Posts Tagged ‘worms’

Rookie Mistakes: Worms

If you kill off your animals, even if you know how it happened, always start again with fresh bedding to be on the safe side.

If you kill off your animals, even if you know how it happened, always start again with fresh bedding to be on the safe side.

“The dog ate them” is about the only way I didn’t kill my last batch of red wigglers. Although, considering the dog I live with, who knows?

The first thing I did wrong was get them too wet. I was juicing veggies for myself, and I don’t have a very high-quality juicer so the pulp is pretty wet. They love it, it’s already bite-sized for them, so they go through it pretty quickly. I hadn’t been pulling out the worm casings (poop) very quickly, though, so it started to store the excess water instead of letting it evaporate. When the worms get too wet they drown and/or noxious gasses build up from the bacteria and they suffocate. It’s not too hard to fix, if you catch it. I sifted out a large portion of the casings and replaced it with dry, shredded newspapers to absorb the moisture that was left. I did lose worms to that, but they could have recovered from it.

Mistake two  was, again, feeding them incorrectly. Worms do not like citrus. I already knew that, but I hadn’t realized that the problem doesn’t seem to be citrus, per se, but foods high in vitamin C. I had picked some rosehips from a friend’s yard and I was working on pulling the seeds out, because the seeds are a bummer to eat. I knew that they were organically raised, so I had no qualms about chucking the seeds in with the worms. If they couldn’t eat the seeds directly, maybe they would sprout and sprouts are easily edible. I started seeing dried worms stuck to the outer box. It was confirmed later that worms actually run away from citrus (and rose hips). When their entire home is inundated with the food, the only place to run is out of the box- which kills them.

Once I eventually figured out why the worms were running away, I sifted through everything and pulled out the survivors. They consisted of about five adults and a couple of dozen babies. Rebuilding up to a decent number of worms would probably require just buying new ones, but the survivors would bolster the new batch. Unfortunately, five worms don’t eat enough to be fed on a regular basis, so they sort of got forgotten about and dried up.

R.I.P, Worms. You taught me valuable lessons.

With a freshly emptied, and cleaned, worm box, I took myself down to the Rocky Mountain Worm Company again for a new batch. They don’t keep red wigglers for sale over the winter. However, they do sell African nightcrawlers all year. For the same price, I thought it might be worth a try. Particularly since red wigglers eat half their bodyweight per day, and African nightcrawlers can eat up to one-and-a-half times their bodyweight per day. I’m doing my vermiculture inside, so being able to process more food through the same volume of worms is a perk. African nightcrawlers are significantly larger, you only get a few hundred per pound rather than around 1,000, and they don’t reproduce as quickly, but neither of those facts really bothered me.

The one other major difference is that the casings from the African nightcrawlers are quite a bit bigger than the ones for the red wigglers. I had been sifting the casings out of the bedding and food using a kitchen sieve. It was very slow, but it worked. It’s not going to work for these guys. The folks I bought the worms from let me know that 1/4-inch hardware cloth would pull most of the adult worms out, and that 1/8-inch would sift out pretty much anything but the casings. I am thinking about making two sifters if my worm operation gets bigger, but for now I’m going to be making one with 1/8-inch screening so I can keep them cleaned out. I will keep you updated on how the sifter(s) come along.

So far, the new batch of worms seem to be doing just fine. They’re a little strange to stick my hands in, since they’re quite a bit bigger than the other ones, but that’s not such a big deal. I had been thinking that they were eating slowly, due to finding leftovers, but I recently noticed that they seem to have eaten the bulk of the newspaper bedding. I think I need to feed them more often, and make sure that the bits are smaller, since the leftovers tended to be big for little worm mouths. I have been meaning to start juicing more often. I just have to watch the bin carefully.

Mmmmm. Worms.

Mmmmm. Worms.

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Prepping Another Bed

No longer my bed. They're much more on top of these things.

No longer my bed. They’re much more on top of these things.

I finally got my butt in gear and went to visit my bed at the Ranch Community Garden yesterday. I had two last year, but there was a waiting list for new gardeners, so I gave one back. After all, I’m getting a mighty slow start, and there’s only one of me, so it’s not like I really need two beds. I can feel good, though, that the person that has my bed got one that was worked correctly last year (if a bit neglectfully) and put to bed for the winter in a way that would set them up for a successful year. They, also, are clearly more on top of things than I am.

My bed. Still snugly covered up from the winter.

My bed. Still snugly covered up from the winter.

Giving up a bed also means that I only had to double-dig one four-by-eight plot. I didn’t do it last year- the beds were brand new and the soil hadn’t settled, yet, so it wasn’t really necessary. “I get why you double-dug the potatoes,” you’re thinking. “They need lots of vertical growing space underground. But why are you double-digging the bed that’s getting tomatoes and peppers?” Good question. Several reasons. The first being- I didn’t do it last year. I didn’t know the soil two shovel-lengths deep. Now I know that it’s lovely and even, without any of the crazy sand or clay patches that you can expect to find in urban soil. The fact that it has been an empty lot some ways away from the building of the church that owns the land would explain it. It is essentially un-touched soil. Now I know that under the first layer, I don’t run into rock-hard, compacted soil. It was pretty easy to dig through.

Hello, there. Don't you look healthy.

Hello, there. Don’t you look healthy.

When I was digging through, I also met enough worms that I kidnapped three to keep Herman company in Showcase 2. I was very happy to see that the decomposer population, at least the big ones, is in good shape. I don’t think that you should populate your garden with lots of imported critters. Most won’t survive Colorado, and those that do might become an invasive species. However, moving worms three blocks away from their home works fine. If you are establishing a new garden, ask a gardener friend if they have any worms to spare so you can jump-start your own population.

Before.

Before.

The last benefit is adding loft to the soil. It started out about a quarter of an inch below the top of the 2×6 board edging. It ended being an average of two inches higher than the board. Since the only thing I added was a handful of blood meal to help the nitrogen levels, that lift came from all the space that air and water now has for wending its way around the roots of the plants. I also know that my plants will be able to get their roots well below the bottom of the board edging. Raised beds are pretty and, in a public garden, useful for making sure that you stick with just the plot you paid for. However, they dry out more easily than beds that are flush with the ground. In wet areas, this is good. In the South West, though, there are some Native Americans that actually garden in lowered garden beds due to the need to preserve every drop of water we have. The deeper the plant roots go, the more water-efficient they are. This is good for both gardeners that forget to water, and ones that are on water restrictions, as we will be this summer.

After.

After.

What about no-till techniques? I think there’s a lot to be said for them. Particularly when farming on a massive scale, since plowing exposes a lot of topsoil to potential erosion. However, unless you have lucked into perfect soil, I think that for at least the first year or two, really getting down and dirty in your garden is a good idea. Will I go with a more minimal turnover for my RCG bed next year? Quite possibly. I now have the information that it is good soil, and no one will be walking on it to compact it. Will I be going with a more minimal technique for Showcase 2 next year? No. I walk on it, sometimes, and so does the dog when she’s being a monster. Also, it does have those sand patches that still need to be mixed into the rest of the bed for a more even texture. That one probably needs to double-dug for at least two more years before it’s even enough to go for a more minimal digging-over. That might be enough time to train myself and the dog to stop walking on it. Maybe.

Re-covered with the old straw to preserve moisture until I put plants in. Since I'm mostly transplanting into this bed, the straw may well stay all summer, since seedlings won't need to grow through it.

Re-covered with the old straw to preserve moisture until I put plants in. Since I’m mostly transplanting into this bed, the straw may well stay all summer, since seedlings won’t need to grow through it.

Double-digging, again

Gathering the tools.

Gathering the tools.

It’s raining. The horizon-to-horizon grey is doing my vitamin D level no favors, but it is a lovely, soaking rain, rather than the kind that pounds down and just runs off the surface, so it is good for my freshly-planted potatoes. If we can’t have it all, we need to be happy with what we’ve got.

It's fluffing up nicely.

It’s fluffing up nicely.

We were slow to order the potatoes this year for Showcase 2, but with as miserable as the weather was for much of April, I wouldn’t have gotten them in the ground at the “right” time anyway. I would have preferred to turn the potato bed at least a few days before I planted, but I really needed to get the seed potatoes in the ground before I totally missed the planting window. Therefore, I dug the bed over and planted on the same day.

This spot may well have been where they dumped the sand needed for construction when the house was built.

This spot may well have been where they dumped the sand needed for construction when the house was built.

In an effort to rotate crops as much as possible in our two-bed garden, the potatoes are going in the bigger bed this year, and other things will be going in what was the potato bed last year. But, whether we are planting potatoes or anything else, we need to prep the bed. For me, that means double-digging. We did this last year, so why do we have to do it again? In part, it is because I was walking on the garden bed during the winter when I was taking things to the compost pile. However, there’s more to it. Double-digging last year started to improve the structure of the soil. We want soil clumps interspersed with spaces big enough for air and water to circulate to the roots. Double-digging this year will help fluff up the soil again, to encourage this structure. Digging by hand, as I mentioned last year, does less damage to any existing structure the soil has. If your garden is small enough, try to do it that way instead of using something like a rototiller. You can even skip the gym, that day, since you’ll be getting a workout.

These are not helpful in a root-vegetable plot.

These are not helpful in a root-vegetable plot.

There are other benefits as well. I dug out a few more rocks that I hadn’t gotten last year. Rocks, and most everything else, migrate through the soil. Long-time gardeners can tell you that you might think you’ve de-rocked a garden or field, but you never really do. I also ran across several serious sand patches. The more this garden gets dug over, the more the sand will be mixed in with the rest of the soil, leading to a more even texture throughout the garden. Untouched soil will change from place to place, but soil in urban areas may well have a sand pit smack beside a solid patch of clay. Modern building techniques don’t generally take into account saving topsoil and not disturbing the underlying layers more than necessary. It is an unfortunate fact of life that if you are in a house, you are probably going to be restoring soil rather than just improving on a good thing. The last perk is that I’m re-introducing myself to my soil and the things that live in it. Because I’m not trotting across the surface following a machine, I have the time to see that there aren’t many worms, still, but one of them is an absolute monster.

I'm naming him Herman.

I’m naming him Herman.

Once it was dug over, I laid out the seed potatoes in four quadrants to see which ones needed to be cut in pieces to fill up their quadrant. Last year I cut first and measured later, forgetting that seed potatoes aren’t as willing to be held for a second year as other seeds. They got buried about 6 or 8 inches deep in the nice, loose soil. I then re-covered the patch with straw to help preserve the moisture in the soil, and gave it a good watering. I am planning on using more straw this year than I did last year, in an effort to make the most of the water I do put in the garden.

Plotting one's plot is a good idea.

Plotting one’s plot is a good idea.

 

 

It's kinda surprising how easy it is to hide all that work.

It’s kinda surprising how easy it is to hide all that work.

I have worms! In a good way.

About 100 worms. Smaller than I expected.

Yep, I now have pets. I picked them up at a local store and deposited them in their newly-crafted home. When I got them I stuck my nose in their little carrying cases and it was so nice to smell honest-to-goodness dirt! I started with a little over 200. They were pricy, and I could have done better online, but I wanted to pick them up instead of having them shipped. My mail has a bad habit of languishing in my mailbox for a day or two before I pick it up, and I didn’t want to lose any to frostbite. I also decided that as quickly as they breed, it was probably best to start small rather than risk being overwhelmed in short order. Apparently your population can double in 90 days.

Importing plants and animals should be done with care. After all, dandelions were once imported on purpose because they were pretty. I hesitated over purchasing this fancy, European worm for that reason. However, they like temperatures above 55 degrees, moist conditions, and they like to stay in the upper portion of the soil. If they decided to escape on me, I don’t think they’d last long enough to be a genuine problem around here. That,

The latest in sustainable chic.

and they live for eating compost, unlike nightcrawlers that need more actual dirt in their life. As long as their environment doesn’t dry out, they shouldn’t have any reason to want to leave their comfy little box where they get their food hand-delivered.

I got my worms about a month ago. In that time I’ve learned a couple of things. The tray under the box is less to deal with water and more to hold onto the worm casings that fall out every time you move it. Like so many other things around here, they dry out quickly. Don’t underestimate your needed number as badly as I did. Particularly if you have some very sad vegetables in the refrigerator that are more suited to worm food than people food. They don’t, quite, keep up with my current scraps which means that they’re no help when it comes to cleaning out the fridge. I have also discovered that if you don’t overfeed them, their home smells nice and earthy. Chopping your veggie scraps into smaller pieces helps them eat it, and it’s not that hard to rinse out egg shells to dry and crush for their grit/calcium supplement. Apparently worms have crops like a bird that requires grit to grind up the food.

Given a choice, they're mostly camera-shy.

I have been tossing around the idea of supplementing my worm count so that I can stop sending vegetable scraps down the trash disposal, but at this point I think I’ll just be patient. They are doing a number on their bedding and the food that I do give them, and I don’t have a place to use the casings just yet. I am pretty excited to see how much they can produce for me, though, when I start eating out of my garden and I have more vegetables for me and scraps for them.

Crafty weekend

I ended up with an extra long weekend, so I had some time to indulge my crafty side.

Project 1

The first project was a snug home for the vermiculture I will be hosting. With the receipt of my first seeds, I’m itching to do something in the garden, but my apartment offers few options. Worms, however, require no light and aren’t terribly fussy as pets. If you just search for “vermiculture bins” you can find a lot of ready-made bins for sale and instructions to make your own. Seeing as how I like to make things and my budget would prefer if I kept my spending to a minimum, I went with the home-made version.

You can see that I have a pretty small tub. This is partially because I’m only feeding little ol’ me, so I don’t have that many scraps to use. I am also dealing with an apartment kitchen. Granted, it’s probably twice the size of my last one, but it’s not exactly overflowing with spaces to tuck a large tupperware container. However, this box just fits in an overhead cabinet that keeps the worms away from the vibration of the dishwasher and the garbage disposal but close enough so I don’t have to think too hard about chucking dinner’s scraps in there. I have a clear box, but I’m thinking it should work, as it will be shut in a cupboard about 23 3/4 hours a day. However, if the worms object too much, I can always paint it or tape construction paper along the sides. Worms don’t like light or vibrations.

Air holes

Most of the instructions tell you to use a drill to cut air holes in the top and upper sides. I don’t have a drill, so I opted for a hot knife. It cuts plastic almost as easily as it cuts butter. If it’s hot enough. Kids- fire and knives require parental supervision. Not that you weren’t already aware of that fact. The knife may or may not survive the experience so don’t use the good silver, please. As you can see, I melted holes in the cover, the tops of the sides, and around the bottom for drainage. I’m not sure exactly what I’ll be using as a tray underneath to catch any drainage, but I’m thinking some sturdy tin foil should be fine. I mean, how much could worms actually pee, anyway?

The next step is to fill it with bedding. Hand-shredding newspaper is a good way to keep oneself brainlessly occupied. I was actually a little surprised at how much newspaper it took. Every time I thought it was full, I pushed it down a little and realized I needed more. I also cleaned, dried, and crushed eggshells. These are for calcium supplements for the worms, and to act as grit to help them digest. They have  a gizzard like a chicken as a part of their digestive process. And voila. All I have to do is wait for Rick’s Nurseryto call me to say the worms are in. Then I’ll damp down the newspapers, add the worms, and give them a couple of days to settle in before I start feeding them.

Doesn't that just look fluffy and snug?

Project number two was prompted by a friend who asked if I had business cards, since she knew someone that might be interested in hiring me. I am still very much seeing this as the potential for a business, but I have a lot to learn, yet. It never occurred to me that there are people who might be willing to pay for what I know now. However, I am not about to spend money on business cards for something that I still don’t really see as a business. Then I remembered this post. I don’t have stamps, but I’ve been thinking that my penmanship could use some work. Perfect opportunity!

My penmanship isn’t bad. My photography skills could use some work.

I don’t make things very often any more, so it’s good to be able to look at something and say “I did that.” It’s doubly good to make something that I can use. I’m all for art, but you can only have so many hand-made knickknacks before they just get in the way. I also think that something is lost when you are only handling items that are factory produced. The few items that I own that have genuine character, in my opinion, are made by hand. They can be simple, they don’t have to be covered in curlicues or flourishes, but they have a piece of the craftsman in a way that factory items do not. From a strictly practical standpoint, I will probably eventually replace my hand-written cards with purchased ones. After all, I can’t produce them in the kind of volume I would need to really advertise when the time comes. Until then, look what I made!

Dirty Minds

I may have overestimated how much we needed.

Wait- is this a family-friendly blog? What can I say, I’ve had dirt on the brain recently. It’s probably because I had too much fun playing with manure over the weekend.

Unless you are dealing with hydroponics, you have to think about your soil. Even the water lilies that float on the top of a pond have their roots in soil. Without good soil, it is difficult to impossible to grow good vegetables. At least not the vegetables we tend to think of as “standard.” I believe yucca would be pretty ok with just being plopped in the ground out here.

What makes good soil? At the moment, I still only know the basics, but basically: the sand or clay base, organic material, and things to break down the organic material for use. Preferably, you are looking for a pretty good balance between clay and sand. Clay packs tight, so it can hold water, but it can also inhibit drainage and pack into a hard surface. Sand doesn’t really pack at all, so it helps drainage, the water slipping easily between the large granules. However, that can also mean that the water doesn’t stick around long enough for your plants to use it. I have heard some thoughts on both sides of adding clay or sand to balance the soil you have. I will need to look further into that before I address it here.

Slightly.

Whether you have clay or sand soil or a pretty mix of both, organic material can improve it. It loosens clay, allowing it to drain better and keeping it from baking as hard. It helps sand hold water better and helps it pack a little better to support plants. Compost is the epitome of your organic material. It helps the texture of the soil and offers a bioavailable source of nutrients. Manure is right up there, too. Different ones need slightly different treatments. Hot manures like horse, which is what we are using on Showcase 1, and chicken need to be composted so you don’t burn your plants when you apply it. Cool manures like alpaca or goat can actually be applied directly. Other options, like peat, offer soil improvements, but not so much of the nutritional improvements.

The one that often gets overlooked is what breaks down the organic material so that your plants can use it. We probably miss them mostly because we don’t see them. I was reading a book about Rocky Mountain gardening at one point. It was one of the first specifically for this part of the country. It is old, but it still has a lot of valid information. It also has some that made me chuckle. Like that you should purchase a “lady-sized” shovel to encourage the wife to get out in the fresh air. Also, it told you how to kill earthworms because the casings they leave behind are so unsightly. I believe it was the same day I read that information that I saw bagged worm casings for sale in a garden store.

Worms are one of the more visible decomposers. They not only eat fine materials and excrete some of the best fertilizer you can find, they also aerate the soil in their underground journeys. However, being big enough to see means that they can navigate in and out of your garden more easily than some of the others. This means that if you don’t create an environment they like, including lots of delicious organic material in worm-bite-size pieces, then they don’t have a reason to stick around. Assuming they have enough around to eat, bacteria are a little easier to keep corralled. Manure can offer a good inoculation to a new or barren garden. So can a scoop of soil from your neighbor that just seems to be able to grow anything.

When you are setting up your soil for gardening, however, you need to bear in mind what you are growing. If you are growing plants that originated in Europe or the East Coast, meaning most “vegetable garden” vegetables, you need to build the kind of soil they have. If you are growing plants that are native to this area, less preparation is necessary. I have a friend in Maryland who’s property is incredibly lush. I have never seen land with so many earth worms. In fact, her struggle tends to be that too many things grow. Except for lavender. Neither of us had any idea why this one plant just refused to grow. It turns out that lavender, being from the Mediterranean, prefers soil that is stony, sparse, and well-drained. Who knew that moving out here would actually be preferred by some plants?

Prettiest dirt I'd seen since I moved out here.

Do you notice the soil around you? Or is it just dirt? Some days it is more apparent than others that I come from a family that gardens. My parents take pictures of flowers. I took a picture of dirt. I had been driving up through northern Colorado and Wyoming for hours at this point, seeing little more than sandy, arid, poor soil and the occasional surprisingly blue body of water. All of a sudden I came across the prettiest soil I’d seen since I moved out here. It was in the middle of Shoshone National Forest just pushed to the side during the road construction. I’ve gotten the impression that Wyoming is considered to be a pretty barren state by most. The question is, how did an arid, barren state produce such rich soil? The answer is that it is in a National Forest. That means that instead of being subjected to various forms of human interference, nature is more or less allowed to do what it has been doing for, well, a very long time. That means that generations of trees have fallen to be eaten by even more generations of earthworms. The available nutrients are then used by the younger trees that will then eventually die to feed the younger worms.

The pertinent question, of course, is how to get soil that is that good-looking in your garden. Unless you are building some sort of a bed that you will fill with an ideal mix of soil, a part of the answer is still time. First-year garden beds are seldom as rich and biodiverse as more mature beds. However, we don’t have to move at the same speed as a forest. We can kick-start the process by adding ingredients to our gardens that will encourage worms and other decomposers to move in and stick around. Once they are established, all you need to do is keep them fed and safe. Luckily, that doesn’t include setting out a fresh bowl of food each day like you do with your pets. As long as you are adding fairly regular doses of organic material in the form of compost or manure and you are using little to no pesticides, organic or otherwise, a healthy population should be pretty well able to care for itself. As far as the worms and bacteria are concerned, the benefits to your garden are really just the result of a happy home.