Bokashi composting is a unique way of breaking down food scraps using an anaerobic process and inoculated grains in a sealed environment. This technique has been used in Asia for thousands of years, and "bokashi” is a Japanese word loosely meant to describe fading away, blurring, gradation, or, for gardening's sake: fermentation. The broken-down material is nutrient-dense and full of beneficial microbes, and is created much faster than regular composting.
But is it better than regular composting? The answer depends on each unique gardening situation. Bokashi composting can be “better” for some gardeners, and/ or, at certain moments in the gardening routine. To say one is better or worse is overlooking the benefits that each brings. Let’s take a further look into what bokashi composting entails to see if it’s right for you.
What Is Bokashi Composting?
Bokashi is a grain or bran that has been inoculated with different strains of bacteria like yeast and lactobacillus microbes. You may also hear about other bacterial sources like purple non-sulfur bacteria and EM1 (essential microbes), but lactobacillus or “LAB” is the main ingredient needed.
The grain is merely a host and can come from many different sources like rice, wheat, bran, sawdust, or spent beer grains. You can make it yourself or source it from companies that may have the grain by-product, but there are companies and farmers that sell the already inoculated bokashi grain for a more efficient process.
When added to food scraps it actively works to break down organic material after only a few weeks of fermentation.
What’s the Difference between Bokashi and Regular Composting?
Bokashi composting is an anaerobic way of breaking down food scraps, meaning fermentation occurs in an oxygen-free, sealed environment like a bucket or bin. This is different from regular “hot” composting which utilizes oxygen to help break material down and is often made in a pile, or turned in a bin somewhere in your garden or farm. Our gut microbiome is another example of an anaerobic environment where, when good bacteria flourishes, the environment is optimized for health.
Bokashi composting is a much faster process than regular composting, allowing you to use the organic material within two to four weeks. Regular compost can take around six months.
You can use any and all food scraps, including meat and dairy, citrus, garlic, etcetera whereas regular composting has stricter rules on what you can add. It will break down eggshells at a much faster rate, essentially melting them, and can even handle bones if they are broken down or smashed with a hammer first. They won’t fully break down, but they will slowly release nutrients for microbes to constantly feed on. This means zero food waste from your kitchen.
Getting Started with Bokashi
For beginners, you’ll need two five-gallon buckets, leaving one intact, and drilling drainage holes at the bottom of the other one. Line the bottom of the bucket with holes with a cloth or screen of some kind to act as a strainer.
As the bokashi ferments, there will be some liquid runoff, or “leachate” that you’ll want to discard to eliminate bad odors, and to keep the material from becoming saturated. You can dilute this liquid with water (1:100 ratio), and use it as a fertilizer around garden beds.
You’ll need something to go in between the two buckets to create a buffer space like a brick or large stone so that the compost isn’t sitting in the liquid runoff. You’ll also need a seal on top like wax paper, heavy cloth, or a foam cut-out to squeeze excess air out, finally closing it off with a tight lid.
Note: Five-gallon buckets are generally able to handle a month’s worth of food scraps from a couple or small family. If you have more, feel free to use a different system with storage bins, for example, keeping the same ideas intact, or simply use more buckets.
Alternatively, a smaller bin method can be used directly on the kitchen counter for an easier, more manageable amount in apartments and single households, especially ones with small patios and herb gardens.
How Bokashi Works
To start the fermentation process, throw a good handful of bokashi grain at the bottom of the cloth-lined bucket, then add your food scraps. Always top off with a layer of bokashi before sealing things up, and as a rule, add a good handful of the grain for every three or four inches of scraps.
Be generous and throw enough to cover the scraps, and don’t worry about over-layering as much as under-layering—the more, the merrier. Smash the grain and food scraps down to release air pockets as much as possible and then cover with your seal. This will push any remaining air out, and the lid will keep air from entering.
If the compost begins to emit a putrid smell (not a normal smell of fermentation), throw more bokashi grain on top and drain any liquid. Normal fermentation should have a distinct vinegary smell like pickling, which is essentially what’s happening, but it shouldn’t be rancid or make your eyes water. The most runoff will occur in the first week, so check and drain the bucket a couple of times in that period.
Let the bucket sit for at least two weeks to fully ferment. White mold is good, but if you see colored mold, add more bokashi grain as it means bad bacteria has started to grow. You’ll know it’s ready when the food scraps have become soft and brittle, and material has started to merge.
This process may take a little time to fully perfect, but as long as you wait for the proper duration and use enough bokashi grain, you’ll have ready to use nutrient-rich pre-compost material.
How to Use Bokashi in the Garden
The really cool part about bokashi compost is there are numerous ways you can use it. The most popular way is to add it directly to garden beds. Dig approximately one foot deep in un-planted beds and spread the food scraps into a trench. Cover and wait around two or three weeks for the soil microbes to work away at it.
Warmer weather will speed up this process, so decomposition time is dependent on the growing season. You can check the soil with a shovel to see how much the food scraps have disintegrated, and as long as there aren’t any large pieces still there, you can go ahead and start planting in what is now nutrient-rich, humous-dense soil.
You can also add the bokashi compost or just the grain to your aerobic compost pile to help kick-start things, or if you need more green waste to balance things out. It’s nice to have both compost options to use, especially if you don’t have any more space in garden beds to bury the scraps.
Leftover bokashi compost can be buried anywhere in your yard, even in spots where you aren’t growing anything, since it will decompose quickly. Bury it in the ground, and in a month, it will turn to soil. This can be especially helpful for poor, compacted soils with depleted nutrient levels, and for speeding up the process of preparing beds for permaculture gardening.
Other Bokashi Benefits
The bokashi grain on its own can be used a few ways on farms. It can be mixed in and used as feed for animals, which will in turn help create healthier guts for animals with higher quality (and less stinky) manure. The grain can also be scattered in animal pens and bedding to help keep smells at bay, as the good bacteria will actively work against the bad stuff, and even reduce the amount of flies.
You can add bokashi compost to worm bins as any high-quality organic material will encourage worms to feed. Add the compost in slowly at first so the worms get accustomed to it. Once they've consumed most of it, add another layer, and so on. They're even able to tolerate the small amount of onion and citrus that gets broken down.
Lastly, bokashi compost can help feed your “soil factory.” Soil factories are beneficial for farms and gardens that freeze over winter, and therefore can’t be planted or dug into. Using large bins or containers, the bokashi compost can be mixed in with garden soil or old planter dirt to give your food scraps a place to go during the winter months, while also creating on-hand, high-quality soil that's ready to go once spring emerges.
Cons to Bokashi
It’s best not to use any items that are too large with bokashi—for instance, a potato would need to be cut up in order to ferment in time with other scraps.
You also can’t use things that are already rotten or moldy as they will out-compete the good bacteria and upset the process of fermentation. You may be able to add more bokashi grain to take care of a small amount of colorful mold, but in general, the point is to nurture good bacteria.
Bokashi compost can hold a certain amount of “brown” waste items like paper and cardboard, but large green waste materials like lawn clippings, sticks, branches, and the like are better suited for compost piles.
Which method is more cost-effective? Compost piles usually need a bin of some kind, which depending on size can range from $20-$200. Five-gallon buckets for bokashi composting can be bought new at hardware stores for $5 each, if you don’t have any old ones lying around.
It's approximately $15 for a 2-pound bag of bokashi grain that will take care of a family’s food scraps for about four months. The bonus liquid leachate fertilizer you can use around garden beds may help you justify the cost, if you need it. Every good composter needs a pitchfork and a shovel, but you should already have those!
Many areas have developed good municipal compost pickup, so it’s not essential for these households to make use of food scraps to keep them out of a landfill. If your community has a compost pickup program, and you don’t have any use for fast compost material, the bokashi method may be extra, unnecessary work for you. If you already have a hot compost pile and are happy with your garden routine, bokashi may be redundant.
Some people won't like the smell of bokashi composting, but that probably means that composting in general is not something you will enjoy, as bokashi is far less smelly than regular compost piles.
There have been some reports of skunks or dogs being attracted to the bokashi compost buried in garden beds, but that usually means it wasn't left to ferment long enough before being buried. Animals are not attracted to pickled foods, and even if they are curious, unlike a compost pile which is a constant attractant to many pests (especially mice and rats), the bokashi compost is at most a once-a-month event, so animals do not set up camp around the area like regular compost piles. Chicken wire, frost cloth, and blood meal can be used as extra deterrents.
Is Bokashi Really Compost?
This is a good question, and what seems to make the most sense is that it’s actually pre-compost, or compost starter. The fact that it can be added directly to garden beds gives it a bit more cred, but the food scraps will still need time to break down before planting, so, it’s not exactly ready-to-use compost. But, neither are compost piles.
If semantics don’t keep you up at night, use the bokashi compost for what it is and leave it at that. The verdict is still out on whether the bokashi runoff "tea" is the great plant fertilizer some claim it to be, but there's definitely no harm in spreading more microbes around your soil, and isn't the point of gardening to have fun trying new things?
Overall, the main benefit of bokashi composting over traditional composting is how quickly you can achieve compost, even after digging it into garden beds. The method is also translatable for various sized applications, whether you have a small household or a large restaurant, bokashi composting can make use of all food waste, keeping ALL good quality organic material out of landfills.
While bokashi composting has many benefits, claiming it’s better than regular composting is missing the point. The two can certainly be used hand in hand, or, one may work better for you year-round, versus intermittently. The choice is yours. When it comes to organic gardening, there’s one thing I do believe strongly in: the more choices we have to create good organic soils, the better off our gardens will be.