Friday, March 25, 2011

Project Restart: Hoarding Bokashi

[image from]

No, wait, I mean storing. Holding at a particular point until ready to use. Really. I may be something of a miser when it comes to finished vermicast, but all the other composts, plant foods, and rooting media are there to be used--I'll just make more. (Verne et cie would finish more vermicast, too, but only if I refrained from stealing their vermicompost at earlier stages. Which is unlikely.)

This winter past was unusual even for me, and there came a point when I had a bucket of mature bokashi and no post-bucket plans. No planter towers or Repulsive-and-Verne double-decker to feed; no soil conversion units; not even a bag of dried leaves.

It was not, at that point, cold enough to freeze, or I would have appropriated a filled leaf-and-lawn bag from the curbside pick-up, scooped out enough dry matter to make room for the bokashi, and then set the assembly under the porch until spring. If it had been reliably warmer, I might have stolen some worms back from one of the foster-folks and set up a new tower o'Verne. But winter in Austin being what it is, neither seemed likely to succeed.

Bokashi isn't stable at the point we consider finished. Really, it isn't even finished, though the microbes have (we hope!) wholly colonized the bucketed materials, eaten most of the available sugars, broken down some of the cellulose, and so on. My usual practice is to add different microbes at that point--thermophilic or otherwise--but if you left the bokashi alone in its closed container, it would continue to ferment awhile. After some time, the EM would die off, starved or poisoned depending, and other microbes would emerge.

Remember, bokashi works on a principle of dominance; those other microbes have always been in there, just dormant or incredibly slowed. In the absence of thriving EM, other available microbes suited to the environment take over. Those newly productive microbes might be molds, if the bokashi is on the dry side and has any air coming in, or fungi, but in a standard wettish closed bucket, what you get are the dreaded stink-producing anaerobes. I've done that, and there was no way I was going to risk it again!

But...what if you could balance the environment enough to slow everything down without adding any new elements? The dominant set would still be dominant, right?

I know from past experiments that newspaper works as a carbon source, but does not carry any of the necessary soil-borne microbes to start my usual second-stage composting. As I strongly prefer wholly composted bokashi--using the gardener's definition of the term: a product homogenous in appearance and safe to use as a primary element in potting media, as top-dressing, etc.--I hadn't bothered to do much with paper since determining that. It's useful to balance moisture in a bucket if you've got the volume to spare, won't impede the fermentation unless there's not much moisture to begin with, breaks down well enough once the composting starts but will slow the composting if allowed to clump or used in whole sheets, and there's no real difference between adding it during or after the fermentation. Overall, far inferior to dried leaves as a future-garden item, but since it's free and widely available, I expect it gets used far more in other people's buckets, and since it doesn't carry insect eggs, it's a better choice for indoor tests. (Assuming you've used all your shredded phone books, anyway.)

It might, I thought, serve to wick away just enough moisture to slow fermentation. So I split that one bucket of otherwise homeless mature bokashi between two buckets of hand-shredded paper, sandwiching each non-homogenous glob of ferment in a thick black-and-white nest, weighted one and wrapped both in plastic to ensure no additional airflow.

And then I waited. For months. I would have ended this test at the first sign of failure, of course, but when no such sign came...well, I'm lazy, and I was curious, so I let it keep going rather longer than I had planned. Almost three months in all.

The result is still a non-homogenous glob in a black-and-white nest, the weight creating a damper and more compact upper layer than the other but generally the same. It has a faintly disagreeable odor beneath a still-perceptible vinegar tang, and the pH is so nearly neutral that my standard low-tech tests don't register the difference. The literature isn't as clear on this point as I'd like, but generally tends to imply that this material would be safe to use as a subsurface fertilizer even in contact with roots at this point. To date, I have found exactly nothing about its suitability as a primary component of rooting medium for short-season crops--assuming your chosen additions addressed the stability and airflow concerns--but I figured I'd risk a few Verne-bits and a transplant or two on a real-world trial. So I scattered some vermicompost and dried leaves in the bottom of two planters, dumped my stored bokashi-and-paper atop that, then added a basic potting soil and blood-veined sorrel in one and a worm-seeded mix in the other, with a lavender.

Neither has died yet as of this posting, nor has there been a mass exodus of wrigglers, but at not quite a week from planting it's maybe still too early to say whether or not this is a success*. At least it wasn't a failure as far as the storage goes; and it might be worth trialing a bucket or two of fermentables cut into the retailer-recommended tiny pieces, fermented as usual and then mixed with cross-cut paper and sealed up again, to see how long it takes the pH to normalize that way. The resulting product still won't be as versatile as compost, but smaller bits mean less of an ick factor, and if paper and bokashi alone, in the absence of air, can be used to create a slow-release fertilizer suitable for use with food crops, just imagine how much cheaper start-up gardens might be!

--to be continued in another post, as there are a whole lot of words here and I'm not yet finished babbling. -G-



*First sighting of Repulsive's winged form this weekend. Not, I am happy to report, in or around either of those test planters. But one never knows what he (she, in this instance, but Repulsive is always male to me)gets up to when I'm not watching.

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