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...