Thursday, September 23, 2010

Beyond Molasses

image from The Nourished Kitchen. The Internet is an amazing place...

Molasses is used as a “carbohydrate booster” in hydroponics, and dry molasses is sold as a “nutrient-rich soil booster” at one of my local feed stores*. It's more desirable than simple sugars for use in gardening because of its relatively high concentration of minerals, and particularly because of its mineral-chelation effect—skipping the science, that means molasses can provide micronutrients to plants with no danger of toxic overload of those nutrients, and dramatically improve plants' ability to use other nutrients already present, thus lowering the need for fertilizers.

Yikes. I've been spending too much time around eggheads lately. -G- Where was I? Molasses, alternatives to, right.

Don't get me wrong, I love molasses. In the kitchen and the garden both (ginger snaps and AEM/AIM come immediately to mind). But judging by the number of plaintive queries I've seen, non-US gardeners, especially, may not be able to find molasses. And, too, I'm fundamentally opposed to buying anything when I have something already that will do as well, so...I started playing.

Refined sugar? No!

When growing microbes, refined sugar promotes different populations than the more complex molasses; seeing as EM was designed around molasses, I wanted something similar.

Honey? Nope.

Honey, if not contaminated, will not spoil. Anti-biotic, anti-microbial, not at all what EM needs.

Maple syrup? Way too expensive to use for this, so I didn't even try.

Stevia? Aspartame? Xylitol? No, no, no.

Stevia is a sweetener, but not a sugar. Artificial whatevers I'll leave in the lab, not my garden. Xylitol, and sugar alcohols generally, seem to be harder for microbes to process than the ultra-refined simple sugars, but not complex enough to sustain sufficient microbe-generations for my needs. (Nor for kombucha, according to a site I cannot now find to link. Ah, well.)

Molasses is a waste product derived, generally, from processing sugar cane. The cane is harvested and stripped of leaves, then pressed/smashed for juice. That juice is boiled and processed to extract sugars; molasses is what's left over after the sugar production. Different grades and categories of molasses indicate the processing methods undergone. Blackstrap molasses, which is what I use, has the best nutritional profile for humans and animals; my microbes and plants seem to like it, too.

Jaggery? Palm sugar? Piloncillo? Yes.

Jaggery, as I know the term, can mean the solid sugar cane remnants after the crushing, or a sugar made by evaporating the juice of date palm sap, or any unrefined, largely unprocessed sugar. Piloncillo is more a reference to the cone-shape than the make-up, which is simply unrefined sugar, typically made of evaporated cane juice. So, yeah, any of the above makes a decent substitute for molasses in AIM. Their nutritional profiles may not be the same, but they're all complex enough to grow vigorous effective-microbe colonies. Still too early to see how well it compares to blackstrap molasses in the garden, but so far, no difference has been observed.

Sorghum molasses?

I find it hard to imagine an area that has sorghum molasses but no blackstrap. Perhaps a household, though, so I looked it up. Turns out, this is more properly labeled a “syrup,” lower nutrient concentrations than real molasses, perhaps not quite so refined as table sugar. I wouldn't use it in my AIM, but I'd be curious as to other folks' results.

And a bonus item:

Dried molasses? Sadly, not for AEM/AIM. Turns out, the stuff at the feed store is actually molasses sprayed on “grain waste.” So, maybe for EM/IMO bokashi bran!

Until the next ferment,


*Yes, Austin really is in Texas. Sometimes that's hard to remember. Then you realize that you live within easy riding distance of three different feed stores, two of which are chains.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What's worse than vacation pictures?

How about bad compost-ana shots? No, I don't mean failed compost--just bad photos. Since it seems I can't keep even a really good camera alive for more than two years, nor take a single good photo in that time, I went with the cheapest little keyfob camera I could find.

Hey, if I can't see Repulsive through the tiny little coke-glass viewfinder, maybe I won't wince. As much.

This is what my tower-made vermicompost typically looks like. Unfiltered, not wet, solid enough to cake but not heavy. No worms, as they've moved up to the next planter, but though I never see any cocoons, they must be there, since baby worms hatch in the bags if I package this stuff up.

This is vermi-mud. Those folks who water their wormeries are probably familiar with this; in my case, it's the result of heavy fall rains backing up a reservoir and then some. It's been drained and drying for nearly a week now...

This is what the BSFL folks have started to call "grub pudding." I tried to get a picture that shows the little craters and all the tiny grubs still sluggishly moving, but if I didn't succeed, I don't think I'll mourn long. That blur in the lower left corner is a grub squirming toward me! Yecch. (-G-)

Grub pudding may look a lot like soggy vermicompost, but they are not the same.

The pictured pudding is finished--the grubs still present will die if I don't do anything, as there isn't sufficient nourishment remaining for them to mature, and it's too warm and too wet in that container for them to go dormant. The grubs can't process this material any further. But that isn't to say this is a finished compost.

A general-purpose dictionary might; but in a gardener's lexicon, compost is safe to use in nearly all situations and beneficial ditto. Oh, there are exceptions, plants that need to be starved and so on, but say compost to the average gardener and the matching concept is of a homogeneous, stable, variably textured but typically humus-like material rich in plant-accessible nutrients, that can be applied as top- or side-dressing, used as mulch or mixed into the soil, with no safety concerns and few contraindications.

Grub pudding is not stable; adding it to plantings will usually result in nutrient sequestration, seldom (if ever!) a desired outcome. Nor is it likely to improve soil tilth, another of compost's benefits. Grub poo is too fine to hold air, though water it can do. Then there's the nourishment concern; ignoring the sequestration issue, there are some plant-accessible nutrients, but how many and of what sort can be difficult to determine. In large part, it depends on what you fed the grubs; also, on what non-food techniques you employ. And as if that's not discouraging enough, there may be undesirable bacteria in finished grub pudding, also depending on what you fed the grubs, and how large the colony*.

Speaking of feeding. This is worm-food waiting to be fed. UCG from a coffeeshop, dried leaves from a chem-free neighbor, and AIM. Poor photo even in context, I know, but the leaves are pale thanks to mycelial bloom, beginning to break down.

This is a bokashi bag that should have been planted about a month ago. Don't know how much you can tell from this picture, but the bag is still identifiably a bag, while the materials within are well on their way to homogeneous etc. And, unlike grub pudding, nutrient sequestration doesn't seem to be an issue--I'm guessing the bokashi juice supplies nourishment to the plant for that first span.

And finally, a recipe I'm going to have to try again: one part each bokashi, dried leaves, and coco coir, fed to worms. This isn't a finished vermicast product, but a lightweight potting mix with a lively microbial profile and incredible results in my just-barely-started seedling mix tests. Not quite ready to use, as there are still identifiable bits, but that's my determining factor. Takes about a month, comparable to hot-composting, but with at least some of the benefits of vermicompost, and not so rich it can't be used straight (which finished vermicompost cannot be, as a seeding medium). This batch looks about a week away from harvest-time.

And I just couldn't resist the image with one Verne-bit too stubborn to leave. Sun had largely set, anyway, so not much light to bother him, and I don't think worms are photo-phobic in the other sense.

There really was a reason for this post, but I forget. Maybe I need a vacation...


*I don't worry about undesirable microbes, since Repulsive receives generous doses of EM. Nor is that additional processing a problem. These days, my grubbery is the top of a tower, with a wormery planter just beneath; all I have to do is harvest now and then. It's not perfect--fewer adult BSF find the unit than are necessary for a really vigorous population. if the goal is just to dispose of food, it works, but I have an experiment I've been planning for winter, and I may resort to bait bags once before the weather turns, to ensure a large enough colony.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Bokashi gel?

I don’t much have houseplants (tiny apartment and all that), but I do have office plants. Full-spectrum light on a timer keeps them photosynthesizing, but that’s only part of the equation; they need to be fed, too.

I’d rather fertilize them once a year and have done with it, but that’s really difficult in a desktop container. Once a season I could maybe manage with compost, but compost made outdoors is likely to have… shall we say, inhabitants that aren’t really suited for the workplace. You can freeze-dry or pasteurize compost, which will kill any macro-digesters, but also the microbes, and after all the time I spend encouraging those micro-critters to grow, I think I’d feel too guilty. Or maybe I’m just lazy. (I don’t even sterilize compost for seedlings.) More likely, it’s the memory of the stench the one time I tried drying compost in a low oven.


Whatever the reason, I’m not likely to be using my freezer for CompostCubes™ any time soon. I do sometimes solar-cook a thin layer of finished compost for use in containers, but my indoor potting mixes tend to be pretty light on the slow-release nutrients.

So I water the potted plants with diluted bokashi juice when I remember to bring some in. (My day job is highly resistant to composting/recycling and very oriented toward anti-microbials; bokashi doesn’t have a chance on-site.) Bokashi juice has no shelf-life--none!--but must be diluted and used immediately upon collecting. Diluted, in a tightly capped bottle, it’s okay overnight, but that’s about the limit. Refrigerated? I’ve never had the courage to find out! Which means that I have to refrain from watering the office plants when I notice they need watering, so that I can go home and mix up the plant food.

Not always feasible. If the plants need watering on a Friday, they’re getting watered.

Haven’t found a way around that yet. But I may have found a way to get bokashi juice into the office plants at repotting or even between pottings, that should make subsequent bokashi-juice applications less frequently required and more effective. Maybe. Not free, local, recycled/repurposed, nor completely natural, so not my perfect ideal, but it might mean the difference between stressed work plants and happy ones:


Sold under a host of brand names, this polymer is designed to “Absorb And Release Water In Soil” according to the packaging of the Soil Moist I picked up at the garden center this weekend. So it should absorb and release the dilute bokashi juice. Hardly an original idea—there's a product sold to nurseries called Incredagel that's pre-mixed polymer with plant food and water, and the brand extensions for the one I bought include a range of N-P-K options--but if it works, it’s a welcome addition to the lazy gardener’s repertory.

Of course, none of my plants are thirsty right this moment—it’s been raining—but they will be. And I’ll be ready. –G-


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Backyard porch science: DSF's FAIM-ous Brew?

image from 2funadguyz, who will happily sell you a full-size poster. Probably best to put in your home rather than your wormery--just in case Verne really can read. (Though I'm pretty sure he can't!)

Call this shortcut recipe FAIM, for False--or Faux, if you're in that sort of mood--AIM. There's nothing scientific about it, though I'm hoping others will be a bit more rigorous in their testing [yes, that's a hint]. Short version: kombucha + vermicast + molasses and water as if making AEM, let ferment to completion once, then again to ideal pH, then used.

Longer, rambling version follows. You have been warned.


If anyone wanted to issue me a white coat, it'd be the sort with the extra-long sleeves that fasten in back. I am no sort of scientist—among other things, I never could hack the math—but now and then I do try to dignify the stranger of my behaviors by calling them experiments.

This one isn't finished, but it's nearly as far as I can take it, and I can't be sure my success to date means that this process will work for anyone else. So I thought I'd write it up, see if any other mad fermenters might be interested in giving it a try. (Also, I'm none too confident the folks with the big butterfly nets will let me bring all my buckets along. -G-)

Should probably start with a screen and a half of disclaimers, but I don't feel like it. This is not EM, nor should it be treated the same way. I don't yet know if it's as effective—again, I don't know if it'll work at all for anyone with a different situation than mine—but I am certain it's not shelf-stable, and as I'm not working under lab conditions or anything close, I don't really know what microbes beyond those I'm after might be in here, so it's not recommended where you're really concerned about pathogens. It's just something to play with, okay?

Indigenous Micro-Organisms (IMO), also known as Beneficial Indigenous Microbes (BIM) can be cultured from forest, field, and pond or even your backyard, assuming you have more than just manicured lawn. I have done this, using the process described at AgNet, and re-cultured the result for use in a bucket, too; but this is not that.

This is the easiest recipe I could concoct that might possibly stand in for retail EM-1 in my buckets.

I sometimes run a kombucha jar; other times, I buy a locally made kombucha by the glass or bottle. Kombucha, for those of you who don't know, is a fermented tea drink that tastes rather like someone made soda using cider vinegar and sweetener (better than that sounds, and quite refreshing). But the important part for this post is that kombucha is made by feeding tea and sugar to a SCOBY, a Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast. For bacteria, read lactobacilli.

As in, two thirds of the triad that makes up EM: yeasts, lactobacilli, and PNSB (rhodobacters).

I have tried using lacto-only or lacto/yeast inoculants in my bokashi bucket, and while other people have reported success with those, it doesn't work for me except in strictly vegan buckets, and my buckets cannot be vegan, since I'm not.

So I needed a source for those PNSB. The rhodobacters I'm after propogate where soil, water, and sunlight meet. Pond mud of certain depths. Rained-on dried leaves left to lie on fertile soil. Bromeliad cups. Some garden soils. Trouble is, it's really hard to tell if you've got them without doing the whole jar thing, unless you luck onto some purple mud.

They are, of course, in retail EM. Perhaps they're in vermicompost made from EM bokashi? Seemed likely enough to be worth a try.

I mixed two tablespoons of fresh kombucha, one tablespoon of molasses, and one tablespoon of finished vermicast (not -compost, but the worms-have-moved-on, absolutely finished stuff). Filled the liter bottle with water, and left it, tightly capped, in direct sunlight.

Bled off the gases when the bottle bulged, but otherwise left it alone for about two weeks. When the smell had gone from molasses to nearly pure alcohol and the bulging stage was done, I did it again, using one tablespoon of the new brew and one of molasses in a fresh bottle of water. There was much less alcohol scent this time, and the final result smelled like EM-1, so I treated it that way, mixing it with molasses and water yet again to use in a bucket (and in my leaf-and-UCG worm food), and to make a baby batch of non-EM bokashi bran.

First bucket test is finished, and successful—but it might almost have been rigged to succeed, since that bucket was fed tea bags (kombucha microbes are used to tea!), pineapple skins and apple cores (yeast and lactobacilli with fruit sugars, nearly guaranteed to ferment), and no meat or dairy (I didn't cook much that week). Second bucket underway, non-vegetarian this time, and it seems to be doing well so far. But 1) it's early yet, and 2) I don't know if vermicast or compost from a region not dosed with retail EM for more than a year would do as well.

So I'm just putting this out there, hoping there are some similarly curious folks who'll give it a try. Bokashi experience not necessarily required, though a bucket or reasonable facsimile would seem to be necessary...