Tag Archives: compost

Coffee grounds. Free to a good home.

Photo: Jenny Harlen“Hello gardeners! Please take some coffee grinds for your garden!”

What gardener could resist that? Well, unfortunately I had to as I was just a tourist passing by. But I was seriously tempted to drag some home to the friends we were staying with.

Coffee grounds are just great in the garden. The nice thing is that they’re brown, so you can just spread them out under bushes and in garden beds. Smells nice while you’re doing it and pretty soon they just eat their way down into the soil where the nitrogen in the grounds is released to the plants nearby (with some good help of whatever microbes are in the vicinity).

The only disadvantage can be if you use a lot of coffee grounds in your veggie patch that the carrots start tasting like coffee. No, just joking. There can be a risk that heavy metals in the coffee build up in the veggie patch if you overdo it. My feeling is that it would take an awful lot of coffee to get you to that point, and the greater worry would be whether we should be running that much coffee through our bodies. However, worth checking out a bit more if you’re concerned.

The alternative is to dose up bushes, trees, flower beds, even a smallish lawn with coffee grounds — none of that is going to get into the food chain. It’s a cheap source of nitrogen and a cool thing to do, just swag home with a bag of coffee grinds when you pass your neighborhood cafe.

Unfortunately none of the cafes round us do this. I’m hoping that will change gradually, like so many recycling-related things. Common sense does seem to be kicking in all over.

A few years ago I did a deal with the local bakery/cafe to pick up their coffee grinds once a week. I kept it up for a few years until other priorities took over, hopefully they have now adopted a new coffee collector.

My original idea was to do bokashi of the grinds to increase their microbial value in the soil. Great idea, well worth doing, but for me at the time just too hard work. So what I did was just dump the buckets of coffee grinds under our multitude of bushes, one bush at a time. Sometimes the buckets were frozen because they’d been stored outside, I just dumped them under the bush as they were. Come spring the weird collection of coffee towers mushed together and I could rake them out a bit.

Given that we produce bokashi bran here at home it’s not something we have a shortage of. Each spring I’d go around with a wheelbarrow of bokashi bran and throw a handful or two under each coffee bush. The microbes could spend the summer doing their good work.

Obviously you could get the same result using bokashi juice (the runoff from a bucket with drainage tap) or using EM in activated form. Either way, pretty cost effective and hard to overdose.

In the autumn I usually pile up a lot of leaves under the bushes and rake a lot straight into garden beds. Partly because I’m lazy and it’s easy to shuffle them up into the first best spot, but mainly because with such an active soil the leaves are rapidly absorbed into the soil around the bushes. They also keep the worms warm and happy for a good while into the late autumn and that’s always a good thing.

People around here say that coffee grinds are a great way of stopping snails in their tracks. I haven’t tested it myself so can’t say for sure, but it seems reasonable. Tugging a slimy snail body over a barrier of coffee grinds is probably not the most pleasant of options for a snail. Have you tested it? (Not dragging yourself through the grinds, obviously, but spreading them in the garden.) Is it worthwhile giving it a go?

So, all up — a lot you can do with coffee grinds without it being such a chore. Great for the garden but the greater good is probably getting them out of their landfill destiny and into the food/soil loop. Well worth giving it a shot in other words.

And you can always reward yourself with a steaming hot latte the next time you’re there to pick up your grounds!


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 café, 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 café, 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!

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!

Bokashi is just great for tomatoes!

I’m happy to say our tomatoes are doing really nicely this year! I’d like to say that it’s all due to the great Bokashi soil they’re growing in but I have to be honest and say it’s been a great summer with a lot of warm days. (Not something you can always count on in Sweden…:-))

Nevertheless! The tomatoes are growing in a variety of buckets big and small, suits me better than growing straight in the ground. This year I’ve tested a row of smallish buckets (the ones in the pic) for the cherry tomatoes. And they’re working brilliantly.

For a start, it’s recycling at best. I collected a ton of mayonnaise buckets from the local pizzeria during the winter and put them on stock. Each tomato bucket is made up of two pizzeria buckets. In the inner buckets I drilled normal drainage holes and in the outer buckets I just drilled a couple of holes on the side (as you can see in the pic). That means that all the valuable Bokashi  juice that drains from the soil is collected in the lower bucket and eventually taken up by the plant. If there’s too much water the excess will drain off through the side holes, but I try to manage it so nothing much is lost.

And it certainly makes life easier when you go away for a couple of days to know the guys have a little water reserve of their own underfoot.

Nutrients? Well, the Bokashi soil goes a long way so I don’t usually start adding extra nutrients till quite some way down the track. I fill the buckets with one-third Bokashi straight from the kitchen and two-thirds soil (just cheap potting mix). You could mix it first but I normally don’t bother, just throw in a thin layer of soil first then the Bokashi then the rest of the soil.

Later in the season I usually top up the soil with some grass clippings (nitrogen power-boost but also helps keep the moisture in place) and some bokashi juice from the bin in the kitchen. None of it is that systematic mind you, most things in my garden tend to happen on the spur of the moment.

One question that comes up quite often is what happens if you overdose the Bokashi, too much of the good life. Will you just get a lot of leaves and no fruit? Or overgrown tomatoes with no taste?

Well, you have to admit things certainly grow well in this supersoil. And I’ve had a few things grow bigger and faster than I would have maybe chosen. But with a bit of common sense you usually find a reasonable balance quite soon — just look at the Bokashi you dig down as being as strong as cow dung, possibly stronger and go from there.

I ran into a woman living nearby a while ago, she’s one of these great gardeners that has grown everything that goes on the kitchen table for the last 30 years, and has been using Bokashi for some three years. Of course I was curious! But she said, there’s a bit of a problem… Oh? (Yikes, I’m thinking…) What’s that? Well, you see it’s my cherry tomatoes. Yes, and? Well, they’re big. Much bigger than I’ve ever grown before. So how do they taste, watery? No, they’re just marvellous! Healthy, juicy and delicious. They’re just bigger than any I’ve seen before! So there’s no real problem then…? Nope, this Bokashi thing is just brilliant!


Herrings make the best soil!

Last August a friend of mine gave me a bucket of Bokashi for my garden. And ran off. Fast.

Nothing strange about the bucket thing, she drops off her buckets all the time as her garden is much smaller than mine. So I didn’t get it. Until later.

When I read the post-it note on the lid. “Innehåller surströmming”. Contains rotten herring.


Surströmming is a Swedish specialty. One I’ve managed to avoid very successfully until now. It’s herring, basically. Preserved in a kind of fermentation process. And it stinks to high heaven. God knows how anyone could eat it.

But her husband comes from that part of the country so they’d been doing the herring thing and obviously had rather a lot left over. So I just sort of looked at the bucket for the next week before I dared to open it.


Didn’t smell. Just your average Bokashi bucket.

So I dragged the bucket along with me to a couple of harvest fairs we were at in September, a couple of workshops and diverse other sessions. Had a lot of fun watching people getting up the courage to open the lid.

The thing is Bokashi does the job every time. The stuff in your bin really won’t smell if you keep it as dry as possible.

The more interesting thing is what happened next, when I dug it down, finally, in the late autumn. That particular spot now has the best soil in the whole garden. Never seen such fat happy worms. It’s almost a bit perverse.

But now they have fat and happy leeks to compete with. A good outcome all round.

ps is it easier for you to follow this on facebook? If so, I’m posting the blogs here on bokashiworld on facebook, plus a lot of other bits and pieces that just turn up.

Bokashi gardening in Edmonton

The good news is it’s thawed in Edmonton! As it has here (even if we got some snow this week!) The apple blossoms are just about to spring and life is good. Again.

Remember the Bokashi project that Mike in Edmonton is running? Here’s an update from one of the test group. Thumbs up it seems.

This little guy is doing great, he’s clearly in charge of sprinkling on the bokashi bran each day into the bucket. Anyhow, if you’re curious, have a read and see how the project is progressing.

Another lovely Canadian with a mission is Desi in Edmonton. Here’s her latest bokashi post (she’s done a few good ones on the subject). Now we’re just waiting to hear the latest from Edmonton now that life has once again turned green there as it has there. So Desi, how’s things in your bokashi garden?!

And Mike, the guy behind it all and rather an interesting blog. Here’s his latest update with follow-up from one of the other members of the test squad, Cara. This is a really nice way of cranking up awareness, no preconceived ideas, no flogging of stuff, no heavy scientific stuff, just some nice friendly kitchen floor experiments. I like it!