Gardening guru Alys Fowler on Bokashi.

I guess everyone has heard about Alys Fowler except me.

I came across this article she wrote for the Guardian a few weeks ago and it seemed to me a pretty good endorsement by someone who really knows what they’re talking about when it comes to gardening. She has quite an interesting life story — urban gardening in Manhattan, tv gardener for the BBC and into all sorts of projects and books on sustainable gardening and self-sufficient living.

Here’s the article:

And here’s the Wikipedia link with the back story:

Wouldn’t mind a couple of her books! Although that would probably just start me off on more projects than I need right at the moment 🙂

Growing veggies when the economy goes to hell

This morning I read an article in our national paper on Greece. Yes, they’re throwing firebombs at one another and protesting up and down in Athens but — one woman’s quiet voice made itself heard. From her balcony. Where she’s started growing veggies outside her parents apartment to feed the family.

Her plan is to expand her patch of lettuce, carrots, onions, coriander and spinach from the balcony to the roof in due course. The way things are heading in Greece many more will have to do something similar to make ends meet.

And Greece is just one country. Admittedly it’s well and truly in the news but it’s far from being alone when it comes to people having to face facts. That food is expensive. That money is short. And that growing your own food is the only rational way of helping to make ends meet when the housekeeping budget goes the way of the national budget.

The article (sorry it’s in Swedish) also describes how a local organization called something like “Gardens in the City” is involved in helping people get started. As we all know, there’s usually a ton of trial and error before your first carrots look like the ones on the seed packet, but once you get the hang of it it’s all astonishingly easy.

Which is where we have to help one another out. Gardeners who “can” help gardeners who want to learn. Generation to generation, neighbor to neighbor. I know I’m an optimist but this is hardly rocket science. And we all, deep down, want things to be good. At least that’s what I believe.

Now this article doesn’t say a word about Bokashi. Chances are they don’t even know about it yet. But it’s the obvious missing link and in due course things will fall into place.

Meanwhile the most important thing is to get the first little salad patch going on every balcony and every rooftop. In Greece and everywhere else. And then give your neighbor a hand with theirs…

Bio-bags. Dead easy and a great way to do Bokashi.

I keep talking about bio-bags. And to be honest I’m not completely sure what they’re called in different countries. But they are basically these — a roll of bags that work just like plastic bags but that are made from corn starch. Organic in other words, and they will break down in the soil.

We use them here in our Swedish “green bucket” system. The bucket itself is a super standard plastic bucket with tight fitting lid. You can whatever you have handy as long as it fits the bill. Pizzerias and bakeries usually throw out tons of similar buckets. Not necessarily green, but white will work just as well 🙂

Step one is to put the bag in the bucket just as you would a normal rubbish bag. Then put in some newspaper to take up the liquid that the food waste will produce. You’ll learn pretty quickly how much you need, I usually tear the local paper in two and just plonk it in. If you have wood pellets, hay pellets, cat litter or anything like that on hand you could test it. Anything will work as long it’s cheap and easy to get hold of, will absorb a lot of liquid and you’re happy about having it in your soil.

A sprinkle of Bokashi bran on top of the newspaper layer then you’re ready to tip in your days food waste. Just as you would with any other bucket. A little more bran, some extra paper if it looked like it’s going to be wet. Serviettes are ideal if you use them at home. Otherwise kitchen paper, egg cartons, dry bread. You’ll get the hang of it soon enough.

How much paper (or whatever) you use will depend partly on how wet your food waste is and partly on how long you plan to store your biobag. Let the food drain as much as possible before you put it in and you’ll save yourself some trouble. If your bag is going to wait a few months before going into the soil I’d say be a bit generous on the absorbent front. Food waste just goes on getting wetter as time goes on (unless you have it frozen out in the snow, but one day it’s still going to thaw). The quality won’t be particularly better or worse if it’s wet or dry but there will be a big difference in the smell. Wet = smelly. No way round it. So aim for damp or dryish if you can. It’s usually worth squeezing in an extra section of newspaper before you tie up the bag.

Final step: tie a good tight knot in the bag and carry it out to your storage spot. The bag will still need to ferment in a warm spot for a couple of weeks, just as in any other bucket. But the advantage is you don’t have to clean out the original bucket. In fact, you only really need the one bucket as you can remove the bag as soon as it’s full and use the same bucket again and again.

What you’ll need to think about:
– That the bio-bags you use are good and thick. We’ve tested a lot here and many are extremely flimsy. They will drive you nuts. The thick bio-bags will take time to break down in the soil (4 to 6 months even), but you can hack them up with a spade when you “plant them” to speed things up. At least you know they are organic so you don’t have to worry about getting plastic in your soil.
– That you have somewhere warm enough to store them for a couple of weeks. 20 degrees C is about right, depends of course where you live. Room temperature in other words. It can work in a coldish cellar but you’d want to make sure the bucket got going properly in the kitchen before it hit the cellar.
– That the bags are airtight — knotted tightly or with a good tight clip on. They are your “bucket” and the microbes just don’t like a lot of fresh air at this stage.
– That you have somewhere to store the “ready” bio-bags if you’re keeping them till spring or storing for someone else to carry away. One option is to load them into  black plastic rubbish bags, another is to keep them in plastic barrels or bins. Whatever, as long as it works for you.

I wrote a bit in the previous blog about how we collect Bokashi bags from a pre-school and an office building. It’s honestly so extremely easy once you get going. And the bio-bags do make it easy on a lot of fronts.

The three main advantages I can see are that…
– the process is a lot cleaner, especially valuable in an office environment where no-one wants to do the icky sticky stuff.
– it’s easy to hand over the bags to someone else for their garden. They don’t even have to see what you had for lunch!
– it’s easy to store the bags as long as you need until spring comes or you have some time to do some gardening.
and four,  it’s easy just to plonk a couple of bags in the wheelbarrow when you have a garden project on the go and plant the whole bag in the right hole in the right spot. You don’t have to deal with all your bags at the same time, just use them up gradually as you need some fertilizer in the garden.

So the way we see it, this opens up a lot of possibilities for the future. The key to making this whole Bokashi thing happen is that it has to be easy. Preferably nice and clean and preferably without a lot of digging involved.

So we’ll keep inventing things till we find the path of least resistance. Then it will be easy for everyone to start getting their food waste back into the ground and getting us back on track so we can grow the food we need in the future.

It can be done! Bringing home Bokashi to your veggie patch.

This is the way things look at our place sometimes. Actually, we usually have a lot more snow than this so that’s something to be thankful for. (Also that, relatively speaking, we’ve had a warm winter compared to many other Europeans)

Under all the snow is our veggie patch, actually a bunch of raised beds with timber frames which work perfectly for us as they warm up a lot faster in the spring and drain really well. Rain, in the summer, is something we have more than enough of!

So we’ve been testing how much Bokashi our garden can swallow during the winter. During the summer we also bring home a lot from different places and then we dig it all into our “soil factory”, actually just another big raised bed where we don’t grow anything other than soil.

At the moment we’re picking up Bokashi from a few different places: a preschool in town (town is 10 minutes away!), some 50-60 liters a week, an office building in town with some 40 employees (40-50 liters a week, a lot of coffee), a local cafe (20-30 liters of coffee grounds per week). Then we have the buckets we produce ourselves, say 10-15 liters a week.

All in all it’s a bit to deal with. But what has surprised us is actually how little work it involves once you get some routines going. The benefit for us is that we plan to build another 2 or 3 planting boxes in the spring and you have to fill them with something, right? But mainly we’re interested to see what’s involved in a community effort like this.

It seems to me that the only way our local communities are going to work in the future is if we help one another out. In this case, that people who want to grow stuff work together with people who produce food waste and can’t use it themselves. Win-win in its simplest possible form.

The preschool we’re picking up from have been doing Bokashi for some time and do a great job in the summer half year of digging it down and growing stuff with the kids. But they just can’t use a whole years supply themselves so need a winter partner. The office guys have been sorting their food waste for a year now and it’s working perfectly but they can’t use it themselves. Hence the collection. Actually they have a bit of land out the back so the idea is to gradually get some kind of urban garden going there, but one step at a time. And the cafĂ©, well — they’re really pleased that someone is doing something good with their coffee.

This is no flash project, just something that anyone with a bit of a backyard could do if they wanted. We’re doing it like this:

We do a bit of a pickup trip in town once every week or two when it suits us. (The good thing with Bokashi is it won’t go off if you’re a bit slack on the timetable). The preschool and the office guys both do their Bokashi direct in bio-bags, nice thick cornstarch bags that can store Bokashi for many weeks, even months. The bags are tied up and stored in a garbage sack in the cellar for a couple of weeks for curing.

We bring the black sacks home, dump them in the wheelbarrow, and as you can see here drop them into a couple of big compost bins. We’re not planning to do any actual composting in the bins, just use them as practical storage. Just now they’re standing on the spot where we plan to build our next box so when the box is in place we’ll just lift up the bins and let the Bokashi bags slide out in the new space. Then cover with soil and get the show on the road. Our plan is then to shift the bins to the spot where our next box will go.

All in the name of laziness. If there’s one thing I hate it’s emptying a compost bin the hard way. So it seems to me an easy way to go in total to plan ahead a bit and do the operation on the spot.

The coffee works a little bit differently. We pick it up in 12 liter plastic buckets which we return (or give away, they actually make good DIY Bokashi buckets!). We have quite a big place with a lot of bushes so during the winter I just dump the buckets one at a time under various bushes, filters and all. Looks quite ridiculous you have to admit but the snow covers it up pretty quickly.

When spring comes I’ll just spread the coffee piles a little more neatly around the base of the bushes and rake up a few leaves over them. There’s no Bokashi in the coffee, we’ve skipped that step in the name of simplicity, but now and then during the summer I just go round and sprinkle a handful of Bokashi bran under each bush. So it all works out in the end. You could also use the diluted liquid from your Bokashi bucket or brew your own EM, whatever works best.

Our conclusion: that it’s far easier than you’d expect to do this sort of thing. That if you have the chance to work together with a preschool, an office, a cafĂ©, you name it, DO IT! Everyone feels good about it and the garden will love you for it!

By the way… the bio-bags break down in the soil and are completely organic. They take a while though, so it’s worth chopping them up a bit with a spade when you “plant them”. You can also use plastic bags obviously, it’s just that you have to pick out the plastic when you set up the garden bed.

And the freezing thing: All these bags just sit around in the cold for months here in the winter. The microbes will bounce back into action again in the spring I promise! This is just nature at it’s best.

Oh, and another thing. If you start working with an office you’ll probably find some people sort plastic knives and forks as food waste. It’s astonishing but true. I’ve even seen candy wrappers and heard the explanation that they must be food waste too, surely? It’s not the end of the world. People learn in the end and meanwhile you pick out the strange bits from the soil as you work through your bed!