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…

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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.

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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…

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And the start of the celebration…

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

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All served up on a festive bed of dryer lint…

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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?

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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.

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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.

tea for two

First a disclaimer:  I’m a novice worm herder.  I’m a novice worm tea maker and user. What I did in the past season worked really well for the worms and the garden.  But it could have been a coincidence.  So read with that in mind.

6 week old seedlings started in potting mix using worm castings

6 week old seedlings started in potting mix using worm castings

You really do owe it to yourself to try composting with worms and making worm tea. Worm tea might just be the most effective supplement that I’ve ever seen for improving the health of garden plants (and soil). Anecdotal evidence is out there if you don’t trust my shifty little eyes. There are also lots of sites that walk you through the process of tea-making, most wanting to help you and take your money. Fair enough.

I won’t take your money, but I would like to describe the process that I use.

My worm bin has never smelled and the worms don’t escape.  The bin sits on the floor of a grow-closet (where I start seedlings).  Of course you could just throw your garbage on the compost pile, but that’s not as much fun, and you can still do some of that if you want.  Red wigglers should consume about half their weight in scraps per day.  So if you start with a pound of worms, you can figure on converting 3.5 pounds of your waste into black worm gold every week.

Most information readily available on the internet about the stuff is hearsay or personal anecdotes. Not that personal anecdotes are invalid or less compelling. Maybe the opposite.  But it’s hard to find scientific information about vermicompost tea.  One study says good things I think, but it hurt my brain.  Too many strange words, initials and sentences. Science. Pfft.

From my limited experience, vermicompost is awesome stuff to add to planting holes or for using in homemade potting mix.  And especially for making worm tea.  I just need a handful of worm dirt to make enough tea to spray all the foliage in my 1000 square foot garden, and have lots left over to pour beneath special plants.  It’s safe, it won’t burn, and it’s full of microbes, bacteria and fungi that help plants thrive. And it can be sprayed or poured with abandon.  I used it weekly until late in the summer.

cabbage loves worm tea

cabbage loves worm tea

So for starters you’ll need a worm home.  I use two 10-gallon totes, modified for the purpose.  For details on constructing the bin, Google “homemade worm bin” or click on this video link.

If you aren’t DIY-inclined, or you want some class for your worms, you could shell out for a worm hotel.

You’ll need to get some of the little charmers themselves of course.  Again, lots of places to buy them, and they come delivered in some bedding, and usually with instructions for what they’ll need as they settle in.

After 3 months or so, you should be able to harvest some vermicompost (the rich, black mixture of worm poo and organic matter in your bin).  And then it’s time for brewing tea.  The worms go happily back to work on the next round of garbage and shredded paper.

Now for the tea part.  You’ll need a few more pieces of equipment, and if you’ve ever made regular compost tea this should be pretty familiar.

You probably already have one of these hanging around: 5 Gallon bucket.

Also an old aquarium pump, which is what I did last year.  It worked fine. But I’m geeked because I recently graduated to this: Ecoplus Commercial Air 1.

From what I’ve read, the microorganisms and good bacteria in worm tea multiply better when the water surface is continually broken, and more aeration is more effective at growing the little beasties that make plants thrive.

Next you’ll want an aquarium air stone or one of these (for the bigger pump):
BubbleSnake

This one works on the same principle:
Worm tea aerator

Connect the pump to the air stone or aeration device with appropriately-sized vinyl tubing.

You also might want a strainer bag for suspending the worm castings in the bucket.  This keeps debris from clogging your sprayer.  You could dump castings into the bucket and strain after the fact also. Or if you’re just watering plants, there’s no need for filtering.

Fill the bucket with unchlorinated water, add about a quarter cup of unsulfured molasses, which keeps the little guys in your brew pot happy, and then maybe some liquid kelp, or not, depending on your mood.   Turn on the pump and let er rip for 24 hours in a room-temperature environment.  The tea should smell sweet and earthy, like dirt-molasses when you’re finished.

Squirt it on your garden plants or pour it around their bases.

And that’s it.  Was that easy? Well, maybe not so much.  But awful fun.

testing the waters

I would guess there’s a very small subset of gardeners who actually make and use worm tea.  Don’t be offended if you do…I’m just sayin’.  I’ve only used it for one season, but I’m ready to say that it might just be THE best plant grower that’s ever been concocted.

I sprayed everything once a week with worm tea last year, and I’ve never had a garden perform so uniformly well, with so little disease.  One year’s not a real test, I know.  But gut feeling says worm tea=good.

The process of making worm tea involves aerating the water.  Last year I used a small fish air pump.  This year, a little beefier.  And I got this for Christmas:

bubblesnake

The Bubblesnake!  Had to try it out, like men do.  You can see that it will provide some agitation…

churning water

That was my excitement for the day.  It doesn’t take much.

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.