Friday, December 25, 2009

Wormy Christmas!

...and a fermented new year, too. Happy holidays from all of us at bucketville, and may your buckets, too, be busy.


image from a great post on MomLogic!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Neither Snow Nor Sleet Nor...

Okay, so we haven't exactly had any of that stuff folks used to swear wouldn't impede mail delivery, but two hard freezes (temps in the twenties) put paid to all the unprotected tender greenery, and some of the protected as well. Amaranth season is well and truly done, most of the basil melted, and so on.

Verne & Co. didn't even slow down.

The planter towers are all several planters high just now, so not even the largest of the overturned buckets I used to protect the plants on top would have offered any protection for the lowest ones. But I harvested the towers before the first expected freeze of the season and consolidated the unfinished vermicompost and worms into one or two planter trays per tower, adding a few cups of cheap potting soil by way of insulation just below the next tray of worm food.

And it seems to have done the trick. The shepherd's purse may have been slightly damaged by frost, but the wriggle's just fine. On schedule for the next feeding, even! Which is something of a problem, as their next meal isn't finished yet. (Oops.) I hadn't expected them to be so active with the temperature just above 40...guess that insulated not-quite-a-bucket test might not have been necessary after all. Expect for giving me something else to post. -G-


Time to feed the wriggle

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Well-Dressed Bucket

Shh. Repulsive is in disguise. The recent hard freeze made it necessary to move him into the shared laundry room, and my fellow tenants are only slightly less squeamish than I, so he's been impersonating a plant stand. Which I figured was excuse enough for the image above, from Sesame Street's Wormy Gras.

What, you didn't know Verne's kind like to dress up in costume and party? -G-

Apparently, they're not alone: Repulsive has his very own wardrobe.

I have to say, I did not intend to give him one. It just kind of happened. Saw a heavy denim wrap skirt at a box sale, neglected for its lack of style or impractical size, I don't know--but the color might have influenced me, as it's a brown not too far off from the expensive ground cloths I'd been pricing recently. Denim is a good insulator, so I figured I might as well give it a try. The nights were getting cold, you see.

That skirt turned out to be well fitted for the purpose, its construction making it simple to fasten around the bucket grubbery at base and sides, with material enough to fold over the top between feedings or fold back down on warmer days. Granted, it looked a little weird, but this is an assemblage made of two kitty litter buckets, a spigot, some weatherstripping, and, until recently, a hollow tube with a soda bottle on the end! I'm not sure there's any way the thing could be made to look normal.

First freeze warning of the season, I decided Repulsive's skirt might not be adequate. So I gave him a second layer, a lightweight synthetic blanket of the sort used on airplanes, draped over the bucket and tied into place. This must be removed in order to open the bucket, which is not a good idea for me--reluctant grub-feeder that I am, it's too easy for me to "forget" there's an option beyond tossing the bokashi-ineligible things in the garbage--but the larvae were still active after T-Day, when I unwrapped it to toss some bones and sundry items in. And temps had dropped below 40 twice by then.

The first hard freeze came this past weekend. I couldn't imagine that Repulsive's scanty winter clothing would be sufficient protection against actual frost-and-freezing winter, not for active grubs, but before taking any further measures, I figured I should see if Repulsive was, in fact, still awake. Those earlier night-time drops had been followed by warmer days, but the preceding three hadn't warmed appreciably, and the continued chill might have ended grub season already.

Might have, maybe, I'm still not actually sure. When I undid Repulsive's clothing--which sounds wrong on so many levels!--I discovered that I'd inadvertently left the lid unsealed the last time, and a number of mature grubs had chosen to wriggle through the gap and down the side to take their winter nap in a denim nest. The bucket grubbery wasn't untenanted, however; beneath the hollow shell of a cucumber was a mass of paler grubs, not moving in response to dim early morning overcast, but rousable when poked at with a very long stick. Drowsing?

On the chance they would wake to eat, I added the food I had ready, drained the reservoir, and moved the re-dressed grubbery into the laundry room. (Less the dormant ones, of course, that I moved to a proper winter bed.) That's not a heated space, but protected, anyway, and the best I've got. Stuck Repulsive in the back row, topped with a potted plant, and hoped for the best...

None of the plants have melted into slime, so presumably it remained above freezing. Warm enough for grubs? Not for peak activity, there's no creepy horror-movie rustling noise coming from the bucket, but it does seem a bit warmer (or less cold) to the touch than the planter resting on top of it. I'd open it to see, but that'd let out the heat.

Also, disarrange the folds of his shawl. -G- Though I guess I really should, if only so I know whether or not I should be shopping for some sort of grubby overcoat.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bucket Vision

I have become one of them. The vermimad. The composting compulsives. Those folks who whimper when they see **perfectly good organics** being tossed away. Not just the old "people are starving, don't throw away that food" mindset, but its logical (oh so extreme) extreme: viewing all not-in-current-use organics as potential nutrients for future foods. Or maybe just food for the soil.

Which would be bad enough, but it gets worse. Like the apocryphal man with a hammer, to whom every problem is a nail, I had a tunnel-vision reaction to a problem for which there really isn't One Perfect Solution For All.

Shame on me!

See, I was asked last week if it'd be possible to feed bokashi to BSFL. And I could not for the life of me imagine why anyone would want to. Waste all that lovely ferment? Guess it's better it be fed to grubs than be landfilled, but... Yep, a fanatic. Bucket-mad, that's me.

There is at least one perfectly reasonable situation wherein one might elect to feed bokashi to BSFL: where bokashi is used to divert organics from the trash-stream without increasing the frequency of trash pick-ups (whether by the municipality or some alternate entity), and no appropriate composting facility has been established to receive that ferment. BSFL don't require a whole lot of infrastructure nor space.

They might also be a way around some restrictive regulations, depending on the area--as feeding larvae could legitimately be seen as raising bait or animal feed rather than running a composting or waste disposal facility.

And bokashi + grubs could answer the Green Seal for restaurant question in urban areas, too! The requirement there is that suitable organics be sent to "a farm," but as distance between city and farmland increases, that becomes less practical--food can rot prior to or during transport, becoming unviable even as animal feed. Mixed-material bokashi is not, so far as I know, considered an acceptable animal feed. But BSFL are. Use bokashi to stabilize the food waste until pickup, then feed it to the larvae at a nearby urban location, and transport only the mature grubs to feed the farm animals.

So, once I got my sight out of the bucket, it didn't take too much for me to admit there are some situations, some times, where it might make sense to feed bokashi to BSFL. But, man, it bothers me. Somewhere in the back of my head, there's this mourning keen for all that fermented matter just waiting to be mixed with dried leaves. Or layered with landfill to rehabilitate the dirt into soil. Or spread out on the grass on the site of a future lasagna garden, topped with newspaper and a tarp and weighted down*.. Or...

Excuse me, I need to go found a twelve-bucket program. Step one: admitting there is a problem.


*Haven't done this yet, people being unreasonably fond of their lawns and unwilling to let me kill them even in a good cause. Sigh. Some day!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mutant armadillo maggots

"Say, what's in that bird feeder?"


Chilly nights, so I've pulled Repulsive's ramp-to-adulthood for the season. While the latest angled tube was not a perfect solution, this year's version had one feature I shall definitely reprise: the hands-free catchment jar. 'Cause I'm all about not having to handle the BSFL.

A soda bottle and a threaded plastic elbow joint made a perfect terminus for mature larvae, with a few pinpricks around the bottle's shoulders allow for sufficient airflow to keep them from immediately suffocating, and the dry wheat bran I sometimes remembered to include to slow them down a bit.

Still haven't found a chicken farm in need of any calcigrubs.

Leaving mature grubs in a closed system seems to upset the still-feeding ones--not to mention, it can become extremely unpleasant when they die in droves and more or less liquefy--so Repulsive's ramp is necessary for much of the year whether or not I do anything with the late-instar iterations. Leaving the bottle off the end of the tube isn't happening; setting them all free would only invite the possums and raccoons to an all-night buffet. So now and then I have a bottle half filled with grubs. I could, I suppose, bring that bottle to the landfolks' place and give their pet chickens a treat, but if the goal is just to feed birds, I have those closer to home. A whole flock of wood doves, a few mockingbirds, cardinals and assorted songbirds I couldn't tell apart with a guide...

Campfire Girls, Boy Scouts, 4H-ers and all the rest know how to make a bird feeder out of a soda bottle and a bit of wire, a plate and this and that. Or one could simply buy a feeder kit like the one pictured above (no affiliation, but it's a whole lot prettier than mine!).

Next year, I might think about camoflaging the bottle so as to hide the contents from my view. Certainly I should have thought about that before hanging one on someone else's property, though I did have permission to do so. Hadn't really thought what it might look like to the neighbors.

"Wow. Birds really like that new feeder there. Um, uh. Where'd you get that weird feed? It looks like it's...MOVING!"

Now there's a marketing strategy: Armadillo grubs. Local-grown living bird feed.

Actually, here in Austin, that might just work.


Monday, October 26, 2009

You say tomato...

What's green, grows in the garden, and is either a dangerous though necessary infrastructure or a delicious vegetable depending on who you ask?

The tomato plant. Specifically, tomato leaves.

My grandmother taught me to garden and to compost, and a lot of what I know about cooking as well. So now and then I tell her about my more amusing container-gardening experiences, offering stories as partial payment for all the lessons then and now. A few weeks ago, she mentioned almost in passing that you can eat tomato leaves.

I'm sure you could have heard my response for a quarter-mile all around. Why didn't anyone tell me? All that produce, wasted. I'd always thought they were toxic, you see, nightshade and all that. But one of my favorite teachers in the art of surviving life vouches for their edibility, so I went searching for the full story.

Don't have it yet, but I have enough: yes, they are edible, and worth eating, though not everyone's sure or willing to say for the record that they're safe. Still, I found enough in academic journals and newspapers, reprinted family histories and even a few old recipes to decide it was safe enough for me. Within reason. Hey, my grandmother's fed me a lot of good food over the years... And besides, while I did see a whole lot of "tomato leaves will kill you" warnings, none of them were from what I consider really reputable sources, no scientific studies on animal or person.

Some newer publications say that tomato leaves have tomatine, not the solanine usually listed as a toxin, and more than one source points out the lack of verified cases of poisoning by tomato leaf, though there are many from related plants that do contain solanine. Upon first broadening my search beyond the scientific sites, two page views of the general-audience Aggie horticultural site gave me two different versions of a secondary-crop list of common garden vegetables, one of which has tomatoes listed only as a fruit, because "the leaves contain alkaloids," the other of which had only a line in the box where that caution had first been.


All right, I thought, let's assume tomato leaves are in fact edible without risk and move on. Citations? Recipes?

To judge by the scarcity of information it's not too common, but that's the same reasoning that once led historians to assume that no one ate salads in the Dark Ages--some things simply don't get written down. Which does not explain why the information wasn't passed hand to hand, as it were. If they are edible, why are they so overlooked even by subsistence-level famers in areas where the plants are native or at least easy to grow? But then, one could ask the same about carrot tops. Yes, you can eat those, too.

As far as adding tomato leaves to the menu, the general recommendation seems to be that they are a suitable food only for adults (an odd prohibition but not unique). Are they really safe? There's a NYT article about eating tomato leaves, that quoted a book on toxic plants as saying one would have to eat a whole pound before worrying over possible toxins, as if that's incomprehensible, though anyone who's ever watched a pile of spinach cook down to nothing knows better.

By now fairly certain a few wouldn't hurt me, I gave them a try. Raw, they are not for me, though that's more to do with texture than the taste, a bright, almost grassy green with a backbite rather like arugula. Maybe one baby leaf, minced, alone or mixed with chives to top a cold dish, but not torn up for a salad green. The large, dark bottom leaves are too tough to bother with. But that still leaves a whole lot of potential cooking greens sprawling through my garden. And they're pretty yummy.

Recipes are few and far between, but anecdotes can be found, so I turned up a few uses without too much effort. The older, less juicy fresh leaves can be used as a wrap for cheeses during curing. The dried leaves were sometimes used to extend other dried herbs, and as a substitute for parsely in seasoning mixes, I'd guess because drying the leaves took no extra effort when one hung whole tomato plants for ripening, an old trick once again coming into favor: harvest the plant, hang it roots-up away from light and with lots of air, and tomatoes will continue to ripen on the vine.

Medium-sized fresh leaves can be blanched for a few seconds and added to sauces and purees; they are cooked as your basic pot herb (I am so tired of the ubiquitous instruction to "cook as spinach," which I'm convinced is written by cooks who have never used the green in question). Those without my objection to the texture eat them raw when young and tender. Far and away the most frequently cited English-language use of tomato leaves I found was their addition to canned or otherwise bland tomato sauce to improve the flavor, removed before serving, often in combination with other herbs in a string bundle, sometimes alone. And a few regional uses from the NYT article linked above offer ideas I have not yet had the chance to try.

My last-season tomato plant has mostly given up on flowering for the year, but that doesn't mean I’m through with it. I've a few recent romas waiting for fate to find them, and there’s a recipe I'd like to try...after which, I'm calling my grandmother to ask for any of her old recipes that use tomato leaves. 'Cause I've got a lot of years of missed greens to make up for!


[image from Flowers VG]

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Poor dirt, rich harvest

I like the idea of subsurface fertilizers; it seems right to me, putting the plant food where the roots can grow down into it. That’s the appeal of planter-finished bokashi: after the bucket, layer the fermented matter into soil, et voila! Though this is not always the right solution for me--it requires being organized enough to gather relatively large volumes of soil, cured bokashi, and empty planters together for assembly; there’s that two-week resting period before planting; and it doesn’t use enough bokashi for my needs, not without many more planters than I have room to keep. Only one third of a planter’s volume can be bokashi with this method. And what does one do about the permanent planters, where soil and roots have been placed long since? So I compost much of my bokashi, or finish it in some other fashion. Still, where I can planter-finish it, I do, as that’s some impressively nutritious ready-to-sow soil once it’s ready! Even where the soil wasn’t much to speak of starting out.

Over the years I’ve been container gardening, I’ve bought soil of every quality from appalling to magnificent, but even the best eventually grows tired, separated from the soil web that would refresh it in its place of origin. Compost helps, of course, and vermicompost even more, but those natural amendments are not exactly cheap if one has to purchase them over and over (and over!) again.

I have no need to buy compost these days. And with Verne and Co. cheerfully digesting plantersful of precomposted leafy bokashi mix, I no longer have to carefully ration vermicompost so as to have enough for every plant in my garden. I don’t even necessarily have to apply the stuff, as free-range wriggles will find their way into outdoor planters where bokashi has been added and do their thing on-site. After a year of this, the garden is demonstrably healthier than before, with strong new growth and incredible yields. While it is still possible to tell the the very worst of my previous (clay) pot-soils, most of my planters now contain rich mixes comparable to the very best organic retail products I can afford, all dark and springy and largely differentiated by amendment for particular growing needs. It’s hard to believe how much of this stuff was barely able to support plant life a bare year ago, or to remember what a victory I considered a few paltry heads of lettuce in the days before bokashi...

So the other day, I hit a local store for the cheapest available bagged potting soil--$2.50 for 40 quarts--for another in my ongoing series of experiments. This is visibly poor soil, lots of sharp sand in a suspiciously dark and lumpy base (either non-local or amended with treated municipal sludge, or perhaps both). I’ll be planter-finishing this soil with bokashi in both indoor and outdoor settings, and growing leafy vegetables or herbs in it; suppose I’ll try a few lettuce seeds or something in the unamended soil by way of confirmation that this stuff is as poor as it seems, but otherwise, the comparison will be between this soil layered with bokashi and the potting mixes I already have, which have all been heavily inoculated with microbes and nearly saturated with plant-accessible nutrients by this point.

I expect the more amended soil to perform better, but honestly not by too much; microbes live quickly, after all, and the major difference I’ve seen in short-term performance between bokashi-only or vermicompost is in germination (long term observations are ongoing). There is a better than even chance that the produce will be slightly less healthful than that grown in my organically sourced soils, but I’m in a transitional sort of mood today, so am choosing not to worry about it much. It should still be far better than anything bought from a conventional grocery store, that’s been losing nutrients during shipping and display...and cheaper, too! Both in terms of resources used per calorie/serving, and to my budget; the planters (buckets) were all free, bokashi costs me at most $0.50 a bucket (one dollar a week figure for standard EM bokashi bran recipe and accessories), and one bag of this cheap potting soil should be enough for two and a half to three large planters. So call it $1.00 per planter, each planter about equivalent to one “square foot” garden sub-plot, usable for many, many years as bokashi and compost will serve to renew the organic materials plants remove from the soil. Leaving me only the cost of seeds or transplants, if I don’t propagate my own from gathered or gifted sources.

My elderly relatives used to talk about “poor dirt farmers,” but somehow, I don’t think this is what they meant. Then again.


Monday, October 19, 2009

No rest for the repulsive!

Autumn in Austin, so the weather's variable--not "four seasons in one day" variable, but a forty degree difference in temperature over 24 hours isn't impossible, and the passing cold fronts don't seem inclined to settle in for a lengthy visit. Not yet. But that chilly seasonally appropriate spell we had last week reminded me that my microherd's larger accomplices will need some protection from the winter weathers presumably to come.

First, the worms. Trey and Sexton are currently accompanied by a bucket wormery (too many experiments, too few planters) and I've got a stunted third tower going as well. The recent rains forced the wriggles up into the tops of all those units, but frequent draining of reservoirs and some more dried leaves should make them comfortable again. For now. Thin-sided plastic offers no insulation, and worms don't enjoy winter much more than I. While they can survive cold temperatures (even brief freezes), they won't be converting bokashi to vermicompost if they're chilled unto dormancy.

I could bring the worms indoors--but I won't. My current favorite vermicomposting technique involves dried leaves in equal volumes to the cured bokashi. Dried leaves may include insect eggs. Not a problem outside, but in? No, thanks. Also, I'm not comfortable with an indoor unit that allows for worm escapes, and a closed unit requires far too much extra airspace to be practical for my tiny apartment.

So Verne & Co. are staying outside. I will be doing a bit of early harvesting, combining the worms to a few trays so they can wriggle together for warmth, and adding a bunch of soil. Say, a layer an inch or two deep. Soil's a great insulator, even above-ground.

But that's not an option for Repulsive. A soil layer, I mean. In fact, that's about the only thing I've found that can stop an active colony of BSFL! It doesn't kill them, nor starve them out, but few mature grubs make their way out of a soil-covered grubbery, and fliers don't tend to retun to the area, I assume due to soil's odor-suppressive qualities. The immature grubs do continue to eat, and between that and the soil microbes--assuming healthy enough soil to have any--matter will eventually be converted to plant-accessible nutrients and humus or something on its way to being so, but if the goal is to maintain an active biological "garbage disposal" over the winter, a layer of soil is right out.

As, I think, is a layer of dried leaves. I did this last winter, because I just couldn't handle the sight of that squirming mass when I opened the bucket, but grub activity eventually slowed too much to keep up with feeding. It's possible I could have emptied the bucket at that point, sorted out the grubs from the decomposed leaf matter, and started again, but I'm not into close contact with armored maggots, and so simply observed and moved on.

Dried leaves do insulate, in sufficient quantity, but I think that insulation would have to be kept separate from the feeding materials to be workable here, and with my limited space, that presents problems of its own. A styrofoam bucket won't maintain its integrity for a full season, not with an active colony inside (yes, I have tried), and while leakage might not be a problem in some situations, it's a deal-breaker here: the liquid will attract scavengers, and styrofoam is no protection against tooth and claw. Also, it smells bad, would stain wood or concrete, and depending on the concentration, could eventually kill plants or soil.

What I'd really like is a mostly buried trash can with a funnel-top and securable lid, not quite bottomless but with heavy mesh or tons of tiny holes, sunk into well-draining soil away from the water-table. But that's not happening. I've got a bucket grubbery. In the winter months, crawl off of mature grubs is greatly reduced or even stopped, so I'll be pulling the Ramp of Death's exit tube and plugging the hole for warmth, then wrapping the bucket in something insulating.

Will that be enough to keep him warm and chomping? Time will tell. BSFL generate heat, so it's not as if I'm relying solely on ambient temperatures, and I've noticed that regular feeding, even of smaller quantities, seems to encourage feeding... Maybe I'll try feeding him hot meals. The next time anyone offers me any Cream of Wheat.

What, you didn't think I was planning to cook for the grubs, did you? I'd almost be more likely to cook them! And you know that's not ever happening.


image from CartoonStock, in honor of Andrew and all the other grub wranglers who may well reach this point with "food waste" before too long.

Friday, October 9, 2009

This wine's not for drinking

My next trip to the homebrew shop won't be for spigots, but for stoppers and bubblers. In part so I can do one or more small experiments related to the ongoing bokashi project, but mostly so I can make a large batch of soapberry wine.

Soapberry juice is an effective alternative to commercial soaps and cleansers, but isn't shelf-stable, though the dried fruits are; it's not much trouble to cook up a batch as needed, but since I had the fermented stuff, I decided to see if it might be good for anything. Could I use it in place of fresh? Were there other functions it might serve?

Alcoholic soap. Sounds odd, no? But while I wouldn't recommend using it in place of fresh for, say, hand-washing laundry--the smell's enough to get you buzzed! -G- --it has its place. As a simple end for soft-bodied garden pests on tender leafy crops, and washes off easily. A great fruitfly bait. In place of fresh if needed, though the sudsing level is even lower with the wine (suds aren't necessary, I know, but I do still expect them!).

Of course, the fresh can be used in place of the wine for most of that. But there's one thing the fresh can't do, that the fermented can, and that's reason enough for me: it can be used in place of that brand-name anti poison ivy soap I so foolishly forgot to restock. At least as effectively, based on my so-far-singular experience.

Considering my usual reaction to that evil plant's oil, I'd say that's reason enough for a toast. Though with some other fermented something, I think.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Compostable Bucket

The more I talk to people about bokashi, the more I realize that cost isn’t the only barrier. The idea of actually having to handle things after they’ve been thrown away can be a deal-breaker. You can’t ask my mother to drain garbage juice—and as she’s neither a gardener nor a composter, nor even the owner of a septic system, there’s no point in talking about the benefits of bokashi juice, it’s still garbage juice* to her. And bokashi? Well, yeah, that’d be pickled garbage.

(No offense to my mother, she’s just a convenient example. Who hasn’t actually referred to my pet project that way. Of course, neither has she adopted a bucket of her very own.)

What, I thought, if you didn’t have to handle it?

Despite this post’s heading, technically this techique uses a compostable bin liner rather than a bucket per se, though the exterior container’s purpose is largely aesthetic and can be omitted if desired. Not the greenest bokashi option, but possibly more acceptable, more adoptable, than some. It’s one less chore: a sufficiently heavy compostable bin liner plus some absorbent material means no bokashi juice to be emptied every few days, while offering all the rest of bokashi’s benefits. Or maybe two fewer chores: no bucket to empty or clean.

Early in my bokashi bucket fermenting, I tried using newspaper liners, but that was not a success—while no smell escaped the airtight container, without a drain the very bottom got too wet, resulting in off odors within the bucket and especially during emptying. While several homebrew bokashiers have reported success using newspaper in the bottom of the bucket, I found that the bottom of the container stank though the bucket maintained a healthy fermentation. No odor during, but emptying? Yecch.

But if you’re not planning on emptying it...

An inch of shredded newspaper in the bottom of a heavy cardboard container works quite well. So, for that matter, will napkins torn and placed in the bottom of a take-out coffee cup, if you’re only fermenting small volumes. Any of the various inoculation methods can be used, though you have to use a spray bottle for application, as opposed to pouring in any quantity of fluid. It’s not the most scalable of alternatives, since the cardboard is weakened during the filling process, but I figure this is likeliest to appeal to folks who’re only generating small quantities of fermentables. (No data concerning this, but it seems reasonable.)

The container must be compostable—really compostable, not the “with suitable facilities” dodge some of the newer reusable disposables claim—free of any chemicals you don’t want in your finished product, and sturdy enough to maintain integrity even exposed to moisture. I’ve been using oatmeal canisters, as they’re easily obtainable and fit in the cute little foot-pedal trash can I bought for the purpose. Again, not the greenest option [resource-use analysts recommend recycling rather than composting for paper and cardboard products that can be easily recycled in a given area], but now that I know this works, I’ll be looking for alternative containers. Because this is the only bokashi practice I’ve yet found that might, just possibly, be acceptable to the non-gardening, non-composting, greener-by-philosophy-than-in-practice folks who aren’t interested in buckets with spigots that have to be tapped every few days.

The cardboard I’ve been using is heavy enough to last through a gradual filling and the requisite curing period, though it shouldn’t be left sit for much longer, and can simply be deposited whole into a bag of leaves or composting planter, or buried if that’s your preference, or pre-composted and fed to worms; performance will be slower than uncontained bokashi, and bits of the container will remain after the bokashi’d matter has largely been broken down. (Ice cream containers seemed logical, but there’s that chemical issue. Cereal boxes are too thin, even layered and with newspaper sandwiched within. Molded paper shipping containers?)

It’s not entirely hands-free—there’s the daily addition of EM, and mashing is recommended if not absolutely necessary—and a disposable container equals an increased cost, but so long as you take some care to drain excess liquid from fermentables before adding to the unit, and to balance wetter fermentables with a bit more shredded paper or EM bokashi bran, there’s no odor, no trouble with insects, no failures, no mess.

Hey, it could even be argued it saves water, as there’s no rinsing of the bucket, or flushing drains after pouring bokashi juice down least, assuming you were disposing of the container anyway. (Now there’s some math I won’t be doing: does burying a cardboard canister use more resources than landfilling a plastic garbage bag?) But, really, the main reason for this is to address people’s discomfort. And to limit the changes of habit required.

From recent experience I can say that it’s a whole lot easier to convince folks to use a dedicated trash can and “garbage canisters” than a standard model bokashi bucket

* not to be confused with garbage enzyme, about which I know pretty much nothing. Yet.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Year of Bokashi

It’s been a year, or a bit more, since that first bucket. Am I glad I decided to try bokashi? Absolutely. Shall I continue into the second year? You bet, and quite probably beyond. Am I satisfied it’s the answer to my particular needs?

Well...yes and no.

I love bokashi for its ease of use, for its capacity to handle things I never thought of as compostable before, for its versatility, and most of all for its speed to completion—without recourse to machines or manual chopping, I can have usable planting media, composts, and fertilizers in less than a month, or invest a bit more time though no more effort to create incredibly lush microbe-rich vermicompost and compost-amended potting mixes.

But it’s still not perfect. For me, I mean. Bokashi can’t be used straight out of the bucket, it has to be composted or otherwise finished first. And have I mentioned that I’m lazy?

The apartment now has a full-sized compost bin—installed very shortly after I started this project, in fact—and while that approximately 30 gallon unit is not sufficient to handle all the yard and kitchen waste the tenants generate, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with bokashi bucket fermentation had it been around before. For all that bokashi is far preferable (more convienient, more controllable, requiring far less carbon-rich matter or other resources, and processing many more items than traditional aerobic compost), the apartment bin has one unanswerable advantage: it’s free.

The compost bin is outdoors and out of the way, and can be neglected without concern for odor, also pluses to my point of view. And it’s somehow less personal than bokashi. Easier to share.

Okay, so I’m strange, but I’ve discovered that I’m not really comfortable with the idea of my neighbors knowing, in intimate detail, just what it is I discard. Trash bags are sealed, so fairly private even when sharing wheelie bins. But the contents of a bokashi bucket are largely unchanged in appearance after fermentation—so anyone who cares to look down, when adding their own ferment to a communal post-bucket container, can see exactly what I’ve fermented. (To the extent it isn’t covered or diced into anonymity, at least.) Creeps me out. Nor do I want to know what the neighbors dispose of. Somehow, the compost bin’s more limited contents seem less...telling.

(Don’t ask about the recycling wheelie. I try not to think about it, or to look when adding my own recyclables. It’s none of my business, thanks just the same.)

So even if I could figure out how to keep Black Soldier Flies out of a converted wheelie bin, I wouldn’t be all that comfortable with an apartment Great Big Bokashi Bin [which is in the archives somewhere]. Maybe something in a compactor? Hmm...

No, sorry, this post was about last year, not future projects. So where was I? Oh, yes: the ROI of bokashi.

Over this past year I generated more compost and refreshed more planter mixes than I’d really thought possible, not to mention sowed and reaped a great deal of produce for very little money and not all that much work. Far more than I managed when I last had an in-ground garden and associated traditional aerobic compost bin, even given the disadvantages of growing produce in planters and our drought.

Not to mention EM’s other uses, in the garden and beyond. So, yes, lots of benefits, and well worth the minimal expense (a dollar a week or less, if I’m considering only bokashi and not the varied and sundry tangential experiments) and minimal effort of draining the bucket every couple of days, emptying a bucket every couple of weeks, mixing a quart of AEM now and then, and making EM bokashi bran (or “bran”).

But there’s that one great big issue still to resolve: What happens after the bucket. I spent a fair amount of time, this past year, in reading about, thinking about, and testing other people’s solutions and my own adjustments to same. And I found a few solutions that do work for me—and, presumably, for others in similar situations. That is, for those of us so land-deprived we haven’t even a hole in the ground. But for all I have options, I’m still looking for The One.

My perfect post-bucket solution would be 1) Indoors. 2) In the same bokashi bucket. 3) Fast. 4) As nearly hands-free as can be. 5) Free, or at least very cheap.

Vermicomposting can be done indoors, but the standard model isn’t feasible for me, given my small living space and the way I feel about wriggly things; I’ll probably try another escape-proof unit this winter, maybe an indoor planter tower or something, but for now, the worms are outdoor-only. Planter finishing can be done indoors (though I’d advise a garage instead of a kitchen, especially if you’re cutting your curing time short) but it takes a fair bit of space, effort, and other resources. Next?

I’ve been playing with bokashi fermentation in disposable containers [upcoming post, and I’ll try to get it up this week; with fermentation and composting in the same reusable bucket; with adding composting worms to a bokashi bucket after a pre-composting stage; etc. But while I’ve had some successes, I’m not altogether thrilled with any of these.

Speed, bokashi has down. Add cured bokashi to what trad-composters call a brown material and stand back! A bucket of dried leaves plus one of bokashi becomes compost very quickly, faster with a bit of turning, but if you prefer the hands-off model, mixing in some dirt and adding a soil blanket—using good garden soil—is almost as fast as the recommended burial that isn’t an option for the groundless apartment gardener that I am. Outdoors, at least. That good garden soil has too many wriggly or crawling things for me to want it inside, you see, as do swept-up leaves.

If I had the space and the funds, a compost tumbler/turner would be my next garden purchase. Imagine how quickly, how completely, that mix would convert! But that’s hardly an indoor solution. So I’m still thinking, still reading, still testing.

At least it keeps me from being bored. And the garden’s growing.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Can you smell that?

It’s time, I think, to talk about not sailing ships and sealing wax but scents. Aromas, smells, stenches, whatever. Time to talk about odor.

The bokashi retailers persist in saying that bokashi doesn’t smell. What they mean is that it doesn’t stink, and/or that odor does not escape the container. Dried EM bokashi bran has a very faint odor, not at all unpleasant unless you find vinegar, molasses, and bran disagreeable. Fresh, it smells like uncooked bran muffins with a hint of kombucha or cider vinegar. Again, not unpleasant unless you’re one of those people who don’t like the smell of vinegar. Other carriers will have different smells, but dried, they’re all discreet enough, and fresh, the smell can be a bit strange, but generally clean and non-clinging, nothing to bother anyone.

A healthy bokashi bucket smells more strongly of vinegar, often with undertones of the foods in the bucket--that scent is not perceptible outside the bucket, assuming the bucket is airtight and drained often, and it should not be overpowering when the bucket is open if you’ve drained the reservoir frequently and refrained from adding spoiled (slimy, moldy) foods to the mix.

If you’re adding something strongly scented, like smoked meats or shellfish, expect to smell that each time you open the bucket for the next three or four days. If that’s a real problem, you can ferment that item separately, or store any newly generated compostables for a couple of days to let the bucket fermentation progress. Adding much more EM bokashi bran than the retailers recommend helps, too; I often completely cover odorous additions with bran.

Bokashi juice, that microbe-rich leachate, smells like vinegar, but not at all the sort you’d be willing to put on a salad. The character depends on what you’ve put in the bucket and how long ago, as well as how long ago you last drained the reservoir; I aim for twice a week (though I don’t often manage it), as I find that at that interval the scent is more cider vinegar and less old-gym-sock pickle. Diluted as recommended, the scent is not perceptible even when using in an enclosed space, but every care should be taken to avoid spilling the full-strength juice.

An undrained bucket smells like a dumpster after a week in the Texas summer sun. Adding absorbent materials to the bottom of a bucket may help in the short-term, but once the bottom’s too wet for EM, the bucket will quickly begin to stink.

Cured bokashi smells fermented. There should be no competing scent once the bucket is finished. Turning out a cured bucket for finishing is best done outside, or at least in a well-ventilated space, as the odor does linger awhile. The soil-based finishing methods suppress odor quite well so long as they aren’t too wet, and an enclosed composter will largely contain smells; other methods may allow some odor to escape, so are best done outdoors and away from doors and windows.

Like bokashi retailers, composter retailers persist in saying that compost doesn’t smell. Like the bokashi retailers, what they mean is that, properly done, it doesn’t stink. Or, depending on the containment unit, that no smell escapes. Ditto the vermicomposter retailers. None of them are scentless. To me, a healthy wormery smells like a forest in autumn after rain, not at all an unpleasant scent, but a bucket wormery too small to handle all my household-generated organics (barring those not eligible for standard-practice residential vermicomposting) made my whole small apartment smell like that damp forest. Thanks, but no. An enclosed wormery, like an airtight bucket, emits no odor save when open, so were the opening done in a well-ventilated area, that would be a possibility, but keeping a standard-model in my kitchen is not something I’d be willing to try again.

Compost or vermicompost in progress smells like its components. Around here, that’s usually dried leaves and cured bokashi. Not unpleasant, but not something you’d wear for perfume or use for an indoor air freshener. Covers or enclosures keep that odor from becoming a problem, though if you were to get right next to a unit and breathe deeply, you might be able to perceive it. And in an unventilated space, it would eventually become strong enough to notice. Of course, aerobic composting and vermicomposting both work better with proper ventilation anyway. Wormeries especially need airflow lest they go anaerobic, in which case they stop smelling like loam-and-leaves and start to stink like unemptied trash cans.

Finished bokashi compost smells like compost. There is no food or vinegar odor still present. The same for vermicompost. Bokashi used as sub-surface fertilizer will be quickly used except for the more durable materials (bone, eggshell, etc.), and have no individual scent by the end of a growing season.

(A)EM smells like molasses and vinegar, sweeter or sharper depending on its pH or age. Sprayed full-strength or in strong dilution onto surfaces, the smell remains perceptible for some time after drying. Which can make for an odd mix with other household cleansers!

Failed bokashi smells like unemptied garbage. Drowned compost often the same, or like backed-up sewers. [Yecch!] Dead vermicompost, too, is an assault to the nose, often including some element of eau du corpse. In other words, failure stinks!

---But no one needs me to tell them that.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tales from the Bucket: Dark-Roast EM

I’ve been playing with used coffee grounds (UCG) in place of bran. Not the stuff I generate--I do drink a fair amount of coffee, but not that much, I don’t think--but coffeehouses hand the stuff out if you ask, and I frequent any number of the joints.

The last batch of caffeinated EM bokashi bran I made was, by my standards, very large: 40 cups of UCG, plus AEM and molasses and a pint or so of water. As UCG is damp-to-wet upon receipt, you need less water than in the basic recipe; other than that, and fishing out any filters (or teabags, depending on the coffeehouse), no changes need be made to the fermentation. This does require very fresh UCG, however; undesirable microbes will spoil the grounds in short order.

Takes about the same length of time to ferment UCG as wheat bran, completion judged by presence of mycelia, scent, and pH. It's tempting to dry some for use as a mulch--it looks right!--but that test shall wait until early spring, when heating the soil layer might not be altogether a bad thing. As with any EM source, it encourages hot-composting reactions when added to high-carbon (brown) materials. In contact with the scattered leaves atop my soil, and bits of same mixed in, I imagine it might burn roots in more than one sense, and my plants are already hot enough, thanks.

In a bucket, the EM+UCG encourages fermentation. Just like the bran-based stuff. I’m generous with my microbes, but no more generous with coffee-based than otherwise, and it works just as well in most situations, better in some (though not, I imagine, in a litter box or cage!).

As for the smell, any undried EM bokashi bran has a characteristic aroma. The coffee’s is stronger than the wheat bran’s, but my bokashi buckets have fair quantities of coffee grounds in them regardless, so there’s no real difference after the initial bucket-seeding. And if the smell of used coffee grounds were going to bother me, it likely would have long before now.

The only place I run into problems with UCG-based EM bokashi bran is while drying--solar drying seems so practical here in Austin, but Repulsive’s adult offspring are drawn to the scent of EM anyway, and they adore UCG, and have been known to penetrate my solar dryer to reach the stuff. Yecch! Some folks use their cars as enclosed solar dryers, but I have the same problem with that as I do with oven drying: I’m averse to filling my kitchen with odd odors, so oven-drying sweet-pickled coffee’s just not happening.

Oven-drying wheat-bran-based EM bokashi bran I’ve done, and it smells more like bran muffins than otherwise, so I can handle that. (Fairly strong undertone of kombucha during the first minutes, but not intolerable when the weather allows for open windows.) For the most part, I make my EM bokashi bran in small enough batches to use fresh, which is one less step and takes far less space, but that may not be practical for all people in all situations. In this case, I walked into a Starbucks and, on seeing their Grounds for the Garden basket empty, asked if they had any UCG. They gave me more than a bucket’s worth, double-bagged and so heavy I wished it had wheels. So I figured I might as well make a large batch. For one particular use, it wouldn’t matter if Repulsive got into it while drying--

But that’s another post, I think.

UCG as a carrier may not be the single greenest or most frugal choice, depending on your situation (transportation miles, unknown source of mixed beans, the temptation to wallet and waistline engendered by entering a coffeeshop in the first place...) But while wheat bran is cheap, free is often better, and UCG is a waste item anyway, having already served its purpose. So I thought it was worth trying.

Anyone know if songbirds are sensitive to caffeine? I know they can get drunk, at which point they fly into windows and lampposts and things. Do I have to make decaf coffee bran?



Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tales from the bucket: the aquarium bucket

Actually, it's neither an aquarium nor a bucket, but half a globe terrarium I co-opted for a frugal experiment in low-tech aquaponics. My winter hydroponics experiments didn't go far enough--next time, I'm setting up a timer for the lights!-- but the lettuce grown on miniature rafts amused me. Easier than sprouts, even: mix the nutrient solution, add the sprouted seeds in their nests, wait, harvest. Repeat.

As for the lights...well, outside, there's no need to remember about switches and bulbs or anything. Of course, in Austin, still water is an invitation to disease-carrying and otherwise pestiferous mosquitos. Enter the goldfish, which will eat their eggs and/or larvae, and any gravid female flyer foolish enough to linger. And, hey! No need for nutrient solution, as the fish will take care of that.

Haven't found the precisely perfect balance of EM (for water conditioning) and vegetation for the unaerated four-gallon miniature pond, but the fish is alive despite my casual feeding and water-replenishing, and the only outdoor Texas summer lettuce I've ever grown was yummy, both heads of it. -G- I'm really surprised the fish is still alive, unboiled and undevoured after more than a month; had it lived long enough for me to harvest a single leaf of lettuce, I'd have called the test a nominal success, so my cautious two-head harvest certainly counts, and I'm now working on a more ambitious mixed-vegetation crop. Total cost: $0.60 for the fish, really. Everything else I either had or would have bought anyway. Not bad for two heads of chemical-free fresh locally grown lettuce! Still less if I can harvest a bit of Vietnamese coriander and maybe some other leafy greens...

The reduction in mosquito trouble may be my imagination, but even imaginary itch-relief is better than nothing. So the fish remains. Not a pet, just an earth-friendly pest control technique and fertilizer factory. There's no chance it'll be joined by any finny friends, as I simply haven't the space, and it probably won't last the winter if it gets to that point, but until then, or until the household feline or a neighborhood raider finds it, the microherd has yet another macro member.

And I have yet another bucket.


Monday, August 3, 2009

It's not a teapot, and you're no dormouse!

I’ve been working all the hours of the night and day the past few weeks, so the garden’s barely gotten a rueful nod on my way by. Still haven’t completely converted all my pots to clay pot irrigation or SIP, and between heat and neglect I did lose a couple of plants not so equipped, but only a couple—as in two or three. Which is amazing, what with our string of unendingly hot days broken up by only one far-too-light rain.

Drought’s not been the problem, but that’s not to say the garden hasn’t been beset by trials. Locusts, the neighborhood dogs, daily temperatures so high some tender leaves can actually cook on the plants, water or no water...and to those expected ills, add this: I’m back to fighting possums. At least a trio of young ones, too brazen for their own good and still small enough that one actually managed to get briefly stuck inside an irrigation pitcher!

I’m not sure what the appeal there was; the bit of water shoudln’t have drawn interest with the aquarium bucket* nearby, and all my irrigation reservoirs are lidded to prevent mosquitos from using them as hatcheries, so there shouldn’t have been larvae or anything. Clay does cool water, and soil’s cooling as well, so perhaps it was the difference in temperature when the blasted prehistoric rodentalogue dislodged the lid. Whatever the reason it decided to stick its pointy head and front half into a clay tube, it had a noisy pre-dawn time getting back out, and now there’s green sap and shredded leaves where I used to have a thriving sweet potato vine. (It may recover, but that’s not the point.)

That half-suicidal pouch-rat or one of its compatriots disturbed my “precomposting” worm-food, too. Or perhaps it took several of them working in concert; by the mess, a whole gang of adolescent rat-tailed terrors had a party. Have I mentioned lately that I have no use for possums? Horrible things. Part of the local ecosystem they may be, but once they disturb my garden, they’re pests.

Technically edible pests, but while I may fantasize about roasted possum on a grape-leaf lined platter with a guava in its mouth for decoration, that’s vengeance, not epicurianism, speaking.

I can handle the monkeys-debating-politics sounds of racoons in mating season; the sudden thunder of squirrels using rooftiles as trampolines; even the occasional bird-denuded grapevine seems an acceptable price to pay for living in a city green enough to have such a varied wifdlife still.

But possums in the pots? That’s just too much for me. Time to set out the Hav-A-Hart, I think. Wonder if I could bait it with Repulsive-bits? Possums do seem to enjoy them, and at least it’d be free...


Monday, July 6, 2009

Frugal Bokashi

When I did the numbers before starting this project, I figured an initial $30 investment should cover my first six months of bokashi, $5 a month to see if bucket fermentation was suited to my particular needs. No retail-priced bokashi bucket in that budget (though I am curious about the EM-impregnated plastic ones), not even packaged dry EM bokashi bran, just a bottle of EM-1, molasses, and bran, plus some scrounged buckets. The cheapest entry-point I could see. Why six months? Because I’d read that the bottled culture would lose efficiency after that point, so I’d have to restock. Or not, if it turned out bokashi wasn’t for me.

It’s approaching the one-year mark, and I decided to revisit those numbers. How much did a year of bare-bones branded EM bokashi cost me?

A dollar a week.

Actually, a bit less. $50 for the first year, counting a few durable items. I decided that spigots are absolutely necessary for me—I’m lazy, and far less inclined to remove the inner bucket from the reservoir than I am to just turn the tap—and bought as well a couple of potato mashers and a pail opener to complete my basic bokashi kit. That last item isn’t necessary with my favorite repurposed kitty litter containers or the two-gallon plastic barrel with the screw-on lid, but for the food buckets, it’s a convenience well worth the $4 it cost.

In all, I spent less than $40 on the actual inoculant/carrier/food. And next year, that number may go down further still. A smaller bottle of EM-1 would only be cheaper if I could find one locally, as shipping liquids is seldom really cheap (to date, I’ve only found one place in town where I can buy any EM, Whole Foods). But “activating” EM stretches a bottle in terms of both quantity and longevity such that one bottle a year is reasonable, and I don’t really need a whole liter just for me. Nor would I if I were mixing bran for half a dozen households every month! As I’ve had some success with non-bran carriers, I’ll keep playing with those, so I may well buy less wheat bran, but if/when I do decide to buy any, I’m placing a small-scale bulk order for that and for the molasses as well.

The required repeated expense is a common objection when bokashi comes up in discussion. And home-cultured IMO is a valid alternative--there are tons of recipes out there, and while my own experience has so far been mixed, lots of folks swear by their non-branded silo bucket inoculants. But that annual @ $40 expense is actually saving me money. Forget about trash fees, it’s the commercial compost I no longer have to buy! But there is also the lesser expense on trash bags (volume and frequency), less use of chlorine bleach (cleaning, washing towels and dish cloths, deodorizing the trash bins) and non-chlorine bleach (laundry).

And my happier plants are producing more even in the drought and heat...


Monday, June 29, 2009

They can’t go south for winter—they’re already here!

Or, the Riddle of the Moving Wriggle

I harvested the last of my spring potatoes earlier this month. The "grow bags" were too degraded for further use and went into the compost(s), but the one hard-sided potato planter (okay, kitty litter bucket) contained really nice soil still, once I got down past the stem-cover layer. Impressively good soil, actually; rich and dark and springy/spongy, exactly the way soil is supposed to be but container-mix at the end of a growing season never is. Checked my records and confirmed that I'd planter-finished EM bokashi for that unit.

This was my first root-crop harvest from planter-finished bokashi; I’d been a little concerned that remaining undecomposed bits might cause problems, but for whatever reason, that was not the case here. No corn-cobs came up with the russets, no dessicated citrus warped the tubers in the growing. The only things that came out of that planter were yummy potatoes, pulled weeks late without harm. Potatoes produced through a standard top-layering practice using mainly dried leaves with only the bokashi-amended soil for nourishment.

Definitely something I'll do again. But I try not to plant the same thing in the same soil twice in a row. And besides, it's not potato-planting season...

As I had no immediate need for that planter once the potatoes were out, I tossed the leafy stem-cover back in by way of mulch and decided to let it rest awhile. Sunday, I found a matching bucket, so set about creating a sub-irrigation nested set. Step one of my planter conversion required having both buckets empty.

Imagine my surprise upon upending that bucket: An inch or so of dry mulch, then lovely soil full of worms!

I don't really expect Verne and Company to go wandering. They should stay in their towers where I put them. But I didn't put any earthworms in any containers at all, so those grey ones, at least, immigrated from elsewhere. I suppose the red ones might have as well; in this area, I'm hardly the first person to have tried keeping them, and there's more than enough leafy matter around to house a few strays. Still can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that worms can get up onto the porch, but it’s happened before.

Wherever they came from, the volunteer planter-worms did a lovely job turning the leafy matter (and any remaining bokashi) into beautiful rich planting medium, and I took full advantage. The worms themselves, no matter their color, I placed into a spare tower layer for now. Except for the ones I doubtless missed during my harvesting.

I want more. More incredible soil improved and mixed in place. More happy, healthy plants. More worms moving into planters! I’ll be watching the plants potted up with this batch quite hopefully...

Spontaneous in-planter vermicast is a lovely gift; planned in-planter creation would be better still. The vermilit says worms won’t last long in a container once the food’s gone, which makes sense; conventional container gardening says not to include uncomposted material, as the decomposition process can sequester or even remove plant-required nutrients and alter soil pH. But if you could find the right balance of food to worm to plants, could you, maybe, have self-refreshing soil? Soil that would actually improve throughout a season, that would feed plants all the time without risk of salt build-up or burning?

Hey, it’s worth a try. If I get it wrong, the worms will just emigrate. Apparently, they’re much more mobile than I think!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Tales from the Bucket: the Hundred Degree Bucket

Actually, it’s a bit hotter than that here, and while the active indoor bucket is comparatively cool, the garden-waste bucket test has been postponed indefinitely. Called on account of heat. Have I mentioned that it’s ***hot***?

Between the temperature and the webworms, I declared the end of my variant-broccoli season last week. Normally, garden waste goes in the apartment compost now that we have a bin, but it’s full right now; no way I could fit a small pile of roots, too-tough stalks, and skeletonized leaves in there.

Farmers don’t typically bother with buckets, choosing to sheet compost or pile-ferment or otherwise handle their large-scale waste in place instead. But I am not a farmer. No farm, no land = no place for sheet-composting or whatever. I could, I suppose, have tossed all that fresh chemical-free vegetable matter into a leaf and lawn bag, but I have pangs enough handing over fallen leaves, no way the city’s getting something I worked to grow! Those bits might not be edible to me, but my microherd should be allowed to enjoy the harvest, too.

So I blinked at that small pile a few moments, mentally translating it from yard/gardenstuffs into bucket-volumes of kitchen waste that just hadn’t made it into the kitchen, and then went and fetched the largest bokashi bucket I own.

I did everything right at the start: added EM bokashi bran to the bucket first, chopped up all the remains, layered EM bokashi bran generously, mashed the materials down, used the silly tool to hammer the lid down and check the seal. What I didn’t do was open the bucket the next day to add more bran. I don’t tend to; I’m generous with the EM at the start, and most of my buckets are now equipped with spigots, so it’s no trouble to tap the things frequently. The only reason I can see for that “open daily” bit is to check on the progress of the bokashi, and quite frankly, I do enough of that! Every two or three days is fine. really wasn’t, this time.

I didn’t have to open the bucket to learn there was a problem; the bucket had opened. Gas pressure defeated the lid I had deemed unopenable without mechanical aid! The smell of overripe brassica was perceptible some feet away, and the sight when I rounded the corner was startling: Black Soldier Flies don’t swarm, but there were more of them buzzing around that bucket than I have ever seen at one time before.

So the bucket failed according to my definitions (insects, odor), but that’s not to say the fermentation failed; in fact, it was too successful! Yeast + food + heat = carbon dioxide. The pressure popped the bucket’s lid off, which allowed sunlight to cook the top layer of leaves where they weren’t completely covered in EM bokashi bran, but I was curious enough to stir the bucket, and the scent beneath the top was characteristic of early bokashi.

What, I wondered, would happen if I put the lid back on? The bucket was already failed...

The lid popped off again in less than a day. Which, I figured, was more than enough of that. I am curious to know how long it would take a filled-all-at-once bucket to ferment at one hundred degrees as opposed to the cooler indoor temperatures, but that test would require a gas-release valve, and I’m not headed back to the homebrew shop any time soon, so it’ll have to wait. Because I may be a personal chef to the worm towers, but I am not willing to become a nanny to buckets. Twice-daily burpings is just too much work for me!


The image above is from allposters; no affiliation, I just liked the shot.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tales from the Bucket: Stirred but not shaken

After dividing up a bucket of cured bokashi into planters for worm-food, I had a bit left over; homeless bokashi. And it wasn't long before that I'd first read the post about direct-to-bucket composting, so an impromptu test commenced: I tossed a couple of inches of dirt on top of the remaining cured bokashi and stuck the lid on.

Then opened it a couple of days longer and stirred. And again a few days after that.

This stirring in no way disturbed the BSFL that appeared as if by magic to devour the ferment despite its earthen blanket. While a heavy soil layer is supposed to control BSFL populations, it does so by preventing sufficient crawl-off for further generations. The ever-hungry youth don't seem bothered at all, and are apparently happy enough to give off whatever chemical signature encourages egg-layers to seek entrance.

While this bucket had been full of curing bokashi, I'd kept a weight on the lid expressly to prevent such entrance, but since the original post suggested leaving the bucket open as needed, I didn't weight this one. Should I repeat this test, I think I will--as it is, while the matter is certainly disappearing and the soil is visibly refreshed, I can't say if there's any actual composting going on at all. Eating and digesting, check.

Appropriately enough for bokashi, this particular bucket started life as a container for pickles. If I needed another BSFL colony, I think I'd name him Martin. -G-


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Tales from the Bucket: Eureka!

The last batch isn’t compost yet. Not mature nor fully homogenous, I mean. But it’s at the stage some composter-retailers refer to as “mulch”. Not bad for just over two weeks! And it’s clearly going to finish. So I can say, finally:

It works.

“It” is what I started this blog-project to find: a way to--without soil--compost small volumes of bokashi. This particular batch is a mix of cured bokashi and dried leaves, without a single bit of soil save whatever was swept in with the patio cleaning.* And it’s not the first batch. In different volumes and different though similar containers, I have successively, successfully, composted dried leaves and bokashi. Like the guy in the tub said. I have found it.

At least, I have found a process that works for me. In Texas, in near-summer heat. For those not so blessed, I have no idea.

Beyond an approximately equal volume of cured bokashi and dried leaves, plus some source of soil microbes (e.g. A handful of mature compost or good garden soil), this needs:

1. A black plastic container with

2. Bottom drainage

3. A weight and cover

4. Placement in full sun

5. Regular stirring

That’s all that’s necessary. The sun-heated black plastic helps to mimic the conditions of a traditional large pile, with the weight standing in for the missing volume**; the cover keeps out undesirables of whatever size or form; and the stirring introduces the oxygen aerobic microbes need.

So very simple. I should have figured it out long since! But I kept sticking my test containers under the porch, out of the way--and in deep shade. Or behind planters, to keep them out of sight, which also meant out of the sun. And though I did try several different containers, none were black plastic, as I don’t have much of that.

Took me a while, but I got it at last. Yes, it is possible to compost bokashi without a full-size composter or in-ground trench, with soil or without. And as an added benefit, it appears this small-batch composting uses less water--I’ve added no water at all to any of the one-gallon sets, and rarely to the six. How cool is that? Water-conserving composting!

It’s still not the perfect urban solution, at least not for all urbs. Not an indoor solution at all (vermicomposting bokashi may be, if you get past the heating). Not a solution for the high-rise dweller who sees no leaves from season to season. Nor for the snow-coast dweller who takes on faith all our claims of the sun’s heat.

But it works for me! Dried leaves are an extremely renewable resource around here, available year-round and absolutely free, so I’ll be limited in my compost production only by available sunny space and available cured bokashi.

Wow. I found the answer--or an answer, anyway--that I set out to find. Does this mean I’m finished? But I did find some more questions along the way...

I am keeping Trey, as vermicomposting conveys additional benefits. And, too, I kind of like him. Outdoors. Might even keep the whole set, but I expect Vernopolis shall soon be joined by large black plastic planters stacked one atop the next, and the neighbors will have new evidence of my insanity as I cackle over my pure leafy bokashi compost. “It’s gold! Gold, I tell’s ya!”

Maybe they’ll just think I’m drunk. You know, all that fermenting.


Cackling already,


*Hey, I’ve seen earthworms up there, not to mention snails and geckos. Trust me, there are soil microbes around.

**I think. Have I mentioned that I’m not a scientist -G-

image from:

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Direct-to-Bucket Soil-Based Composting?

Another entry into the balcony compost sweepstakes. (Sorry, no monetary prize, just all the compost you can produce. -G-)

I haven’t tried this yet. Between the site name and the mention of BSFs, I’m assuming the writer lives and practices this odd form of composting someplace warm. And it might well be feasible someplace sufficiently warm and dry, though I imagine there’s a fair risk of spoilage even with frequent turning. Vegetarian-only, naturally.

I have tried to compost bokashi in soil without bottom drainage, and the result was not appealing, but I didn’t try weekly turning. Hmm...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Welcome to Verne-ville, population one billion

The retail planter wormery pictured is about thirty inches high. Sexton's approaching that now, and while he is smaller--twelve inches in diameter as opposed to the Garden Planter's fifteen--it's not so much smaller as I'd thought, which leads me to wonder...Sexton's one of two outdoor tower wormeries, and I'm half-seriously considering adding a third. Just for me. Do I really generate that much more waste than other vermicomposters?

My planter-tower wormeries do get fed bunches of dried leaves, but it's not only that; I'm feeding about a third of my bokashi to the worms, so with no leaves at all (if that were feasible) I'd still be short on tower-space. Not the leaves alone. What else, then?

I think it's the increase in foodstuffs eligible for vermicomposting with bokashi. The meats, aromatics, oils, and grains that are either not appropriate or appropriate only in small measure in their raw state are all apparently quite acceptable to wrigglers once fermented. Whereas, back when I was feeding Verne only the recommended vegetarian chopped-frozen-and-thawed stuff, it seemed like he got a bit less than half my kitchen waste. Which would fit rather more easily.

What can I say? I like citrus! And every member of the allium family I've ever met. -G-

As for the leaves, no doubt the retailers assume that someone with the space for a "garden" wormery also has the space for a traditional compost pile, so dried leaves and other non-food compostables won't end up taking space in the wormery. But that's not always the case, and it's hard enough asking people to house and feed a collection of worms without insisting they keep a compost pile as well.

[Says the person with compost bin, three different wormery designs, bokashi buckets, and a bucket full of black soldier fly larvae. Ah, well.]

Two pounds of worms, they say, can handle up to seven pounds of waste per week. Which is apparently what the "average" family of four is expected to generated, if the Family Size Wormery is any guide. That's comparable to the Jr. Wormery figures I saw some while back, that said half a pound of worms per person's kitchen waste per week.

I generate a gallon of bokashi in an average week. Plus the odd contribution from the coffeehouse, an occasional bucket from a long-suffering friend, etc. How much does a gallon of bokashi weigh? Depends on what's being fermented! But judging by the cocoons(!) and small wrigglers I saw last time I fed Trey, it's more than his current population can eat.

The worm-boom goes on.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Cleaning House

I've been offline a lot lately, what with one thing and another. Fortunately, bokashi'ing and gardening have been among those things, so I have things to post about! But first a topic I keep forgetting to put up: using EM for cleaning.

If you buy your EM bokashi bran pre-mixed, you may be missing out. I began this ever-growing project with a bottle of liquid EM inoculant (cheaper and available locally, so there was no need to wait for delivery). Having the liquid EM around, of course I had to try some of the beyond-the-garden uses for the stuff!

Folks, you wouldn't believe some of the things people do with their EM. It's mixed into ceramic donuts and balls that are then added to pools and ponds to help clarify and purify the water. Used as a foliar feed for plants, mixed into drinking water for pets and livestock as well as a supplement to chicken feed, added to household cleansers, used as a cleanser itself, and even mixed into toothpastes and mouthwash.

Oh, did I forget the drinks? There are whole teahouse-like establishments devoted to EM products in Asia, and bottled drinks increasingly for sale in the West. As well as several sites where one can find recipes for brewing one's own from that same bottle of EM-1 used to make "magic bran."

While I have, out of curiosity, tasted freshly made AEM, I haven't yet gone so far as to make a beverage out of it. But I have used the spray as a deodorizer for the apartment trash bins, and upon seeing how very successful that was, experimented a bit with some of the other cleaning uses. While I don't find that it's a viable substitute for a proper cleanser on its own (maybe my floors and shower are excessively dirty?), it does seem to discourage the reappearance of mildew--no small feat!--and keep things clean longer than the cleansers alone.

It even works in the laundry. The usual retailer advice is not to use EM on dark fabrics, and judging by what happens to kitchen sponges, I'd say it's unwise to challenge that. But EM works very well to get kitchen towels clean, as well as the kitchen sink; even without hot water, there's no musty smell nor stains. And a strong dilution of AEM is far and away the best fridge-cleaner I have ever found! Safe for use on food, too, which is one less cause for concern when attempting to clean up a minor fridge spill.

One of these days, I really am going to have try an EM-X drink. At this stage in my life, I can't imagine that ingesting a few more soil-borne bacteria could hurt me!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Coolest thing EVER!

Okay, the French Press is up there. Ditto the jacuzzi. And I admit to a fondness for contact lenses, refrigerators, indoor heat and sanitation. But, c'mon, an office greenspace/bokashi bin? Two words:



Though it looks like I may have to do the non-retail thing for this as well--not only as the original would likely cost the earth, but because I can find no US equivalent of the Canadian company introducing this thing.

Sigh. And here I've only just got the office-mates to agree to try natural air freshening plants instead of those headache- and cough-inducing Glade Plug-Ins.

And that took a month-long campaign! I began by scattering leaves of lemon verbena or scented geranium on my desk. Anyone who asked was informed they were from my garden. "Rose geraniums make lovely indoor plants, too." After a while, it became something of a joke, with coworkers asking about the plant of the day. Then I skipped a few days, until someone asked me to start again. And finally I offered to bring in some plants. If no one minded, naturally. The response was uniformly positive, though only truly eager in a few cases, and with definite preferences as to the scents and kind of plants. (Which is why I brought in different sorts, you see.)

So I'm far from a biowall. But, oh, I do want one! Or two. Can I replace my cubicle?

talking trash

I am neither No Impact Man nor Fake Plastic Fish. Garbageland, while interesting, is in no shape or form the experiment for me. And part of the reason I'm not too active on BlogHer is that I feel like I'm sailing under false colors in their Green and Eco-Conscious category--eco-conscious, me? I'm just a gardener here.

Well, maybe.

If you ask, I'll describe myself as "casually green." Aware of the problem and willing to go a few steps out of my way to help mitigate it, so long as those steps aren't too arduous or difficult to remember. Habitually green, in many ways, but not in every one. The journey away from plastic is incredible to read about, a great conversation-starter, and far too difficult for me to even consider embarking upon myself. And so on through the larger changes of lifestyle.

Reducing the amount of trash I throw away was never really the goal when I started bokashi. Not exactly. I wanted to stop throwing away things I could turn into compost. The small benefit to the overloaded trashstream made a nice secondary excuse for carving out some funds from my always-straitened budget to start bokashi-ing, but the primary reason was to make compost, cheaply, instead of buying it expensively.

That's all.

This week, I threw away a grand total of one gallon of trash (not counting the kitty litter). The recycling bin got its fair share, though I didn't measure that. But all that went into the trash bin was a single re-purposed one-gallon bag, filled mainly with the plastic wrappings of grocery-store purchases.

In that same week, I put one and a quarter gallons of soi-disant "waste" into the bokashi bucket.

This, mind, not counting the UCG I took home from the office, nor the scrapings from the cat-food dish that got fed to Repulsive. All by myself, in one week, I generated more than a gallon of fermentable could-be-trash-or-could-be-useful kitchen stuffs: UCG, tea leaves, cantaloupe rind and banana peels and corn-silk and -husk and -cob, the insect-nibbled outer leaves of garden produce, onion-skins and burdock peel...

It's possible that I'm eating more fresh produce because of the bokashi--both because the garden's doing well enough that there's simply more fresh produce within feet of my front door than ever before, and because I'm more inclined to buy whole fruits and vegetables at the market now. These days, I balance the "there's only one of me" calculation that would have led to my buying, say, a package of melon cubes instead of a whole melon with the realization that the leftovers will keep in the fridge a day or two, and Verne might like the rind when I'm through.

And I'm quite sure I recycle more because of the bokashi bucket. In the old days, I might toss an empty cat food can in the trash rather than wash it out for recycling, my issues with the household feline's chosen treat being what they are. Why not, if I was going to have to take the trash out that day anyway? And some bottles are really hard to wash out, and since there's a can going in anyway... But these days, I take the trash out once a week because the bins have to go down to street-level anyway, rather than out of urgent need. (Always excepting the kitty litter.)

It feels fairly revolutionary to me, the idea that trash doesn't have to smell bad nor be taken out every day or two, but landfills were never meant to receive so much organic matter; the wholescale trashing of compostables is a new--and regrettable--practice. My great-grandparents would have fed their kitchen leavings to chickens or goats or pigs, depending, as would their parents and grands back through the years; my grandmother had a vegetarian compost pile for years, until moving to one of those horrible planned communities whose planners didn't plan for them. My mother throws things away, as do all her peers.

Me, I'm not inclined toward livestock, even if I had the space. But I seem to have largely traded in my trash can for a bucket or two. And I have to say, I am more than happy with the exchange! The trashstream is less taxed by my contributions, which is lovely; and my garden is thriving, which I have to admit I find far more satisfying. Still, it is nice to know I'm putting less of a burden on the earth in some small way. You couldn't call it accidentally green, as I knew the benefit was there at least in potential, more serendipitously green, in that I wasn't looking for it, but am happy to have found it anyway.

Bokashi allows me to compost more than I'd ever thought possible, including meats, oils, and dairy. All the organic kitchen waste. Leaving nothing to spoil in the trash, to stink and attract insects and generate methane and all those horrid things.

(Still excepting the cat litter, as I've yet to find a compostable sort the HF will use.)

Kermit was wrong: sometimes it is easy.

Being...well, you know. -G-


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Smoke test

I've always loved that phrase, proof that mechanics and engineers can find humor in things other than the bills they charge me. -G- This week, I got to see if a few of my experiments were going to blow up. Or whatever.


Repulsive v.2

Take your basic nested-bucket bokashi set-up, add a mesh layer to keep the SF-nal maggots from falling into the reservoir, drill holes in the lid and upper sides a la the jr. wormery conversion, and then insert two hollow metal poles to provide the required 40-degree-angled ramps for teen grubs to climb.

Though I don't actually recommend doing this, at least not that last step. Turns out this season's bucket-tweak is not pest-proofed yet. I knew those ramps were going to be a problem, but hadn't really thought they might be used as levers. Imagine the raccoons and/or possums waddling away, burping...

Interim solution is to take the ramps back off and weight the lid. New grubs have hatched and are eagerly eating, but I have work to do!


Verne Prime has been retired; traditional vermicomposting is too much work for me. But I've got more worms than ever before (and yes, that is a good thing). So let's bring the smudge pots to my "worm towers," Trey and Sexton. Same basic design for both: spigoted reservoir at the base, nested plastic planters with a bit more drainage than usual for plants, screws with anchors inserted in the sides to keep the layers from compacting, planter with soil and plant on top. Spanish moss wedged into the sides to help secure the layers as needed, and used as mulch for the plant. Sexton uses larger pots and more of them, and the screws are set higher to use more interior volume of each planter.

My midnight freeloaders must not have been too pleased with this design, though I am--the comparatively squat Trey was perfectly unscathed, and Sexton, which is a bit more open, was disturbed but not much discommoded. Not upended, not emptied, they didn't even disturb the soil, far less the plant in it. 'Coon or possum claws did manage to pull out the moss-wedging from one layer, and no doubt the thieves ate whatever worms they could reach through that space, but the bulk of the wriggle (that is the right collective, yeah?) remained safely in the feeding layers.

It does reinforce the caution, however, that the towers must be stable! The weight of soil and plant on top has so far proved sufficient, but I've only got a couple of levels in place right now. I had decided against a center pole for extra anchoring as I thought it might be messy--this way, planters can be easily removed and replaced with no risk of spilling--but may have to rethink that. We shall see.


Bokashi and dried leaves together heat up too much for direct addition, and there's too much heat to put in the relatively small towers even with an empty layer between the uppermost active feeding layer and the new addition. So I think there has to be a separate container or spare planter that can be secured top and bottom against insects and larger pests, and left to rest at least four days.

Can't report on how long it takes the worms to completely devour a batch of bokashi + dried leaves, as they're still working on it, but they're multiplying like their little wormy pants are on fire! So I guess they're happy.