Worm Bin & Worm Breeding

The first of several planned worm bins is ready for bedding, worms, and slightly-composted food! The worms themselves are (hopefully) growing in trays of bedding made from coconut coir, paper, and rock dust with horse manure as food source.

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A worm breeding tray

Here is where I mention that most (essentially all) hay grown in the USA has been sprayed with at least one persistent herbicide so we are very careful not to mix castings from manure with castings from food waste (we poisoned our home tomatoes a few years ago and learned this lesson the hard way).

A slight digression, there are four truly persistent herbicides used in the USA: Clopyralid, Aminopyralid, Aminocyclopyrachlor and Picloram and their residue remains active even after the hay is digested and the manure composted! These four are bad, but we are also concerned about the presence of long-lived non-persistent broadleaf herbicides such as dicamba & 2,4-d. The US Composting Council publishes a series of fact sheets on the topic. Here’s one.

So we have worms breeding in the bins, hopefully happily producing many cocoons, and with them busy we set up a cinder block bin in the shadiest spot on the garden plot.

Our bin is 4’ x 8’ from outer edge to outer edge, with the air space inside the blocks hopefully stabilizing temperature inside. At a usable ~12 sq ft, we want to start with no less than 15 lbs of worms.

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Cinder block worm bin

Worms are fantastic decomposers but they’re also apparently delicious, so we wanted to make sure we didn’t attract birds, raccoons, possum, etc, and topped the bin with a lid.

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And with the lid

Eager to use our new trommel, we took the time to screen a previous worm bin, using a 1/2” and 1/4” screen in sequence. Later this week we’ll finish screening with a 1/8” screen, small enough to hold out worm cocoons.

I can’t rush the worm breeding, but it’s hard not to check their progress twice a day. They’re such nifty animals!


First Compost at the City Garden

Thank You!

A huge thanks to everyone who has begun composting with us! We’re excited to be growing and hope to continue to bring in more friends and neighbors — we have lots of plans for our compost! We want to:

  • grow flowers at our downtown LRA plot using compost as the base medium

  • share finished, screened compost with our members

  • feed the red wiggler worms we’re breeding in our basement (more on vermicast another time)

  • keep 1k lbs of food waste per week out of our landfills (spread the word!)

The Big Event

Thursday was our inauguration of our pallet compost bin and we’re so excited to have begun composting on the site which we plan to transform from an abandoned mostly-concrete slab to wood-framed raised beds for flowers. We’ve got a long way to go, but the path is paved with buckets of compost (as they say).

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The garden as we took it from the land reclamation authority (pallets are ours)

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Preparing to mix the first food scraps

Making compost requires a mix of materials that encourages aerobic microbes — not just bacteria but also fungus, actinomycetes, and a diverse set of small animals — that collectively turn the food waste into stable finished compost.

Mixed correctly, the pile will have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 25-30:1 and be composed of a range of particle sizes to allow air, water, and microbes to move throughout. We take our mixing very seriously and use Cornell’s compost calculator to help us get the ratios right. At present we use chipped wood from local tree-trimming services and coconut coir as primary carbon sources. They’re pesticide-free and make a stable, pH-balanced mix that crumbles nicely once finished.

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A layer of food (nitrogen) over a layer of carbon (wood/coir)

Once it’s mixed we check the moisture level (like a wet sponge) and close up.

A properly-formed compost pile will generate enough heat from microbial action to heat itself to near-pasteurizing temperatures. Our goal is to keep the pile at ~135 for 4 days, which is sufficient to kill most weed seeds (although not always tomatoes, those are really hardy!) as well as knock the levels of harmful bacteria down to insignificant levels. The minimum pile size is roughly 1 cubic yard of material, or 200 gallons, so the more composting supporters we have the better for this step!

After the pile has cooked a bit we turn and, soon, will feed this pre-compost to our worms. The majority we re-mix, adjust water if needed, and let heat again. After a second heat phase we set it aside to cure, allowing the remaining microbes to gradually finish their work before sifting, sharing and applying to our garden.

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Our 1/2 inch trommel (off its stand)

We sift with trommel screens made from unusable bike wheels (huge thanks to Mike’s Bikes & B-Works STL) and hardware cloth: 1/2 in, 1/4 in, and 1/8 in (for vermicast, to catch worm cocoons).

I love talking about compost, so send questions or comments to matt@blhfarm.com.

Recent Articles (links)

Several recent items from my news feed that I wanted to share:

New Bin on the New Plot!

We have officially begun using our downtown garden plot! We plan to grow hot-season annuals and some heat-loving perennials in above-ground beds with a potting mix based on compost from our residential food waste collection (sign up here!)..

As an addition to our family farm west of here, we are very excited to begin operating on a small Land Reclamation Authority (LRA) parcel in the industrial downtown (the LRA garden lease program encourages use of vacant city-owned land for growing vegetable & flowers).

The site is primarily concrete so our downtown garden avoids the worry of contaminated soils that many of the city’s urban gardens face (successfully! I’m thinking of the remediation efforts by Gateway Greening and others), but it’s fully lacking in infrastructure. Today we cut back (some of) the brush taking over the plot, built a new compost bin from reclaimed materials, and brought in barrels of water.

We’re very excited to have a new spot to grow and plan to bring flowers from the site to market next Spring.

The first order of business was to clear the site (this will continue!) and after we had cleared space we formed a bin from pallets — hardwood, heat-treated, chemical-free — which we’re excited to start using.

Check back for regular updates and say ‘hi’ via email (matt@blhfarm.com) or on our Facebook & Instagram.

Please Stop Using Lawn Chemicals

A large number of households in our area employ “full-service” lawn-care companies that not only mow but also apply chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and “pest” controls. After speaking with representatives from several area companies I am quite concerned about these applications and hope we will collectively reconsider their use.

  • What is being applied?

    • All companies are applying multiple broadleaf herbicides. Nearly all use both 2,4-d and the newer (and much more toxic & drift-prone) variant dicamba along with either an auxin inhibitor or another class of herbicide

    • Some are spraying neonicotinoid insecticides such as imidocloprid

    • Slug-killing compounds are often used

    • And, of course, chemical fertilizers

  • Why is this a problem?

    • “Neonics” are persistent, highly mobile chemicals that are incredibly toxic to a wide set of insects, and both native bees and honey bees are very sensitive to them

    • As volatile chemicals, 2,4-d and especially dicamba both “drift’ from their application spot and form plumes that can kill plants & trees for hundreds of yards (according to MU research, some ag plumes traveled upwards of 1 mile and killed orchards in their path)

    • The chemical data sheets on these chemicals plainly indicate they are dangerous to humans and household pets, and remain problematic for weeks or months

    • Soil microbes are devastated by ag chemicals

  • Safety Sheets for chemicals used widely in St Louis:

Hopefully everyone will take a few minutes and read about the health and environmental effects of these chemicals and then stop using them.

Mulching & Weeding & Pollinating

A few photos and quick items from the weekend.

We kept 3 large (1200 lb) round bales of hay aside last summer to use as mulch on the garden, and this weekend we finished the first one on our gladiola.

We kept 3 large (1200 lb) round bales of hay aside last summer to use as mulch on the garden, and this weekend we finished the first one on our gladiola.

I’m reasonably sure this is wild chamomile, and I’ve been amazed at the number of teeny native bees that forage on its flowers. It’s really moving to see so much life in our fields.

I’m reasonably sure this is wild chamomile, and I’ve been amazed at the number of teeny native bees that forage on its flowers. It’s really moving to see so much life in our fields.

We are experimenting with small beds outside our deer fence, and as the plants are growing well and haven’t been eaten to nubs I’m optimistc. From bottom to top we have crocosmia, liatris (also known as blazing star, a native prairie perennial flower) and a mixture of gladiola and my grandmother’s cosmos. Our strongest beehive is near the treeline.

We are experimenting with small beds outside our deer fence, and as the plants are growing well and haven’t been eaten to nubs I’m optimistc. From bottom to top we have crocosmia, liatris (also known as blazing star, a native prairie perennial flower) and a mixture of gladiola and my grandmother’s cosmos. Our strongest beehive is near the treeline.

This is a small section of sunflowers we are trialing with Takii Seeds. These are Sun Gold. They germinated very well and grew quickly, but they are attractive to insects (see the holes on the leaves) so I’m curious how they will do later in the season.

This is a small section of sunflowers we are trialing with Takii Seeds. These are Sun Gold. They germinated very well and grew quickly, but they are attractive to insects (see the holes on the leaves) so I’m curious how they will do later in the season.

An amazing delphinium flower from a very small plant! We fertilized with worm casting twice and it responded impressively.

An amazing delphinium flower from a very small plant! We fertilized with worm casting twice and it responded impressively.

Various and Sundry

If I weren’t a Missouri native I would say the weather has been odd but to be fair to MO WX it’s always odd, so the every-other-day-torrential-rains are just another flavor of unexpected. Looking at my notes from last year, at this time we hadn’t had a drop of rain on the farm in 6 weeks and our retention pond was nearly dry. Odd.

Last weekend I finally put up V trellises for our raspberries, which have been getting excellent pollination from bumble- and carpenter bees and seem to have an excellent fruit set. I would like to re-mulch the canes before the real summer heat sets in, so perhaps I can get to that this weekend (wx permitting). I’m using a natural jute twine for the trellis horizontals that I don’t expect to last long, but I had it on hand and it was much easier to string and tension than #9 wire.

Our second-year raspberry canes looking quite healthy

Our second-year raspberry canes looking quite healthy

I also came across my first monarch caterpillar of the season! Technically the larval stage, it is a voracious eater and is probably already pupating. It was, of course, on milkweed, but in a bit of a surprise to me it was on a common milkweed and not the showier butterfly weed. Here are the milkweeds they eat: https://blog.nwf.org/2015/02/twelve-native-milkweeds-for-monarchs/

munch munch

munch munch

I also spent an hour hand-pulling my least-favorite plant, a perennial weed (and poisonous member of the tomato family) known as horse nettle. It has taproots, spreads both underground and from seed, and has insidious thorns everywhere, stem and leaves!

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Worm Expansion

The power of worm-produced compost, vermicast, to improve and protect plant health is astounding — worm guts select for microbes that help plants take up nutrients and avoid disease, and the presence of vermicast appears to fend off insect damage as well. It’s incredible and an active field of research.

On the farm we include vermicast in our soil block mix for every seed we start, and we want to produce a lot more so we can add it to the tops of our no-till beds in the spring and fall. At ~4000 sq feet of beds, we will need a lot!

For worms to effectively compost food waste, their primary food which we source from St Louis County, a healthy population is required, so we have started a small worm breeding operation following Prof. Rhonda Sherman’s guidance (NC State vermicompost guru). We have kept worm bins for our own household scraps since 2012 so we had a starter colony, which we are expanding in dedicated single-food screened bins with what we hope is ideal conditions: the bedding a mix of coconut coir and shredded paper with volcanic rock dust mixed in for grit, and aged horse manure as their food. Now we wait!


Links

Installing Queens

Fingers crossed that the long cool Spring we have had (the nicest I remember) will bring a long bloom period as we now have four growing hives at the farm. Two weeks ago I split our overwintered colony twice and installed Missouri-bred queens from an apiary south of St Louis, and last weekend I added a nucleus colony from the same source.

Assuming all goes well, the new queens will fly and begin laying by the end of next week and during that hive check we will find larvae.