Composting on Mars

So believe it or not, my project here is gardening! I do not exactly have a green thumb, so if I can grow veggies indoors under artificial lights, anyone can. One of the things I wanted to do that’s related to gardening was cut down our kitchen waste through composting.

However, we can’t compost in the normal way here. Generally back home, I head kitchen waste in a pile/bin with no bottom in the backyard, sometimes after it’s been picked over by chickens, and then several months later you get awesome soil full of earth worms coming out the bottom. We can’t really do that here because a) it might smell up the Hab, and b) we might run into the decidedly un-Martian problem of attracting vermin.

I still wanted to compost though. It just cuts down your kitchen waste soooooo much, and it almost physically hurts me to commit beautiful, useful nutrients to landfill sites to be lost forever to leached chemicals. I spent a good chunk of time down at Waterloo Public Library before coming researching different composting methods, and then came across Bokashi composting.

This is an anaerobic method of composting, meaning that the compost bin must be entirely sealed to protect it from oxygen. You grow some microbes and basically end up pickling your waste foods before returning them to the soil. Another brilliant thing about it is that it can take all sorts of kitchen waste that you’re not supposed to throw into traditional composting piles, like meats and oils and spices. It’ll compost everything.

Another great thing about Bokashi is that it’s already practiced in Hawaii. If I’d been on the ball I could have ordered some starter microbe mix for the low, low cost of $5 a jar from a guy in Hawaii. Unfortunately I was not on the ball enough, and so I went into the Dome not having ordered anything. Luckily there were instructions online on how to grow the proper microbes yourself. And one of the guys here is into microbes and stuff, so fun biology project!

Step 1: Rinse a bunch of rice in water, throw away the rice (or eat it for lunch), and keep the water loosely sealed in a jar in a dark, cool place for about a week. It took us two weeks to grow some little chunky white things in the water.

Step 2: Mix with milk. We used powdered milk, rehydrated. 10 parts milk to one part rice water. Leave sealed in a container for about a week again in a cool, dark place. I wasn’t sure if we’d actually grow anything, but we turned out getting lovely chunky white stuff growing all over the top. I feel like Dr. Frankenstein creating life!

Step 3: Sift/somehow remove the chunky white stuff. You can mix this in with soil – it’s good for it! Fertilizer. The left-over yellow liquid can be diluted and also used as fertilizer, but we’re going to turn it into composting microbes.

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Step 4: Mix 4 tbsp of molasses with about 10 cups of non-chlorinated water. Then mix in 4 tbsp of the yellow microbe water. With the left over water, mix in 1 tsp molasses to keep them alive, then leave them in the fridge for later use. They’ll stay alive with the molasses-y water as food.

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Step 5: This is enough for 10 lbs of compost mix. You’re supposed to use 10 lbs of wheat bran or rice hulls or even saw dust. I didn’t have that stuff, so I used left-over mystery grains and mixes from the last crew. I also only had about 4 lbs of stuff, combined, so just reduced the amount of liquid I put in so that I still had the same ration of liquid to “grains” needed. Try and get everything evenly damp.

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Step 6: Seal in an air-tight bag, and leave in a dark, cool place for another 2 weeks. After 2 weeks is up, open the bag and check on it. If it’s black and green and moldy, it’s bad. If there’s some white powdery stuff, that’s fine – that’s yeast. It should smell somewhat sweet, like sweet pickles.

And then you’re ready to compost! So it’s also anaerobic composting, and the way that works is that you save up your kitchen scraps in a bowl/container over the course of the day, and then at the end of the day add them to your big compost bin, that’s air-tight, and throw in a handful of the microbe-mix you created along with the food scraps. There should also be a spigot at the bottom of the bucket that you can open to let our juices that form, and that can be used as fertilizer if you dilute it down.

So right now I’m hoping that the microbes in the grain mix still grow. One of the mixes had a bunch of garlic, and the smell was a bit strong. So hopefully they’ll survive. I only bought one bag of soil, in the anticipation that I would make more, but it turns out it takes a long time to make more. So hopefully I won’t run out first.

In other news, we made another outreach video! This time in Russian, for what’s essentially Russian Independence Day, or the day the Tsars were over-thrown. You can check it out here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcT5FjeSIW4

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3 Responses to Composting on Mars

  1. Pingback: HI-SEAS – Martha Lenio’s Blog: Composting on Mars

  2. Anna says:

    If you find a good way of growing veggies indoors, let me know. I have the decidedly un- Martian problem of low temperatures, and am hoping to grow some plants indoors before transplanting into an outside garden in the late spring. Note: I tried, unsuccessfully, to do this with carrots last year 😦

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