Bokashi Composting – A Gardener’s Dream!

Winter by Hendrick Avercamp, early 17th century.

We are once again in the dead of winter, a wonderful time to gather thoughts and contemplate the arrival of spring and summer.

A lot of gardeners are probably already planning for next year’s garden and I suspect many have also piled a lot of organic debris from this year’s activity hoping it will degrade or transform into compost by this next spring.

When it is cold and wet the composter is just not going to do the job.  You’ve got to turn it, aerate the pile, heat it adequately, sustain the proper carbon to nitrogen ratio, and have a sufficiently large pile of debris to make it efficient.

It’s a lot of work and as many of you know, more than 50% of your organic content goes up in the air if you do get it working.  It’s a highly polluting process and you end up with a soil amendment that is certainly valued by many gardeners but it is in fact missing a lot of vital nutrients and does nothing to improve the microbial numbers.  All that heating and processing was very damaging to naturally occurring microbes and they don’t survive the long composting cycle.

Bokashi Composting:

A lot of gardeners have never heard of Bokashi.  Before we get too far into the discussion, I want to make it clear right away that “Bokashi Composting” is really a misnomer.  Composting involves oxidation.  Bokashi Composting as it is commonly known is more properly and technically described as the opposite of composting….it’s a fermenting process.

Microbes release enzymes that quickly breakdown the larger molecules in the waste material releasing in the process many nutrients and liquids all of which are put to good use in the garden.  It is done by excluding oxygen.  No methane is produced because the microbes generate acids as they breakdown the waste, Microbes that produce methane can’t function under those conditions and no methane is ever produced in a Bokashi fermenting system.

It is a fermentation process with specialized microbes.   It’s 10 times faster than traditional composting.  You can process virtually any kind of organic material and in the process you end up with virtually 99% of the nutrients returning to the soil.

Greenhouse gases are eliminated in this process in contrast to composting where typically 50% of the organic material is by oxidation released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.  Did you ever notice the putrid rotten egg smell around your compost pile?

The Bokashi process is a fast and very easy way to eliminate odors, vermin and flies.  It is done anaerobically (without oxygen).  You can do it all year around very efficiently.  You don’t have to do any turning and you end up with soil that is so much richer in nutrients and microbes compared to composting.  Plants love it.

You can ferment yard waste, animal waste, and all your food scraps using the same microbes. Here is a reference with a brief description of how it works.

It is so easy to ferment your food scraps.  And it’s a good feeling to know that in the process you save money on your garbage bill, get rich soil in return, and feed your plants natural nutrients.  No more smelly garbage, fruit flies, rats or vermin to contend with.  But you’ve got to put the fermented material back in the ground soil.  You’re going to feed the soil web!

Bokashi fermenting involves mixing the food scraps with a microbial culture mix in a specialized fermenter that excludes oxygen.  The microbes are active when the oxygen levels are brought to very low levels where other microbes perish.  The microbes release enzymes (chemicals) that breakdown food waste to a form that is then easily metabolized by soil microbes.  It is a two step process.

Bokashi Composting (Fermenting) is a pickling process. The food scraps are first pickled in a specialized fermenter, and then the fermented product is put it in the ground.

You don’t have to take the garbage out in the cold and rainy weather and you won’t have to empty your fermenter for weeks with a proper fermenting device……………but eventually, depending on how much waste you generate you are going to make that trip to the garden (or planter box) to bury the fermented product to feed your hungry soil microbes.

What do you do when the ground is frozen?   That’s a good question.  And you might also wonder how cold weather affects the rate of fermented food waste material being broken down in the soil by those hungry microbes.  Does it take longer?   Can you save the fermented waste material until the ground is thawed out and then bury it?

If the weather is cold, and the ground is frozen, most people just dump the batch of fermented food scraps into a large container outside with a lid.  It is perfectly okay to let it freeze too.  You can fill a container or two all winter if you like and await the spring thaw.  If you’ve got a shovel of soil to toss in with the “pickled” waste material, do it.  That will get things going even faster.

When the ground is once again soft, work the fermented product into the soil and you will observe the soil microbes rapidly metabolize all of the wasted material in short order.  All of the nutrients go right to the soil.  Your vegetable garden will be great……..and nothing was lost in waiting out the winter.

If you have properly fermented the food waste you will have no smelly garbage in the outside container.  Animals will not bother it.  We have lots of clients in Eastern Canada, Upstate New York, the Midwestern US and Alaska who experience long winters.  They know it’s easy even in the winter to process food waste.

Although it is difficult to accurately measure how fast the fermented material is metabolized in the soil because many different kinds of food scraps may be processed, one easy way to gauge the activity is to filter the soil at various intervals after the fermented food scraps are mixed with soil to see how long it takes for recognizable material to disappear.  In the summer virtually all material (except pits and bones- see below) will be gone in about 7 – 10 days.

In the middle of winter buried in frozen ground the same material will take 20 – 30 days to disappear.  Even though it appears that the rate of metabolism is reduced when the weather is cold, the overall assimilation in the soil is quite rapid.

Breaking down Waste Material – It’s a hard job!

Did you ever wonder why it takes so long to compost organic material?  Here’s another question.  Why don’t the carrots, beets, roots, potatoes, radishes, and plants bedded in the soil get eaten up by the soil microbes?  Why don’t they just rot away?

The answer to the first question has to do with the structure of most of the organic waste we encounter.  It’s made up of a polymer called cellulose.  Cellulose is a complex sugar molecule that is a major component of plant cellular material.  It’s the outer skin that keeps the bad guys out.  It’s very tough material to breakdown.

Microbes are able to break it down with enzymes, specialized molecules designed to attack certain key parts of the polymer which then make the polymer fall apart but they can’t do it when the plant is alive and healthy.

The microbes don’t seem to get it going efficiently in the soil unless the organic waste has been processed in a manner that makes it possible for soil microbes to do their work.  We’ll come back to this point in a few moments.

The enzyme activity is akin to pulling a loose thread from your favorite garment and then watching the unraveling before your eyes.  Don’t pull those loose threads!  So the living healthy plants do something to trick or evade those hungry microbes.  That’s a real mystery.  How do they do it?

So it’s very interesting that vegetable matter and plants in general are able to live in the soil in contact with all kinds of microbes without injury.  Indeed they are able to feed the microbes sugars in exchange for nutrients and thrive.  If the soil microbes could only figure out how to unzip the plants to get at their sugars and nutrients, the plants would be devoured in a flash.

The Soil Food Web – How it Works

Soil scientists are struggling to understand how it all works.  We know very little about the soil despite the many years and efforts directed at unraveling the cycle.

You will note in this simplified scheme there are a lot of missing critters like centipedes, springtails, beetles, etc. but the idea of a complex web of competing organisms from simple to complex is well depicted.

Energy from the sun is stored in plants.  The plants by photosynthesis build complex molecules that eventually end up in the soil when the plant dies.  The organic matter in the soil is then broken down by critters in the soil.

The soil microbes derive energy from those molecules in the soil and expand in numbers.  There are many different types of microbes the majority of which we have yet to identify.

Fungi and other organisms also feast on the organic matter and there are critters that feed on the microbes and fungi.  There are fungi seeking nematodes (worms) and bacterial seeking worms, protozoa, arthropod (shredders), etc. all competing aggressively.  You eat and multiply or perish.

Fungi produce antibiotics to inhibit bacteria so they can get a leg up and they in turn are eaten by predators.  You can appreciate that in short order, depending on how things go, a pattern of critters will emerge with checks and balances.

If you add fertilizers or pesticides to the soil, certain critters will be killed and other critters (predators feasting on the killed microbes, fungi, etc.)  will be in turn effected.  The predator population will be altered, and this change ripples throughout the food web.  Populations established can dramatically change.   The soil is living and ideally very much alive.

When you feed the soil traditional sterile “compost” it doesn’t really do a lot of good.  It’s pretty devoid of microbes and many nutrients are also missing.

When you Bokashi ferment, the soil microbes in the Bokashi Culture Mix are able to rapidly release nutrients from the food waste or organic material fermented.  When that “pickled” waste is then mixed with the soil it is as if you prepared a banquet for the microbes, fungi, nematodes, arthropods, etc.  By first fermenting and then mixing the fermented product with the soil a lot of good occurs.

Nutrients and microbes, fungi, and many other soil critters get to work expanding and re-establishing a dynamic active soil.  Plants through their roots participate in the process too absorbing numerous small molecules they need for health and growth.

Bokashi Composting (Fermenting) – Rapidly Improves Soil

Gardeners who want to have really healthy plants should appreciate that a lot of what makes a plant strong and healthy has to do with the quality of soil.  If you feed the soil nutrients and microbes and support the soil web, you are going to have the best plants around.  They will bloom more frequently and be far more vibrant.

Almost any soil will in short order with proper support of the food web transform to the best soil you can find for your plants.

It’s easy.  Save your dollars and start thinking about those chemical additives you might have thought you needed to get your plants growing as potential toxins altering the food web.  Bokashi Composting (Bokashi Fermenting) is a gardener’s dream.

You don’t have to do a lot of work to pickle your food waste or ferment your yard waste.  It’s so much easier than composting.  It’s fast. You will eliminate bad odors and get a richer soil when you mix the pickled waste with your garden soil.

Want to learn more? See how easy it is, click here!

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