Ferment Your Compost

Recycle your organic matter and enrich your soil through this accessible low-maintenance composting method.

Bokashi composting enhances your soil through fermented organic waste.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Peter


Like all well-intentioned gardeners, I believe that it’s my duty to compost all of the organic waste produced both in the garden itself and in my kitchen to build my soil’s health. However, I’ve always struggled with the mechanics and biology of a typical compost pile. Although sometimes I got passable results, I never seemed to have that enviously crumbly compost I’d see in magazines and on TV gardening programs.

But now, I get all of the nutrients from my kitchen waste into my garden with no fuss at all through the technique known as bokashi composting. Bokashi, a word in Japanese meaning “fermented organic matter,” refers to a system of near-odorless composting that ferments and preserves organic matter until it’s put directly into the soil. The fermentation microbes used in this process are cultured onto dry substrate, such as rice or wheat hulls or hemp or kenaf fiber. This technique is so simple that it can be done in small gardens and urban gardens, in greenhouses and container gardens, and could revolutionize the recycling of organic matter.

Why Bokashi Works

Although soil-living microbes include many different types of organisms, bacteria is by far the most abundant group. Like all living organisms, bacteria must be able to harvest energy from the environment in order to grow and repair cell components, transport nutrients, move, and reproduce. Microbes typically digest carbon-containing compounds to harvest energy. Two of these digestion methods are respiration, an aerobic (with air) metabolic process, and fermentation, an anaerobic (without air) metabolic process. Respiration end products are inorganic: carbon dioxide and water. Fermentation end products are various organic compounds (acids, aldehydes, ketones, alcohols) and carbon dioxide.

By introducing fermentation bacteria as early as possible into your kitchen scraps and excluding air from the compost bucket, you’ll keep aerobic bacteria from taking hold and prevent the decomposition of the organic material. If the container were tightly sealed during the fermentation process, you’d need a release valve to prevent the buildup of carbon dioxide. But by leaving the compost bucket unsealed and covered, the carbon dioxide generated will prevent oxygen from getting into the bucket. The cover allows a small amount of carbon dioxide to escape.

Usually, in aerobic compost piles, large amounts of the atmospheric nutrients (carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen) are consumed by respiration and escape into the atmosphere, leaving mostly lignin and cellulose, which can improve the texture of the soil but not its microbial and nutritional value. By fermenting the kitchen scraps, atmospheric nutrients will be retained and delivered directly into the soil — a great way to boost nitrogen without the use of fertilizer or cover crops. Once the fermented compost is introduced into the soil, which contains oxygen in the porous spaces, the normal process of decomposition will take place, and the vegetable scraps will disappear.  

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