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Experimenting with anaerobic composting - not sure if it works  RSS feed

 
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So I've read alot about anaerobic composting, which seems to be almost the same as "bokashi". The simplest form of anaerobic compost should be "throw it in a plastic bag, seal, wait x number of weeks, done".

So right now I have 2 ~ 7 liters pots full of bio waste in my garden, with the next, 40l vessel ready to come. I don't plan to do 2 weeks there compost next, but rather leave it for months to fully decompose. But: i've taken a random sample of my waste, put it in a jar, covered with water, and closed it. 2 weeks later... nothing seems to be happening. I did not add any EM or whatever, just relied on the bacteria which is there. I did add some soil to the pots which I did not do for the jar (i'll do that next).

But I'm wondering... am I going to end with just pickled garbage rather than soil?? It looks that way in the jar.
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pollinator
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What I'm trying is putting a bunch of random organic materials (kitchen scraps, weeds, old chicken bedding, worm castings) into a large barrel, filling with water, and putting on a lid.  It seems to be fermenting, which is what I think it's supposed to do.

 
mike baron
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Yeah that's basically what I do, but on a smaller scale. Throw in garbage, cower with dirt, add some water, close... and repeat next time.

I don't want to "check how it's doing", because I'd introduce oxygen to now probably oxygen free environment. That's why I'm trying jars, to see what, if anything, is happening.

But I'm not seeing anything like this guy: http://bangalorebalcony.blogspot.com/2016/02/aerobic-composting-using-microbes.html
 
Tyler Ludens
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That guy is using aerobic decomposition.

" Materials used:
1 container with a lot of holes for aeration
Microbes infused cocopeat block
Organic waste"
 
gardener
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I second Tyler's take on things here.  The guy you posted the link to, Mike, is creating an air based, oxygen-based, and thus Aerobic system, not at all like the Anaerobic system that you are trying to achieve via your method. Your system seems to be anaerobic via being water-based and basically deprived of air flow or oxygen by being in a sealed jar. 


That said, you should be able to make a bokashi type system using less water then what you are using.  Here's what I would do, if you don't want to go the full-on bokashi route but want some kind of similar results.  But be warned that you will not get the type of fermentation that is the result of bokash without involving some culture beyond your soil.  The highest quality, nutrient dense, wild soil is probably going to be best to use as an inoculum; this will be from under older or mature, broadleaf trees.  It will take longer and you will likely have to experiment with methods and amounts of soil before you get your desired results.  Bokashi is not a waterlogged process.  It's moist.  It's slightly damp.  Press the organic materials into the jar, and add an equal layer of soil. Just to cover the organic waste.   Moisten it, like with a spritzer.  Add a layer when you can, again pressing it down and then cover it with soil, and then moisten it, slightly.  I would not saturate it, or fill the container with water unless you are trying to make a anaerobic tea, as in the video that Tyler posted.  The warmer the system is, to a point, the more likely you will get a ferment.  There is a certain temp range that is optimum for fermentation, and I'm not sure what it is at the moment.  You can also fill a kitchen compost bin with organic waste and the press it right at the ending stages, adding a layer of soil that you dampen and then close the bin tight.  You might have to wait a while to get good results.  It might be in your interest to soak up a bit of moisture at the bottom with a layer of some peat or coco stuff.      

You will get some kind of fermented product by making a soup of kitchen waste in a sealed jar, but you might also get something else as the bulk of your waste materials break down to rotten slime.  It should smell good to you, if it's a proper full-on ferment.  It doesn't have to smell like saurekraut, but it should probably smell decent.  If it smells rank or unpleasant, then it is rotting and mostly not fermenting with the real good guys.  In the case of this rot, the type of bacteria colonies that you are culturing are not the type that are really awesome for garden soil, from my understanding.  The stuff will break down, but it will be slimy and unpleasant to work with.  You can, however, use the liquid from a system like you are making for a tea, as in the case of Tyler's video, and that does not have to smell great to be effective.  Just don't get it on your shoes or clothes.  As soon as you add the tea to the garden, there are bacteria within the mix called facultative anaerobes, and these will switch to an aerobic process when they come into contact with an oxygen-based soil system.  

It should also be mentioned that both of the links posted are from projects in the tropics.  The tropics are already pretty super-charged with microbial breakdown of both sorts, so you can not expect to get the same rapid results unless you are in the tropics.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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By the way, Mike... Welcome to Permies!
 
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Anaerobic bacterial culture makes me worry about botulism. I'm wondering what the benefit would be to composting anaerobically, since the vast majority of organisms that aid in decomposition metabolize oxygen. I think if I wanted to mummify something or halt decomp, I might think about creating an anaerobic environment for that. Maybe I am reading too much into it. When I do compost, if there's too much water or not enough air circulation it gets nasty funk stench as opposed to a healthy balance of bacteria, bugs and fungi.
 
Tyler Ludens
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I think botulism or other pathogens are only a danger if one applies the anaerobic glop on vegetables which will be eaten fresh.  Cooking destroys botulism and most other pathogens.  Most anaerobic bacteria will die as soon as they hit the air and almost certainly once they hit the soil, especially if that soil is healthy live soil with plenty of aerobically decomposing material (compost, mulch, etc)

My personal theory is that the anaerobic "swamp water" is a good fertilizer because the anaerobic bacteria die almost instantly and become food for the aerobic soil bacteria, releasing all kinds of beneficial compounds, nitrogen, minerals.

Just be sure to wash hands after handling the glop, and don't put it on plants you plan to eat without cooking any time soon.

 
Roberto pokachinni
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Anaerobic bacteria are not necessarily bad.  They are too diverse to place in such categories of being dangerous or not.  People should not necessarily be afraid to use this family of bacteria solely because they are anaerobes.  Caution should be used if the product of your ferment is nasty smelling.  If it smells fine, it probably is fine for the garden.

Many cultures use anaerobic soil enhancements as a primary tool.  This is true in most of North East Asia.  The anaerobic culture that they produce is through fermentation.  But that fermentation is through specific methods and inoculant cultures.

The stew of anaerobes that people make, for instance, by leaving a bunch of manure, or comfrey in a barrel of water for an extended period of time, and then using the liquid product on their garden is not the same types of anaerobic bacteria that are utilized in North East Asia.  The primary difference, I think, is that the East Asian anaerobic style is fermented, while the other anaerobic bacterial cultures are not.  These non-fermented cultures do have potential benefits (very likely due to what Tyler describes above), but it is not at all similar to the anaerobic system of something like Bokashi or other traditional ferments from East Asia.  

I'm wondering what the benefit would be to composting anaerobically, since the vast majority of organisms that aid in decomposition metabolize oxygen.

 
My understanding is that most East Asian practitioners of fermented garden amendments consider aerobic decomposition/composting to be inferior to one that is fermented anaerobically through specific techniques and cultures.  In this way, with indigenous microbes and/or effective micro-organisms, the culture in the fermentation process is controlled and is very specific. 

Fermented cultures are generally non-toxic, and are considered a low risk, for instance, by health authorities, such as food inspectors.  I have experience with sauerkraut that I made in B.C., but was sold in Alberta and had to deal with food inspectors at the Jasper Farmer's Market.  No problems. 

The problem is likely primarily socio-cultural.  We, in the west (with our background and history with European and North American organic gardening methods) think we understand that aerobic systems are cleaner or safer, but I doubt that this is actually the case if one is comparing aerobic composting with anaerobic ferments.  The debate on which is better for soil communities and which is safer could be quite interesting if in depth scientific studies were involved.

Fermentation is simply another way to break down material into simpler or more complicated forms that are better or easier for bacteria and other microbiology to digest.  <--This is much the same end idea that decomposition aims to achieve, just by different means and a different end product.  To put it another way-->  The end products are different but they do much the same thing:  Feed the soil community.     

While there are many groups of anaerobic bacteria that can be involved in fermentation processes, they should not be confused with or equated to non-fermentation based anaerobic processes.
 
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Ive got fish carcases and water in a 5 gallon bucket with a lid. I added sugar and drilled a very small hole in the lid. I'll check it in November. I hope the bones are gone/dissolved.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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If the bones don't disolve, remove them and put them in another container that is rich in vinegar. This will work on breaking down the calcium of the bones and make them more easily digestible in your soil system.
 
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He's actually making liquid manure out of vegetation rather than animal manure, which is typically anaerobic - similarly, it's the liquid that should be used as a fertilizer (diluted first).

The remaining vegetation can be thrown in the compost bin or buried as a carbon source.

Same with carcasses - the bones could be ground up and used as a calcium supplement, if you can stand the stink!
 
mike baron
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Thanks for all the feedback guys!

I'll do some more jar experiments to see if I get any improvement. I've already setup one inoculated with butter milk (should contain lots of LAB) but probably added too much water again. So I'll do another one without water, and I'll also do one with commercial EM. Something has to work!

Interesting read about botulism, and one that should not be discarded IMO! I don't plan to use the tea, because I don't think it's sterile in a few weeks and it could contain pathogens. Perhaps one should also handle bokashi itself with care, although bokashi should be quite acid which should prevent the toxin from developing.
 
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All anaerobic "composting" is actually Fermentation, the liquids initially will contain ciliates and bacteria such as botulin but if you aerate the liquid those anaerobic organisms die off, the more time you add air, the fewer "bad bugs" and the more "good bugs" your supernate (the liquid) will contain.

Bokashi and other anaerobic ferments need to be aerated prior to use in the garden for the above reasons.

 
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One short word of caution:  Its difficult to mess up anything significantly with aerobic composting.  If it's not wet enough, it'll just sit there.  It it's too wet and gets stinky, a quick turn and some added browns will take care of the problem.  But the underlying soil isn't adversely effected and long-term damage isn't an issue. 

But I've seen some people do some pretty funky things with anaerobic composting that adversely impacted the soil and created a dead zone for a couple of growing seasons.  My hunch is that a big barrel of anaerobic goo was the reason why a friend's apple tree died.  He dumped it out after it got so gross and stinky, and subsequently, everything around there seemed to die.  He was making comfrey "tea", which was basically a big blue barrel that he kept packing with fresh comfrey leaves.  It smelled like hell but he had read something on the interwebs about how great this stuff would be for his garden.  It was so putrid that he decided to just kick the barrel over.  Worse than just temporarilly sterilizing his soil, he created a dead space that lasted for the better part of two years. 

I think this danger would be particularly acute if you have heavy clay soil with minimal drainage.  Rather than feeding, you might be gleying. 

Soil microbes are very different from anaerobic microbes.  If you are mulching and adding a lot of carbon to your system to feed this underground micro-herd, think carefully about how to maintain your soil biota before dumping too much anaerobic liquid on the soil.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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This may or may not have bearing on people's ideas about whether fermentation is dangerous.  Here's an article about botulism and fermentation: Article from the Wild Fermentation website.
 
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Fermentation of plant materials is extremely handy where you have invasive weeds that merely reproduce/grow when you try to compost them.

I have had some foul smelling brews over the years. When I was the fisherman the barrel smelt the worst, and was the best. The alcohols in the ferment likely do some of the worst damage if you pour it on plants. But you don't pour it on, you dilute it (1:10), then you stir it vigorously and leave it, then stir it again. And then it gets watered into the soil, not put on plants.

Alternately: Making a basic lactobacillus inoculate allows for a poor man's bokashi. As previously stated, add some good soil/compost to help (actinobacteria) and even some sludge from a pond (purple non-sulfur bacteria).

WHY?

Pickle those invasive weeds kill them dead dead dead. A barrel of pickled goodness is good. Dump it in a soon to be made raised bed. Add soil on top. Plant non-root crops. Watch it thrive. It'll turn to compost before you know it I  have done/observed this several times. I would not hesitate to throw similar in the base of a hugel mound.

I don't amend good soil like this, I look for a particularly problematic spot and this gets turned around. Last years (neighbors) barrel is now growing yellow raspberries in a raised bed. The banana patch is where the ferment before that went.

So my take is, with a bit of care, anaerobic composting is a useful part of a gardening system.

You can also just fire the pickled materials in with compost - watch it vanish/incorporate in days (Temperate summer).



 
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For anaerobic composting to work there has to be air flow, not just a bunch of compost sitting in water. I would start by draining it (don't waste it though, use it for your plants!). You could try mixing it in with some existing mature compost as well to soak up any extra liquids and create a well aerated, slightly moist compost with good air flow and lots of air pockets. Just close the bag and leave some air in it- the bacteria will eventually use up all the oxygen and then switch to anaerobic composting (which is really just fermentation).
 
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