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Vermicomposting Workshop Vancouver

Since 1990, City Farmer and the City of Vancouver have held worm composting workshops for City of Vancouver residents who live in apartments. For $25 participants get a worm bin, 500 worms, Mary Appelhof’s book “Worms Eat My Garbage”, a trowel, bedding and a one-hour class. Now that’s a deal!

Worm Castings are like BLACK GOLD to your garden, and high quality store-bought castings are just about as expensive! For good reason. They cause seeds to germinate more quickly, seedlings to grow faster, leaves grow bigger, more flowers, fruits or vegetables are produced. Vermicompost suppresses several diseases on cucumbers, radishes, strawberries, grapes, tomatoes and peppers, according to research from Ohio State extension entomologist Clive Edwards. It also significantly reduced parasitic nematodes, aphids, mealy bugs and mites. These effects are greatest when a smaller amount of vermicompost is used—just 10-40% of the total volume of the plant growth medium is all that is needed!

Worms are easy to raise or you can use a complex system. You can start them anytime, indoors or out depending on temps. Here in Santa Barbara mine live outside all year in full sun. They are more active when they are warmer. Non color inked newspaper is often used for bedding to start a clew (colony). Worms are 90% water, so keep the bedding moist. My worms get all the moisture they need from the juicy kitchen bits I feed them and that I cover them with their plastic blankie to keep them moist!

They like decomposing kitchen waste with the exceptions of spicy, acidic, and meats (too tough). No junk food. Coffee filters, grounds, lightly ripped teabags are good, but not too many of those because they are acidic, and veggies like things a tad alkaline. Things cut into smaller pieces decompose faster. Harder or tougher items take a long time. I don’t ‘feed’ mine avocado pits because they literally can’t eat them. They do love the avo shells though and nest in them. Egg shells keep the pH neutral.

You can easily see when they have run out of food. Feed them sooner than that, or they might be hungry a few days, even die. They eat the bacteria on what you give them. They can’t eat raw food until it decomposes a bit. Hit up your friends that juice for a high quality steady supply of fresh organic veg and fruit trims and bits. Avoid acidic citrus, sulfuric onion, pastas (not a fruit or veg), but go wild with carrot peelings and tops, funky lettuce, melon rinds. Fridge clean outs are perfect for your worms!

The quality of what you feed your worms is the quality of your castings. Real nutrients, like the organic wastes of nature, give you excellent castings in return. Worms will eat non nutritious cardboard and lots of other things, but why? Better to recycle that in other ways.

The right kind of worms are RED WRIGGLERS! They forage on debris above ground. They are smaller than earthworms that live IN the earth. Fishermen use them for bait. Ask your fellow gardeners to give you a handful to get started, or go to the bait shack, or a local organic worm dealer. The little guys live about 2 years. My clew has been going strong for 12 years now.

Housing! Since they are surface foragers, these worms need width, not depth. Mine live in a low 4′ by 2′ opaque grey storage container. I put holes in the bottom for drainage, holes in the cover to let hot air out in summer. Inside the container I cover them with a large black plastic bag to keep it moist and dark for them. They feed all the way to the top because they feel safe no birds can see them!

Harvest the bumpy like little castings, look like fluffy coffee grounds, they push up to the surface. You have seen castings, often after a rain. Earth worms push them up into little textured piles on the soil’s surface. I use an old coffee container with a handle. Take the ‘blanket’ off your worms. Give them about 5 minutes to dive out of the light. Gather the castings at the top. Wait a few more minutes for them to dive again, then gather some more.

Feeding your plants I walk about my garden to see who might need some castings, or where I plan to plant. Scratch out a shallow area. Most veggie annuals do all their root growing in the top 6 to 8 inches of soil. Spread some castings in, cover them with the soil you dug out. After you have used all the castings, water the areas lightly so the castings stay covered and moist. Remember, you don’t need but 10-40% castings of the total volume of what you are growing your plants in.

How Castings Work! Castings are not exactly a fertilizer, ie their available N, Nitrogen, content is only 1.80 – 2.05 %, yet their NPK value is much higher than soil! NPK are the main minerals your plants need. The NPK in castings is locked in the cast, and slowly released as micro-organisms break it down. This is much better for plants, because it takes time for them to uptake nutrients. They can’t do it all at once.

Vermicompost nutrients and minerals are significantly higher (with Nitrates up to 9 times higher) than garden soil. This creates electro-conductivity, in turn creating more salts in vermicompost. When there is too much salt in soil, it sucks water from plant roots resulting in the ‘burning’ of plants. Although there aren’t enough salts in vermicompost to do that (it is much more common in chemical fertilizers), using too much wormcast can stunt plant growth.

Optimum growth is in a soil ratio of 1:4, that’s 25% castings, 75% soil. However it has been shown that even 10% of wormcast shows significant difference in plant growth. Using over 40% castings, plant growth performance is stunted and may even appear worse off than having no wormcast at all. A wise gardener knows more is not always better. And, your precious castings will go further.

An even more clever gardener will make a drain at one end of the box and collect the worm tea! Check out Bentley’s post for some of the finer details to consider and how to process your leachate for maximum results. If you aren’t doing worm tea, move your worm box from time to time so that juice can drip into your soil, making it rich and nutritious. Plants will grow like crazy there!

Plant recovery! L.A. Times, 5/27/00, Julie Bawden Davis: “Convinced that nothing could help a whitefly infested hibiscus in my garden that had been struggling for two years, I spread a one inch layer of worm castings around the plant. A month later I noticed that the whitefly population had dwindled. Three weeks later there were absolutely no whiteflies on the plant. It’s now back to its healthy self and producing lots of blooms.”

To my delight, visitors often wonder if I have named my worms! We all laugh and I show them more worms! Oh, and how do you get more worms?! Worms are hermaphrodites, meaning each worm has both male and female reproductive parts. The worm does have to mate in order to reproduce, but, every worm they meet is a potential mate. When a worm gets to be about six weeks old it forms a white band around its head, called a clitellum, this is where their reproductive organs are located.

Under ideal circumstances, worm populations can double in a month. They begin breeding at 2 months old, are capable of producing 96 babies each month. Worms have a brain and five hearts. Worms breathe through their skin. They have neither eyes nor ears but are extremely aware of vibrations such as thumps or banging on the composter.  Please try not to disturb them unnecessarily. Worms are odorless and free from disease.

Worm Economics and Education! Vermiculture has become common practice. Private Worm Farms abound! Universities and schools have educational programs, cities have programs, zoos, private organizations proudly tell their story. Websites assist you about raising your own or starting your own business.

Buying Castings! No time for one more thing to do?! Get your castings from a reputable organic seller. There are many great companies with high quality castings today. Don’t confuse an amendment, with castings added, with a bag or bucket of pure castings. Remember, a little bit of the right stuff goes a long way. Give them to your indoor plants too.

Whether for prevention, nutrition, recovery or economics, worm castings are fabulous. Worms work for free, and are sustainable!

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BLACK FRIDAY GARDEN GIFTS!  Gifts to Give, Gifts to Get!

Pour a little garden love into your loved one’s life this holiday season!

Lovely Fitz and Floyd Vegetable Garden 8" Pitcher seen on eBay at BlueHowMuch! $29.95

Make Organic, Sustainable Holiday Gifts!  This is the prime time to start winter gift plantings for holiday giving!  Start a salad bowl, make some pesto ice cubes – harvest before your basil freezes, collect basil seeds while you are at it!  Gather seeds to put in pretty little jars – label and tie with a bright festive bow.  Some of those seeds can be used for seasoning, some for planting!  Dry and powder some herbs for teas, pillows, sachets!  Make scented candles or creams, soaps or shampoos!  Sage darkens your hair, chamomile lightens.  Make an herb wreath, or classic orange pomander balls.  Herbed vinegars & oils are simple to make, and beautiful!  In white wine or rice vinegars:

  • Lavender is rose red
  • Nasturtium flowers release neon orange
  • Sage in flower & purple basil are magenta!

Likewise, be thinking of what you can give your loved one or good friend in the way of gardening items!  Buy local!  How about that special tool, a new shovel?  Some seeds?  A container or garden decoration they have been longing for, a beauteous trellis.  Oh, some of those fancy flowered rain boots?!  YES!  Gloves – those old ones are worn out, you know.  Supplies like special potting mixes, fertilizers.  Books on the topic dearest their heart – Recipes, garden specialities, California Master Gardener Handbook!  Sponsor them for the class they would like to take but didn’t have the dough. Garden plates and mugs.  That catalog and a gift certificate to go with it!  Local services, like an hour of time on something that takes a little more doing than one person would like to do alone, or a consult with your local sustainable landscaper!  Hey, it’s a win/win!  It’s sustainable and makes you both happy!  Trifecta!

Oh, and don’t forget to leave your own garden shopping list lying about the house…if someone tries to discourage you from buying something on the list, let them.  Who knows what will show up with a bow on it?!

Next week:  A Little About Onions, a LOT About GARLIC!

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Now IS still a good time to start your seeds, especially your true heat lovers – eggplant, limas, melons, okra, peppers and pumpkins, and for you SoCal coastal marine layer gardeners, tomatoes!

Beautiful Scarlet Runner Bean Seeds

When you start them, for your sanity, label your seedlings with their name and date!   

Hmph.  How hard could it be, soaking seeds?!  It isn’t, but it turns out there are lots of options and some specifics for better results!

Whether you only soak your seeds, or go on to presprouting, is your choice.  For me, I found once they started sprouting, growth was rapid!  At that stage, they can’t dry out or be too wet and rot, so you have to be ready to plant!  Also, it is more difficult to very carefully plant sprouted seeds.  They are delicate!  So if you are at all bull-in-the-China-shop like I am, it may pay to only presoak!

The main arguments for seed soaking are not only for a speedier garden [Sprouted seed will grow in soils too cool for germination, YES!, but also for more complete germination of all seeds planted. You can get germination results in 3 to 4 days, while without pre-soaking it may take 2 weeks of unfavorable germinating conditions, and you may get none.  Whether you plant directly in the ground, or for those of you at Pilgrim Terrace planning on using the greenhouse, here is some very useful info on seed soaking!

The Harrowsmith Country Life Book of Garden Secrets, by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent & Diane E. Bilberback:

The seed coat that surrounds the living seed sometimes does more than just protect it. The seed coats of many plants contain chemicals that inhibit germination of the seeds. This keeps them from germinating too early or when only briefly exposed to moisture. Some gardeners who are interested in rapid germination soak and wash their seeds to get around these germination inhibitors.

Some types of peppers, such as jalapenos, may germinate more rapidly if soaked in a couple of changes of lukewarm water before planting.

Beet and chard seeds also have a germination inhibitor; these strange-looking lumpy “seeds” are not really seeds at all but dried-up fruits of the plant, each of which contains several seeds. (That’s why beets and chard always need to be thinned.) The hard fruit covering contains a germination inhibitor, but if you soak the seed (fruit) overnight, it will absorb too much water, and you will still have poor germination.Seed coats play other important roles in the lives of plants. They regulate how much oxygen, water, and light the seeds receive.

You may have planted beans or corn in soil that was very moist but cool and were dismayed by subsequent poor germination. The seed coats of these crops can allow water to rush into the seeds too quickly, as with beets. This rapid water uptake can damage the tender cell membranes, permanently harming a young seedling so it grows slowly or preventing germination altogether. This process has been termed imbibitional shock, or soaking injury. Soaking injury can occur at any time with some crops, but cold temperatures make it worse.To avoid soaking injury, you can allow the seeds of sensitive crops such as beans, beets, and corn to soak up water gradually before planting them in the garden. This method is called seed moisturization.

One way to do this is to place them in moist vermiculite for eight to sixteen hours before planting. An easier method for most home gardeners is to place damp paper towels on a sheet of wax paper, sprinkle on the seeds you want to hydrate, and roll up the towels with the wax paper on the outside. Leave the seeds inside the paper for eight to sixteen hours at room temperature. Don’t let them sit for more than nineteen hours, or the delicate seedling root may begin to penetrate the seed coat, and you could damage it during planting.

Things to know plucked from the web….  

Start with viable seed.  Check the date on the seed pack to see when it was packaged for.

It won’t do you a bit of good, for example, to presoak lettuce seeds and expect them to germinate in a soil temp of 87 degrees, as they prefer a cooler-temperature. So start your pre-soaked seeds at the temperature and time you generally plant. Pre-soaking just gives you faster performance under normal conditions.

There are huge variations in the length of time people soak their seeds!

  1. Tomato and Pepper seeds are soaked 6 hours, no more that because they can suffocate from lack of air.
  2. overnight in tepid water. That is water that is warm, but not hot. I make sure that the seeds are covered at least twice their size with water. I don’t add anything to the water, but when planting them, I do water them in with manure tea.
  3. Soak them for 12 hours in compost tea, then rinse & drain. Rinse & drain each day, keeps the seeds moist until you have roots.  With beans, the roots emerge from the scar.  Plant the seed endwise, the root pointing down.  Plant roots and shoots at the soil surface, the bulk of the seed below the soil mix surface.  Keep moist.
  4. Soaked in tepid well water for six hours. The water was then poured off and the seeds were rinsed a couple times a day with some misting in between. The seeds were planted once they had visible roots.
  5. 12 hours in water, then drain and leave for 12 hours, then keep repeating the process until they split their skins and start showing a root. It normally only takes 2 or 3 days and then I plant out.
  6. Bean seeds may split if soaked for more than an hour or two. However, even this short soak will speed up germination
  7. When legume (peas/beans) seed coats split, the seeds may lose vital nutrients and fall prey to disease fungi when planted.  Drain them after they have been submerged for an hour.
  8. I do think I’ve oversoaked bean and pea seeds in the past, almost to the point where they are falling apart, and that it has weakened them. The soak time would depend on the size of the seed I would think, but never more than a few hours.
  9. I let them soak ‘til they are big and full, or ‘til they start to sprout a small root. Corn, beans, peas, squash (some) and pumpkins. Then I gently place them in the ground.  [Tweezers, please?!]
  10. OKRA !!!! (48 hours)  Or… I presoak my okra seed in 1 pint of warm water containing 1 tablespoon of household bleach to pre-soften the seed for 24 hours before planting.
  11. Cucurbita (cucs, luffas, melons, squash) seeds only needs to be soaked to loosen up the shell. Gourd seeds in particular are very tough and some people even scratch the sides of tips (scarify) to make it easier to germinate. I soaked them a little and also wrap them in wet toilet tissue before planting. This will help to keep them moist.

The soaking solution varies…see compost tea, manure tea above.  And what about worm tea?!

  1. Last year I soaked my bean seeds in a kelp solution before planting and they sprouted in about 2 days.
  2. I would never use bleach in the soaking solution. If you are worried about contamination, try soaking in chamomile tea or 3% hydrogen peroxide instead. If the seed is purchased, I wouldn’t bother.
  3. Hydrogen peroxide, both in soak and rinse solutions:1 oz. of  3% H²O² to 1 pint of water.  Sprouts come up faster.  Some people have reported 3/4″ sprouts in 24 hours.   

When you plant the seedlings dig the hole and spray it with peroxide. Wet it good and then wet the roots of the seedlings or small plant.   

The vegetable that gave me a problem was the cabbage. I was determined to conquer the cabbageworm. Years ago I sprayed the cabbage plants with peroxide to no avail. This year I soaked the cabbage seeds before planting them. There were no signs of the bug until the cabbage plants were almost full grown, then I poured about a quarter of cup of 8% peroxide over the cabbage, letting it flow down into the layers of the leaves. That stopped the cabbage bugs. 

Please see more tips… Part 2!  Scarifying  your seed, how to plant wet seed, better hot weather germination, water tricks!

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Rainy Day Harvesting!

Anticipate! 

Fertilize before a rain so the fertilizer will soak in.
Take the cover off your compost to let it get wet.
Tie or stake plants that may topple from wind or weight.
Set up to harvest rainwater for later use! 
Make raised beds, mounds, to help with drainage issues.
Mulch to keep soil from splashing up on your plants, keeping your harvest clean, holding water in place to soak in, and keep soil from eroding.
Make ‘permanent’ pathways with boards, stepping stones, straw bedding, so you won’t be compacting your planting area soil when it is wet or dry!
Plant for air circulation so foliage dries quickly.  Plants too closely spaced, make a warmer micro environment, tend to get mildew easier.
Choose mildew resistant plants! 
Drench your young plants with a mix of a heaping tablespoon of baking soda, a 1/4 cup of nonfat (so it won’t rot and stink) powdered milk in a large watering can of water for mildew prevention and abatement.  It works for certain other diseases as well!
Water less frequently and at ground level, not overhead.

During a rainy period….

If you didn’t before, get out there in your rain gear and add some manure or fertilizer!  Great excuse to play in the rain!
Check frequently to see how your plants are doing.  Secure any tall plants, trellises that need it.
If a plant is too low and in standing water, raise it.  Put your shovel deep under it, put some filler soil underneath the shovel!  
Add more mulch if it has shifted or wasn’t quite deep enough to keep mud spatter from your plants.
Be sure your wormbox worms are not doing the backstroke!
Rebuild any drainage channel that has weakened, clear if clogged.
Make sure all your rain harvest system is working well.  Kudos to you for harvesting!
Practice arm-chair gardening!  Read garden books, magazines, browse web sites, buy some seeds from mail-order catalogs, design your new garden layout!
Get some seeds, soilless potting mix, gather containers with, or make, drainage holes.  Start some seeds!
If the rain is prolonged, uh, do an aphid, snail and slug check as frequently as you can.  Sluggo works on snails  and slugs even when it is wet.  Hard to believe, but, yes, it does.
If the rain is prolonged, do harvest your fresh and crunchy produce!  Lettuces will flourish!  Check on fast maturing broccoli and cauliflower heads to cut at peak maturity!  Gather your luscious strawberries.  Keep your peas picked to keep them coming!

After the rain!  YES! 

Do some thinning for air circulation as makes sense.  Often there is a growth spurt, and you can see where thinning is needed.
Repair areas where soil has washed away exposing roots.  Put some mulch on.
It’s often warmer after a rain, and it is the warmth that mildew loves!   Drench mildew susceptible plants with your mildew mix immediately, early in the day so your plants can dry.  If you prune mildewed areas off, remove those prunings, wash your hands and pruners before you go on to other plants.
Do what you do about snails and slugs.  Keep checking for aphids – blast them away with water or remove infested leaves.
There is often more gopher activity after rain has softened the soil, so be ready! 
In later days, after the rain, harvest first, water second!  That’s the rule to keep from spreading diseases spread by moisture.

Enjoy the superlative rapid growth of your very happy plants!

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