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Category Archives: parenting

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

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“Edamame” sounds so much cooler than “soybean”

Time runs fast in the summer.  I’ve already pulled up all late spring veggies that were done, and am now heavy into tomatoes, squash and beans.

Soy plants in the raised beds. They're big. About 4 feet tall and bushy.

And speaking of beans, the edamame that my kids and I planted are coming in strong.  That’s an easy seed for little kids to plant — they are big, round, white seeds– so they’re easy to handle and see going into the ground in late spring. Now we’re enjoying some really robust plants.

When I was a kid, I remember my dad speaking disparagingly of fields of soybeans — I think he was disappointed to see mono-crops taking over the sandhills of South Carolina (I think I’m projecting….). Or maybe he just didn’t like to eat soybeans then.

I really didn’t hear much about soy again until I went vegetarian in college and ate all kinds of incarnations of the bean.  When I moved to Asheville about 15 years ago, I re-discovered it at a sushi restaurant as “edamame”.  Yum.  Anything that has lots of salt, I love.  Plus it’s fun to eat – it’s a Japanese version of boiled peanuts.

Sow True Seed had a variety of edamame seeds this spring, so I planted one row in the smallest (4×4 foot) raised bed, so not alot of plants but they are producing more than enough for our family.

My kids are not into harvesting edamame or any other small vegetable that requires patience to harvest. There are lots of mosquitos out and it’s hot, so it’s not really fun for long for anyone. However, they really wanted to pick every tomato, green and red.

They did enjoy getting to see how much we (ahem, “I”) harvested by weighing them on the kitchen scales.


Another fun thing about edamame is you don’t have to snap and/or string them like you do most other beans.  I just threw them in a pot of boiling salted water for about 8 minutes, drained, then salted them.  Then there’s the best part:

Still a little hot but sure are good

Notice there are no photos of my 2 year old eating edamame.  He likes to lick the salt off, then get the beans out of the pods and look at them.  We’re working on getting him to expand his vegetable repertoire.  Not easy, but at least he has a good example set by his older brother!

 

My 4-year old beekeeper


Since we got our beehive last month, our older son has been asking if he could get a “bee suit” too.  Sure enough, I googled around and found many beekeeping suppliers who sell beekeeping suits for kids.

I ordered one for his birthday, and when we opened the package he immediately asked James to help him put it on, then went straight to the hive to get an up-close look at them (well, right after I made him stand still and let me get this picture of him with his big ol’ happy grin before he put on boots and gloves!)

When he got to the hive, he yelled “I smell honey!!”

Now, although he was fully suited and protected, I was still a little worried about him getting stung somehow. However, he was not actually “working” in the bees, and we weren’t opening up the hive to check on them, so he was safe from getting stung, and was elated to have been able to get close to the hive and see the bees up close as they traveled in and out of the hive.

A few days later, we went to my husband’s cousin’s house to check on their new hive. My brother had installed the hive along with a new queen, but he was out of town and couldn’t check to make sure the queen had been released from the little box she’d been delivered in.

There is a wall of solid sugar on one end of the box that the bees eat to release the queen.  Sometimes (rarely) they won’t have freed her so the beekeeper has to help the process along.

This was my first attempt at checking on a hive without someone else’s help, but my brother assured me all I had to do was take the top off the box, find the queen box and make sure she was out.

Right.  Well, along with my trusty helper, I opened up the top and there was no queen box in sight, so I had to start lifting up the racks and looking down into the bottom of the bee box.  I finally found the queen box under the middle racks and gave it to my son to inspect.  He was intrigued that the queen had been freed by the worker bees from that little box (and so was I!)

The bees had already filled out several of the racks, and we were even lucky enough to see the queen — my boy was so excited you’d have thought he’d had seen an ice cream truck the size of an 18-wheeler.  The queen had made it out of the box and was busy laying eggs in the new cells.

Today, we went in our own hive along with my brother.  It was just about an opposite experience from the one I just described.

The bees have been so productive in the past few weeks that they have almost filled up all the racks with honey and brood.  We were really excited to see how much honey they’ve made, and how many brood cells there are.   Well, it was really hot – of course that’s compounded by being in full bee suits – and we were in the blazing sun with no shade.  My brother told my son to put his hands by his side, and not on the stand the bee box is on.

Well, not a minute after that, I looked at my son’s fleece gloves (gloves weren’t included with the bee suit, and there weren’t any to order in his size).  There were a few bees starting to land on his gloves, and they were not happy.  I’d heard that bees don’t like dark colors.  Well, it turns out they don’t like dark colors that also happen to be fuzzy (like fleece) — kinda reminds them of bears.

My brother calmly got my son away from the hive, brushed all the bees off his gloves, and called to me to put the top back on the box  (by this time the bees had sent out some kind of signal that danger was nearby, and they were agitated).

I was so hot and trying not to panic — I was worried for my son with those bees landing all over his gloves– then as soon as my brother got the situation under control I realized that I had to put the bee box back together quickly and I was getting nervous because there were suddenly lots of bees in the air around me.  But I got it done, then ran to make sure my son was OK, and he was totally unfazed, no stings —  but a little cranky from being just as hot and sweaty as we were (and his bee experience was cut short and he wasn’t sure why).

I called a local beekeeper/supplier this afternoon as soon as I’d recovered (and wasn’t about to fall out from heat stroke), and told him I needed some child-sized gloves. He’s got them in stock and we’re going tomorrow morning to get them.  I also told him what happened today, and he said, “Oh yeah, bees really don’t like fuzzy…nope, they don’t like fuzzy at all.”  No more fleece for us.

Here’s one of our bees (I’m assuming it’s one of our bees!) on a broccoli flower in the garden.  Wonder if that affects the taste of the honey (sourwood honey…clover honey… broccoli honey — yikes)?  I’m thinking we don’t have enough broccoli to make a bit of difference, plus I’m getting ready to pull it all up anyway because it’s too hot and it’s bolting:

 

 

 

 

 

Blogging on gardening

[In the blogosphere, I’ve noticed a special kind of post, and I realized after writing it that this is one too:  it’s a “Why-I-haven’t-been-blogging-much-lately” post…]

When I started blogging about my “yard farm” back in February, I knew that I would not have quite as much time to write about my garden once the weather warmed up and I’d be outside, actually working in my garden with my plants instead of writing about them.

And the boys — well, they’d want to be outside if it were 33 degrees and pouring rain — but they want to be out in the yard and garden as much as I do when it’s been as pretty as it has been lately.

In addition to the call of the nice weather and growing “to-do” list in the garden, a few weeks ago I accepted an offer to work part-time for an organization I’ve been volunteer teaching with (Teach the World Online).  All of the work I do for TWOL is online, so that’s a couple hours of time in front of the computer each day (all quite interesting, though!), so as soon as I get done I’m rounding up the boys from their naps and heading out the door.

Needless to say, my blog has fallen a bit by the wayside in the past couple weeks due to the new job, glorious weather, and the start of the growing season here in the Southern Appalachians.  But we’re still here, hands in the dirt and feeling summer coming on strong!  Stay tuned!

 

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.

 

 

 

Toddler gardeners

I’ve found a redeeming quality to the repulsive-looking, destructive garden pests that live in the soil of my raised beds.  Instead of seeing them as existing only to destroy my plants, I now realize that they can hold the attention of even the most distractible toddler.  Even my younger boy has fantastic bug-hunting skills that can be put to use in our garden.

We found dozens of these while digging in the beds, preparing to plant seeds last week:

I think they are some kind of beetle larvae, and I’ve been told they eat the roots of plants, so I don’t feel too badly that I let my boys make a corral for them and play with them till they expired in the sunlight (these grubs don’t last too long above ground).  I saw a mockingbird having an absolute feast on them later after we’d gone back inside.

My older boy had taken great delight in helping me pick them out of the newly-turned soil, and it definitely made it less of a chore for me as we were working together.

These grubs – and most other garden pests – don’t bother me as badly as slugs, maybe because I’ve never seen them destroy a bunch of seedlings the way a couple of slugs can in one spring night.  My boys love to slug hunt….we also hunt by turning over rocks and asking “Any buggy home?”

They love it — we find slugs, roly-polys, crickets, ants and the occasional big hairy spider.  (One afternoon last month, they were supremely entertained when I went to pick up a cricket for them, but instead, when I opened up my hand for them to see, there was a large spider. I screamed and tossed it somewhere, then started thrashing about thinking I’d flung it up in my hair — ewww, shiver — I’m glad at least they thought it was funny).

I do feel kind of badly about squishing the slugs in front of the boys, and they’re not quite old enough to understand WHY exactly they’re bad for the garden, so usually I toss the slugs out in the road while the guys aren’t looking and let the heat of the asphalt and/or passing cars do the job for me.

Another great addition to our garden this spring is the low treehouse my husband and brother built right next to the raised beds.  It’s in an old magnolia tree, and it’s not too high up, so they can get up and down fairly easily without us worrying about them tumbling out.

I also enlisted my older boy in planting some seeds indoors with me this afternoon.  I tried using the little peat pellets, as they looked like something inviting for a 4-year old.  Add water and watch them grow instantly!

Watering peat pellets

How perfect….sure enough, he loved watering them and watching me plant seeds (the tomato, pepper, and especially the epazote seeds were too small for his fingers to handle — the beet and radish seeds are more his size, and later in the season he’ll be able to plant bigger seeds like squash, beans, and sunflowers).

Tiny epazote seeds


 
 
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