Why Fermented Foods Are So Great for Your Garden

You’re familiar with using fermented foods to increase beneficial bacteria in your gut – but have you tried putting them to work outdoors? Adding fermented food scraps to your compost can help plants grow healthier and faster.

Photo: Guido Mieth/gettyimages.com

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Turning would-be waste like food scraps and yard trimmings into compost is easy and hugely beneficial. Composting can do wonders for your garden, offering nutrients for your plants and reducing the amount of waste you create. And if you practice a particular kind of composting – the Bokashi Method – you can accomplish even more in a single batch of compost.

The Bokashi Method is a composting approach that doesn’t use just any food waste. It’s centered around fermented food waste, infusing microorganisms into your compost material for a more potent final result. Like fermented foods, this fermented food waste can have a surprisingly great effect and hugely beneficial nutrients.

What is the Bokashi Method?

The Bokashi Method, or Bokashi composting, was officially developed by Japanese professor Dr. Teuro Higa in the 1980s. However, bokashi has long been a natural farming tradition practiced in Korea. Higa popularized Bokashi composting after discovering effective microorganisms (EM).

In Bokashi composting, you layer kitchen scraps like fruit and veggie waste with something called a Bokashi inoculant. That inoculant is typically made of wheat germ, wheat bran or sawdust, plus molasses and EM. This immediately introduces microorganisms into your compost mixture.

Your Bokashi composting waste and inoculant get placed inside what’s called a Bokashi bucket – which is a bucket with an air-tight lid and a spigot at the bottom. As you add waste and more inoculant to the bucket, everything inside begins to ferment. That fermentation can produce quite a bit of liquid, which you’ll need to drain out regularly to prevent odors. But don’t throw that liquid away; it can be poured over your plants. Nicknamed Bokashi tea, the liquid acts like a fertilizer when used on plants of all kinds.

Within about 10 days, you’ll have ready-made composting material inside your Bokashi bucket. You can either add this compost right into your garden or mix it into another compost bin or pile to continue decomposing. 

Why do fermented foods matter in composting?

Fermented foods contain beneficial bacteria that can feed your gut bacteria it needs. And fermented food scraps work in a similar way when they’re added into your compost material. In fact, the helpful way in which they alter the bacteria within compost is just as good for plants’ nutrition as fermented foods are for your own. 

According to a research study conducted by scientists at the University of California Riverside, fermented food waste increases good bacteria – specifically, bacteria that can increase crop growth, make plants more pathogen-resistant and lower carbon emissions. When fermented food waste was added to plants growing inside a greenhouse, the scientists found that the amount of beneficial bacteria grew significantly. All of that good bacteria then produced antimicrobial compounds and metabolites, two factors that helped plants grow healthier and faster. 

The study’s researchers believe that with more development and data, putting fermented food waste into solid could help combat issues like plants falling ill to different diseases. And it may even have a big impact on the sustainability of food production. Turning food waste into highly nutritious soil additive recycles materials that would otherwise be thrown away, making the process of cultivating food crops more eco-friendly.

How to practice Bokashi composting

Bokashi composting does require a bit of a different approach than the composting methods you’re likely already familiar with. Instead of adding organic materials into a bin or bucket and letting them do their thing with some regular maintenance, you’ll need a bit more equipment to get started. 

Here’s how the Bokashi composting process works.

Start with an airtight container

Bokashi composting doesn’t need any oxygen – in fact, too much exposure to oxygen can actually disrupt the fermentation process that results in this highly nutritious compost material. So, you’ll need to buy an airtight container that you can easily drain without removing the lid. A sealing bucket with a drainage spout is the most common choice; you’ll find them by searching for “Bokashi buckets” online. 

However, you can also DIY a container of your own if you’d like. As the DIY Network explains, all you need is a container with an airtight lid (recycling old, unused containers is a great choice!). You can rig up a spigot with a nozzle or plastic piping found at your local hardware store.

Add food scraps into your Bokashi bucket

Once you have your bucket ready, you can start adding in food scraps as you create them. Everything is fair game, from fruit and vegetables to coffee grounds to egg shells to meat trimmings to cheese scraps. You can also add in the other kinds of organic materials you’d use in other composting methods – leaves, yard clippings, and sawdust are all great additions.

Add in your fermentation agent

In order to ferment your food waste, you’ll need to add a special ingredient called Bokashi bran. Technically, Bokashi bran is a premade anaerobic inoculant that you can buy from companies like Bokashi Living and at big retailers like Amazon. You can find recipes to make inoculant online if you’d prefer to create your own. But all you need, whether you choose Bokashi bran or your own homemade inoculant, is something that’ll kickstart the fermentation process.

The UC Riverside team who conducted the aforementioned study actually used beer mash to ferment their food waste. A yeast-y ingredient like this can generate the fermentation you need to get all of that good bacteria inside your scraps. 

Drain the bucket regularly

As you add more food scraps and the fermentation process begins, liquid will start to accumulate inside your container. That’s what the spigot or other draining mechanism is for. You’ll need to drain out that liquid every couple days to keep what’s inside from getting too wet.

You don’t have to worry about actually emptying your bucket until it’s completely full. Just keep adding in more scraps and organic matter, draining out any liquid every few days. You can press down on the scraps and compress them to fit more in – remember, Bokashi composting doesn’t need any air, so it gets even better the more tightly it’s packed inside.

Take your Bokashi compost outside

In order to complete the process of turning food waste into true compost material, there’s one final step. You’ll need to take your fermented bucket of scraps and put it outside in an isolated area of your yard. 

If you already have a compost pile, you can add it right on top. Or, if you’re practicing vermicomposting, your Bokashi material makes a great addition to your closed compost pile. However you store the scraps, it just needs to be somewhere where it can decompose for about two more weeks before it can be used around plants.

Once the decomposition process is complete, you’ll have finished compost material that’s ready to go to work in your yard, garden or potted houseplants. You can use this fermented compost like traditional compost material and incorporate it into normal soil as a highly nutritious additive.

Benefits of trying Bokashi composting

Along with the good bacteria that results from fermented food waste, the practice of composting with microorganism-rich waste can be great for plants and the larger world. And there are big benefits you can reap on a small scale right at home. 

Using the Bokashi composting method can make your own garden more sustainable and healthier – and it offers other advantages, like the following:

Less food waste

Taking food scraps, fermenting them and turning them into compost can reduce the amount of food you’re throwing away on a daily basis. Over time, this small change can make a big impact in the amount of waste you’re sending to your local landfill. 

And, unlike other composting methods, the Bokashi Method actually allows you to compost more food waste. While traditional composting forbids dairy and meat scraps because it can attract bad bacteria (and other unwelcome pests), you can recycle these kinds of food waste when using Bokashi. The anaerobic process used in Bokashi makes it perfectly safe for dairy and meat.

Space-saving and easy to try anywhere

If you don’t have a ton of outdoor space, the Bokashi method is a fantastic composting process to try. While traditional composting methods need air to get waste broken down, Bokashi doesn’t. In fact, you can keep all of your food waste and the Bokashi bran in a single small bucket. It’ll fit inside a small kitchen, on compact patios or balconies – this composting method can be done anywhere.

Requires little maintenance

Bokashi composting is super low effort. You can forget about the aerating, watering or even sorting through food scraps for only approved items. With this approach, you can toss just about everything into your composting bucket. And all you have to do is drain off any liquid that’s formed inside every few days.

Creates compost fast

Thanks to the fermentation that’s part of the compost-creating process, the Bokashi Method turns waste into ready-to-use compost material quickly. While other composting methods can take months to generate any finished compost, the Bokashi approach breaks down your scraps in just weeks. 

Typically, it takes two weeks for whatever’s inside your Bokashi bucket to break down. Then, it takes another two weeks to turn into true compost. That means you’ll have finished compost ready to use in one month. Once it’s finished breaking down, you’ll take your compost outside and mix it into the soil. You can use it around your plants in your garden, add it to potted plants and use it on indoor plants.

Produces nutritious compost and Bokashi tea

Remember that liquid you have to drain out of your composting bucket every couple of days? It’s actually just as awesome for your plants as the actual finished compost you create with the Bokashi method. That liquid is called Bokashi tea, and it contains the very same beneficial bacteria.

This “tea” can be poured into your garden, into the soil of potted plants or even used for herbs grown indoors or out. It’s nutrient-rich and works like a liquid compost, helping plants grow and thrive. Every time you drain your composting bucket, you can put that “waste” to use wherever you’re growing plants.

Composting, whether done via the Bokashi Method or the good old cold, hot or vermicomposting methods, is great for reducing your own environmental footprint. It’s easy to start composting at home, and you can put your finished compost to use in so many ways. 

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