Natural Life Magazine

mulch and bokashi composting

Putting Your Waste to Work in Your Garden
by Anna M. Brown

Since gardening is all about the soil, here are two methods of improving it: deep mulch gardening and Bokashi composting.

I love my soil. Several years ago, I had an epiphany: It's all about the soil. I have been an organic gardener for years and years and I was successful. But a few years back, I noticed that my soil didn’t look like it used to look. It seemed tired, dried out, not as alive. That started my journey to fully connecting with my soil, to understanding it, and to healing it.

While logically I knew that you didn’t have plants without soil, I didn’t fully understand that the soil is everything. The nutrients in our food come from the soil. Only with proper soil care can we grow plants that thrive and provide us with the nutrients our bodies crave.

On my journey to connect with my soil I became a Master Composter. My local area (Mecklenburg County in North Carolina) has a wonderful Master Composter program, training individuals to become ambassadors in our community. I also researched and studied on my own to find out the most efficient ways to turn waste into nutrients. I have incorporated many different types of composting into our lives; all of which nourish our soil and help reduce our waste foot print.

I’m going to focus on the two methods that have revolutionized my yard and life: deep mulch gardening and Bokashi composting. There are of course other methods: hot batch, tumblers, passive piles, etc. But these two methods have had the most impact for waste reduction, soil improvement, and work reduction.

Deep Mulch Gardening

This was one of my favorite discoveries and one that has had the greatest effect on my garden and my time. Ruth Stout was one of the original writers about what she called the “deep mulch system.” The basic idea is to layer at least eight inches of material (straw, leaves, etc.) on top of your garden. The benefits are extreme: no tilling, no or significantly less watering, constant compost feeding plants, and no weeds. Yes, I said it, no weeds.

What’s Wrong
With Tilling?

Garden soil is filled with life, from tunneling earthworms to microscopic microbials. Each plays an important role in soil health and structure. The structure of our soil allows it to hold air and water and serve as a home for the abundant life below. Tilling is like tearing down the walls and foundation and wondering why the house isn’t standing.

Tilling ultimately compacts the soil; it kills the life in the top layers and brings weed seeds to the surface where they can thrive. Earthworms are Nature’s tillers. They traverse the soil, making tunnels for air and water. All the while, they are leaving their castings to feed the plants. So, put away the heavy, expensive, gas guzzling tiller and let the earthworms have a go. Your back and your soil will thank you!

The beauty of this system is that it trusts the soil. It trusts the natural process. In the woods, you have a deep leaf cover that is refreshed each fall; no one tills, no one waters, yet plant life thrives. You can dig down in any forest and find rich dark soil. Modern farming, like modern medicine, wants to intervene. It wants us to plow, irrigate, spray, fertilize, and fix. That’s not necessary. Composters have a saying: “Everything your spring garden needs is in last fall’s leaves.”

I have a lot of leaves in my yard so I knew that leaves would be my “material” of choice. I also had some concerns about the grass that can grow from hay/straw. Ruth Stout believed if it was thick enough it didn’t matter but I wasn’t convinced. I’d had some bad experiences in the past that left my garden looking like a lawn! But leaves were something I had plenty of and I knew they wouldn’t sprout grass. I choose to chop the leaves because I felt it was more ascetically pleasing and also would help speed composting at the soil level.

If you don’t have your own trees, start checking the curbs. You will find that often your neighbors have bagged their leaves, just for you! Occasionally, I want more leaves, or I just love adding the thin willow oak leaves and so I will pull over and fill up the back of my car with bagged leaves. Another option is get to know a landscaper. They have chopped leaves that they need to unload, often taking them to the dump. If you find one in your area, they are usually more than happy to unload at your house and save a trip. This provides you with wonderful leaves for your garden and you are helping reduce waste at the landfill.

The first season that I put deep mulch into place, I was sold. It was August and there wasn’t a weed in my garden. That was unheard of for me. At the end of the season, I added more leaves for winter. February rolled around and we hadn’t had rain in six weeks. I dug through my leaves and found wet, black soil that was alive and gorgeous. What a fabulous use of my leaves and a time saver for me personally! No need to worry about running the heavy tiller, no need to haul hoses, no need for back-breaking weeding.

When it’s time to plant, I just part the leaves, find the beautiful, rich soil, and plant the seed or the plant directly into the soil. Then I can sit back and watch everything grow.

Bokashi Composting

A couple of years ago, we were looking to kick up our composting a notch. I really have an aversion to food rotting on the counter. The smell is just too much for my sensitive nose. Our compost pile was a long way from the house, which meant long hauls every meal, rain or shine. I knew that with two kids and our busy lives that just wouldn’t happen.

We tried vermiculture – indoor composting with worms. While they do a number on most fruits and veggies, I found them to be just one more pet that needed my attention. And they were still not handling the other food wastes that we were producing.

Then I heard about Bokashi composting. Bokashi is a Japanese word for “fermented organic matter.” It’s a process for dealing with food waste that has been used for hundreds of years in Japan. In the 1970s, Terou Higa, a professor of horticulture at the University of Ryukyus in Okinawa, Japan, perfected the microbial blend to help the process work correctly each time. This allowed for Bokashi to become more popular and spread across the globe.

The process basically “pickles” the waste, instead of rotting it as with traditional composting. The fermenting/pickling eliminates the odor associated with rotting. The microbials work in an anaerobic environment to ferment the waste. Once it is fermented, it is transferred to the soil (or compost pile) where the soil microbials take over and finish the job.

A wonderful thing about Bokashi composting is that you can compost any food. This includes dairy, meat, bones, etc., which aren’t typically composted. Moving to this method allowed us to eliminate all of our food waste.

We quickly noticed that after a week our kitchen trash was barely half full; it was light and had no smell. We are a family of four, we homeschool, and are together every day. The trash that we were putting out at the curb was now minuscule compared to what we were recycling at the curb, with our chickens, and through Bokashi composting. Our waste footprint was drastically reduced.

In addition to being easy and reducing waste, we were creating compost at lightening speeds. Bokashi must be buried after it ferments for two weeks. The soil microbials then complete the process of breaking down the food. We decided to bury ours in our “passive compost pile.” What we discovered was that two weeks later when we returned to bury our next bin, the food waste was completely gone, leaving in its place rich, dark compost. A two week turnaround is unheard of using other composting methods.

The logistics of the process look like this:

  1. Add scraps (dairy, bones, meat, anything) to bin and sprinkle with Bokashi, cover with plate and seal lid. Remember this is an anaerobic process. You may choose to collect scraps on the counter in a ceramic bin and move to the Bokashi bin once or twice a day, or add as you go.
  2. Once your bin is filled, it must sit for fourteen days to complete the ferment of the latest materials added. You can either have two bins or move the contents of the filled bin to a five gallon bucket to continue fermenting.
  3. After the ferment is completed, it can then be added to your compost pile or directly to soil in your garden or yard. You can plant on top of the bokashi after two weeks. It will transform into compost to use elsewhere after four to eight weeks. This process is even faster, in as short as two weeks, when you add the fermented scraps to your compost pile. It’s a great way to amend your passive pile and speed up compost production.

There are just a couple things you will need to start Bokashi composting:

  • A collection bin that can drain. (Two bins are preferable.) There are commercial bins available or you can make your own with nesting buckets and adding a drain valve in the lower bucket.
  • Bokashi – wheat bran that is inculcated with microbials and left to ferment. You can buy this already made or make your own. (See sidebar for recipe.)
    Utilizing these two, simple methods, we have transformed our soil and drastically reduced our waste footprint. I love knowing that any unused food is returning to the soil to nourish our next crops and to support a healthy soil ecosystem.

I encourage everyone to get to know their soil; it’s life changing!

Making Your Own Bokashi

A six-month supply can be made for about thirteen dollars. You will need:

25 pounds of wheat bran (check local feed stores)
1.5 tablespoons ceramic powder (sold with EM – see below)
2.5 tablespoons sea salt
1/4 cup EM (Effect Microbials – search Internet for sources)
1/4 cup molasses
2 gallons hot water

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also like these:

A Composting Primer

Recycling in Your Garden

Making Worm Compost

Mix the ingredients in a large bin. After being thoroughly mixed, it should start sticking together. Move to a garbage bag and suck out the air with a vacuum cleaner. Seal the bag. Let it ferment in this air-tight bag for two to three weeks. You will know it’s done by the sweet pickling type smell. There may be white spots; that is fine. Black or green mold is not okay. If you see that, air is getting in. You can scoop out those parts and reseal the bag.

You may use it right away but if you dry it, then it will last for years. To dry, spread on garbage bags or tarp. Once dry, you can store it in bags or bins. It’s a fun process and really easy. Children especially enjoy helping! You can make small batches in buckets or huge batches on tarps. It is safe and actually good for birds and the environment. So don’t worry if it spills outside.

In addition to using this for Bokashi composting, it makes a great cat litter and supplemental animal feed. (Chickens and horses love it.)

Anna Brown enjoys sharing her passions including sustainable living, holistic health, backyard chickens, and living consensually. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with her husband David and their two daughters Afton and Raelin. They share their suburban home with six cats, five chickens and two rabbits. Together, they explore the world around them, living and learning together every day.


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