Tag Archives: Soil

2015: International Year of the Soils

10968455_10152848645119934_1166334746202857131_nAnd about time!

We have been talking about pollution, the environment, climate change and the future of the planet for decades. We talk about the air, about the water, about sound pollution, plastic and deforestation. But when was the last time you ever heard anyone talking about our soil?

About the fact that if we blow it we won’t eat.

Topsoil is that thin, thin layer of soil we can use to grow food in. There’s nowhere near as much of it as you think, and the worst is that it’s disappearing fast. Statistics vary, but a starting point is that we have roughly half as much topsoil now as we had a century ago. And a population that is growing, globally.

Every year.

Where does it go? We build cities on some of our best fields. Great tracts of soil are washed away or blow away in the aftermath of deforestation and other poor management. We make deserts out of what was once fertile land. We poison good acreage with chemicals. We take out more than we give back.

Basically, we’ve not been thinking for a long, long while. And we’ve been damn quiet about it.

So it’s a blessing that this year our soil gets some limelight. A year, of course, is nothing in the great scheme of things, we need to be thinking about this every day and changing the way things are done. But it is a change to have a chat with your kids, your neighbors, your colleagues and your gardening mates about what is going on. How it could be if all decided to be the change, start doing what we can in our own backyard.

A backyard is not much but it’s still a bequest to the generations that come after us. People will need to grow food locally and to do that, they will need good soil. In their own backyard.

And soil, as we know, takes a hell of a time to build.

So we could make 2015 the year of doing things differently. For our children. And for theirs.

Using silage with Bokashi as mulch

Photo: Jenny Harlen

The other day we managed to get home our annual hay bale, always a good day around here!

We live in the country and on every field you can see a pile of these white silage bales looking much like a pile of UFO eggs. Each one weighs some 500 kilos, inside the tight plastic skin is a tightly-rolled bale of hay. The farmers make them directly on the field during the summer and use them for animal fodder in the winter, during the time they stand there the hay ferments which stops it rotting and makes it a good food source. Here in Sweden they’re white, I assume it’s a way of keeping them a bit cooler but also helps disguise them during the six months of white winter we have here.

The thing is, many of these bales turn bad. The plastic fails, the rain gets in, they start to rot. Which means they have no value whatsover to the farmers as they can’t be used as fodder.

But they are the best thing ever if you’re a gardener and can get hold of one! Just ask for the most rotten bale the farmer has on stock — and if he could give you a hand getting it onto your trailer with his tractor!

Here at home we use a bale a year in our veggie garden and around the house when we’re starting up new garden beds or trying to restore some corner or other. It works just brilliantly in combination with Bokashi and the fermentation that the bale has been through means you don’t get any weed seeds out of the hay.

Yesterday the rhubarb bed got a much-needed topup. We have a 5 meter wooden box with some 5 rhubarb plants. The soil has been sinking lower and lower and they haven’t had any real fertilising for some years. I started by spreading out a couple of buckets of Bokashi (would have used more but that was what I had on hand) and then topped it off with a 10 cm layer of hay from the silage bale.

Embarrassingly quick and easy. No digging at all. On the other hand we’ve had a family of crows giving us a hard time this spring, picking through all our garden beds looking for lunch, so I’ll keep an eye on that. In worst case it’s just to throw over a berry net.

The other problem with mulching, at least for us here, can be snails. I’ve had problems in this bed before so early this spring I removed all the winter mulch and have had the bed bare since then while the snail hunt was on. Think it’s fixed now, but I’ll lay out a handful of snail pellets (organic) to be sure.

One of the reasons why it’s good to use Bokashi in combination with mulch like this is that it balances out the carbon-nitrogen balance. If you just lay out a lot of browns (like this silage) there’s a risk the mulch may steal nitrogen from the plants. But with a layer of Bokashi under the mulch there should be nitrogen enough for everyone. If you don’t have much Bokashi to put under you could always kickstart the nitrogen with Bokashi liquid, nestle water or some good old diluted urine.

We’ve been doing this hay-bale thing for a few years now and I just love it. It’s such an easy way to top up a bed (like this one) or to get a new bed going. We’re too lazy to dig round here so when we’re starting off a new bed (whether for veggies or flowers) we just lay out some newspapers, spread out some Bokashi, dump a few buckets of coffee grinds (that we get from the local café) and cover the lot with silage. Smells like a bit of a farmyard for a few days but turns pretty quickly into the best soil.

And if you have a long winter like ours it’s great to have a pile of old silage on stock to cover all the beds for the winter. Gives your worms a warmer place to be and keeps them working longer, and when you remove the layer in the spring (if you do) you’ll be surprised how little there is left.

I know not everyone is surrounded by lakes and fields like we are, but for what it’s worth this is what we do. Maybe you have some other resource where you live that’s cheap and easy to get hold of and could do some good work on your veggie patch?

Love to hear your ideas!

Bokashi in the greenhouse.

Did a big clean out in the greenhouse in the weekend and cleared out everything. Felt so wonderful to get rid of all the bits and pieces and do a restart. I’ve been growing tomatoes and cucumbers in big black buckets for years (the greenhouse itself has no soil) and that’s always been ok but it felt like time for a new approach.

So. Now it’s like this. I brought home 10 big bricklayers tubs from the local hardware store and lined them up in the greenhouse. Four on one side, six on the other (side-by-side rather than end-to-end). Then the fun started…

The tubs are 90 liters each (there are small ones available here too, 65 liters). Cost was some 13 euro each for the big, 8-9 for the small. And they’re really sturdy and nice! 900 liters in total to fill…

First up I put in a layer of drainage, the small clay balls that are called lecakulor in Swedish. Some 5 to 10 cm worth. So far I haven’t drilled any drainage holes, I’m thinking of not having any and using the drainage layer as a water reservoir if I’m careful and don’t overwater. But if I do go for holes I’ll drill them on the sides, at the same height as the drainage material. In a perfect world that means none of the valuable nutrients would be lost.

Next step was a layer of soil, just the cheap potting mix you buy at the supermarket this time of year. I thought a bit about putting a felt layer between the drainage and the soil but decided not to, if the roots want to make their way down into the reservoir it’s all theirs!

Then came the Bokashi! Some 20-30 liters ready fermented food waste from the kitchen. I happened to have a lot of biobags on hand so I used those, but obviously you take whatever you’ve got. But I did hack them open and spread out the goo reasonably evenly.

Then I added a couple of buckets of “real soil” from my soil factory in the garden, normal topsoil drenched in nutrients from last summer’s Bokashi. And the most ridiculous amount of worms! If they like it in their new home it’ll be just great to have them in on the operation.

Then topped up the tubs with more “sack soil”, the cheapest of potting mixes. I cut up the bags and tucked one over each tub to prevent evaporation until it’s time to plant. But now I’m even thinking I might plant my tomatoes and cucumbers in a hole in the plastic to reduce watering. What do you think?

Needless to say I deserved a beer at the end of all this! Just now the whole project looks like a workplace but I’m really excited about it. In my mind it’s already green and luscious with endless perfect tomatoes and cucumbers, maybe even kiwifruit, passionfruit or even a whole vineyard… Anyhow, I think it will be great and I’m dead curious to see how it works out.

One of the big benefits (I think) will be that come autumn I can dig down a new batch of Bokashi in all the tubs and renovate the soil ready for the spring. Maybe replace some of it if needed. It would be such a luxury to come out to the greenhouse in the spring and just wash it down and plant — having let the microbes and worms do all the hard stuff in the meanwhile.

Dreams are free! But I’ll let you know how the tomatoes work out!

…and in the old tomato buckets I’ve planted potatoes, all going well we’ll get a nice early batch in time for midsummer (and anyone who’s been to Sweden will know how important that is!). Fingers crossed.

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.

Autumn leaves make great pumpkins!

Now is the time!

Grab a few sacks on the next fine day and fill them with autumn leaves, the nice dry fluffy ones. Even better, keep an eye on what your neighbours are doing, maybe they’ll do all the work filling sacks and you can just sweetly ask for them when they’re ready.

Sacks of leaves make great soil, especially in combination with Bokashi. Without Bokashi you’ll get a sack full of lovely leaf compost in two or three years. If you toss in a few Bokashi buckets in each sack during the winter you’ll most likely find the contents will turn to soil during the coming spring and summer.

There’s two tricks (three, if you count getting your neighbors to do all  the work :-)).

Winter: line up your sacks nice and close to the kitchen door. That way you won’t have to go far to empty your Bokashi buckets. As long as it’s reasonably dry in the sacks (and we’re talking plastic sacks here) you won’t have any smell at all. No rats or mice either as they’ll find it too acidic. But the trick is not having to wade through snow and rain to get to them, chances are I’m not the only lazy one round here. Keep the bags sealed with a tie or clip. If it’s feeling a bit damp throw in a newspaper or two to take up the condensation.

Spring: move the sacks to a nice sunny spot, the warmer the better. OK, I’m talking northern European climates here where it never gets TOO hot! If you live somewhere with real heat you’d probably want to find a place that’s just warm. The microbes from the Bokashi will spring into action and team up with the microbes that came in with the autumn leaves — together they’ll trigger the soil-making process.

If you’re looking for some good mulch early on in the season you should find one of these bags just perfect. The food waste will be pretty much gone, absorbed up into the leaf mulch. Give it a couple of months longer and you’ll have a nice bag of potting mix. The leaves don’t have a lot of nutrition but the Bokashi  certainly does, how strong it is depends on the mix you used.

Chances are some worms will have made their way in, if not you can always plant in a few. Pop a few air vents for the guys. Some small slits in the bottom of the sack would let worms in and out and also let the bag drain if needed.

I’ve spoken to a few people who do this in their greenhouse and think it works really well. Which is quite smart because it’s usually nice and warm in there and cuts down on handling if you’re planning to use the soil in the greenhouse come spring. One tip is to position the sacks on your planting beds and let them drain in the spots you most want to fertilize.

Another cool idea is to plant directly in the sacks come spring. Ideal if you want to grow pumpkins or something that wants rich, warm soil. Lay out the sacks in the growing spot, make slits where you want to plant and poke in a bit of plain soil. Pop in the pumpkin. That’s it! Even if the food waste is still evident in the bag the plants will be able to take up the nutrients directly — that’s the whole point of Bokashi.

And it’s the perfect way to grow stuff on a weedy spot. The bags will act like a quarantine for the growing pumpkin plants (or whatever!) — keeping nutrients in, weeds out, and on top of it kill off the weeds under the bag. And when the pumpkins are harvested it’s just to slice up the bag and mulch down the lot.

Could be a fun idea for schools and pre-schools? It’s kind of fun to see how the food waste goes in one end and pumpkins come out the other. A project that could start and finish at Halloween.

Way more fun than throwing the stuff in the bin!

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!

Urban gardening in bread crates.

First. A confession. I don’t live anywhere near a city.

But we have a patch of gravel outside the house so that, for the time being, is my urban backyard.

My idea was to test if you could grow a “garden” in a pile of bread crates on a wooden pallet. Then use them during the winter for storage of Bokashi. Conclusion: works brilliantly.

I started in the winter (the original blog is here) and now that summer is just about done here there’s no doubt it works really well. Actually I’m quite excited because I think this could be a really nice way for people with real urban backyards to get a small garden going AND recycle more or less all their food waste on a patch of asphalt no bigger than one square metre.

This is the summer bit. (The winter bit involves storing cured Bokashi in bio-bags or plastic bags in the empty crates.)

First step, you’ll need a pallet and up to ten plastic crates. Not too deep or you’ll never be able to lift them. Get hold of some plastic potting mix bags and cut them to size. Poke in a few drainage holes. (In the original experiment I used newspaper for lining. Forget it, it gets too dry. Plastic is better.)

Then a first layer of potting mix, just the cheap stuff from the garden shop.

Empty a bucket of cured Bokashi and spread it around nicely.

Then top up the crate with soil.

Lift on the crate you’re going to plant in. This one I’d done a couple of weeks earlier. You can have up to five crates in a stack, makes a nice working height. (No snails! No weeds!)

If you plant in a couple of worms before you know it you’ll have a whole colony doing their bit for your garden!

Time to plant! Herbs, lettuce, whatever will do ok in the shallow soil. But it seems to me you can plant quite intensively as the soil is so good.

Ready! Just to let them grow and enjoy the results.

The good thing with growing in a stack like this is that run-off nutrients from the top crate will filter down through the others and not be wasted. In peak season you could spread out the trays and grown in all of them, or hand them out to friends and neighbours ready-planted.

When the season is over the soil will still be quite good in the trays, so empty them somewhere valuable and stack up the trays nice and neat ready to be used as winter storage. You may even want to lift the whole thing into the cellar to make life easier in the winter.