pruning raspberries and life in the worm bin

Late winter is the time to prune raspberry bushes. I’m not trying to present a how-to here. There are plenty of those available from better gardeners than me online. This is just how I accomplish what works for me.

In late winter I grab the pruning shears and a pair of leather gloves, then head to my little row of berry bushes. I get down on hands and knees and look closely at every cane. There’s a gray bark on canes that have done their bearing. The cane on the right is one of those…


The floricanes (that’s what second year canes are called) all get pruned to ground level. Any spindly or dead-looking canes come out. Then I thin what’s left to 5 or 6 canes per foot of row. That makes for more vigorous plants and a better yield of larger berries. I also take out any canes that think they need to live in the suburbs.

That’s it. Over the course of the winter I sprinkle my own coffee grounds around the berry patch, and scratch them into the soil when the ground thaws. (I save the big bags of grounds that I collect from Starbucks for the compost piles and the main garden.)

before pruning

before pruning

after pruning

after pruning

And on a totally unrelated subject, the worms are happy. Last Thanksgiving my wife hollowed out some mini-pumpkins for candle holders. I set some aside, outside, and they froze over the winter. The other day I brought them in and defrosted them into a yucky pile and buried them in the worm bin. Worm heaven. They love anything to do with the melon family.

You’ll notice a ton of small white flecks in the bin. Gross, eh? They’re called springtails. I was pretty alarmed when they first appeared after starting the bin. They usually grow in bins where there’s too much moisture. That’s something I try to keep an eye on, but don’t stress about. I just open the lid for a while and let it dry out.

After living with springtails and reading about them, I decided they’re almost welcome. They exist peaceably with the worms and help digest all the goodies. They won’t overrun the house or eat my pets. They just take a little getting used to.



vermicompost: behind the curtain

I have a guilty pleasure. AhhhhI’m not sure it would rank anywhere in humanity’s top 1 million. But it’s in my top 10.

This isn’t for public consumption, so please don’t repeat.

Sometimes I go into my grow room, close the curtain, lift the lid of a five gallon bucket, and run my hands through my little stockpile of finished worm castings.

I said it. I’m not ashamed, much. I wish I could convey what they feel like in the dead of winter, or anytime for that matter. I wish I could capture how light and fluffy they are with an image. Screened through 1/4″ hardware cloth, aired out on a board till they contain perfect moisture, lighter than soil, meatier than seed-starting mix…man.

Yeah, a little perverted. But they’re so perfect.


I think it’s as much the aura as the substance; what they do when they’re suspended in bubbling water and molasses for a day, what they do in the bottom of a tomato hole or sprinkled into potting mix.

Such a perfect substance, from waste, to waste, to creation.

I wish I could capture for you how they feel falling through fingers. Light and airy, but full and heavy. Perfect.

wormfestivus for the restofus

Yesterday was the Holiday of WormFestivus, a weekly celebration of gunky schmutz. It happens every Friday in my world. It’s time to feed the worms.

These are the tools of the trade…


And the start of the celebration…


No sugarplums, just cornmeal, banana meal (not sure that’s a real thing) and egg meal (nor that) dancing in the little worm brains…


All served up on a festive bed of dryer lint…


outside worms

At the beginning of the winter I thought I’d sacrifice a few worms in hopes of furthering the cause of science. No, I lie.  It just seemed fun and interesting.

A handful of worms, a buried cold frame, a bucket of water, an aquarium heater and some bedding.

The heated water held the soil temperature pretty well for a couple of months. Temperatures next to the bucket pushed 80 with outside temps in the 20s. I didn’t want to open the frame too often for fear of cooling things off. But yesterday the weather warmed to a balmy 37 degrees, and I popped the lid.

The first thing I saw was a nice fat vole racing across the surface, disappearing into the litter. Most likely engorged with worms. And there were some worms..about five nice ones drowned at the bottom of the water bucket. I poked around in the bedding a little, but didn’t see anything else. The temperature?


Oh well.

It didn’t really surprise me that much. Nature is brutally honest. More insulation next time, maybe cover the cold frame with a hoop house.  Definitely some hardware mesh underneath.

That’s the killer about garden experiments; you generally get one shot a year.

I think red wigglers can sometimes survive temperatures that low, but it ain’t likely. I’m not giving up hope yet though. Some experienced wormers say that when worms sense they’re about to meet their demise, they get in some last-minute whoopee (great plan) and the eggs hatch when things warm up.

We’ll see. I’m not sorry that I tried.

harvest in january

Yesterday it was time to reap some rewards from all the work my ambitious red wiggler friends have been doing for the last three months. It’s not a quick process. Mind-numbingly tedious, some might call it. There’s probably a better way. But I don’t mind at all.

A few weeks before harvest time, I cut back their food and entice them to one end of the bin with incentives; cornmeal in this case. Then, when it’s time, I sift through the other end, carefully checking for worms, and setting aside the precious castings made from nothing more than our kitchen scraps and shredded paper. My method looks like this:

worm dirt, bedding, worm bin

worm dirt, bedding, worm bin

And I always make sure my wife is gone before delving in. What she don’t know won’t hurt her. It’s frankly a mess. But so worth it. I’m good at cleaning up in some circumstances.

I only use a couple of handfuls of vermicompost to make 5 gallons of tea, enough to spray my whole garden, with plenty left over for the flowers or planting holes or homemade potting mix. I stockpile castings through the winter in a 5 gallon bucket with the lid slightly ajar, to keep the microbes and geegaws that make it so good supplied with air so they can continue to do their thing.


And I’ll repeat what I said to myself earlier out loud. ‘Holy crap, there’s a lot of worms’. Might have to expand to two bins. Maybe even try an outside bin if my experiment shows any promise.

It’s the best thing in life to love what you do.

used coffee grounds, continued…

Is it proper etiquette to post more than one blog entry concerning used coffee grounds in the same month? Try to look that one up.

Yesterday I hefted another 60 lbs. of used coffee grounds home from Starbucks. What a great feeling.

But as chance would have it, a comment from Julie (who has a great blog called Julie’s Garden Ramblings) made me envious and curious. She said that I would laugh if I saw her stack, and that she’ll never run out. I’ve been trying to moderate my excess garden enthusiasms. Could I ever have too many coffee grounds?

I suspect that there probably isn’t a definitive answer to be had on the Internet. Too many LOUD ‘EXPERTS’ and not enough quiet experts. But you learn to pick your sources. If you can’t believe a research manager at Rodale, you’re a bigger skeptic than I am.

Anyway series of articles at Green Talk were very informative.  All about coffee grounds and gardening, and I think from one of the quiet experts.

A few of the juicy bits below:

Rodale Institutes’ Respond to the Coffee Grounds Dilemma

I reached out for Rodale Institute since it was more likely they would have an answer for me. (If the name, Rodale Institute, sounds familiar to you, it is because many of you may know the name through the magazine, Organic Gardening, one of my favorite gardening magazines.)

Luckily I connected with Dr. Paul Hepperly, the research and training manager at the Institute, who is a well known authority in organic agriculture. Surely, he would know. (Fingers crossed.) He explained that once the coffee grounds are added to the soil, they start to decompose, and in turn, their acidity neutralizes. Ultimately, they are only adding nitrogen to the soil.

His suggestion was to side dress the plant with no more than one inch at a time. He further caution to not add more grounds until the original grounds had decomposed. Coffee grounds are solely a soil amendment and not a fertilizer.

He further explained that soil should have an organic matter of five to eight percent. At some point, there is a diminishing return if you keep adding coffee grounds, and your soil has already reached the eight percent threshold of organic material. It will not hurt the soil, but may not help much at that point. It is best to take a soil sample during the year to see what your soil needs.

As for compost, he suggested one volume green material to three volumes of brown. Coffee grounds are viewed as “green” material. (Whew. I was relieved that this matter was settled.)

My uses for coffee grounds are A) as worm heroin,  B) as composted green matter, and occasionally C) as a top-dressing around the raspberry bushes.

One problem with using coffee grounds in the worm bin is the moisture content.  In my experience it tends to make everything in the bin a little sloppy. Other than that I do believe that the worms would happily live in pure grounds.  Fact way back when I was a little shaver, my neighbor kept his fishing worms in pure coffee grounds, and they looked very happy.

As far as garden compost and coffee grounds, the 1 to 3 ratio suggested confirmed what I had experienced as an effective ratio in my own piles.  I rarely add un-composted grounds directly to the garden, and if I do, it’s with plenty of time allowed for their breaking down.

So in my long-winded way, the question has the same answer as my ‘Too much compost?’ question…moderation in all things.  Boring, I know.

this winter’s obsession

It’s going to be a long winter, as always. And like every winter, this one needs an obsession. Last year’s was delving in to what I had skimmed over for decades. The garden, the soil, the basics.

This year’s obsession will likely be more specific. I’m a novice vermicomposter. That will change, but what better time to speed it along than frigid, white winter?

If it’s not apparent why a person might willingly reserve a portion of his home for creatures that eat dung and don’t have appendages, here are a couple of reasons from a wonderful tract about the subject:

  • Vermicompost appears to be generally superior to conventionally produced compost…
  • Vermicompost is superior to most composts as an inoculant in the production of compost teas.

That’s enough for me. That, and the actual results of spraying my vegetable and fruit crops with worm tea last year. There are no doubts in my mind that vermicompost tea, used diligently, is magical. Of 38 gardens, this year’s gave me the highest yields and healthiest plants of any, and by a long shot.

So it’s off to Obsessionville again for me.  First stop is corrugated cardboard.  I’ve read about how well worms like it, and yesterday I came across this GardenWeb Forum post discussing the merits of red wigglers living solely on and in cardboard.  Now these folks seem like serious wormers, what I aspire to be some day.  So I took a small step…

worm bin cardboard

My little worm bin, left half covered with corrugated cardboard

Half of my little bin is now covered with wet corrugated cardboard, half with shredded newspaper.  The guys like to eat and make whoopee just beneath this layer.  We’ll see if either side makes a better food-bed.

wormy thanksgiving

Worms need holidays too.

I’ve been monitoring my jerry-rigged outdoor worm bin heater, a 3-gallon plastic pail sunk into the earth inside a converted cold frame.  Inside is a cheap 25W aquarium heater.  This morning the outdoor temperature was 26°, and inside…a balmy 79°.

worm bin thermomter

And the little buggers got a feast of food-processed kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and cornmeal.


Happy Thanksgiving!

a wormy christmas

I started getting together my Christmas wish list today.  Once you get bit by the worm bug (that sounds odd, no?), there’s no turning back.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, worm tea is my new favorite thing in life; a handful of worm leavings, a little molasses, 5 gallons of water, and lots of air.  Last year I used a couple of little aquarium pumps that I had lying around to supply air to the worm tea.  Next year…industrial.

Starting with this:

EcoPlus Commercial Air 1 - 18 Watts Single OutletThe EcoPlus Commercial Air 1 – 18 Watts Single Outlet air pump.

And icing on the worm cake:

BubbleSnake : Compost Tea Aerator

BubbleSnake Compost Tea Aerator.

And hopefully ending up with this:

worm tea brewing

Ho Ho Ho!

red wigglers in the snow

It started with finding a stack of good-as-new, free low-E windows by the roadside late last winter. I turned one of them into a cold frame and sunk it into the soil at the end of my vegetable garden.

No, it started before that. When I bought a pound of red wiggler worms and set up an indoor worm bin.

Confused yet? Me too. High fives.

I’ve been raising worms in a bin indoors for a couple of years. They’re awesome. They eat my garbage. They give me good stuff. And they don’t smell or make noises, unlike grandkids.

The prize is worm castings; even cooler than compost. Every week last summer I put a handful of worm castings and 2 tablespoons of molasses into a 3 gallon bucket, aerated with an old aquarium pump, and let it brew overnight (Google ‘worm tea’). That 3 gallons of worm juice was enough to spray all the plants in my 55′ x 28′ garden. And it was the healthiest, most productive garden I’ve ever had. EVER.

So I love worms.

Now back to that cold frame. A couple of weeks ago I decided that since I already had two other nice, portable cold frames, I’d try an experiment. I turned the sunken cold frame into an outdoor worm bin with leaf mold, rotted horse manure, ground-up kitchen scraps and lots of shredded leaves for insulation. At one end I sunk a 3 gallon covered bucket filled with water.

sunken winter worm bin?

sunken winter worm bin?

Now, I live in Michigan. It’s cold. Red wigglers die when they freeze. They like temperatures like we like.

The water bucket, I figger, would make a good heat sink. Especially if it had a 25-watt aquarium heater inside. The cost to run 25 watts continuously for a month is somewhere around $3. I can handle that in the spirit of science.

Into the cold frame went a couple of dozen worms, in went cardboard, covered with a thick layer of leaves, down went the lid, and on top went four bags of leaves.

leaf bags on worm bin

The lows here have been in the teens for more than a week. And here’s what the soil temperature read yesterday…

74 degrees

We’ll see what happens as the ground freezes around the cold frame.