Getting started with worms

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Tonight Erik and I are running a booth promoting vermicomposting at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum’s Summer Nights in the Garden. We’ve put together this page of resources and advice to point the newbie worm farmers we meet tonight in the right direction– and hopefully inspire anyone who’s reading, no matter where they live, to start a worm bin as well.

Welcome to Root Simple, NHM visitors!

Q: Why should I keep a worm bin?

A: To turn waste into a resource

Every kitchen produces food scraps, and most food scraps end up entombed in a landfill. It’s estimated that 20% of landfill material is food waste. This is unfortunate, because food waste is full of nutrients which will make your house plants, your landscape plants and your vegetable garden grow strong and healthy.

Worm castings and vermicompost, the products of a worm bin, are superb soil conditioners and plant tonics. Some quick definitions: Worm castings , also called vermicast, are worm poo. Vermicompost is the product of a worm bin, and it’s made mostly of worm castings, along with some compost material–that is, broken down organic matter. Vermicompost should have no recognizable ingredients–like newspaper or food scraps. It should all be dark and it should smell like soil. It is not exactly fertilizer, but acts in some of the same ways. Vermicompost adds nutrients and good bacteria to the soil and help soil retain water. Plants love it.

In a worm bin, your garbage becomes black gold!

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Worm bins vs. compost piles

While vegetable scraps can also be put into compost bins, not everyone has the space or the time or the physical strength to maintain a compost pile. Worm bins, though, are easy to maintain and can fit into every lifestyle, from a single person living in an apartment to a big family on a rural compound.

It needn’t be an either/or choice. Many people have both compost piles and worm bins. We find it useful to have a worm bin for the every day flow of kitchen scraps, while we use a compost pile to deal with the plant material generated by the seasonal clearing of the garden.

Where do you get worms?:

The best way is to get a scoop  from a worm keeping friend. I believe that worms, like sourdough starters and other cultures, really work well as a community project, because sometimes things just go wrong, and it’s nice to know you can knock on somone’s door and get some more.

However, you can buy them. Good nurseries sell them–make sure they’ve not been sitting around too long. Bait shops sells them. Check for them at your local farmers’ market. There are mail order companies too–do your due dilligance and make sure the company is well reviewed, and in its copy and fine print seems to put the wellfare of the worms as a high priority.

The most common kind of composting worms are Eisenia fetida, called red worms, red wigglers and composting worms. If you go to a bait shop, make sure you don’t buy nightcrawlers, because they won’t survive in a worm bin.

Choosing a worm bin:

In choosing a worm bin, you need to think your lifestyle: How much food waste do you produce? Where will you keep your bin? It is entirely possible to keep your bin indoors–when maintained correctly, they do not smell or leak. Many people find a place for a small bin in the kitchen, perhaps under the sink. They also can go in places like laundry rooms and basements and garages. Some worm bins are purely functional, others quite attractive.

Let’s break down some of these factors:

Indoor or outdoors?

Worm bins can also stay outside, with a few caveats. Worms like temperatures similar to the temperatures we humans enjoy. They don’t like being hot or freezing cold. They’re most comfortable and productive at the same temperatures you like to live in: around-abouts 55°-80° F (12°-26° C).

This means that while they can go outdoors, on a patio or balcony, they should be sheltered from extreme conditions. Keep the bin out of direct sun. When summer temps get into the 90′s (32+C) and above you need to help keep them cool. Keep them in the shade, up and off hot surfaces like blacktop. Be sure to add water to the bin as the heat begins to dry it out. Move your worms indoors if necessary. Expect that your worms will not be productive, and may experience some die off, during the heat of summer.

When winter temperatures drop low, you will also want to protect your worms. Again, bringing them in for the winter is the easiest solution, or to a semi-sheltered place, like a garage or basement. At temperatures around 40°F (4.4°C) they’ll survive, but won’t do much eating or mating. Lower than that, and you’ll start to see your worms dying (though we’ve heard from Chicagoans that their eggs will  live through the winter–and hatch when conditions are right again).  If you want your bin outdoors year-round in a cold climate, you will need to insulate the bin.

Also, remember to keep the bin out of the rain! You don’t want all your worms drowning in a surprise shower.

Finally, you want to make sure that your outdoor bin has a secure lid, so that it is not invaded by critters who would like to eat your worms.

While protecting worms from the elements requires some care, there are advantages to an outdoor bin. The foremost is that you have less to worry about in terms of insect infestation. It is common, and healthy, for worm bins to host all sorts of insects other than worms. They help with the business of breaking down the food. However, if this system falls out of balance, and you have an explosion of sow bugs or fruit flies in the bin, it’s nice to have the bin outside. On the other hand, outdoor bins naturally tend to hold and attract other insects, so outdoor bins by nature are a little more busy, insect-wise, than indoor bins. We think of this as a positive trait, but if you don’t like seeing the other bugs, you’ll have an easier time with an indoor bin.

And it’s worth repeating that a well-maintained worm bin is odorless, whether it is kept indoors or outdoors.

Bin size:

In the classic book, Worms Eat My Garbage, Mary Applehoff has a basic formula for worm bin sizing– you need 1 square foot of surface space for each pound of scraps you anticipate producing per week (1/10 square meter per half kg.)

However, keeping worms is not rocket science, nor is it an exact science!–and whatever bin you choose can be made to work.

Bin Types

There are all sorts of commercial worm bins for sale, ready to use, like the Worm Factory and similar stacking systems.  You can also make your bin yourself. Worms are not picky! Humans can worry themselves a lot over bin details and design, but as long as the worms have the right living conditions (even moisture, some air, not too hot or cold)  they don’t care if they’re kept in an old bucket, or an Ikea bag, or a rusty bathtub.

The two basic forms of DIY bins are the plastic bin built out of a lidded storage tote or a wooden bin shaped like a chest. This worm composting pdf from the University of Kentucky Extension has a plan for a simple wooden bin.  Here at Root Simple we have a big wooden bin which we keep outdoors, after years of working with a small plastic bin indoors, and find we like this bin very much, partly because of its large size, and partly because we believe wood is a better environment for the worms, and partly because we like the convenience of having a bin outside. But this is not a good option for all people. Small plastic bins are simple to make and work well just about anywhere.

While building a wooden bin take some basic carpentry skills and tools, it’s easy to make a plastic bin. To make a bin out of a plastic tote. All you need are two sturdy, opaque plastic bins (like Rubbermaid bins) and a drill. Here are two resources for how-to build a plastic bin. One is at vermicomposting.net. Another is in pdf form, available through this link to Oregon State Extension Services.

Our favorite resources:

It would take pages and pages for us to tell you how to make and maintain a worm bin, or explain the general amazingness of worms, and this information is already freely available on the Internet. So for further instruction, we’d point you to the following sources:

Oregon State Extension Services,  Composting with Worms. Mentioned above, it not only tells you how to make a plastic bin, but it is also a concise guide to all aspects of worm keeping. A great starter resource.

For general worm biology, The Adventures of Herman, published by the University of Illinois Extension, is a great resource for both kids and adult who just want the basics.

If you want a book on the subject, Worms Eat My Garbage, by Mary Appelhoff. remains the classic resource on aspects of vermicomposting (that is, keeping a worm bin) It’s been in print for a long time, so is easy to find new or used or at the library. Appelhof’s book has everything in it, from plans for building wooden bins, to feeding and harvesting, to explanations of the worm’s life cycle, to detailed trouble shooting.

Low Moments in Plant Theivery

A post I did on the theft of three barrel cacti out of our front yard prompted quite a few readers to share their stories of plant thievery. There’s obviously a lot of plant theft perps out there.

The footage above, out of Skelmersdale, England has to be one of the grandest of all plant thefts. In the video you’ll see two women stealing an entire lawn. It took forty minutes and the thieves even took a smoking break.

The BBC quotes the neighbor whose security camera caught the crime, “I can’t believe the cheek of them. I’m quite speechless about it.”

In local plant theft news, a security camera at the Village Bakery in Los Angeles caught a woman stealing plants for the second time in two years.

CBS news reports,

She digs through, she grabs what she wants, and she puts them in her shopping cart,” Village Bakery and Cafe owner Barbara Monderine said. “It makes me really sad that somebody would do that. She is ruining what we’re trying to make look nice.”

Have you had any plant thefts lately?

Self Watering Barrel Gardens, Aussie style

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Gardening Australia did a video, well worth watching, of David de Vries’ self watering containers that he builds for the Red Cross in Alice Springs. De Vries has devised a simple and efficient way to turn drums into gardens. They look good too.

We’ve featured self watering containers on our blog and in our books. They are a great way to deal with hot climates and bad soil. And, in many places, drums are as plentiful as people.

Thanks to Helen in Sunbury, Victoria for the tip!

The Mystery of the Zero-Irrigation Squash

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We can’t sit down until we eat our squash.

You guys might remember that last year our entire back yard was swamped with squash vines, as we were growing two types of large squash: Tromboncino and “Long of Naples”.  They were both tasty as juveniles, but our long wait for them to ripen was disappointing. Both were rather bland. Bland yet remarkably plenteous. We tried many things to make this stuff useful and/or tasting: pies, pickles, soups, but in the end we felt like we were always trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Though we had almost no rain this year, a couple of volunteer squash vines popped up out of the mulch near our raised beds, and we let them grow, because we wanted to eat the baby squash as we would zucchini–it’s good that way. We also didn’t think the vines would last very long without water. Well, they did. We couldn’t keep up with the baby squash (they’re so good at hiding) and ended up with a harvest of big, bland squash.

Again.

(The squash is a hybrid, by the way. They look like Tromboncino, but are bigger than the Tromboncinos we had last year. Squash cross-breed like crazy. Volunteers are rarely like their parents.)

I bring this up mostly because I am amazed how well this squash did without irrigation. And to be clear, that means they’ve had no water for months. The chairs in the picture above are holding over 100 lbs (45+ kilos) of food grown with zero water inputs! To top that, this was one of the healthiest squash plants we’ve ever “grown” or rather allowed to grow. How did that work? And more importantly, how can we make it happen again?

I have three thoughts:

1) Perfect timing. Volunteers know exactly when to come up. They’re rarely wrong. We humans schedule planting by when we finally buy our seeds and find time to trundle out into the garden. It’s not good enough. Masanobu Fukuoka had a good thought when he went out and just tossed seed all over the place and waited to see what grew. I really need to figure out how to work that man’s ideas into our garden. In times of stress and hard conditions, it seems best to turn to Nature as a teacher.

2) Mulch/compost basins may work well for some types of plants, and do a good job of retaining water. The area where the squash grew is the site of a huge hole which Erik dug out to harvest clay to make our oven. That pit has been filled with compost and the remains of last year’s straw bale beds, and topped with lots of mulch. The squash seems to really like this compost-y growing medium. We’ve not had many volunteers of other types, though, so I don’t think the appeal is universal. However, it may lead to hints of how to grow squash crops here successfully with little water.

3) Cheating. I do wonder if Mr. Squash stretched his roots under the nearest raised bed (about 2 feet/.5 meter away) and siphoned off some of the water. Certainly if I’d planted a seedling that far from the bed, and told it “Okay, you’re on your own. Just get what you need from that bed over yonder” that plant would never have made it. But volunteers are canny. And it may come down to timing. The squash might have used what little rain we had as a jump start, and got its roots over into the wet zone before the real heat set in.

Have you ever been amazed by a volunteer’s hardiness? Anyone from a dry place have any favorite squash/melon growing strategies?

Looking for Tough, Drought Tollerant Plants?

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For Californians, you need look no further than UC Davis Arboretum’s searchable list of All-Stars.

The horticultural staff of the UC Davis Arboretum have identified 100 tough, reliable plants that have been tested in the Arboretum, are easy to grow, don’t need a lot of water, have few problems with pests or diseases, and have outstanding qualities in the garden. Many of them are California native plants and support native birds and insects. Most All-Star plants can be successfully planted and grown throughout California.

The list consists of plants that the UC Davis Arboretum has proven to thrive in our Mediterranean climate. They also look good year round. Most are drought tolerant, low maintenance and attract beneficial wildlife. Not all are native, but that’s not an issue for us here at Root Simple (we like diversity). We’ve learned that if you’ve got a small garden, having plants that look good year round is particularly important.

There’s a number of our favorites on the list: Salvia apiana, Rosmarinus officinalis, Ceanothus ‘Concha’.

If you just cashed in your LA Department of Water and Power lawn rebate check and (hopefully) decided against the artificial turf grass option, the All-Star list is good place to start.

Kelly and I are working, this summer, on lowering our garden’s water needs. How has drought (assuming that’s a problem for you) changed your gardening plans?

Matching Your Waste Stream to Your Composting Method

Image source: Philip Cohen, Wikipedia.

Image source: Philip Cohen, Wikipedia.

This past weekend I taught a composting class at a local Waldorf school to a group of adults. When I asked the students to describe their living situations, I realized I needed to take a detour from the main activity of the day, building a large biodynamic compost pile, into a discussion of worm composting.

Why? A few of the attendees lived in apartments or had very small yards. The type of composting your household does will be determined in part from how you manage your waste stream and what you intend to do with the compost. If you live in an apartment and just have a few house plants, a worm bin is going to be your best option.

Even if you have a yard and a vegetable garden you may still need to maintain a few different types of compost methods. We have three kinds of composting methods at our house, determined by the types of waste streams our household generates:

Worm bin
Our worm bin is for the trickle of food waste that comes out of the kitchen on a daily basis. This consists of vegetable trimmings, tea bags and coffee grounds.

Advantages: Can be done indoors in an apartment. Produces a compost that is higher in nutrients than a conventional compost pile.

Disadvantages: Certain foods can’t be added like citrus and onions.

Conventional compost pile
If you have a vegetable garden and want to grow organically, you’ll need to generate a large amount of compost. This is a great way to deal with yard trimmings, grass, manure, and food waste.

Advantages: makes the kind of high quality compost needed in large quantities for a vegetable garden.

Disadvantages: a lot of work, can’t be added too once the pile is built, may require car trips to gather materials.

“Disposal” compost pile
There’s also stuff that can’t go in the worm bin. And once you build a big pile it’s best not to keep adding to it. For this reason we have a kind of “disposal” pile. It’s a compost bin that gets the materials that can’t go into the other two.

Advantages: reduces the biomass of all the stuff that can’t go either in the worm bin or the big compost pile.

Disadvantages: produces a low quality compost.

Alternatives
The labor involved in building a big compost pile for a conventional vegetable garden speaks to the advantages of what I think of as alternative permaculture food crops. In our climate that’s things like prickly pear cactus, pomegranates, certain types of grapes, olives and California natives (many of which are edible or medicinal).  These useful plants don’t need compost. They pull up nutrients from the ground and, if you let the leaves fall in place, do their own composting.

Apartment Parking Lot Gardening in East Hollywood

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Today we have a guest post from R.J., who lives near us in East Hollywood. R.J.’s post proves that you can start a garden even if you don’t own a house and how an otherwise useless urban space can be put to good use. R.J. says:

I wanted to be able to give my granddaughter the experience of gardening while she was growing up but as both my daughter and I live in apartments, and have no space for gardens I needed to come up with a solution . So based on the “Square Foot Gardening Book by Mel Bartholomew I built two 5 ft. x 1 ft. square foot garden boxes from inexpensive ($ 2.15) 1 x 6  x 6 ft. cedar fence boards bought from Home Depot. I waterproofed them by sealing the insides with with pure tongue tung oil from Jill’s paint in Atwater. Each planter gives me 5,  12 x 12 inch sq. ft. spaces for growing.

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These boxes take up a small amount of space and fit easily in the area  ( about 2 feet wide) between the parked cars and the back wall of my apt building. The area gets about 6 hours of sunlight so it is ideal for growing.

This is my second year of growing and I am a new gardener but I am happy with my results. The first year I grew various veggies including  green onions, bell peppers radishes kale and lettuce and

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During last winter I have successfully grown lettuce, kale and chard though my one cauliflower attempt was a failure.

I found that cherry tomatoes gave me the most satisfaction as every day  there are some ripe ones to pick and eat so you get that nearly instant gratification we are so used to in these “click and get ” high tech times.

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My granddaughter loves to pick them herself and pop them in her mouth so this works out great in terms of her developing an appreciation of where food comes from and experience in raising her own food as she is growing up despite not having any gardening space to speak of.

I decided to go all out this year and planted cherry tomatoes in all ten squares as well as an additional grape tomato plant in an inexpensive Home Depot planter.

The result is I have a TON of delicious cherry tomatoes for myself,  family members and some of my lucky neighbors in my apartment building, not to mention bragging rights and a sense of eco-green accomplishment.

These boxes can be easily made and you can even have all the pieces cut at your local Home Depot or lumber yard and you just nail or screw them together. I would recommend that you use 1 x 8 x 6 ft. fence boards instead of the 1 x 6, though, and fill the soil about an inch below the boards so when watering the water doesn’t spill over the sides as is the case with my 1 x 6 boards.

One of the advantages of having my garden space in the parking lot is that when I leave in the morning I can spend a few moments watering and pruning and picking some delicious tomatoes for lunch and when I come home at night I can repeat the same process . This routine has turned out to be very convenient way of getting my gardening time in during the course of my normal daily routine.

Although there is some effort and expense getting started, there is a tremendous amount of satisfaction in growing your own veggies and the taste is exceptional. My tomatoes have a flavor that is incomparable to even the most expensive organic tomatoes you can buy, including your local farmer’s market.

My goal of teaching my granddaughter some gardening basics while she is growing up has been accomplished and she will have some good childhood memories of the times spent with grandpa growing and eating veggies,

I know there are many people these days who feel the need to get their “gardening on” and teach their children ( if they have any) and this is one way they could go about it.

My materials List:

1) 1 x 6  x 6 ft.cedar fence boards ( I recommend you go with 1 x 8 though and you can also use redwood).
2) 1 1/2   by 3/8 x 8 f t, redwood lath ( to divide squares up).
3) 2 x 3  x 8 Douglas fir for legs ( You don’t really need legs just place on top bricks or wood to allow for drainage).
4) Pure Tongue tung oil (expensive and not really necessary as the cedar or redwood will last for years as-is and is cheap to replace).
5) Galvanized screws or nails.
6) For the soil I recommend you check out Square Foot Garden by Mel Bartholomew as he has a great formula for growing plants in this kind of small area.
7) I recommend you go with seedlings if you are a new gardener and I bought mine from Home Depot and Sunset Nursery in Hollywood.

010 Erica Strauss of Northwest Edible Life

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In episode 10 of the Root Simple Podcast, Kelly and I have a conversation with Erica Strauss, professional chef turned gardener and self described urban homesteading fanatic. Her voluminous and amazing blog Northwest Edible Life offers practical advice on a wide variety of topics: food preservation, gardening, keeping livestock in urban spaces, kitchen tips and home economic hacks. Some of the many topics we touch on in the interview include:

You can also find Erica on Facebook.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Getting Started With Succulents Free eBook

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We had a great time at the Museum of Natural History this past Friday along with the 200 people who lined up to plant succulents in thrift store mugs in our booth. Kelly wrote up a nice eBook, Getting Started With Succulents (note that it’s geared towards our climate in Los Angeles but there’s a lot of good general information on propagation). There’s even info on how to drill a hole in a ceramic cup or pot (when you drill 200 of them you get pretty good at it!). You can download the eBook here.

The Miraculous Lavender

lavender growing out of concrete

When it first appeared, I almost pulled it as a weed. Then I thought, “Is that a lavender plant? Growing here?”

Curious to see what would happen, I let it go. I assumed it would not live long. It’s growing out of a crack. It may have sprouted on the back of our last pathetic winter rain, but we’ve had no precipitation for months now. I don’t water it. I don’t send water down the stairs. The soil off the stairs is dry, because that slope is planted with natives, which are getting no irrigation. There’s no plumbing beneath the staircase, either. Yet the lavender keeps getting bigger.

I’m going to have to pull it soon, before it ruins our stairs. But I don’t want to, because it’s so determined to live.

And this goes to show that when a plant wants to grow somewhere, when it establishes itself according to its own rules, it is unstoppable. Soil type, recommended water, sun exposure– all these things mean little in comparison wonderful alchemy which allows plants to grow exactly where they want to grow, even if they are breaking all of our rules.