micro-organisms.

Whatever that might mean.

Leaving the academic terms to the academics, let’s turn back to those hypothetical pickles and their unsalted cucumber friends who’ll be finding their way into bokashi buckets:

How many of them—or whatever sort of organic matter—must be added to the bucket for successful bokashi fermentation?

Short answer: dunno. Yet.

If I were actually making pickles, it wouldn’t be a question of weight so much as volume relative to container size and brine concentration. But other fermentations do have minimum-size requirements: a sourdough starter, for example, won’t delevop its proper tang without enough raw matter. Making vinegar at home works best in batches of a gallon or larger—at least for me, using the process I learned from my grandmother. Yogurt and crème fraiche can be made successfully, reliably, a pint at a time, and in cooler climes than zone 8b, I used to make crème fraiche in one-cup batches with nary a failure. But the one time I tried to make a single-serving batch of lacto-fermented soda ...well, let’s just say that experiment shall not be repeated.


So what about bokashi? Is there a minimum volume, relative or absolute? I haven’t been able to find any ready answers, though nothing I’ve read yet suggests that there would be. It does seem, however, as if smaller batches might behave differently, especially with certain ingredients. And in bucket bokashi, even a transient off odor could be considered failure, though it would not be in other contexts...

Not just craving pickles, now I’m curious. So I’m going to try to ferment a very small batch of bokashi. And if it works, a smaller one after that, maybe with a few other variables tweaked here and there. Along, of course, with the larger buckets, in which relatively large colonies of microbes can happily propagate.



N.B. Yes, that’s a metal sieve. Though I know that metal and fermentation do not get along, I don’t expect it to fall apart in a single use. If it does, I’ll have learned something! And the baby bucket’s heading for a dark cabinet, so the translucence won’t matter much, though I admit I’ll end up trying to see through the sides. -G-