Adventures in Worm Composting

A reader asked whether any of my multiple worm bins have overwintered outdoors. The answer is yes. Well, kind of.

Let me give you an overview of the worm farming situation here. I’m not great at raising worms, although it’s supposed to be foolproof. (I refer all questions to Castaway Compost, my go-to for all things vermicompost. Check out my Farm Indiana piece on Keith O’Dell, pirate worm composter.)

1. My first experience was with my Garden Tower. I discovered too late that I stuffed the center tube too full, too fast. This tube is where the worms are supposed to eat their jolly way through my food scraps all summer long, and theoretically survive the winter. In the compacted medium, let’s just say they did not thrive one iota. (This year I’m being more more judicious with my feedings.)

2. Then I started a store-bought dealie with four layers. I am still only on the second layer almost a year later. I can’t figure out how to get my wigglers to eat and reproduce very fast. And I’m not sure when to harvest the castings. But I haven’t completely killed anyone off yet—that I know of.

Here’s a top view of my Sunleaves bin. I used coconut coir as the bedding. This was before I added the second layer, using shredded office paper as the bedding.

My storebought worm bin, which stays in the basement year-round.

My store-bought worm bin, which stays in the basement year-round.

3. My third foray is indeed a year-round outdoor “bin”—more of a pit, really. We used a book called The Complete Compost Gardening Guide as our inspiration for this project. The idea is to have a covered hole in which to compost food and yard waste, convenient to your kitchen door. So, last fall we dug a rectangular pit about 18 inches deep. (I use the word “we” loosely on this digging bit.)

I forgot to document the digging and building phases.

Unfortunately I forgot to document the digging and building phases.

We started off by putting shredded leaves from our yard (and the neighbors’) into the pit, without adding any worms. We cover all our garden beds with the same stuff.

Affixing hardware to the lid, which I believe was cobbled together from old pallets.

Judy affixing hardware to the lid, which I believe was cobbled together from old pallets.

At the time I did not have a paper shredder that worked, so I geeked out on hand shredding things for a while. I just really like the idea of worms eating stuff like phone books and toilet paper rolls!

A very patient friend spent an evening helping me create paper bedding to add to the shredded leaves. Worm farming = big fun for all!

A very patient friend spent an October evening helping me tear up paper to add to the shredded leaves. Worm farming = big fun for all!

We added the shreds to the leaves along with some vegetable scraps for worms to munch on.

Creating a nice buffet and bed for the wigglers.

Creating a nice buffet and bed for the wigglers.

The next step was to moisten everything well. Worms do not like dry places.

Mixing and moistening

Mixing and moistening. I must not have had any rainwater.

The book said something about worms appreciating the channels in corrugated cardboard, so I added some wet strips of cardboard. It also said they go crazy for cornmeal or wheat flour. We had a bag of flour that a mouse had chewed through, so I sprinkled some of that on top. Then it was Wiggler Time.

The dark stuff is a handful of bedding and worms from the indoor bin.

The dark stuff is a handful of bedding and worms from the indoor bin.

After that, we just tossed our kitchen scraps on top, crushing egg shells as best we could with a hoe. We did it all winter long, except when the lid was frozen shut or buried under snow.

Then this spring, someone suggested spreading some soil on top and giving the worms a break from new food. I did that, and later added a layer of shredded paper. (Our Christmas gift to ourselves was a whiz-bang shredder. Total Geekdom.)

Shredded paper as mentioned in my previous post!

Shredded paper, as detailed in my previous post

Now you can see, a few months later, that the stuff is well on its way to becoming a sweet soil amendment. Worms are still in there. (Whether they’re the original worms or their offspring or some random opportunists, I can’t say. But I think I can claim this as an overwintering victory.)

Lots of brown eggshells still showing. What can I say, I eat a lot of eggs.

Lots of brown eggshells still showing. What can I say, I eat a lot of eggs.

I recently pulled the bulk of the material to one side to begin adding another round of food scraps. The experiment continues…

There’s still a fourth bin to talk about, also outside, which is new this summer. But that might be for another day. Let me see how it works out first!

Thar be worms in that thar bin (unless they've perished in the heat).

Thar be worms in that thar bin (unless they’ve perished in the heat).

Transition and Transformation

Every writer should have a worm colony to eat her spent words. Especially if she’s grieving the loss of her beloved dog.

His name was Marley. We named him after the great Bob Marley. This was before "Marley and Me."

His name was Marley. We named him after the great Bob Marley. (This was before “Marley and Me.”)

I feed my drafts to the shredder when they’ve served their purpose. The shredder cross-cuts everything into bits the width of a highlighter’s stroke, the length of the tiniest paperclip. When the receptacle is full, I shower this ticker tape parade over one of four worm farms I’ve got going right now.

Worm pit after ticker tape parade

Worm pit after ticker tape parade, with rainwater.

Are they actually eating my words or are they just nesting there, my happy, scrappy red wigglers, snug in moist paper and a bit of soil and leaves? With rotting vegetable parings for their buffet.

I wrote once long ago, or stole the idea, of everything in a writer’s life becoming compost. “It’s all material,” an early writing teacher told me. Now even my stilted phrases and test drafts and failed pieces have become compost.

I’m feeding the worms that in turn offer their pooped-out product to nourish my soil—soil in which we grow the food that feeds the writer who makes the words that shelter the worms. A closed loop.

Also in the worm bins? Junk mail, that clutters my desk until I go on a shredding rampage. Cardboard toilet paper rolls chopped into bits. Tea leaves from my tea ball. Shed leaves from houseplants. Newspapers. Anything else I can think of: Q tips, napkins, toothpicks, and other rarely used ephemera.

Also: Mats cut from the cat’s britches, tangled there over weeks of neglect while I worried over her brother, the dog. Tissues loaded with my snot and tears, from meltdowns over that same dog’s decline.

Moistened with rainwater, it all melts together into the special kind of slop that worms (I’m told) adore—sweetened with handfuls of veggie scraps and stale crackers and the like.

Worms at work

Worms at work

The dog died; the worms and time work together to turn something lost into something gained.

Sweet dreams, friend.

Sweet dreams, friend.

The Ground Rules

Meet “renegade researcher” Nance Klehm. She’s on a mission to transform our thinking about waste—and to transform our waste into healthy soil.

Reader_Nance_Klehm_3174

Nance Klehm

I first met Nance at last October’s Radical Mycology Convergence, which she hosted on her rural land in Illinois. She divides her time between rural and urban—growing native trees, plants, and mushrooms on her land, and nurturing innovative community projects in Chicago.

As a fifth generation horticulturist, she has a passion for working in partnership with nature and enjoying the abundance that results. She has worked on graywater systems, humanure, and soil fertility for years, both in the U.S. and abroad. She was even invited to Haiti to assist with composting toilets after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

She works on composting policy at the state and local level, and teaches “Composting 401” to people who really want to get down and dirty.

“When people say, ‘what’s possible?’ I’ve done it,” she told me. “I have photographs and data and anecdotal experience from living in Chicago for 25 years.” She envisions a widespread scale-up of composting efforts that would shift how cities handle sanitation.

Nancy removing husks from walnuts grown in her food forest.

Nance removing husks from walnuts grown in her food forest.

Recently she was the featured guest on the Root Simple Podcast, talking about her work with community bioremediation in Chicago.

The project, called The Ground Rules, has multiple community-run soil centers working on bioremediation. Urban soils are often contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins. Klehm and her volunteers are addressing this problem by diverting waste into compost.

By bicycle and truck, they pick up discards from restaurants and businesses: uneaten food, vegetable trimmings, and paper towels, for example. Nearby soil centers are where they convert this “slop” into a high-powered soil amendment.

"It's crazy fun to work with food slop," says Nancy.

“It’s crazy fun to work with food slop,” Nance says.

The waste is kept local, put to work in service of the longterm goal of remediating the soil. Bacteria in the compost help to break down inorganic chemicals. The teams also use plants and fungi to help with this goal. So, four biological kingdoms—animal, bacterial, fungal, and plant—partner in this vision.

Here’s a great video about the project:

The Ground Rules from nance klehm on Vimeo.

Nance has a book due out this fall, based on her conversations with others invested in the life of the soil. (Note: It isn’t only farmers who care about the ground under our feet!)

Currently she’s writing a manual for others interested in community bioremediation. She blends practical, technical information with anecdotes from the soil centers, because they are all different. Each site has its own issues and challenges. Nance says the social component of this work is the trickiest part, so it’s important to address that along with the how-to aspect.

She’s running a crowdfunding campaign to support this important work. Any small amount helps.

And of course, if you’re in Chicago, consider volunteering. If you want to hang with fun and funky folks while learning a whole bucketload about advanced composting, she would welcome you, I’m sure!

Update: For more on The Ground Rules project, check out my Acres USA profile of Nance Klehm.

Seven Steeples Farm

Last month I got to meet Justin Berg and Mike Higbee, who are doing something I admire: turning unused urban land into an agricultural oasis. As with many such endeavors, they glean local materials to build soil—leaves from curbside refuse, manure from the police department’s Mounted Patrol stables.

What’s unique about this urban farm, though, is that it’s being built atop the pulverized remains of an old mental institution.

Seven Steeples Farm

Seven Steeples Farm

To anyone growing up in Indy, as I did, “Central State” was synonymous with the loonybin. We all knew that it was an insane asylum, back in the day, and as late as 1994 it was still operating as a psychiatric facility.

The enormous campus fell into disuse after Central State Hospital closed, but recently the site has been redeveloped into Central Greens urban village. Part of the project includes Seven Steeples Farm, so-called because the 5-acre parcel being farmed is on the footprint of a building called Seven Steeples, where women were institutionalized.

The building was demolished midcentury, and apparently is now buried under the vast lawn area where Justin and Mike have begun growing produce for the past year. Sheltering old trees that must have borne witness to all kinds of pain still stand, shading the chicken run and outdoor classroom area.

I have to say, this thing has lit my imagination in surprising ways. I’ve read The Yellow Wallpaper and other stories of “madwomen in the attic.” How easy it was to cart women away for any infraction back when this asylum was established (1850s.) I can think of several reasons why I myself, in an earlier era, could have gotten myself tossed in there.

And what sort of “treatment” did the women undergo, inside the walls of Seven Steeples?

It feels to me like a major healing of an old wound to have an urban farm there. Community volunteers (and patrons) enjoy a peaceful setting smack in the middle of a somewhat sketchy part of town. The food is accessibly priced so that people living in the middle of a food desert can have a decent choice of nourishment.

Justin Berg, farm manager, and Mike Higbee, project coordinator, with lady friend

Justin Berg, farm manager, and Mike Higbee, project coordinator, with lady friend

Visitors love to sit on the stumps next to the chicken run and just get on “chicken time.”

The farm has announced 2015 CSA (community supported agriculture) plans, and will also have a weekly farm stand to sell eggs and produce. (More info: info@sevensteeplesfarm.com or 317-713-9263.)

Justin says, “Call to set up a tour, and everyone’s more than welcome to come by the farm stand if they’re in the area. They can grab up some produce and come check out what a rural setting could look like in the city.”

See my Farm Indiana piece for more on this project.

Good to Grow

Guest post by Luke Taylor, who started a business called Good to Grow with his wife, Emily

Luke and Emily Taylor

Luke and Emily Taylor

Based out of Irvington, on the east side of Indianapolis, Good to Grow aims to harness the power of community to revolutionize the way we interact with overlooked natural resources.

What does it look like to “harness the power of community?” And what are these overlooked natural resources?

The power of community is a shared vision, and many hands. Our vision is one that makes it easy for neighbors to make choices that not only benefit their community, but also themselves. Choices like saving their food waste to create compost—and collecting rainwater to reduce water bills and strain on municipal utilities.

Good to Grow's custom-built water barrel towers enable urban gardeners to save large amounts of rainwater.

Good to Grow’s custom-built water barrel towers enable urban gardeners to save large amounts of rainwater.

Some might call this “being green,” or recycling. I am happy thinking of it as purely selfish.

If you have altruistic notions of saving the world one recycled cardboard box at a time, great! Continue seeking out ways to heal your part of the world through changes large and small. Your community needs more people like you.

Many in your community, however, need a layup. (Editor’s note: a layup, for the basketball-uninitiated, is the easiest of shots, more difficult to miss than make.) These folks will only choose to recycle if they are standing next to a bin or a forest ranger is looking in their direction.

Or if they receive something free as a reward. In short, they need incentive.

Developing an incentive framework to support behavior change is our goal at Irvington’s Good to Grow.

A bucket ready to receive a neighbor's vegetable scraps.

A bucket ready to receive a neighbor’s vegetable scraps.

One such framework is Irvington’s composting program. Already being championed by 16 households, this initiative’s ultimate goal is to collect compostable food waste and distribute finished compost (a valuable organic fertilizer) at the very same time. The idea is to connect beneficial behavior as seamlessly as possible with valuable incentive and convenience.

It is my hope that this idea encourages communities to create incentive frameworks of their own!

Luke Taylor moved to Irvington, Indianapolis with his wife Emily in early 2013. They chose this neighborhood mostly because of its strong sense of community. The Taylors wanted to be a part of it, and to encourage its growth. With Good to Grow as the vessel for delivery, they have a vision for Irvington that will amplify and enrich our local resources, bringing together an already blossoming Indianapolis community. One day, they dream to be able to enrich other Indianapolis communities in the same way by sharing the Good to Grow framework.

Will Allen Visits Peaceful Grounds

It was an honor to meet Growing Power founder Will Allen last weekend. The urban farming advocate was in town to support the work of his student Linda Proffitt at Peaceful Grounds. (Here’s my earlier post about this inspiring demonstration farm, which is a regional training center for Growing Power.)

This aphorism hangs on the wall at Peaceful Grounds.

This aphorism hangs on the wall at Peaceful Grounds.

The former pro basketball player told me that he learned how to broadcast seed as a child. He can pick up a handful of seed and not drop one of them. He has the muscle memory for broadcasting those seeds, whether arugula or chard or carrots—and all require different release rates. His sharecropper father taught him as a child, and all these years later, he retains the skill.

Now he sows great swaths of salad greens in his Milwaukee farm operations. Calling himself a “crusty old farmer,” he is the embodiment of Growing Power’s stated vision: “to inspire communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time.”

In 25 urban farm sites, on places like brownfields, school property, and land leased from corporations, the organization models how to get this done. The food is distributed through multiple channels, from Community Supported Agriculture accounts to a major distributor, Sysco. “Just another customer” is how he describes the corporation that ships GPI wares all over southeast Wisconsin.

Though the local food movement continues to make strides, there’s still a long way to go. Despite all the options—the CSAs, the farm stands, the farmers markets, the small mom and pop stores stocking local fare—Allen says up to 99 percent of the food eaten in major cities comes from 1500 miles away. “The vast majority of people will shop square,” he says, referring to big box stores.

Only $13 million of the U.S. food sector is generated by eco-agriculture—about the equivalent of three McDonalds. Growing Power represents 20 percent of that share. To fully transform the food system would require 50 million people to start growing food in their own yards, he says.

Turning the ship around has been the iconic Allen’s life work for the past 21 years.

Basil sprouts at Peaceful Grounds, a regional training center for Will Allen's organization, Growing Power.

Basil sprouts at Peaceful Grounds, a regional training center for Will Allen’s organization, Growing Power.

He envisions for-profit businesses taking up the charge of urban food security, with nonprofits assuming a training and organizing role.

In his own organization, the people responsible for growing the food are extremely efficient, and training happens as a separate program. That’s a critical point, because farming isn’t easy. Efficiency is the name of the game.

“My crew comes from the community, and they live in the community, but they are professionals. Everybody thinks you can take interns and integrate them with professionals, but you can’t. You’ll lose money hand over fist.”

He's very tall.

That’s me on the right.

More of my conversation with Will Allen can be found in today’s Nuvo article.

Also check out Robb Smith’s terrific podcast interview over at DIY Food Supply.

Peaceful Grounds

Monday morning a group of gardeners from the neighborhood had a private tour of Peaceful Grounds, Linda Proffitt’s endeavor at Marion County Fairgrounds, where the county fair is going on. (See my earlier post about her work here.) The vision and scope of this Global Peace Initiatives project astounded and inspired us.

The cattle barn at the Marion County fairgrounds is home to this volunteer-driven initiative.

The cattle barn at the Marion County fairgrounds is home to this volunteer-driven initiative.

George Marshall, Linda’s intern, showed us around the farm, where mounds of wood chips are not just regular old wood chips but worm habitat.

George

George next to a hoop house that stayed warm all winter from heat given off by decomposition.

Peaceful Grounds takes beer mash from local brewers like Irvington’s own Black Acre and buries it in mulch to feed the herd of worms.

The spent grain is perfect worm food because barley fits easily into worms' tiny mouths.

The spent grain is perfect worm food because barley fits easily into worms’ tiny mouths.

Hand-painted signs that say “Worms at Work” and “Thank a Worm” testify to the importance of these little red wigglers.

IMG_3617

Digging up some of the underground workers to show us.

Volunteers mix 5 to 15 tons of mash with equal amounts of wood chips each week. Another mound incorporates dehydrated food waste from public hospital Eskenazi Health. Over time, these piles and rows are transformed into a viable medium for garden plants.

George showed us where vegetable and herb starts have been set right into these habitats.

broccoli

Broccoli planted in one of many windrows made by worms doing their work on wood chips and beer mash.

In a nifty closing of the loop, Linda has begun to raise hops to supply local brewers.

A few of Peaceful Grounds volunteer-planted crops.

A few more Peaceful Grounds volunteer-planted crops.

While we were walking down the raised beds (“windrows”) of basil and tomatoes, a fair official came up and asked for Linda. He wanted to introduce her to the people in charge of an elephant exhibit, so she could incorporate elephant dung in the farm operation. (“You never met a lady more excited about poop than Linda,” George joked.)

Inside the cattle barn is where kids and adults can come for hands-on fun with art and agriculture. It’s also where artists like Jamie Locke (another Irvington neighbor) demonstrate mandala making and other crafts—and where young volunteers from Handi-Capable Hands take charge of a gigantic tumbler that sifts the worm compost into two grades of product.

Heidi Unger took this photo of the tumbler, which is named Apollo and was donated by a local farmer who saw Linda on TV.

Heidi Unger took this photo of the tumbler, which is named Apollo and was donated by a local farmer who saw Linda on TV.

We went home with the finer grade, which is basically worm poo, to use as a powerful organic fertilizer. One tablespoon per plant will nourish it through a month, Linda says.

Worm castings make an excellent fertilizer. Now there's a local source!

Worm castings make an excellent fertilizer. Now we have a local source!

Before we left, we learned that Will Allen is going to visit the operation, which is a training outpost for his fabulous Growing Power organization. He will speak at 2pm Saturday and lead a workshop at 4pm, and will also preside over a ribbon cutting ceremony at noon on Sunday, when the Peaceful Grounds Farm and Arts Market kicks off.

IMG_3598I’d love to see more interaction between local urban gardeners and this facility, which is just a stone’s throw from Irvington’s back door. Right now the county fair is in full swing, but the possibilities extend beyond its closing date. Linda is running a Farm Camp for kids starting July 7, and is happy to host volunteers at any time.

By the way, she offered to set me up with an interview with Will Allen. I’m thrilled to meet this man I admire so much. I’m crowdsourcing interview questions. What would you ask the grandfather of urban gardening, if you could?