How I compost at home
By Charlene Nawar
In line with the composting workshop we hosted in Abu Dhabi beginning 2020, I thought it would be a good to share a composting blog with you to explain more on how I compost at home. There are soooooo many different composting methods out there which often leads to an information overload! I will do a separate blog post with all the different composting techniques available so you can look at that too in case this doesn’t suit you! However, a lot of you just want to start with a tried and tested method from someone who already does composting.
Do I have a garden?
Yes. We live in a small villa with a garden so I am easily able to do the two-stage process. That doesn’t necessarily mean that if you live in an apartment you cannot compost, it will just look different to my setup.
What is the 2 stage process?
In a nutshell, the first stage starts with the traditional “Bokashi” anaerobic method, followed by a 2 week waiting period, followed by the second stage which is a 4-6 week hot composting method. However, you can also stop after the Bokashi method if it you don’t want to proceed further.
If that sounds like a mouthful, don’t stop here! The main difference between these 2 stages is that the first stage requires no oxygen and the second needs lots of oxygen! Please read on as it is all explained below.
Can I compost everything?
Bokashi is, in my opinion, the best way to recycle any and all food waste – vegetables, fruit, dairy, meat, cooked meals, bones, tea bags and coffee grounds. I pretty much throw everything in! Just not very wet food like soups or stews with lots of sauce, etc as you don’t need any additional moisture. Bones, avocado seeds, bamboo toothbrushes (without the head of course – which is plastic) can also be added however they will take longer to break down – but do include these items as why send them to landfill??? We don’t eat too much meat in general and if we do, bones definitely go to the dogs, unless they are full of spices in which case they go to compost.
We do eat lots of onions and press a jug of fresh orange juice every now and again and all those scraps go in the compost too. The reason I mention this is because there is a big debate as to whether these should go into the compost or not. It is generally not recommended as it is said that these items may detract worms or slow down the decomposition process down. However, I am an all or nothing person – it doesn’t make sense that I would still have to throw away certain scraps to a landfill. I cut them fairly small so they break down quicker and have had no issues up until now. Further, I am not a French onion soup provider and nor do we drink orange juice every single day – it is all in moderation. The key is to find balance, and the soil that we have here in the UAE is not rich in nutrients by any means so anything that you add is definitely a plus! I have found some worms in my garden as well as birds, bees, lizards, slugs and snails so I must be doing something right to attract all these lovely creatures!
My thinking is that anything that has lived, can be added to your compost!
THE FIRST STAGE
Bokashi originated in Japan and means ‘fermented organic matter’. It is a form of anaerobic composting which means that this method does not require oxygen. It is a fermentation process where a special bran is added to assist and accelerate the breakdown of the food waste. As the food scraps are kept in an airtight container, there is also no smell.
- 10 or 20 litre bucket with lid
- Bokashi bran (or finished compost)
- Food scraps
Initially, I was afraid of composting and heard lots of misinformation and horror stories of smells, maggots, rats, etc and wanted this to be perfect! So I invested in the original Bokashi bucket (around AED 300) and started my composting in there. However, after doing some research and attending a composting workshop, I realized that it is not necessary to have the original Bokashi bucket and that any bucket with a lid will do. As we are 6 people living under 1 roof, we do generate a fair amount of food waste and therefore I have 3 buckets in total – 1 Bokashi and 2 others (1 x 20 litre / 1 x 10 litre).
My second 20 litre bucket I got from my supermarket – they get their olives in bulk in these buckets and gladly give them away for free. And my 3rd 10 litre bucket I got from another supermarket – they get their mayonnaise in these buckets and are also happy to give them away. This is also a great idea for reusing and repurposing buckets that would otherwise be sent to landfill.
The difference between any bucket and the Bokashi bucket is that the Bokashi has a sieve and tap at the bottom that has a small space where liquid can drain from the fermenting scraps into a small reservoir. Thereafter it can be easily drained with the tap, diluted with water and used as a liquid fertilizer for your garden. However this is not a deal breaker and by adding a thick layer of leaves or wood shavings at the bottom of the bucket, can achieve the same affect.
Where to start?
The first step is to collect all your food scraps in the bucket. If you have a Bokashi bucket, make sure the tap is closed, and then you can start adding the scraps immediately. If using a regular bucket, you will need to add around 8-10cm of brown materials (dried leaves, wood shavings, potting soil, shredded brown paper or cardboard or a combination of these) – any brown materials in order to form an absorbent layer.
I collect all my scraps in a small bin under my sink and open the Bokashi bucket once a day to dump in the scraps – this is usually done before going to bed every night.It is not because I am too lazy to open the lid every time, but also because there shouldn’t be too much oxygen inside or else it may go bad – remember this is anerobic fermentation! Always ensure the lid is tightly closed!
For every 3cm or so of food waste, I add a tablespoon of bran (you can also use compost) which should be sprinkled over the top layer of food waste and this layering should be repeated like a vegetable scrap lasagna, until the bucket is full. Once the bucket appears full, use a plate or gloves (reusable ones) and push down the contents of the scraps. Depending on the size of the bucket, you will find that you can probably create an extra 5cm or more worth of space as the bottom layers have started breaking down. And continue to layer once again until your bucket is full and you can no longer create any more space. Sprinkle the last layer with bran (or compst) and close the lid tightly.
How do I use the liquid fertilizer?
If you are using a Bokashi bucket with a tap, you can drain the liquid fertilizer (also known as ‘Bokashi tea’) every 2-3 days which must be diluted with water to make a great nutrient rich liquid fertilizer for your garden that is alive with micro-organisms. When I first started, I did this regularly as it was exciting however I now do this very rarely as I find it time consuming and yet another task that has to be completed when I am pressed for time.
Also, this tea does have a strong smell when you remove it and before it is diluted with water, especially if you leave it for a few too many days. It only smells when you open the tap to drain it – it will not make your kitchen stink if you don’t drain it! Another factor is that my dogs LOVE the taste and then they go licking everywhere in the garden where I pour it and I find this incredibly annoying as I can’t stop them – so I just skip this altogether and add it to the second stage so nothing is wasted.
If you do want to use the fertilizer be sure to dilute with water at a ratio of 100:1, that’s 100 parts water to 1-part ‘Bokashi tea‘ as it is very strong. Then you can pour around the base of your plants – try to avoid spraying the foliage.
THE WAITING PERIOD
Once the bucket is full, close it tight and make sure the lid is pressed down so that no air can enter. Place it outside for 2 weeks so that the food waste can start fermenting. During this time there is no need for you to do anything – no need to check on it or turn it or anything like that. Once you open it up you will know if you have been successful or not as the food will be covered in some white mould. The food may not look that different (and it definitely will not look like the final product – compost), however the cell structure would most definitely have changed, and it will enable a quicker break down during the next stage. This is when you will have your first smell – not an awful smell but definitely a strong fermented, sour, pickled smell (and even more pungent if like me, you didn’t drain the liquid during the process).
Now you have 2 options:
- dig a hole in your garden and bury it, or
- proceed with the second stage.
I do a bit of both and do not complete the full stage for every Bokashi bucket that I fill up (as we have 3 buckets) – it really depends on how far along the previous batch is.
THE SECOND STAGE – HOT COMPOSTING
- Big bin with lots of holes (and preferably a lid)
- Dried leaves (browns)
- Stage 1 fermented waste
Before I start let’s talk a bit about browns – in order for the second stage to be effective you need good mix of green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) material. Browns include most things that are brown – like dried leaves, twigs, wood shavings, potting soil, shredded printing paper, newspapers, and cardboard (including toilet rolls!) can go into your bin. I think about cardboard as something that has lived a previous life.
I collect any green leaves or twigs or grass clippings that I find when I am outdoors walking my dogs and leave them in a container next to my compost to dry out until I am ready for my next batch. Leaves and other organic materials do break down very quickly but cardboard doesn’t so you key is to break it down into smaller pieces, whether you cut it, tear it or shred it. Don’t just throw whole toilet rolls or newspapers in there as it will take forever to break down and is not very efficient. Try your best to get dried leaves and if you can’t find enough, then add some brown paper or cardboard.
To start stage 2 you need a big bin that is at least 5 times the size of the bucket you used for the fermented waste. I use an old storage bin that used to store pool toys and that is no longer used now that we don’t have a pool. My husband drilled some holes for me all around – on the lid, sides and the bottom. You can be as creative as you like here – an old laundry basket, a big bucket however it is important that there are holes as this stage needs oxygen for it to be successful. Also, a lid with holes is preferable to keep out potential unwanted visitors.
Mix the fermented scraps with a substantial amount of browns (at least 5 times the amount) and mix it well. This can be done in the bucket itself as mine is big enough or I also have a big plant pot from ages ago that I keep on the side and use for mixing too if I feel I am struggling to turn well. Once mixed properly you will barely be able to see your food scraps in the mix.
I keep this bin raised so that maximum oxygen can flow through it and open it up once a week to turn it. When you check it, it should not smell bad but have a good earthy smell. It is difficult to describe the smell aside from ‘earthy’ however you will know immediately if it a BAD smell.
What to look for when you turn it?
Getting a good balance of green and browns is usually where people fail, which leads to your compost being either too wet, or too dry.
It is too wet if you can see this just by looking at it, but if you are unsure you will know this if you test it by squeezing a handful and if it feels like you are wringing wet hair after a shower or swim, it’s too wet. If it is too wet, it may also start to smell bad! This can easily be rectified by adding more browns and mixing again. Alternatively, if you squeeze it is very crunchy and there are sand particles falling through then it’s too dry and you will need to add some water and mix again.
Turning your compost regularly helps to avoid any mistakes.
Why is it called hot composting?
This is because the temperature inside this compost can reach temperatures of up to 50-70 degrees Celsius. This works even better during the UAE summer where it is assisted by the extreme outdoor temperatures and can break down even quicker.
How long does it take?
After 4 weeks you will notice that everything has broken down nicely and is ready to be used. There may be some bigger pieces that haven’t yet broken down, that is fine as you will now sieve out the smaller pieces and you can add the bigger pieces to the next batch so that they can break down in their own time. To sieve I use an old bicycle basket from my daughters bicycle. It is plastic and broke fairly soon after we purchased it. I try not to buy new plastic items but you can also use a bigger plastic sieve that you can get from your supermarket or you can buy a proper sieve online that is made with mesh wire.
What to do with the finished compost?
Firstly, I keep some for my next Bokashi bucket so thatI don’t have to go out and buy more bran.
Thereafter, I distribute this compost in my garden to all my plants to feed them. And my garden is blossoming so it must be working.
SLEEP – EAT – COMPOST – REPEAT!
Charlene Nawar is the founder of Unwrapped UAE dedicated to teaching people how to live a more zero waste, sustainable and meaningful way of life with less! A lifestyle that is rewarding, simple, effective and worth living! Through informative blog posts and DIY’s on ways that you can reduce, refuse, reuse, recycle and rot – Charlene has done the hard work for you and learnt through her own mistakes and wants to share the success so that you don’t have to learn the hard way too!
Follow Charlene on https://www.instagram.com/unwrappeduae/, visit her website at https://unwrappeduae.com/ and download the Unwrapped UAE app from either the Apple of Google Play stores.