Autumn Leaves (Fall leaves)

>> Friday, November 18, 2011

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, about now you can be sure of one thing. Your garden is full of fallen leaves. While many people see these as an inconvenience merely to be swept up and disposed of, in reality they are a great resource for the gardener
Given enough time, fallen leaves turn into one of the most wonderful products for your garden- leaf mold. A dark brown crumbly soil conditioner that will enhance the growing power of your soil.
All you need to get from leaves to leaf mold, is time and a small amount of water and patience. If you have a large enough garden, the easiest thing to do is to construct a pen for your leaves- four wooden posts stuck firmly into the soil with something between the posts to hold the leaves in. Chicken wire is traditionally used, and cheap.
Alternatively you could build a bin made of wooden delivery pallets or whatever spare wood you have around the garden. A leaf bin is much easier to construct than a compost heap in which you want to compost foodstuffs,as it does not need to be vermin proof. It does not need to be of a minimum size to allow for hot composting, all it needs is to hold the leaves in an not let them blow back around your garden, allow some air circulation and allow the odd shower of rain to moisten the leaves.

If you do not have enough room for a dedicated leaf mold bin, you could just place leaves in a black plastic sack, punch several holes in the sack and leave for a year or two. Not the most pretty option, but effective. There are also a number of decomposable leaf sacks on the market that you can pack you leaves in. The advantage of these is that if you forget about them, you won't have black plastic lying around your garden, and they look alot prettier than a pile of black rubbish sacks.


Vegetable Growing in a Flower border

>> Saturday, August 20, 2011

I have posted two photos- at the top of this post is my south facing front garden border in Winter, the start of February to be precise. At the bottom is the same border now in August. Most of the planting was done with annual seeds, but I have some perrenials in there too. Bearing in mind the summer we've just had (Low temperatures, cloud, the lowest hours of sunshine in...AGES...), I think the second picture isn't too bad...
But what you may not have noticed is that in amongst the flowers and shrubs, I have included some food planting, in a kind of experiment. I'm convinced that the vegetable plants will be less likely to succumb to pests when they're not planted all together. And so far it's doing great despite the weather. In the bed I have Broad Beans, tomatoes, courgettes and Rhubarb. In the front, where it's really sunny (if it weren't so cloudy) I have parsley, sage,rosemary and, thyme. Along with marjoram, tarragon and mint (the tea type).
I've recently transplanted out three Purple Sprouting Broccoli plants (and the pigeons haven't found them yet!) I also have some rainbow chard ready to go, to provide colour and spinach-like leaves in Winter.
I will definitely be trying this next year again. And maybe it's because of all the vermicompost in the bed, but the broad beans and tomatoes have no aphids, the courgettes haven't mildewed
And although the fig tree at the back probably won't provide any ripe figs this year (lack of sun again) it's certainly looking healthy.

Do you want to grow your own but you're not sure where to start? Get advice from the experts.
Click Here!


Wicking Bed with Worms

>> Monday, April 26, 2010

Wicking bed technology is a simple way of irrigating plants with up to a 90 % saving in water because water is not left to drain away but captured in a reservoir under the soil surface from which it then wicks upwards to the roots of plants planted above it.

You may not think that water is often an issue in an Irish kitchen garden, but in fact, so far this year rainfall has been minimal and the soil in some parts of my garden was bone dry. I also have an issue with overhanging trees from next door, beds close to a wall, and thirsty conifers sucking every last drop of water from the soil.
Below is bed that receives plenty of sun but virtually no water because of the bushes above it and some overhanging trees (not in photo): (all photos can be enlarged by clicking on them)

Last year virtually nothing grew in here, despite constant watering, and the watering just invited slugs to come and feast.

So I dug out the soil, left it to one side and placed the lid of an old compost bin in the base of the bed. This reservoir rose to a height of a few inches below the old soil surface. Thus when the soil is filled back, the new soil level will be raised further above the edge of the reservoir

Bed dug up with reservoir in place:

I filled the reservoir with a mixture of coir, worm rich rottted horse manure and finished worm castings. I added volcanic granules (oh the irony!!) and pelleted chicken manure for fertility.

Note the upturned plastic bottle ends which will hold extra water and the coir which absorbs water well, but also wicks it up to soil above it.

Vermicompost, manure and worms added to the reservoir:

The worms will break down the organic matter (horse manure/ coir/ minerals/ chicken manure) and deposit their castings in the soil. Because the level of the reservoir is below the final soil level the worms can move in and out of the reservoir and move the fertility with them. The moist environment in the reservoir is ideal for the worms and other soil micro-organisms.

Next the bed is backfilled and planted with climbing french beans and some spinach and salad to the front. I have left another plastic bottle submerged in the centre to fill the reservoir. By not wetting the soil from above, I hope to dramatically reduce slug damage!

But wicking beds don't just make it easier for a lazy Irishwoman to grow a water hungry crop like beans- they could actually help save the world!
To read more about wicking beds go to:
Easy Grow Vegetables


Gardening with Worms

Gardening is the main reason I haven't posted in a while. Spring being the busiest time of year in the garden!

In the past couple of months I've been planting seds transplanting seedlings and preparing beds for plants. Of course vermicompost has been an important part of that!
All my vegetable beds got a good dressing of vermicompost from the big flow through, and indoor bins were harvested to mix with coir to start seeds.
Here's a picture of one of my raised beds in March about a month ago:

And again today:

If you click on the bottom image, you'll see that the broad beans at the back of the bed are already well into flowering, and the garlic have reall
y come on. I can't clain that's all down to Vermicompost, but I'm sure it helped!
The chervil plant at the front of the bed has certainly benefited! I can't remember ever growing a single chervil plant that big. Unfortunately it looks as if it's about to go to seed, and this year's haven't come on yet. I'm really also surprised it survived the hard freezes we had this winter.

Do you want to grow your own but you're not sure where to start? Get advice from the experts.
Click Here!


How much waste can my wormery handle?

>> Monday, March 22, 2010

The brochure said your wormery would be able to process 5 kg of waste a week, but if you put in more than a handful of waste at a time, at best it just sits there, at worst you get a stinking mess...
There are a number of reasons for this-

Not enough worms- at its best a worm can 'eat' half its own body weight of food per day. The reason for the inverted comas is that the worms don't so much eat the food as the microorganisms that break down the food and the mush that is left when the microbes have done their work. Solution- buy more worms or wait for them to breed up themselves.

Not enough microbes- most worm farms come with inert bedding (eg coir block) or encourage you to make your own out of torn up paper and cardboard. This does not provide the microbes needed to start breaking down food. Worms have no teeth so they can't eat the food you've put there. Solution: add some good quality garden soil, some well rotted compost, well rotted manure (if you don't mind the extra wormy type creatures that might hitch a ride), or allow the food to pre-rot before adding it to your bin.

Wrong conditions in your bin - Remember I said 'at its best' a worm could eat up to half its weight...Well that depends on things being perfect for them...
Worms like temperatures from about 15 deg to 25 deg C
If your bin is too cold the decomposition will slow down, and the worms become sluggish. Breeding will also slow down. In winter- can you bring your bin into a shed or garage? Some bins even work well in the kitchen. Can you insulate your bin from the elements?
If your bin becomes to hot (it's in the sun, or you've added too much food at once)the worms may try to escape or die. So keep your bin out of direct sunlight and be careful not to add too much food at once. Little and often is the key!
If you overfeed, the bin may heat up (see above) and more importantly oxygen may run low.
If you feed too much of the wrong food (too much protein) you bin may become acidic or otherwise provide less than ideal conditions- so check the ideal feeding list that came with the bin, and feed only a small amount at the time.
Bin too wet or too dry- breeding and waste decomposition will slow down. The contents of your bin should only be as wet as a 'wrung out sponge' in otherwords, a fistful of material will only release a drop or two of liquid when squeezed firmly.
Not enough bedding Breeding will slow down and worms may get smaller as concentration of castings increases. Be sure to add a source of carbon regularly. (such as paper, cardboard, dried autumn leaves.)

So how many worms do I need?

Most commercially available worm bins such as the original wormery bins, can-o-worms or worm factory, come with worms supplied. But is it enough to really get processing waste at the rate you'd like to see? Well yes, in the sense that worms multiply fairly fast to fill the space available. But many new worm bin owners are frustrated by how slowly their bins seem to take off and start processing the amount of material promised in the brochure or publicity material that came with their brand new composter!...

In general worms operate best at densities of between 5-10 kg per square meter (1-2lb per sq foot). Below this, some sources say they don't 'find each other' as well to reproduce quickly, and certainly their effect will be more 'diluted' accross the bin. At densities above this, reproduction slows down, meaning that your worm population and therefore your waste processing capacity remains constant. (Note:in an efficient flow through worm bin densities as high as 15-20 kg/m2 (3-4lb/sq ft) have been quoted.)

So what do you do if your worm bin came with 500g (approx 1lb) of worms and your wormery measures a few square foot?
In good conditions (see above) you can expect your population to double every 3 months or so. This rate will reduce dramatically in winter in an uninsulated outdoor bin, or if you allow conditions in your bin to get stagnant, acidic, too wet or too dry.

So by taking good care of your bin in the first year, you will optimise conditions for your worms to breed, and get your waste processing off to a good start.
Otherwise, once you are happy that you know how to take care of your worms, buying more will increase the rate of waste processing unless you are close to the maximum your bin can hold.

Happy worming!!


Getting started part 4- Where to get worms for composting

>> Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Now that you know what type of worms to use- where can you get hold of enough worms to start composting?

The easiest way to obtain worms for your composting system, is to buy them from a breeder. Typically worms will be sold for about €40-50 per kilo. (Plus postage and packing if you buy them online or by mail order). They may also be included in the price of a commercially produced wormery.
If possible get recommendations from other vermicomposters for good suppliers, or even better, if you live near a breeder, go and pick them up yourself. Then you can ask questions, see what the worms are currently being fed, and usually have a good follow up service.

When buying worms you are buying by weight- the compost or bedding they are supplied in should not be included in the total weight, but added back after weighing. If you feel you have not been given the weight of worms you paid for, an easy way of checking is to place a wet, perforated cloth (like a woven dishcloth) on your own worm bedding, weigh the total weight of worms, bag and supplied bedding (A), empty the bag onto the cloth and shine a light on it. The worms will escape through the holes in the cloth into the bedding below, and you can recover the worm farmer's bedding, replace it in the bag and weigh it again (B). A minus B should be close to the weight of the worms you purchased.
(Although worms which spent a long time in transit, or who were stressed by heat or shaking, may have lost a considerable amount of their weight as water loss- it all comes down to choosing your worm supplier carefully)

Ways of selling worms:
Hand-picked or sorted worms- these are sorted into size- so, for example, you are just buying mature breeders or worms of a minimum size. This is the most expensive way of buying worms, but may be suitable for someone who wants to set up a worm breeding business or wants worms for fishing.
Bed-run- These are worms gathered from beds, separated out, weighed and returned to bedding. They typically contain a mixture of adults, juveniles and cocoons (eggs). This is the best way of buying worms for composting as the mature worms will start to breed when they settle in, the young worms will eat fastest, and the cocoons soon hatch out (a cocoon can 'give birth' from one to several baby worms).
Cocoons. Some companies now supply cocoons as a way of transporting worms without generating large postal costs. Cocoons may take a time to hatch, and, depending on conditions will then take up to 3 months to mature. The freshness of the cocoon will affect the time it takes to hatch and the number of babies produced from each cocoon. You need to calculate carefully the economics of buying cocoons rather than worms. 1000 cocoons may seem like an easy way to populate a worm bin, but 1000 adult worms may lay between a thousand and three thousand cocoons (depending on species) in one week. I have yet to see a price for cocoons that would convince me it was a better option for a composting system then live worms, unless transport cost was a big issue, or livestock regulations prohibited the transport of adult worms. (In general agricultural import restrictions will focus on the possible soil-born diseases transported with worms and /or on the species of worm. The distinction between eggs and live worms will tend to be irrelevant- an invasive species will be invasive whether it is introduced at mature or baby stage!)

Other ways of populating your worm bin if you don't want to pay for worms.
Start your bin with a good load of mature manure, dug out of the centre of a large dungheap. It will inevitably contain a good collection of worms and cocoons which will breed and grow as you feed them.
Collect worms from your compost pile (not the best for an indoor bin as you will collect more than just worms)-
You can sift throgh the compost by hand and pick out any worms you see, but there are some easier methods:
Wrap some tasty worm scraps (worms love melons, mangos, pumpkins, cucumbers and squashes) in newspaper and bury it in the middle of your garden compost heap. After about as week, remove the parcel which, if you have a healthy compost heap, will be teaming with worms. Repeat as required.
In cold weather, wrap a bottle of warm (not hot) water in a few sheets of newspaper and bury it deep in your compost heap at night. Next morning, the area near the 'hot water bottle' will have a higher concentration of worms than the rest of the pile.

Beg some worms from a fellow worm enthusiast (or check out trading or free internet sites) and promise to pass on the favour to someone else when your own stocks have built up.


Getting started part 3 Worms- what type

>> Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What kind of worms will I put in my wormery?

Obviously composting with worms needs worms. But what kind of worms? Can you go out in the garden at night, pour water on the lawn and wait for some worms to come up? Unfortunately no. These are earth worms, which live in burrows and just come to the surface to feed. Although they also feed on decaying matter, and would survive for a while in a compost bin, they will not be able to build stable tunnels and will eventually die.

What you need are composting worms-(or epigeic worms to give them their true title) and if you want to go looking for them, the best place to find them- surprise surprise, is in a compost heap (or any relatively thick layer of decomposing organic matter like a mature dung heap)
The worms most commonly used in European worm composting are also known as manure worms- and they are Eisenia foetida and Esenia andrei. The two species are very hard to distinguish, and the names are often used interchangeably. They are also known as Tiger worms, brandling worms or red wrigglers. A mature worm typically weighs between 500mg and a gram with most on the lower side of this range. You will find a healthy population of these in any mature manure heap. Tiger worms are very resilient, breed fast, and in ideal conditions, are capable of 'processing' up to their weight in waste every day and doubling their total mass every three months. They tend to seek out the warmer, most biologically active part of a composting system where they breed and feed the fastest.

Another worm commonly used for worm composting is Eisenia Hortensis, otherwise known as european night crawler, belgian nightcrawler, or 'blue nosed' worm ( a trademarked name). They used to be known as Dendrobaena Veneta until they were reclassified a number of years ago.
Eisenia Hortensis is larger than E. foetida, and can reach 2g in weight. It doesn't breed as fast, but is still capable of increasing in biomass fast in a good worm bed. E hortensis likes the cooler parts of a compost bed, and will remain more active at lower temperatures. In lower temperatures although it doesn't breed fast, a 'squirm' of E Hortensis will put on more biomass than E.foetida as each individual worm will grow strong and tough in colder weather, as long as they are not overcrowded. One of the reasons it has become more popular, is that is a very good sport fishing worm, meaning that breeders can command high prices for small quantities of worms, whereas worms sold for composting only, need to be sold in batches of a minimum of 500g. It is also easier to manipulate the size of E Hortensis by lowering bed temperature and reducing population density to produce large worms for fishing.

It is common to find a mixture of worm species in the healthiest composting systems, especially outdoor ones. Either by design- you put in a mixture to make the most of the advantages of each type or because worms are good at wriggling through the smallest of spaces. If there's a ready supply of food in a container protected from the elements and predators, they'll follow their instincts and move in.

I use a mixture of worms in all my worm composting containers and beds and it has worked well for me. In summer E Foetida tend to be the most noticeable, but as the weather cools, or if a bin gets very wet, E Hortensis will predominate.


Getting started part 2- What to put in your Worm Farm- bedding

You have a suitable container for your worms. So what next?

The first thing you need to add to your wormery or worm farm is bedding for your worms.
Bedding is where the worms live, and where they lay their eggs and deposit their castings.

So what are the properties of ideal bedding?- (copied from definitions page)

Bedding is typically made up of a variety of organic, compostable substances, rich in carbon ('browns' in composting terms) and low in Nitrogen ('greens').
It needs to hold water without becoming soggy, and bulk up the worm bed (fibrous material) to allow sufficient airflow. Bedding will break down as part of the vermicomposting process and become mixed with the feedstuffs, but the best bedding is already partly decomposed, or at least rich in composting microorganisms.

Bedding needs to:
Be moist (70-90% moisture) and aerated. The air is dissolved in water for the worms to breathe through their skins, but spaces are needed in the bedding for air to diffuse through. Oxygen will be rapidy depleted in a compacted, very wet bin as protein (nitrogen)- rich substances decompose.
Be of neutral or near neutral pH . Worms will survive in beddings of pH 5-9, but thrive best at or slightly above a pH of 7.

Examples of bedding materials: paper, cardboard, dried leaves, composted animal manures or stable waste, composted garden waste, sawdust, coconut coir, straw. A few materials may be mixed together to take advantage of differing properties.
(Note: Peat is also used as a worm bedding, and is favoured by some growers but it is acidic so needs to have it's pH adjusted. And of course it is non renewable so not a good idea in a system which aims to help the environment.)

When you add food to your worm bin, worms initially feed off the decomposing edges of this food, but eventually move through it freely, until it becomes part of the bedding. But food and bedding materials are distinct from each other- bedding needs to be 'safe' for the worms to live in, food will rot down in time and become safe. (For this reason it is important not to mix food into the bedding, unless you have a large reservoir of safe bedding for the worms to retreat into if the food/ bedding mix becomes inhospitable).

In batch composting, bedding and food materials are mixed together, and pre-composted, but worms are not added until the bed has been deemed safe. (No more heating, no bad smells)


Getting Started with Worms part 1- (the container).

There's no reason why everyone shouldn't get started with worm composting or vermicomposting straight away, and yet people have any number of excuses why they haven't started yet...

Excuse number 1. I don't have a worm farm

Worms have been eating organic waste for longer than we have walked on earth. They managed fine before we invented fancy homes for them. All they need is somewhere they can live comfortably.

That can be as simple as a corner of your garden- Compost heap anybody? A mature or maturing compost heap will be full of composting worms. One of the simplest ways of harvesting the power of worms to break down your waste, is to bury your food waste in the middle of your compost heap. Burying the food will stop flies from laying eggs on it and prevent any larvae from eggs already on the waste food, from finding their way to the surface and developing into mature flies.
Larger pests, like mice, rats, foxes, crows and even cats and dogs, may need more robust deterrents, to keep them away from hidden food. Man
y commercially available garden compost bins will keep them at bay, and wrapping food waste in several sheets of newspaper can put pests of the scent. The worms will just wriggle their way past the paper, eat the food, and then finish off the paper for dessert.

If you don't have a compost heap, or you want to dispose of food separately from your garden waste, or manage a wider range of foods than you'd be comfortable composting, then you need a dedicated vermicomposting container.

Any container.

With a few simple adaptations almost any container you have lying around can be used to compost with worms. If you don't believe me, visit, (or virtually any vermicomposting site on line)
click on 'photos',and look at some of the containers that recycling-minded folk use there.

Your worms need air- so if you
use a sealed container, make sure you add some ventilation holes.
They need moisture, but not too much- so your container needs to hold enough material to not dry out too quickly, and some way of getting rid of excess moisture. You can manage excess water by evaporation- leave the lid off; by drainage- drill some holes in the bottom or add a a spout or tap; or by adding extra dry material like cardboard or newspaper to balance out the wet.
Worms like to live and feed near the surface- so the best container is shallower than it is deep.
They don't like light (which can actually harm worms), so totally clear containers are best avoided.
They need to be protected from predators if outdoors: From above- this means a bird-proof lid - and below- a mole-proof bottom (if you're unlucky enough to have moles).
You need to be able to keep wandering worms in the container if you're composting indoors under your sink, so make sure any holes are small or covered with worm proof fabric (old nylon tights work well)
And obviously worms don't like nasty chemicals- so if you're using a recycled container- check what it used to contain, and clean it out well before the worms move in.

Next post I'll tell you what to put in your container. (Or wormery or worm farm as we can soon start calling it!)

A great in depth manual about worm farming- from beginning in the garden to expanding into worms for sale!


Huge vermicompost harvest from outdoor wooden bin

>> Monday, March 1, 2010

Today I took advantage of some real warmth in the sun to harvest some vermicompost from my big outdoor wooden bin.

Because I never got around to organising any kind of breaker bar above my grating- (and to be honest it would take more than a breaker bar to shift some of the vermicompost it was so dense) harvesting had to be done the hard way- with a fork and a shovel.
First I moved the top six to ten inches of material (where most of the worms and undigested food should be) to one side, and dug into the dense dark vermicompost below. There were still alot of worms in this area, and I suspect plenty of nutrients, but I need compost now for my raised beds- no point in waiting another couple of months and having to buy compost from the garden centre. Any remaining organic matter will break readily in the soil and release the nutrients direct to the plants as it does. I had hoped this year to put only totally finished compost into the beds, to reduce the amount of shrinkage, but that's life!! Maybe we'll get a really hot summer and I'll be really glad I left plenty of space for watering!! Ha!

Some photos below: (double click to enlarge)

The first picture shows the top material in the bin pulled to one side and the vermicompos
t on the opposite side dug out. You can just see the grating at the bottom.
The second picture is of the bin at the end with the undigested material and most of the worms replaced, ready for a new season of garden and household waste.
Picture three is the pile of vermicompost I harvested. This material would need to be sieved to use as a potting compost, but is fine enough to go as it is onto raised beds or to use as a top dressing. As I said above there are still alot of worms in the mix, and alot of cocoons, so I've put a sieve full of horse manure on top of the pile to attract them and return them to the wooden bin. I've also covered the whole pile with a tarpaulin to keep off the birds. The black tarpaulin will also absorb the sun's heat and encourage all those cocoons to hatch!



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