Worm Digs

Categories: Compost | 7 Comments
Posted Thursday, February 4th, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Part II of II:

“Of all the animals, the worm has played the most important part in the world’s history.”  – Charles Darwin

Worms.  Check.  Bin.  Check.  Food waste.  Check.  I had everything I needed to set up my very first worm farm.  Opening up the guide book that came with the bin I read, “The Wriggly Wranch™ harnesses the amazing power of earthworms, natures perfect recycler!”  Well, alright then.  Let’s get it on!

If there was a Dwell Magazine for the vermin set, The Wranch would be in it.  With a sleek, black modernist architectural design, it offers Red Wrigglers the finest in contemporary living.

Two plastic boxes, approximately the same size, fit snuggly together, leaving a gap of a few inches inside the bottom box. The top box, which has a screened bottom, is where food scraps go and where the worms live and eat.  Their precious tea, a powerful organic fertilizer and natural pest repellent, drips down to the bottom box which has a spigot, allowing you to easily collect it.

When the top box is 3/4 full of castings, you slide a third box on top of it, and start adding your scraps. Over a period of about three months, the worms crawl up into their new box, and you can harvest their castings in the old box and start again.

You’re supposed to start with 1 lb., or 1000 worms.  I think I brought home about 500, though honestly it’s hard to tell.  I’m not about to lay them out side by side to count (although, I think my husband kinda wanted to). Anyway, they mate like crazy, so  if all goes well, there  should be about 15,000-20,000 worms in a year’s time!

Considering all the rampant worm-sex going on under the lid, they probably should have called it The Bunny Ranch. But, yeah, maybe that would have been too confusing.

To create the initial bedding for the worms, the Wranch provides a block of coconut coir.  When you soak the block in a bucket of water, it expands and breaks up until it becomes a deep mass of mossy, primo worm-grade goodness that looks and feels like moist soil.

We spread the coir in the bin and then dumped our little recyclers in.  I’ve never been so  excited to open a can of worms.  (Sorry, had to make that joke.)

To encourage them to dig themselves into their new digs, we left the cover off and exposed them to light, which they hate. Then we put  a few pieces of lettuce in to start them off slow.

Finally, we covered them with a piece of wet newspaper to hold the moisture in.  Worms only survive in moist environments, so the bedding should always stay damp – not too wet, not too dry.

And that was it. Time to let nature do the rest.

In fact, getting them eating in the beginning is proving to be a little tricky.  It’s been a week now since setting up the Wranch, and the few torn up pieces of lettuce I scattered over their bed haven’t been touched. A little research told me this was normal, and could be due to a number of factors.

First, they need to get used to their new home.  I actually felt a little bit guilty about taking them away from their Vermi-Palace at SMC. But I think they’ll get used to slummin’ it on the porch soon enough.  Also, they are likely eating their coir bedding, so may not be interested in other food yet. Additionally, I may not have gotten a big enough worm-population to start.  Another trip to the Vemitech may be needed if I don’t have enough patience for the worms to get-it-on and let nature to take its course.

I also discovered that the worms don’t actually eat the food, but the micro-beasties that grow on the food as it decomposes. So, following advice from the Wranch manual’s troubleshooting section, I put some of the lettuce through the food processor.  Hopefully, the smaller pieces will biodegrade a little bit faster for them to consume.

I will keep you updated on their progress.  Until then, I leave you with this:

“The early bird catches the worm.  But the late worm doesn’t get eaten.” – Evangeline Heath


One woman. 1000 worms. Endless possibilities.

Categories: Compost | 9 Comments
Posted Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Ever since learning that food scraps in landfills actually turn into methane gas – one of the leading pollutants responsible for global warming – I’ve been on a tear to figure out how to compost in my apartment.

My research pointed to one answer, and a most unfortunate new word: vermicomposting. I have to say, I was pretty grossed out even saying it. For me, it evoked images of voracious rats chomping through fetid food waste.

In reality, it’s the process by which worms eat garbage and transform it into fertilizer, which can then be returned to the earth.

Okay, that’s beautiful.  But still, the idea of hundreds of slimy, dirty worms having their way with my garbage in my own home gave me the creeps.

Yet the more I read about it, the more it started to make sense.  First, worm bins are compact so they are a perfect choice for small-space living.  Also, worms can turn garbage into compost in about three months, as opposed to up to a year with garden composting.

And of course, as I’ve written about here recently, worm castings (or poop) and tea (worm pee) are a rich source of nitrogen, making them an excellent organic fertilizer.

More importantly, if properly maintained, the worm bin will not smell.  If it starts to stink, then you’ve got a problem: either it’s too wet, too dry or too full.

When my mother-in-law sent me this video, my mind was made up.  The worms were moving in.

Both Los Angeles County and The City of Santa Monica subsidize composting containers, so residents can get them at a reduced price. For $33 bucks, I picked up my cute lil’ worm bin which even had a name: “Wriggly Wranch.”  Darling!

It turned out to be the size of a large file box with legs, so it couldn’t fit under the sink, as I’d hoped at first. But with my husband’s reminder that worms were used to being outside, I found it fit nicely on my small back porch. They can actually stand temperatures between 50-90 degrees, I learned.

Now I had the bin, but no worms. My first discovery was that there are, in fact, two species: Earthworkers and Composters.  The first are found in the garden and live on topsoil and hummus.  Nightcrawlers are one example, of many.  As for Composters, there are only a few kinds, the most common of which is the Red Wriggler.  This is the one you want for your bin.

A quick Google search turned up a list of companies that will airmail Red Wrigglers to your door for about $25 a pound, not including shipping.  But the idea of leaving such a huge carbon footprint in an effort to recycle struck me as a little absurd.

So I put an ad up on Freecycle and got seven or eight responses in pretty short order.  Worm farmers are a supportive bunch, it turns out.  One woman called my attention to Santa Monica City College’s Recycling program.

They have a giant machine called the Vermitech, one of a few in the state.  It holds over one million worms in a 16 ft. long, temperature-controlled environment. SMC feeds all the scraps the cafeteria creates in food preparation to the worms, and then use the castings to fertilize their grounds.  Brilliant.

I arranged to meet with Madeline Brody, the woman who runs the recycling program.  My husband and I walked over to her office at SMC with a bag of empty yogurt containers (with holes poked in the lid so the little guys could breathe).  Madeline drove us across campus in a golf cart to the Vermitech – and it was clear that this was my husband’s favorite part of the outing.

She opened the enormous lid, revealing a flat expanse of brown dirt. No worms in sight.  But when Madeline put on some rubber gloves and scooped her hands into the soil,  she pulled up a huge clump of hundreds of Red Wrigglers. They were all intricately tangled together like the massive biological network of neurons in the brain, busily transforming garbage into compost.

Nature’s perfect, closed-looped systems never cease to amaze me. This planet has a perfect built-in process for returning waste back to the earth, developed over billions of years.  There simply is no better way to do it.

The American solution, clumping trash into huge brick cubes that send noxious fumes into the atmosphere, is insanely destructive.  Did you know that the Fresh Kills landfill in New Jersey is responsible for a whopping 2% of the methane gas pollution for the entire world?

And you thought Jersey only produced trash TV!

Check in tomorrow to see how I set up Wriggley Wranch.


King Of The Worms

Posted Wednesday, January 27th, 2010 at 12:44 pm

All of my investigations into organic fertilizer have led to a single consensus: worm castings are the shit.  Rich in nutrients and microbeasties, many people believe that it is the best amendment a soil could hope for.

Realizing that this organic garden gold could produce miracles in the clay soil of my yard-share, I had a bee in my bonnet to get me some on the double. I got up bright and early Sunday morning, and hurried down to the Main Street Farmer’s Market, where I heard there would be a woman who sold it – only to find out she no longer had a booth there.  Crap!

But a quick search on Craigslist turned up Steve Gottlieb, owner of a worm-growing outfit way out in Northridge called Golden Wiggle Worms.  Responding to my inquiry, he said he sold it for $1 per/pound.  That seemed like a fine price.

I did some sloppy math and figured I’d need about 35 pounds to cover the garden.   In retrospect, I think I bought way too much. But perhaps there’s no such thing as “too much” when it comes to worm poop.  Okay – does anyone want some worm poop?

I called Steve in the morning to tell him I was coming over.  His voice was scratchy, his words were slightly slurred and he spoke with the hint of a Southern twang.  “I have it out here waitin’ for ya.” He said and put down the phone.

Suddenly, I felt insecure about driving out to a strange worm farm in the Valley.  My husband, not nearly as excited about the merits of worm defecation as I was, declined my invitation to join me.   I was on my own.

Since I was heading all the way out to this far flung outpost of garden treasure, I figured I should at least try and share the wealth.   I called all of my gardening friends and asked if they wanted me to pick some extra up for them.  Only one said yes!  I couldn’t believe the benefits of the fecal matter of worms was lost on so many.  It’s just sad.

After braving the freeways, and navigating my way through the wide boulevards intersecting a typical suburban valley neighborhood, I finally turned into the right cul-de-sac.  I pulled down the driveway of a ranch style house that blended into the landscape.  Parked out front was a pristine, Dodger blue Ford sedan, circa 1982 or so. Well at least I knew Gottlieb had style.

Steve came to the door, a skinny, disheveled man who looked to be in his early 60s, dressed in a bright purple shirt.  The smell of kitty litter and stale cigarette smoke wafted out.  Behind him I could see a dim living room in its own organic state of decomposition – filled to the rafters with decades of junk.  My suspicions about him being a character living on the fringes of society were confirmed.

Though his pale blue eyes were glazed over, he still managed to look at me with a gentle intensity as he instructed me in using his precious natural fertilizer.  He explained that the soil should never be more than 20% worm castings, otherwise it will burn the roots.  With wonder in his voice, he told me that the castings will hold five times their weight in water, so I would need to water much less.

“So can I see the worms?”  I asked.

He was only too happy to let me witness his red wiggley money-makers at work.  We cut through the house. The backyard was a disaster zone too and looked as if it hadn’t been picked up in decades. He led me around the side of the empty pool, which had a brown puddle of rain water laying stagnant at the bottom. Overturned lawn chairs, broken pots, empty buckets, and detritus of every sort littered the patio.

Finally, he showed me the long row of trays where he kept the worms.  They were neatly laid out, with a clean plastic cover over them.  He may have been struggling, but his worms were livin’ the life.

Picking up one worm with a whitish band around his body he looked at me and said, with a proud smile, “Preggers.”

It  dawned on me that, as weirded out as I was by that house, Steve may actually have himself the easiest  job in the world.  He could just sit back and let the worms do the work for him.

I emerged unscathed with about 20 plastic shopping bags filled with worm castings.  Of course one spilled all over my backseat on the freeway, and now my trusty Civic has lovely a Farm Fresh Scent.

Oh, the things I do for my garden.


Biodynamic Composting Class

Posted Monday, January 18th, 2010 at 12:56 pm

My gardening horizons have once again been expanded.  On Saturday, I got up early and went to a class on Biodynamic Composting I heard about through Sustainable Works.  As I’d just bought my worm composter from the City Of Santa Monica, I thought this was great timing.  In my horticultural naievete, I assumed “biodynamic” simply referred to the chemical process that happens as organic material breaks down.

Little did I know that I would be introduced to a holistic agricultural philosophy, almost a century old, that was developed by thinker, theologian, educator and agricultural expert Rudolf Steiner himself.  Yet again, my small inquiries have lead me into a much bigger world of belief systems and life philosophies.  I guess I should stop being surprised by that.

The class was taught in the backyard of a house in Venice.  As I walked up the driveway, I had to stop and admire the 3 or 4 raised beds overflowing with gorgeous fresh veggies in the front.  In the back I found a bunch of folks already working at breaking up a huge pile of straw and alfalfa.  It smelled wonderful, a bit of the country right here in the city.

Edelia, the owner of the house and the woman who organized the workshop, joked, “My husband won’t buy a farm so I’m bringing the farm to him.”

Soon, a pickup truck filled with soil backed into the driveway.  The driver, John McAndrew (biocompost@gmail.com) was going to be our teacher for today. He looked to be in his 70s, wore a plaid flannel and jeans, and had the stoic and wise air of someone who’d chosen to live his life outdoors and close to the land.

As we set to work shoveling the black dirt into wheelbarrows, we discovered that it wasn’t dirt at all.  It was, in fact, 100 % pure cow manure.  This surprised all of us because it didn’t smell disagreeable. In fact, it smelled kind of good – like the forest floor.  John explained that the pleasant aroma was because it came from cows that were grass fed and free of antibiotics.

After we finished shoveling the poop, we gathered around the picnic table set up with yummy pastries and bread baked fresh by Edelia’s husband (yum!), and set to learning.

John started his studies in 1970 when, while browsing the shelves at the Bodhi Tree bookstore, Rudolph Steiner’s Agriculture literally fell into his hands.  Taking it as a spiritual calling, he set out to put the principals to work in the real world.  Unable to find anyone in the L.A. area to mentor him, John wrote a letter to a Steiner acolyte in the U.K. (I’d like to take a moment of gratitude here for the invention of the world wide web which allowed me to connect with like-minded folks faster than I could press send on my iphone).  John finally found a man in the SF Valley who was practicing Steiner’s method on his farm, and tracked him down.

Forty years later John has read Steiner’s Agriculture over forty times and is still spreading the seeds of his knowledge. McAndrew is something of an iconoclast and a loner, choosing a simple life devoted to learning as much as he can about Steiner’s philosophy.

“I live in a trailer on the beach.  Poor me.” He chuckled sarcastically.

I came to understand that I was actually at a very unique event.  Even today there are few people who know about Biodynamic Farming, and even fewer teachers. John is certainly one of the few people in the US who has worked with these methods for as long as he has.

So what’s biodynamic farming?  I found this nice definition here

A basic ecological principle of biodynamics is to conceive of the farm as an organism, a self-contained entity. A farm is said to have its own individuality. Emphasis is placed on the integration of crops and livestock, recycling of nutrients, maintenance of soil, and the health and well being of crops and animals; the farmer too is part of the whole. Thinking about the interactions within the farm ecosystem naturally leads to a series of holistic management practices that address the environmental, social, and financial aspects of the farm.

This reminds me of Polyface Farms which was beautifully described in Micheal Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and highlighted in Food Inc. Farmer Joel Salatin said that he was less like a farmer and more like an “orchestra conductor”, an analogy that really gets at the essence of this type of farming. A biodynamic farmer sets up a system in which all the processes of nature, both visible and invisible, can work in together in the most harmonious and efficient way possible.

At this point, I felt a little like I’d gone from kindergarten straight to graduate school.  Just that morning, my first lettuce sprouts had emerged from the seeds I’d planted a few days before. I was delighted and amazed by the miracle of this biological process.  Now I found myself surrounded by gardeners who had gone “beyond organic”, embracing a biodynamic system that mapped every last detail of the chemical interactions involved within a functioning ecosystem.   It was fun to play with the big kids.

This project may be beyond the scope of most apartment farmers.  However, it’s perfect for your garden share or community garden plot.

If you’re interested in reading more, there were two books recommended.  The first is “the bible” of biodynamic farming, Agriculture by Rudolph Steiner. However, I have tried to read Steiner’s books on his educational philosophy and found his writing to be so esoteric and complex that it was almost impenetrable.

Grasp the Nettle was offered as a much easier to understand, hands on guide.

You can download my class notes here and read them below.

To begin a bio-dynamic compost pile, here’s what you’ll need:

- Compost starter – 10$ a packet.  Email John McAndrew at biocompost@gmail.com or call 310-729-7205

- Rainwater

- A bucket

- An old broom

- Cow manure (from grass fed, organically raised cows) *

- Straw and alfalfa

* The closest grass fed cow manure is in Corona, a 150 mile round trip.  You can coordinate with John on how to get it delivered to you.  Other manures can be used, however, cow manure is by far superior and John emphasized that it should be used whenever possible.

Ideally, you’d start with 1 ton of manure and 1 ton of straw.  At this class we had a half ton of each.

Begin the day before by making the compost starter.  The starter bacteria take about 10 hours to, well, get started.  Also, can only be mixed with rainwater, as the chlorine in tap water will kill the beneficial bacteria. John passed it around for us to smell, and once again we experienced a pleasant, earthy scent which immediately took me back to the redwood forest in Santa Cruz.

Map out a 12 by 5 foot rectangle on the lawn.

- Mix 1 teaspoon of starter with a 1/2 inch of rain water in a 5 gallon bucket.

- Now you’re ready to make a “compost lasagna” with the following layers.  Each layer is about 1-inch thick – a thin layer basically.

- Dip the broom in the bucket with the compost liquid

- Sprinkle it on the ground within your rectangular compost area.  Sprinkle is the operative word.  These bacteria are powerful and you don’t need much.

- Spread the straw/alfalfa

- Get a regular garden hose and spray the layers with water so that it has the consistency of a wrung out sponge.  Not soggy, but not too dry either. Wait for about a minute so the water can aerate.  (Exposing the tap water to air kills the chlorine  so it can’t kill the bacteria in the starter.)

- Sprinkle more starter with the broom

- Sprinkle a layer of the cow manure on top of that .

- Spray water from the hose, using method above

- Sprinkle starter

- Repeat

So, in short, the layers go like this:

1) Bacteria (the starter)

2) Carbon (the straw)

3) Water

4) Bacteria (the starter)

5) Nitrogen (the manure)

6) Water

And repeat.

Then you just let it sit for about 3-4 months.  Soon you’ll have “black gold” – compost that will make your plants jump up and yell “Biodynamite!”

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