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 15ÂșC, 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,