Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Bokashi bin, and wheat-bran starter
Okay, it isn't pretty, but it's pretty cool.

We've been outdoor composting for more than 20 years. We tried indoor vermicomposting for a while, but despite our best efforts couldn't entirely prevent fruit-fly outbreaks. We don't have a garage, so the worms were on their own outside, and eventually bears got the bin. And bears, really, are the problem. Yard waste won't attract them, but the food waste definitely does at certain times of year. Our solution has been to move the compost pile to the far corner of our property and let the bears snack as they like. But it's not ideal. Habituating the bears to human food waste is not such a great thing. Bears learn quickly and seem to share their knowledge through some sort of bear intranet. One compost bear tends to become several.

Winters present a different problem. Just getting to that faraway compost pile is a challenge when the snow is thigh-deep. No one likes doing it. Compost is the most dreaded chore on the kitchen chore rota. And of course, nothing actually rots during the winter, so in spring there's a gradual thawing of a mountain of food scraps. Just in time for the bears' arrival.

And now that most of us are eating meat a few times a week, we have the problem of bones and meat waste. We don't have garbage collection, so that stuff has to go into the freezer to be stored until we make our monthly trip to the dump.

So now we're trying something new. The chicken manure, leaves, garden waste, straw and grass clippings will keep going in the compost pile, but our food waste will go in our bokashi bin inside. Bokashi is Japanese for "fermented waste" and the bokashi approach to food waste processing was invented in Japan in 1980. It uses a combination of lactic acid bacteria, photosynthetic bacteria and yeast to ferment food and cellulose (i.e. wood/paper) anaerobically. Indoors, in a sealed container.

You put your food -- including citrus, meat, bones and dairy -- in a sealed drum or bucket with a wheat-bran "starter" which provides the micro-organisms necessary for fermentation. You sprinkle a little of the starter in every time you dump a day or two's worth of scraps into the drum, and re-seal it. Then, once it's completely full, you seal it fully for a minimum of 10-14 days. After that, it is fully fermented, won't attract animals, and is just waiting to fall apart into compost.

Last week we had a chance to intercept some bokashi bins at the post-fermentation stage. During the annual Garlic Festival in September, Fiona and I had worked a few hours on the waste management team. This meant directing visitors and food vendors to get all their recyclables in the appropriate bins, and to place any food or food/paper/wood waste in the buckets destined for the bokashi drums. The half-dozen 60-gallon drums underwent their fermentation, and were delivered to the school-and-community Harvest Festival last Friday by the bokashi guy. They were opened and dumped into trenches in the garden.

The stuff smelled pretty distinctive. Not horrid. Very cidery / vinegary. It was laced with the white mold that sometimes shows up in our compost pile and is a hallmark of a good bokashi process. Like the documentation suggested, it looked pretty much the same as it had when it went into the drums. It hadn't decomposed, but the bokashi guy assured me that much of the cell structure had been destroyed. It will apparently decompose in 10-30 days when mixed with soil or buried in a compost pile. The school bravely dumped a couple hundred gallons of the stuff into the garden beside the place where the little preschoolers play. And just as the bokashi buy promised, no bears have shown up.

I think it will take us 3 to 4 weeks to fill a 5-gallon drum. We have three drums. We'll fill two, wait the 14 days while working on the third one, and then take the fermented ones out to dump in the compost pile. That's one trip to the compost pile every 6-8 weeks. Two or three trips each winter. Sure, it'll require a sled. But that we can handle, given the infrequency of the requirement.

So far our bin smells cidery when opened, and harbours no flies. Thanksgiving turkey bits are in there, with dozens of plum pits, a few bamboo skewers, a lot of tea leaves, some paper and coffee grounds, a bunch of dried-out mozzarella cheese and the usual food scraps. Week one has gone as expected. We'll see how the winter goes.

We Live Here 3D

Recently Fiona has been fascinated by Vi Hart's quirky art-in-math videos. She's made Fibonacci spirals, binary trees, trihexaflexagons and various other doodly-mathy things. Recently she noticed how a particular style of spiral doodle looked a bit like topographic lines on a map. And as she didn't really understand how topographic lines worked, I explained them to her, and printed out a topo map from our area. I also suggested it might be fun to someday cut out and stack layers of cardboard using topographic lines as a guide to create a three dimensional model of the topography of an area, real or imagined.

Well, she wanted to do that right away. So we found a couple of old cardboard boxes, traced over the topographic lines on the map we'd printed out, and started cutting. One topo line at a time we cut out our paper map contours, traced them onto cardboard, and cut each layer. Fiona glued the layers together and was entranced as the topography began to take shape. The creek drainages, and the peaks, the valleys, the ridges.

Today she painted.

A layer at a time, with bright and darker greens and greys. She used acrylic paint for its forgiving nature and opacity. Of course the open corrugated edges weren't really filled: I wondered about smoothing everything out with some polyfilla. But in the end I didn't suggest that because I figured the real point was to notice the way in which topographic lines on a map, which are so beautifully visible on this model, allow one to approximate the three-dimensional shape of the terrain.

After the painting was done, we looked at the model without the map, and tried to identify peaks and locations. Then we got out the map to check and get a bit more precise with our locations. And we decided to repurpose some sewing pins into map pins, and mark a few places with names.

Fiona is very pleased with the finished product. It took us two pleasant afternoons, totalling about 4 hours. We worked together part of the time, and sometimes I read aloud while she worked.

(We have a few of these picture-perfect unschooling days a year, where a thread of interest turns into an interesting project and results in some awesome photos. I always blog about them because .... well, because they're noteworthy. Not because they're typical.)

Wednesday, October 03, 2012


Sufferfest went almost exactly as I expected, except that it was harder, and more fun, and the weather was exceptionally fine. So, not exactly as I expected. But close.

The bike ride was long and hard. The 45k included about 1400 metres of climbing. I was worried I wouldn't finish before the course closed: a number of people didn't finish, and a few sneaked in just past the official cutoff but were granted finishes. It was a hard physical slog for longer than I've ever worked that hard. Longer than my marathon. I finished in under 5 hours, though not by much. Official times have not been posted. But I'm told I came 3rd overall among female riders. Maybe there were only three women? There were about 40 riders but it seems most of them were male.

Surprisingly I felt pretty good once I had a chance to catch my breath at the end of the day. I had a scrape on my leg from a small crash but that was all. I went home, slept and got up for the run. Muscles still seemed happy enough to oblige.

The 25k run was fine. It had about 650 metres of climb and an equivalent descent. As expected my bones and gristly bits held up well and the next day I just had a pleasant amount of muscle soreness. I managed to shave about 5 minutes off my 2010 time, sneaking in under 3 hours. Two years older and 5 minutes faster, even after a huge bike ride: I'll take it!

It was a really motivating weekend. Especially with respect to the bike. I have a decent amount of endurance, but I realized it would help to be a lot stronger when it comes to powering up hills. So there's something to work towards for next year.

Next year I'd like to do the bike ride again. And I think I'd like to run the 10k with Fiona. She's started running with me and would like to keep that up. There were an impressive bunch of kids running the 10k this year, and she would like to be part of that next year.