Sunday, March 29, 2009

Talking Bokashi

"Go on," my friend said, "ask her." My friend's friend rolled his eyes but obediently asked me what I'm doing with all my buckets.

"...Bokashi? What's that?"

"Two-stage composting," I answered.

He nodded, said that he didn't garden, and the conversation moved on.


In the six months or so since I began this blog--and started talking about my microherding adventures--that exchange has happened more than a few times. Bokashi? Oh, um, sounds...interesting. Hey, how about those Cowboys?

I've tried other answers, none any more satisfying; some of my half-correct definitions are more engagingly phrased than others, depending on the audience, but none of them really work yet.


...Pickled compost, sort of... Um, yeah. Next?

...making plant food out of leftover people-food--hey, wait, come back! I wasn't finished...

...The urban answer to composting.

That one gets a decent response, though only from gardeners. People who know about different sorts of composting ask questions about advantages, costs, or procedure; the ones who know only that composting is something they ought to be doing ask about costs and learning curves; those who've chosen other routes...well, you get the idea.

It's the non-gardeners I can't reach with that response (or any other). "Recycling food" just sounds wrong; I won't even try. Ditto "on-site waste handling"! So how do you talk to the basic non-gardening urbanite about bokashi?

Or rather, how do I convince them to give it a try?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Repulsive Lives!

I was in the garden Saturday (naturally), and what did I see but the first Black Soldier Fly of the year. By location, it could have been one of my overwintered dormant grubs all grown up, or a returnee from the wild, or new; whichever, it was a welcome sight.

Yes, I admit it: Repulsive is now a welcome, if unasthetic, resident of the bucket garden. This year, he's getting at least two containers, one in which he can churn through dried leaves and gorge on organic matter until harvesting-time, and a very separate one to handle the neighbors' even less aesthetic contribution to the landscape (via their pets).

Haven't yet found a chicken owner interested in trading grubs for ranch eggs, so for now the landfolks' chickens will reap the benefits of the auto-harvest. Haven't yet cobbled the perfect urban digester, either--I want something as convenient as a trash bin, and free of visible insect activity barring the very occasional adult BSF, with a discreet but accessible harvesting unit and an opening that won't show the grubs. Something decorative enough to put in a public area. Elegant, even.

For now, I opened the winter box in case any BSF should decide to do the salmon-thing, and set out cardboard and paper near fresh bokashi and unfermented food scraps. By this afternoon, there were half a dozen adults flying around, so I expect to have grubs soon.

...still can't believe I think that's a good thing!

The Hundred Dollar Bucket

Well, it's not the Sixty-Four Dollar Tomato, but The Bokashi Experiment has now cost me $100 out of pocket. At least it has if you count the wormeries. (Yes, that's plural now.) Took me about six months, and I'm not really sure how to calculate the return on my investment--from a purely monetary standpoint? Environmental impact? Presumed nutritional benefits, maybe?

Hey, I learned a new way to bore folks at cocktail parties! Though I don't think I'd have spent $100 on that.

I can at least estimate the quantities of compost produced and put a price on that, but how should I count plant-food applied to the landscaping, when I neither measured it nor substituted it for some retail product? Certainly it improved the area's appearance, but what value do I put on improved soil and non-food plant quality (in land I inhabit and tend but do not own)? For that matter, what about possible improvements to crops? Since I don't analyze the nutrients in my lettuce, there's no real way to quantify the difference between the heads I harvested in past years and this, though I have been growing more lately, since it's been doing well...

Bokashi in its various forms certainly hasn't saved me any money this spring: the garden's going so well, I couldn't resist the chance to expand. So I bought more plants, more pots, mulch, and even a bit of retail compost, after using all the composts and improved soils I had on hand. Had I not had all that lovely bokashi'd material, I'd have remained within my usual spring budget, instead of exceeding it by nearly 100%! I suppose it's possible the garden will produce so much I'll have no need to buy produce all summer, but that's never happened yet.

But, while the gardening budget is inarguably broken, the bokashi experiment's outlay is a little more questionable--not much of that money was really spent on bokashi per se. As far as EM goes, I'm still working on that original purchase. That $100 mark includes one liter bottle of EM-1, 25 lbs of wheat bran, and a bottle of molasses, which is what I started with. There have been multiple small purchases of hardware: spigots and potato mashers to make bokashi bucket kits, sieves and screens and mesh to line buckets for Repulsive and Verne. And worms, that I'm testing for a possible wholly indoor complete composting solution, plus a low-maintenance high-reward planter-topped flowthrough wormery. Everything else--buckets, plastic wrap, plant pots, bottles, bags, etc.--has been recycled, scrounged, repurposed, borrowed or improvised, without cash outlay.

Have I made $100 worth of compost? Probably not yet. And as this apartment doesn't have a separate trash-hauling fee, I certainly haven't saved $100 in pay-as-you-throw charges! The landfolks' chickens didn't eat $100 worth of BSFL, either, before Repulsive's temporary end...

I don't regret a single penny so far; I've certainly had more than $100 worth of entertainment from this! More compost and better soil means I do more, and more productive, gardening--good exercise, stress-relief, and healthy food. Who can put a price on that?

Oh, and no trash-stink if I forget to take out the bag? Definitely worth something!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Balcony Bosque

I’ve had good luck composting cured bokashi in my small bit of unshared outdoor space, but it occurred to me that my space isn’t exactly standard-issue--even in Austin, not everyone chooses to build a balcony around a tree rather than cut it down. (Though it does seem to be more common here than elsewhere.) And the tree’s not the only bit of nature to be found just outside my door; for most of the year I have geckos and anole, the occasional uninvited snail trying to infest my planters, squirrels using the fence as a pathway, and the much-cursed possums and raccoons at night. And birds, of course, though I try to discourage them lest the household feline decide to sharpen her hunting skills.

Yes, it’s an elevated porch, but not exactly the barren swept-concrete patio some urban dwellers consider themselves lucky to have!

And judging by the compost time-trial that seems never to have been posted here, that difference matters.

For anyone who’s interested, here’s the recap:

Some time back, I tried my standard trenchless compost method in various containers, and determined that holes on the bottom are more important than any other container variable. Loosely covered is better than either sealed-top or completely uncovered, at least in my area, but any will work assuming there are holes in the bottom. Low and wide is better than tall and narrow. Metal, wood, hard plastic, ceramic, and heavy paper or cardboard all work (light paper breaks down too quickly, and then you get pests; heavy paper with no holes works to some degree, sometimes, but the conversion happens much faster once the bottom tears). Crockery at the bottom or lack of same doesn’t seem to matter much. But a container with no holes at the bottom will attract flies and/or other pests via any top-opening, will grow stinky if enclosed, and will convert to compost very slowly if at all.

Holes in the bottom will allow some gravity-pulled liquid to escape, which is good, but I decided the major advantage might well be to allow something from the ground to enter. Say, macro-digesters without wings?

When I thought to check, I found a few sow-bugs in an unfinished bucket (along with a suspiciously fat gecko -G-), and decided that might well be part of it. Soil-borne bacteria are another possibility--though that sounds odd considering the balcony is off the ground, it’s not too far off, and with a tree growing through the middle of it, dried leaves are common enough. And dried leaves that have been rained on have fairly high concentrations of rhodobacters etc. Not to mention whatever unseen contributions the wildlife may leave.

So I did another test: two trenchless buckets, one in contact with soil, the other on a bit of concrete walkway. (Got to love a landlord who lets you do such things! But it was the very end of the walkway, a part no one really uses but me.) The one on the ground converted faster than I’d expected--I should have done a three-bucket test, with the third on the balcony, but only had enough cured bokashi for two, sorry. The one on concrete...

Well, it there was no odor, thanks to the heavy soil-layer on top and bottom, but the raccoons found it eventually just the same. Cleaning up after them, I didn’t find as much uncomposted matter as I’d feared, though there were some sticky clumps I didn’t care to examine too closely. What I did find were flies in various stages. Earwigs. One scuttling beetle. And, when I moved the bucket, three earthworms that had bravely made their way across the concrete.

I assume that, had I left the container there, Nature’s clean-up crew would have taken care of it for me. But, earthworms notwithstanding, I decided it was time to declare that test at an end. Time to compost in contact with soil, in cool temperatures: five weeks. On the balcony with its varied lifeforms: about seven in that same temperature range. And on concrete? It was the end of week nine when the coons decided to help out. (I wonder what kept them! Thinking about it, they arrived after a relatively heavy rain...)

The obvious follow-up test probably would be trenchless compost buckets on upper-story outdoor spaces, some sterile and others as bosky as my balcony. But that will have to wait until I find someone willing to have a bucket full of dirt and ferment on their porch or balcony for an unspecified period of time.

In the meantime, I think I shall go build a leaf-pile on the balcony before the forecast precipitation. Maybe I can lure some earthworms up there!


(image from Small Planet Photography, for no reason except that I like it)

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A worm with a view

It’s March, not officially spring yet, not even past our last average frost-date (!), but the new wormery has already come near to overheating more than once. This time around, I’m more aware of that possibility, and have taken to checking on Verne now and then just to be sure I don’t need to take steps. Or to take them. The waterbottle I stuck in the freezer to use as an in-bucket temperture controller has already been used twice, which doesn’t bode well for summer, but at least Verne’s still with us.

Along with the ice-bottle trick learned from one of the vermicompost fora I lurk on, I’ve also taken to adding some of the wormfood still frozen. (Between layers of newspaper. Any worm stupid enough to commit suicide by freezing has a bit of work ahead of it.) I’m doing my best to keep the bucket cool!

But I forgot some basic science recently, and nearly cooked Verne anyway. Added a bit of dirt by way of grit, as I decided there might not have been enough initially, especially considering the number of younger worms appearing. Good dirt, seeing as I have some these days -VBG-. Dirt rife with microbes, no doubt. Plus some crushed eggshells to balance all the coffee grounds that end up in any bucket of mine. Plus some additional produce. And then there was that carbon-rich moisture-holding newspaper...

Yeah, I started a hot compost pile in the wormery. Too little volume to sustain that heat, fortunately, but it was a near thing. And I’ve got to say, it makes me nervous about my upcoming tests feeding worms on bokashi. Bokashi added to a compost pile heats up very quickly!

Judging from the outdoor experiments [not sure what happened to that post, as it seems not to be here!], worms do eat bokashi once it’s cooled. The problem’s going to be in getting past (or around) the heating stage.

Right now, I’m re-thinking my test containers; my mini-buckets don’t offer anyplace to retreat to in case of heating. Looks like my sprout tower will be temporarily repurposed as a miniature flow-through, so the worms have someplace to escape to should the cured bokashi suddenly become hot as a Texas summer day. A worm penthouse?

And a new experiment, I think: to find the easiest way(s) to jumpstart those thermophilic bacteria, so that I can get the bokashi past the heating stage before adding it to the wormery. A sprinkling of soil, a touch of carbon, and a bit of water might well be all I need...

Hmm. Adding just a sprinkling of dirt to a bucket won’t convert the whole to compost--I did test that!--but perhaps with a bit of mature compost as well as soil, and dried leaves. Not sure it would be feasible indoors, or in plastic buckets, but I should be able to manage something.

If only so I can have my sprout tower back!