Saturday, January 2, 2021

The Great Composting Experiment of 2020

"I find that a real gardener is not a man who cultivates flowers; he is a man who cultivates the soil. He is a creature who digs himself into the earth and leaves the sight of what is on it to us gaping good-for-nothings. He lives buried in the ground. He builds his monument in a heap of compost."
- Karel Čapek
Composting Pile
Composting Hole with the Composting Experiment Underway

 At long last here's the long awaited post that likely nobody has been waiting for but I've been meaning and wanting to write this one for a while now and it keeps getting pushed back in my list of topics to write about.  The Great Composting Experiment of 2020 has been an unexpectedly tame and straight forward experiment.  I'm not sure what I was expecting but I was certainly not expecting it to go smoothly and without any issues at all.  However from my highly unofficial experiments it has proven to be a very effective way of composting.

How This Came About
When I first started composting, once I figured out how to get the ratios of green and brown material right, how to mix it all up every few days, along with adding some water every now and then, it initially seemed like a fantastic process.  Here I was taking old food scraps and turning them back into useable, nutritious soil to feed the plants which also had the effect of making me feel all warm and fuzzy inside knowing that diverting food scraps from landfills helps out the environment.  I quickly realized that the big problem with a traditional compost pile is it just takes a very long time to break down into a useable product that you can then add back to the soil.  This process also seems to slow down quite a lot in the wintertime.  When it was summertime and warm outside it would take about 3 months to get useable compost from when I stopped adding food scraps to a pile.  It was also taking me around 3 months to get that pile built up.  So from an empty hole to fresh compost was a 6 month process assuming it was summertime once I was done adding food scraps to that pile.  If it was winter time, it still takes about 3 months to fill the pile up, but you can basically double the time it takes for it to break down.  Which takes us to nine months to go from an empty hole to useable compost.  That's under perfect conditions and it can certainly vary by a few months either way depending on a variety of factors.  Regardless of that, taking 6 to 9 months for fresh compost to be made is a very long time and is just not efficient and it makes it so you can only spread fresh compost out twice a year at most.  The problem I was running into is my backyard is a fairly large area and even though my compost piles are large holes, one compost hole does not make enough compost to spread out on the entire yard.  Once the compost was ready I was having to choose which area of the urban farm to spread it out on and the rest of the urban farm was neglected until more compost was ready, which with two compost piles would usually be 3 months later (at best).

At the end of my first urban farm year, I knew this was going to be a problem and potentially a very big problem down the road.  I do regular soil tests from the urban farm, for these I collect soil samples from various depths and different parts of the urban farm.  The soil samples get all mixed together then are air dried and I try my best to break it up so there aren't any big clumps and it's fine soil by the end of the process.  This sample is then sent to a soil lab at Colorado State University (CSU), which is actually not that far from where I live.  They do official sciencey stuff there and you can pay them (a very reasonable fee) to run your soil through a gambit of tests after which they send you a report of how your soil is looking and what the levels are for all sorts of stuff.  They also give you suggestions on what you should do to your soil to improve it, which those suggestions are based on what you are doing with the land.  I always 100% ignore these suggestions since they are generally based around conventional farming techniques (chemicals) and even if you tell them you're organic (they don't have a beyond organic option...yet...) it's based based on the organic chemicals, which by now you should now that I'm thoroughly against using.  So I ignore their suggestions but I still read them since I want to be as informed as possible.  As I learn more about soil health I do want to learn more about what these conventional and organic suggestions are based upon and what the reasoning for those suggestions are.  That's an entirely different topic for a different day though.  I also take these reports as a grain of salt since it's basically a photo of your soil on that particular day at that particular time.  The health of your soil is going to vary depending on what the season is as well as what the weather was like on the days surrounding the time the sample was taken along with I'm sure a whole lot of other factors.  It's still a great indicator if done on a regular basis (I do once a year) but it is still a snapshot look at your soil.  I had done a soil test before my first growing year so I could see what I was working with.  I imagined it would not have any of the minerals and nutrients that actual soil should have and it would come back as being barren, chemical ridden dirt.  I was quite surprised when I got the results back and the makeup of the samples I had sent it were surprisingly okay.  Not great, but not awful and I would likely be able to grow food on it just fine from the get-go.  I think what happened here is that the prior owner of the house had neglected the yard so much that it was actually a beneficial environment for the soil but it was just filled with a ton of weeds, instead of good plants.  I think he weed whacked it a few times throughout the summer and left the remains in place, which decomposed back into the ground and actually helped the ground out with maintaining a good mineral and nutrient composition.  I didn't have the soil sample tested for any chemicals (that's a separate lab you have to send it to and I'm lazy plus it's probably expensive) so I have no idea if there were any pesticides / insecticides being used on the ground but there probably had been prior to my acquisition of the house since the use of those in the good ol' USA is extremely common (unfortunately).

Here I was starting out with okay soil, growing vegetables my first year, having an all out war with weeds (chest high weeds are not fun when you're trying to grow food).  My compost piles are humming along but to get a thin layer of homemade compost spread out over the entire yard was going to take about 2 years time, meanwhile 2 cycles of vegetables would be grown on the land.  I'm not that good at math nor am I a scientist but 2 is a larger number than 1, twice as large in-fact.  If you are growing 2 rounds of vegetables on a piece of land and only able to spread out 1 thin layer of compost on that same land, common sense tells you that even with the most nutritious compost you are probably still using up more minerals and nutrients from the soil then you are putting in.  But that is just a very unscientific educated guess based on common sense and logic.  The optimist in me thought that maybe it would turn out to be okay and perhaps if I spread the compost out on the upper edge of the urban farm then the compost would trickle down throughout the rest of the urban farm (there's a slope to the yard, sloping away from the house) and it would turn out to be enough compost for the entire yard.  The good ol' Trickle Down Effect, urban farm style!  Just as within economics, in theory it sounds good and seems like it should work and the reasoning seems sound but when it's put into practice it just doesn't really seem to work and the actual outcome is vastly different from the predicted outcome.  In subsequent years I kept spreading compost out on the farm and getting a soil test each year, focusing mostly on the top of the slope but still trying to get a thin layer on as much land as I possibly could.  The outcome from the continuing soil tests hinted at and supported what I feared, I'm taking more from the land then I'm putting into it.  Which isn't a sustainable practice and that's one way you end up with barren dirt that won't grow anything.  The Trickle Down Effect was failing me, plain and simple I just wasn't producing enough compost for the area that I was growing food in.  In the back of my mind I thought that since the soil sample is really just a picture at that point in time maybe that really wasn't happening, fake news as some would call it.  I'm creating compost after-all, and that's a good thing so maybe I'm just taking soil samples at the wrong time of year or something else is going on, etc.  I mulled this over on a daily basis for quite a long time, each and every time I thought about it I came to the exact same conclusion of, "Don't be a fool, look at what the facts and logic are all pointing to, something has to be changed and adjusted to somehow speed up the composting process."  But this is how you compost, how in the world can it be tweaked and if it could be improved at all, wouldn't someone have already done it?  If that was the case, wouldn't everybody already be doing it?

"New Age" Composting
It turns out there is a better way to compost, it's been around for a while but almost nobody uses it (as far as I can tell and in the US anyways) for who the hell knows what reasons.  I have my guesses and assumptions but we're not getting into that now as it doesn't really matter.  Even though this process has been in existence for a while, I still like to call it "New Age" Composting and spoiler alert, this process uses nature with nature to speed up the composting process and it results in the same (potentially better) end product.  BOOM!!!

Lets back-up for a minute though.  On my fourth year of the urban farm I was still using the same original composting process and thinking about composting each and every day, reading science articles on composting and soil health and I just kept coming up blank with feasible ideas.  There are no shortage of ideas on the internet for speeding up composting but the vast majority seem to just be guesses and not backed by any actual science or experiments.  Those who claim to have figured out a way of improving the composting process almost always fail to mention how exactly they do this, which leads you to believe it's a false claim or they don't want anybody to know about it.  Both of which are fishy and useless for my purposes and I wasn't about to start trialing a bunch of folk lore ideas that have zero science or experiment backing.  Mid-summer of this fourth year a friend of mine came over to see the urban farm, this friend just so happens to be pretty similar to me in a lot of ways, one of which is he is a man who has lived many lives throughout his life.  On one of his many previous lives, he was a farm manager and he took this farm from barren land to a full production farm as sustainably as he possibly could in a very short amount of time.  We had never really talked about his farm days before but on this day we were walking around the urban farm, talking and we wandered onto the subject of composting and I proceeded to vent my composting frustrations to him and how I seemed to just not be producing enough compost for the amount of land and how on my most recent soil test the organic matter was lower than the prior years.  He seemed to be deep in thought in his head for a minute while he looked at the surrounding vegetables on the urban farm then he looked at me and said, "Bokashi Bran."  To which I went, "uuuuuhhhhh, what?"  "Bokashi Bran" he said again and he proceeded to inform me that it is something you can add to your compost and soil which speeds up composting and helps improve the soil health.  I initially got a bit defensive as I let him know that I'm not adding anything that isn't natural to the land, not even "organic" fertilizers, etc.  He already knew that though and acknowledged this and he challenged me to just look into it, see what it actually is, look at the science to it as well as the research that's been done on it.  This is the second way this person is a lot like me, he tends to take a scientific and fact based approach on just about everything and he's a very smart person.  He also wasn't pushing the idea on me at all, he was just letting me know that it's an option and challenging me to look into it and make an informed and fact based decision on this Bokashi Bran from there.  He also gave me some general background on it and let me know that it's something that was pioneered by a farmer in Asia a long time ago and it was basically made by fermenting rice which is then added to compost as well as the soil and it somehow accelerates the composting process a lot while simultaneously improving the soil health.  This piqued my interest quite a bit more as it sounded like it wasn't just another product developed by another chemical company and it sounded like it could be a natural option that also sounds like it has some history to it and has had some research done on it, not just another folk-lore option that may work if you turn about in two clockwise circles followed by doing a backflip.

Bokashi Bran
I proceeded to look into this Bokashi Bran to find out what in the world it is, is it actually natural, what problems are associated with it, what research has been done it, and does it actually work???

Via Professor Google, most sites claim that Dr. Teruo Higa of Japan introduced the modern world to Bokashi Bran in the 1980's.  I haven't been able to find a credible, scientific or independent site that confirms that though so who knows whether that is true or not but it seems to be from what I can find.  Dr. Teru Higa's background suggests this is true, he also has a book titled: An Earth Saving Revolution: A Means to Resolve Our World's Problems Through Effective Microorganisms (EM) that I very much want to read if I can find it at a Library or a used book store.

I also discovered that all Bokashi Bran is made of are microbes that are attached to a grain (usually bran).  You can culture these microbes yourself or if you want to know exactly what microbes are in it, you can buy premade Bokashi Bran from various companies.  Bokashi Bran isn't a chemical product by a chemical company, it's literally just cultured microbes.

These microbes act as hungry hungry hippos and preserve / pickle the food scraps you add them to.  They don't need air to operate (in fact, you want them exposed to as little air as possible).  After the food scraps have been pickled, you add the food scraps to dirt and the food scraps proceed to breakdown extremely fast.  You can go from a full compost bucket to useable compost in about a month and a halves time.  Sometimes faster, sometimes slower but a month and a half seems to be pretty realistic.

You actually don't need to make full on compost, you can bury the pickled food scraps a few feet into the ground if that's an option for your urban farm / garden / farm.

I was not able to find anything bad about Bokashi Bran or reasons not to try it out, which I was not expecting.  I can't ever recall anything else in life that I haven't been able to find something bad out via the internet.

Furthermore, I found an actual research paper from an actual scientific research project that was done specifically on Bokashi Bran and it's effectiveness, check it out here:

My summary of that 162 page thesis is:  It's bad-ass and just as effective if not more effective than traditional composting and other fertilizing methods.  Read that paper to find out for yourself though!

Given all of the good information, praise, and sound research found via Professor Google I dove headfirst into a Bokashi Bran composting experiment, a.k.a. The Great Composting Experiment of 2020! 

The Experiment Itself
I figured the best route to go with this would be to start with a pre-made Bokashi Bran from a reputable company, assuming that I can find a company that appears to be making it naturally and is transparent.  If I were to start out by trying to make it myself, that would add a whole new element to it and would likely just be a roadblock in place to seeing if this is a viable composting method or not as I would have no idea if I was culturing / making the Bokashi Bran properly and I wouldn't have a way of seeing if I was making it improperly or if it's just another bunk composting idea as a whole.  This led me to:

Aside from them having a whole lot of information on their website about Bokashi Bran itself and how to guides, videos, etc, they seem to be pretty transparent about their product itself.  I had a few emails going with them before I decided to buy some buckets and bran and it seems to be a very small company, with a very small team, trying to provide a good, natural, and sustainable product for composting.  They also let me know that these are the microbes in their Bokashi Bran:

-Lactic Acid Bacteria: Bifidobacterium animalis, B. bifidum, B. longum, Lactobacillus acidophilus, L. casei, L. delbrueckii subsp bulgaricus, L. fermentum, L. plantarum, Lactococcus lactis subsp lactis, Streptococcus thermophilus

-Yeast and other: Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Bacillus subtilis

-Phototrophic Bacteria: Rhodopseudomonas palustris and R. sphaeroides

Which I honestly haven't looked into any of these to see what more I can learn (I don't know what any of those are or mean), but the fact that they're willing to share with me what's attached to their bran is a great sign to me.

So off I went ordering some buckets, bokashi bran, and a bottle of their EM Effective Micro-organisms (which is basically microbes in a bottle that you can dilute and add to the soil or use as a foliar spray).

Step 1:  Add food scraps to bucket.

Step 2:  Each day you add food scraps, sprinkle some Bokashi Bran on top.  You're layering food scraps and the bran.  I've been going with more bran / microbes are better so I've been pretty generous with adding the bokashi bran.

Step 3:  As the bucket starts filling up, push down on the food scraps to squeeze out any air.

Step 4:  Also as the bucket starts filling up, the bottom portion of the bucket will start filling with liquid, this is a composting tea that you drain out into a cup, dilute with water, and then add to your soil or anything that needs microbes.  I've also been pouring it down the house drains from time to time hoping that the microbes will chomp away at any gunk that may be built up in the pipes of the house.  Drain this tea out every few days.

Bokashi  Tea
Bokashi Tea drained from buckets, just needs to be diluted and added to the garden (100:1 dilution) or flowers or whatever needs some food.

Step 5:  Once the bucket is full, top off with more microbes, and let it sit for at least 2 weeks (more time is fine).  Don't open the lid during this time.  You're just letting the microbes get to work, pickling your food scraps.  You do want to keep draining the compost tea during this period, it appears that this is really when the compost tea starts accumulating.  I imagine it's just a by product of the microbes doing their thing (that's a guess), and that it's the microbes peeing all over the place as they pickle the food scraps.

Full Bokashi Bucket
Bokashi Bucket is Full and Topped Off with Bokashi Bran

Step 6:  After the two week period, add the contents of the bucket to your empty compost hole, cover with brown material and/or dirt.  You do not want the microbes to be exposed to air so they can keep doing their work.  Cover them to keep them happy.  When you open your bucket, the food scraps are going to look the exact same as they did before the two week resting period, that's normal, don't worry about it, it will be just fine!

Food Scraps in Composting Pile
Fermented food scraps added to the compost hole after the two week resting period.  The scraps were covered with brown material after this.

Step 7:  After the food scraps have sat for another two week period in the compost hole covered with brown material and dirt, start turning the compost daily and prepare to be amazed.

Step 8:  You will start noticing very noticeable changes each day as you turn the pile as the food scraps decompose and mix with the brown material / dirt at a very rapid pace.

Step 9:  After about 2 weeks of turning, your food scraps will likely be entirely broken down (if not keep turning until it is) and can then be added to your urban farm / garden / farm.  When you're turning your compost piles, if it's overly watery, then add some more brown material or dirt to it.  Patience is key with composting though, don't make any rash decisions, observe over a period of time and then make a decision.

Fresh Compost
Fresh compost ready to be added to the urban farm!

Step 10:  Rejoice and do a happy dance as you just went from a full compost bucket to new compost within a 6 week time frame!!!!!!!

Giant Worm
Don't be surprised if you find some giant worms (as well as other critters) in the compost, they helped break everything down and they will now help your veggies grow!

Keep in mind that this is NOT the recommended process for using Bokashi Bran.  The recommended process is once the food scraps have been pickled to bury them in the ground in your urban farm / garden / soil.  This is not an option for me with the landscaping fabric as I can't dig wide enough nor deep enough to bury the scraps.  Even if I could I probably wouldn't as I want to be disturbing the ground as little as possible so I'm not destroying the soil life in my urban farm.  Plus I wanted a process that I can use year round and I can't dig into the ground to bury food scraps while the vegetables are growing in the ground!  Another option (which I have not tried yet but will be trying), is to take your pickled food scraps and add them to a tub that has soil in it.  This is a "soil factory", you're adding life and nutrients back to existing soil within a tub and apparently the food scraps can breakdown just fine in a tub.  I'm a little skeptical of this as there aren't any critters in a tub but you can certainly add some worms to a tub very easily, which might be the way to go.  This is potentially a good option for the winter to keep making new soil at a rapid pace as you would just leave the tubs inside so they stay at room temp.

In the chaos of summertime, I lost track of how much compost I made via this Bokashi method, but here's my timeline for my first two buckets:

4/5/20:  First Bokashi Bucket full, lid closed

5/2/20 (3.5 weeks from full): Added to pile with charred sunflower stalks and dirt (might as well make use of dirt that's laying around not doing anything)

5/16/20 (5.5 weeks from full): First bucket has mostly broken down (not perfect but not far from done).  Second Bokashi bucket was fermented, added to the same pile and covered with more brown material.

6/20/20 (10.5 weeks from full):  Compost is fully broken down and was spread out on the urban farm.  I was not turning it as often as I should have but it still broke down pretty quickly.  A little over 2 months for 2 buckets which with a traditional composting pile would take a minimum of 3 months for 1 bucket.  Urban Farming Win!!!

A few days ago I just received my soil test results back from 2020 and the health of my soil is improving and no longer diminishing (at least it appears to be from that snapshot soil sample, time will tell for certain).  This is what I will be using for my composting process going forward as it is not only scientifically proven, but I was able to replicate it myself (and easily) and I don't see any downsides to this composting process.  Using nature with nature rocks plus microbes are fascinating!

Using Bokashi Bran to accelerate your composting process is a great, natural, and effective way at turning your food scraps into compost at a very rapid pace.  You're using nature with nature since Bokashi Bran is literally just microbes attached to bran.  Microbes are bad-ass, if you want your mind blown start reading up on microbes and fungi.  The more I do I get more convinced that they are the answer to a lot of our world's problems.  There are microbes that eat oil and others that eat rocks, etc.  They're fantastic and are key to life and soil health.  PLUS these microbes that you're adding to your soil attach themselves to the roots of your plants to form a symbiotic relationship.  The microbes helps your plants survive and fight off pests and in turn your vegetables feed these microbes.  Microbes are the answer to everything.

I'll likely attempt culturing my own microbes in the future and making my own Bokashi Bran and doing some side by side experiments to see if I can make anything that's just as effective as the "store bought" bokashi bran.  We'll see what happens!

You could totally make the buckets yourself if you wanted to instead of buying the official buckets.  It does need to have an area that the composting tea drains into and a way of draining this tea.

Big shout out goes to my friend for mentioning Bokashi Bran to me, this goes to show how collaboration is essential for not only farming but really to create anything successful in life.  You can't possibly know everything yourself, but there are a lot of people out there who know a whole lot about subjects that your knowledge is lacking.  Keep on collaborating with each other people!

Comment below if you have any further questions, if you're composting, if you have a different composting method that works for you, if you've tried this method and it works for you, etc.

Note:  I also added the Bokashi Bran directly to the seedlings as I transplanted them to the outside environment (the more microbes the better for the soil) and while I have no idea of knowing if it actually helped the plants out, it most certainly did not harm them, so that's cool!  My guess is that it helped the plants since microbes attach themselves to the roots of plants but again, that's just a guess.  I also used the liquid Effective Micro-Organism solution as a Foliar Spray.  You dilute it in water, spray it on your plants as they grow and it gets absorbed into the leaves of the plant giving them more food to grow big and fight off pests / diseases.

Additional Note:  I still don't and won't use meat, seafood, etc. with composting.  I haven't been able to find any hard evidence that shows it's safe to do so with Bokashi Bran so even though it's plastered all over the internet that it's safe to do so, I'm not going to test it out.


  1. Hi. Good to know that you are doing Bokashi composting
    .I have been doing it for 2 years now. However, I add composted cow or chicken manure to increase the nitrogen content and some powdered eggshells for calcium. As gardeners, our constant problem is soil. With bokashi method, I can have compost in 5 weeks if I use composted veg and fruit peels. I just started composting cooked left overs and raw meat, fish scraps. I expect it to turn to soil longer... maybe 3 months.

    1. Hi Corrine, that's great to hear! I would encourage you to look into adding meat, fish, etc. further. I haven't been able to find any reputable / scientific / independent sources that say it's safe to do so, all I find are companies saying selling their products saying it's fine to add anything and everything with Bokashi, which may or may not be true but as far as I can tell it doesn't seem to be backed up by any science and if it ends up not being safe it has potential to harm not only your soil and garden but your health as well. Figured I'd throw that word of caution out there and certainly let me know if you find anything to the contrary! Happy composting and gardening!