Using vermicomposting and a worm factory to recycle your kitchen scraps

I recently went through my gardening journal to see where I was spending money. Since this was my first year gardening a largest chunk of my money went into buying pots, soil and accessories. I also purchased several bags of organic compost and organic fertilizer. A bag of organic compost is $5 – $6 at the big name stores, and you really don’t have any idea what went into it or how it was produced.

I took my numbers and starting pondering ways to save money. One item I came across while researching cost cutting measures was making your own fertilizer using composters and worm bins. I decided to take a composting class at my local community garden, and after the class I realized that I didn’t have enough space to put in a compost bin. This left vermicomposting as my main option, so I decided to start researching worm bins.

If you haven’t heard of vermicomposting it’s a process where you feed your vegetable scraps and fiberous material (paper, cardboard, etc.) to worms and they process this into nutrient rich worm castings. The castings can be used in place of store bought compost, and the tea (liquid worm poop) that is a byproduct of vermicomposting can be diluted and used in place of fertilizers.

Various solutions exist for vermicomposting. You can build your own worm bin, or you can buy a Worm Factory and call it a day. I chose to buy a Worm Factory for a couple of reasons:

– I was planning to leave this in our hallway so it needed to blend in.
– The Worm Factory has a drain spout for collecting your worm tea.
– The tray system should make collecting compost easier.
– I wanted to find something that others were using with success.

Setting up the Worm Factory was a piece of cake. The directions clearly show how to connect the various pieces, so I had the base built in a matter of minutes. Next I added several layers of news paper to the bottom of tray one, and filled the rest of the bin with a mixture of damp coconut coir, food scraps and shredded news paper. The bin was all set for my worms, which I ordered from Uncle Jim’s worm farm. My bin is now 3 months old and as you can see my worms couldn’t be happier!:

null

Each week I get enough worm tea to feed the plants on my deck, and everything that gets a worm tea treat is thriving (my rosemary is going bonkers now that it gets liquid nutrients). The worms are also really cool pets, and if I could come up with 3000 names I would name each and every one of them. 🙂

This was a fun learning experience, and you would be amazed at the amount of food your worms can eat (this will cut down on the amount of trash you throw out since a lot of “garbage” can be fed to your worms). I feed them all of our table scrabs (no meat, dairy or citrus) as well as a healthy dose of junkmail, cardboard, coffee grounds, tea bags and egg shells. We barely notice that we have worms in our house, since the worm factory just sits in the corner doing its thing:

null

I should note one thing. Shortly after I set up the worm factory I noticed a horrible smell eminating from it. The smell turned out to be the result of overfeeding, and was quickly fixed by burying the stinky food well below the top layer of worm castings. It took me a little while to figure out how much food I could safely feed them, and as a rule of thumb less is better (I started with more is better, and that’s the reason my worm factory had an odor for a day and a half).

I’m hoping to buy a second worm factory this winter, and I’m pretty sure two bins will allow us to convert all of our food scraps, cardboard and junkmail into compost for the vegetable garden. I’ll keep folks updated on my progress as I go along.

How to make amazing blueberry waffles

I try to eat healthy, but periodically cave and eat something that wouldn’t be classified as a “health food”. One item I’ve become especially fond of are waffles, especially ones made with blueberries. I got my first taste of one of these bad boys two years ago at a local restaurant, and I was amazed what some blueberries could do to a waffle! I wasn’t amazed with the price though! $7.95 for one blueberry waffle and three strips of bacon? If I was going to enjoy yummy delicious waffles more frequently I needed to look into making my own.

With a budget in mind, I set off to Amazon to find a good waffle maker. There are cheap waffle makers and crazy expensive ones, and after a lot of research I decided on the Proctor-Silex 26500Y. This specific waffle maker had the features (good reviews, low cost, non-stick surface, led to let me know when it was warmed up) I wanted, and it wouldn’t be breaking the bank at $25. So I ordered one and have been experimenting with it for 4 weeks now.

The quality of a waffle is determined by the batter you start with. If you use crappy batter you will get crappy waffles. Since I don’t eat waffles all that much I splurged and got some really good waffle batter. To make blueberry waffles you will first need to follow the recipe on the can to make the base batter. To turn that into blueberry batter I like to dump frozen blueberries that have partially thawed out into the batter. The blueberry juices will work their way into the batter when you mix it all up, giving the entire waffle a hint of blueberry flavor. This gives you something like this:

null

Now to the easy part. To make a delicious blueberry waffle you pour a ladle of mix into the waffle maker, set your timer to five minutes and sit back and relax. When your timer goes off you will have a tasty waffle like this:

null

I tend to put a little too much batter into the waffle maker, which results in the rough edges shown above (they taste great though!). If you are anal and want a perfectly circle waffle use the exact amount of batter recommended in your waffle makers owners manual. Waffles are definitely a treat around here, and with the depressing events that are occurring everywhere we need things like this to inject some happiness into our lives.

How to figure out when you need to water your plants

Before I began using my beloved Earthbox, I started a slew of vegetables in ordinary plastic containers. Each container type had a different set of challenges to learn about and deal with, but the biggest one I found was getting the moisture levels correct. There was information scattered around the Internet about how much to water, when to water, and experts opinions of how moist each plant needs to be. I tried several approaches to watering:

– Water once the soil had pretty much dried out
– Water when the plants showed signs of water deprivation (wilting, etc.)
– Water every other day
– Water every day
– Water when your dog howled at the moon

I tried all of the above, and I couldn’t tell much of a difference between them. That is until I yanked my Cherokee Purple Tomato plant because is was dying. After I pulled out the plant and looked at the roots I noticed that there was some type of mold or fungus growing all throughout them. After a bit of research it turned out I had root rot. 🙁 This was most likely caused by over watering and poor draining soil in my containers. This really bummed me out, and I decided to purchase a soil moisture tester for $10 to help me figure out exactly how much water my plants needed.

The soil moisture tester makes it easy to visualize how moist your soil is. Here is a reading from my tester:

null

So the only time you need to add water is when the counter shows that the moisture content dropped to an unacceptable level (I usually water when I’m in the yellow area). The Luster Leaf device I am using has a chart for various plants to help with identifying moisture levels, and a bit of research will show what the typical soil moisture levels for a given plant should be. Some people may be asking why I don’t just stick my fingers down in the soil to measure the moisture level. Well, I found it makes a bit of a mess and in some cases the plants bushed out so I couldn’t easily get my fingers into the soil. I could slide the soil reader in though, and the readings were helpful for a new gardener who was trying to keep the plants happy. Also, for $10 you can’t really go wrong.

Growing yummy delicious cucumbers in containers

I previously wrote about my first foray into container gardening. One of my favorite vegetables is the cucumber, which I love to use in salads, as a replacement for crackers and for general snacking. Cucumbers contain several anti-oxidants and the cucurbitacins that are present in cucumbers have been getting some press recently for their possible cancer fighting properties. I’m no doctor, but anything that tastes good and has things that help my body are a win-win in my book!

My first cucumber plant was a seedling from the local nursery which I started in a 5-gallon plastic pot. The cucumber plant grew much faster than I had envisioned, and after a short period of time I realized that I needed to either let it cover my entire patio or install some type of trellis system and grow it vertically. I decided to grow it up and put a Tomato cage around it to offer some support. The tomato cage worked ok at first, but after a month or two it had outgrown it and I didn’t have any other choice but to let the plant grow where it wanted to.

After about two months (I started super early) of growing cucumbers I realized that I had plenty of time to grow more. I had an extra Earthbox available so I followed the Earthbox planting guide and planted four Marketmore cucumbers. It didn’t take long and these plants started to grow out of control and produce tons of flowers and tiny cucumbers. Given my previous experience I decided to trellis these with 6 foot supports, so I picked up two 6′ tall pieces of bamboo and placed them in the sides of the earthbox. I then tied these off to a rail and used twine every 12″ or so to give the plants support. This worked GREAT, and my plants have now hit the 6′ mark and are still growing. They are also producing one to two cucumbers a DAY, and booooy do they taste delicious!!!

For those who like to see veggies here ya go:

null

My first try at growing cucumbers went extremely well. We are picking cucumbers daily, and other than filling the Earthboxes with water there is ZERO maintenance. This has definitely been a set it and forget it experience. To allow me to remember everything for next season, I figured I would summarize my thoughts on growing cucumbers:

– You need to have pollinators for your cucumbers.
– Make sure your cucumbers get plenty of water and nutrients. Water especially!
– Growing cucumbers vertically reduces space and provides easier access.
– Prune off the runners or your plant will quickly get out of hand.
– Cucumbers can be pollinated by hand.
– Cucumbers do wonderful in Earthboxes.
– Lady bugs are great for patrolling your leaves for pests.

Cucumbers are also super easy to start from seed, and all four of my marketmore cucumbers were started from seed. To start my cucumbers from seed I grabbed a natural coffee filter and ran it under water to moisten it. I placed 8 seeds in the coffee filter and then folded it over and placed it in a zip lock bag. I left the bag out on my patio for a couple of days in the shade and when I came back to it ALL of the seeds had sprouted. I picked four of the larger sprouts and placed them in small pots filled with a combination of seed starting and potting mix. I kept watering the pots and transplanted the seedlings approximately two weeks later. I’m hoping to test out some alternative methods to sprouting next spring. Specifically I want to try the tupperware greenhouse method as well as a soil cube. There are so many things I want to experiment with!!!

My harsh introduction to container gardening

This year I made my first foray into gardening. Since I didn’t have the space for raised beds, I decided to grow everything in containers. I started tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, mint, catnip, oregano, basil, rosemary, thyme and Jalapeno and banana peppers. Most of my plants came from the plant sale at my local community garden, so I was hoping for great results. Oh how little I knew.

The first containers I purchased were 5-gallon Tara Cotta pots from Home Depot. These were kinda pricey but I thought at the time they would hold up better than their plastic brethren. This turned out to be a bad decision, since the Terra Cotta plants let water and nutrients bleed out through the porous pot and they were extremely heavy to move about on my patio. One of my tomato plants didn’t make it, and since I had no idea what went wrong I decided to find some gardening classes to figure this stuff out.

My first class was a container gardening course at my local community garden. This shed light on numerous things I wasn’t aware of (soil composition, the need to add nutrients, etc.), and the instructor also mentioned that platic pots would do a better job of holding in water and nutrients in the hot summer heat. She also recommended the 5-gallon plastic pots that were $8 at Big Lots, so off to the store I went to purchase two pots to test out.

When I got home I transplanted all of the plants I started in Tera Cotta pots into the new plastic pots. All of the plants recovered from the transplant shock, though some of the plants weren’t growing nearly as well as they should be. Eventually two of my plants started to die off, and after a bunch of research it turned out that one was infested with spider mites and the other didn’t have enough nutrients to thrive. The plants were beyond repair so I trashed them and decided to try starting a few plants from seed.

While researching seed starting I came across a number of references to the Earthbox. Earthboxes use sub irrigation (the water is below the soil) and nutrient strips to ensure that your plants have everything you need. Water goes into the box through a fill pipe and wicks up through the soil to a location your plants can reach. The nutrient strip sits in a location of the box that the plants can also access, so everything the plant needs to thrive is readily accessible. I was hooked so I ordered two Earthboxes from Amazon.

I followed the Earthbox directions that came with the kit and started two Tomatoes in one box. One was a Bush Goliath tomato, and the other was a Patio Tomato. Each plant was purchased at the local nursery and planted according to the instructions I received with my Earthbox kit. After two weeks I noticed that my plants were doing much much better than the plants I started in pots. After 2-months both plants were bushy and kicking out Tomatoes like no ones business! The Earthboxes really lived up to their name, and they require next to no maintenance. All I needed to do to keep my plants happy was add water to the reservoir every other day. It doesn’t get any easier than that.

My first year into gardening has been a blast, and even though I’ve spent more money than I originally intended to (these are some pricey tomatoes!) I came out with a slew of knowledge that I wouldn’t otherwise had. This fall I’m planning to re-use my Earthboxes to grow lots of lettuce, and in the spring I will hopefully have a couple of raised beds to use side-by-side with my Earthboxes. I’ll start posting some pictures shortly.