Sunday, October 31, 2010

After the bucket: Good bug, bag bug?

Even on Hallowe'en, I'm not inclined to frighten anyone too badly, so no appropriate insect photo today. Besides, I like Dr. Seuss!

This fall season, I’ve been busy with non-gardening things—hence the dearth of posts—but the garden’s been ticking along with minimal care, as it’s designed to do. Bokashi is still the right solution for my situation, in large part because it, too, needs only occasional attention: If you’re not adding new organics, the household bucket can stay closed up and ignored for a couple of weeks (always assuming a deep enough reservoir or sufficient absorbent material). And as an added benefit, forgetting to take out the trash before you leave on a business trip no longer results in a stinky welcome home. -G-

Likewise, my post-bucket techniques are fairly hands-off, except for the small-batch hot compost, and that will simply convert to a slower process if you forget the hands-on part. But this week, I had a ton of garden work to do, to get ready for the advent of relatively cold weather. So I checked on some of my post-bucket setups--

--and wasn’t really surprised, though I was disappointed, to discover that only the one with the critters in it was ready. My tolerance for outdoor macro-digesters just isn’t all that high, though it’s far greater than for the indoor [zero] level. Some things, I cannot abide at all. Others I can reluctantly allow to live so long as they don’t directly bother me. Still others have me crying for the Flit!

Verne the composting worm is always welcome. (Hey, I shelled out good money for him. Several generations ago.) His cousin Clem, better known as the Indian Blue worm, is also welcome whenever he chooses to appear, though if he wanders off again, that’s okay, too; I know he’ll be back when there’s food to tempt him. George the earthworm is ever a surprise, but hardly an unwelcome one; I’ve read that earthworms don’t do well in compost bins, but apparently he’s as illiterate the rest, happily breeding in the mismatched yard waste compost cans and hatching out wherever that compost is applied.

It’s the other detritus-clearers that I have issues with. Sowbugs and so on may eat seeds and sometimes sprouts, so if they’re in the compost, I have to solarize or dry it before use. [This may not be as much of a concern for non-container gardeners, but that does me no good!] BSFL eat large quantities of the organic matter, which results in lesser volumes of finished compost for me to use. And piles of woody matter, even contained piles, attract insects the typical urban dweller really doesn’t want to see:


Also ants, mites, springtails, etc. But, really, compared to those skittering things, do the rest seem so bad? Even Repulsive might be less disturbing than roaches…


My untowered vermidirt experiment worked just about like I’d expected it to: though I added no worms to my material, worms were present, as were BSFL, sowbugs, woodlice, and geckos with their spots stretched out from weight gain -G-. The very top layer beneath the weight was still visibly uncomposted; beneath that, an upper layer finished enough to use as mulch, and some eggshells and twigs remaining even in the lower, completed layer. Also a couple of snails clinging to the side next to the weight (not a waterproof cover, just something to keep the possums and coons out), two or three earwigs, and as many of those nasty six-legged things it pains me even to think about or type.

Oddly, one of the outdoor roach species doesn’t disturb me at all--I’ve only ever seen it outdoors, it doesn’t look much like the disgusting indoor ones, it’s extremely photophobic, and it’s common where old wood’s undisturbed, so I see it mostly running away from me when I’m cleaning up future garden space. By far the preferred view, but not welcome in a planter! Particularly considering that "away" means either deeper into the material or into another planter nearby (space constraints mean that many of my planters touch).

The other one is worse, so undeniably a cockroach that I’m likely to run screaming, or at least go find something else to do.

But the ten gallon planter with all that disgustingly thriving life held eight gallons of finished compost plus a bit of nutritive mulch, at a time when my plants need compost and mulching. This method can be used in any container and takes advantage of whatever species may be present. All it needs is a layer of soil and a weight on top, a container with solid sides and bottom drainage, and a place to rest out of the way. It can be stacked, but need not be. Placement is equally flexible: sun or shade, on soil or grass or even concrete so long as it’s within a foot or so of life. It’s a slow-compost process with hot-compost speeds, thanks to bokashi. Not as fast as managed hot compost with bokashi, but comparable to the usual figures for hot compost. Less than three months for this split harvest.

Imagine the ad pitch: Any size, any volume, any container, anywhere (outside). Slow-compost ease, hot-compost speed. Sounds great! But the fine print on this one might be too great a barrier for me. Roaches and grubs and earwigs, oh my!?

If it makes the plants happy...maybe. But I think I’m happier with my towers, even if they do take more infrastructure.


Monday, October 4, 2010

What makes a good bokashi bran?

Some posts just fall through the cracks—I don't have a good image, there's something else I'd rather do, I'm missing a bit of information I'd like to include, whatever. But just sent me a message reminding me that there's a whole small set of posts I've neglected to publish!


I'd intended to put up a few reviews of various retail EM bokashi brans. Still mean to, I guess, though I'm not currently within reach of those files. Haven't tried all the available options yet, but the handful I've been through have been different enough to make comparisons worthwhile.

Beginning with the cost. The fact that EM bokashi costs anything is a not inconsiderable barrier to adoption. Expensive designer buckets and how-much-plus-shipping? bags of magic dust don't always seem like a reasonable alternative to current practice. So cheaper-per-unit bags get my vote over more expensive ones, of which there are a surprising number.

So do local products, assuming there's no or only very little difference in total price. (I'll pay a bit extra for the instant gratification factor, but not very much.) Not being vigilant enough to police manufacturers for sustainable practices, I'll skip the whole carbon-footprint bit for now.

As yet, I haven't chosen not to buy an inoculated bran because of its base, but I wouldn't elect to buy one with sawdust in its ingredients. Personal preference. I'm a gardener and just don't want to see sawdust clinging to my sweet potatoes at harvest. Bran composts quickly.

Speaking of preference, I'm much more inclined to purchase from a retailer who lists the ingredients—including the specific microbes in the culture together with that culture's source.

Assuming all other variables were equal, I'd buy the one packaged in a compostable container. The pictured rice-bran ones comes in a corn plastic shell that will decompose in the bokashi bucket! But, again, that's not too high on my list.

So what's up at the top, just beneath the all-important cost?

1. Moisture: Packaged bokashi bran is described as dry and shelf-stable, but it isn't always nor equally so. If I'm springing for the pre-made stuff, I want it dry! Dry enough to store some in my hiking kit, or to keep in a starter-bucket in my car for a week or two. Dry enough that it won't grow acetobacters in the bag to startle the poor unsuspecting victims new bucketers to whom I'm delivering those welcome-to-bokashi gifts. And, it goes without saying, dry enough that it won't spoil before I get a chance to use it.

2. Scent: Bokashi bran from Hawaii doesn't smell the same as bokashi bran from Texas, even if the ingredient lists are identical. Nor does bokashi from every retailer in a region smell the same. I found one retail bran unacceptably acrid, though it worked perfectly well and the less-vinegary character might make it a better choice for some. As well, there's a difference in scent between wheat bran and rice bran, though I don't much care which is used. Not sure how to quantify that, but it's worth mentioning, if only so other people know the variance exists.

3. Speed to success: Fresh bokashi bran starts to work faster than dried, but that's a matter of hours, not days. Bokashi that's been improperly stored (frozen or exposed to air, I guess) takes much longer to work, and may require more inoculant as well. The retail bran that I wasn't sure was working until the second day isn't one I'll be buying again even though it did successfully ferment a bucket. Quick evidence of success seems like a good thing--though not at the expense of shelf-life. Of course, lasting evidence of success is kind of necessary, too; I rate all the EM items on how well they can handle small volumes of things the retailers tell you not to add; how long it takes the deodorizing microbes to conquer strong aromas; etc.

4. Directions: now and then I'll buy a bag of bran for someone else, not always for a bokashi bucket. Folks with cats willing to use compostable litters can mix EM bokashi bran into the box, and it's useful in the dog-yard as well. I don't insist that the packaging say that, but it really should say something about use, considering how unfamiliar most people are with the product. EM bokashi bran is not a term that can stand without definition, not yet. Ideally, the package lists how much kitchen waste it can be used to process, in gallons. And the fact that something has to be done to that processed/pickled waste afterward.

5. Add-ins: I haven't decided how I feel about these. Some of the EM bokashi retailers have extended their brands, so they have different brans for different situations. Minerals in which a region is known to be deficient; seaweed for agricultural use; etc. At the moment, I don't buy them, so can't rate them, but they, too, belong on the list of criteria to consider. For later, since I don't seem to be ending this project any time soon. -G- At some point, I'll probably try the EM mix with extra rhodobacters. I would not buy a bokashi bran with added salt (not even sea salt), refined sugar, synthetics or animal products--but I haven't yet seen any of those anyway.

My perfect packaged EM bokashi bran? Made locally, and widely available on store shelves as well as online; comes packaged dry in a waterproof compostable container; contains only EM-1 (or the extra-rhodobacters one), with molasses, rain-, spring- or well-water, bran, and maybe a responsibly sourced mineral or two; costs no more than $5/bucket-worth in today's dollars; has clear instructions including the fact that bokashi is not a complete composting solution!

This isn't a tall order. Several of the various retailer products I've tried have come close. They all fail on that disclaimer; only two have been really dry so far (plus one retailer where the first bag was dry but the second wasn't); and few are as forthcoming about ingredients as I would like, though the retailers are generally pretty willing to answer questions.

It's still a relatively new industry, so I figure one of these days someone'll score perfectly. At which point, I may reconsider my usual practice of making my own EM and IMO bokashi brans, though probably not. But I will certainly celebrate by buying a few bags to keep on hand!