The Verm: too legit to quit.

The weather is finally starting to turn here in SE Wisconsin. Even though we took a hard frost last night (23 degrees) it was sunny and 50 today and will continue to have sun and rising temps for the next 2-3 days hopefully brushing 70 for the first time. Over the past week I have been a busy little bee. My ‘3 Sisters Bed’ that got annihilated by the June rains last year has pulled a feather from the Phoenix and come back in all new plumage. I was able to surround the entire bed with stone, and I had enough compost left from last year to fill it almost perfectly full with a thick 3-6″ layer of humus and 75% finished compost. Unfortunately that last 25% was halloween’s pumpkins so I may have hundreds of pumpkin plants this year. Patience is a virtue I could use some more of.

As we got glimpses of the sun last week I dusted off my hoe and pulled some packets out of seed drawer. About 10 days ago I dropped in about 3 row feet of radishes and another 17 feet of spinach. The radishes were just poking their heads up when the frost hit. Cross your fingers! I had wanted to get my peas in but my farm supply store was out of innoculant and I needed to wait a week. With innoculant in hand in went the peas. I got more than a little silly with the peas this year. Over the past 3 months I have grown quite fond of sweet peas on my diet so I planted more than is perhaps wise. I lost count on the third row but given that I have have over 65 row feet of peas I think I have 180 or so plants in the ground. That’s alot of peas!
In my planting fervor I dropped in 2 packets of lettuce along the edges. I really should have gone back in to check my books or planting calendar as its about 2-3 weeks early for the lettuce. Worse case I loose $3.50 in seed-best case I have fresh greens in early May without a cold frame.

So with all this warm weather coming in this weekend I am itching to keep going strong on my garden project but all the spring crops are in. Time for the worm bin! With all the other projects going on last year I had opted to install the quick and dirty compost bin-a very functional 3 bin setup, each bin 4x4x3. It was also butt ugly-chicken wire ziptied to 48″ green metal stakes. The chicken wire quickly rusted and with no wood frame it was not too easy on the eyes. Now that things are settling down I am looking to spruce things up some. The winter we moved in I had tried my hand at vermiculture with a small worm bin in the basement. I hacked up an 18 gallon rubbermaid and put about 1000 red worms in it with some coir bedding. They were very happy to live there all winter and ate about a pound of scraps a week-more once I got them outside in warmer temps. Verdict? The vermicompost was legit-great texture, earthy smell, and our roses loved it. But the small setup was very limiting-it didn’t come close to handling the food scraps of our family, and harvesting the compost was tedious as I had to literally sift out the worms by hand on my front driveway. That got me some weird looks from the neighbors. Plus wormsbins end up forming the own eco systems which is really cool. Unless it is in your basement-it would be more accurate to call them microorganism bins. Seemingly out of thin air mites, centipededs, and flies arrive in the bins. The mites aren’t so bad but the fly’s in the house were no fun. So I let that worm bin phase itself out.

However, I still am in love with the idea of vermiculutre-you just tuck the scraps in and the worms do all the work leaving me more time to plant, build beds or hang out with my family. Or in Permaculture speak-minimize the inputs while maximizing outputs. It was time to Go Big or Go Home. Tomorrow I will begin digging out a 4’x8′ hole to partially bury the 30 sq ft bin that I will be building this week. The plan calls for a bin large enough for me to start the worms feeding on one side and then gradually moving where I add new scraps across the bin. The worms will follow the fresh food as they process the old, leaving behind finished compost allowing me to shovel it out at my leisure. Given that a bin this size will hold 100’s of thousands of worms-if several hundred get forked out while still munching on the old compost it is no big deal. Also the bin needs to be this large for winterizing. By partially burying the bin, I will have some frost protection, but I also plan to add a 5 gallon bucket of water with a bird bath heater in it for the winter. The Worm Woman (Mary Applehoff) says this is enough to keep them alive through a winter-and that chic knows worms. Even better a bin this size should easily handle all the scraps from my family-and may even be able to process the 20 gallons of coffee grounds I get weekly from our coffee shop which would be sweet.

Now for the biggest change though it is still brewing in my brain. Toby Hemmenway of Gaia’s Garden and Masanoba Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution both make strong cases against the traditional compost pile, especially if you are moving to no till gardening. Don’t get me wrong composting is uber cool-but there are ‘better’ ways from certain points of view. Without tilling the soil I will be allowing my cover crops compost in place. This keeps all those necessary little critters in the garden where I want them, and I am not messing with my soil strata. The fact that I won’t spend a week every spring, summer and fall (I plant each bed three times) turning the gardens is another boost. That is more time for my family, social activism, or just hanging out. I guess the long and short of it is that I would like to be able to (GASP!) begin phasing our my compost pile. The Worm Bin of the size I am considering will hold almost 2 cubic yards of compost. I am not sure I can completely let the ‘manure pile’ go, but I am definitely going in that direction.

Stay tuned for pictures of this work in progress. Other items on the docket for this month will be the ‘back 40′-planting a wind/sight break along the freeway and then guilding it with enough n-fixers, biomass, and nutrient gathering plants to make it self sufficent. I want to throw in another element and include as many native plants as possible. This will be a Big Project as it covers over 1200 sq feet and the 25 trees (little ones about 2’ high) arrive the first week in May! What was that I said about taking it slower this year?

Time to get digging!

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