How to Save the Planet and Grow Bigger, Healthier Plants with Bokashi

By Sarah M. Shoffler / Photography By Elijah LeComte | January 01, 2017
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Ron McCord shows food waste being fermented.
Ron McCord shows food waste being fermented.

bokashi | bō-KAH-shee

verb: a process of turning food waste into a nutrientrich soil amendment full of beneficial microorganisms via fermentation

noun: fermented organic matter

Bokashi is preserving food waste through fermentation. It’s not actually composting,” says Ron McCord, environmental educator at Solana Center and owner of Feed the Soil. Fermentation, for those of us who forget our high-school chemistry, is the anaerobic breakdown of energy molecules in the absence of oxygen. The chemical process of fermentation is the same for bokashi as it is fermenting cucumbers into pickles or cabbage into kimchi.

What’s it Good For?

With bokashi, you can use every single bit of food waste—bones, meat, vegetables, eggs, milk, bread, etc.—plus hair, dryer lint, paper or fabric, and transform it into a nutrient-rich soil amendment.

This waste is fermented in an anaerobic environment using a medium, such as grain husks, inoculated with beneficial microorganisms.

In Korean natural farming, beneficial microorganisms are collected from the ecosystem. Most of the time, however, a commercially produced mixed culture of beneficial microbes, called effective microorganisms (EM), is used to start the bokashi process. EM consist of beneficial bacteria from four families—lactic acid bacteria, actinomycete bacteria, photosynthetic bacteria and yeasts—plus fungi.

The bacteria and fungi provide a range of services to plants, from suppressing harmful bacteria and fungi in the soil, to synthesizing food for beneficial bacteria, improving photosynthesis, enhancing nitrogen binding in plants, suppressing bad smells and breaking down organic substances into products, like amino acids, that plants can use.

Food scraps are added to a five-gallon bucket to begin bokashi process.
Prepared grain husk medium is added to the food scraps.
Fermented scraps are added to compost.
soil conditioning concentrate and jars or waste
Photo 1: Food scraps are added to a five-gallon bucket to begin bokashi process.
Photo 2: Prepared grain husk medium is added to the food scraps.
Photo 3: Fermented scraps are added to compost.

Bokashi Making—So Easy

Any fine organic grain or grass-like substance—bran, wheat husks, rice, spent beer grains—can be used as the medium that is inoculated with the EM.

You mix this microbe-rich medium with dinner scraps, fish bones, rejected lunches and that forgotten cat food you found at the back of the fridge. Seal the mixture in an airtight container (to give it that anaerobic condition). Let it sit for about two weeks. For most home kitchens, a five-gallon bucket with a resealable, easy-to-use lid (like a gamma seal) is large enough and airtight enough.

“Contact with the inoculated medium and lack of air are key,” says McCord, “in order for all food to ferment.” After about 14 days, fermentation should be complete, “though larger items, like bones, may take longer. At two weeks, the food waste is preserved and may look a lot like it did before fermentation.” Think of a cucumber fermented to a pickle: still shaped like a cucumber. It won’t look like compost because the waste has been preserved. It’ll look like what you’d expect: a mushy slop of food pieces. It usually smells like vinegar or sauerkraut. And it’s not compost. At this point, McCord recommends burying the bokashi in the soil, or adding it to a compost pile or worm bin. After about two more weeks, the bokashi can be fully integrated into the soil. Before that, the fermented material could damage roots because it is acidic.

Save the World

“One of the benefits to bokashi is that you can set it and forget it,” says McCord. “You can play with it if you want, but bokashi doesn’t require constant maintenance like hot composting does.” Another is that it keeps food waste out of our landfills. Food waste produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Bokashi benefits:

  • Uses all food waste plus hair, lint, paper and fabric
  • Minimizes bad odors though you might get a vinegar or sauerkraut smell
  • Binds nitrogen and fertilizes
  • Consumes anaerobic gases like hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, methane
  • Suppresses bad bacteria and fungi
  • May increase photosynthesis and thus plant production
  • It’s relatively cheap to make
  • Like compost, it boosts the organic matter content in soil
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