Monday, May 24, 2010

5. interior design

What Makes a Home, 2009


You are going to need bedding for your worms. Purchase bedding before you purchase your worms. They won't want to sleep on the floor. When I refer to worm bedding, words such as percale, Egyptian cotton, and thread count should not come to mind. Like most of us, worms like their bedding light and fluffy. Unlike most of us, they like their bedding moist like a wrung out sponge. Although you and I would not enjoy snoozing on bedding that resembles a wrung out sponge, your worms will love it.

If you do not know what a wrung out sponge looks like, you are truly a lucky person. You must not do a lot of dish washing. For this project, you will need to learn. Try and find a sponge, wet it under the tap, and squeeze it to remove most of the water. Now take a good look at it and commit the look and feel of this sponge to memory. You will use it as a model for determining the proper moisture level of the bedding in your worm boxes.

My landlord told me that I could start a new worm box with several shovelfuls of aged manure as bedding. She's not alone here, manure is a perfectly acceptable worm bedding. Honestly, it just sounded a pinch unsavory to me, but I felt slightly guilty about brushing off the idea without even giving it a try, so I decided to mix just a little manure in with a lot of shredded newspaper.

I sorted through piles and piles of newspaper to separate the black and white sheets from the color. I read several claims that the color ink being produced at the time was fine, but other claims warned not to take a chance, so I decided to play it safe and only use black and white newspaper. Bit by bit I fed all of the black and white pages through my junk mail shredder and put it all into a brown paper grocery bag for safe keeping.

Now let me put this manure issue to rest. Using manure for worm composting is not as straightforward as one might think. The first issue is that it is a bedding that has a tendency to heat up to a level so high it could kill composting worms. Because of this heat issue you must institute a two day waiting period after wetting your manure bedding before adding your worms. I'm not a big fan of waiting periods, especially if there are other more simplified methods that serve the same purpose. Additionally, for health reasons, you must only use well-aged, at least six month old, manure. I didn't feel able to comfortably eye the manure and confirm its age, nor did I have an interest in aging fresh manure myself. I am not a connoisseur of manure, but the supposedly aged manure available to me at the time just didn't seem right. It had a stiff ornery texture that would not break up or crumble as I hoped it might. I didn't want big chunks of bedding, I wanted loose fluffy bedding that was easy to dig into and distribute on top of my kitchen rubbish. This whole worm thing was supposed to be fun and I wasn't about to stay up all night transforming this manure into a favorable worm bedding texture. Maybe there is a fluffy aged manure out there somewhere, but I opted out of trying to hunt it down. I just stopped using manure.

Newspaper works as a bedding material in a pinch, but it is ugly, forms clumps when wet, and quickly becomes difficult to fluff up enough to cover kitchen rubbish. Fluffy and light bedding is integral to a healthy and properly aerated box. A well aerated box will keep your worms happy and healthy, and it will keep your box from smelling, which will keep you happy. Just another friendly reminder--proper aeration helps maintain aerobic conditions in your box. Aerobic is good. Anaerobic is bad. So I eventually gave up using newspaper too.

I used pine wood shavings, a by-product of wood processing, packaged as animal bedding. If you own a horse or any livestock you might already have a vat of the stuff. I do not own any such large animals, but I was able to purchase my animal bedding from a local feed store. The wood shavings were triple screened to remove dust and kiln dried for maximum absorbency and to kill any bacteria present.

You'll need a bag of pine wood shavings and a large container in which to house them. I used a metal trash can with a secure lid to protect the shavings from the getting wet in the rain and from blowing away in the wind. The shavings expand when wet and I didn't want them expanding until they were safe inside a worm box.

As noted, animal bedding made from wood shavings is light and fluffy, so you'll want to be cautious when transporting it from container (metal trash can) to worm box so you don't end up with half of your bedding scattered across your neighbor's lawn. A basic five gallon bucket, never filled above 3/4 full, works well. Spritzing the top of the bedding in the bucket with a little water also helps to minimize fly-away. Cover the bucket with its lid if it's a really windy day.

Animal bedding made from wood shavings is light, fluffy, pretties up your boxes, retains moisture, and looks great in your finished compost. Who could ask for anything more?

A local feed store may not exist in your neighborhood and animal bedding from a pet store will probably mean less product for more money. Why not take a ride to the country? The comfort of knowing that you scored a huge bag full of bedding at a reasonable price will make your country jaunt feel worthwhile. Make a day of it, pack a picnic. Maybe you'll be lucky enough to find a worm farm and a nearby feed store in the same vicinity. Even better, make it a weekend getaway. I know for a fact that such possibilities exist here in Northern California's wine country. If you happen to live in the Midwest or over on our other lovely coast, be optimistic and see if you can map out a similar adventure in your neck of the woods. This is supposed to be fun, right? Enjoy the ride!

If you are unwilling or unable to locate animal bedding, I have heard good things about coconut coir. The coir is a waste product of the coconut industry, but I'm not sure how well that reconciles with transportation costs. Black and white newspaper is a bit high maintenance, and it's not very pretty, but it is free and it does work. It's your call.

Always add a couple handfuls of soil to all of your new worm boxes. It introduces microbial decomposers to the process and they will get things in your box humming along more quickly. Think of those couple handfuls of soil as the final step in your worm box recipe, as you do your final step in cooking most savory meals--salt and pepper to taste.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

4. location location location

Photograph: Courtesy of Christopher Parsons
Waitsfield, Vermont, 2006

finding the right neighborhood

When I arrived, the old and die hard worm boxes were resting haphazardly behind my house. The good news was that they were right about where I would have placed them myself. They were under the shade of the eave, a few steps from our back door, and within reach of our garden hose. I pushed them around a touch to situate them parallel to the house, just to neaten things up a bit, and I adjusted the blocks of wood beneath the corners of the boxes so they were level. Box #1 was already in action (worms busy composting inside) and therefore pretty heavy, while Box #2 was empty and easy to move about.

Decide early on where you will keep your boxes. Once you start filling them up with worms, bedding, and food, you won't want to be lugging them around. Select a space where your boxes will be protected from extended periods of time in direct sunlight or rain.

I was not familiar with the land around our new house and, to be honest, protecting the boxes from rain was not something I'd considered, until it started raining. During the first rain I suddenly began panicking about the safety of my worms. Were there puddles forming? Were my worms going to drown? I ran outside into the rain several times, checking the boxes and the area around them until I felt fairly certain they were safe. To save yourself some time, get to know the area around your boxes early in the game, before you decide where to place your boxes. If I'd gone outside during the rain and found that my boxes were about to float away, I'm really not sure what I would have done.

Place 4 bricks or blocks of wood on the ground and place your first box on top, situating your box so there is a brick or block resting beneath each of the four corners of your box. Do the same for the second box. Confirm that your boxes are placed on ground that will not flood. The bricks or blocks of wood will elevate the boxes enough to protect them from a little rain, maybe a small puddle or two, but you don't want your boxes in a place where the water level could reach up above the bricks or blocks, permeate your box, and drown your worms. Obviously, this would be very sad.

Air needs to circulate around your boxes, so you don't want them pressed up against the house or an exterior wall of your apartment or condo, hidden underneath anything, or wrapped up in any way. In short, make sure your boxes have enough space for the aeration holes to aerate and the drainage holes to drain.

People will be curious. Be proud of your boxes, flaunt them! If you follow my guidelines, you'll have a clean and fresh smelling, not to mention very intriguing, system that you'll be happy to show off.

The space around your boxes is also a very important part of your system. You want to work in a comfortable space where you can easily access all of your composting supplies.

A small table, I actually used a tree stump, will serve as a resting place for your worm fork and other tools of the trade. At first, I kept everything on top of the worm box that I was not using at the moment. The problem with using one of the worm boxes as a table was that I had to transfer everything to the other box if I needed to get into that dormant box, even if I just wanted to take a quick peek inside. Then I'd have to move it all back to its original space on top of the first box--ugh! I think I did this a total of one time before I rolled a tree stump across the yard, placed it between my boxes, and called it a table.

If you believe you will use your gloves all of the time, you'll want to keep them on your table with your tools, perhaps in a small bag. As I was a tad squeamish about the whole idea of worms, I started out wearing my gloves during each trip to my box. As I became more comfortable, I began keeping my gloves in the mudroom and the only worm action they saw was during harvesting.

My watering can shared mudroom shelf space with my gloves and my knee pad. The containers you'll use for bedding and finished compost, I used a couple of metal trash cans that I found in the shed, shouldn't be kept too far from your boxes. I'll be honest, I let my vanity trump the efficiency of my system. We all have our priorities. I placed my trash cans along the most seldom seen side of my house, beneath an eave. So yes, I basically hid the trash cans, but they were protected from the rain and were still pretty easily accessible. I kept my five gallon bucket beside my cans, tucked my tarp inside the bucket, and covered the bucket with its lid. I didn't want the bucket filling with standing water or debris. My shovel eventually found a home inside my bedding container because that is where it was used most often.

The important thing is that all of your tools and materials are easily accessible. Use my organization techniques as a guideline. The details are up to you.

As you know, I live in a very temperate part of Northern California, so I cannot speak to you about my experiences with worm boxes subjected to freezing temperatures or buried beneath snow. I have however read some interesting cold weather suggestions. One idea would be to set your worms free when things start getting chilly, somewhere between late fall and early winter. Just take a break during those harsh winter months, and start over again, with new worms, in the spring. I've also seen recommendations for insulating boxes by adding additional bedding and surrounding them with straw bales. Some people bring the boxes indoors.

I kept my boxes outside year round. I just let them slow down a little during the winter. The worms still go on living their lives when there is a slight (Northern California) chill in the air, they just move more slowly. From my perspective, what is called winter in this part of Northern California isn't really much of a winter at all. I grew up in Chicago and I know a real winter when I see one. Winters here are a piece of cake.

Likewise, it never really gets very hot in this region. Temperatures above 90 degrees or so endanger your worms and 90+ degrees is pretty rare around here. For those of you who live in areas that experience extremely hot and sunny summers, as always, keep the boxes in the shade. Other solutions include bringing the boxes into a basement or garage or covering them with wet burlap and placing them where the wet burlap will be in the path of a natural breeze or a breeze created with a fan.

Obviously, moderate climates make for the simplest worm box care. My section of Northern California is prime worm territory. I wish they all could be California worms... Although I live in a temperate climate, perfectly suited for worm composting, it is not all wine and roses. Our climate has its downside too. We don't experience the fun that accompanies the more extreme seasons. I am rarely able to attend a summer evening barbeque with bare shoulders and I haven't experienced the joy of making a snow angel in my California backyard. I miss snow angels...

Okay, let's get back to the worms.

Indoor boxes eliminate weather issues and many people advocate indoor worm boxes. About as many, if not more, complain of their failed attempts of starting a worm box indoors. I've never tried having a worm box indoors and I don't see that fact changing anytime soon. If you find indoor worm composting works for you, fantastic! We all have our preferences.

There are a number of teensy bug and bug-like critters that will be living with your worms (another reasons I prefer the worms in the yard) and helping them with their transformational (composting) work. I commend that work. Together they will turn your carrot tops and radicchio cores into beautiful, dark, and rich compost.

Apparently, most of these critters are friends with one another and with your worms. Maybe one or two are foe. If you look hard enough you can find instructions detailing how you can identify and eliminate the unfriendly bugs from your boxes. My advice is to just let them be. I did not attempt to examine the contents of my boxes with a microscope and weed out the bad guys. We all have our limits. Bug sorting and sifting exceeds my limits. I let the bugs duke it out on their own and any disputes that may have occurred seem to have been peacefully settled.

Some critters are worth controlling. The little fruit flies that often hover around ripe fruit and certain indoor potted plants can sometimes show up in your box. If they do, it is probably due to exposed food. Make sure all of the food in your box is buried and thoroughly covered with at least a few inches of bedding. The flies are present because they are seeking a snack for themselves and a nourishing place to deposit their future offspring. A thick top layer of bedding will save you. Hide the food! If you can keep all of your worm edibles out of sight, you are safe. By nature, these little flies are a lazy. They aren't the type to start digging around and seeking buried treasure.

Let's face it, a wooden box or two containing organic fruit and vegetable scraps, wood shavings (bedding), and worms, placed outdoors, is much closer to Mother Nature's original intentions than a plastic bin housed under the kitchen sink. I don't profess to be precisely mimicking nature. For instance, I don't use manure, a natural environment for worms. Basically, it's a matter of style. The manure just isn't my style. Just because something is natural, or green, or organic, doesn't mean I like it. It must have additional redeeming qualities.

My wooden boxes were situated in a nice shady place outside of my house, not far from my back door, and I enjoyed having them there. Place your boxes in a space that suits you.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

3. architecture

A Happy Home, 2010

building a foundation

I'm lucky. I inherited three old and die hard wooden worm boxes. I started with one box and quickly learned that I needed two. I used my third box as a small raised bed and planted garlic in it. Two was the magic number. My boxes were well worn, bordering on downright beat-up, but they were highly functional. Each box met some very important specifications--plenty of aeration and drainage holes (protected by screen material) and lids that opened easily, stayed open when I needed them open, and shut securely.

I had zero problems with my boxes, but read many accounts detailing what others had endured. The most troubling issues being 1) rodent related and due to improper protection of drainage and aeration holes and insecure box lids and 2) drowned worms due to poor drainage. Poor drainage also creates anaerobic and stinky box conditions.

Anaerobic conditions must be avoided at all costs. To put it simply, in worm box terms, aerobic conditions are good and anaerobic conditions are bad. Aerobic is light, fluffy, and oxygen rich (good). Anaerobic is compacted, wet, slimy, oxygen deprived, and smells like a stinky trash can (bad). Anaerobic conditions threaten the lives of oxygen loving creatures, like your worms, and welcome the anaerobic critters who thrive without oxygen and emit foul smells.

You get the picture?

Aerobic = GOOD
Anaerobic = BAD

Your first assignment will be finding a home for your worms. This home will be a mixed-use dwelling, a place where your worms will work and play. With very little effort, you'll find an array of suggestions for housing your worms. Others have used boxes, bins, cans, dresser drawers, benches, window seats, leaky washtubs, and coffee tables. I even found one system involving a pair of old blue jeans, cable ties, and aged manure. My point is that you can ponder your options forever. Don't. Just get to it. Use wooden boxes. You'll be happy you did. You can always experiment later.

Procure two, yes I said two, wooden boxes. You'll be surprised how quickly a box can fill up. There are detailed calculations you can perform to determine the exact size of box you'll need, all the way down to figuring the square footage of surface required for the amount of kitchen rubbish disposed each week. I don't feel these steps are necessary. I didn't have the patience to weigh my fruit and vegetable scraps for a few weeks or to gauge how often I'd have guests and how what those guests ate would impact the weight of my kitchen rubbish, etc., so I decided to just get started without having much of a plan. At this stage I thought of my system as a work in progress.

My wooden boxes were approximately 1' x 2' x 3' (1' tall, 2' wide, and 3' long). Make sure that the wood used for your boxes is untreated. Treated wood contains poisons that you do not want near your worms. Why wood? Unlike plastic, wood is porous and breathes naturally, allowing for better box ventilation. Plastic is very common, but most, if not all, excess moisture problems I read or heard about were linked to plastic bins.

You must have a lid that opens easily and shuts securely. I suggest a hinged lid, one that is structured so it will stay open while you are working with the contents of your box. If it closes with a latch, even better. The main objectives are to allow yourself easy access to your box and to keep any and all fuzzy critters out.

Proper aeration and drainage is mandatory, without it your worms will drown and your box conditions will become anaerobic (bad) and, as I mentioned earlier, smell like a stinky trash can. Pee-yew! To give your boxes the aeration they need, you will need holes drilled into the long sides of your boxes. Six to eight 1" holes, evenly spaced, per side will optimally be drilled a few inches from the top on one side and a few inches from the bottom on the other side.

Follow the human lead. Critters out. Water? Reroute., 2010

These holes should be covered to protect your box from unwanted intruders, such as rodents. Screen material is an excellent solution. The screen material can be secured with a staple gun on the inside of the box. Soffit vents are another solution. I recently had a conversation with a very helpful gentleman at my local hardware store and he suggested using some type of drain cover as an alternative to screen material or soffit vents. I found an item in the drain cover section of the hardware store called a crumb catcher. They are quite cute. The crumb catchers will certainly cost more than stapled screen material, but I might indulge and give them a try in my next box to create a more interesting design. The crumb catchers I saw were 1" in diameter and looked about 1" deep. I am imagining them installed from the inside of the box, allowing the little 1" hole-punched metal cups to protrude from the exterior of the box, adding a shiny new dimension to a more traditionally designed box.

You might be tempted to start with just one box. Don't do it. You'll be happier if you have two. Trust me. It won't make sense to you now, but once you start moving along you'll be happy that you have two boxes prepared and ready to go. You'll use Box #2 for overflow when Box #1 reaches capacity and you won't have to take a break from feeding your kitchen rubbish to your worms when you stop feeding Box #1 and wait for its contents to be transformed into compost. You'll move right over to feeding Box #2 and you won't have to endure a period that forces you to toss your worm edibles into the trash. Once you begin feeding your worms it will feel unnatural to put your kitchen rubbish into a waste basket. What a waste! I really don't know why everyone doesn't work with a two-box system. It's quite practical and really does help the entire system run more smoothly.

Wooden worm boxes, two to be precise--inherit them, buy them, build them, ask someone to build them for you, just make sure you get your hands on two, and that they meet the specifications I've outlined above.