Tag Archives: composting

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 🙂

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.

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!


Create your own Eden!

Isn’t it a great picture? Check the website here, it’s just excellent. A bunch of councils in New Zealand have gone together to produce this site and it really works. Simple, friendly, and pedagogic. Suddenly all this Bokashi stuff doesn’t seem so hard any more, it’s just a good-old down-to-earth way of creating your own little paradise. Here and now.

One of the reasons I’m sitting here in Sweden carrying on and on about Bokashi is because I’m actually from New Zealand. I’ve seen how over the last ten years Bokashi has become more and more part of everyday life there, not an overnight sensation but just something that’s gradually crept into the way things are done. And coming from there I know that you’d have to look far to find a country of more down-to-earth people. This is not the land of hocus-pocus. So if it works there it should work anywhere. On the other hand, New Zealand is not a particularly urban country — even if most people live in towns they still have gardens.

And you have to admit the climate makes life easy, it’s not that hard to go dig a hole any time of year.

But all the same. Keep an eye on what these kiwis are doing. They may show us yet!

Website: www.createyourowneden.org.nz

Urban gardening. In bread crates!

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A couple of months ago I wrote about a project in Berlin that really inspired me. Right there in the middle of an incredibly grey, incredibly urban jungle, cars rushing by on all sides, these guys have created a community garden.

And the thing is they’re doing it all in bread crates. Stacked on timber pallets.

Nice and easy to move if someone decides they should put up a high-rise there instead. And the only real option when the land beneath their feet is a lovely mix of asphalt and god-knows-what.

So we’ve decided to run some experiments here on the same theme, but using Bokashi to make the soil. Urban gardening in bread crates. Even though it’s mid-winter. Even though we live about as un-urban as you can get with, say, 3 cars passing by per year. Our plan is to set up the crates on the veranda now during the winter and see how they can be used for winter storage. Veranda = asphalt, right?

Then, come spring, we’ll try whatever we can think of to assimilate urban gardening. I’m dead sure we’ll be able to make soil directly in the crates — the idea would be to grow in the top one on the stack and make soil in the lower ones. And if we put out a couple of the trays on the grass for a while I imagine some worms will move in, enough to start a little colony. If they like it, perhaps they’ll stay. Even when the stack gets moved back onto the gravel. With any luck they’ll work their way up and do their worm-thing tray by tray.

You’re right — this is all very theoretical at this stage. Probably a near-case of cabin-fever after several months of snow…

So maybe you could help us? Wherever you live you must surely have an earlier start to your spring than we have and perhaps you’d like to give it a go. Test everything! Let us know what you find out!

It would be really, seriously, cool if we could find a simple way of getting urban gardening and Bokashi working together. Hard to imagine anything more elegant than old food becoming new food right under the nose of the urban planners!


You can see pretty much what we’ve done in the pictures above. The crates have a grid of holes bottom and sides, we’re lining them with newspaper to prevent soil escaping down the track. They stack nice and neat on the veranda, we’ve put various plastic and bio-bags (biodegradable bags) filled with Bokashi into each crate. Seems to work fine for winter storage, the whole lot will just sit there and freeze until spring.

When things start to thaw we plan to cover the bags in each tray with soil and/or autumn leaves. The important thing is that the Bokashi is not exposed to air at any stage. Probably we’ll slit open the bio-bags or at least punch holes in them as they will take forever to break down otherwise. The more soil-contact the better — that’s what gets the soil-making process going. Oh, and a cover on the top crate is probably a good idea so your soil doesn’t get rained away if you’re not under cover.

Of course, you could just use this as a handy winter storage. In the spring you could just carry the trays out into the garden and dig down the bags/empty them or whatever. Same if you had an allotment somewhere, or a community project going. A few trays of ready Bokashi would be a godsend come spring.

That’s the plan so far. I’ll get back to you when spring comes. If it ever comes…

DIY Bokashi buckets — Swedish “green buckets”

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Been meaning to post these pictures for ages! This is how we do DIY buckets in Sweden. It just doesn’t get much simpler than this! Plastic buckets with a neat lid and newspaper to take up the liquid.

The buckets are standard off-the-shelf buckets — local manufacture and you’d probably find one in every home here. The lids for this particular brand (Nordic Plast if you’re a Swede) fit well, nice and tight and are easy to peel on and off. You’ll need some Bokashi bran and some newspaper. That’s it.

The pictures pretty much give you the idea. Tear a newspaper in half and put the two bits in the bottom of the bucket. Aim for a thickness of a centimetre or so first time round, you’ll get to learn how much you need pretty quickly. Sprinkle in some Bokashi bran, layer your food waste as usual with a sprinkle of bran on each layer. This system is based on absorbing all liquid so use your common sense — wet food = more paper. Serviettes and kitchen paper are great, just toss them in when you scrape the dinner plates. Midway up the bucket you can add a bit of newspaper if you wish, it’s a good chance to give the whole bucket a good push down with your hand when you have a clean surface. A section of newspaper on top is a good idea too, takes up the condensation.

Yeah, I know, you’re probably a bit sceptical at this stage. We were and so have a lot of others been. But give it a go and find out for yourself! You may have to give it a couple of goes to get it right, but after all you haven’t got so much to lose. If you’re curious about how much newspaper would be needed you can do a simple test in a baking pan or something. Put in a section of newspaper and pour in a litre of water. Then another litre. Then another… I was really surprised how much liquid the paper takes up. But of course, how much you need in your bucket depends on what you’re throwing out. A lot of fruit and salad and you’ll get a “juicy” bucket, a lot of bread and pasta and you’ll get quite a dry one.

The process from then on is the same as in a shop-bought bucket with tap. Fill the bucket. Let it stand nice and warm for a couple of weeks to ferment. Take it out into the garden and do something good with it!

We have tested these buckets with bio-bags inside as a liner. Some people like the idea, others not. It depends quite a bit on what kind of biobags you get, the thin ones tend to be a bit flimsy but should theoretically break down faster. If you can get hold of slightly thicker ones they can make great winter storage, just tie up the bag carefully when it’s full and store in a barrel, box, crate or whatever till spring. (Be on the generous side with the newspaper and stuff if you’re planning to store your bags for some months.)

The bags themselves take longer than you’d think to break down in the compost or garden, whatever the manufacturers say. But on the plus side you can tie up the bag and drop it into a trench in the ground (or the compost, or a big planter…) and not have to see the food again, so the ick-factor is definitely lower. Bokashi buckets are not hard to spray out, but bio-bags do keep them cleaner. To speed things up a bit (a lot!) it’s worth slitting up the bag when you bury it. That way the process gets going immediately and you’ll have soil before you know it.

How about all this newspaper in the garden or compost or whatever? If you’re running a compost it’s actually a good thing. The trick to a getting a happy compost is a nice balance of carbon and nitrogen. Often referred to as brown and green. Your kitchen stuff is “green” — a nitrogen bomb. The paper is “brown”, pure carbon. The two things together will do great things for your compost.

If you’re digging down the buckets directly the newspaper can be a bit of a pain. The worms like it ok, but it does take time to break down. You’ll probably find yourself picking blocks of compact newspaper out of the garden now and then and tossing them in the compost. You can always lay them in a bed under some leaves or grass clippings as mulch, keeps weeds at bay and the worms love working away under the paper. The paper is also drenched in microbes, so it’s a good way to get a little colony going in a new spot.

Of course, you don’t have to have special green buckets to do this. Any bucket with a tight-fitting lid will work fine. Pizzerias tend to toss big white catering buckets out by the dozen. Free to a good home and no cost. They sometimes have lids that are a bit annoying, but what the hell — you can have as many buckets as you like and just stack them up until spring.

The only big minus with this system is that you don’t have a tap. Therefore you don’t get the marvellous Bokashi liquid. So if you’re a gardener you’d probably only want to use these newspaper buckets as a secondary system. Or a winter system. Or a system to collect in organics from your friends and family (this is a great solution for the office).

On the other hand, if you’re not a gardener it’s quite nice not having the tap. No buckets to drain, no juice to dilute and run around with. Much easier bucket washing. Much cheaper.

So this is just an idea. Tried and tested and ready to use. Anytime you’d like!

Bokashi in a bag! Perfect for Christmas leftovers

There’s something I’ve been wondering about for a long time: can you ferment Bokashi in a plastic bag?

So I’ve been testing it over the last months. And I have to say I’m quite excited about the result. Because it works every bit as well as a bucket once you get the hang of it. Perfect at Christmas if you get a rush on leftovers.

That means the up-front investment for getting started with Bokashi is zero. OK, you have to buy the bran but you have to buy that anyway, that after all is the magic of Bokashi. The buckets in themselves are very convenient but it’s the microbes that do the work not the plastic.

So how does it work? Take a plastic bag, a good thick one from a shoe store or something. I don’t know how things are where you live but the ones we get from the supermarket here are a bit thin and often have holes in them. You need your bag to be totally airtight. The thicker the better from an odour point of view as well.

You can put the bag in a bucket if you like or just put it in a cupboard or on the floor. You need a good thick newspaper, say half a centimetre thick in the bag. And you need a bag clamp of some sort: here I’ve used bag clamps from Ikea, they cost more or less nothing and everyone has them in their kitchen drawer here in Sweden.

Right. So you put the newspaper in the bag (a tabloid is usually the same width as a bag and slots in nicely with the fold at the bottom of the bag). Sprinkle in some Bokashi bran, tip in your food waste from the day, sprinkle over a little more Bokashi bran. Actually, just as you normally do in a “real” bucket. Clamp the bag.

And go on filling until the bag is full. It’s good to add a lot of serviettes, kitchen paper and the like into the bag as this all helps absorb moisture. If the bag feels too wet you’ll need to add another newspaper. Which isn’t actually a problem as the newspaper is good to have in your compost/soil later — the worms love fermented with EM microbes.

Keep the air in the bag to a minimum. Just give the bag a bit of a squeeze and a squash now and then before you clamp it.

That’s about it. Easy isn’t it? Leave the bag to ferment indoors for the usual two weeks. Then do whatever you usually do with it — into the garden, into the compost, into the woodshed or garage for storage until spring.

Once the bag has done it’s fermenting thing indoors it doesn’t matter if you store it cold outside. Which means you can stack up any number of bags in the shed through a long, cold winter and even if they freeze they’ll come back to life in the spring. For the sake of neatness you can store them up in big garbage sacks or barrel. One thing to think of if you’re going to store your Bokashi bags for some months is that they will go on generating liquid — be generous with the paper.

Another benefit of plastic-bag Bokashi is that you don’t have any bucket to wash. Just empty the bag and toss it, or use it again. It’s a really handy way of dealing with kitchen waste when you’re away from home (caravan? tent? cottage? canoe trip?) or have too much for your regular Bokashi buckets to handle.

It’s actually no harder than regular Bokashi composting with all the expensive gear so it may be a good way of getting sceptical friends and neighbours to test the concept. Give them some of your Bokashi bran (in a glass jar for example) and show them the ropes. Help them through their first cycle so they gain confidence then they’re sure to be converted! And if they’re not gardeners themselves they could fill the bags then hand them over to you for your garden.

Bear in mind that this plastic bag approach is a new concept. And so it’s not tested so much further than in our own kitchen (as far as I know). So it would be great if you’d test it yourself, give it a few rounds to see what you learn, and let us know so we can share it. Pictures welcome of course!

By the way, I wanted to be really sure the process was working so I kept a couple of bags indoors in a warm kitchen close to the radiator for three months. No problems at all with smell (although the bags did get a bit in the way after a while 🙂 ). If you’re worried about rats and mice, don’t be: we have both in the vicinity as we’re close to farms (despite a hardworking cat) and they just aren’t interested in Bokashi bags. The fermented Bokashi is simply too acidic, too low pH. But test for yourself with a small bag in the woodshed or somewhere to be sure.

Good luck! Give it a go! And if you like the idea spread the word!!

ps If you’re really lazy you could put the fermented bags out in garden as they are. Make a couple of slits in the bottom and the worms will soon be in there working hard. In due course you can just shake out the bag and enjoy all your fantastic soil!