Welcome to Digging In, a column for the horticulturally curious. If you’ve ever entertained bucolic fantasies about starting a farm or lingered around the seed packet display at the hardware store thinking about the things you would grow if you could, this is for you. Whether you have massive tracts of land at your disposal or just a few square feet of fire escape, every gardening endeavor starts with a pile of dirt and a dream.
Once upon a time, widespread composting services were only an environmentalist's pipe dream. Now, composting has entered the mainstream, and more and more cities offer drop-off services. But storing all that to-be-composted food waste can be a major pain: You could be sitting on a pile of putrefying food scraps for a month, attracting all manner of pests to your kitchen.
Yes, it’s easy enough to set up your own composting system, but having a personal compost heap is only feasible for people with both the space and gardening habits to use up the compost they will generate. So what are apartment dwellers or not-so-prolific gardeners to do?
Consider bokashi—a method of food waste management that is similar, but cleaner and less pest-prone than conventional composting. Read on to learn how it compares to traditional composting; for a step-by-step guide to bokashi composting, scroll to the bottom of the page.
What is bokashi?
Bokashi how to
How is bokashi different from composting?
Composting breaks down organic matter through aerobic decomposition (via bacteria, fungi, and detritivores like earthworms). It is essentially controlled rot that occurs in several stages in an above-ground heap that requires regular turning and recirculation to introduce airflow.
“Bokashi,” on the other hand, “prevents the food scraps from going bad,” says Vandra Thorburn, the founder of Vokashi, a bokashi-based waste management service in Brooklyn. Unlike traditional composting, bokashi is an anaerobic lactic acid fermentation process that begins to break down food waste before returning it to the soil. Basically, you are pickling your food scraps instead of letting them rot. This fermentation process happens when you layer food scraps with bokashi bran, which contains an inoculant called EM-1 (a mixture of live lactic acid producing bacteria, molasses, and water). Bokashi does not require turning or mixing like composting does.
Bokashi proponents argue that the added fermentation steps reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in composting, since the homolactic fermentation in bokashi emits no gas. Since traditional composting is an aerobic decomposition process, it releases carbon dioxide into the air. Whether or not bokashi is truly more environmentally friendly than conventional composting is a question of some dispute, but there are several other reasons that bokashi is appealing.
You can bury it in your backyard
After about two weeks of collecting bokashi, the fermented matter can be buried in the ground, where it oxidizes and is consumed by soil organisms. The bokashi ferment typically converts back into soil in a couple of weeks, leaving you with a nutrient-rich dirt that’s perfect for gardening. “There’s no turning, no watering necessary,” says Thorburn.
Bokashi doesn’t smell like garbage
If you are working with a traditional composting drop off service, you likely have to keep your compost in the freezer to keep it from rotting in your home. With a bokashi system, that is not an issue, “Enzymes in the bran prevent food scraps from putrefying,” says Thorburn. You might encounter a mild pickle smell when you open the bin, but the compost remains odorless otherwise.
Bokashi can process food scraps that regular compost can’t
Dairy products, meats, and other fatty animal products cannot be composted using conventional composting methods. These foods are very likely to attract pests, and they can also foster the growth of harmful pathogens that the heat generated from compost cannot kill.
With a bokashi system, you can process nearly all of your food scraps, except for bones (they take too long) and already-moldy foods which might compete with the cultures in the inoculated bran.
Thorburn stresses the importance of keeping an eye on the liquid level in your bokashi system, since too much liquid in bokashi can throw off the fermentation and cause it to spoil. There are several ways to manage this. You can use something absorbent like sawdust or more bran, or opt for a container with a spigot that allows for periodic drainage. This ‘bokashi tea’ can be flushed directly down the toilet, and is apparently an effective drain cleaner.
It’s still compatible with city drop off sites
If you don’t live in a place with a bokashi pickup service like Vokashi, and you don’t want to use your bokashi ferment in your own yard, you can just bring it to your regular compost drop off site. Bokashi allows you to free up space in your freezer and potentially reduce the net carbon footprint of your food waste even further. When it ends up in the municipal compost heap, your bokashi ferment will already be fit for worm consumption. Keep in mind that if you’re sending your compost to the city program, you’ll have to adhere to their list of acceptable scraps.
Supplies you need:
How to do bokashi
Thorburn walked me through the steps of doing bokashi composting at home:
Sprinkle a layer of bokashi bran at the base of your compost bucket, add a layer of kitchen scraps, and sprinkle another handful of bran. Using a biodegradable paper towel, press down to remove any air pockets and replace the lid.
Repeat these steps until the bucket is full. (If you find the lid is difficult to open when you go to add new layers, apply oil on the inner ring of the lid.)
When the bucket is full, finish the final round of food scraps with a layer of bran and a sheet of biodegradable paper towel and securely replace the lid (there should be no smell if the lid is firmly on the bucket). After 14 days your bokashi should be completely fermented and is ready to be used as a soil amendment or in a composting system.
Don’t put too much of the same type of food in the bokashi bin; try to diversify the contents in the bin if possible, to ensure that the microbiome and moisture levels remain relatively balanced.
Make sure the lid is on tight; air is bokashi's enemy.
Watch on the moisture levels. If you are using a bucket with a spigot, periodically drain the bucket every few days. If not, adding an absorbent organic material like sawdust or additional bran should help keep things from getting too wet.
If the bokashi smells foul or has blue or black mold on it, it means that something went wrong with your ferment and you will need to dispose of it and start over. White mold is a sign of a healthy bokashi ferment.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious