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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fly by

Here we are about three and a half months into The Great Worm Bin Experiment and I'm still a bit high strung when it comes to my first batch of wigglers. I've been advised by seasoned vermiculturists that the best way to go is something akin to benevolent neglect, but to be honest I live in constant fear of inadvertently killing them. Too much food? Too little? Too much moisture? Too little? Too hot? Too cold? And what's with all of the flies lately?

worm binSo here we are midway through the second try with the under-sink worm bin. (Those of you following along may recall the premature sifting through castings just before Halloween, when my beloved little guys almost drowned in a poop lagoon.) Things have been going alright this time around... Well, mostly. You see, there has been a noticeable proliferation of flies in the bin in recent weeks. And, more disturbingly, a noticeable lack of worms. Crud. I hope nobody from Worm Protective Services comes knocking on my door. (Earlier today I had to submit an FBI background check form to work with one of the after school cooking programs. Will this mar my otherwise stellar record? I can see it now: Violation of section 27d of the Invertebrate Guardian Clause -- negligence and second-degree wormslaughter.)

I dragged my bin outside during a freakishly warm afternoon earlier this week and took the lid off, trying to shoo most of the flies out. At least there wasn't standing water this time, but where were the worms? I saw a few 1/2-inch white worms squirming around, but mostly lots of flies. I began to worry. Did I mess things up irreparably? Would it be better for me to bequeath my wormies to a better caretaker, entrust them to Mother Nature? Am I a terrible mother??

fly trapAs usual, Susie -- my calm and reassuring worm expert on call -- talked me down from the proverbial ledge. The flies can be a nuisance, she admitted, but there are a few ways to curb their numbers. I already had one of the fly traps that the Worm Ladies website suggested (filled with fancy, organic apple cider vinegar -- well, I'm not going to the store in this 30-degree weather just for a bottle of the cheap stuff). I realized that rather than burying the food scraps, which discourages egg-laying by flies, I'd simply been lifting the lid a crack and tossing a handful of vegetable scraps on top as I was cooking dinner every few evenings. But -- not to defend my total failure to follow these basic instructions, I'll admit I missed that part -- wouldn't I be disrupting the worms too much if I was stuffing scraps into the bottom of the bin every time?

My worm guru suggested that I cut a piece of cardboard to fit the top of my bin, run it under the water in the sink so it gets wet/damp, and lay it inside over the scraps. A fly egg barrier, I like it. I learned that putting food scraps in the freezer overnight also interferes with the flies' egg-laying activities. Huh. Who knew?

Finally, Susie pointed out, the presence of small, white worms was encouraging. It meant that the worms were reproducing. (What? My worms are old enough to kiss other worms and go on dates and...? Oh.) My little wormies are growing up. But they'd better get cracking to be able to keep up with my holiday vegetable scrap production. Maybe I need to put on a little Marvin Gaye to get them in the right mood...

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

A test of the Wormergency Broadcast System

Readers, if I am famous one day -- and in the unlikely event that I get too big for my britches -- you can remind me of today: my first experience sifting through poop with my bare hands.dirty job

It's not the kind of thing I would usually do on a Thursday afternoon, mind you, but I had no rubber gloves and no alternative during the code brown wormergency. My newly returned under-the-sink compost bin had mysteriously developed a thick layer of sludge during my time cavorting around New Orleans and Turin and I had a nagging feeling that something had gone terribly wrong. I mean, I know worms breathe through their skin, and actually prefer a moist environment, but sludge?? Not good.

The problem was not simply the distinctly swampy consistency (though that would've been reason enough for concern). I also noted that it was smelling a little like a dirty diaper in there. (Faint but distinct -- parents, you know what I'm talking about here.) Something was definitely off, and the wobbling, slow moving fruitflies were making me suspicious that they were tipsy. Hey, I'm all for invertebrates enjoying a drink now and again, but I'm pretty sure worm bin fermentation is a warning sign of things going awry.

[Note: I do not believe the recent downturn of the bin is in any way due to negligence on the part of my wormsitter, who returned my herd of red wigglers when he came by for dinner last night. I'd still write Mike a glowing reference letter for future wormsitting gigs. I mean, the man is devoted to developing the optimal fruitfly trap and the high quality food scraps over at his apartment are almost on par with my own.]

I recalled reading that too much water could wipe out a whole herd of wigglers. There wasn't exactly standing water, but such a development seemed imminent. (Drowning in a pool of fermenting poop -- what a way to go.) "Quick!" I thought, "I need to add something to absorb some of the moisture!" I scoured the apartment, tossing in a dry coffee filter and shoving some pieces of ripped up cardboard along the bottom. Then I sent off a panicked message to The Worm Ladies.

Within an hour or two, Susie, my friendly neighborhood WMT (Wormergency Medical Technician), wrote back to tell me that my instinct was correct, that there was too much moisture and I should add more dry material. Oh, and she also said to dump the bin out on a black garbage bag and sift through everything -- the "everything" being a big mess of stinky excrement -- to rescue the worms and any uneaten food, transferring them to a new bin. So I did.

Well, I didn't have a second container, so I dragged everything out to the garden, rinsed out the existing bin (while its contents were smeared across a Hefty bag for God and my neighbors to see), layered in some fresh brown paper and cardboard and food scraps (not too many high water content ones this time), and moved my wriggling wormies one by one into their remodeled home. (No, I didn't rinse them off first...but I sure was tempted to.) The drippy, aromatic remains on the garbage bag found a new home in the outdoor composter. Actually, maybe it'll make my regular compost even more amazing for the spring.

I checked on the shell shocked wigglers again a few minutes ago. They seem a little sluggish -- maybe they're hung over -- but I'll be sure to post an update on their recovery soon. Oh, man, I hope I don't lose my vermiculture merit badge for this...

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Get tested

soil sample

What do an earthworm, an organic farmer, and a food-obsessed, cross-country bicycling, 30-something city girl have in common? We know good dirt when we see it.

But seriously, up until recently, I just thought of dirt as that stuff you were yelled at for tracking into the house when you were a kid. It turns out that not all dirt is created equal, and the good stuff either takes a long time to cultivate or is expensive to truck in. Either way it's an investment, but a worthwhile one.

My infatuation with good dirt began in earnest with a fantastic article in my free sample issue of Acres USA entitled "Soil as a Superorganism" and has developed into a full-fledged mini mania. (Wait, did I mention my stop at the Acres USA headquarters on my way through Austin last April? I was a little shy to approach the group that publishes the most well-written sustainable farming magazine around, but luckily my friend Jim talked me into stopping by. Boy, am I glad I did, and not just for the free bagel. Here's a snapshot of me hamming it up with Sam, one of the editors, during my tour of the office. Nice group, those folks: my kind of smart and wacky. And the articles and issues I've read since have been comparably impressive.)

Ibti and

Right. Soil.

I've been reading quite a lot about it these days. I think I know a little bit more about it than your average city slicker: the importance of organic matter and diverse microorganisms, the significance of pH and drainage capability, the critical nutrients for growing healthy vegetables. I'm still no soil scientist -- far from it, though I did have one over for dinner a couple of weeks ago -- but I have found myself sending in soil samples from the plot behind my apartment and meticulously poring over the test results from the lab and cross-examining the friendly folks at the UMD extension office. No lead? Whew. High in Phosphorus, eh? Hmmm. And low in Magnesium and Potassium? Ah, that must be why my bean plants are a little yellow in the leaves, and my beloved tomatoes are still green. (Luckily I've come up with 4 or 5 new green tomato recipes, all but one deemed a wild success. I'm just not sure about the green tomato, chocolate, and pecan muffins. Those might get pushed to the bottom of the mental recipe drawer.)

I'm beginning to learn about methods to amend (i.e. fix) deficient soil, in large part thanks to Rebecca's generous loaning of her copy of "Grow Great Grub," which recommends the addition of natural compounds ranging from comfrey tea to epsom salts to bone meal (though I'll be damned if I can find a local source for comfrey leaves). Organic compost seems to be a good general addition a few times per year, and between my outdoor Oscar the Grouch can and the indoor worm bin, I should be set in that department. I'm looking to plant a nitrogen-fixing cover crop on half of the space and fill in the rest with a few varieties of heirloom garlic over the cold months. But enough about *my* soil....

I've also gotten into the habit of encouraging friends and loved ones, and in some cases even their neighbors and landladies, to get their soil tested. Mostly for lead, since one should NOT eat food from plants grown in contaminated soil. (A way around this is to bring in fresh soil and build a raised bed.) Other soil information is helpful, too, since in recent months I've been cajoled into helping a few people convert their backyards into more biodiverse, food producing green spaces. Yes, even good old dad decided of his own free will to abandon the lawn. (Unfortunately, with the, ahem, rather late mailing in of the required soil samples, it seems we will spend the remainder of autumn preparing the land for spring planting. But all is not lost. This means for sure there will be time and space for me to try my hand at lasagne composting to build organic matter through the winter, heheh.)

People hear about my bike trip or see me puttering around my garden and start asking questions about how to get started growing food. Suddenly I am something of a resource, though an as yet unpaid one. (C'est la vie.) My next door neighbor Henry has been inspired to build a raised bed and my friend Mike's landlady just ordered a composter and a shipment of seeds for planting in the next week or so. Dad finally took a soil sample and did some sketches to determine which areas of the yard get full sun. Yay!

I am certainly not a pro at this yet -- as you might guess from my first only somewhat successful experiments with beyond-windowsill gardening -- but I'm learning. And I'm doing my best to spread the word about the importance and the ease of having one's soil tested. (I even photographed my sample drying out for the requisite 24 hours before mailing it in to the lab. What's that? No, I don't carry a copy of the photo in my wallet... that spot is reserved for portraits of my red wigglers.) You can garden in flower pots, raised beds, even old bathtubs, but if you're going to plant food crops in the ground, please, please, please get your soil tested. It's worth it. And if you're wondering how to get started, call me. I can talk dirt and food all day long.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Adventures in wormsitting

I now know how parents must feel when they leave their infant with a babysitter for the first time. Certainly they interview a few candidates, and I did as much for the person who would be watching my worm bin. (My own interview process consisted of mentioning that I had a worm bin and gauging each person's reaction: "Really? Worms? Ew! Do you have to touch them?"... Next.) Leaving the kids with a trustworthy individual is important, but after a series of reassurances the sitter is left with 47 ways of contacting the parents in the event of an emergency....

Welcome Home!Okay, fine, before you get all offended, let me revise that: maybe worms aren't quite on par with a child, but somewhere between houseplants and a puppy. But still, someone is left in charge of a living thing (or in the case of my worms, about a pound of living things) near to my heart and they are completely dependent on this other person who is not me for their very survival. During my little ten-day jaunt around Chicago and various Michigan locales recently, I entrusted my friend Mike with my beloved worms.

I felt pretty confident that "Uncle Mike" -- as the worms refer to him -- could handle them. He'd been hearing about the red wigglers all along, had contributed some lovely food scraps, had even peeked into the bin once or twice with me -- I can't imagine why I am not more popular in social circles with this habit of showing dates my worm bin -- and was not an avid fisherman (and thus not tempted to "borrow" a few plump ones). Since he had otherwise not interacted much with them, Mike came by the evening before my departure and I gave him the rundown, or what I like to call Worm Care 101, and then he took them home.

We talked through general care (what, when, and how much to feed them), things to look out for (standing water, fruit flies, weird smells), and what to do in the case of emergencies (call me). What's that? Yes, I said worm emergencies... like a mass exodus of worms attempting to evacuate the bin. They're pretty low maintenance, but there are things that can go seriously wrong. Aside from opening the bin to find a worm graveyard, seeing a whole mass of worms trying to escape means something is seriously amiss. (A rank smell emanating from the bin can also be a concern, but Mike had learned from my ill-advised inclusion of shrimp shells a few weeks ago to stay away from animal-based food scraps.) I felt pretty good about turning them over into his care for a week and a half. He seemed capable.

You can tell a lot about a person by how they react to challenges. Some are proactive troubleshooters, others call friends in a panic, still others stand around swearing or simply do not react. Mike falls into the first category, I think. (Whew.) Once, when he noticed a few worms slinking up along the sides of the bin, he guessed there was too much moisture and tossed in a few coffee filters to absorb some of the excess liquid. Then came the experiments with trapping the growing (but not unmanageable) fruit fly population. I do believe he is looking forward to setting various fruit fly traps when he will be left to worm caretaking once again, for a solid couple of weeks as I venture to New Orleans and Torino next month.
When he brought my bin back to my apartment a few nights ago, after joking about giving them a bath before my return or playing whack-a-worm, my faithful wormsitter said that he rather enjoyed having them in his care during my absence. To quote an e mail from yesterday: "I'm happy you're back but I sort of miss the worms."
Welcome home, my little wigglers. I've missed you, too!

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Friday, September 3, 2010

How ya' bin?


Today marks 10 days since my darling red wigglers arrived! They seem to be adjusting alright, squirming around and slowly digging into the (perhaps overly ambitious) pile of food scraps. I've limited myself to one (or maximum two) times each day when I open the lid for a moment and look at them. Things are coming along. Susie tells me it takes as long as a month for some worm bins to get going. My little guys must be overachievers -- type-A worms, if you will. Maybe it has to do with all of the healthy, diverse, organic food scraps. And a bit of coffee now and again.

My friend Mike was over the other night to help me can tomatoes -- I know, I know, I still need to write about that -- and I proudly showed him my nascent vermiculture operation. He seemed impressed with how low maintenance the under-sink worm bin has been. (This is good because Mike is slowly being groomed to be my wormsitter when I head to New Orleans and then Torino for conferences in about a month. He only is beginning to suspect this.) Without any prompting, he even commented on how surprised he was that it doesn't smell. Thank goodness: that was one of my concerns, too. In fact, in my informal surveys one of the most common reasons folks seem uncomfortable with the idea of an indoor worm bin is the potential for unsavory odors. I am acutely sensitive to smell. No, really, I have actually turned down dates with people who just, well, smelled funny. Not bad, just... not appealing. Or who happened to be wearing the same cologne as my dad. True story, it happened once in college. But I digress....

Last night, as I returned from a lovely evening of drinks and theater with my friend Ronn, I noticed that something smelled a little funny in my kitchen. Sure enough, when I opened the cabinet under the sink the ripe odor was stronger. And once I took the lid off of the bin: phew! Clearly some anaerobic action was underway. (Also, I noticed that some plants had sprouted -- would they be tomato plants? peppers? melons?? Speaking of melons, here's a pic of a little bitty watermelon that I just noticed starting up in the garden this morning when I was out watering. Woo hoo!)watermelon

The smell is starting to get to me. Arkady and I were distracted by it tonight while concocting our roasted tomato tart and tomato corn salad. I lit a candle on the kitchen counter, hoping that it would have the same effect as candles did in stinky shared college bathrooms, but it didn't seem to do much to alleviate the stinkiness. So of course I started researching....

According to the Worm Ladies (and other vermiculture experts concur), if you're doing things right the bin should not smell. (Apparently the worms are the overachievers, not me.) The most common culprits behind unpalatable aromas are too much moisture (maybe I shouldn't've put in quite so many melon rinds) or too little ventilation (maybe I need more air holes) or adding in animal-based products (so the handful of cooked shrimp tails on Wednesday may have been a bad idea). It's too hot for me to air out the bin outdoors -- oh, that DC heat! -- nevermind the brazen rat population that would welcome the self-contained buffet, so for now I've fished out the rancid shrimp shells (while holding my breath), added a bit more shredded paper, stirred things up to create some air pockets, left the lid partially open, and put a box of baking soda under the sink. It's smelling pretty rank, but I am hopeful the damage is not irreparable. (I'm also hopeful Mike isn't reading this.)

The core message I have taken away from my various, slightly panicky e mail exchanges with the calm, reassuring Susie (of the Worm Ladies) is that the best thing I can do is leave the worms alone and let them do their job. So, now that I've checked to be sure there isn't standing water in the bin, I'll let them be. I'm heading out of town for the long weekend and the worms seem to have plenty of food and adequate moisture in there. We'll see how it goes....

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I've got worms!

The care package labeled "LIVE WORMS" arrived via postal service around lunchtime today. Woo hoo!

Thanks to Susie and Nancy for entrusting me with about a pound of their darling red wigglers. I do solemnly swear to do my best to provide them with adequate food, shelter, and love during their time with me. measurementsAnd I'll try to tone down the off-key singing that the houseplants have been complaining about lately.

Even after making the worm welcome sign last week, some additional preparations were in order. A lot of it comes down to common sense, but since I hope to provide my worms with the best possible scenario to flourish -- I want my worms to go to college, become artists and doctors and farmers, lead fulfilling lives as upstanding citizens in the worm community -- I had a whole litany of questions. During an extended counseling session on Sunday, Susie talked me through some dos and don'ts of worm composting. (Easy on the coffee grounds and peach pits, don't open the bin and peer in every five minutes, etc.) I took some measurements and cleared a space below the sink where it's nice and dark, not too hot or cold or moist.


That evening I brought home remnants of the mint and melon salad from a lovely dinner party I attended in Crystal City. I wanted my worms to feel welcome: I'd heard that melons are their favorite. (I'd previously established myself as "the wacky dinner guest who packs out her food scraps" so Kelly wasn't too perturbed when I headed to the metro with a slight wine buzz and a ziploc bag of honeydew rinds.) On Monday morning I shredded some cardboard and drilled holes in a perfectly good plastic bin with my handy cordless drill. (Yes, every self-sufficient modern woman needs her own drill, and I have my former partner, Adam, to thank for this one.) The worm buffet was at last ready for business.

Oh, but when they arrived today I suddenly panicked. Do I have the right balance of cardboard and food? Are there enough air holes? Wait, can I include a few egg shells in the mix? Is it moist enough? I mean, the pamphlet included with my bag-o-worms said to wet until the cardboard and coir (shredded coconut shells) feel sponge-like in consistency. "Sponge-like?" What the...? Is everyone okay in there??


It's taking all of my self-control not to peek into the worm bin every five minutes. While worms are blind, they don't like bright light, and someone poking around in there can't be helpful to the adjustment process. They shouldn't be jetlagged coming from Rhode Island, as it's in the same time zone -- do worms even have circadian rhythms? is there such a thing as NST (No-Daylight Standard Time)? -- but they also just went through two days of USPS transit trauma. If it's anything like flying on American Airlines these days, they're probably worn out and grumpy. At least they didn't have to keep taking off their shoes and coats to go through security lines.

Okay, fine, I should let them be. I'm meeting my friend Ben (famous lender of Sheldon!) and his wife tonight for dinner so at least the worms'll have some peace and quiet for a few hours. Maybe I'll just check on my little wigglers before bedtime....

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Diary of an Amateur Vermiculturist

worm buffet

By now you might gather I am a little obsessed with composting. I have been known to pack out my vegetable peels after making dinner at friends' houses so that Ollie and I might bike them home and deposit the future black gold in my Oscar the Grouch compost bin out back. (My scraps have traveled from such far flung kitchens as those in Foggy Bottom, Pentagon City, Takoma Park, Columbia.) I have trouble sitting still when I see food being tossed in the trash -- I mean I actually get noticeably twitchy. And yet to date there's been no recourse for bits of cooked food I scrape from plates after a dinner party or any protein-based remnants in the home composting setup I have at my disposal. Well, things are about to get a little bit more interesting in the soil building department...

By this time next week I will have my very first under-the-sink worm bin teeming with squirming, munching, pooping, composting machines. Yes, worms. I can't wait!

In preparation I find myself puttering about the apartment moving this and that, measuring and remeasuring, even doing a little decorating. I spent yesterday evening clearing out space for the future worm buffet and making a welcome sign. I can't help wondering if this is what "nesting" feels like. (Should my mother be concerned that my maternal impulses are being directed toward what many would consider fish bait? Perhaps.) But seriously, if you were a hungry worm, doesn't this look like somewhere you'd like to live, maybe start an asexually reproducing family? Prime Columbia Heights under-sink real estate (and you *know* the food scraps will be consistently above average).

I also made a list of questions to ask Susie, of the friendly Worm Ladies -- the Rhode Island-based small business who will graciously be sending me my first batch of worms -- so that I know what to expect when I'm expecting. You see, as excited as I am, and as much as I've read and spoken with other people who have tried their hand at vermiculture (the fancy word for "worm composting") -- heck, I even volunteered at Growing Power, Milwaukee's own urban composting mecca -- I find that I still have a lot of questions. How will I know if I'm doing things right? How often do I need to add cardboard? Is the bin big enough? What if it's too small? How many air holes will my wormies need? How can I tell when it gets too crowded in there? How will I know if they have enough food? How much is too much food? Are there foods I should avoid? (I compost a fair bit of coffee grounds, but what if they have too much caffeine: will the worm bin start rattling? If so, should I tipple a little cooking wine in there to calm them down? Kidding...mostly.) What if they get too cold? Or too hot? What if they drown? Or dehydrate? How do I get the finished worm castings -- the fancy term for worm poop -- out? Will they smell funny? Will they like me?

My first batch of red wigglers -- the preferred vermiculture candidates, due to their chill disposition and ability to eat their own weight in food scraps each day -- will be mailed out on Monday. I'm actually having trouble falling asleep I'm that excited. If you've ever daydreamed about building your own indoor worm composter, stay tuned for the next installment of The Diary of an Amateur Vermiculturist...

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Ibti wants to "learn as much about sustainable agriculture as she can" which is why she has turned to composting with worms. Read her full blog, "A Bikeable Feast."

A Bikeable Feast


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