Category Archives: Bokashi science

EM-1, EM-A, EM-X — what’s the difference?

Photo: Jenny Harlen
EM-1 to the left, the mother culture in other words. And to the right, A+, which is the label used here on the Swedish version for molasses.


When I first started with EM and Bokashi some seven years ago, I have to admit I was confused.

EM: short for Effective Microorganisms, that much I got. But all the other EM-this and EM-that?

Some you could make, some you should buy, some you should dilute, some you should use immediately, others not. Took a while to get a grip on it.

Here’s an attempt to explain it.

There is only one core product in the whole EM world, and that is EM-1. The “1” representing it being the base product. See it as the mother culture, the original microbe preparation from which all other EM products are made. EM is not something you can make yourself. Whatever you might find on the net, it’s a specialized group of microorganisms made to a strict “recipe” in EM labs around the world. (And there’s far more to it than what you can achieve by boiling up some rice and milk).

Usually EM-1 is sold in plastic bottles to consumers like us, there’s now an EM factory in almost every country. For agricultural and industrial applications it’s sold in drums or tanks.

The thing with EM-1 though is that the microbes are in a dormant state. Not especially effective. To get them up and running you have to activate them, and there’s three basic ways of doing that: all involve sugar.

The first is to make Bokashi bran. This is the ideal way to go if you’re working with food waste as the bran is easy to handle (the bran has no value of it’s own, but is a practical carrier and gives the microbes somewhere to live).

The process involves combining EM-1, molasses, water and bran in the right mix and allowing it to ferment for a few weeks. The bran then swings into action when applied to moist food waste.

The second is to make activated EM. Basically the same idea as above but without the bran. Easy to dilute and spray in the garden and indoors for a myriad of purposes. The process involves combining EM-1, molasses and water in a PET bottle (for example) and ferment for a week or so at room temperature. The sugar kicks the microbes into action and they’re ready to go to work wherever they’re sprayed. Usual dilution is 1:100 although there are many variations.

The third is to buy ready activated EM. Here in Sweden we have a product called Mikroferm which is sold in bag-in-box form much like a wine cask. It’s basically exactly the same thing as EM-A but more convenient as you don’t have to ferment it yourself and can just squirt out the amount you need. The upside is that it keeps much better in the vacuum-bag environment, a year at least, whereas homemade EM-A is best used within a month.

So it’s a matter of choosing what works best for you and going from there.

There’s another product in the EM range that is used for health purposes: EM-X (sometimes called EM Gold). This is a refined version of EM which is approved for human consumption and is becoming a valued health drink. EM-A has long been used as a probiotic in animal husbandry and many individuals also swear by it, but legislation in most countries prevents it being sold for use in this way. EM-X, however, is approved internationally and although expensive is welcomed by many.

One more type of liquid EM, and that’s the liquid that comes from your bokashi bucket. Some call it bokashi juice, others bokashi leachate, but basically it’s a fluid concoction of liquid food waste and EM microbes. The exact composition depends on what you have in your bin. Bokashi leachate is famous for its pungent smell (some hate it, others merely find it distasteful…) but as it does wonders for our gardens and indoor plants we just shut up and get on with it. Fortunately the smell blows over pretty fast, so why worry?

Like EM-A, bokashi leachate is diluted 1:100 — partly because it’s quite strong, but largely because it’s acidity can give some plants a fright. And like EM-A, it should be used reasonably quickly once diluted, ideally within a day or two. To prevent it oxidizing, I usually drain off my leachate directly into a plastic PET bottle and store in the fridge — my theory is it lasts a few days that way, or at least until I remember to use it up.

So that, one way or another, is that: the strange world of EM linguistics. Hope it helped, at least a little. Spray on, enjoy your EM, invent fun things to do with it, and write a few words here if you’ve discovered something that may be helpful to others!




Living soil. Read all about it.

There are many sites talking about Bokashi, about EM, about how marvelous it all is.

Which it is. (Of course.)

But this one’s a bit different. There are some real experts on board and they’ve been working with Bokashi for many years. With a lot of heart in what they’re doing.

Here’s a paper by a Dan Woodward talking about soil and sustainability. Effective Microorganisms as Regenerative Systems in Earth Healing.

It’ll take you a little while to read and digest so it’s probably worth going and getting yourself a cup of coffee before you dive in. But it’ll be one of the more interesting coffee breaks you’ve had for a while!

Here’s the link to the article>>  The organization is called Living Soil and they’re based in the UK.

What actually happens in a Bokashi bin?

Do you remember the first time you looked in your first-ever Bokashi bucket? All the excitement of a sparkling new project on the go. Hopes and dreams about changing your life, changing the world.

So you open your bucket and… Nothing. Just food scraps. Sort of mushy, but still — food scraps. Is that it then? Doesn’t it get any better than this?

The thing is that there IS a lot going on in that bucket. It’s just that we can’t see it.

The first thing to face up to is that you won’t get soil in your bucket. Never. Ever. Just doesn’t work that way.

What you will get is pickled food scraps. That look exactly like the food scraps you scraped off your plate the other day. The “pickling”, or fermentation is a process that is really handy for us. It means we can be as lazy as anything, not have to go out with the scraps to the compost in the dark and slush and not have to put up with the slime, smell and flies you would quite likely have had otherwise if you’re a bit lazy with that compost bin trip.

You have to admit it’s quite comfortable having a no-smell bin in the kitchen that deals with everything.

But that’s not the reason for Bokashi, it’s actually all about dealing with the food scraps in the way that will give the best possible results for your plants.

So what happens in your Bokashi bin actually?

The microbes go to work pretty quickly on the food waste and do two things. One, they multiply. Every 20 minutes or so if they like the look of things. And soon you have a full bin of microbes munching at the bit to get out and do something in your garden.

And two, they go to work on your chicken bones, cheese rinds, macaroni leftovers. Food is made up of a lot of proteins and stuff and the microbes job is to break up those proteins into their component parts, which are amino acids. The tiny little bits of the protein chains.

If you bury a banana skin in the ground your average tomato plant won’t be able to get much out of it. But if that same banana skin had been through a Bokashi bucket first your tomato plant would be able to “eat” it directly. That’s because the plant can take up the nutrients in the amino acids with help of the microbes, it’s a kind of package deal.

I think you could sort of compare it to turning up at a big Christmas dinner. On one table is a pig. On the other is a beautiful array of turkey slices, meatballs, vegetable dishes and dessert. Complete with knives and forks and everything else you could ask for. Which would you choose?

What do the microbes add in all of this? A lot. As well as basically serving up the food in bite-sized portions ready for the plants they tend to do all the running around. Talk to the plants (through their roots) and ask what’s on their wish list for the day in the way of nutrients. Like little mini waiters they then scurry off and fetch the required dishes. And their tip? A nice dose of sugar from the plant, delivered in some way via the roots.

If the same food scraps had gone straight into a traditional compost they would also have become soil in the end. But in the process most of the nutrients would have leached away. Much of the carbon in the compost would have gone up into the atmosphere in the form of methane and carbon dioxide. And the nutrients that remained would have lost their valuable “fast-food” structure during the rotting process. Nothing against composting — but it is a very different process to fermentation.

Now I’m no biologist so I know this is ridiculously over simplified. If you can add something to the description or put it right I’d love your feedback. But all in all I think our buckets and their billions of microbial residents deserve a great pat on the back for a job well done. Over and over and over again.

So even if there’s nothing much to see when you empty that Bokashi bucket there’s a lot to be grateful for.

And the real thanks is the happy bouncing plants you get at the end of the day. It’s just that there’s more teamwork involved than you’d ever imagine!

Good spot to find EM reference material!

Just had to share this excellent reference site. There’s a long list of documents (in English) on a lot of different EM applications — agriculture, animal husbandry, aquaculture, construction…

Knowledge is growing in all of these areas and while much of it is widespread and in many different languages, you can start to see how the puzzle pieces are starting to fall into place.

Have a look here, you never know what you mind find interesting! If nothing else, it will give you a feeling of hope for the future. Good things are happening out there!

Click here to get to the Malaysian reference site>>

Check out for more information too.

On my wish list…

Anyone read this? Can it be handled by enthusiastic amateurs like myself?

Personally, I think it sounds really interesting:

The second edition of this best-selling text features expert contributors investigating relationships between microbial communities, community structures, and function. Using the latest molecular analyses, they integrate principles of soil microbiology with novel insights into the physiology of soil microbiota. The text contains a 16 page color insert, numerous tables, illustrations, and extensive references.

Getting going with Bokashi

So put up your hand if you’re an expert at resisting changes. (Hand going quietly up here…)

I like to think of myself as being open, curious, willing to try new things. In actual fact I’m probably quite cynical, jaded and treat a lot of new things with a healthy measure of suspicion. Until proved otherwise.

Bokashi is one of those things that rung a few hocus-pocus warning bells for me when I first came across it. Forget it. There’s nothing new age or even vaguely hocus pocus about Bokashi. In actual fact it’s as old as the earth and belongs under one category only: good old-fashioned, down-to-earth common sense. The sort of thing farmers have known for hundreds of years but we, in our modern wisdom, have lost sight of.

Bokashi is fermented organic material, a lovely Japanese word that works in all languages and will one day be an unquestioned addition to ours. These days the fermentation is done using Effective Microorganisms (EM), a mix of very natural, age-old “good” bacteria that do the work for us in this process. No hocus pocus there, but a lot more to say in future blogs.

There are two things “Bokashi” and that’s a bit confusing. First, you have Bokashi bran. That’s normal bran — organic of course — that is inoculated with Effective Microorganisms. Fermented quite simply, just like a lot of stuff you’d find in your kitchen, pickles, yoghurt, wine and the like. Then second, you have Bokashi compost, and that’s what you get when you add Bokashi bran to your food waste and leave it to ferment in an airtight bucket.

There’s nothing magic about the bucket, apart from the fact that using a proper Bokashi bucket takes some of the trial and error out of the process. Two things Bokashi microbes hate are being wet and having too much air around them. Which is why the bucket is air-tight and must be drained regularly.

What happens in the bucket then? A lot actually, far more than you’d ever think when you take a look inside and see that, well, nothing much seems to have changed. Every handful of Bokashi bran you throw in has billions of microbes living in it. They go to work on your food waste and eat, breed and generally live a good life. The breeding is no small business, microbes reproduce every 20 minutes and sooneä than you know there’s a hell of a colony in your bucket.

So what are they doing there other than having a good time? The process is symbiotic, that means it’s a give and take thing where all parts win. (Pathogenic bacteria on the other hand, the ones we definitely don’t want in our lives, are just take-takers.)

While they’re eating and breeding, the microbes are breaking down the food waste into another structure. And this is what makes them so valuable. They take the food and sort of split it up into its component parts — proteins, which in turn consist of amino acids and other stuff. Why is this such a big deal? Plants can’t eat our food. But they can eat the amino acids and stuff. So what the microbes are doing is the equivalent of preparing a buffet of goodies for the  plants and soil.

When you dig the content of your Bokashi bucket into  the soil it quickly “disappears”. Obviously it doesn’t disappear at all, it is converted to soil. Rich, nutrient-loaded soil that is like a 5-star buffet for your plants.

It does other great things when you add it to your compost, but that’s a story for another day. As is the story about why Bokashi works as a miniature carbon-sink in your yard, something great you can do for the environment without (hardly) lifting a finger.