Thursday, June 3, 2010

8. dining

Protection, 2008

feeding time at the zoo

As I've mentioned, I inherited an active worm box. On day one, I just stepped in and got started. I'd been told that the worms were very forgiving, so I didn't feel I had much to lose.

I pushed the contents of the worm box to one side, tossed in my fruit and veggie bits, and then tried to cover them up with the little to no bedding in the box. I didn't even know what bedding was at this point, let alone how much should be in the box. This willy nilly method only works once or twice, if at all, and then you are just stirring up everything in your box like a big bowl of cookie dough each time you add your worm edibles.

This quickly becomes more of a hindrance than a help to your system on many levels. First, and most importantly, worms don't enjoy their homes being disrupted. They are quiet creatures and they especially abhor being stirred up like chocolate chips in cookie dough. Well, actually, that's simply my perception. The worms never spoke to me. I guess it's not unlike the happy California cow controversy. While living in West Marin I saw many of those disputed cows regularly and they truly seemed happy, to me.

Okay, I'm veering a bit off topic. Back to business.

The best news is that you will start your boxes from scratch. You will know every ounce of their contents and exactly how to care for them.

Imagine an overlay of a grid atop the bedding in your worm box. Work with the number 6 or the number 9 to create your imaginary grid, 6 squares if you think you will let your bowl fill up before feeding your worms (once per week) and 9 squares if you think you'll feed them more often (twice per week). I'm a 9.

Remember my promise in Chapter 6 to speak with you in more detail about maximizing surface area to maximize worm efficiency? Here we go.

The object of this grid is to make the most efficient use of your box. For instance, the grid allows your kitchen bits and bobs placed in square 1 of your grid to decompose enough for your worms to do their thing while you work your way through squares 2-9 (or 2-6). When you return to square 1, the buried bits and bobs should be difficult to recognize and you will be able to bury the contents of another bowl of worm edibles in this square. Make sense?

Feeding your worms is simple, rest your bowl of edibles on your small table situated between your two boxes, dig into square 1 of your grid and push the bedding aside, dump your bowl of goodies into the hole you've dug in square 1 and then cover it all up completely with bedding. Remember to always cover worm edibles with plenty of bedding (about 3" high). Uncovered food attracts flies and looks unpleasant. Who wants to open their box and get a face full of flies? Not me. I spoke about fruit flies in the Chapter 4. If you've forgotten, go back and check it out.

Use a leftover chopstick from your Chinese take-out as a marker and place it behind your first grid burial (square 1) so you will know where to bury the contents of your stainless steel bowl when you next visit to your box. When you return to your box, remove your chopstick, rest it on your small table beside your bowl of edibles, fill the next space in your grid (square 2), and then place the chopstick behind this latest grid burial. Repeat this process every time you return to your box to feed your worms. Work your way through your grid (1-6 or 1-9).

If you find yourself working all of the way around your grid and returning to square 1 to find that all of the bits and bobs are still recognizable and fresh looking, you are adding too much food to your box too quickly and you are about to overwhelm your box. It's time to start a new box.

Begin box #2 and use box #2 until the items in square 1 of box #1 start to break down and look less recognizable. When this occurs, it will be okay to return to using box #1. Make sense? If things seem a little slow in the beginning, don't fret. Give it time. Slowly but surely, your worms will reproduce and the population inside your boxes will increase. As your population increases, the pace in which your worms work through their edibles will also increase. Really. It's not fuzzy math.

Begin box #2 by adding a one inch layer of dry bedding to the base of the box. Go into box #1 and use your small shovel to gently dig into the contents and carefully remove a shovelful from box #1. Slide this first shovelful into square 1 of your new grid and then a second shovelful into square 2 of your grid (on top of the dry one inch of bedding) in box #2 . These shovelfuls should include worms, decomposing kitchen rubbish, and the bits of bedding stuck to these items. No sorting necessary. Grab your 5 gallon bucket and add enough bedding material to add about 3 inches of bedding on top of the shovelfuls of goodies you've just added. Wet and fluff the bucket of bedding material until it resembles a wrung out sponge and add it to your box.

Each time you enter a box, observe the moisture level of the bedding. Remember that a wrung out sponge is your aim. A box that is too wet can compact the materials within your box and create anaerobic (bad...trash can) conditions or at worst drown your worms. A box that is too dry can adversely affect the health of your worms, they require moist skin.

I know how I felt during one camping trip when I forgot to pack my moisturizer--brutal! But seriously, moisture balance is very important to your worms, much more important than my spending a day or two without my favorite moisturizer.

If you see that the bedding is beginning to look too wet, just add a little dry bedding, scatter it about one inch thick on top of the wet bedding. You don't even need to mix it in. Just let it lie.

If the bedding is too dry, sprinkle water on top and fluff that top layer until it reaches that famous wrung out sponge state. For sprinkling, use the mist or shower setting on the spray nozzle of your garden hose, or use a watering can with a sprout that resembles a shower head (lots of tiny holes versus one large spout).

That's all there is to it.

Now that you know what you are looking for and you know how to adjust the level of moisture in your boxes, balance and harmony will be a piece of cake.

7. foraging

French Breakfast, 2008

what happens in the kitchen

What goes on in the kitchen no longer stays in the kitchen, or in the kitchen rubbish bin. All of the unwanted bits of fruit and vegetables, used tea leaves & coffee grounds, egg shells, and more that typically end up in the trash bin can now be put to good use. Start your collection!

I began my worm edible collection in a large yogurt container. This dutiful yogurt container either filled up or overflowed all too quickly, so I added another container, and when it was full, another. This collection of plastic yogurt containers on my kitchen counter was taking up too much space, not to mention the fact that it was aesthetically in bad taste. Even worse, I quickly learned that the elongated shape of a yogurt container, filled beyond the brim, not unlike a flat-bottomed ice cream cone, tips over very easily. Squishing the worm edibles down into the yogurt container and covering it with a lid is not a viable solution. Covering the container with a lid creates an anaerobic (bad) environment.

Reminder: anaerobic environments resemble trash can environments and lead to bad smells.

Skip the use of yogurt containers altogether and avoid lids of any sort and you won't have to pick up spilled scraps or endure that first terrible whiff that occurs when you remove the lid from a covered container in which anaerobic conditions have moved in. Ew!

It might seem somewhat counterintuitive, but what's best for avoiding malodorous worm edibles is leaving your container wide open and letting it breathe. Try it, you'll like it. Trust me. No smell. If those little fruit flies begin to hover around your bowl, you can always stick it in the refrigerator.

Of course you can always shell out the cash to purchase a neat little ceramic compost pail with a replaceable odor absorbing charcoal filter, but I don't really feel it is necessary. For several reasons, I recommend gathering your worm edibles in a large stainless steel bowl. Keep the bowl on your counter. Just toss items into your bowl as you prepare your meals--easy peasy. If you have company coming over or you are just sick of looking at your bowl on the counter, you can put it in the refrigerator or freezer or just feed your worms early, wash out your bowl, and put it away. Do whatever works for you. I want you to be happy.

The large bowl will not fill up as fast as a yogurt container. It won't tip over. It will hold many worm edibles. You'll only need one container. And it's reusable. The extra bonus is that it's a snap to clean, remember, it's stainless steel. No need to worry about leaving your juicy red beet trimmings in the bowl for a day, or two, or even three because a stainless steel bowl will easily wipe clean--no muss, no fuss. If you are anything like me, you probably already own a few such bowls and will not need to spend a cent. So pull one off your shelf and get started.

I suppose you'd like some details about what goes into this bowl. Fair enough. I'll tell you. The worms in my boxes have enjoyed items such as:
  • the few grapes on the vine that have gone squishy
  • limp lettuces leaves
  • radicchio, cabbage, and cauliflower cores and limp outer leaves
  • chard and kale ribs
  • the random berry or two beginning to grow miniature fuzzy mold sweaters
  • potato peels (more on potatoes below)
  • egg shells (dried and crushed--I used a mortar and pestle for small amounts and the bottom of an olive oil bottle and an empty yogurt container to smash larger quantities)
  • coffee grounds and unbleached coffee filters
  • loose tea leaves and tea bags with staples and colored labels removed
  • pear and apple cores
  • carrot and parsnip tops
  • tops and tails of green beans, summer squash, onions, and lemon cucumbers
  • shelling pea and shelling bean pods
  • strawberry tops
You get the picture, worm edibles are basically all of the bits and bobs of fruits and vegetables that you don't eat. You can also include those fruits and vegetables that you would usually eat had you not forgotten they were resting in your crisper drawer and moving, like Miss Jean Brodie, quickly past their prime. In addition, there are a few coffee and tea related bonus items that you can add to the mix.

Due to the varying rates in which worm edibles decompose, I intervene, but just a whit. I didn't want to work too hard, as I am a fan of nature taking it's course, but I wanted a little bit of control. I simply rough chopped everything I put into my stainless steel bowl. The chopping exposes more surface area and makes it easier for the worms to nibble through their nourishment. I didn't sort and consider and contemplate and drive myself mad, just a general rough chop of most items. If you think A rough chop is good, a puree must be even better, think again. The excess moisture of the puree will create a compacted and anaerobic (smelly trash bin) environment in your worm box. Don't fret about the slow pace of some items in your box. The slower moving worm edibles, like the shelling bean pods, can easily be plucked during harvest time and added into a new box set-up where they can comfortably continue their journey at their natural pace.

Let's talk about potatoes.
Potato peels are fine and potatoes too, but potatoes do not get added to your box without a price. I recommend paying close attention to your potatoes and eating them in a timely fashion, while they are fresh. Avoid the temptation of adding them to your box. I once had a pile of new potatoes that turned green on me in what seemed an instant. Apparently I had left them on the counter and exposed them to the sun long enough for them to turn a light shade of green. My understanding is that green potatoes are bitter, possibly toxic, and therefore something we don't want to eat. So I fed my potatoes to the worms. Come to think of it, that probably wasn't a very wise idea. Why would worms want toxic potatoes? I'm not really sure, but as it turns out, toxicity was not my problem. Potatoes are hardy creatures and this particular group quickly began to sprout while buried beneath the bedding inside my worm box. The sprouts proudly protruded straight up through the bedding and toward the sun. Although it was interesting and entertaining to watch this all occur, the fast-growing sprouts made it difficult to work within the box. My goal was to break things down in there, not sprout new plants. I considered removing the potato sprouts from my box and planting them in my garden, but I didn't think that growing new potatoes from potentially toxic potatoes was a wise plan. Once in a while I'm conservative. You understand. I finally decided to remove all of the little potatoes along with their newly formed sprouts and transfer them to my big woody and more landscape oriented compost pile. They would have also served as fine candidates for my green bin.
Some things were left off the list. Let me explain why.
  • I did not use grains or citrus peels. I read too many conflicting opinions about them, so I eliminated them from my list of worm edibles.
  • There were a variety of reasons not to use animal related products. Smell and the way decaying animal products act as an invitation to rodents were at the top of the list. I decided to keep my boxes meat, bone, and dairy free--no fish, chicken, pork, beef, milk, butter, cheese, etc.
  • Leftovers gone bad are rough. Very few fit the bill. Just say no to anything salty, milky, cheesy, spicy, vinegary, fatty, or fishy. I don't know about you, but that leaves out just about everything I eat. Be good. Eat your leftovers before they go bad.
  • Human or pet waste were items I never even considered, but I bring them up because it seems they are items other people have considered. These items are just plain unsafe. Bad bad bad. No no no. Enough said.
If you buy fruit or vegetables labeled with those tiny annoying stickers on them, don't forget to remove them. You don't want brightly colored pieces of plastic in your beautiful and organic finished compost. Think of your worms. They prefer all things organic. Your worms will turn their noses up and scoff at anything artificial placed before them. They are wise.

If you find yourself throwing a bunch of dinner parties, resulting in excess leftovers and food scraps, do not fret. Remember that excess food can always be stored in your freezer for future use, even worm food. Freezing worm edibles has the added perk of breaking down cell walls and allowing quicker digestion by your worms. This advice will also come in handy when you have that strawberry jam making soiree you keep meaning to have. You'll know exactly what to do with those heaps of strawberry tops post-soiree.

See? No worries.

6. pets

The Puppy, 2005

selecting a breeder

Worms are phenomenal pets! No doggie day care, no kitty clawed furniture, and no plastic poop bags. Your worms can even fend for themselves while you are on vacation for two, three, even four weeks. Just make sure that your bedding resembles a wrung out sponge before you say bon voyage.

I was lucky enough to inherit my worms, my pets with perks, the heart of the whole operation. I am proud to report that I was able to keep them happy, healthy, and eagerly producing enough offspring to eat all of the kitchen rubbish I sent their way and transform it into beautiful compost. In less that a year I was able to harvest compost from several boxes and begin several new boxes.

If you happen to have a friend with a thriving worm box or two, you should simply ask them if they'd donate a couple of heaping handfuls of their worms to a good cause--you. Individuals with worm boxes tend to be categorically friendly, as well as generous, so go ahead and ask.

If no one you know has ever considered possessing a worm box, my status pre-Point Reyes Station, you'll have to venture out on your own and find some worms. I know there are a variety of online options, but if you happen to live anywhere near a worm farm and can get a firsthand look at the way they treat their worms, all the better.

Worms are a source of organic fertilizer for many vineyards. As I mentioned earlier, perhaps you can link your worm farm expedition to your animal bedding hunt and make it all happen during a nice long weekend in wine country.

First and foremost, you want the right worm for the right job. The worms that will inhabit your box, when left to their own devices, live in a very similar environment. So you see, they are naturals for the job at hand. You are seeking a very specific type of worm.

The problem is that the type of worm you need is referred to by many names, red worms, red wigglers, striped worms, brandlings, and tiger worms, just to name a few. To make sure you end up with the right bunch, stick with a seller who knows the scientific name of their worms. When you find Eisenia fetida (E. fetida) or Eisenia andrei (E. andrei) your search will be complete.

E. fetida are the most common composting worm, but once in a while you will see E. andrei and they fit the bill as well. I highly recommend only purchasing these types of worms. I have read of other composting worms that have been known to exist in very specific environments, but we're not going to get into that here. I'm no worm connoisseur. Let's keep it simple.

E. fetida and E. andrei thrive in organic material (i.e., kitchen rubbish) rich environments. They were born to dine on decaying leaves, manure, and other types of decomposing organic matter, like your limp lettuce and cauliflower cores. And that my friend is the unadorned truth. Your objective is to create an inviting environment where your worms will feel comfortable and pursue their inherent calling in life.

Lumbricus rubellus (L. rubellus), also known as nightcrawlers will not do. They have an entirely different mission in life. They will find your attempt to confine them to a box meant for E. fetida and E. andrei insulting and will only rebel against you with starvation strikes that will end badly. If you cannot live without L. rubellus, you can find them frolicking in healthy gardens nationwide. Stop by and say hello, just don't add them to your box.

Your initial heaping handfuls, about a pound of worms, will be enough to start your first box. You now have everything that you need to get started. This is exciting!

  • The first step in setting up any new worm box will be to cover the bottom interior of your box with one inch of dry animal bedding.
  • Next, shovel enough bedding into your bucket to add about three inches of bedding to your box. While the bedding is in the bucket, sprinkle it with water and toss it around until it is as moist as a wrung out sponge. Add the moistened bedding to the box.
  • Add a couple of handfuls of soil to your box and mix it into the bedding.
  • Gently lower your pound of worms onto the bedding and watch them begin to scurry down into the bedding.
  • Close the box securely and allow them to get situated.

You will begin feeding your worms tomorrow.

Keep the contents of your box shallow (6"- 8" high). Your worms like to eat just below the surface.

Don't add more than three inches of moist bedding to get your box started and don't ever stuff too much food into the box (total contents should not exceed 6"- 8" high). A deep box that is filled to capacity doesn't really help anyone out--it is counterproductive.

I'll explain how to maximize surface area and maximize worm efficiency in Chapter 8. Your goal is to create an environment that resembles the natural environment in which these worms typically thrive. As mentioned earlier, they prefer to eat just below the surface.

Peruse the next couple of chapters to learn more about feeding your new pets. If all goes as planned, these pioneers should continue producing enough offspring for you to start your next box. The worms in your new box will procreate, and so on, and so on, and so on.