Friday, February 8, 2013

A white-belt in Bokashi

After five years of careful procrastination, I finally went ahead and bought a Bokashi bin. If you're not familiar with the concept, Bokashi is an oxygen-less composting system that can break down just about anything organic. Yes, An-y-thing. Fruit, Vegetable. Dairy. Pasta and Breads. Meat! You just throw all your waste material into an airtight bucket, sprinkle on a bit of magic dust (a.k.a Bokashi mix: wheat bran infused with microbes) and close the lid. The key selling point, though, is that it's supposedly odorless, and thus can be kept indoors close to the action: because the decomposition process happens via fermentation, not putrefaction.

Despite being sold by the principle very early on, at first I couldn't get over the fact that I'd be handing over four red lobsters for what initially looks like a bucket and a bag of sawdust. But eventually I began to see it as a way to wring valuable nourishment for the garden out of the waste that would be otherwise rotting down at the local landfill - and not only does the fermented solid waste end up in the garden, the liquid that is produced during fermentation can be drained through a tap at the bottom of the bucket and used as a rich liquid fertiliser. What's more, I could vastly improve the serenity of the general area downwind of our wheelie bin at the same time.

So a few weeks back my Bokashi bucket arrived and we enthusiastically started filling it with a mix of vegetable scrap, meat offcuts, and generally whatever my 18-month-olds were trying to feed to the dog that no one else can see. We made the bucket a little home in the laundry, and I sang songs to it at night before we turned the lights out.

But that's when it all started to go wrong.

It was subtle at first. Every now and then the wife would pause randomly and give the slightest twitch of her nose. I couldn't smell anything however, so I had just assumed she was trying to cast a hex on me, as she sometimes does. But soon she became insistent that some animal must have died in a wall cavity - and it wasn't much longer before arguments started breaking out over the Bokasi bin, cowering scared in the corner.

I couldn't smell anything. I didn't want to. The little red devil hovering behind my left ear was telling me I should sneak the Bokashi bin into the bedroom overnight and prove her wrong! I'm sure you assume - since I'm not now sharing news of my divorce - that I didn't go through with that plan. Though pretty soon, the smell was strong enough to cut through the walls of the happy bubble I was living in.

My Bokashi was putrefying, which is most certainly what you don't want. The bin moved outside and began to alert every cat in a 10km radius to where we lived, and what we ate for dinner three nights ago. I drained off the liquid in the bottom of the bucket, and it smelt like the bathroom floor of  a Sydney nightclub at 3am on a Sunday morning. "How could this be!" I demanded of the bucket, like it would answer me and my neighbours wouldn't think I was crazy. "I followed your instructions!".

I had been obediently feeding the bucket one tablespoon of Bokasi mix for every cup of waste, but so it would seem, that just wasn't cutting it. So I turned to Uncle Google in the hope that'd he'd know what was going on. As it turns out, the summer heat can certainly cause the contents of your Bokashi bin to putrefy before it can begin to ferment. However, I think the primary cause was that my obstinate bucket and its adoption papers just weren't telling me everything I needed to know.

If you're going to Bokashi any high protein wastes (like meats), you need to add waaaaay more Bokashi mix. You also really need to make sure you compact the waste in the bin, squishing out as much air as possible. Another cool trick to get the machine pumping at a faster rate is to get those microbes on a sugar-high by adding a cup of sugar to the mix.

As meat offcuts are one of my main uses for the bin, I'm going to go through a lot of Bokashi mix - I reckon I'd end up using 3L (at a cost of about $4 per litre) of it for each full 20L bucket of waste - for the same price I can pick up three times that volume of moo poo. I hear Bokashi mix can be home made, so I'm going to be having a close look at that, and hopefully improve the cost effectiveness of the system.

So another week on, and my Bokashi is starting to smell the way it should - a sweetish vinegary aroma - while the liquid smells kind of like a jar of pickled olives. The latter I'm using at a rate of about two tablespoons per 9L watering can, as soon as it becomes available (it supposedly doesn't keep well). The former will stay in the bucket for a few weeks after its full, then finally be emptied into the compost bin to finish breaking down. Should the system behave going forward, I'd introduce a second bucket into a rotation, so the next will be filling while the first finishes stewing. Who knows, maybe it'll even be allowed back in the house one day.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

How to root (or not root) your pumpkin vine

What's really quite impressive about the empire of the pumpkin vine is not only that it's such a great conqueror, but how it holds the ground it's won. My vines have taken over ten metres of territory now, and many of its greatest contemporary exploits are being grown on this frontier. But try to shift its lengthy routes, and you're probably likely to find you're rooted.

Wherever one of the nodes (junctions where the vine throws up leaves) has good contact with the soil, it digs its feet in to start sucking up resources and shortening the supply lines. Pull out these guys, (here's one I rooted earlier) and you might find any pumpkins down this end of the line don't fair to well going forward. So you really do need to think carefully about where you let your empire grow, cause once its there, you might find moving it a tougher choice than you might think. Large sections of my lawn entered the formulative stages of jungle as I waited for pumpkins to reach a reasonable size before I could remove the vine and mow the lawn.

Generally, I tend to think it's not a such bad thing - this season when the original part of the vine suffered in the heat, the newer sections which grew into a shadier area picked up the workload in the recovery period. It does, however, seriously screw up your crop rotation - because now multiple beds have hosted pumpkin this season. Although, in a summer where I'm not going to end up with too much more than pumpkin, it certainly won't be a problem if I end up with a tonne of it.