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.

Worm Composting Demo at Summer Nights in the Garden

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Join Root Simple for a worm composting demo at the Natural History Museum’s Summer Nights in the Garden series this Friday August 28. We’re showing how to set up your own vermicomposting system and raffling off a worm bin. Plus it’s the debut of the new WormCam! Grab a cocktail and join us and KCRW DJ, Anthony Valadez. The garden is one of the best in California and the event is freeeeeeeeee. More info here.

Wild Food Lab: Foraging Taken to the Next Level

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Photo: Mia Wasilevich.

There are a lot of wild food foragers out there but few who really know what to do with nature’s bounty. The gastronomical and foraging team of Mia Wasilevich and Pascal Baudar are pushing the boundaries of food and foraging, teaching classes, putting on pop-up feasts and sharing their discoveries through a website, Wild Food Lab.

Kelly and I took a class from them last weekend (you can find out about the classes through the Los Angeles Wild Edibles and and Self Reliance Meetup) where, in the middle of a hot, dry field in Southern California they proved you can still find abundant and tasty edibles. At this time of year that food comes mostly in the form of seeds. Pascal and Mia created, on the spot, a weed seed power bar, mustard and a few other wild seed enhanced foods.

Not an LA local? The Wild Food Lab website will give you an idea of what this team is up to through recipes and techniques for common wild foods. I think my favorite recipe is also the simplest: how to prepare the ubiquitous broadleaf plantain (Plantago major).

Pascal gave me a couple of ideas for ways to enhance my bread experiments with seeds and wild herbs which I’m looking forward to trying.

Do you have a favorite wild food? Tell us where you live and what you like to gather and work with.

014 All About Pressure Canning With Ernest Miller

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On the fourteenth episode of the Root Simple Podcast we talk to chef, historian, educator, consultant and speaker Ernest Miller about pressure canning.

During the show we dicuss two types of pressure canners:

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Presto 23-Quart Pressure Canner and Cooker


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All American 21-1/2-Quart Pressure Cooker/Canner

Ernie recommends you get a canner with a weighted gauge–because it can be difficult to get dial gauges calibrated.

We go on to discuss botulism and the case of the Seattle man who improperly canned game.

Ernie mentions some sources for safe, tested recipes:

We conclude with answer to listener questions including:

  • Modifying recipes
  • The difference between pressure cookers and canners
  • Glass top and induction ranges and pressure canning
  • Canning salsas
  • Canning meats

You can follow Ernie’s company, Rancho La Merced Provisions on Facebook. Make sure to check out his beautiful glass fermenting vessels. And like the Master Food Preservers of Los Angeles County 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.

Adobe in Action Interior and Exterior Plastering Online Course Begins on Monday, Sept. 1st

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Adobe master Kurt Gardella, the man behind our backyard oven, is teaching an online adobe plastering class. Here’s the 411:

Dear adobe friends,

The next online class I am teaching for Adobe in ActionInterior and Exterior Plastering – begins on Monday, September 1, 2014. Earthen plasters are a great way to finish just about any wall substrate in the home. They create a soft, breathable final plaster layer which regulates humidity, odors and sounds like no other wall finish can. Plastering is a great way to get a feeling for building with earthen materials because the thin plaster surfaces give us direct and immediate feedback on how well we’ve selected and mixed our clay and aggregate materials. Also, you can practice your earthen plastering skills over existing conventional walls if you wish. We’ll show you how!

Here is the direct registration link if you are interested in joining us:

http://adobeinaction.bigcartel.com/product/interior-and-exterior-plastering-8-week-online-class-from-september-1-to-october-26-2014

And here is some info about topics covered in the class:

About the Course

This course covers the fundamentals of finishing interior and exterior adobe brick walls with natural plasters and paints. Our hands-on projects for this course focus on the mixing and application of earthen plasters, lime plasters and lime/casein paints.

Topic Overview

  • historical overview of interior and exterior finishes for adobe structures in New Mexico
  • importance of respiratory and eye safety when preparing and mixing plasters
  • overview of mud plaster characteristics and why earthen plasters make sense on adobe walls
  • summary of tools and materials needed for plastering
  • window and door opening reinforcement using reed mat
  • adobe wall preparation for maximum earthen plaster adhesion
  • locating and testing clay for earthen plasters
  • locating and testing aggregates for earthen plasters and lime plasters
  • preparing lime putty 10 importance of work site and material organization for plaster work
  • fiber (straw) preparation and chopping techniques
  • sifting & preparing & mixing soil and aggregates for earthen plasters
  • wheat paste production for strengthening mud plasters
  • casein production for lime paints
  • natural exterior earthen plaster stabilization techniques (lime, cactus juice)
  • hand application techniques of earthen plasters (base coats, patching)
  • hawk & trowel application of earthen and lime plasters (leveling and finish coats)
  • basic earthen plaster ingredients and recipes
  • basic lime plaster ingredients and recipes
  • calculating surface area to be finished and materials needed
  • troubleshooting earthen and lime plasters (cracking, adhesion problems, etc.)

Let me know if you have any questions. It would be great if you joined us for this next class!

Best,
Kurt Gardella
www.kurtgardella.com

P.S. For more information about how Adobe in Action’s online classes work see:
http://www.adobeinaction.org/how-the-online-classes-work/

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!

Picture Sundays: Inside a Corpse Flower

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We went to the Huntington Gardens yesterday to see their corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanumand, yes, that is a NSFW scientific name) which was set to bloom soon. A few minutes after we arrived an excited docent ran thought the conservatory letting everyone know that the flower was starting to open.

We had lucked out. It takes years for the plant to bloom and the flower does not last long. We left to have lunch and when we came back horticultural pandemonium had broken out:

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There was no sign of the flower’s infamous rotting flesh smell (the odor attracts carrion eating insects who provide pollination). But a Huntington staffer kindly took our camera and pointed it into the flower. Here’s the inside view:

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Here’s a time lapse video from Michigan State of their corpse flower blooming:

Saturday Linkages: Water Shaming, Scotts and Robot Houses

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Smarter urban water: how Denver turned to ridiculing waste

Grid-It: Knoll your everyday carry

In Our Garden: Four Surprising Fruits

Sneak peak of a LIGHT-UP ROBOT-FACE Tree House

Who’s more controversial – Michelle Rhee or Scotts Miracle-Gro? | Garden Rant

See what the CEO of Scotts is like:

Can we can with real lemon juice instead of bottled juice?

The Archdruid Report: The Gray Light of Morning

Don’t eat dog poop, and don’t run around with sharp objects in your ear

For these links and more, follow Root Simple on Twitter:

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?