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...