Archive for category garden

Two options for the urban gardener

Do you live in the city and have a rooftop, sunny alleyway or even a fire escape?  If you’re looking for inspiration, see what Farmtina has done with container gardens in her space:

And for those of us who grow indoors, check out Treehugger’s profile of LiveScreen.  Designed by Danielle Trofe,  these beautiful modular  hydroponic gardening system that would look amazing in just about any space.

Happy Weekend!

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Harvesting your Worm Bin – Indoor Composting part 2

Once you get your worm bin up and running, you will fall into the happy rhythm of saving/freezing your scraps when you cook and adding them to your bin once a week.  The bin has a sort of magical quality to it where it seems like you can just keep adding food scraps and it never seems to fill up! Of course, that is because your worm friends are hard at work breaking it all down into a much smaller volume.  But eventually (as in 4-6 months) you will notice that your bin does start to fill up and there is quite a bit of compost in there to be “harvested” – but how the heck do you separate the worms from their castings?  Good question!

Open your bin and you will likely see a combination of compost and foods that haven’t quite finished breaking down.  Avocado pits and eggshells are notorious for taking a long time to disintegrate.  If you have a large percentage of recognizable food scraps that need wormy attention, I suggest you let the bin sit for 2-3 weeks before harvesting.  Unfortunately though, that means not adding to it for those weeks. If you have two bins, you can stagger them, so you always have a place to put your scraps.  Otherwise, you will need to find an alternative during this time – or take a vacation!

If you let a few weeks go by, your bin should look something like this:

You are now ready to harvest.  Doing so takes a bit of time, so pick an afternoon when you have a few hours free, and if you have easy access to outdoor space, take your bin outside with the following supplies:

  • Plastic garbage bags (white is easier to use, but black is fine)
  • paper towels
  • old newspapers
  • a gardening spade, spoon or spatula
  • a container to hold your finished compost
  • gloves if you don’t want to get your hands dirty. 

The optimal situation would be to harvest your bin in the garden where you plan to use your compost.  That way you can spend your afternoon both gardening and composting, since there is quite a bit of unattended time required.  If you don’t have a sunny outdoor garden (which might be why you opted for a worm bin in the first place) have no fear!  This process can also be done in your plastic lined bathtub!

Start by removing the contents of the bin onto a garbage bag:

What you see here is a combination of worms, compost, and a few bits that just haven’t broken down yet. Beautiful, isn’t it?  The first thing to do is to pick out the avocado pits, corn husks, eggshells and other items that need a long time to break down and set them aside.  Then, take the compost and divide it into small pyramids.  Note: Kids love doing this.

You see, worms do not like light – and will do their best to avoid it, so doing this on a sunny day will yield the best results.  If you are harvesting indoors, you can use a flashlight or set up a utility light to mimic the sun. Once you make your pyramids, wait a about 20-40 minutes (during which you can garden, read a book, call your mother…)  and the worms will make their way down to the bottom of the pile.  Start by removing the top and sides of the pyramids and putting them into your compost bucket.  Reform the pyramids and wait another few minutes.  Repeat this process and soon you will just have tiny piles of mostly worms and some compost.  To be certain, you will also find there are worms in your finished compost, and I don’t think that can be avoided.  Think of them as an extra bonus to the plants.

You should now have a nice supply of finished compost – black gold!  You can put it directly onto your indoor and outdoor plants – just add them to the top of the soil just around the base.  If you have extra, you can donate it to a community garden, or put it into some fancy packaging and sell it on Etsy!

To start your worm bin anew, just clean it out and make a fresh bed of shredded newspapers.

Add your remaining worms along with the food scraps you removed earlier that need more time, and you are good to go!  If you are worried about the number of worms you are left with, you can put them in a bucket and weigh them. 1 pound = about 1,000 worms.  But have no fear, in a healthy worm bin the worms themselves do a pretty good job of maintaining the appropriate population for their space.  You might even notice little worm cocoons when you are harvesting your bin, like the ones on this avocado pit:

A little creepy, but also sorta cool!

There are a few other methods to harvest a worm bin here and here.  But the pyramid method has worked best for us. And I can’t recommend highly enough the handy reference guide, “Worms Eat My Garbage!” for an even better explanation of how this all works.  If you have any tips on how you successfully harvest your bin, I would love to hear about them.

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Windowfarm update: tiny sprouts!

They’re growing!  After my last failure with seed starting, I was beginning to think I would never succeed as an urban, indoor, landless farmer. Yet, here they are.  Clockwise from the top left: cilantro, shishito peppers, kale and parsley.  The tomatoes, arugula, and basil didn’t make the photo shoot (in truth, the basil may end up a casualty here).  The secret? Grow lights on a timer and the proper amount of nutrition.  It’s that simple.  Except it’s not because I have also become mildly obsessed with their well-being, to the chagrin of our poor cat.  Upon waking, the first thing I used to do was feed her, but now she has to wait while I check the plants.  Do they need more water? How much did they grow? Like any baby, when something is so tiny and fragile, every change is noticeable.  In a few weeks, they will be ready for transfer to the Windowfarm, but I say this with trepidation like I’m sending them to preschool.  The windowsill is cold – what if they don’t survive?

One of the best things about participating in this Windowfarm endeavor is the crowd-sourcing, both for the information provided and the camaraderie.  Once my seeds had sprouted, they grew to a certain point – about 1 inch – and then seemed to stop thriving.  Beside myself, I uploaded their sad photos to the Windowfarm site and asked for help (which came almost immediately).  The answer? Nutrients.  As the grow plugs are not soil, they only supply a support to the seedlings, nothing more.  So, I was advised to add some liquid nutrients to their water supply in the form of  Botanicare Pure Blend Pro which is a hydro-organic vegetative fertilizer custom blended from organic and natural sources of the essential major, secondary, and trace minerals that plants would normally find in good soil.  Within a day of adding a tablespoon of this magical liquid to a gallon of water the seedlings sprang to life! Growing plants from seed has so far been an exercise in wonder – when (and if) the time comes, will I actually be able to eat these plants? I’m only half kidding here.

Speaking of gardening, I came across this amazing article via MNN about the town of Todmorden in the UK that has landscaped its public spaces with edible gardens.  Residents can harvest what they wish on an honor system and…. it seems to be working!  The town of about 15,000 residents has the goal of becoming self-sufficient in communal food production by 2018.  Love.

And last but not least, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden has a lovely exhibition on….Terrariums! running until February 26th.  The perfect winter outing.  Click on their banner below for details.

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Worms Are Your Friends – Indoor Composting (part 1)

I need to clarify one point.  My brand new outdoor compost tumbler does not include worms.  They need an environment between 55°-80° and wouldn’t survive the winter in New York. Outdoors, the right combination of greens, browns, air and water + time will result in compost.  Adding worms just makes the whole process go a lot faster and makes vermiculture (fancy, for worm compost), ideal for the indoors because the food waste is broken down so quickly that (when it is working correctly) it has no smell.  I can attest to that because for years, our bin was in our kitchen (literally 2 feet away from our dining table) and no one could ever tell.  We once had a dinner party where the topic came up and when I showed our guests the hidden compost, one visibly blanched.  I’m still trying to convince him that worms are awesome, but I guess they just aren’t right for everyone.

We have had a couple of worm bins on and off for the last 14 years.  Back in 1998, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden ran a composting workshop and I decided to check it out.  I had no idea that worms were to be involved, but the process seemed so interesting (in a home science project kind of way) that I found myself lugging a bin full of worms through Prospect Park that same afternoon.  Our early attempts weren’t without some setbacks, however, the biggest issues being mold and fruit flies.  Ugh.  Little did I know that banana and citrus peels come teeming with fruit fly larvae just looking for the right conditions to make it into the world.  Our bin was their Shangri-La and they seemed impossible to get rid of. At one point, we had to dump the whole thing and start over.  Another problem was mold when the bin got too wet – that was easy enough to remedy with shredded newspaper.  Luckily, I had the helpful reference guide, “Worms Eat My Garbage” by Mary Appelhof:

Slowly we got the hang of it and – being just two people at the time – the compost did a pretty good job of handling our food scraps.  A few years later, though, we found ourselves moving into a smaller apartment with no logical space for a worm bin to go.  We kept meaning to get one but got wrapped up in a whirlwind of babies and subsequent moves.  By the time we came around to it again just a few years later, worms had moved from being the weird kid you don’t want to hang out with to the sort-of cool kid you might be friends with.  More people had them and –  even better – there were a wider variety of bins on the market.  Once we settled in what we hoped to be a long-term apartment, we immediately went searching for something that would fit into the only space we had (which happened to be smack in the center of our living room/dining room / kitchen).  Because of this, I wanted to make sure that I had a handle on the fruit fly situation, so I attended another workshop, thus beginning my love affair with the Lower East Side Ecology Center. Unlike the first workshop I attended, this one was crammed with people all eager to get their hands on some worms and the crowd included a reporter from the New York Times who ran this story on the growing popularity of vermiculture in NYC.  I brought my daughter along and she ended up being the cover model for the article which she will either grow to love or hate a few years from now.

The workshop walked everyone through setting up a bin and was helpful in enlightening me to a few ways to improve my system: for one, I hadn’t been using enough shredded newspaper bedding which is what was keeping the bin too moist.  Most importantly, I learned that if you freeze (or microwave) your food scraps before adding them to the bin, you will kill the fruit fly larvae! It works like a charm.  Not one fruit fly darkened our bin since.

So now that you are convinced that this awesome, how do you get started?  Well, there are a multitude of resources on the web that will walk you through the process, but this is what we did:

  • Make or buy a bin:  You can buy a bin on Amazon, or visit sites that specialize in worm bins and there are a variety of options.  If you have a lot of space or a basement, you can actually build a large enough system to feed a family.  There are also lots of how-to sites and videos on the web that will show you how easy it is to construct your own bin.  We went with the Tumbleweed worm bin mostly because it fit into the small space we had, but we grew to love it because it is a nested-box system and allows you to drain the liquid that forms (called compost tea).
  • Get your worms. It seems you can get red wigglers anywhere these days, even on Amazon or Worms.com.  Depending on where you live, shipping worms in the winter time can be a challenge, so if you have an environmental organization in your area, contact them to see if they might be able to sell to you directly.  In NYC, you can buy worms at the Greenmarket.
  • Set up your bin –  To get started, find some old newspaper.  It needs to be a paper that uses soy-based inks, as my local paper happily does. Most papers do, but if you are concerned, you can call them and ask. Shred the newspaper into strips about 1″ wide and create a nice fluffy nest in the bin.

  • Add your worms!  Take your worms and the medium they arrived in and dump the whole lot into the bin.  Cover with more paper.

  • Add your food scraps.  A bin the size of our Tumbleweed can handle about 3 lbs of food per week.  To make sure we didn’t overload the bin (and to prevent fruit flies), each time we would cook we would add the food scraps to a container in the freezer.  Once a week, we would dump the contents into the bin.  Each time you add, put the new food in a new spot – not right on top of the food from the previous week.

Suddenly, you are composting!  Feels good, right?  This description is just my experience, but for more comprehensive guide to setting up a bin, take a look at this handy reference from (you guessed it!) LESEC.

How To Set Up a Worm Bin

Next week, I will talk about when and how to harvest the compost from your bin.

Happy Composting!

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Feelin’ the composting love!

Wow.  Now I know what it means to have been freshly pressed – and it’s awesome.  I have to say that until yesterday, the majority of my blog readers were related to me, so it’s incredible to see how much compost love there is out there!  Thanks for all the great comments and interesting questions that have me thinking I should clarify a few things:

ON OUTDOOR COMPOSTING

I am new to outdoor composting, so what I know about it comes from what I’ve read and learned from other people, mostly LESEC, and not (yet) from experience.  A few people have asked me about the potential for rodents finding their way in to the bin.  This was certainly a concern that we all had in my building and is part of the reason why we went with such a fancy bin – all galvanized steel and raised off the ground, etc.  It strikes me that the bin sits in the same courtyard where our garbage bags sit waiting for a Thursday to roll around and, if I were a rat, I would bypass the compost and head for the easy-to-chew-through bags. But that’s just me (in rodent form).

A bigger problem with a communal bin is the potential for someone to carelessly toss last night’s lasagna bolognese  in with their compost waste, ruining the whole batch.  We are fortunate in that we live in a small, academic building where all of the residents work and study at the same institution and I am hoping that will translate into a greater sense of communal responsibility.  That said, we are starting small with  just a few apartments and requiring everyone who wants to participate to go through an orientation.  That doesn’t mean that some renegade academic won’t just start tossing stuff in on their own though, so I’ve put up a lot of instructional signage and the success of this endeavor remains to be seen. I think a communal system works best in smaller buildings where neighbors know one another.  In large rental buildings with a high turnover, it would need to be something integrated into the building’s waste management system, and there are already companies out there who are starting to do this (Triangle High-Rise Building Composting Plan).  Another amazing model is San Francisco’s municipal composting program, showing it can be done on any scale, really.

It seems pretty simple, but for the whole thing to work in any compost (not matter what the size) you need the right balance of four essential components: Greens (nitrogen-rich materials), Browns (carbon-rich materials), Water and Oxygen.

GREENS:

The Greens are your food scraps, the proliferation of which started you on this whole crazy project to begin with.  But not all food waste can go in the bin. According to LESEC, this is what you can compost:

  • fruit and vegetable peelings
  • non greasy food scraps or leftovers rice, pasta, bread, cereal, etc.
  • coffee grounds with filter, tea bags
  • hair and nails (animal or human)
  • egg and nut shells
  • cut or dried flowers, houseplants, potting soil

And this is what you should avoid:

  • meat
  • dairy
  • oily foods
  • dog or cat feces, kitty litter
  • coal or charcoal
  • coconuts (really?)
  • diseased and/or insect infested houseplants or soil

Interestingly enough, the information page for the Jora JK270, says that you can actually compost meat and pet waste! While I find this fascinating, I’m not willing to give it try just yet.

BROWNS

As I mentioned in my last post, I had to practically steal my browns to get the bin started, as they are the essential yang to the Greens yin.  The optimal ratio of Brown to Green in any bin is 2:1, so I might have to do some more foraging this winter.  On the other hand, in a pinch you can use things like shredded newspaper (soy-based ink only) and cardboard. Come to think of it, this may be the perfect job for all of the paper towel and toilet paper rolls that are piling up hoping I’ll do some kind of art project with them soon.  Now they will have a higher calling.  Some food waste counts as brown, too: egg shells, bread, and grains – you get the idea.  Yard waste is generally brown, but lawn clippings count as green.

WATER

The contents of your bin should be wet.  But not too wet.  I’m concerned my bin isn’t wet enough and, frankly, I still need to get the hang of this part.  In a worm bin, you could control this with the amount of newspaper you add, but I’m hoping the weather will help take care of it outside.

OXYGEN

Adding air to the bin is done by turning the compost, which should be done frequently.  The Tumbler model of bin makes this super easy (until it gets heavy and then it will throw your back out, I’ve heard).  Our policy is that you spin the bin every time you add, but this may need to be modified down the road.

Seems simple, but it appears that plenty can go awry, too.  That, my friends, remains to be seen.  Who knows what kind of gross photos of renegade compost could show up on this blog.   This weekend, I’ll write about something I know a little more about: Indoor Composting with Worms.

For a much more thorough outline of setting up an outdoor bin, take a look at the LESEC’s helpful guide: LESEC Outdoor Compost Guide.

I would love to hear more about your experiences! This almost feels like a movement.

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Urban Composting: how to convince your building that it’s cool.

It’s January 10th and I am pleased to announce that I have already fulfilled a resolution!  Never mind that it was a resolution made back in 2010.  This weekend we inaugurated a volunteer-run, community-wide composting program in my apartment building.  It took about two seconds to dump the first batch of kitchen scraps into it and about two  years to get to that point.

Until yesterday, my family had been composting with worms in our apartment for several years and I can’t say enough good things about worm bins! In my perfect world, every apartment kitchen would come with a built-in worm cabinet, just like they used to come with drop-down ironing boards.  However, as a family of four that cranks out three meals a day, the number of food scraps we produced was overwhelming our bin.  We would need three or four worm bins to manage our food scraps and – unless we built our coffee table out of worm bins (which isn’t such a bad idea, actually) – there would be nowhere to put them in our “cozy” abode.  Since a number of my neighbors had also expressed interest in composting (one was already going to the trouble of freezing her scraps and hauling them down to the Union Square Greenmarket, one of the cities compost collection sites), it seemed worth exploring a communal composting solution for our building.

Composting in New York City seems to be where recycling was in the early 1980’s: something that is slowly gaining momentum, but is still viewed as outside the mainstream.  I imagine there were the same arguments against recycling then, as there are against composting now:  that it takes too much time to separate your garbage, that somehow the building’s facilities staff will be unduly burdened, and is it really worth it anyway? And, of course, there is an extra barrier for some people: “Ew! Worms!” or “won’t it smell gross?”.   While I’m an advocate of recycling and feel that everyone should take responsibility for the waste they produce, recycling by necessity relies on an infrastructure to actually transform your plastic bottle or newspaper into something new and useful.  Composting, by contrast, is a closed system.  You get a bin, add your scraps, stir it around, and a few months later you have a beautiful, rich compost that can be added to your plants or tree beds (you could probably even sell it on Etsy).  There is literally no downside and a huge upside in the palpable reduction of your own garbage (26% of the material that ends up in landfills is food scraps and yard waste that could be composted instead).  With the vast number of different types of compost bins on the market these days, there is a fit for just about any lifestyle.  For people outside urban areas with easy access to outdoor space, a compost bin should be a no-brainer.  And if you live in a city and don’t produce more than 3 lbs of food scraps per week, a worm bin would suit you just fine.  But for those of us in the middle: living in a city with a family and producing more waste than one worm bin can handle, the best thing to do is to band together with your neighbors.

We are lucky in New York City to have organizations like the Lower East Side Ecology Center that work to promote sustainability through community-based recycling and composting programs.  They offer workshops on all types of recycling, including a class I attended back in 2010 on how to go about initiating a building-wide composting initiative.  The presenter spoke about the ups and downs of convincing her co-op board to let a few residents install communal worm bins in the basement of her large building.  As you can imagine, not everyone was on board with this idea (see: “Ew! Worms! above).  She outlined a strategy to go about convincing her board and neighbors that, indeed, communal composting is a fabulous idea:

  1. Start by garnering the support of your neighbors. This is a volunteer endeavor and doesn’t require the buy-in of the entire building.   You just need between 2-4 families to form a pilot project.  In fact, it is better to start small and add people as the project becomes a success.
  2. Try to get the building management on your side.  After all, even if the program is completely resident run, it will have an impact on the building’s waste management workflow and it is helpful to have a good relationship with those who maintain the public spaces.  If you live in a rental building with high turnover, this will be a harder sell as it will really fall to building maintenance staff to keep it going. But who knows? They may just be waiting for this opportunity!
  3. Present it to the powers-that-be in the form of a well written proposal.  Outline it as a pilot-project involving a core group of residents that will be reviewed by the board in three to six months. Knowing that they have a mechanism for terminating the project if it doesn’t work seems to go a long way toward assuaging the angst many building managers and their boards have about this kind of change.  Make sure the proposal highlights the benefits of composting while also addressing common concerns all in one page.  Here is a basic template to use: Composting Proposal Template
  4. Prepare to be rebuffed initially.  Perhaps outright or perhaps by evasion.  There will never be time to address it in the meeting.  Or it will be “too much for the building to take on right now”.  Don’t be discouraged – it took over a year and a half for my building to come around.  Gentle prodding and reminders about how many buildings in the city are already composting successfully will help.  Without being totally annoying, talk incessantly about how many fewer garbage bags will sit on the curb once we are composting.  Appeal to the “green” side of the folks in control.  No one wants to look like the Once-ler
  5. If you live in NYC, call in the experts. For only $25, a member of the LESEC  will visit your building, give a composting demonstration and talk to building managers and residents about the specifics of composting in the city, which is what we did one Sunday in early December. There is nothing like hearing it from an outside authority and I can’t say enough about how important this was for us.  We spent two hours on a Sunday afternoon talking about “greens” and “browns” with Natalie from LESEC and at the end of it, even the initial critics were enthusiastic about the project. They even helped us select the most appropriate bin for our building.

Once you get the green light, you are almost there.  The next step is selecting and ordering the bin.  After much reflection, we decided to go with the Jora JK270 Compost Tumbler, which we ordered from EarthEasy.  It is on the more expensive end of the spectrum and you can certainly get a good bin for much less, but we chose it because it had enough capacity for our entire building, and it’s dual chamber set allows one to keep adding to the other side of the bin once the first side is full and needs to cure.  The fact that it sits high off the ground making it extra pest proof and easy to spin sealed the deal.

Once it arrived, the next step was to put it together.  Coming from Sweden, the directions were written in high IKEA and totally unfathomable.  Luckily, EarthEasy includes helpful assembly videos on their site.   We watched as a strapping young lad took about 11 minutes to assemble the bin all by himself.

If I showed you a video of my husband and me assembling the JoraJK270, it would have to be a feature length-film, as it took us nearly three hours to put the damn thing together and almost ended our marriage. The film would be considered a  “dramedy”, and I do admit that I questioned my commitment to the environment that evening.  But that is behind us now and we have a rockin’ bin to show for it.

The next challenge was collecting enough “browns” – the carbon based plant material that forms one part of the composting quadrivium: Browns, Greens, Air and Water. In a healthy outdoor bin, you should have two parts brown material to one part green material.  Greens are what you have in your kitchen.  Browns are what you have in your yard.  Except when it’s December in NYC and you don’t exactly have a yard.  Thus, began a rather comical search for lawn waste that ended in my surreptitious foraging for mulch in Central Park.  It was exciting. I mean, I could have been arrested.

Once the bin, the browns and the appropriate signage had all been assembled, the bin was open for business:

First the “browns” were added.

Then the kitchen scraps.

I covered them with some more browns, gave the bin a spin, and walked away.  It should be that easy in every building.  So far, we have five committed participants and another 5 or 6 residents who want to join in the fun.  As half of our building consists of graduate students, we will orient them to the bin next fall.  Who knows what lies ahead: fruit flies? Strange smells? Reduced garbage?  Hopefully gorgeous compost that is so badly needed in our garden and for our poor street trees.  Wish us luck and we will keep you posted.

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Windowfarm Update:

After my last failed attempt at starting seeds for my Windowfarm, I had only one set of grow plugs and a few seeds left, so I decided to step it up for round two and invest in grow lights (they came in a box helpfully labeled “GROW LIGHTS!” which caused the front desk staff to raise their eyebrows when we picked it up in the lobby).  But lo and behold, they work!  At first there were just a few sprouts – the arugula is very eager.  But with 16 hours of indoor light a day and the near constant spraying of the sponges in this dry weather, we now have tiny sprouts of kale, tomatoes, shishitos, cilantro, parsley, arugula and basil.  It’s really amazing to watch something this closely and now I’m afraid I will be bereft if they die on me.  But I’m optimistic for a 2012 full of indoor bounty.

Happy New Year!

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