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Category Archives: compost

Aside

It’s mid-January and I’m still seeing cabbage worms, slugs, and aphids on the greens in the garden.  The collard greens are lacy with holes (despite the boys helping me pick off the green worms), and the aphids completely coated the dinosaur kale so I had to pull them up and pitch them in the compost.

My older boy found a tick on our dog’s ear over the weekend.  I saw a mosquito floating through the kitchen last night.  We need some serious cold, y’all!  ‘Tis the season to be critter-free!

Well, I must admit I’m not totally hating the recent balminess.  It has been nice enough to hang out at the park with the kids and friends, play in the yard and dig around in unfrozen garden soil.  Plus, we’ve been able to make some great salads as a result of this unexpected extended season.

Mizuna is the big feathery green in foreground, spinach behind, carrots on far right

Spinach, arugula, and mizuna are doing great.  And there are even some tiny carrots coming along. I love to add mizuna to a salad — it’s spicy like arugula but crunchier. I like the light green color too.

I’ve found a few wormy critters munching in this raised bed, but not nearly as many as on the big greens.  At a friend’s suggestion, I’ve been soaking the greens in salt water for about 15 minutes before rinsing and putting them in the salad spinner.  That helps loosen any bugs.

Mâche, or corn salad -- notice there are no bug holes -- I'm liking this green!

In late fall, I planted a few rows of mâche seed in the uncovered raised bed next to the arugula.  The plants are slow growing but they’ve turned into small, close-to-the-dirt rosettes.  I’ve been eating the leaves directly from the garden and they are as mild as lettuce with a taste similar to buttercrunch.  I’m going to try making this salad with grapefruit and avocado — a nice antidote to holiday gluttony (although I can eat my weight in avocado, so maybe not!)

Oh, and I’ve been reading that mâche has 3 times more Vitamin C than buttercrunch, and it also packs alot of iron into those little rosettes. Wikipedia has some more interesting facts about mâche — I also find it interesting that such a little plant can have so many different names.  And it’s a member of the valerian family.  Cool little plant!

A couple of nights last week we had some temperatures in the teens, so I pulled the vinyl covers up onto the hoops to protect the plants.  Here are a couple of other raised-bed, front yard gardens I saw in the ‘hood on a run last week after a cold night:

And this one has a different support structure from mine and the ones above —  metal fencing — definitely stronger in wind/snow – it seems like overkill now but I’m sure in the next few weeks it will come in handy, right??  Come on, winter!

Gardening in a lukewarm winter

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Worm tea and worm castings

Top bin removed before getting castings out from middle bin

A few months ago I bought some worms and made worm-composting bins.  My boys and I have been feeding them kitchen scraps every week or so since then.  It’s been a fairly low-maintenance venture, and worms don’t sting, so I don’t have to don a hot (not figuratively) bee suit every time I need to feed them and/or check on them.

The only real negative was the gigantic fruit fly swarm that materialized mid-August when I hadn’t put enough dirt on top of the veggie and fruit scraps in the bins.  Otherwise, it was just like any healthy composting set-up with no smell at all.

Those redworms have been busy.  I tried to lift up the top bin and almost pulled my back out.  I finally hoisted it off and the middle bin was full of dark castings.

Top bin compared to final product -- castings!

I’d been feeding the worms only in the top bin so they’d pretty much all migrated up, so I only had to fish a couple of them out of there and transfer them to the top.

The bottom bin was about half-full of tea, actually that’s “leachate” — I was informed by James Magee at Blue Ridge Redworms that’s the correct term for the liquid that runs off the castings. ( Worm tea is another form of compost-based liquid that comes from worms, but there’s more involved in making it, including fermenting it with molasses and some other stuff that sounds pretty advanced.  I’ll stick to the liquid dregs for now….)

Adding leachate to raised bed

So, as I’d suspected when we started composting with worms, our system wasn’t big enough to handle all our kitchen’s compostables.  However, they ate more than I’d thought they would — maybe 75% of the stuff that would have gone into our regular compost bins out in the side yard.

I put all the castings into one of my raised beds where I’ve got some dinosaur kale growing.  I poured the leachate around the arugula, mache, and red russian kale in another raised bed.

Putting castings into raised bed

Now it’s time for the worm bins to go back into the basement for winter as we’re getting into freezing temps at night.

And I’ll be keeping an eye on the winter greens on into spring to see how they benefit from our worm composting venture….

Redworms at work in worm composting bin

 

Worm composting update

A little concerned that there were some “escapees” from the new worm composting box in the basement, I decided to look beyond the internet and my first worm supplier (the old bait shop in W. Asheville)  for some professional vermicomposting advice.

I called James Magee at Blue Ridge Redworms here in Asheville, and set up an appointment to meet with him yesterday and buy some more worms, as what I had didn’t seem like enough.  I also thought I was lacking some important worm-raising information.

Turns out James Magee not only has a successful worm farm, he also happens to be a helpful and friendly person who knows more about worms and composting than I’d imagined was possible.  While he doesn’t give tours of his site anymore (protecting business secrets) he did spend almost 45 minutes telling me and the boys all about redworms.

Much to the boys’ delight, the first thing James pointed out to us was tiny worm eggs in the box of worms we were buying.  He showed us the darker colored eggs and said they were about to hatch.   Several worms will hatch from each egg.

I brought the worm composting bins we already had going so he could give me some advice on our set-up.   He took one look at it and told me the worms I got at the bait store were, well, bait worms — a kind of the earthworm I’d read about that likes to dig deep in the dirt and isn’t the optimal subspecies of worm for vermicomposting.

 

Red worm on left, bait worm on right

James’s second suggestion was that the newspaper bedding wasn’t the best living medium for worms. He said that the bleach used in the paper-making process, along with the inks, could adversely affect the worms. The ideal environment for them is a nice mix of leaves, grass and compost (so my previous instincts were right — worms and dirt do go together, right?!)

James also said I should make the drainage holes in the bottom of the bins larger — instead of a quarter-inch, closer to a half-inch.

Looks like redworms like cornhusks

I told him about my escapees, and he suggested leaving a low-watt lightbulb on to keep them from emerging.  The light tricks them into thinking it’s daytime so they’re less likely to come out.

As far as feeding them, they need a half-inch to an inch layer of food (vegetable and fruit kitchen scraps) every 7 days or so.  They don’t like citrus or anything really acidic.  He told me I could experiment with different kinds of foods to see what they like:  put the food in a corner of the box and see if they crawl to it.  I asked him about banana peels, and he said “Oh they LOVE banana peels.”

Also, if the worms all move out around the perimeter of the box, or if the box smells at all, then there’s something in there that doesn’t suit their appetites.

Another thing I mentioned to him was the “worm tea” collecting in the bottom bin.  He told me that is “worm leachate”, not the same.  Here’s more details on worm tea vs. leachate.

According to James, the end product of the whole worm composting process — the worm castings — makes gardens grow strong and abundant.

I imagine with the small system I have that it will not handle all our food waste, nor will I have large amounts of worm castings (may have to buy some castings for my raised beds from farmer Magee — he sells that too).  But it is a fascinating process, and we’re curious to learn more.

 

 

Vermiculture, wormery (box of worms in the basement)

Worm farmers, please take no offense as I’m a total newbie when it comes to raising worms —  I’m still laughing about finding the word “wormery” while googling for ideas about building a worm compost bin.   Nursery, brewery, apiary, pharmacy — but wormery?

Well, reading more into it, it’s quite an interesting concept, so I’m laughing less and getting more intrigued by these lowly worms (Lowly Worm, by the way, was my favorite Richard Scarry character as a child; now my boys love it when he turns up in stories too.  Such a friendly fella).

I’ve been wondering how to expedite the composting process of kitchen waste. Magic answer:  worms (according to my recent googling).  They can do alot of composting in not too much time.  There’s even commercial vermiculture/composting to handle restaurant food waste.

Now from what I’ve learned, you can’t just dig up regular ol’ earthworms out of the backyard and put them to work as composting worms. Sounds to me like earthworms are kind of wild, solitary creatures who like to do their own thing in the open dirt.

Red wigglers, however, have more colonial tendencies and can turn most vegetable and fruit scraps (and coffee grounds among other non-edibles) into some of the best dirt on earth:  worm castings.  They don’t seem to mind being boxed in as long as the conditions are right and the food is good.

I had a feeling this would be an easy project to get my kids involved in as they are absolutely obsessed with worm-hunting in our yard.  When they found out we were making a “worm house,” I had their undivided attention (there’s not much of it to be divided anyway, but they were quite curious about the process).

I followed these directions on how to construct a worm bin.  Yesterday I went to a hunting and fishing store in West Asheville with my 4-year old and bought out their last 4 containers of red wigglers.   Then I got 3 ten-gallon plastic storage tubs to stack one on top of the other.  We drilled holes in them according to the directions.  This lets the worms have some air, and also lets the castings fall down into middle bin for easier collection.

So it’s three bins stacked one on top of the other.  The top one is where the worms live and work on breaking down the food waste, the middle one collects the worm castings that fall through the holes, then the bottom one collects any excess moisture, AKA “worm tea”, which is another very nutrient-rich compost to put on the garden.

Soon after the drilling, our friends came over to play and help out with the wormery construction.  The next step was to tear up newspapers into strips and get it wet to make an environment for our worms. (Soggy newspaper doesn’t sound like it would be exactly the ideal home, but I’m trusting the websites I’ve read, and going against my instinct to house them in dirt.)

Well, we did get to put a least a little dirt in there, as the worms need some grist to help them digest their food (no teeth):  

 

 

 

 

Then the kids turned the worms out into their new home:

 

And then we stacked the bins together, put a piece of wet cardboard over the top (apparently worms love to eat cardboard too, but I also think this is to maintain an ideal moisture level in the bin):

Now we have to wait a couple of days to let them acclimate to their new place, then we can start adding small amounts of kitchen scraps and let them go to work.

 

 

 

Mid March, Blue Ridge

Friday morning, just 3 days ago, it was snowing and really windy.  There wasn’t much accumulation but there were a few cars driving around with an inch or so piled up on the windshield wipers.  And the wind….whew!  It made all the bee equipment drying on the back porch go skittering and tumbling.

For the garden, it meant battening down the plastic on my new hoophouse (top right in photo). Three of the beds are already covered with clear vinyl over the pvc hoop frames, and that vinyl is secured to the hoops with zip ties.

One problem with the zip ties is that if I want to undo them I have to cut them.  In a sense, they’re permanent.  It’s worked fine for winter when I didn’t really need to do any uncovering, but now that I’ve got this new covered bed with recently-planted seeds, I need something more temporary with spring coming on.

Here’s where the internet comes in handy when gardening.  I googled “clips for pvc hoops raised beds”. Sure enough, I found a great idea from Dropstone Farm (way out in Washington State).  Jumbo binder clips!  Then I found some by digging through the junk drawer and a pile of my husband’s office stuff, and got him to bring a few more home.

After such a blustery cold day, we were skeptical that Saturday would be up in the 60s as forecasted, but sure enough, it was a most glorious day, and I was able to easily take the binder clips off and let the new seedlings get some rays.

I also got my first sunburn of the season sitting on the front porch planting seeds in trays:

Sow True Seed, off to a sunny start today

I found my favorite tomatoes in the whole world — Amish Paste — in the Sow True Seed rack at the North Asheville Ace Hardware.  I got those started, along with some Mortgage Lifters, and some cherry tomatoes.  I got jalapenos and a couple sweet pepper varieties going and an heirloom Asian eggplant variety (I got into making baba ganouj last summer….)

A note on seed starting: with my kids being so little, I’d skipped the seed starting part of gardening the past few years in an effort to make it simpler because my time was limited.

During that time, I had also forgotten that potting soil mix has a *very* annoying water-repellent quality. And, obviously, wet soil is important for seed starting….

Since I’d thrown out all my old plastic cells in a basement purge, I needed some containers and opted to buy trays that were pre-filled with potting mix.  Ugh.  The water floated on top and it was impossible to stir it around, so I ended up dumping the soil out and mixing it by hand in a bowl, then putting it back in the trays, then planting the seeds.

I’ve not ever tried those peat pellets — I’m curious as to whether they work, might try them on the next round of seed starting.

The rest of this sunny warm weekend included a pasta dinner. James made the sauce from our spinach, some of last summer’s frozen peppers, and stewed tomatoes (we’re down to the last couple quarts in the freezer).  Yummmmm….

I also picked some chives and cilantro to mix in with a tuna salad for lunch yesterday:

 

And to ward off weeds growing up around the raised beds, I went to the recycling drop-off center and picked up a bunch of cardboard boxes, laid them out flat and covered them with straw.  That worked so well last summer — it not only kept the weeds down but helped keep the paths from getting mud bogged.

At the recycling place, I kind of felt like I was reverting to post-college dumpster-diving days (I was a minor-leaguer, only got magazines from the recycling bins). I was feeling conspicuous, felt like I was a little too old and not hipster enough to be doing that anymore.

I’m also a little self-conscious about getting stuff out of the recycling as my mom likes to find and “save” stuff (on a large scale — she found and got somebody to fish a stove out of a dumpster once — long story).

 

Sadie and Buster thought I’d put the straw out especially for them.  They found new napping spots within minutes of my scattering the straw over the cardboard.  The boys were also drawn to it, scooting the straw around with their tonka tractors.

And of course, cardboard boxes are the best toys…they ended up putting one long one over the rock steps in the backyard and turning it into a slide.

 

Trading greens for gold

……*black* gold, that is.  Our compost piles have needed manure.  My dad still marvels at the heat produced by the compost pile in our backyard when I was a child. He says it’s the horse manure he used to mix in there.

He’d put a couple cardboard boxes in the back of mom’s station wagon, drive to the horse stables near our house, and shovel them full of horse poop.  I only went with him once because I saw a girl there from my school riding her gorgeous Arabian around the ring;  I was riding along in the 1978 Chrysler station wagon picking up horse manure.

I can do stuff like that now with my boys because they’re toddlers and their parental embarrassment gene hasn’t switched on yet.

I felt like I was repeating family history today.  Toddlers in tow,  I drove to my friend Anne’s house a few blocks away in our Honda Odyssey (can’t bring myself to say “van”) and picked up a couple big bags of chicken manure:

As thanks,  I gave her a bag of greens and spinach I’d picked this morning.

 

Anne has four Rhode Island Reds in her Asheville yard, a block or so from the university.  The hens have a cool pyramid-shaped coop built by her son-in-law (who also happens to be my MyGyver-esque, engineer next-door neighbor.)

 

Coop

Anne raised these girls from chicks.  They are so healthy and happy, averaging an egg a day each: 

Here’s my younger boy feeding the hens some grapes.

Thanks for the eggs, Anne!!

I can tell Anne loves these hens, and also loves teaching kids about them (her grandkids love them too!)

Anne is currently re-doing her chicken “run” so they can get out and roam and scratch safely. Even with that, a small flock like hers doesn’t require a whole lot of yard room, and they do just fine living among us in the city limits.  There’s a fair amount of Asheville city chickens around– check out Asheville City Chickens on Facebook: or http://www.urbanchickens.net/

Oh, and the chicken manure is now in my compost tumbler….thanks Anne!

 

 

Bee burial

Don't worry, they're not alive!

My dad and brother started keeping bees in our backyard when I was about 14 years old.  Beehives and the associated tending were not high on my priority list at the time.   The bees were mainly a source of entertainment to me at that age — not of the “oh that’s so cool” kind, but of the “Oh Hey!  Check it out — I think the bees are chasing Dad!”   Oh teen humor.

Well, my dad and brother are still keeping bees in their respective back yards, 20 some-odd years later.  Today my brother suggested it’s high time for me to have my own hive.  He has a couple hives in his backyard, about a half-mile from downtown Asheville, said he could help me get set up and even offered to do the tending.  Wow!

Now, with two toddlers who are always in the yard, I’m a little hesitant, but I think we’re going to give it a try, make the hive far enough off the ground that the bees’ flight path is out of range of my little fellas. Maybe on a platform.  We’ll see…

Anyway, through the years I’ve always noticed that to my brother, father, and beekeeper friends, the bees are not just a mass of stinging insects that happen to produce one of the most divine substances ever, but they’re also something else to them, I can’t quite place it.  They love bees, their tenacity and amazing productivity despite being robbed occasionally by humans of their hard-earned honey. They are indeed amazing creatures.

Listen to a beekeeper talk about their bees and you’ll pick up on it.  It subtle, not exactly like a person talks affectionately about a pet, but it’s a little like that.  A friend of ours went to a beekeeper’s meeting years ago, and he asked the group a question about a hive of his that had died after some particularly wet weather.  One of the old-timers spoke up indignantly, almost accusingly, as if Jack had failed as a bee parent:  “You drowned them bees!!”

 

Dearly departed

Today my brother brought the remnants of a failed hive to my house.   He wanted to put the dead bees in my compost pile.   He wasn’t sure what was their ultimate demise, but he was definitely somber and a little quiet about it.   It was almost funereal as he unloaded the white square box containing the hives from his truck, pulled out the racks and held handfuls of the dead creatures in his hands.  He looked at them as he held them in his hands and said “they were really good workers…..”.  I sensed that he was feeling some guilt, like he could have saved them.

My almost-4 year old and our almost-5 year old neighbor were intrigued.  My son picked up a few of the light, fuzzy little bees and checked them out.  The neighbor girl was wary, not sure if they were indeed incapable of stinging, so she observed.  Intently.

 

Shaking the bees off the honeycomb

Next we took the hive  to the compost pile and started shaking the bees off the racks.  I swear, I felt like it was a burial.  My brother kept saying that dead bees in compost were really good fertilizer, but I wonder if he was also thinking that they were going to continue working, feeding the dirt as they faded away.  A proper burial of sorts.  At least I was thinking that.  Busy bees, working on into their apiarian afterlives via the compost pile.

Then the party started.  I found a small area of honeycomb, still full of honey.  It was some of the best honey I’ve ever tasted.  My son dug right in, beeswax and all.  He’s got some Pooh Bear in him.  Never met a PB&Honey sandwich he didn’t devour.

Yeah!

Continuing with the celebration of the bees’ life, the neighbor girl said, “We should thank the dead bees for the honey.”  Not in a sentimental way, just using good manners, reminding us why were were all gathered in the garden right then….

I called Dad tonight and told him we put the bees in the compost pile.  His first comment was, “Did you notice how they’d all died facing the queen?”  I told him we didn’t see the queen….but I realized he was trying to impart some of that beekeeper sense to me that I’m still trying to understand. “Didn’t you see how they were in the exact same spot on each rack, the exact pattern?”

It’s beyond anthropomorphizing, what beekeepers do when they talk about their bees.  It’s big respect for these tiny creatures who, despite being — well, insects — behave as though they know an awful lot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
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