Bones! In the bokashi or not?

Finally it seems spring is here!

Yesterday, I was poking around in my boxes, checking how the soil was doing, deciding which ones needed a top-up of bokashi, which plants were going to go where this year. You know, that delicious pre-season joy when everything is still possible — nothing has gone wrong yet, and everything you plant will be just marvelous. Well, why not?

And so I found these two bones. Plus a few more of different shapes and sizes, origin unknown.

Mostly I just ignore them by pushing them down underground for another season. Even if they take many years to break down they’re not exactly in my way. And because I have a big garden, and really can’t afford to be terribly fussy about things like this, it just doesn’t bother me.

This bone was a beauty however!

A leg of lamb? Elk? Really can’t remember. We live in a hunting district and now and then have the good luck to receive a bag of choice cuts of moose from our favorite neighbor, so maybe that’s where this has it’s ancestry.

I have no idea how long it’s been there.

We’ve been doing bokashi here for ten years so it could be anything. What’s become obvious to us by now, however, is that big bones don’t really disappear. They just lose their strength, gradually.

The next step for this guy is that I’ll take a hammer to it and pound it to bone meal. Sounds brutal, but it’s not. Bones that have been through a bokashi treatment and then been in the soil for a while tend to become very brittle, they have none of the strength they started out with. So it’s no big deal to crush them, even a beauty like this one.

So, nothing is wasted here in the bokashi landscape. Even tough, old bones like this one become bone meal, no bad addition to any soil.

Smaller bones, like chicken bones, are way easier. They do take a while, a season maybe, but in the end just disappear of their own accord.

Many people prefer not to put big bones in their bokashi bins. It’s all a matter of taste really, if it gives you the creeps to have bones turning up in your garden then it’s better to put them out in the normal rubbish collection. But if it’s easier, all things considered, to run them through the bokashi then through the soil for a while, then why not?

Here at home, we no longer have any rubbish collection. All plastic, glass, paper, batteries, metal, whatever, is sorted here in Sweden so our rubbish is down to maybe 1 or 2 liters per half-year. Which is when the rubbish truck picks up our bin. It’s so little it’s almost embarrassing. But for purely pragmatic reasons I don’t want to have any food waste at all in that bin, so every last bone goes into the bokashi bin.

And resurfaces, inevitably, at some unforeseen date in the future. Ready for it’s final hammering and eternal life in the soil.

So when it comes to bones, just do what feels best for you. But either way, it will work. It’s really no big deal.

Photo: Jenny Harlen

Why the soil under our feet is so damn important

How come no one talks about soil?

There’s always a lot of discussion about water, about energy, about wildlife, about air. All good. But it’s always been very quiet on the soil front.

But now, finally, it seems soil is up on the agenda.

The global Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has got started with a series of excellent films. In English at this point, unless there are translations lurking in other languages.

The first posted below is on the subject of soil organic carbon — “The treasure under our feet”. A great title that underlines the thing that is so overwhelmingly important here: that one our greatest assets on earth is just that which is lying on the ground. Brown and invisible, for the most part.

Putting carbon  back into the soil is one of the most important things we can do on the planet just now. The word “carbon” represents everything that has been living at some point, whether it’s food waste, harvest residues, natural manures, green manure (plants grown to feed the soil). Whatever. Just as long as we get into the habit of giving back at least as much as we take. And even a little more; we’ve been harvesting, removing and degrading enormous volumes of soil these last decades with little or no reflection.

To give back. Each and every bokashi bucket we dig down into the soil is actually a step in the right direction. We put carbon back into the soil; it makes a difference.

And that is precisely what the FAO is challenging us to — to take care of the treasure under our feet.

It’s not enough, obviously. But the more of us who get involved with bokashi, who challenge our neighbors, colleagues and relatives to get started, the bigger difference we make. And often, when you start with bokashi, you become more aware of food waste in general. That everything is connected becomes more obvious when you have to toss something that, with slightly better planning, could have been eaten up.

Have a look at these films. Any chance you can show any of them at school, at some association you’re active in, in a community education group, at work? It’s time we dare to talk about soil! To get people thinking about it, discussing it, doing something.

A lot of little efforts will ultimately become a lot. And however dark it seems, we are on the right track. One bucket at a time….

About the treasure under our feet — soil.

About why soil is so super important.

About soil and how it disappears. It’s not sure we really grasp how much is constantly being lost.

About food wastage, globally. The volumes are just so sorrowfully large. What can we do?

Coffee grounds. Free to a good home.

Photo: Jenny Harlen

Photo: Jenny Harlen“Hello gardeners! Please take some coffee grinds for your garden!”

What gardener could resist that? Well, unfortunately I had to as I was just a tourist passing by. But I was seriously tempted to drag some home to the friends we were staying with.

Coffee grounds are just great in the garden. The nice thing is that they’re brown, so you can just spread them out under bushes and in garden beds. Smells nice while you’re doing it and pretty soon they just eat their way down into the soil where the nitrogen in the grounds is released to the plants nearby (with some good help of whatever microbes are in the vicinity).

The only disadvantage can be if you use a lot of coffee grounds in your veggie patch that the carrots start tasting like coffee. No, just joking. There can be a risk that heavy metals in the coffee build up in the veggie patch if you overdo it. My feeling is that it would take an awful lot of coffee to get you to that point, and the greater worry would be whether we should be running that much coffee through our bodies. However, worth checking out a bit more if you’re concerned.

The alternative is to dose up bushes, trees, flower beds, even a smallish lawn with coffee grounds — none of that is going to get into the food chain. It’s a cheap source of nitrogen and a cool thing to do, just swag home with a bag of coffee grinds when you pass your neighborhood cafe.

Unfortunately none of the cafes round us do this. I’m hoping that will change gradually, like so many recycling-related things. Common sense does seem to be kicking in all over.

A few years ago I did a deal with the local bakery/cafe to pick up their coffee grinds once a week. I kept it up for a few years until other priorities took over, hopefully they have now adopted a new coffee collector.

My original idea was to do bokashi of the grinds to increase their microbial value in the soil. Great idea, well worth doing, but for me at the time just too hard work. So what I did was just dump the buckets of coffee grinds under our multitude of bushes, one bush at a time. Sometimes the buckets were frozen because they’d been stored outside, I just dumped them under the bush as they were. Come spring the weird collection of coffee towers mushed together and I could rake them out a bit.

Given that we produce bokashi bran here at home it’s not something we have a shortage of. Each spring I’d go around with a wheelbarrow of bokashi bran and throw a handful or two under each coffee bush. The microbes could spend the summer doing their good work.

Obviously you could get the same result using bokashi juice (the runoff from a bucket with drainage tap) or using EM in activated form. Either way, pretty cost effective and hard to overdose.

In the autumn I usually pile up a lot of leaves under the bushes and rake a lot straight into garden beds. Partly because I’m lazy and it’s easy to shuffle them up into the first best spot, but mainly because with such an active soil the leaves are rapidly absorbed into the soil around the bushes. They also keep the worms warm and happy for a good while into the late autumn and that’s always a good thing.

People around here say that coffee grinds are a great way of stopping snails in their tracks. I haven’t tested it myself so can’t say for sure, but it seems reasonable. Tugging a slimy snail body over a barrier of coffee grinds is probably not the most pleasant of options for a snail. Have you tested it? (Not dragging yourself through the grinds, obviously, but spreading them in the garden.) Is it worthwhile giving it a go?

So, all up — a lot you can do with coffee grinds without it being such a chore. Great for the garden but the greater good is probably getting them out of their landfill destiny and into the food/soil loop. Well worth giving it a shot in other words.

And you can always reward yourself with a steaming hot latte the next time you’re there to pick up your grounds!


Some excellent EM recipes from in the US

If you’ve been into bokashi for a while, perhaps it’s time to branch out into some new zone for your experiments? Make your own activated bran, maybe — way cheaper and fun to do. Or activate the EM mother culture (EM-1®) and make your own activated EM to use in the garden. Does wonders for the soil and is a really cost-effective approach. Lots of microbes for very little work.

All credit to Teraganix for the following information, it’s thorough and professional. Unfortunately all the measurements are non-metric but that’s life. Drag out the calculator!

Teraganix by the way is the official manufacturer of EM in the US. Original. Authentic. Certified, as they say. Look for the logos and the EM registered trademarks when you buy your EM and bokashi supplies, whatever country you’re in. The real thing is available in every country of the world, just make sure you’re getting it.

Activated EM-1

EM•1® microbial products can be grown one time for economical purposes. This “growing” or “brewing” process is called Activation (it used to be called “extension”). It does not mean the microbes in EM•1® are not active; they are. It is just a term EMRO developed years ago. Activation involves taking one part EM•1®, 1 part molasses, and 20 parts water. Numbers can be rounded up or down a bit according to the size of the container and are not crucial to the outcome of the final product.
Read more>>

EM bokashi bran

To make your own EM•1® Bokashi (in this recipe) you’ll need some bran (or some other dried plant material), some EM•1®, molasses, and fresh water. A 50-pound bag of wheat bran made into bokashi costs about $22 to make (including the EM•1® Microbial Inoculant, molasses, and bran). Rice bran costs about twice as much as wheat bran. This recipe takes about 20 minutes from start to finish to make a 50-pound bag of EM•1® Bokashi. It needs to ferment for a minimum of two weeks and then is dried for long-term storage (up to several years). If you choose not to make it, you can purchase it ready to use.

Read more>>

EM5 natural pesticide

EM5 is often used as a type of homemade pesticide. The fermentation extracts properties out of plant materials and the alcohol and retains them in the liquid. The EM•1® in the recipe is the fermentation catalyst. EM•1® itself has no pesticide qualities at all. This is an all-natural concoction that can be made by anyone and is in no way harmful to humans or animals. It combines water, EM•1®, a distilled spirit, molasses, and vinegar. The most successful programs with EM5 involve alternating its applications with Activated EM•1® and EMFPE. EM5 is effective for reducing pest populations because EM5 contains esters formed by mixing acetic acid and alcohol, which provokes intestinal intoxication.
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EM fermented plant extracts

“Fermented plant extracts – most commonly done as a plain liquid manure or plant extract – is a dynamic practice gaining increased usage in India, Africa, Asia, and Central America where poor farmers need to obtain fertility and pest control from local plants and simple on-farm extraction methods.” Steve Diver, ATTRA*
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EM fermented foods

Fermented foods provide a number of valuable health benefits, not the least of which is introducing beneficial bacteria to the digestive system, improving digestion and strengthening the immune system. If you are interested in introducing more fermented foods into your diet, browse our collection of easy-to-make fermented food recipes and find the flavors that fit your lifestyle best. From kim chee (kimchi) to the best mango salsa recipe, we have something for every home and palette. All it takes is a little preparation and Pro EM•1® to get started!

Read more>>

Pop-up gardening in Christchurch

Christchurch, the third-biggest city in New Zealand, has had a terrible time the last years. They got hit with a huge earthquake in 2010, an even more traumatic one in 2011, and then the quakes and uncertainty just kept coming. The city centre has long been razed but the go-ahead for new building hasn’t really come until recently.

Meanwhile, life goes on. A tough call, but it does.

We were in Christchurch recently visiting our colleagues at EMNZ and ZingBokashi, they’re doing a great work and have been for many years. (And when the earthquake damage was at it’s worst they were out there with truckloads of EM, spraying against smell and potential disease).

They tipped us about the great Agropolis community garden right in the heart of town. It’s a true pop-up affair, the signs are up for the current property to be sold, then I assume they’ll move on to a new spot yet again.

It’s a great little garden. Truly inspiring to see the spirit behind it, hanging in even when it’s tough, and creating a little spot of beauty and good health in the midst of what is, honestly, a traumatized city centre with a lot of building ahead of it.

The garden is sponsored in part by our EM colleagues. Bokashi and EM are used in the garden beds. Everything is very pragmatic here, they’ve made a great soil factory out of an old pallet-based water tank. (I’m sure these things have a name, just not sure what it is!)

There’s a productive greenhouse (plastic tunnel style) on site, information about when the next work session is, a practical watering system round the boxes and a great design on the garden beds. Lots of wooden shipping pallets here!

Anyhow, enjoy the pictures! Hope you’ll be inspired to pass them on to a community garden you know of.

You don’t need an earthquake to get this to happen!



Fresh and healthy herbs and veggies. You quickly forget what once was…


…until you look up at the backdrop.


Smart use of shipping pallets.


Yep. It works!


Coffee sacks. Not an idea I’d ever thought of. But then again, there’s a coffee roasters across the street…


Giant size bokashi bin.


Which is mixed with soil in this highly-pragmatic soil factory.


Fresh and healthy all right.


Smart use of stacked plastic crates with bokashi soil.


The for sale sign is up. The nature of the best for pop-up community gardens.


Just a practical detail from the watering system.




Bokashi a hit in restaurants and offices in New Zealand

Just a few years ago Bokashi was something that people quietly did in their homes and back yards. A bit embarrassing to discuss it with the neighbors, bit of a hippy warning.

Now it’s really gone mainstream and can be found in the best of restaurants and the most professional of offices. This film from New Zealand, where Bokashi has been building popularity and credibility for nearly 20 years now, is inspiring.

The Mudbrick vineyard and restaurant on Waiheke is no small place — lots of stars, stunning location and a fabulous kitchen garden. Would go there in a minute if I could! But even though their wines are no doubt brilliant, the thing that impresses me is that they’ve got it. They have created a food loop.

Each chef has a bucket for food scraps, no big deal. When the work is done the buckets are taken out to ferment in barrels and ultimately dug back down into the kitchen garden. When you see it on a film like this it all looks so, well, obvious. And they haven’t made it any more complicated than it needs to be. Just a whole lot of kiwi common sense combined with wanting the best possible soil for their veggies.

That the vineyard is located on an island (in the Hauraki Gulf, just outside Auckland where I grew up) means it makes even more sense. Rubbish disposal on any island is difficult, so setting up a food loop in this way is logical, and I would imagine economical.

Unfortunately not all of us have a vineyard to run, so the office stories are more likely closer to home. How hard is it, really, when you think about it? Every office has it’s food waste, and here in the film they make it look pretty easy. Brilliant to see how people think it’s cool to be going home from work these days with a bucket of bokashi to dig into the veggie patch at home. The food loop strikes again!

Admittedly, New Zealand has  a pretty nice climate. Even in the cold south the ground rarely freezes, in the north you can grow veggies year round. Not tropical but for those of us living in Northern Europe (I’m in Sweden even if I grew up in New Zealand), it looks pretty comfortable.

So we have to be innovative.

Look for new ways of doing big scale bokashi. After all, when spring comes we need every bit of fertilizer we can get our hands on so even if the process involves a bit of winter storage it pays off big time when the spring comes.

My current best suggestion for winter storage would be to store bokashi in bottomless barrels on-site in the garden. Something we could all have a go at testing and compare notes? Obviously it needs to ferment indoors for a couple of weeks. But then to drop the fermented bokashi into a barrel with a good lid isn’t hard work. Line up the bottomless barrels on the land that needs fertilizing the best then let them fill up over the winter.

When the spring warmth comes the microbes, worms and other critters will spring into action. They’ll work the nutrients down into the soil and probably make a faster start on the gardening than you will. When the time comes to prepare the land, you can remove the barrel, dig down the ready and not-quite-so-ready bokashi into the soil and you’re ready to go.

Not a lot of carrying and lifting there. And a great way of making a food loop small or big that stretches over the winter.

Worth giving it a go? Let us know if you’ve got any good ideas on the subject!


ps the photo below is a 120 liter bokashi bin we’re currently testing here in Sweden in an urban gardening project, available from Agriton in Holland. It’s a bit hard to see, but it has a tap for draining off bokashi fluid, a metal grid in the bottom for separating the solids and liquids, and a pretty airtight lid with a good catch. Will let you know how it goes!

Photo: Jenny Harlen

EM-1, EM-A, EM-X — what’s the difference?

Photo: Jenny Harlen
EM-1 to the left, the mother culture in other words. And to the right, A+, which is the label used here on the Swedish version for molasses.

When I first started with EM and Bokashi some seven years ago, I have to admit I was confused.

EM: short for Effective Microorganisms, that much I got. But all the other EM-this and EM-that?

Some you could make, some you should buy, some you should dilute, some you should use immediately, others not. Took a while to get a grip on it.

Here’s an attempt to explain it.

There is only one core product in the whole EM world, and that is EM-1. The “1” representing it being the base product. See it as the mother culture, the original microbe preparation from which all other EM products are made. EM is not something you can make yourself. Whatever you might find on the net, it’s a specialized group of microorganisms made to a strict “recipe” in EM labs around the world. (And there’s far more to it than what you can achieve by boiling up some rice and milk).

Usually EM-1 is sold in plastic bottles to consumers like us, there’s now an EM factory in almost every country. For agricultural and industrial applications it’s sold in drums or tanks.

The thing with EM-1 though is that the microbes are in a dormant state. Not especially effective. To get them up and running you have to activate them, and there’s three basic ways of doing that: all involve sugar.

The first is to make Bokashi bran. This is the ideal way to go if you’re working with food waste as the bran is easy to handle (the bran has no value of it’s own, but is a practical carrier and gives the microbes somewhere to live).

The process involves combining EM-1, molasses, water and bran in the right mix and allowing it to ferment for a few weeks. The bran then swings into action when applied to moist food waste.

The second is to make activated EM. Basically the same idea as above but without the bran. Easy to dilute and spray in the garden and indoors for a myriad of purposes. The process involves combining EM-1, molasses and water in a PET bottle (for example) and ferment for a week or so at room temperature. The sugar kicks the microbes into action and they’re ready to go to work wherever they’re sprayed. Usual dilution is 1:100 although there are many variations.

The third is to buy ready activated EM. Here in Sweden we have a product called Mikroferm which is sold in bag-in-box form much like a wine cask. It’s basically exactly the same thing as EM-A but more convenient as you don’t have to ferment it yourself and can just squirt out the amount you need. The upside is that it keeps much better in the vacuum-bag environment, a year at least, whereas homemade EM-A is best used within a month.

So it’s a matter of choosing what works best for you and going from there.

There’s another product in the EM range that is used for health purposes: EM-X (sometimes called EM Gold). This is a refined version of EM which is approved for human consumption and is becoming a valued health drink. EM-A has long been used as a probiotic in animal husbandry and many individuals also swear by it, but legislation in most countries prevents it being sold for use in this way. EM-X, however, is approved internationally and although expensive is welcomed by many.

One more type of liquid EM, and that’s the liquid that comes from your bokashi bucket. Some call it bokashi juice, others bokashi leachate, but basically it’s a fluid concoction of liquid food waste and EM microbes. The exact composition depends on what you have in your bin. Bokashi leachate is famous for its pungent smell (some hate it, others merely find it distasteful…) but as it does wonders for our gardens and indoor plants we just shut up and get on with it. Fortunately the smell blows over pretty fast, so why worry?

Like EM-A, bokashi leachate is diluted 1:100 — partly because it’s quite strong, but largely because it’s acidity can give some plants a fright. And like EM-A, it should be used reasonably quickly once diluted, ideally within a day or two. To prevent it oxidizing, I usually drain off my leachate directly into a plastic PET bottle and store in the fridge — my theory is it lasts a few days that way, or at least until I remember to use it up.

So that, one way or another, is that: the strange world of EM linguistics. Hope it helped, at least a little. Spray on, enjoy your EM, invent fun things to do with it, and write a few words here if you’ve discovered something that may be helpful to others!


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