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, but...is 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...