bokashi composting
Adding a little used potting soil helps the enzymes in the bokashi microbes break down the food waste.

Step aside Spiderman, there’s a new superhero for the times. Captain Compost is here to turn tons of school lunchroom waste into gorgeous black gold for school and community gardens.

Michael Dalton (a.k.a. Captain Compost) , started the Gardens from Garbage program in Great Falls, Montana several years ago in an attempt to keep the thousands of pounds of food waste out of the landfill. He set up composting bins utilizing “bokashi,”  which are micro-organisms used to ferment organic matter, literally turning the trash into a rich soil amendment.

The thought of composting so much waste is daunting, especially for those who live in colder climates where traditional hot composting takes a lot of fussing and a fair amount of time. That’s why the microbes in bokashi (Japanese for fermented organic matter) are key to this project. 

Instead of having to layer a compost pile carefully with green and brown materials, then make sure that enough oxygen is reaching them and that the moisture level is adequate, the bokashi ferments the materials, encouraging microbial growth that breaks down the materials in a far shorter time.

captain compost
Michael Dalton, a.k.a. Captain Compost

ANAEROBIC VS. AEROBIC: The big difference with bokashi composting versus the traditional method is it that it requires an anaerobic setup. Michael and his team of volunteers inexpensively create this environment by using free pallets, rigid foam insulation and plastic sheeting to cover the inside of the compost box. 

They also place a 3-inch pipe (it can be PVC or whatever is available) that reaches the bottom of the pile in order to syphon the “garbage tea” with a manual bilge pump. They add this diluted tea to the school gardens, using 1 teaspoon of the tea to 2 cups of water. Michael says you can also pour it down your drain to aid your septic system. 

THE PROCESS: The day-to-day process of composting is simple. The buckets of lunch waste are dumped into the bin, a couple of quarts of used potting soil are sprinkled on top of it, and a handful of it is added. This is repeated until the bin is nearly full. Michael says that once you have a mix of 30 parts food waste to 1 part carbon (leaves, potting soil, etc.) it takes 60 to 90 days to finish. 

You can also compost in a bucket by sprinkling  ½-cup of bokashi in the bottom, then adding the food waste each day along with an additional 1 to 2 tablespoons of bokashi. Once the bucket is roughly 75 percent full, place a plastic bag over the scraps and put a lid on it. It will take two weeks for it to be ready for the garden.

SMELLS LIKE PICKLES: But it’s not going to look like regular compost. It will have a “pickle” smell, the food might not be broken down to where it’s unrecognizable, and there might even be white mold on it. But it’s all good. To use it, bury it in a trench along with your plants in the garden, or add the rich mix to your existing compost pile. It will be completely gone in a month. 

Bokashi isn’t new, but it’s a unique and effective way to utilize every bit of kitchen waste and add it back to the garden. Visit for more helpful composting information.

This article was originally published in THE NEW PIONEER #167 2013 magazine. Print and Digital Subscriptions are available here.

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