08. How much bokashi should you dig down?

Follows on from: When your bokashi has become soil

So, your bokashi has become soil. How strong is it and what can you plant in it?

As a completely general rule of thumb, around one-third bokashi and two-thirds soil is a good guide for most plants.

If you’re planning to plant rhubarb, pumpkin, or any type of demanding plant you might want to aim for a stronger mix, say half and half. Any stronger than that is probably too strong.

If you plant more normal plants in a strong mix they should probably still be fine, they will develop plenty of fruit and flowers etc, but the risk is everything may be larger than you want it. You may get cherry tomatoes that look like regular tomatoes, for example, and even if they still taste great it wasn’t quite what you intended…

The problem normally for us gardeners is that we can’t produce enough bokashi for our gardens. A normal family just doesn’t produce enough food waste to fertilize a vegetable garden that would feed a family. So you need to take in bokashi from friends and neighbours, or complement with other forms of fertiliser.

So, typically we end up rationing our bokashi, building up one bed at a time.

It may take a few years this way to really improve the soil in your beds, but you’ll notice it coming along.

After some years you’ll have such great soil that the bokashi probably won’t make such a difference anymore; however you have to feed the soil in some way to compensate what you harvest, so it’s just to continue on a maintenance level; a bucket here and a bucket there.

How can you see when your soil is improving?

Actually, you can normally feel it.

Good soil looks and smells amazing. It’s full of worms, has some nice variation in texture — some chunky bits, some grainy, sandy bits, and usually a few other small crawly things.

The real action, the micro-life, we don’t have a chance of seeing. But it’s the foundation for everything else to work, so if you see worms you know you’ve got a good micro-life.

The worms, where do they come from?

Well, who knows. They seem to just turn up.

So many people have told me about gardens devoid of worms, which is a great sadness if you have a gardener’s soul. No worms pretty much equates to impoverished soil. There’s nothing there for them to snack on, basically.

And when these same gardeners have been adding bokashi for a while, they worms just suddenly turn up. From somewhere, we don’t know where, but one day they are just there.

If the food is good and they like the conditions otherwise — not too many poisons, moist and airy in the soil, good variety in food supply — they thrive. Multiply efficiently, and get going on their work of building tunnels, moving nutrients around, converting food from one form to another (in one end, out the other basically) and aerating the soil.

Worms should never, ever be underestimated.

They are the magic that you can see in a garden.

And if you have worms, be happy. Everything is working.

It’s their message to us: we’re here, therefore it’s good. You’ve done the right thing. This garden is good.

We’ll stay.

Next up: sdfsdf

07. When your bokashi has become soil

Following on from: Time to plant your garden!

I’ve been doing bokashi for over ten years, but even so I like to poke around in my ”bokashi spots” now and then to see how they’re doing. They never cease to amaze me!

Every time I find some bits of eggshell, or a slow-to-decompose tea bag or a bit of avocado peel or a stone, I’m just a little overawed. It really was here I dug down that last bucket! There’s nothing left to see of it, just dark, healthy soil and a few bits and pieces that haven’t quite made it yet.

Usually a fair few worms.

Paper. Takes much longer than food waste and there are divided opinions whether or not paper should be used in bokashi. Do what works for you.

Household paper and serviettes are a given in the bin because they’re often sticky and icky and you don’t want them in your paper recycling. And they will be fine soil in due course so why worry?

If you use a tap bucket, you probably won’t want too much paper in the bucket as this will absorb your valuable bokashi liquid. On the other hand, a newspaper or egg carton on the top of a bokashi bucket that’s smelling a little bit due to condensation can make all the difference; the paper absorbs the moisture and takes care of that off smell.

If you use a bucket without a tap, you’ll most likely have quite a lot of paper to deal with in your soil later. You can choose to pick out the recalcitrant bits and dig them all down in a spare corner, or use them in some other way.

For example, thick wads of newspaper are great as mulch around berry bushes and perennials. They’re soaked in nutrients and microbes, and as long as you anchor them with some form of bark, wood chips or mulch, they will do a great job attracting worms, slowing weed growth and conserving moisture.

Bones. Chicken bones will disappear of their own accord. They take a little longer than general food waste but are really no problem. Just push them down again a bit if they pop up to the surface.

Bigger bones are more problematic. Some people include them in their bokashi, others don’t; it’s completely up to you. What happens when they’ve been in the soil for a while is that they get stripped clean and become very porous and brittle.

What I do is collect them up in one corner when they turn up, in a kind of bone graveyard, and every now and then get a hammer out and give them a few bangs.

The bones break up easily and I spread out the powder and bury the bigger bits back down again. In the old days we used to buy blood-and-bone fertiliser for the garden in powder form, I figure this is much the same. Good stuff, in other words.

Shells. I still have some mussel shells from seven or eight years ago in the garden. They turn up now and then, never break down, but they don’t bother me. They’re a nice reminder of a pleasant evening.

I could get out the hammer and break them up, but haven’t bothered. Or move them to some other corner, or simply toss them.

Just do whatever works for you.

Avocado stones. They are hopeless, take forever to decompose. But ultimately, they will become soil and get out of your way. If they’re close enough to the surface, they may even grow. You don’t have to add them to your bokashi bin and you don’t have to have them in your soil. Again, just do whatever works.

Seeds. So many people have been surprised to find tomato seedlings, small melon, pumpkin and squash plants popping up from nowhere after they’ve dug down a bucket or two of bokashi.

They made it through the bokashi process, probably becoming stronger in the process, and were luckily enough to end up with soil, temperature and light conditions that suited them out in the garden.

Who can get upset about a whole bunch of free tomato seedlings?

Just to replant them carefully and enjoy the bonus tomatoes that will come in due course.

Next up: How much bokashi should you dig down?

06. Time to plant your garden!

Following on from: Making soil out of your bokashi

So, back to the process. You’ve dug down your bokashi and you’re ready to plant your garden. How and when?

Rule of thumb: don’t let roots get in contact directly with bokashi the first two weeks it’s dug down.

The reason is not that the bokashi is too strong, the plants can handle that, it’s because it’s too acidic. 

When your bokashi is ready-fermented in the bucket it has a pH of 3.5-4 which is pretty low. Too low for most plants.

But it only takes a couple of weeks for the pH to adapt to the surrounding soil, and the acidity will quickly disappear.

The surrounding soil doesn’t become more acidic, so there’s no problem with that. But as the fermented food waste starts its process of becoming soil it also becomes less acidic, and before you know it, it has a pH of 6.5-7 or whatever the soil around it has.

For this reason, it’s best to hold off with planting when you’ve dug down your bokashi. Wait two weeks. Even if the food waste has not disappeared (it may take up to six weeks depending on the soil temperature) the plants will be happier to avoid this pH transition period.

On the other hand, if you’ve dug down your bokashi a bit deeper than the plants you’re putting in and reckon that they won’t grow to reach the bokashi for another couple of weeks, you can go ahead and plant immediately over fresh bokashi.

By the time the roots reach the actual bokashi in the soil, the pH should already have sorted itself out and the plants will start to access the nutrients directly.

They can do this even if the bokashi hasn’t yet become soil; this is because the work done by the microbes has already made the energy and nutrients available by breaking up the inaccessible proteins into smaller component parts like amino acids.

The same applies if you want to sow seeds over freshly dug-down bokashi. The seeds will take a while to grow, and presumably at least a couple of weeks have passed before they reach the level in the soil where the bokashi available.

That’s also smart, because new seedlings shouldn’t have too many nutrients until they are established, and you want to encourage them to grow long, strong roots; work a bit hard for their food basically.

How long does bokashi take to become soil?

This depends on two things: soil temperature and soil contact. Bokashi can become soil in a couple of weeks with optimal conditions. In other words, that the soil is warm and that the bokashi is well-mixed into the soil.

But it’s not a race, and bokashi will always become soil remarkably quickly whatever the conditions, so this thing with speed is only really important if you want to have soil that looks like soil for some reason, such as repotting indoor plants or seedlings.

As mentioned earlier, even if your bokashi has not yet become soil your plants can take up everything they need from it, provided it’s had those two important weeks to stabilize the pH level.

A soil that’s not yet warm enough to plant potatoes in (8 degrees C, say) will need 4-6 weeks to digest bokashi. A soil that’s colder than this may take longer, if you’re heading into winter soil temperatures you should count on nothing much happening at all until the soil warms up again.

See it simply as storage for your bokashi, it’s out of your way and not doing any harm, neither is it losing energy or nutrients during the wait as these are locked up in the bokashi itself.

By contrast, a warm summer soil, or soil in a more tropical country than Sweden, can easily convert bokashi to soil in a couple of weeks.

In a colder climate you can speed up the process by warming the soil. Lay some black plastic over the patch where you dug down your bokashi, a garbage bag anchored with some rocks or planks is perfect. Fiber cloth is also good, it heats the soil underneath, which will in turn activate your process.

This is especially good in the spring, when we’re often in a hurry to get the soil prepared for planting. If you’ve had a thick layer of mulch over your beds during the winter, scrape it aside for a couple of weeks to help the ground warm up, you can always return it later.

Dig into a single hole or a broader area?

Another question is how to arrange your bokashi in the soil. Dig the contents of the whole bucket into a single hole or spread the bokashi out across a broader area?

Depends mainly on what you’re going to plant. If you are planning to plant a bush or tree or heavy-duty perennial a bokashi hole may be be best. Take your spade and mix the bokashi and soil as much as possible though, chop up any biggish pieces, and see to it that everything is coated with as much soil as possible.

If you’re going to plant a bed of annuals or tightly-spaced vegetables, it would make more sense to spread your bokashi over a wider surface. Remove an appropriate layer of soil, empty the contents of your bokashi bin and spread them evenly, then rake or shovel back the soil layer again.

If the soil covering is on the thin side, protect it with a layer of plastic or fiber cloth to hinder any unwanted visitors for a week or two.

If you’re planning to plant rows of beans or other vegetables, you would probably be better off digging trenches and filling them with your bokashi.

Same procedure though, chop and mix with soil before covering again. Think about the depth you’d like your beans or whatever to find the bokashi stockpile — you want the plants to work a bit to find their food (and so develop nice strong roots) but not miss out completely because the food supply is too deep.

You may also choose to dig your bokashi hole in a spot where you have space and later, when you have more space in the bed, to dig up and spread the new soil over a larger area.

In the end, it’s all common sense really — just do what works, and don’t be afraid to experiment.

Next up: When your bokashi has become soil

05. Making soil out of your bokashi!

Following on from: Two weeks to ferment

Step three: Making soil of your bokashi This is the most fun part!

There are many, many different ways to go about this.

What is best for you will depend on what type of gardener you are, how you live, what seasons you have, whether you grow mainly vegetables/annuals or flowers/perennials. How big your household is, what type of soil you have, what plans you have to develop your garden for the future.

What I’ll describe here is the simplest method, which is basically digging a hole in your garden bed and adding your bokashi there to improve the soil in that spot. The other alternatives are all variations on this theme and have been tested and developed by many, many people curious to see what works best for them. More on those later.

Step three is basically this: dig a hole, empty the contents of your bokashi bucket there, mix it around a bit with some soil, and cover over. Two weeks later you can start planting.

The bokashi microbes will set to work with the soil microbes and start converting the fermented food waste, the contents of your bokashi bucket, into soil. It’s probably a bit misleading to say they’re converted into soil, actually.

What really happens is that they’re absorbed into the surrounding soil. So while the soil in that spot will become darker, richer, more nutritious, it will still have the same basic structure. Sandy soil will remain sandy, but it all contain much more humus — a definite improvement. Clay soil will remain clayish, but the increased humus will definitely improve it’s structure too. And the more you do of this, obviously, the better the soil will become.

One of the main measures of soil health is soil organic carbon.

How much organic material is in the soil. It’s this that makes soil become magic; the more carbon the better. There’s basically never enough carbon in the soil, modern soils are always depleted, so everything you do to add humus to the soil (like adding bokashi) will improve soil structure, add energy and life, and lift the game. Significantly.

How deep?

So you’ve dug your hole, emptied your bucket, had a good hack at it with your spade to make sure all the bokashi is coated with soil and any big chunks are made smaller. Shoveled some soil over the hole. What next?

First: how deep should the bokashi be buried?

Two answers to this question.

One, what are you going to be planting there? Plant with deep roots that need nutrients further down? Or plants with shallow roots that need them accessible higher up? That’s where you should dig down your bokashi, where the roots can get at it.

Two, have you got any curious animals in the vicinity? You may need to prevent them digging up your bokashi. Make sure the soil covering is enough to deter them or, if you’re concerned, put a grid over the spot (or some chicken wire, some plastic or a couple of planks) to make it hard for them. It’s usually just a matter of a week or two, until they can’t smell it and the bokashi has mostly been absorbed into the soil.

Some dogs love bokashi, others don’t. If you’ve got a dog you’ll find out soon enough.

Birds can cause havoc, picking in the soil. I’m assuming this varies enormously from country to country, but in Sweden we tend to have a lot of problems in the spring when the birds in the crow family like to pick through everything they come across. It’s quite funny to watch, actually, but very annoying to clean up.

Other animals, such as badgers, foxes, moles and possibly even rodents can be curious about your bokashi. So do what’s needed to keep them out if you have them around. Rodents are generally not a problem as both rats and mice prefer rotten food and tend to dislike the acidity of fermented food.

But if they’re hungry enough it won’t be an issue; they will find your bokashi.

I live in the countryside, and despite having a somewhat lazy farm cat there are always rats and mice in the fields and barns. Despite this, we’ve never had them bother with our bokashi.

However, people in urban environments where, I’m assuming, the rats are hungrier and more desperate, have reported them getting into bokashi holes and setting up shop. Not pleasant.

The solution is to dig deeper, cover more, and in extreme cases use some form of closed container such as a bottomless drum dug down with fine netting underneath.

Next up:

04. Two weeks to ferment

Following on from: Keeping it dry with paper

Step two:

Next step is an easy one! Just leave the bucket in peace and quiet to ferment for two weeks. There’s a good reason for this, read on and I’ll explain.

So, once the bucket is full, the microbes need to do their work, multiply in numbers and prepare the food waste for becoming soil. This is an invisible process, to us, but there’s a lot going on we’re not able to see.

Basically, the bacteria and fungus in the bokashi bran come to life when they land in this paradise of food and moisture.

They reproduce (possibly as fast as every 20 minutes) and work their way through the proteins in their path, breaking them down into their component parts: amino acids and the like, and produce various enzymes etc. which are the building blocks that make nutrients available to plants in the future soil.

But all you have to worry about is putting the bucket somewhere warm (room temperature) and out of the way for a couple of weeks.

No need to open and close it during this time. Have a look, by all means, but the less oxygen that gets into the process the better.

If you have a bucket with a tap, your bucket will most likely need draining off during this time.

There’s no standard rule for this, it will all depend on what type of food waste you have and how wet it is, to some extent also to how well you’ve packed the bucket. Some buckets are profuse, producing up to a liter of bokashi juice, while others are more or less dry.

Summer buckets tend to produce more liquid, winter buckets less; this is often due to the types of foods we eat (and throw out) in the different seasons. There’s a big difference between summer’s watermelon and lettuce and winter’s pumpkin and mashed potatoes.

Anyway, keep an eye on the bokashi liquid but otherwise there’s nothing to do.

In the meantime, start filling your second bucket in the kitchen, just as you did this one.

How many buckets do you need?

Every household is different, but you’ll always need at least two. If you’re producing more than a liter of food waste per day you’ll probably need three, or even four. But start with two and see how it goes.

Why two?

Because while you’re filling one bucket, you’ll always have another bucket fermenting. The two weeks of fermentation after the bucket is filled can’t be avoided, it’s part of the process.

You could of course empty the contents over to some other form of airtight container, but the reality is that most people want an easy life. And two buckets (or more for a bigger or more prolific family) are the most convenient option.

In some warmer countries the guideline is often a one week fermentation. As I live in a colder country, where room temperature is usually around 20 degrees, two weeks is the norm for us. Because microbes work more quickly in a warmer climate, one week may is usually fine if you live in the tropics. If in doubt, go for two.

Another variable is how long it takes you to fill the bucket.

If you fill it quickly (a big day making preserves or soup for example), you will absolutely need the full two weeks.

If it takes you a few weeks to fill a bucket, or you’ve been away and left an almost-full bucket, you can probably shorten up the two week fermentation period. After all, the microbes have already had plenty of time to get started on their work.

Like most things with bokashi, the rules are not that hard and fast, there’s a lot of common sense involved, finding what works best for you and doing it that way.

Next up: Making soil out of your bokashi

03. Keeping it dry with paper

Following on from: Filling your bucket – important things to keep in mind

So, back to the paper.

A half-newspaper or so in the bottom of the bucket, and another wad in the top is normally sufficient to soak up the liquid from a bucket of bokashi food waste.

The problem with newspaper like this is that while it does a good job in the bucket, it tends to take a long time to break down in the soil. You can solve this by shredding the paper a bit before adding it to the bucket; only takes a few seconds and makes it more manageable in the bucket as well as in the soil.

If you do have thick wads of paper like this coming from your buckets, you can use them in another way. Instead of digging them into the soil along with the rest of the bucket, lay them out around the base of berry bushes and other perennials.

The felt-like newspaper is full of nutrients and microbes and will become a haven for worms. Cover it over with wood chips or bark, leaves or whatever to hold it in place and make it look more natural.

Many people ask if it’s ok to use newspaper in the garden because of the inks used, aren’t they poisonous? These days, printing inks are pretty good, but it depends of course on where you live.

In Sweden, where I live, and I assume the same applies to most of Europe, the printing inks used in newspapers have long been free of toxins and are perfectly ok to use in the garden. The same applies to the newsprint itself, the actual paper, these days it’s made in a clean process that will not cause any problems.

The story is different with glossy paper. The paper has a coating that is probably not the best in the garden. Magazines, advertising materials and glossy cardboard packaging may be printed far from home (especially packaging) and thus use papers, coating and inks we know nothing about. So be a bit more careful about how you use those.

There is another good use for newspaper in a bokashi context.

Too wet = smelly!

Now and then you get a bokashi bin that smells more than you would like. It’s hard sometimes to pinpoint the reason, but it nearly always comes down to the bucket being too humid.

Even though most moisture finds it’s way down to the drainage zone in the bottom of the bucket and can be removed, sometimes the moisture collects up in the upper part of the bucket and becomes condensation.

Have a look at the underside of the lid. Any condensation droplets there? If so, that’s probably what’s causing the smell in your bucket. And it’s really easily solved: just put a folded newspaper on top of the food waste in your bin and wait a day or two.

The newspaper will soak up the condensation, stop it smelling, and your problem is solved. Obviously you could do this using anything absorbent: some old bread, an egg carton, a handful of charcoal or sawdust pellets. The thing is to get rid of the excess moisture that is causing the smell.

If you want, you can go on filling the bin on top of the newspaper (or whatever).

Or, you can remove the damp paper and go on filling the bin. The newspaper can be used as mulch in the garden, it will have picked up a few good microbes and nutrients while it was in the bucket.

I’ve never been able to quite understand why some buckets get this condensation thing and others not.

Obviously some food waste is wetter than others and that is a factor.

Sometimes you can pack a bucket too hard, preventing the liquid from draining down naturally to the tap zone. If this happens, just push a kitchen knife down into the bucket and wiggle a bit to open up some drainage channels, works every time.

Sometimes, I’ve had it explained to me by an engineer friend, the condensation may be caused by a combination of temperature and humidity in the bucket, causing the moisture to collect up on the top rather than draining down.

Whatever the reason, it’s easily fixed. Just absorb it and carry on.

One question is whether the end result will be ok if you have a bucket that’s too wet, or one that smells a bit. Assuming it’s not just a swampy mess, or that the smell is a sign of putrefaction, a bucket that’s not one of your best won’t cause any problems at all. It’s a bit unpleasant at the time, but that’s the worst of it.

When you dig down the contents of a smelly bucket into the soil, the soil will take care of it. The odor may hang in the air for a few hours, but it will soon balance in, and the soil you produce will be as good as ever.

Next up: draining your bokashi liquid and leaving the bucket to ferment

02. Filling your bucket – important things to keep in mind

Following on from: Bokashi is all about getting carbon out of the air and into the soil

Bokashi is an incredibly flexible process.

That’s why we all love it. One of the best parts is that more or less ALL types of food waste can go in your bokashi bucket. Cooked, uncooked, fish, meat, eggs and vegetables.

So what are the important things to think of when you’re filling your bokashi bucket?

One: the lid must be kept on tightly at all times. Bokashi is an anaerobic process and will only work in an airtight bucket in this first stage.

Types of food waste you can put in the bucket.

Basically everything.
Fruit and vegetable peelings

Eggshells (although these may take longer to become soil they are a great source of calcium)

Coffee grounds and used tea bags (not the nylon ones) and tea leaves. Coffee filters are fine, they’re made of paper, but take longer than food to break down.

Cooked foods, including fish, meat, pasta, rice, vegetables, everything. The only thing to avoid is liquids (sauces, soups, etc), unless you soak them up in something else first, like bread or kitchen paper.

Dairy products (cheese, sour cream, butter etc) are fine. Just avoid liquids such as milk.

Flowers, pot plants, herbs etc that have had their day. Just avoid soil from pot plants, save it to use later in a ”soil factory” or in the garden.

Smaller bones, such as chicken bones are fine. If you want, you can even include bigger bones. These will be ”cleaned” but will take forever to break down in the soil so you may wish to remove them later. Cooking to a broth first will speed the process and give you a great stock.

Seafood shells such as shrimps, mussels, etc. The soft shells (such as shrimps) will be fine and become good soil. Try to let them dry out a bit before you add them to the bokashi bucket to stop them smelling, use a little extra bran, and if possible alternate them with something else.

No reason at all they should smell then! Hard shells such as mussel shells can go in the bucket but they will more or less never break down in the soil. You can remove them later from the soil if they’re in the way.

Salty foods. Fine in small quantities, but you might want to think twice before adding too much salt to one place in the soil; it’s not good for the soil and not good for the garden.

Paper. Paper is fine in bokashi in limited quantities. You can’t avoid it in a kitchen: paper turns up in the form of coffee filters, tea bags, kitchen paper, used serviettes.

It will always turn into soil in the end, and while it’s not exactly nutritious it adds a little carbon to the soil and doesn’t do any harm. Paper in itself doesn’t ferment particularly well, but in the context of a bokashi bucket it will provide a home for a few microbes and soak up some of the food-waste liquids in your bucket, so all good.

If you are using a bokashi bucket with a tap, you probably don’t want to have too much paper in the bucket as it will soak up valuable bokashi liquid that is better used as a liquid fertiliser. But sometimes the bucket is the perfect place to throw some slimy kitchen paper that you’ve used to clean the bench so why not. Just do whatever makes sense.

If you are using a bucket without a tap, a plain airtight bucket, you will need to use some form of absorbent material to soak up the liquid from the food waste. Paper is ideal, given that we nearly always have some old serviettes or newspapers, egg cartons or toilet paper rolls lying around.

The alternative to using paper is to use some other form of absorbent material: charcoal is ideal (an has a lot of other benefits), compressed sawdust pellets (the kind used in heating furnaces), cat absorption pellets (provided they are made from a chemical-free organic material), or dry food waste such as old bread, pasta, rice etc.

Next up: Keeping it dry with paper

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