Adventures in Vermicomposting

Worm poop.  Pretty powerful stuff.  It does all kinds of amazing things for the garden. Most gardeners are happy to find an earthworm wiggling through their soil.  It indicates that the garden is healthy, and people who push the dirt know that those worms are leaving fertilizer in their wake.  But an earthworm or two can’t do enough to thrill me.  I need more – more clumps of wonderful, friable soil in which to play – bigger, greener plants to tend.

I am also a total sucker for gadgets that are demonstrated at the fair. Yes, I have orange cleaner, weirdly shaped mops, piles of brightly colored chamois’, and more than my share of shiny knives – all sold by charming, silken-voiced men from behind counter-tops littered with leaflets and accessories.

I know…they almost never work.  A similarly afflicted former co-worker once destroyed the floor of our staff lounge while demonstrating the wonders of a mop that would remove ANY substance from carpeting. She recreated the fair demo by pouring fresh coffee onto the carpet, and proceeded to neatly work it into every fiber over a 4 foot square with the miracle cloth she had just purchased.  Our boss had the stained carpet replaced a couple of months – and several steam cleanings – later. Oops!

Still, when I rounded the corner of the building housing all the demos, and spied the tower of green trays I was hooked. What new garden wonder was this?  Ah!  The Worm Factory 360.  Four trays, a lid, and the potential to quickly create rich compost full of worm castings.  SOLD!

Worm Factory 360 – a thing of beauty!

I brought the giant box home, unpacked it and began to read the instructions.  The salesman had let me know that one tiny element was missing from the setup – worms.  The composter comes without the key ingredient, so I did an online search and purchased 2,000 Red Wigglers from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.

A sack full of wriggling workers.

I waited a week or so, hoping that the worms would not be left on my doorstep on the hottest day of the year – frying on my steps before I could rescue them.  I have a good UPS guy though – he rings the bell and runs, but only after placing packages in a shady corner.  Honestly, I have never answered my door covered in chicken poop, said anything inappropriate, or threatened him in any way.  NO idea why the running, but, oh well.

I took the sack – which moved in a way that creeped out the 8 year old, and simultaneously fascinated and repelled me – out to the waiting tower of trays. The print instructions read like a rocket manual (too bad I had misplaced the DVD.  I found it later and it is MUCH simpler and more to the point – sigh) but I managed to get the suggested materials arranged to form a nice worm bed.

The instructions indicated that the worms should be left in a pile, rather than spread through the bed.  Dump one sack of worms – check! The manual also hinted that our newest pets might be inclined to, er, slink away and that they should be kept under a light with the lid on for three days or so, presumably until they had decided that we measure up as a host family and um, dug in for good.

I checked them once or twice – an hour – for the first day or so.  Too much fun to see what they were doing and they did tend to slither up to the corners of the lid and then fall onto the table in clumps.  I scooped them up and put them back a couple of times, rearranged the bedding material, and finally convinced them that a ready supply of food would be theirs for the taking should they be inclined to stay.

After about a week I had my first shock. We have chickens.  Chickens attract flies – no matter how often and how well I clean (scrupulously, thank you very much) there will be flies when one keeps farm animals.  Such is life.  What I didn’t figure on was that the flies had found a way into the worm bin and laid eggs.  Yup, I had to work to keep my breakfast down the morning I uncovered the worm tray to find it crawling with fat white maggots.  GAG!!!!!

There was a ready solution at hand however.  I mentioned we have chickens, right?  Chickens LOVE bugs.  And worms.  And, yes, maggots.  I donned some latex gloves and dug through the maturing compost material for a juicy specimen, offering it to the ladies.  MUNCH!  Gone was the maggot and Annie was a happy woman.  Did I love picking through semi-decomposed vegetables and worms to find maggots?  No. I did not. But… I filled an old dog bowl with snacks for the hens and everyone was happy.  It has been a couple of months and the maggots have not returned.

Now the Laughing Place is home to 3 humans, 2 dogs, 6 chickens, and 2,000 red wigglers. The worms may not sit up and beg (neither do the dogs for that matter) but they do one pretty fantastic trick – check out the compost!!

Worms doing their best to make some seriously good fertilizer!


They’re Heeeere…

We now have a flock of six chickens.  I would like to say we have a flock of six hens, but…

Welcome home, um, girls?

Two of our chickens were hatched at my daughter’s elementary school eco lab.  They have been sweetly loved and cared for, hand fed and petted every day of their young lives.  One is orange, the other brown. Their names have varied from Lola and Zoe to Trick and Treat, but as their personalities emerge those names, which haven’t really stuck, will be replaced with monikers more appropriate, or at least more catchy.

These birds have been raised with love!

Problem is…we have no idea the sex of these birds. When I decided to increase the flock to 6 I contacted a local chicken breeder who agreed to look them over and see if she could help us determine whether we had hens or roosters, or both. We put the babies in a cat carrier, hauled them out to the boonies and…she really has no idea.  They are just too young to tell with any degree of certainty. Since the brown one is so pretty – and male birds tend to be the striking ones – there is a good possibility that it is a rooster.  Paige, the chicken lady, even attempted to use an old wives tale method to figure this out, holding the bird to see if both legs hang down or if one remains lifted.  But both of the chicks exhibited both behaviors.  Dang!

Why does this matter,  you ask? Because the city of San Diego has kindly adopted new ordinances that allow chickens to be kept within city limits – but no roosters allowed. Now, we already have two roosters happily residing in the neighborhood, so it is obvious that ordinances can be flouted with relative abandon.  But I am an earnest, rule-following (to an extent) kind of gal, and I love my closest neighbors and don’t want to disturb their peace of mind (or good will).  If we have a rooster, he will have to go.  And this makes me very sad because both of these little critters are gentle, love to be held, and funny.

You might also be asking why I am not worried about the other four birds we brought home yesterday. They are the same size (relatively speaking) as the original two and should also be hard to define gender-wise, right?  Well, no. The other four are Black Stars, a variety known as “sex-link” chickens, bred so that from birth it is easy to determine which are hens and which are roosters. With 95% frequency these chickens are born with visible markers specific to the sex. Black chicks are female, those with white markings are male.  Pretty simple and remarkably effective.

I keep trying to convince the other two that they are girls – think like girls! Act like girls! Imagine laying eggs! D’ya think it’ll work?

Crazy for Chickens

The chickens are coming!  The chickens are coming! From the moment my daughter and I painted the Laughing Place sign, I have considered my garden to be a little farm in the city. Hard though, to call any spot a farm when there is no livestock. Somehow I don’t think the dogs really count – we aren’t planning to eat them, or anything they produce!

So, I have felt like a bit of a fraud since starting this venture.  Sure, I can raise zucchini the size of a small boat, but a farm needs food-producing animals.  Or animals that produce wool, or something of the sort.

There is also the zombie apocalypse to consider. Think about it.  If the world collapses, the survivors will need basic elements to sustain life – food, water, shelter.  Just about anyone can produce some vegetables if they have the mind, but it is the individual able to provide protein who can command the best price.  Eggs = power in post zombie virus land! That is, if zombies don’t eat chickens.  The jury seems to be out on whether zombies simply stick to humans or occasionally go on the prowl for smaller brainz.  I would like to think that the chicken brain would seem insignificant enough for a zombie to ignore – but there is no way of knowing until the undead flesh begins to stir.

Seriously though, books such as Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times suggest that raising vegetables alone may not be enough in hard times. In any event, it pays to be prepared.

So, the chickens are coming! This time tomorrow, we should have 6 hens in the newly purchased coop. And a new adventure will have begun…

If they don’t like our yard, perhaps the chickens will take their coop on the road.

When Life Gets in the Way

So, it has been 5 months since my last blog entry.  I have posted on projects and food, but seem to have gotten side tracked on posting about the garden itself.

I had surgery in late April, and before that just did not have the energy to keep up with everyday tasks, making the garden suddenly a chore – when before it had been a joy.

Six weeks post surgery and I AM BACK!  So much energy and raring to go in my favorite spot on the planet. There are new plants emerging, the strawberries are ripening, and for the first time I am harvesting big, wonderful onions.  Yum!

Though it is hard to hack through 5 foot weeds, and demoralizing to think about what I didn’t get done – no beets, no corn this year, say good-bye to dreams of spinach and lettuce – the work it takes to move back to a garden-centric life reminds me that for some a vegetable garden just isn’t possible. Health crises, time constraints, lack of space (though container grown tomatoes are an option for nearly anyone), etc. can become barriers to home-grown produce.

But…that does not mean that you can’t get really good, fresh produce! Farmers markets can be found in many communities, there are U-pick farms available from which to harvest your own food, and my favorite option – the CSA.

CSA, or community supported agriculture, programs allow non-farmers to subscribe for shares in a farm’s produce. The buyer pays a set price, and in return receives produce on a regular schedule. The farm benefits from a regular influx of cash, the consumer reaps the bounty produced at the farm with no work outside filling in an online form.

What can you expect from a CSA program? Good, fresh, seasonal fruits and veggies in a big bin, harvested and ready for pickup on a schedule of once every one or two weeks.

What can you find in a CSA box? A lovely surprise each time.

Receiving the produce from a CSA can occur in several ways – most supply through local farmers markets, some allow delivery to your door, and I am lucky enough to participate in a program that allows me to pick up my bi-weekly bin full of goodies where I work.

Since the produce isn’t trucked or flown in from distant regions (ever think about how it is possible to be eating oranges in the dead of winter in Minnesota? Those babies didn’t grow next door!) the fruits and veggies included in each CSA bin differ according to what is locally grown during the current season. Subscribers get a variety of foods, and have the fun of trying things that may never have made an appearance in their kitchens before.

More fun than you ever thought a Rubbermaid container could hold.

So, even if you find that a garden isn’t a practical addition at the moment, go out and find some fresh, local produce! Go on, it tastes so good…

Rain Barrel

I didn’t plant a winter vegetable garden.  It wasn’t a decision to take a break or to let the garden lie fallow for beneficial reasons. I didn’t plant a cover crop.  I just got side-tracked and suddenly there were weeds instead of <insert desirable vegetable here> and I found myself needing to do a bunch of work to reclaim my space. Suck.

In the meantime, naturally, I am reading about gardening. It helps me to feel productive even when I’m not doing much. I  am currently studying Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times. An interesting book on many levels – talks about gardening in the face of constrained circumstances such as economic collapse, problematic health, or climate change.

The author asserts that there are basically five crops necessary to survive and thrive in the face of hardship: Potatoes, corn, beans, squash, and eggs. She also talks about what is necessary to raise those crops. Which got me thinking…

I live in Southern California.  I have most of what is needed to raise four of the five crops mentioned.  I don’t have enough space for the ducks she suggest for egg production – but I haven’t given up hope of one day raising chickens. I have adequate space for a garden, lots of sunshine, a composter. The one ingredient that a SoCal girl might not have in ample supply is water. Let’s face it, we experience drought conditions in most years. We are currently under water restrictions imposed by the city. What if the hard times predicted by Ms. Deppe should occur? Where would we get enough water to continue to garden, even for a short time?

Um, it falls from the sky, actually.  Even here in SoCal we get a little thing called rain. We often lament that when it rains, as the old slogan says, it pours. Water comes down in quantities that the dry ground is unable to absorb and we experience problematic run-off. The water is provided, we just don’t have good ways of turning puddles into irrigation on the homefront.

So how would I capture rain if necessary?  Set a gazillion of those 5 gallon orange Home Depot buckets under the eaves? Pull out the Rubbermaid trash bins? What do people in places where they expect rain (we don’t here really, we just crash on the freeways when it sprinkles and avoid the ocean for a couple of days after a storm due to the pollution that gets churned up by the waves) actually do with it? Rain barrels.  Big containers made for capturing precipitation!

So, naturally, I decided our home needed a rain barrel IMMEDIATELY. I found one online  that seemed perfect – smallish, cute, the color of the terra cotta pots I use in my container garden. Then I read the reviews.  “Spigot is too low.” “Fragile outer wall.” “Hose connector needed to be replaced after first use.” Reviews that said to me, “Find another barrel Annie!”

After reading what felt like an encyclopedia’s worth of reviews, I finally settled on a barrel that was slightly less stylish, a bit larger, but one with all the right parts in the right places, and which folks seemed to really like. Sold.  I ordered it and hoped it would come before the rains. Like we have any idea when that might be.

About a week later, while rain was crashing down into my little courtyard from the gutterless eaves, the doorbell rang.  The shoes and socks of my favorite man in brown shorts appeared from behind a VERY large, plastic sheeted box. He placed the box on the edge of the front steps. It fell with a crash, nearly missing him as he turned to leave. He rescued it, dropped it inside the front door, and ran.

The rain barrel! Wait? That’s the medium-ish rain barrel I ordered? The 45 gallon rain barrel? How big a box does something of that size really need? Oh…yeah…  The 45 gallon barrel was Ms. Unpopular. This was MAMA rain barrel. The one that holds 75 gallons. You know what? A 75 gallon rain barrel takes up every inch of a ginormous box. Every. Single. Inch.

Okay, so the box is as big as the 8 year old. No problem.

Um, okay.  It won’t fit where I planned to put it, where the heck will it fit? As my roommate trailed me, laughing all the way, she mentioned – SEVERAL times – that there was no chance EVER that this particular model of barrel would EVER get filled.  We just don’t get that kind of rain. Certain members of my extended family had expressed the same sentiment upon hearing my plan – even when I neglected to mention the size of the barrel.  “What are you thinking? That thing will just eat space and hold air. Another hare-brained idea!” Or words to that effect.

It was, after all, raining when the barrel appeared on my doorstep.  Placing it instantaneously would help to ensure that the nay-sayers in my world would be proven wrong.  Come on Annie, think!

Then I looked out at the courtyard.  The courtyard surrounded on three sides by gutterless eaves that slope toward the ground. The one with the miniature Bridal Veil Falls currently cascading onto the concrete.  Perfect!

Quck! Get that thing under the eaves!

A few minutes later the barrel was situated for maximum water capture. Half an hour later it  had a couple of inches of water in the bottom.  A couple of days later (with one sunny day between the first and that last) and the water level was dangerously close to the overflow valve, while I was beginning to wonder what to put under the valve to capture the water that would not fit in the “WAY too big” barrel.

Rubber ducky your're the make the rain barrel so fun! And show the water level too...

We lost some of that initial downpour too.  The barrel came with the spigot open, something I did not notice until the water level was high enough for it to be spouting a steady stream.

Now I’m thinking we need another barrel for the back yard.  We have a downspout there just waiting for a diverter. Of course, it hasn’t rained since the barrel filled.

Even so, these days I am watering from the spigot on Bertha Barrel.  And  hoping for rain.  Lots of rain.

Rats! – Part 1

There is a point in the TV version of Stephen King’s The Stand where the prophetic character, Mother Abigail, states that “There are rats in the corn, his rats.” Though there are chills aplenty in the book and the movie, this is the moment that always sends my creep-o-meter off the gauge.  Something about the image of the evil rats running through the corn just does me in.

Okay, not our rat - but would you rather a rodent corpse or this image?

This is not to say that I do not have some sympathy for all of God’s creatures.  We have a deal, you stay in your area (e g: out of my house, especially my bathroom, and out of my garden) and I will stay in mine.  We have a HUGE and very disturbing spider living under the front eave of the house – he is still here because he has not violated the deal.  Catch him crawling toward a door or window and he is TOAST however.

Several months ago, while working in my sister’s backyard, I was climbing a little stair case when an odd, flipping motion caught my eye.  I looked down to find a rat at my feet, wedged in between the step and the fence – clearly caught. He looked up at me, not with that shifty Rattigan look that rodents tend to have in cartoons, but with an obvious plea in his dewy eyes, “Please, help me!”

My family had gathered around the spot by this time, in answer to my initial blood-curdling scream upon noticing that odd motion at my feet was connected to something furry. We looked at the creature, wondered how to get him out of his predicament, cried – real tears – because the little thing looked so pathetically like someone’s pet that was suffering intolerably. Of course, not one of us wanted to actually touch it. But still, it needed help.

My brother-in-law saved the day, if not the rat, by using the handle of a shovel to move it out from it’s place between the fence and step.  He then took the rodent to the front yard, where he humanely assisted it out of this life. I thought I heard the shovel clang loudly, but I am not certain.  We do not speak of it.

For the last few weeks, inside my own garage, I have been doing battle with another string-tailed gray intruder. Or several. It seems the residents of the once abandoned house up the hill have been encouraged to move since the renovations started on tree removal day. Warm weather, no A/C, and an open garage door were the perfect invitation for these crawlers to relocate to my premises.

At first, they were pretty stealthy. I heard loud noises late at night and would go out in the morning to find that things from the highest shelves in the garage had found their way to the floor. I didn’t see a rat, or droppings for several days. Then the rat (I hoped it was just one) got bolder. He ate his way through a bag of bird seed on the workbench. A bag of rice on the pantry shelves.  In short, he declared war.

To be continued….

Epic Fail

I am not one to read manuals.  My thought is that manuals, guidebooks, etc. are meant as fail safes.  Should I put a thing together, and find that it  does not function as advertized I will then check the manual.  This method has worked reliably for me in the past and I don’t see a big need to change things.  Except perhaps where the garden is concerned…

I have used both seeds and transplants to start my garden.  All of them worked reasonably well, and I have posted many photos of the bountiful harvest that resulted from my efforts, a little water, and freshly broken soil. The corn was sweet, the tomatoes prolific, the zucchini large enough to float my dogs out should a flood arise. I now have carrots, pumpkins, acorn and butternut squash growing nicely.

Then there are the, ahem, peppers.  I love bell peppers!  I use them in most of my savory cooking, eat them raw as snacks, get enjoyment out of the sheer wonder of their shape and neat God-ordained packaging. Bell peppers, quite simply, ROCK.  So of course, I planted them in several places in my garden. I planted a rainbow of colors. I watered them, provided supports for th heavy vegetables they would produce, made sure they had enough sun.  I babied them as no other plants in my garden.

My version of the pin up girl, dreamy bell peppers in many colors.

And in return, my peppers sulked. They are the spoiled children of my garden. Perhaps, I thought, they get too much attention – the yellow leaves might indicate too much water, for instance.  Maybe some benign neglect is in order. I put them on a decreased watering schedule, gave them some fertilizer and set out to ignore the little dears.

Behold!  The plants did indeed begin to turn a lovely shade of green.  Tiny white blossoms formed, followed by miniature peppers suitable for a Barbie feast. Hurrah!  Problem solved, yes?  NO.

True, the little ping pong ball sized veggies held all kinds of promise. But as soon as they attained a more “pick me” size they would shrivel. They developed black patches, the skin would dissolve leaving a round yellow crater that seemed to have been sucked dry.  One out of ten actually made it to the table, the rest apparently destined to enrich my compost and nothing more.

My dreams of homegrown stuffed peppers smashed, I realize that it is now time to turn my thoughts to the winter garden. Time to plant spinach and beets, time to forget about peppers. Or time, at last, to admit that I need to consult the garden books I keep around mostly for the lush photographs. Time to PLAN for next year’s summer garden. Time to admit that I may need a manual.