Worm Farming – Urban Agriculture

Adventures with Worms

Worms are natures wonder creatures. These little critters process waste and through natural digestion create juice and worm castings that are high in nutrients. The ‘Castings’ and the ‘Juice’ are tonic for your garden and can be used on everything from veggies to flowers and even your indoor plants.

Deep in the heart of the worm farm the wriggling mass of worms congregate and mass feed on their favourite food
Deep in the heart of the worm farm the wriggling mass of worms congregate and mass feed on their favourite food, these are composting worms, red wrigglers, it is essential that the correct worms are used in a worm farm.

My worm farm was originally purchased for my father as a gift over 12 years ago – it was returned to me when we sold ‘Greenacres’ and has been in heavy production since I moved to Arundel. By trial and error I have developed a system that works for me.

How Have I Achieved Success?

The worm farm is managed as a stack of ‘filters’. The key to a good outcome is to keep the base where the liquid drains as clear and clean of worm castings as possible. This ensures the juice flows freely through the dispensing tap and does not pool and stagnate. To assist drainage I have my worm farm slightly tilted, the dispensing tap permanently ‘open’ with a bucket at the base to catch all the drips. I use 1 part juice to 10 parts water and spread it on the garden in a watering can, often mixed with a measure of seaweed fertilizer as a ‘garden tonic’.

The full multi storey worm farm, tap and bucket at the bottom, trays stacked and capped with lid, hessian sack and a brick to stop the wind blowing things away.  The water can and scoop sit beside the bucket.
The full multi storey worm farm, tap and bucket at the bottom, trays stacked and capped with lid, hessian sack and a brick to stop the wind blowing the lid away. The watering can and scoop sit beside the bucket.

The base is topped with four trays, the top tray is the ‘feeder’ tray and has a lid topped with a hessian blanket. The base with legs (bottom layer) has a tap attached and is where worm juice drains.

The worm farm base cleaned and ready for trays to be stacked on top.  The tap is left open and 'Juice' drains freely into the bucket,
The worm farm base cleaned and ready for trays to be stacked on top. The tap is left open and ‘Juice’ drains freely into the bucket.  Don’t be put off by the black liquid, it is black gold and rich in nutrients.

The middle trays are filter trays. Cardboard, shredded newspaper and straw are spread to catch and filter the juice and fine castings that dribble down from the top layer. The tray immediately below the main ‘farm’ can be quite damp and covered with worm castings. This layer will eventually be transferred to the top.

While the majority of the worms will be clustered in the top tray some worms will move up and down travelling through the various levels via the sieve like holes in the trays.

A middle 'filter' trays with straw and paper catching the worm castings that drift down from the top, migrating worms can be seen amongst the organic matter.
A middle ‘filter’ trays with straw and paper catching the worm castings that drift down from the top, migrating worms can be seen amongst the organic matter.

 

In the past I have had a problem with the fine castings building up and blocking the base and preventing the juice from flowing freely through the dispensing tap. I solved this problem by lining the middle layers with paper and straw using this material as an organic filter. I never have a blockage problem now and only occasionally take the base away and hose it out. The paper and straw eventually breaks down and forms part of the organic waste that the worms convert. The filter material needs occasional topping up and to help the worms along I always use slightly damp filter material.

 

Bottom tray with corrugated cardboard and straw filtering the draining juice and any drifting castings.  This method ensures the base does not clog with castings.
Bottom tray with corrugated cardboard and straw filtering the draining juice and any drifting castings. This method ensures the base does not clog with castings.

 

At the Top Where All the Action Is………

The very top layer has the majority of worms and rotting vegetable material. Worms like soft fruits and veggies. I have discovered over grown zucchini is a favourite, as are watermelon and banana skins. Cut your excess fruit and vegetables and place flesh side down, skin side up – they will devour the core of the material very quickly. I also add semi-rotted straw and finely shredded newspaper, giving the mix an occasional gentle stir. When I am ‘feeding’ the worms I tend to place waste in a clump, on one side of the farm, placing a clump on the opposite side with the next deposit. I am unsure why this works best but it gives the worms time to demolish one area and happily move onto the next deposit.  I would feed my farm at least once a week, however when busy this might stretch to two weeks.  The time span can be longer between feeds but you need to ensure there is other organic matter (like wet straw) to keep them going.

Tasty morsels include banana skins, tomato ends, fruit peels, the cardboard is the the top layer to the tray with a blanket and then a lid with the hessian sack.
Tasty morsels include banana skins, tomato ends, fruit peels, the cardboard is the the top layer to the tray with a blanket and then a lid with the hessian sack.

 

Finally I sweeten the ‘feeding’ layer with an occasional sprinkle of used coffee grinds, worms like the grit. I also use finely ground eggshells, this adds calcium to the mix and helps correct the ph balance in the farm which can be slightly acidic.

Maintenance…….

About every 4 months (sometimes longer) I change the trays around.

I use the second layer and transfer it to the top as the new ‘feeder’ layer. When removing the ‘feeding’ tray scoop any half rotten material into the new tray– I have a plate of tasty worm treats ready – made up of the most tempting waste (banana skins, fruit ends, soft veggies).

A sample tray cleared out and the contents formed into a hillock to separate the worms from the castings.
A sample tray cleared out and the contents formed into a hillock to separate the worms from the castings.  The paint scraper is used to gently push the worms to the centre and the castings to the edge. 

 

I then empty the old feeding tray onto a work table forming a hillock, again transferring any soft scraps to the new ‘feeder’ tray. The worms will move quickly into the middle of the hillock away from the light. Start by gently removing the outer layer of castings and scoop in small amounts into a bucket. Move any worms you collect into the new ‘feeder’ tray, these are your breeding stock and the source of the next generation of worms.   Keep transferring small scoops to your casting bucket. I will often do this over an afternoon, moving between gardening jobs, coming back every 30 minutes or so to remove a few more small scoops.

 

Worms separated from the castings, they mass together trying to escape the light.  Keep these, they are your 'livestock' and will breed the next generation.  The 'Castings' will be spread on the garden.
When worms are separated from the casting they mass together trying to escape the light. Keep these these worms, they are your farm ‘livestock’ and will breed the next generation. The rich ‘Castings’ will be spread on the garden.

 

Gradually you will have a bucket full of worm castings and a hillock of thriving worms, all trying to find the darkest spot. Move the worms to your new tray and feed them with some tasty rotting morsels to restart the cycle. Wash the old tray. I usually do this in a spot where I am about to plant new young seedlings, making the most of the washed castings. Finally line the clean tray with shredded paper and soaked straw and transfer to the bottom of the stack as a new filter base.

Place the worms into the top layer with a few tasty morsels, they will quickly find their favourite place in the top tray.
Place the worms into the top layer with a few tasty morsels, they will quickly find their favourite place in the top tray.

 

Month by Month stuff to do…………

If we were discussing ‘normal’ livestock or pet management we would be talking about ‘day to day’ care. A worm farm will survive on ‘managed neglect’.  Month to month is fine. Worms enjoy a dark moist (not wet) environment that is slightly warm – never hot. I use corrugated cardboard over the top of the waste then cover this with the ‘worm blanket’, cap the unit with its lid and place a hessian sack over everything. By keeping the worm farm in a shaded spot over summer I stabilize the temperature and moisture levels.   Moving it to a place where it catches a little sun in winter does the same thing and keeps the worms active.  The straw and paper in the ‘filter’ system means the worms always have something to ‘eat’.  Feeding with kitchen waste can happen sporadically. If I am going away I put the farm in a shaded spot, make sure it’s topped up with goodies and put a bit of extra damp straw in place. The farm will happily look after itself for 6 to 8 weeks without any attention.  The perfect ‘pet’ for busy people.

 

Worm castings ready to spread on the garden, a small plug around the base of veggies is all thats needed.  Juice is sitting in the scoop ready to add to the watering can, 1 part juice to 10 parts water, then sprinkle across the plants that need some tonic.
Worm castings ready to spread on the garden, a small plug around the base of veggies is all that’s needed.  Juice is sitting in the scoop ready to add to the watering can, 1 part juice to 10 parts water, then sprinkle across the plants that need some tonic.

 

My system is made in Australia. I recently purchased an extra tray to increase efficiency. A similar model can be bought from large plant nurseries and hardware stores. New units come with a list of instructions, these can also be found online – my original instructions had been lost so I went hunting and found the makers instructions.

If you’re starting from the very beginning you will need to also purchase worms. I was surprised how much they cost when I originally purchased the farm for my father. When I set up the farm here at Arundel I collected my own worms from my cool compost heap – it is important to get the right worms – red wrigglers – I call them fast worms. I have ‘gifted’ worms to family and friends – a strange thing to offer but wonderful if your setting up a worm farm.

Making Do………..

If cost is an issue you could improvise with a series of stacking Styrofoam boxes from the green grocer, drill extra holes to allow adequate drainage. You could also repurpose an old esky, bath or trough, whatever your system it needs to be raised and free draining. You must also think about how you are going to ‘catch’ the juice. The system needs to drain to ensure it does not become fetid.

A top up of rhubarb leaves, a favourite food, they decompose quickly and are loved by worms.  Cardboard will be spread across the top to act as an insulating layer.
A top up of rhubarb leaves, a favourite food, the leaves decompose quickly and are loved by worms. Cardboard will be spread across the top to act as an insulating layer.  2 weeks and they will be gone.

 

Worms don’t need a lot of attention – just a little care. One of natures ‘wonder creatures’ they are the perfect pet for the busy household – your own urban farm, the livestock processing your waste and transforming it into liquid magic for your garden.

Happy Farming

 

 

Winter Gardening

Working in the Winter Garden

It has been a few months since I posted a story about my garden.   Friends have been giving me a nudge and asking ….. what’s happening ….. how is your garden growing? I have not been idyll. Dressed in thermals to guard against the winter cold I have been expending energy around the compost heap. While I have been working I have also been planning a number of blogs on compost making and worm farming.

Garlic and radicchio after the last of the radish have been removed - Henny is searching for a sweet treat amongst the straw.
Garlic and radicchio after the last of the radish have been harvested – Henny is searching for a sweet treat amongst the straw with broad beans towering in the background.

However one of the most important things I have been doing is collaborating with a group of committed volunteers helping to set up Open Gardens Victoria.

Back in 1987 a small team of like-minded Victorian’s established the first open garden program. This grew into Open Gardens Australia. However in June this year  OGA ‘Closed the Garden Gates’ for the last time.  A small group of us in Victoria felt this should not be the end. Our State has a long and passionate history of all things horticultural, it is home to thousands of committed gardeners and the place where many wonderful private gardens are waiting to be discovered.

‘We had to do something’

…………….so after much work behind the scenes Open Gardens Victoria will launch its first garden at Musk Cottage in September this year. Visit www.opengardensvictoria.org.au to learn more about gardens opening this spring.

OGV Musk Cottage_Lge

Back to the veggie patch………..

My garlic is well established, the radishes have been and gone and the radicchio I planted in April needs thinning and transplanting. I have been picking coriander for micro greens, baking beautiful pies using the swiss chard planted last summer, thinning leeks for risotto, picking beetroot, parsley, lettuce and spinach. Pumpkins are still being baked or put into soup and potatoes dug when needed. A few of the last Hungarian peppers need picking, the plants look ‘shocked’ because they don’t like the cold, but the shiny red peppers bake up a treat. I go out and harvest a fresh winter salad each evening.

In the morning we enjoy stewed rhubarb on our muesli.

My garden is abundant and the crisp winter air offers a special snap to the vegetables and reminds me I’m alive and spring is around the corner.

A barrow load of compost ready to spread and the hay bale enclosure ready for the new 'hot' compost heap.
A barrow load of compost ready to spread on the garden and the newly constructed hay bale enclosure with cardboard base ready for the next ‘hot’ compost pile.  I will talk about this technique in my next posts.

ANZAC Broad Beans

‘ My Little Cobber Beans’

April 25th was ANZAC Day and I planted broad beans. I had dug the bed early in the week with the plan to plant the crop on this special day of commemoration.  I often choose a garden task to mark a special day.

As I was digging I thought of my Grandfather, Joseph Philip Roberts, a returned soldier from WWI. I wondered what he and all those lads who travelled to far-flung shores would make of us 100 years on?

How different our world is, but how much stays the same.

Joseph Philip Roberts on leave in Manchester England
Joseph Philip Roberts on leave in Manchester England, perhaps on leave to visit my grandmother.

Early on Saturday, before I left for the dawn service at Queenscliffe, I opened the pack, removed the damaged beans and covered the good seed with water. I always soak my beans before I plant them. It speeds germination by softening the outer shell and fattening the seed.

Sorting the beans and removing the cracked and split seeds
Sorting the beans and removing the cracked and split seeds

The business of planting broad beans is timeless.   Those who returned and took to gardening would certainly have been preparing beds and planting beans at this time each year. Every gardener knows the hard graft of gardening is therapy for the body, mind and soul. A quiet time toiling in the vegetable patch would have offered a curative escape to many returned soldiers, providing for the family table while calming troubled thoughts.

Broad Beans covered in water and left to soak for 6 to 8 hours
Broad Beans covered in water and left to soak for 6 to 8 hours

At this time, 100 years on from ANZAC, I understand the special qualities that are attached to the term ‘cobber’, a term only given to the best of mates. I have especially been thinking about my grandfather who chose to answer the call and defend his country, serving on the Western Front.

This ANZAC day I honored both my grandfather Joseph Philip and my father Ruben Charles, who served during WWII. I went to the dawn service, then marched in their memory. I also honored all those soldiers and civilians who have served and given so much that we might all have our freedom.

Paying tribute after the march at Johnston Park
Paying tribute after the march at Johnston Park

Joseph Philip Roberts was a gentle soul, he was frail and in his 80’s when I was just 10. Memories of ‘Pop’ are laced with a deep feeling of kindness, recollections of a person who had time and patience for children. I recall his happy welcome each time we visited, we would run into the room and jump on his lap to the call of, ‘How are you My Little Cobbers’?

Bean seed laid out 10 cm apart, in furrows 20 cm apart, all ready for planting.  As a good rule of thumb is planting depth should be the same size as the seed.
Bean seed laid out 10 cm apart, in furrows 20 cm apart, ready for planting. A good rule of thumb is planting at a depth that is the same as the size of the seed. My favourite garden tool is used to comb the soil and form the furrows.

My grandfather grew broad beans.  What he would have called ‘good tucker’.  And so I plant my ANZAC Broad Beans, my ‘Cobber Beans’, in memory of him and all those who have given in war.

As a symbol of hope and renewal I will sprinkle red poppy seed amongst them for the coming spring.

We Will Remember Them

It’s Garlic Time

I have been vegetable gardening for 40 years but there is still lots to learn. Last year was the first time we had ever grown garlic. The crop was fabulous. It was so easy and we have been enjoying the harvest since early summer. Some has been given away, some saved for planting this autumn and we still have more in the larder for the coming winter, all this from just two heads (or 40 cloves of garlic).

Garlic can be grown in a small space and offers a good crop with minimal effort. People with a tiny plot, ‘or just a corner’ could easily grow garlic, but it does take time, allow between 4 to 6 months.

Last year our ‘cloves’ were sourced from the local green grocer Greg.  He had great organic garlic grown at nearby Winchelsea. We had been using it in the kitchen, happy with the small food footprint and even happier that we were supporting a local grower. When a couple of the cloves started to shoot I thought ‘what have we got to lose? Let’s plant some!’ We visited Greg’s, selected the best looking heads with the fattest cloves and went to work.

Garlic heads and cloves from last seasons harvest
Garlic heads and cloves from last seasons harvest

If you decide to purchase garlic from your green grocer make sure it is sourced from an organic Australian grower. Some garlic, particularly imported stock, is sprayed with retardants to prevent shooting. Garlic sprayed with retardant will not grow and will leave you deeply disappointed. I recommend trying to find a source of garlic that is grown in the region where you live, then you will be sure that the species is suitable to grow in your area, think a 100 km radius. Local farmers markets would be an excellent source.

This year we are growing two varieties, 40 cloves of the best from last years harvest and a further 40 cloves sourced from Diggers. The new variety is ‘Ail de Pays du Ger’, is a hard neck variety that should store for up to 12 months. Our own garlic, of Winchelsea origin, is an unknown soft neck type and we are yet to discover its storage life.

 How to Plant and Grow Garlic

Preparing the soil properly is the key to growing most vegetables successfully.  The soil on our East Geelong property is heavy, black plastic clay and forms big clods. It needs lots of organic material worked through to be friable enough to plant anything. Firstly the garden beds were forked over (I prefer a fork to a spade, its kinder to the worms and helps to comb through the soil) and a generous sprinkling of gypsum applied (about a handful per sq metre). This is done every time an area is prepared and is gradually helping to break down the ‘clods’. A good layer of manure (well rotted chicken and cow blend) was added as well as a good lot of homemade compost. If you don’t have the homemade good stuff on hand you could purchase manure at your local nursery and mix this with mushroom compost.

Garden bed forked over after being spread with manure and compost
Garden bed forked over after being spread with manure and compost

I also added coconut fibre, this material is extremely light and mixed with the heavy soil produces a fine ‘tilth’. Tilth is a descriptor for a magic soil texture that is neither too heavy nor too light. A texture that is fine enough for plant roots to grow through but heavy enough to anchor them.   An old gardening term with poetic qualities.

Garlic heads are made up of a cluster of cloves. The outer cloves are always the largest and the best for planting.  Every cook has found shooting garlic cloves and discarded them as ‘old’ and low grade for cooking. If these were planted the young shoots would grow, feeding the bulblet at the bottom to form a new head of garlic for harvesting, if planted now it will be ready in time for Christmas.

Each clove is attached at the bottom to a woody base where last years root system grew.   The base of each clove is also where new roots will develop for the next crop. The top of each clove is pointy and is where green shoots will appear and grow through the winter and spring.

Garlic head showing the dried woody stem and roots at the base.  The woody end of each clove must be planted downward so roots can easily form
Garlic head showing the dried woody stem and roots at the base. The woody end of each clove must be planted downward so roots can easily form

Different varieties of garlic have different shapes but planting rules are the same – plant the cloves with the woody bit down and the pointy bit up. Plant each clove about 10cm apart and about 4cm max deep. I have allowed 20cm between rows, this is enough room to put in a quick ‘catch crop’ such as radish or lettuce.

This year our garlic is set out in two beds, with two rows to each bed and 20 cloves in each row. If it is successful there will be 80 heads of garlic. We have marked the beds with small stakes to remind everyone that something is growing there. It may take a week or a month (depending on variety) for the new shoots to appear and in the meantime we don’t want big feet tramping over the bed, compacting the soil and crushing the shoots.

Rows of garlic cloves spaced at 10cm intervals and ready to plant
Rows of garlic cloves spaced at 10cm intervals and ready to plant

A gentle reminder, keep the water up during the cooler months. Dry cold conditions are terrible for plants. Gardeners often forget to water during the cooler months and lose plants to ‘winter drought’.  As the garlic grows we will list new blog posts so you can follow the crop to harvest. But in the meantime, try some, you may be surprised by how easy it is to grow this no fuss (low fuss) crop.

Final update: Yahoo……… over the past week while I have been preparing soil, planting, taking photo’s and writing some of my garlic is shooting, these are the cloves planted from last years harvest.

First garlic shoot for the season, less than a week from planting

Happy gardening and good luck with your garlic planting

Helena