Soon I will start growing herbs on my balcony, and for this mini permaculture project, I want to start composting my food scraps and other organic matter. I want to make the best use of valuable waste and create nutrient-rich compost for my plants and herbs to thrive. And save some space in the landfill at the same time. I also read that regular store-bought soil is unfortunately not a good choice. Apparently, at least in the Netherlands, peat ground is imported all the way from from the Baltic states and enhanced with artificial fertilizer, or you buy earth with minor amounts of sewage sludge or residues from the industrial meat industry. Of course, you can buy a biological or RHP certified alternative. But how much more satisfying will it be to take matters into your own hands and create your own compost!
To be honest, even though I worked on a compost pile here and there I feel like a total beginner when it comes to this topic. Three familiar strategies for composting are the regular compost heap or bucket you see in gardens, vermicompost, with the help of hungry red worms, and Bokashi composting which uses effective microorganisms (EM) initiating a process of fermentation. Of course, there are others like the biodigester, a system that creates biogas, a renewable energy source, as a result of the breakdown of organic matter. And the beautiful biochar that can be used to create super fertile terra preta. In addition, the two main processes of composting are aerobic and anaerobic, referring to how microorganisms decompose organic matter, either with or without air circulation.
I first learned about vermicomposting in Ecuador, when I volunteered at the Rio Muchacho organic farm where we maintained a larger scale wormery project. It was exciting to find out that the city of Amsterdam also offers us vermicompost options. At the moment I am taking my organic waste to one of the many beautiful worm hotels in the city of Amsterdam. My food scraps feed the worms and twice a year the rich compost is harvested and offered to the ‘members’ of the worm hotel. Every week two new worm hotels are added, and the cities Groningen, Lelystad, Delft and Hilversum are participating too. The worm hotels are so popular that there is now a waiting list if you want to start one in your local neighbourhood.
Vermicomposting definitely is an option for your balcony. I have been told it is fairly easy to create a worm hotel or wormery. Not all organic waste is suitable, for example you will need to avoid meat, dairy and vegetable oils. The worms also prefer material that is decomposing and therefore it is helpful to create multiple layers for waste, so organic material can exist in different stages of decomposition. It’s best to use the hungry red worms (Eisenia foetida) or perhaps manure worms (Lumbricus rubellus). Vermicomposting also creates a liquid or ‘worm tea’, a powerful plant food after dilution. You can potentially store this liquid for a short while. I remember at Green School in Bali this ‘liquid gold’ is collected and sold at the local farmers market. It does take quite a few months for the compost to be ready, so you need a decent sized worm hotel and some patience.
To get started you can buy a ready-made worm bin, or build your own from wood or a plastic bucket following guidelines online. You can find everything you ever wanted to know about worm composting on Planet Natural or if you refer a book try “Worms Eat My Garbage”.
Bokashi Composting On Your Balcony
The term Bokashi is a Japanese word that means something like “fermented organic matter”. They key here is the use of effective microorganisms (EM). An additive for your organic waste that starts a fermentation instead of a rotting process to break down all organic material. This fermentation process leads to a kind of sweet and sour odour. The benefits of Bokashi over regular compost or vermicompost is that you can add any kind of organic matter including meat, dairy, and bones. The process is also very fast, compost is ready to use after two weeks, and during this time it even creates a nutrient-rich tea for your plants.
I was familiar with Bokashi compost again at Rio Muchacho, where we added the effective microorganisms to a large-sized compost pile which we tended to daily. The Bokashi bucket version will be more straightforward. You can add any kind of organic waste to your Bokashi bucket, sprinkle with Bokashi effective microorganisms each time, and then make sure the environment stays more or less anaerobic. During the process you can harvest the ‘compost tea’ and after 10-14 days your full bucket of compost is ready. It is useful to make two buckets, one that is in use, and one that is in the 14-day process.
So the result here is actually a pre-compost that you first have to mix with soil, either in your garden or in a large tub on your balcony. I imagine though if you don’t have a garden it can be easiest to donate it to a friend with a garden or to a local community garden project. The liquid compost tea is always available as a powerful fertilizer for your house plants, in a dilution of at least 1:100. I even read flushing this through the toilet or sink can help your local waterways get more healthy.
You can buy a ready-made Bokashi starter set for about €50 to 60, in the Netherlands at Ecomondo for example. You can also make your own for a lot less with your own (recycled) buckets by following one of the instructional videos on Youtube and buying only the Bokashi starter for about €6. My intention is to make my own Bokashi bucket soon and use mostly the liquid for my house plants, especially herbs. I will make sure to update this post with my experiences when I have trialed this approach!
Photo credit: Alans Allotment