A planter for the herb garden

Look at what I picked up last night!

This beautiful used terracotta planter was up for sale for $20 on craigslist. I spotted it yesterday afternoon, and by the evening, it was mine! It's a substantial weight and has drainage holes.

Pickled food waste that comes out of the Bokashi bucket must be mixed with soil in order to complete the composting process, and I don't think this planter will be big enough for the entire contents of my bucket plus soil. I'm still going to get some Rubbermaid tubs to hold the rest, but this will be a good size to start a nice little herb garden. I'm sure my gardener friend would be happy to use whatever excess black gold I end up with in her raised garden beds.

Letter to GT's Kombucha

Well, I've tried calling GT's Kombucha a few times this morning, but have been unable to reach anyone, so I sent the following e-mail:

Hi, I buy your Kombucha regularly from Whole Foods in Glendale and Pasadena.

I've been concerned about the growing number of bottles accumulating at home. I haven't wanted to recycle them, because I have heard that energy-wise it is better to reuse than recycle.

When I was buying some of your "Trilogy" drink from Whole Foods this morning, I was pleased to learn that all bottles returned to the store by customers are taken back by their vendors.

My question is - when you take back your empty GT's Kombucha bottles from Whole Foods, what happens then? Are they washed and refilled, or are they carted away to a recycle center? I would really appreciate hearing back from you, as my concern about creating unnecessary waste is actually what has been holding me back from enjoying as much Kombucha as I'd like.

This note under the "Community" section on your website was actually quite concerning to me:
http://gtskombucha.com/com_bell.html, because if you in fact are willing to take back your bottles for reuse, then these avid Kombucha drinkers should not be sending their bottles to the recycle bin!

I noticed the header on that section of your site read "A community focused on health and vitality" - for me, the health and vitality of the planet are important to my own well-being, as well as potentially that of future generations.

I hope you will take the time to answer my question about whether your company refills used Kombucha bottles.

Thanks very much, and happy new year!

Kombucha Update

** 12/31/08 Update: I've been craving Kombucha all week, and this morning I stopped by my local Whole Foods for a fix. I passed through their dairy aisle because I was curious about their selection of unpasteurized milk, and noticed that the glass milk bottles (all from California farms) do specify that the bottles should be returned so they can be washed and refilled. I spoke to a Whole Foods employee to ask if they actually do take back bottles at the store, and not only do they take back their milk bottles, apparently all of their vendors take back their respective bottles whenever they make deliveries!

I was unable to reach anyone at GT's Kombucha by phone so far this morning, but this gives me hope that when they take back their bottles from Whole Foods, they are washed and reused. If this is indeed the case, I would strongly advocate returning your Kombucha bottles to Whole Foods instead of taking them to a recycling center or tossing them in the recycle bin for curbside pickup. In fact, if you buy any beverage from Whole Foods, please return the empty container there. Not only will you get your 5-cent deposit back, but you will give the bottles a chance to be reused instead of recycled.

I also called my local Ralph's and Pavilions/Vons grocery stores to inquire about their CRV policies. Pavilions does not take back any containers - they must be taken to a recycling center to retrieve your deposit. Ralph's takes back only select glass milk bottles. If you are concerned about maximizing the life cycle of beverage containers, Whole Foods seems like the place to shop.

My most frequent grocery stop has long been Trader Joe's - it's affordable, small and neighborly, and for delicious, convenient prepared foods they can't be beat. However, despite their in-your-face encouragement to bring your own shopping bags, it's a packaging nightmare there.

There is a limited amount of produce that isn't wrapped, bagged, or boxed in plastic, and they offer no bulk dry goods. I used to live one block from the original Trader Joe's store in South Pasadena, and would walk there almost daily. I still hold a soft spot in my heart for good ol' TJ's, but as I think harder about the environmental impacts of my lifestyle, I have been leaning more toward shopping at Whole Foods.

I've read criticisms of Whole Foods that accuse the retailer of misrepresenting, through signs in the store, the proportion of their produce that is grown locally. In my opinion, however, Whole Foods has advantages over more conventional grocers. Yes, many things are quite pricey at Whole Foods, but they carry a wide selection of bulk dry goods, and also offer things that are difficult to find elsewhere (like raw milk, Kombucha, and natural personal care and beauty products). After learning today that beverage bottles all go back to their sources, I have yet another reason to favor shopping at Whole Foods!


Other types of composting - and chicken tractors!

On Sunday evening, I attended a"food and film night" organized by Path to Freedom, aka the Dervaes family of Pasadena, who call themselves "urban homesteaders."

The Dervaes family have a mini-farm in their backyard, on about one tenth of an acre - the same size as the garden in which I've been helping out on weekends. In this limited space, they grow vegetables and raise chickens, ducks, and pygmy goats to provide eggs and milk to feed the family. Furthermore, they run a number of businesses from their home, including
selling their produce to local restaurants, and the online Peddler's Wagon shop retailing products for "green living."

When I registered for the food and film night, I browsed around on the Dervaes' "
Little Homestead in the City" blog, and noticed that they practice Bokashi composting at home. I was looking forward to chatting with these experienced urban farmers/eco-pioneers about their tips on using Bokashi, but they really had their hands full with what seemed like a successful event!

I attended with the gardener who I have been helping, and brought my (now signature) zucchini bread made from one of her organically-grown zucchinis picked last week. I have heard some people lament that organic practices produce lower yields than conventional farming. This zucchini must have been the exception to the rule - it was at least 16" long, and about 5" in diameter - you would never find something like that at the grocery store! It produced 5 loaves of zucchini bread, which I shared at work, a Christmas party, the film and food night, and with other friends.

My gardener friend also practices composting at home. The main compost heap runs between her home and a fence, and is piled with branches, trimmings, and other traditional yard waste. This heap is basically left to itself to slowly decompose over a period of many months.

She also has a "Tumbleweed" compost bin such as the one pictured below, which is designed for speedier composting. By tumbling the compost rather than leaving it to sit passively, air is worked into the decaying matter, and the different materials are also mixed more evenly. Last weekend, we deposited newspapers (carbon) covered with fresh chicken droppings (rich in nitrogen) from the chicken coop into the Tumbleweed bin and gave it a spin.

At the gardener's house, there is no need for a worm bin or Bokashi bucket because most food scraps are fed to her grateful hens. We also toss the hens piles of fresh, green yard waste like weeds, overgrown herbs, and grape leaves. The chickens have a large wooden coop in which to lay eggs and roost at night, and also a wire-enclosed run where the green scraps are tossed.

In addition, each day two hens are selected for a few hours in the "chicken tractor." The chicken tractor is essentially a small, mobile, bottom-less chicken coop. Inside, the hens happily scratch, dig, and forage for grubs, bugs, grass, and weeds. In an urban environment, the last thing we need is for the little flock to get demolished by dogs, hawks, or cars - or for the little garden to get demolished by free-roaming hens! The chicken tractor is a nice compromise that allows the hens to forage, while protecting the chickens from predators and preventing them from eating areas of the garden that you do not want uprooted.

(A whimsical clip-art representation I pieced together)

Chicken eggs are supposedly more nutritious (higher in Omega-3 fatty acids) when chickens are allowed to feed on a mixed diet - and not just fed commercial chicken feed. If you are trying to shop for humane, more nutritious eggs, look for those labeled "pastured." Labeling is confusing, as "cage free" doesn't necessarily mean the chickens were truly free-range - just not kept in cramped factory cages. Also, "vegetarian" means the hens were fed a commercial chicken feed that doesn't contain animal parts - a good thing, but not ideal, since hens are omnivores and are happiest when they have access to live grubs and bugs.

I do believe the fresh eggs from my gardener friend's hens are truly more nutritious. The beautiful light-brown shells are strong and harder to break, and the yolks are firm, very deep yellow, and are not runny. The eggs taste noticeably different too - no strong "eggy" flavor, but meaty with a satisfying texture. I am very happy to have a local source for such delicious eggs!

Week 11 Update

According to the various sites I had read before starting to use Bokashi, a household of 2-3 people can keep on average about 2 weeks' worth of food scraps in the Bokashi tub before needing to empty it.

I've had my Bokashi system set up since the fourth week of October - so for over 2 months - and only now is it just about full. The food doesn't reach all the way to the lid yet, but it's getting harder to add scraps. I do it in weekly batches after storing it in the freezer, and the food comes out of my salvaged cottage cheese tubs in large, frozen blocks.

It's possible I was able to go longer because I made my own bins out of 6-gallon buckets, versus the ready-made Bokashi kits that have about a 5-gallon capacity - but that is only 20% bigger, and I've gone 400% longer.

I am usually feeding 1-2 people, not 3, and we don't leave any scraps on our plates. Perhaps the "average" households that the Bokashi bucket manufacturers refer to don't finish their dinners? Or cook with meat and as a result have a lot of bones? As I've been learning to cook with more fresh ingredients, I have had more scraps such as zucchini and pomegranate innards, but I still can't imagine filling a 5-gallon bucket in 2 weeks.

In any case, the time is near for emptying my Bokashi bucket for the first time. Last night, the juice I drained from the bucket smelled "cheesier" than usual. Perhaps this is because the matter at the bottom of the bucket has been there for so long - I think it's really ready to go!

I joined the Burbank-Glendale freecycle group and put out a plea for used planters or storage bins, and also contacted someone offering a very nice, used planter for sale through Los Angeles craigslist.

Here is a link that provides an easy step-by-step explanation of how to complete the last stage of Bokashi composting using a planter box or tub:

"How to use planters and EM compost to enjoy beautiful blooming"

This method is ideal for people who live in apartments, and don't have a yard in which to bury the fermented waste. Buried between layers of soil, the pickled scraps finally transform into "black gold" - and in a shorter time than with normal composting.



Kombucha is another exotic word like Bokashi that is always on the tip of my tongue nowadays. It's not another composting method - but it does involve fermentation. It's a naturally fizzy "miracle tea" made with active cultures.

It is supposed to have a variety of health benefits, and I do like to drink a bottle when I'm feeling under the weather. It leaves me with a vague sense of well-being (i.e. a mild buzz), and is strangely addictive. At the very least, it's tasty (tangy and acidic), low-calorie, and all-natural, with no sugar added.

I have tried several varieties from the GT's brand produced here in Los Angeles, and my favorite is the "Trilogy" flavor (raspberry, lemon, and ginger) with the rainbow-colored label.

The reason I bring up Kombucha here is not to promote the product, but rather to use it as a focal point to discuss the dilemma of packaging.

GT's Kombucha comes in an attractive 16-oz glass bottle, and usually retails at Whole Foods for $3.79 per bottle. For those who regularly stop at Starbucks on the way to work, that may sound reasonable, but I am very frugal, and gladly drink the "horrible" (but free) coffee at my office. Nonetheless, what has actually stopped me from drinking as much Kombucha as I'd like is the idea of accumulating endless pretty glass bottles.

I was very disappointed to see a piece customer feedback featured on the GT's website that gushed about how they loved GT's Kombucha so much that their recycling bins were overflowing with GT's bottles! What a terrible image of waste - and by posting it, the company seems almost proud of something that I don't think they should be. At least another addicted customer found a creative way to reuse her many bottles around the home.

In California we pay a 5-cent deposit (CRV) on glass beverage containers with the idea that the deposit can be redeemed when we bring the empty bottles to a recycling center [*see 12/31/08 update*]. In actuality, the grocery store recycling kiosks are often closed or full, with prohibitively long lines. Instead of spending hours waiting to get our deposits back, many residents leave our recyclables for curbside pick-up (which we also pay for). Recycling certainly serves an important purpose - the energy used to recycle many materials is far less than that used to make virgin products - but it's not a fix-all solution. Reusing, and particularly reducing, are much more efficient and environmentally sound because those principles limit the amount of materials that potentially become waste.

With the intent of reducing the number of bottles I purchased, I located another brand of (unflavored) Kombucha tea that is sold in much larger glass jugs. However, due to the active cultures, Kombucha must be consumed within 3 days after the seal is broken. Although I love and crave Kombucha, I can't consume a large jug that quickly myself. (Also, it was actually slightly more expensive per ounce for the large bottles).

I could also eliminate the purchase of new bottles altogether, and reuse the ones I already have by making my own Kombucha. Live Kombucha "mushrooms" or "mothers" are available online for starting your own culture colonies at home. The idea of preparing and growing my own food obviously holds great appeal to me. However, there are potentially serious health risks associated with consuming contaminated Kombucha (see this article from the Mayo Clinic, for example). While I tend not to be too alarmist, I think some of these concerns are valid. I live in a small, old apartment that is not very well sealed against contaminants blowing in - not at all close to sterile. I am happy to grow plants at home, but I am much more wary about growing my own bacterial-yeast colonies.

I would be much more comfortable refilling my Kombucha bottles with tea made in a professional facility. Not too long ago, Americans routinely left out glass containers for the milkman to refill. Now the market is dominated by disposable containers (though many are considered recyclable, they are still single-use).

I would love if they would take back their bottles to be cleaned, refilled, and resold, as with milk in days of yore. In the meantime, I've simply resorted to reducing by just not consuming Kombucha more than once every few weeks as a special treat.

I know this post has gotten rather long, but hopefully this example has raised provoked some thought regarding product packaging. Especially for something as addictive as Kombucha, there is a lot of waste associated with this habit!


WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, formerly Willing Workers on Organic Farms. It is a group of organizations that helps connect those interested in learning about organic farming with hosts around the world.

In exchange for 4-6 hours of help each day on the farm, visitors receive free meals and lodging. Many people use "WWOOFing" as an alternative way to travel on a tight budget. Others stay for longer apprenticeships or internships.

WWOOF-USA has its own directory (a $20 membership fee allows you access to the online directory for one year, as well as a printed copy of the WWOOF guide) - to participate in other countries you must apply directly to their respective WWOOF groups.

A long-time animal and nature-lover, I have always dreamed of living in a rural setting. My childhood home was in a suburban residential neighborhood, but surrounded by farmland. I had friends who lived on acres with fields, ponds, creeks, and apple orchards, and I hoped that someday I could raise animals on a hobby farm (even if not until retirement).

Although my mother is a prolific green thumb (a Master Gardener in fact), my own interest in gardening is more recent. With hopes of learning more about organic gardening practices, I signed up for WWOOF-USA recently.

As I was excitedly browsing through the WWOOF guide, I noticed one humble listing for a backyard CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) garden just 2 miles from where I work! I sent an e-mail to the gardener asking if I could volunteer for a few hours once a week in exchange for mentoring (and perhaps a few fresh veggies).

Imagine my delight when I went to meet the "urban farmer" who not only keeps a garden full of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but also 10 egg-laying hens! I have since helped out in the garden four times, and have enjoyed not only the hands-on experience of organic gardening, but also delicious, freshly-laid eggs, and zucchini that became zucchini bread for various holiday-season potlucks.

Cooking from scratch is a fairly new venture for me. I was a long-time lazy cook who relied on convenient, affordable, delicious frozen foods from Trader Joe's. For a variety of reasons, I have been making an effort to participate more in all the processes involved in putting food on my table - from the growing of vegetables to the preparing of dishes from scratch - to how food waste is disposed of. I have also been slowly "greening" my kitchen by transitioning from Teflon-coated "non-stick" pots and pans to cast iron and aluminum-core stainless steel cookware.

In future posts, I will go into more depth about my experiences in the local "WWOOF garden," experiments in the kitchen, kitchen equipment upgrades, attempts to reduce consumption of disposable or over-packaged goods, and much more.

More about Bokashi

Before I talk about my recent gardening adventures, let's review how Bokashi composting works.

Food scraps, including meat and acidic foods (restricted from conventional composting), are mixed with Bokashi "effective microbes" in an anaerobic environment. After a few weeks of fermenting, or pickling, the mixture is buried in soil, where it breaks down further.

Why aren't the food scraps simply buried in the ground in the first place? What is the purpose of pickling them first?

Remember, when food scraps, yard waste, and other organic matter are sent to the landfill, they naturally become buried under other trash. In these anaerobic conditions, the organic waste putrefies and releases methane. In contrast, with conventional composting, oxygen is a necessary ingredient for encouraging "healthy" decomposition by beneficial organisms.

One Bokashi EM retailer describes the process of Bokashi composting this way (emphases added):

"Bokashi will ferment the food waste, preventing it from rotting, and therefore eliminate odor and reduce the attraction to flies...The fermentation results in the breaking of lignin (fibers) in the food waste allowing the waste to break down within two weeks after being buried in the ground or incorporated into an existing compost pile...The fermentation is a stabilizing or preserving method during which vitamins, amino acids and antioxidants are increased, which will then become excellent nutrient sources for plants."

The way I interpret it, pickling has two main benefits:

  1. It modifies items such as meat into a form that favors decomposition by "beneficial" microorganisms, rather than attracting "pests" or promoting rotting
  2. The fermentation accelerates the composting process, which in conventional aerobic composting can take many months

I am not a professional specialist on composting, so any statements I've made about the mechanisms for composting are simply opinions based on information I've gathered. I haven't done any scientific research on composting myself, so the above are my interpretations of how Bokashi works its magic.

Back Up! Why Compost?? Part II

The previous post presented a case for composting by pointing out the negative consequences of not composting. This post focuses instead on the many positive benefits of composting.

The material we call compost is referred to by many as "black gold." Revered by gardeners and farmers, compost enriches the soil.

I like this description from the City of Long Beach web site. For me, it evokes poetic images of leaves falling softly to the forest floor:

"Composting is a form of recycling that occurs in nature as vegetation falls to the ground and slowly decays. This process provides minerals and nutrients needed by soil, plants and small animals. Setting up a composting system in your backyard speeds up this natural process... The resulting material is called humus, an important component of healthy soil. The humus that results from composting adds nutrients to the soil that can increase the health of your plants and help save money ordinarily spent on fertilizers."

My city, Burbank, offers a bit more technical description of the function that compost serves. It is described as "a rich soil amendment that:

  • Reduces the need for commercial fertilizers and pesticides
  • Improves drainage and loosens heavy clay soils
  • Conserves moisture in light sandy soils
  • Produces healthier plants and slows evaporation, which reduces water usage
  • Saves money on fertilizers and water
  • Reduces the need for City collection of yard waste"
Let's paraphrase the impact of some of the points above:

  • Compost helps your garden grow without chemicals. Consequently, fewer toxins tracked into your house on your shoes, on your pets' feet, and in your homegrown food!
  • Compost improves the quality of the soil and the health of plants. Both of these aspects help conserve water - very important in Southern California.
  • Composting at home reduces waste collection by the city.

The third point ties in with my previous post about the negative impacts of sending organic waste to the dump. Some cities do have large-scale composting operations for yard waste too. However, keeping organic matter at home to convert it to compost has the added benefit of reducing emissions from the trucks that would have carted your yard waste away.

A recent article from the Washington Post summarizes this concept nicely:

"In this age of thrift and environmental concern, it seems bizarre that we then bag or curb our leaves to be taken away. And to where? Yard waste makes up 13 percent of our trash, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Many municipalities divert this away from landfills and into composting yards, where the leaves are shredded and piled into steaming mounds that are halfway decayed come spring; enterprising gardeners then collect it and return it to their yards. Wouldn't it make more sense, though, to keep the leaves on-site?"

Gardening is not only an enjoyable hobby for many - it has benefits that everyone can appreciate. Growing some of your own food, in particular, allows you to:

  • Save money
  • Gain practical skills
  • Control how your food is grown
  • Avoid toxic chemicals in your food
  • Gain a sense of personal achievement
  • Create low-cost gifts for friends
  • Spend time connected to nature
  • Promote national food security (independence from foreign foods!)

Admittedly, some of the points I listed above are quite subjective. I would really recommend checking out this article from Sierra Magazine, which I found quite inspiring.

If you have a yard or garden, it will be easy to find uses for your finished compost. But what if you don't have your own plot of land on which to plant, let alone start a compost heap? Just as there are ways to compost without a yard, there are also many ways to garden without a yard.

  • If you live in a condo or an apartment with a balcony or patio, use planter boxes or pots
  • Grow potted herbs on your kitchen counter or windowsill, or install a planter box on the outside of the window.
  • Work on a plot in a community garden
  • Find a friend who gardens, or offer up your black gold on freecycle or craigslist

I mentioned in a previous post that I was planning on starting a small planter box garden in an "upcycled" storage bin. I have since decided not to grow vegetables, but instead focus on a variety of herbs. Why? Point #4 above - I found a friend who gardens. Much more on that to come!

Back Up! Why Compost?? Part I

Let's take a step back and address the big question - why should anyone compost?

I look at the reasons for composting from two main angles:
  1. Prevents negative impacts of sending compostable waste to a landfill
  2. Provides positive benefits by enriching the soil
This post focuses on addressing the first point: why don't we want compostable waste to go to the landfill?

Aren't food scraps and yard waste biodegradable anyway - so won't it all just break down in the dump eventually?

The answer to this question is also twofold:
  1. Food and yard waste take up a lot of valuable space
  2. Decomposing organic matter releases a significant amount of methane
According to the EPA, food and yard waste together made up about 25% of the waste collected in 2007 (from both residential and commercial sources).

A larger issue, which I will explore later, is that so much food waste is generated in the first place. Between US consumers, retailers, and restaurants, an estimated 25%-50% of food is discarded. (Read more about food waste in these 2008 articles from CNN and The New York Times).

In my opinion, the most important leg of the "Reduce-Reuse-Recycle" mantra is the first: Reduce. If we all make an effort to be conscientious about how much waste is produced in the first place, we will have less composting, recycling, and disposing to worry about.

Nevertheless, most people don't eat banana peels and onion skins, so let's continue discussing how to deal with these materials. Organic waste takes up a great volume in landfills, which are a limited resource (I don't think it's a stretch to assume that the creation of more dumps would be an unsavory, non-ideal, not to mention unpopular solution). But perhaps even more far-reaching are the negative impacts of byproducts released during the decomposition of organic waste in landfills. Because food and yard waste become buried under other trash in landfills, there is little access to oxygen, and the organic waste rots anaerobically.

According to the EPA, "as yard wastes decompose in landfills, they generate methane gas and acidic leachate. Methane is a colorless, explosive greenhouse gas that is released as bacteria decompose organic materials in landfills."

The significance, as the EPA explains, is that "methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere for approximately 9-15 years. Methane is over 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2)."

Regarding the scale of landfill-related methane, the EPA states: "Landfills are the largest human-related source of methane in the U.S., accounting for 34% of all methane emissions."

Furthermore, the EPA adds, "If methane is not controlled at a landfill, it can seep underground and into nearby buildings, where it has the potential to explode. Yard wastes also contribute acidity that can make other waste constituents more mobile and therefore more toxic."

In contrast, with conventional composting, air (oxygen) is one of the necessary ingredients. Little methane is released, with CO2 instead as the predominant gas released. Should we be worried about the CO2 generated from composting? Remember that when an equal volume of CO2 is released from waste that is composted instead of thrown in the trash, the atmospheric impact is only 5% of what it would have been at the dump.

The California EPA states that "CO2 emissions [as a result of composting] are considered "biogenic" by U.S. EPA and are not part of the overall GHG emissions inventory." Translation: the CO2 released by composting is considered part of a natural biological process, and not counted as a contributor of harmful man-made greenhouse-gas emissions. This isn't to say that composting does not emit greenhouse gases -the emissions are just categorized differently.

To read more on the emissions related to composting, here is a lighthearted post from the "Dear Abby" of environmentally-minded questions: "Global Worming: On Compost and Climate"

The first stage of Bokashi composting relies on an anaerobic environment inside an airtight container. According to a municipal government site in the UK, while "there are no exact statistics on methane production...the temperature reached in the [Bokashi] composting process is considerably less – 40ºC as opposed to 70ºC. This makes the methane emissions virtually negligible."