Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Worms and Great Writing

You're right, no matter how many times you read that title, it still won't make sense. Those two concepts, "worms" and "great writing", just spar with each other. And that, dear reader, is exactly the problem I've been having. Reading other Spring Flingers' blogs has given me serious performance anxiety; but after months of stalling, it's time to talk about vermiculture - the proper term for worm composting. Guess I'll stick to what I know and leave the great writing for the pros.

The best primer on this subject is probably "Worms Eat My Garbage" by the late Mary Appelhof. She started writing in the 70's about her experiences with vermiculture, and the company she founded is a dependable source of worms, worm bin supplies, and information. No doubt, even a slight interest in vermiculture has led you to the internet and that site. Her book is widely available at bookstores and organic gardening centers, as well as online. It's a great place to start if you're considering keeping a vermiculture bin.

Started with a few worms given to me by a friend, my bin exists primarily to teach me about the subject. Let your reason for having a bin help determine the size container you choose. Obviously, if you're serious about using vermiculture to handle all of your kitchen scraps, it will need to start on a larger scale. Take the plunge and order a pound of worms to start. It took nearly a year for my small handful of worms to multiply to the point that they even needed the 5 gallons of space I initially gave them. The scraps I offered seemed to sit for weeks and I'd about decided the worms had all died. But once they took off, they really took off. Now, I'm about to move them into a 40 gallon bin. So, here's what the past year in worms has looked like.

As soon as I got them home, I went to work preparing the bin. They need air, darkness, food, and moisture (but not too much water.) If you order your worms, you'll have time to get the bin ready before they arrive. But mine were a bit of an impulse, so I had to work fast.

First, I drilled small air holes in the lid and all around the top third of the container. I hoped the holes would be big enough to provide air circulation but small enough to prevent escape. Some people cover the holes with fine screen, but that hasn't proved necessary. Either the holes were the right size, or my worms are nice and fat.

The first time you prepare bedding for your worms, you can shred newspaper to create a 8 to 10 inch layer. Lightly cover the paper with a thin layer of sand or garden soil, mix in with the paper, then use a spray bottle to dampen the bedding. You want it barely damp, but not wet. Put your worms in the bin and give them some time to burrow down - about 30 minutes. Sprinkle the bedding with chopped up food scraps and place a piece of cardboard loosely on the surface. The cardboard seems to encourage the worms back up to the surface to eat the scraps (and the cardboard.) Replace the lid on the container and give your worms at least a week to settle in before you start peeking in on them constantly to see if they've multiplied yet.

The picture at right shows an active bin where the worms are processing newspaper, food scraps, and eggshells. They've also eaten the cardboard cover.

Worms eventually eat about half their weight in scraps each day, but you do have to work up to that amount. (Being a former chef, I had to fight my impulse to feed them constantly.) When there is very little of the original bedding visible, and the bin contents are brown and "earthy" looking, you know your bin is working. Feed small amounts until you see evidence of your worms breaking down the scraps. Many people rotate placement of scraps in their bins so the scraps remain undisturbed until broken down by the worms. I mentally divide my small bin into eighths and rotate through the sections. Scraps should be chopped or shredded, and eggshells crushed. Tea leaves and coffee grounds, shredded paper towels and coffee filters, grains, and vegetable scraps are just some of the things your worms will consume. If it seems too wet, you can add more dry material such as shredded newspaper, crushed leaves, or dry soil. Avoid meat, dairy, and large amounts of fat. If you're already composting outside, most of the same guidelines apply. However, unlike outside composting, some of the problems you may encounter are overfeeding, too much moisture, and temperature. Vermiculture bins should be stored in temperatures above 40 degrees and less than 85 degrees F. In Texas, this generally means in a sheltered area out of direct sun.

Look closely - in the picture above you'll see where the air holes were drilled in the top portion of the bin.

It's a little odd to talk about what the worms "like", but mine seem to thrive when I add an occasional layer of moistened coir. It comes in dried bricks which must be soaked and broken apart and is available where hydroponic gardening supplies are sold.
If the surface layer of the bin is covered with food scraps, I'll often completely cover the entire surface with shredded newspaper or moistened and shredded coir. Also, as I mentioned before, they really seem to be more actively eating and reproducing when the surface is lightly covered with a piece of cardboard as well as putting the lid on the bin.

This is the finished product - compost ready to put in the garden and even more worms ready to go back to work in the bin. Various methods are used to separate out the worms. Although they will often clump together near the bottom of the bin, I generally put on a pair of gloves and gently spread the bin contents out on several layers of newspaper. When I've separated as many worms as possible, I put them back into the bin and the process starts all over again.

It's hard to imagine, but there's really very little ick factor to vermiculture. It's a good option for apartment dwellers, offices with kitchens, and other places that generate food scraps but don't have the option of an outdoor compost pile. Properly maintained, they don't stink or attract flies and other unwanted pests. Gather your courage and give it a try.
(Lori asked the questions you probably have at this point - check out the comments.)

Monday, May 19, 2008


1967 brought us "The Graduate" and the movie quote voted #42 (out of 100) by the American Film Institute. "Plastics" is also a line that's been running through my head a lot lately when I've been playin' outside. In spite of my love of rocks, wood, and other things organic, I've noticed a number of plastic items have become workhorses in our little garden.
This is my plastic "Trifecta": the greenhouse, rain tank, and some GrowBoxes.

Probably best known to anyone reading this blog is the big green rain collection tank. Made of polypropylene and piped with PVC, it's undeniably a big plastic statement. Of course the lovely rock, mortar and wood cisterns we've seen at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center or in the James David garden would be preferred for their aesthetic appeal. But our big plastic tank is doing its job well and would be much easier to pack up and move if needed.  What's more important - avoiding something made from petrochemicals or collecting rainwater?  It seems so many of our choices are complicated. 

Less obvious, but essential in my world, is the heavy plastic liner of the pond. Rugged but flexible enough to follow the shape we dug in the hard clay, it allowed us to completely change the way our garden looks and feels, and the way we feel about being outside.

Probably my least attractive plastic garden components are the "Grow Boxes". Initially, I was attracted to the possibilities these self-watering containers offered in making gardening accessible to school children. The boxes are inexpensive to construct, can be broken down at the end of the growing season or school year, and allow kids a way to learn about the source of their food, butterfly gardens, or just the magic of a seed transforming itself to a plant.

Here they are last winter lined up in front of the greenhouse that's made of PVC and heavy mil plastic sheeting with its fiberglass shade cloth.

As I used them, I also found out how convenient it is to be able to leave on vacation and know the tomatoes won't die for lack of water. It's also an easy way to keep food crops out of the "reach" of two large male dogs when they lift their legs.
The funny thing is how much I've learned to appreciate them through the process of teaching people how to make them. Folks are always telling me how much they like them and why. Number one reason for most is that someone with no yard or depth of soil can grow homegrown tomatoes and other vegetables. Older folks enjoy gardening at an elevated height, and that there's no need for hoeing or heavy work involved in gardening with them - just planting and dragging the occasional (plastic) hose over for adding water to the reservoir.  With so many advantages, should they be avoided because they're fairly "tacky" and again, made from a petrochemical product?  If a child develops a love of nature or a better diet and appreciation for vegetables because a teacher grew something in a GrowBox for the class one year, does that benefit outweigh the negatives?

Also built from a plastic storage bin is my vermiculture (that's worm composting) bin.
Although it took a while to really get going, now I'm wishing it were bigger. Guess I'll just have to build another one.  Does it being made of plastic negate the act of composting?

As I've mentioned, many of my plants were grown from cuttings gathered from friends. My success with propagation increased dramatically when I began using cut off soda bottles to increase the humidity for the cuttings. (Since cuttings have no roots, at that point all moisture must be taken in through the leaves.) I couldn't begin to afford enough of the lovely glass cloches traditionally used for this purpose - especially when it's time to prune the roses and I find it impossible to waste all of those potential rose plants. Then it's not unusual for us to have as many as 25 "test tubes", as my husband likes to call them. The primary downside to these is that I've been seen scouting my neighborhood recycling bins since we don't even empty 4 soda bottles a year.

On one of those dog walking/scouting trips, I found two large plastic pots that were being thrown away. They now house the Meyer lemon and a Mexican lime.
The newest plastic additions are the raised bed corner supports I just used to build 3 vegetable beds in a sunny side strip of our yard. Even though I could have constructed simple raised beds without them, they made the project even simpler and offered angles that would have complicated the process by hours. It was during the building of the beds that now famous single word of dialogue from The Graduate began repeating in my mind.

So, give me some feedback: other than the little nursery pots and trays we bring plants home in, what are the ways you're using plastic in your garden? Please tell me I'm not alone in this dirty little secret.

Monday, April 28, 2008

900 and Counting

Amid threats of tornadoes, lightening strikes, and hail, we got about an inch of rain over the past few days. From that ... drum roll please ... we managed to collect about 900 gallons of cloud juice. * The gutters and pipes to the rainwater tank didn't sag or leak (not that we expected them to), the water went where we wanted it, and as an added bonus, we didn't get hit by the hail.

Also, as I was saying to MSS at Zanthan Gardens, now we understand what a friend meant when he said, "Oh, you got the small one!" when he saw our 1660 gallon tank. This is addictive! The clouds give us a little free and we're hooked. Given that Austin averages 32 to 36 inches of rain per year, however, our little lot doesn't have enough room for tanks to catch all of it. Herein lies the dilemma of the suburban rainwater harvester. In most areas, rainfall occurs seasonally. Many of us don't have room for enough storage to catch the entire rainy season harvest and be able to last through times of drought. When we decided to install our tank, I had no idea that not only would I learn how to install the system, I'd also get a lesson in being content with the difference this amount of capture will make. My current plan is to make a pitcher of Texas Martinis, go sit by the pond, listen to the waterfall splashing, and practice being content.

*To figure how much you'd collect, you need to know that one inch of rain on a 1000 sq. foot catchment area yields roughly 600 gallons. We aren't using our full (oddly shaped, irregular) roof surface and had to guess at our total catchment area. One of the best free sources of information on rainwater harvesting in Texas, including average annual rainfall, is The Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting (do an online search and the entire manual can be downloaded at no cost.)

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Choice

My husband has no idea, but he's about to be very happy that Tim was "right". We stand to save a lot of money; because as far as I'm concerned, my local nursery went out of business this week.
I've made a tough decision to stop being a customer there - the place where I'd drop by to visit on the way home and find myself spending $50 when I really didn't need anything, the place I'd find myself sometimes 3 times a day when I was in the middle of a gardening project, and the place I'd go at least once a week even if nothing special was going on in the garden. I could always convince myself that something, some plant or pot or sculpture, was irresistable. But resisting is the current plan. Why the drama? Because the owner was rude to me. Details don't really matter. Technically, he was right. I parked where they said not to. He yelled at me. My feelings are hurt. If he cared about customers, he wouldn't have said what he did in the way he said it. He most certainly doesn't care if he keeps me as a customer. So I'm responding the only way I feel is appropriate.
I used to be in retail. I was a manager for Williams-Sonoma. And, I've been in the restaurant business most of my adult life. So, I really understand the complexities of customer relationships. When you're part of the staff, you sometimes feel like the customers can be demanding and unreasonable. As a customer, I try to remember what that feels like and be respectful and appreciative of people in service industry jobs. I don't expect special treatment, I wait my turn, I try not to bore them with too many stories. And, I always try to shop local.
So there were a lot of choices in this little gardening melodrama - the choice to say things, how they were said, what was really important, and how to react. There's also the choice of whether to shop local or drive to where they're nice to you; whether to save on petrol and support the local economy, or go across town or 15 miles to the north. Whatever else may come of it, it made enough of an impression on me that I hope I'll stop and think twice before I feel the need to "be right" about something.
No pictures in my post today, just ranting. Although I do have to tell you that I have two baby cardinals in a nest just outside my bedroom window. I was afraid the mother had abandoned it during the installation of our guttering. Instead, she and her mate kept their vigil and hatched the two eggs. In the midst of my trivial human drama, something that really matters is happening - and all's right in my little garden.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The First Crop

Spring Fling 2008 was better than anyone could have imagined - the knowledge and generosity of my fellow garden bloggers overwhelmed me to the point of silence. Anyone who knows me is impressed by that! It has been captured so well on other sites, I've decided to leave it at that. Sometimes something is so good, my feeble attempts to describe it only diminish it. Check out Pam's "Digging'" for info, pictures, and links. It was perfect. Enough said.

It surprises me how many people are tracking the progress of my rain harvesting tank installation. Just for them - here's the big unveiling! The morning after Spring Fling, we went to the local big box and got the PVC piping and fittings to connect the tank.

If you're not used to doing a lot of projects with PVC, I encourage you to gently connect all the pieces while you're there at the store to test for fit. They always have short sections of piping for sale. Assemble joints and use one of those short sections to test everywhere you think straight lengths of pipe will be. Four inch and three inch inside diameters begin to look a lot alike when faced with a wall of white plastic. We went armed with the downspout adapter installed by our guttering company. In the picture below, it's the rectangular piece with a round outlet at the bottom of the spout. It's screwed on, not riveted, so it can be removed to go on your walkabout with you.

In this shot, you can see the top of the tank. There is a lid that screws on over the drop-in basket, but we chose to leave it open for now. The removable strainer basket catches leaves and anything that makes it past the "first flush". Many people just cut a hole the size of the pipe and let the water flow directly into the tank. As the water in this type of installation is only for landscape purposes, that works fine. We just didn't want to cut a hole until we were certain we had everything the way we want it. I'm making a little wooden "roof" (that looks a lot like a birdhouse) to sit over the opening to deflect leaves and protect the basket from falling twigs.

So, what's a "first flush"? It's the stretch of pipe that has to fill up before water backs up and begins to flow into your tank. The picture above shows ours, which will hold about 8 gallons before water flows off to the tank (through that pipe to the left at the very top of the picture). Gravel, bird droppings, and other junk is washed down by the initial rainfall, and settles in the pipe. It's also possible to install a valve with a float in this section - it seals off the opening when the first flush pipe is full. But in landscape applications, it's not really necessary. Just remember if you live in a city that gives rebates on rainwater harvesting systems (like Austin), you are required to include a first flush. At the very end of the pipe, there's a screw on cap you remove to release the first flush water into the garden. Lots of people loosely attach that cap so it drips a little all the time and doesn't really have to be opened completely. Just be sure it's snug enough to contain the water during a rain.
Now, how to get the water OUT of the tank. The piece shown below is screwed into the opening at the bottom of the tank to adapt the opening size to the opening of the valve:

A heavy duty valve like the one shown is necessary to hold up to the pressure of all that water. It goes on next:

The next fitting, an adapter, will size the opening down to your pump hose or a regular garden hose. We'll soon be installing a Grundfos pump that has a 1" pipe connection; but for now, we're putting in a 5/8" adapter to connect a hose faucet.

Then this ...

All assembled, it looks like this:
I actually have the hose faucet outlet pointed sideways now so I don't bang my knuckles on it when turning the handle on the big valve. This picture was taken when it still pointed down ( before I banged my knuckles.)

I didn't tell you before, but the deciding factor in chosing a guttering company was this little design element shown above. We have one of those crazy rooflines - little sections interrupted by windows and several different levels. Our salesman had enough experience in rainwater harvesting, he was able to suggest things like this to capture that little extra bit of rain. The installers crafted this out of a section of downspout. It catches a valley in the roofline that otherwise just would have been wasted. Listen for things like this that prove they understand what you want and are not just delivering their canned sales pitch. Luckily, all three of my salesmen were well informed. It was a hard choice.

Yesterday we got our test rain - a downpour of about 1/2 inch in a short period. All the parts stayed stuck together, even though we didn't use any adhesives. I was like a kid seeing snow for the first time - out there listening to the drops ping down into the big tank. My husband wanted to turn on the tap, but I didn't want to waste a drop. Now, if I can just get a good night's rest. I kept dreaming of all the little lizards who might be trapped by a sudden storm. Nature lovers! We're a mess, aren't we?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Today's Blooms

This time of year it's great to be a gardener in central Texas. The leopard frog in my pond has resumed his nightly serenade after a winter's rest, we're getting some much needed rain, and everything looks so fresh and healthy in the cooler weather. Yesterday I was talking to a plant supplier in Virginia who is still having to worry about the effects of snow and cold weather. I was telling him how we are trying to get plants started now so they can get a good start before the killing heat sets in.

I missed Bloom Day, so here's what was blooming in my garden on the ides of March ...

A few years ago, I found this small tulip at a local nursery. It's t. clusiana "Cynthia" and will naturalize here in Austin. Above are three pictures of the same plant; I'm trying to capture the wonderful yellow and deep pink of the blooms. The top photo is the closest, but it didn't show the pink as well as it was taken later in the day when the blooms had opened.

Colleen's Climber rose

Chandler strawberries

"Old Blush" rose - one of several started from cuttings last year and already looking like this!

Flowering quince - puts on a show just once a year then goes back into hiding

"Apple" pelargonium - scented geranium that smells just like Juicy Fruit gum

"Attar of Rose" pelargonium - one of the strongest rose scented geraniums

Lady Banks rose - this one was cut almost to the ground when repairing the fence, but she's coming back in style. (Plants teach me a lot about resilience and patience.)

Meyer Lemon - it makes just enough lemons each year for one batch of Lemon Ginger Marmalade using a recipe my mother-in-law gave me. This year, I modified the recipe and also made a second batch from those little clementine oranges and some chipotle chiles. Our"Mexican Mandarin Marmalade" was a huge hit!

Butterfly weed or Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) - the flowers attract butterflies and the leaves are a favorite food of the caterpillars of Monarch butterflies that migrate through central Texas

Mexican Lime - it's looking like we might have to make margaritas to use them all up

Mrs Oakley Fischer rose with friend

Dicentra ("Bleeding Heart")


"Peter's abutilon (Vesuvius?)

"Marilyn's Choice" abutilon

Bengal Tiger rose - profits from the sale of this rose go to a tiger preservation fund

Martha Gonzales rose

Mlle. Franziska Kruger rose


We attended the 20th birthday celebration and benefit at Eastside Cafe this past weekend. After seeing how vibrant and healthy their garden is, I was almost embarassed to show you mine. If you're in the Austin area, please do yourself the favor of seeing what they've managed to do with a small city plot. It's inspiring.

Hope you enjoyed our flowers. Not pictured are the Mutabilis rose and spirea that are putting on a show in the front yard. Also, we're hoping to have a major update on the rainwater harvesting soon. Check back in about a week. If we don't have any more rain delays, we can start collecting it. Gotta love the irony!

Purple Martin Party Time!

Travis Audubon hosted a Purple Martin Colony visit this past Saturday next to the historic home of Laura Joseph.  Laura started...