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Part 3: From broadfork to bokashi

Are you going to write about EM? he asked. 

Me: EM, what’s that?

He, shocked: You don’t know about EM? And you the expert? It’s the latest thing. Used by gardeners around the world. Prince Charles is a fan.

Me (sigh): Send me the link.

The link was to an article in the Irish Times about Effective Microorganisms. Actually, the writer got the name wrong and called them Essential Microorganisms. No matter. EM, the invention in 1982 of Japanese scientist Teruo Higa, is a mix of yeast, fungi and bacteria that is purported to have amazing effect on soil and plant health. It’s one of a host of products geared to a rising consciousness of the need to nurture the life in the soil. In the first two articles of this Year of Soils series, I described the communities in the soil, how they interact, and how the most important thing you can do for your soil and your plants is to mulch.

Not surprisingly, this new understanding of natural productivity does not pass unnoticed by commerce, and there are all sorts of products to help with the task. Many are not new, but increased awareness can expand the market for tools and processes that have been marginal, or have fallen out of style.

So here’s a look at a few earth-friendly products.

-Item Number 1 is the broadfork or U-bar digger, which has five tines spaced along a metal bar with two handles extending up to shoulder height. The operator steps on the bar, using body weight to drive the tines into the ground and then pulls backwards on the handles. The action – easier on the back than digging - aerates without disturbing the soil structure, leaving the specialized communities of microorganisms where they belong. It works deeper than a rototiller (10 to 12 inches, compared to 4 to 6 inches) and weed seeds stay underground, reducing germination. Lee Valley Tools has a model.

Will I get it? If $149 unexpectedly shows up in my budget, yes. Though I’m lucky to have reasonably good soil, so perhaps not. But if I was starting from scratch in packed clay or a topsoil-impoverished subdivision, yes, this implement that has been around for centuries would be top of my list.

-Item Number 2 is a rose fork, with two 9 1/2 inch tines designed to aerate the soil around a plant or bush. I really like the idea of this tool, new this year from LVT ($75), for working in tight spaces among established plantings.

-Item Number 3 is the compost tea brewing machine. Actively Aerated Compost Tea (AACT) has been popularized by scientist Elaine Ingham, one of the authors of the USDA Soil Biology Primer referred to in Part 1. The tea is a way of of introducing extensive populations of microorganisms to soil and through foliar applications directly onto crops. There are a number of brewers on the market (Ingham cautions buyer beware) but I was only able to find one source in Canada. The Organic Gardener’s Pantry, in Victoria, B.C., offers two models from K.I.S. (Keep It Simple) which appear to be state of the art, one selling for $180, the other $390. Will I get it? No. I’ll throw some compost into a bucket, let it sit for 24 hours and assume there’s lots of goodness. Apparently there’s not a fraction of the goodness I could get from a K.I.S. brewer, but there you go. Read all about it, it could work for you. 

-Item Number 4 is bokashi, a Japanese fermentation technique that is said to turn food waste into organic, nutrient-rich soil in two to four weeks. Like the aforementioned Effective Microorganisms, bokashi was invented by Teruo Higa, and EMs are part of the mix. Local advocate Vera Del Vecchio of Utopia, who recently spoke to the Elmvale and District Horticultural Society, says bokashi works through an anaerobic (no air) fermentation process in an enclosed bucket, eliminating the “foul smells” that accompany composting. (Paradoxically, a smelly compost heap is the result of anaerobic bacteria, which can be killed off by aeration - turning it or poking holes through it). Del Vecchio is doing a series of workshops on the technique, charging $40, or $100 if you want the bokashi kit and book. For more details, visit her website. 

Effective Microorganisms are also also available from Gardener’s Pantry, and it’s worth checking out that website for additional insight.  According to the Irish Times, not only does this bacterial cocktail foster germination and growth, but it also fights off some plant diseases, can be used to clean pots and other surfaces and even has a role in septic systems. The Wikipedia entry cites conflicting studies, some of which cast doubt on the claims. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued.

-Item Number 5 is Myke, a product that contains some of the fungi that played a starring role in parts 1 and 2 of this series, for their role in creating essential mycorrihizal relationships between roots and the soil. I’m told that some municipalities now write a requirement for Myke to be used into their contracts for landscaping projects. My take is that there’s no point in applying Myke to impoverished soil, the organisms will simply die. I have used Myke, but now I make leaf mould for use as a mulch in the belief that this is a natural way of fostering mycorrhizal relationships. Myke is available from a couple of stores in our area; check its website for details.

-Item Number 6, peat. Wrong! Save your pennies, peat adds nothing to fertility. Some gardeners use it to make their soil more acidic; you can do that with pine needles or leaf mould. We shouldn’t use peat because it is stripped from bogs, wonderful places where endangered and highly specialized plants and creatures live. Peat is a carbon sink, but when you remove it from the ground, you release the carbon into the atmosphere and massively increase your carbon footprint. It is hard to find commercial soil mixes that don’t contain peat, but if we all check the labels and tell garden centres we don’t want anything with peat in it, we can do away with this destructive product.

I’m a fan of the closed loop, mimicking the economy of natural processes. We should minimize both what we bring in and what we discard from our personal ecosystems. Think carefully before you decide something from your garden is waste. Instead, examine how best it may be re-introduced into the loop. And remember the snow birds: all that debris you intend to clear away as soon as the snow melts? It’s chock-full of protein – insect eggs and overwintering creatures of every description. Let the thrushes and the robins pick through the litter and take care of business.
David G
- 6 May 2015 at 07:28pm

Interesting post. I am curious about the role of bokashi in the "food web", as Dr. Elaine Ingham puts it.

She's very big on aerobic, and microbes that probably can't exist in your bokashi bucket.

We have a couple of acres off the west coast of Vancouver, and the soil here is rocky, and thin. I maybe have 2 feet of material, but only the top 2-3 inches is "dark", the rest is a yellow-orange that indicates clay.

I don't want to (or can't afford to) spend the money to bring in some local compost-ish soil. I had a few yards brought in for immediate use, and found a battery and plastic sheeting in it.

My solution is bokashi, and lots of it. Collecting my neighbours green waste and storing it in large barrels with locking tops.

My hope is that burying the bokashi in soil, and maybe watering with compost tea, will help. I also put some in a separate barrel, and then add a tray of worms and semi-finished compost from the worm compost and hope that it will break down into darker compost.

Regarding hot-composting, I've come across some conjecture that it releases all sorts of gasses, some green-house (like methane), and others that you want for your garden. But if Dr. Elaine Ingham is right, then my soil has all the nutrients it needs, and anything lost during the hot-compost isn't necessary anyway.

This is almost as bad as the low-carb versus low-fat.
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