Monday, March 31, 2014

Indoor Worm Bin: Pros and Cons

Last night, I freaked out, thinking that my worm bin could be a part of our mouse problem, and wrote a post called The Worm Bin Must Go.  I was extremely upset to come back from vacation and find that a new family of mice had moved in while we were away and our cat and dog were being boarded.  I didn't even sleep in my bed--I slept downstairs on the couch, since the mice are upstairs. 

After having a night to sleep on it, I realized that I have no objective reason to think that my worms have contributed to our mouse problem.  I have found no mouse droppings near the worm bin.  We even kept a loaded mouse trap right next to the bin for several weeks, including while we still had known mice, and the bait was not even taken.  The sleeping spot I selected as being safe was just a few feet away from the bin, in fact! 

I have decided to keep the worm bin for now.  However, I have decided to relocate it outside, partly because of the small possibility that it has been or could become a source of food or bedding for mice, but for other reasons as well, which I will explain in this post.

I have had the worm bin, the Worm Factory 360, for nearly 2 years.  Years before that, I experimented with a couple of homemade bins.  I thought it was time to write an updated review of my experiences with indoor worm bins.  I will try and be as objective as possible. Sometimes I think that websites that sell compost products or that promote composting and sustainable living offer too rosy a view of worm compost.  I just want to offer an honest assessment based on my experience. 

  • You can compost some kitchen waste, cardboard, and junk mail year round.  The compost never needs to be turned, as the worms do all that.  For people who have long winters, they can continue composting even in the winter.  
  • You get some really nice finished compost to add to your garden.  Worm castings are supposed to be very high quality.  Sometimes I'm a little skeptical that these worm and organic websites overstate their benefits somewhat.  I planted all my garlic bulbs with castings in the fall, and the bulbs do seem to have done exceptionally well, for what that's worth. 
  • Especially with a shelf-type system (where the worms move up to different shelves), harvest is very easy.  
  • It may be the only way that apartment dwellers and renters can compost.  
  • Worms are really interesting to most kids and to some adults.  
  • You don't need to walk out to your compost pile to compost.  
  • Indoor compost bins are less likely to attract gross bugs (of course, when it does happen, it's much more disturbing).  
  • It can be extremely cheap to make your own bin, and it doesn't take much space. 
  •  The bin has an earthy smell.  If you don't have a good place in your house to keep it (like a laundry room perhaps), this can be a problem.  If you are careful about what you put in the bin, you won't get a really bad smell, but, still, most of us don't want our living space to have a strong soil aroma, even those of us who love to play in the garden.  
  • It's not for the squeamish.  Some people are truly grossed out by worms, so you have to be careful about mentioning it to people.  In this way, it can occasionally be a social barrier.  Some people may take a "Love me, love my worms" attitude, but for others of us, things may be more complicated. 
  • Sometimes, gross bugs can show up in your bin.  If it's indoors, this can be extra upsetting.  Although when done correctly (absolutely no greasy, fatty items or bread in the bin ever), if pests get into your home, they may like your worm bin.  This happened to me with a homemade bin, when I was living in an apartment complex infested by cockroaches.  There was no food waste in there for the cockroaches, but I did find a couple in there.  Maybe they liked to hide or rest in there--maybe they can eat worms.  Ants also tend to visit worm bins as well, especially if the moisture level is off. 
  • It's possible that mice (or rats--shudder) could even use some of the shredded paper to make nests, especially if the top part gets a little dry, and in nature, mice do eat worms.  If you are trying to eliminate all food sources during an infestation, this is a problem.
  • If you do put the wrong thing in there, you can end up with a very yucky problem.  Fruit flies are the most common.  The problem is solved by adding bedding and moisture and setting out cider vinegar traps, but it usually does take days to get rid of them all, and they are nasty.  If you put anything fatty in there, you could easily attract cockroaches or rodents. 
  • You are very limited in what you can put in it.  Ideally, you need to chop everything up into small pieces and freeze it or microwave it to really compost larger amounts of kitchen waste, so that they break down faster.  Onions, garlic, broccoli, and cauliflower cannot be added because they will smell bad as the worms break them down.  Citrus is too acidic. 
  • Growing mold is part of the process.  The worms eat the mold.  This is probably not good if anyone in your house is allergic to mold, and even in the absence of allergies, it is probably not healthy to have extra mold spores in your house, because you will be breathing them in.  
  • Worm bins inevitably will have some kind of problems that will have to be troubleshooted, the most common being fruit flies or odors.  No composting system is going to work perfectly all the time for all people, and this can be yucky and smelly when the problems occurs in your living space.  Some people can't get the moisture level right in their worm bins, or put too much acidic foods in them or something and end up with escapee worms.  This has never happened to me, but I would think it would be very disturbing to find dead worms on one's floor.  
  • A commercially made worm bin can be pricey.  
I do like my worm bin in some ways, but I am tired of keeping it indoors, especially since I don't feel like I have an out-of-the-way place to keep it.  I don't want to smell dirt anymore.  I'm going to try it outdoors, and see how I like it there.  I have put it in a shady spot, but it will probably be a little hot for the worms at the peak of the summer.  They will probably die when it gets cold in the winter, but the eggs should hatch again in the spring.  I will definitely report back to this blog on how well the Worm Factory worked outdoors. 

I do recommend a commercially made bin over a homemade bin because I think the chances of success are higher, and harvesting should be much easier.  If the instructions are followed carefully, potential problems will be minimized.  Composting is always a process of trial and error, and it is pretty much guaranteed that the occasional pest or smell problem will have to be dealt with. 

All and all, I am much happier with my outdoor compost pile.  It stays moist enough where it could not become a shelter for rodents.  (I have simple flexible plastic bins with holes in the side, open on top and bottom, and we get lots of rain here).  I do get some larvae and bugs in there sometimes in the summer, but I just see them as part of the process. 

I do not have to be overly careful about what I put in my backyard pile.  For my greens, I put in all my garden waste, all fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, and eggshells.  For my browns, I use fall leaves, shredded paper, and cardboard (often not even cut up that well).  When I turn it once every 3-6 months and start a new one, I really do make a good amount of compost.  I use it as more of a top dressing, so I don't worry too much about it being completely finished.  Our winters are mild enough that I can add to my backyard pile year round.

I never, ever, ever add animal waste, meat, dairy, or grains to my backyard pile, as I do not want to attract rats, mice, or other rodents.  (I did see a raccoon visit it once, after I added a bunch of rotten mangos, which did not make me happy).  But, if a mistake is made, it's much more easily dealt with outside, several yards from my home, than it is indoors with my worm bin.  I learned to bury things better after the raccoon incident, and to be particularly careful about that when adding large quanities of slightly rotten fruit. 

My opinion on worm composting is that it is one interesting option for composting that has its pros and cons.  A person has to be very committed (and very crunchy) to keep it indoors.  I think a plain old backyard pile is the best choice when possible.

The Worm Bin Must Go

EDITED:  I wrote this when I was very upset, and after going to bed, I had a different point of view.  Still, I am leaving it up just to show that even a compost enthusiast can get creeped out  by keeping worms inside the house.

We've been out of town for a week (and the pets have been boarded for 9 days), and we returned to a disturbing discovery: mice.

Late in 2013, we had a minor mice infestation after losing both of our beloved cats (one got lost and one died due to illness).  My husband killed around 6 mice with snap traps.  A few weeks went by where we didn't see any.  We then adopted a cat, and not just any cat.  We chose a large (15 pound) male cat with all of his claws.  The rescue where he had been living for 3 years (he is about 4 years old) kept him partly in a garage and partly outside.  Therefore, his hunting instincts are probably intact.

Anyway, we didn't get him to kill mice for us.  We mostly got him because we love cats, but we also hoped that his catly smell would serve as a deterrent to any rodents who might want to take up residence in our home in the future.  We have not seen any mice or evidence of them in several weeks, although one night I heard a rustling sound that made me suspicious.

Anyway, there were at least two mice waiting for us when we returned home from our vacation this evening.  My husband has killed one and injured another with snap traps.  I am assuming they were new mice because they seemed so shocked by our presence and didn't seem to know where to hide from humans.

Our recent infestation was caused by having a couple of old bags of cat food and no cats.  All cat and dog food has been sealed in canisters.  I took out the trash before we left.  We have been very strict about not letting the children take food upstairs (although some candy has been illicitly consumed up there), and the dog eats all downstairs crumbs.  Still, something is attracting these creatures.  Part of it is probably scent trails from the mice that came before, but I read that mice can eat worms and also be attracted to the smell of decay.  

That means it is time to say goodbye to my indoor worm bin.  As soon as I get up tomorrow, I will be dumping its contents into my regular compost.  I'm afraid I'm not a committed enough worm farmer to run the risk that this is contributing to our rodent problem.  I was very careful about not putting scraps in there that would be attractive to rodents (I never, ever put anything fatty or greasy in there), but if the worms themselves are attractive, then I can't consider keeping them.

I haven't seen any real evidence that the worm bin is attracting mice.  The mice seem to mostly prefer the upstairs, and the bin is downstairs.  Because I can't rule out the possibility, however, I'm not going to take the risk. 

In addition to getting rid of the worm bin, I am going to be cleaning out every closet this week and doing everything possible to declutter and make this place less hospitable to mice. My husband will have to inspect the house for mouse openings and possibly set traps in the attic.  I'll be picking up the cat and dog tomorrow morning--I would give anything to have our cat to sleep with tonight--I'm not sure how I'll even fall asleep.

EDITED:  I wrote this when I was very upset, and after going to bed, I had a different point of view.  Still, I am leaving it up just to show that even a compost enthusiast can get creeped out  by keeping worms inside the house. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Radishes, Parsnips, Carrots, Dill, Mache, Borage, Arugula--I can't wait

I am so happy--I got everything planted that I wanted to get planted today.  (I'm not going to have time for the next week or so.)  Last spring, I was traveling and missed the early spring.  This year, I'm really hoping to make a delicious salad for Easter. 

Not only that, but I harvested a wheelbarrow full of beautiful compost that I really needed to spread on half of one of my beds.  And there's still more compost to use. 

Today, I planted these seeds:

Radishes:  How I love radishes.   I went insane and planted a whole bunch of them.  I put three varieties in:  plain round red ones, a multi-colored mix, and a long white variety.  I love all kinds.  Radishes and dip are ever so much tastier than chips and dip.  Radishes give a salad spice.  They have to be harvested while they are relatively small and before the weather gets hot in order to taste good. 

Parsnips:  I've never grown these before, so I decided I would try them this year.  I planted them in with my radishes.  I was expecting parsnip seeds to look more like carrot seeds, so I was shocked to open the packet and discover how big and strange-looking they are.  I'm supposed to harvest them after frost.  I'm not sure how that will work out with such a long growing season here, but hopefully they will be tasty cooked in butter. 

Carrots:  I also planted these with radishes to mark where I planted.  I put in a lovely rainbow mix.  Carrots are fun, but I don't love them as much as radishes because they take longer, and I don't like the way they taste as much.  But I think my kids will really enjoy harvesting them and eating them. 

Dill:  I planted a variety of dill that will grow extra tall.  Dill is so important for attracting painted lady caterpillars.  In fact, I mostly grow it for the beautiful caterpillars and butterflies, but we do use it some for cooking.  It is also a tasty snack  for my boys when they are out in the backyard. 

Mache:  Another experiment for me.  Mache is a type of cool-season salad green.  I'm worried that it was a little late in the season to plant it, but hopefully it will come up.  I actually tried to plant it before but never found the seedlings.  Either it didn't come up, or I thought it was a weed and pulled it.  (Note to self: mache in approximately the center of far right garden bed). 

Borage:  This herb produces cucumber tasting leaves and flowers.  I put it in the corners of the bed I will plant tomatoes in this year.  Supposedly, borage is good for tomatoes somehow.  I don't know if that's true, but I'm sure it attracts pollinators.  It's fun for my kids to eat the flowers.  And I love eating the flowers too. 

Arugula:  I already put in some arugula plants, but I sowed some seeds today too, as you can't really have too much arugula.  I discovered the secret to making the plants last--just pick the leaves mercilessly.  The sturdy, weedy plant does fine with just a few.  But arugula inevitably will bolt, and then the leaves don't taste good, but the peppery flowers are delicious.  Arugula is a funny plant, so expensive in stores but so easy to grow in cool weather.  It is a million times better when picked fresh out of the garden, like all salad greens, but more so. 

And my pea seeds were sown on Monday.  I am so excited about snacking on what we call "pea candy" in late May and early June.  (That makes my kids sound kind of deprived.  I'm not one of those moms who doesn't let her kids eat real candies or sweets--they really do love the garden peas like candy though.)  

To top off such a great gardening day, we're getting a gentle rain on the already moist soil tonight.  With sandy soil and raised beds, I never have to worry about getting too much water.  I love it when my planting works out to be in sync with the weather. 

Grow, tasty little plants, grow. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Early Spring Planting

On  Friday, I went to the local garden center and bought spinach and, yes, my favorite, arugula.  I also bought some beets on a whim.  I've grown beets from seed before in the fall.  It warms up here so fast, I thought they might do better if I got plants, so that they could mature before it got too hot.

Time to get the garden started after a winter that was colder and wetter than usual.  We don't get much snow here, and it's really not pleasant to be outdoors in a cold, muddy swamp, so I am thrilled that spring is slowly creeping in.

My garlic grew beautifully over the winter, and I expect to be able to harvest it in June.  I won't make the same mistake I made a couple of years ago, when I planted tomatoes amongst the garlic.  The tomatoes grew so fast that I never found most of my garlic!  Of course, I managed to kill one of my garlic plants while I was weeding, but those things happen.  I have many garlic plants, so I did not grieve too much.  

On Saturday, I had a swim meet and meant to at least water my seedlings but didn't.  Today (Sunday) I planted them.  Four of the arugula plants looked a little wilted, and so did a couple of the beets.  I am so mad that I didn't water them yesterday.  But I watered them as they went in.  I'm pretty sure the arugula will recover.  And I planted while it was drizzling.  Hopefully, we'll get plenty of rain this week so those roots can grow.

This week, I'd like to plant these seeds:
  • garden pea
  • radishes
  • parsnips

And if I get to them
  • carrots
  • more radishes
  • arugula
  • lettuce
But the first ones are my priority.  I always plant radishes with carrots, and I think I'll do the same thing with the parsnips.

I love early spring crops.  I wasn't looking forward to planting today, as the temperature was in the 40's, and the sky was overcast, but it was a humid nice kind of cool outside, a lovely day.  

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Worm Bin: One Year

Wow, I can't believe it's been a whole year since I got my worm bin, the Worm Factory 360.  I am just now getting ready to harvest my first tray.  I meant to do it quite some time ago but didn't get around to it.  I have four trays in use now.  When I examined them today, the bottom one was seemingly empty of worms and is completely made up of castings, except for some very little bits of paper, cherry tomato skin, egg shells, and cherry pits.  I am going to add it to my tomato plants out in the garden tomorrow.  I have put it on the top tray and left the lid open, so that it can dry out just a little, and to make sure all the worms migrate down. 

The next-to-bottom tray also appeared to be mostly castings.  I will add it to my garden in July.  The next tray from the bottom is still a work-in-progress.  The top tray is kind of smelly right now because I added some old blanched cauliflower a couple of days ago.  I added additional paper to cover the smell, but I think the worms are just going to have to eat it to make the smell go away, so I won't add any more food for about a week. 

I continue to be very unscientific with feeding my worm bin.  I try to give them a lot of variety, and I feed them when I think it might be a good time.  If it gets smelly, or I get fruit flies, I know I have overfed them.  I'm glad I have a backyard compost also, because my bin isn't yet able to handle most of the fruit and vegetable waste that we get rid of. 

I'm very excited about adding the castings to my tomatoes! 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The orange tree I keep almost killing

A few years ago, I bought a dwarf orange tree for $10 at Lowe's to keep in a container on my back porch and bring inside during the winter.  Container plants can be a challenge in the summer because it gets so hot here, and we usually have a spell without rain, AND my biggest problem with gardening is not watering enough. 

So, each year it struggles during our hot spells in the summer and struggles with my lack of watering it indoors in the winter.  This year, I went out of town for a few weeks, and realized that I had forgotten to give my husband instructions on watering it.  I figured that was it for the tree and kicked myself for not remembering.  I had also intended to repot it before going out of town, but didn't have time. 

When my husband joined me on the trip after 4 weeks, he mentioned that my tree had seemed "dry" and that he had set it outside, to soak up our ample spring rain, since he figured the danger of frost had past.  I was surprised to hear that my tree was still living and thanked him for his thoughtfulness. 

When I returned home, I discovered that his version of "dry" was that it was brown, and all the leaves had fallen off.  "It's dead," I told him.  "It's not your fault; I didn't tell you to water it."  He expressed optimism that it might come back.  I am too lazy to take care of anything in a timely fashion, so before I could compost my little dead tree, it started growing green leaves like crazy. 

I remained concerned that I had stressed and damaged so much that it will never be capable of producing fruit, and wanted to get rid of it anyway, but those new green leaves looked so pretty and vigorous.  When I shook the think loose of its pot, I saw that it was potbound.  It just looks like it wants to live, so I won't kill it. 

I cut off the parts that appeared to be truly dead and repotted it today.  I hope it is happy in its new pot with fresh soil. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Basil Perpetuo, a dream come true

Today, an order I had placed with the Burpee catalog came.  I got 2 more tomato plants and a pepper plant.  All were varieties I couldn't find enough of at my local garden store, but then, of course, after I had ordered them, I discovered the garden store had gotten more plants in stock, including one of the tomato plants I had wanted, as well as the pepper plant (poblano). 

In addition, I ordered 3 basil plants, of a variety called "perpetuo."  I grew it last year.  It's a great plant because it never flowers.  Flowering makes basil taste bitter, although I do know people who keep on using it after it has flowered.  I don't recall the flavor of perpetuo being quite as strong as that of the regular old basil, so I will have to check on that, but it was quite good.  And it was very nice to continue to have basil after all my other had flowered.

 So, perpetuo is a mutant plant that doesn't flower.  It also has pretty green and white leaves.  And, the best part is, apparently it can be wintered over indoors!  I can have basil all year without starting seeds.  I am putting two of my perpetuos in the garden and one in a pot on my deck.  In October, I will bring it inside and hope that it will get enough light in my bedroom to survive the winter.  Apparently, these plants can grow up to 4 feet tall.  Imagine having a beautiful varigated basil 4-foot in a pot to make pesto out of year round. 

Hopefully, I will not kill my basil perpetuo.  I will post again this winter as to how my mutant basil is doing indoors.