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.

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?

Building Soil, Growing Food, Nurturing Relationships

I just listened to a podcast interview with Linda Proffitt, founder and executive director of Global Peace Initiatives here in Indianapolis. I’ve known Linda since the days I was responsible for Nuvo Newsweekly’s monthly social justice calendar. Back then I called her regularly to find out about GPI’s peace hikes and other activities, and I was always impressed with her programming.

Since that time GPI’s work has exploded onto the local resilience scene. They started by helping church groups grow food for the hungry, bringing countless volunteers together to experience the transformational power of service initiatives.

peasIn 2011, the organization began a new partnership with one of the most influential forces in the urban farming movement. Will Allen and his team at Growing Power designated GPI as a regional training center for Central Indiana. Spring of 2012 saw a well-attended “From the Ground Up” workshop at Peaceful Grounds, GPI’s newly formed center for agriculture and sustainability.

If you have a chance to listen to the podcast, you might be struck (like me) by the idea that produce is just one output of Peaceful Grounds. There’s also soil, which is foundational. And then there’s relationships.

People coming together to cooperatively grow food can form some powerful ties. And that’s what it’s all about at Peaceful Grounds.

Sharing worms with youthful visitors

Sharing worms with youthful visitors

Now at the Marion County Fairgrounds, Peaceful Grounds is about to start a weekly farm and arts market, Sundays from noon to 4 starting June 1.

GPI’s work is featured in a chapter of the new book Deep-Rooted Wisdom by Augustus Jenkins Farmer. The chapter is called “Stop Tilling the Soil”—and worm composting is a big part of the system at Peaceful Grounds. (I was thrilled learn that the worms eat brew mash from my local microbrewery, Black Acre, located right here in Irvington.)

Linda will be the guest speaker at next Tuesday’s Green Hour, a project of the Irvington Green Initiative. If you’re in town, come out and join us to hear all about this vital work.

Photos courtesy of Global Peace Initiatives.

I Heart My Garden Tower

Faithful readers of this blog will remember last year’s midseason efforts with a new gardening technology. Due to some missteps and a late start, I had pretty low yields. But this spring the Garden Tower Project, offering a vertical garden design with worm composting right in the tower, is my best friend.

I’m following the instructions this time and fertilizing with organic fish emulsion till my worms get going, and I can already tell a big difference.

I sowed radish and beet seeds in the top of the Tower over a month ago, and it was so exciting when they sprouted.

I sowed radish and beet seeds in the top of the Tower over a month ago, and it was so exciting when they sprouted.

In late March I bought starts from two of my favorite farmers at the winter farmers market, Stout’s Melody Acres and KG Acres.

Sweet little chard seedling in one of the pockets.

Sweet little chard seedling in one of the pockets.

This year I’m not asking each pocket to hold more than one plant (last year I was loath to thin my babies, resulting in spindly, sad specimens).

Beautiful lettuce (before I thinned).

Beautiful lettuce (actually two plants, before I thinned).

Soon I was able to eat my thinnings. Just last week, I harvested a bumper crop of radishes.

And the radishes are still coming!

And the radishes are still coming!

This week I’ve made my salads solely from my own garden (with a few foraged weeds for good measure), and I’ve begun snipping kale leaves to use in green smoothies.

top

More radishes on the way. And here come the beets! I will probably slip a tomato or pepper plant in here before too long.

Here’s what my Garden Tower looked like before I started majorly harvesting a few days ago.

Still room for a cucumber or zucchini seeding on the bottom row. (Yes I do love my greens!)

Still room for a cucumber or zucchini seeding on the bottom row, where that one pea sprout is lagging behind.

And another view.

Yes I do love my greens-- of all kinds!

Yes I do love my greens– of all kinds!

I learned more about the Garden Tower Project when I wrote a piece on it for the May issue of Farm Indiana. I was impressed with the vision of the project’s three partners. For example, at some point in the future they hope to switch from a petroleum-based plastic to plant-based.

According to partner Joel Grant, the type of polyethylene used in the Tower is simple to produce from plant-based sources. “You can produce polyethylene nearly as easily as biodiesel,” the environmental scientist says. “It takes more processing but…in some countries people solely manufacture it out of plant products.”

For more on the Garden Tower Project, visit their webpage or see my story in Farm Indiana (navigate to page 24).

Now I’m off to saute up some chard and radish greens for dinner!

Garden Tower Update: Mistakes Were Made

Time for an update on our vertical gardening project. When last I posted about the Garden Tower, everything was growing robustly and looking smart.

I hate to say it, but that was kind of the high point of the season. The plants have not grown as vigorously as I’d hoped since that photo session.

Our Garden Tower in mid-September: Not bad but not great. And this is its good side.

Our Garden Tower in mid-September: Not bad but not great. And this is its good side.

Today there are five tomatoes just about ready to pick, but the plant looks pitiful. I cut off most of the grim stuff a few weeks ago.

Not sure what kind of maters these are; the plant was a sucker from a friend's tomato patch, and she didn't label it.

Not sure what kind of maters these are; the plant was a sucker from a friend’s tomato patch, and she didn’t label it.

On the bright side, we’ve had several cucumbers, as well as snippings of basil, parsley, and kale. I’ve also harvested a few small beets from the top (with lovely greens)—and more are still growing.

The peppers have produced some sad little specimens, but then again we didn’t expect much, having planted them so late in the summer. I was excited to see peas and green beans, till I realized that the yield was going to be quite lean, barely a handful each. I guess one would need to plant almost a whole tower of legumes to get a “crop.”

Sadly the plants have just not grown very robustly. But the Tower setup isn’t to blame. My mistakes:

  • I planted immediately after filling the barrel with the soil mixture. When I watered everything in, the soil sank a couple inches. This caused the plantings in the side holes to become quite leggy as they reached for sunlight. In retrospect, I probably should have watered well first, allowed everything to settle, and then planted. That might have given them a better start.

    Leggy amaranth and kohlrabi

    Leggy amaranth and kohlrabi

  • I neglected to apply the weekly liquid fertilizer suggested by the literature that came with the barrel. Said literature was buried on my desk until recently. Oops. (After the first month this is supposed to be unnecessary as the worms do their work. But I imagine that fertilizing during those first crucial weeks would have given the plants a needed boost.)
  • I overcrowded the side pockets, planting more than one seed. I told myself I would remove all but the strongest seedling later, and I did some thinning, but not nearly enough. I just didn’t have the heart to do it. I bet they would have grown bigger with less competition.

    Overcrowded chard

    Overcrowded chard

  • I overfilled the center tube with veggie scraps at the very beginning: In my excitement over this new worm farming adventure, I filled it to the top instead of to the suggested one-third level. I don’t know if this was a factor or not. (We’ll see how it goes when we harvest worm castings!)

One point of pride: my daily hand picking of cabbage worms at the height of their infestation seems to have saved my kale plants. However, it was too late for the kohlrabi and cabbages, which have not progressed beyond seedling size. I’m told that an application of Bt and some ladybugs would eliminate these little munchers, so we’ll keep that in mind for next year.

It may have been another misstep to mix our compost into the potting soil, given how much trouble we’ve had with diseases in our tomato plants. I hated to see the tomato transplant succumb to the same yellowing and crispy leaves we’ve had the last several years in our regular beds. But: no blossom end rot; the tomatoes themselves are so far looking luscious.

We can’t do anything about the soil, short of dumping it out and starting over, and I’m not willing to do that. But the other issues are all learning points for the next growing season. With gardeners, it’s all about next year!