Sunday, March 27, 2011

Worms are hermaphrodites and other sexy things

I just got in from a great gardening session. I love my newly landscaped front yard. It's kind of overwhelming how in love I am with it. It's colorful, it feeds bees, I can eat it, it's playful.... Honestly, I can't keep my hands off it. I'm completely smitten. I leaned over and took a nibble of a violet petal. It was as good as it sounds. Better even. Velvet violet petal. sweet.

But what inspired me to write was not swooning over violet petals but rather my love of worms. Every thing I moved that had been sitting still for the last week had loads of worms underneath. Most were red wigglers but there were a few meatier gray worms too. I scooped them all up and added them under the mulch in the front beds. I am a big fan of worms but they get kind of a bad rap in our culture. There are many misconceptions about worms that I feel compelled to clarify.
1) Worms are gross.
Get over it. STFU. Don't be inane. Worms build soil so you (and geological time) don't have to. They work their little tails off and ask for nothing except your kitchen scraps and a little cover from the sun. I'm happy to feed them my "trash"! Makes me feel great that less trash heads to the landfill. Makes them happy to fill their bellies with slime and poop out crumbly rich humic acid soil. They are soil building factories. Even the slime that coats them (their own personal lubricant so they can navigate the underground world without damaging tender tissues - cause nothing that soft likes a lot of friction!) is worthy of accolades. It helps hold soil together. They are awesome. and sexy (more on that later).
2) Worms can be cut in half and regenerate their missing half.
Please review your 7th grade taxonomy lessons! Worms are annelids. Annelids don't regenerate. (any taxonomists out there to set me straight if I'm wrong? Cool. Figured as much.) There are lots of other things called worms that can do that. Earthworms can't! All you will potentially get is one shorter worm and one piece of decomposing worm tail. Yuck. Leave them alone.
3) Worms are dirty.
Really they aren't. If you, with all your messy hairs, lived in soil you'd be a mess. Worms are pink or gray or whatever color they are. You are the one that gets dirty when you go after them. and they don't carry any diseases and they certainly can't hurt you.

4) Worms aren't interesting.
That's silly. Let me tell you how they make more worms. First off, worm anatomy is pretty cool. When they become teenagers (60-90 days) they grow a clittelum. Already it's starting to sound sexy. The clittelum is a swelling towards the anterior (head) end of the worm that makes a ring around it's body. This swelling contains sex organs. I say "it" because worms have genitalia of both males and females. There are some juicy tidbits on reproduction in the wikipedia article on Earthworms. Essentially they glide their clittelums together and exchange sperm with each other. They embrace in this way for quite a while if I remember correctly. Reproduction happens later when the worm is by itself. It makes a cocoon around itself and then slides out of the cocoon leaving its own eggs and former partners sperm. It sounds very "modern relationship saga" but is just what makes evolutionary sense for these critters.
I just like getting to say clittelum a whole bunch.

The beauty of decomposition aka "Compost Happens"

There are so many ways to compost - vermiculture in which worms eat your kitchen scraps, hot compost, cold compost, humanure and on and on. I'll share some of the ways I've composted in the past and what I'm currently doing.
I teach my high school students that about 30% of our MSW (municipal solid waste) is organic matter that could be composted. To me it is among the worst sins to send organic matter to the landfill. I have had roommates who thought I was heading towards bag-ladyness because I would pull their food scraps (and recycling) out of the trash. The landfill is like hell for organics. They don't decompose on any real time scale because there's not enough oxygen or friction. Heaven for organics is your compost pile, compost pit, stuffed under a bush or anywhere else they can decompose and get added to soil again.

Compost can become a bit of an obsession but I'm all for obsessions like this. No one gets hurt, it doesn't cost any money and it does a lot of good for the planet. You might feel a little kooky taking scraps home from your non-composting friends and family but you'll get over it.

For most of us urban dwellers the waste we generate in the greatest quantity are kitchen scraps. A great way to deal with kitchen scraps is via a worm bin. Kitchen scraps decompose into slimy, stinky, wet, nitrogen-rich goo after a short while. This goo is manna for worms. NOTE: Not all worms are created equally! Some worms (night crawlers come to mind) need to be in the dirt and eat things that aren't readily available in compost. Red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) are the ones you want. You can get them at bait shops, buy them online, or (my favorite) throw a bunch of straw or rich organic matter on the ground and then scoop them up a couple weeks later. They are small and deep reddish pink. I could be off about this but my understanding is they aren't actually eating the food you put out for them but rather they live on the decomposers that are breaking that food down. Who cares?! They turn that goo into crumbly worm castings that make your plants very very happy.
There a gazillion different kinds of worm composting systems. I've tried plastic boxes, wooden boxes, and a few different purchased plastic products. My vote goes to the can '0 worms or any of the other plastic worm composters with multiple levels you can add. It makes the job super easy to harvest and maintain your worm bin. There's a lot of information online about how to do worm composting. JUST DO IT!

If you have a yard a compost bin or a compost pile is definitely in order. You can use this for kitchen scraps and yard waste and ideally would have all of this in the perfect ratio for composting 25-30:1 carbon to nitrogen. All that means is you need a whole lot of "brown" stuff (dried leaves, small twigs, sawdust, straw, or any other source of carbon) to whatever "green" stuff you have (can include manure, kitchen scraps, or any other rich gooey, funk smelling nitrogen loaded waste). The nitrogen rich material gets the microbes the energy boost they need to tackle the much harder to break down carboniferous (love that word!) material. Ideally you have a way to mix these components together in your pile too so the little bacteria divas don't have to travel far to get from one type of nutrient to the other.

There are people who get PhDs (pile higher and deeper) in compost and who have thermometers and data sheets and really get into this process. More power to them! For me it's just a means to an end. I LOVE decomposition. When I was a kid instead of running away from dead animals we'd find I'd poke them with a stick (can you say "tom boy"?!). It's fascinating to me and I appreciate all the players involved in keeping beauty and abundance on this planet! Yeah decomposers and detrivores! BUT, with limited time I'm a pile it and forget about it kind of composter. and that works just fine too. If you're like me you probably don't get that steamy hot pile of compost that could heat your water pipes and you don't kill weed seeds (best to keep them out of the pile then) or pathogens (please don't be pooping in your cold compost pile either! What would the neighbors think?). But it works fine and I get rich crumbly compost after a while and add it to my garden soil. If you want to go the hot compost route use google to get more info and then share your secrets with the rest of us! Also there are a huge range of fancy and unfancy composters you can buy. My compost is in a wooden bin that the previous homeowners built. My ideal composter I built at a rental two houses ago. It consisted of two large bins next to each other with cinderblock walls. One side was for "cooking" and the other side was for adding. I'd keep both sided moderately wet and covered with a tarp. It worked pretty well. If you want you can spend $1000 on a fancy composter from Germany that has a pretty handle to spin your compost and takes up more room than your shed. But why would you?

A word of warning: Once you open the Pandora's box of decomposition all manner of strange interests and strange sites will greet you. My first window fly larva (on my pillow of all places) had me racing to the internet to figure out what this odd segmented thing with no discernable head was). I still have no idea how it got on my pillow but now I know that those creepy (makes me shudder honestly) little things are just window fly larvae and they actually help break food down so the worms have an easier time of digesting it. Be willing to open to the magic! It's sort of a Kali-esque embrace of death really. There's no greater mystery to explore and you don't even need to die to do it!

and I couldn't talk about compost without mentioning something I recently learned a great deal about. Humanure! Something even hard core Greenies are afraid to talk about! Last month the folks at Homegrown Evolution (amazing folks) hosted Nancy Klehm who shared about her experience composting human waste with the Humble Pile project. It was pretty incredible and when they finally passed around some the contents of the humble pile from the house - 1 year old composted toilet stuff it was unbelievable. Looked just like crumbly rich compost out of the bag from the garden store. I have yet to set up my 5 gallon bucket toilet seat system at my homestead but I'm no longer afraid of it and eager to stop wasting all that good nitrogen by sending it into the city sewage system. Now, if I happen to travel to a developing nation or if a plague sweeps through LA I may feel differently about composting my poo for a year (two if necessary) but based on what was shared at the Poo Salon, I feel like I can do it safely.

Once you start composting you will wonder how you ever used to throw stuff in the trash can. It seems like such a waste!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Water water everywhere and not a drop....

saved via my non-existent roof catchment system. So much for the wise old strategy of sourcing your water first then doing all the garden stuff. I can't help myself though it's the garden I make time for. I was wise about installing the irrigation lines before I start planting. I've done it the other way around before and it's a pain. and when will I ever have this gorgeous blank slate of front garden to lay out lines on again? I expect it will be a riotous burst of color and form for many years to come.
So, in the short break between days of torrential downpours I went outside and laid down the netafim irrigation line. Netafim is a straight tube with embedded emitters that are self flushing. It is SO MUCH easier than dealing with ugly black poly line and the confusing tangle of spaghetti tubing and emitters and mess. I got a little perplexed on their website with how to make a grid over my super curvilinear multi tiered landscape. They show these really neat looking lines of netafim with piping on either side to form a layer of lines over your yard. Was not having any fun trying to wrap my head around how to interpret that for my front garden. I went to JHM Irrigation (LOVE THEM!) with some questions based on the netafim websites info.
The website mentioned one product Netafim EZ that was designed for curvier landscapes and sharper turns and could easily be snaked around in a big circle. That seems more up my alley.
Turns out I was right! (love it when that happens :)
The guy at JHM was a gem. Stayed with me helping even after their official closing time. We pretty much returned the entire box of stuff I'd picked up from them on Saturday at a different location with much less helpful staff present. He set me up with a variety of little tubes and small plastic things that actually made sense. I got home and laid the line out. The hardest part was trying to figure out whether to turn to the right or the left to take the twist out of the hose. Got the garden lines laid out, will cut everything to fit and attach it to the hose bib soon (not necessary now as we've got more rain on the way and I don't even have any plants in the ground yet). I am delighted it went so quick and eager to test it out. but before that I'm WAY more eager to start planting! So happy that is on my agenda for very very soon. I LOVE my front yard and I can't wait to eat it :)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Is it any wonder I'm staying in on a Saturday night?

As much as I wish I was filling this space with tales of my exploits it seems that I will be staying home again both evenings this weekend. There are parties galore and all kinds of things to go out and do but I spent the day up to my ankles in fish goo. My hands feel like sandpaper, my back hurts from hauling buckets of muck for hours today and I've got fish poop in my hair. I've also got a huge amount of work to do helping to organize the upcoming Southern California Permaculture Convergence (which is going to be incredible BTW) and when else am I going to do it?
Kinda makes me wonder if there's any nookie in my future until summer with the schedule I'm facing. That's no good.
How's a busy girl supposed to hook up?
and that's not even the real question I'm trying to answer. It's not just a hook up - that's much easier. How is someone who spends her days happily mulching rabbit litter box contents and beaming about her seed order supposed to find love and partnership in this super superficial and so fast moving city?
It seems my urban homesteading habit might interfere with my romantic endeavors. Not many men will find rabbits who live under my bed to be a turn on. Maybe I can woo him with the magical home grown produce from my garden? Or the home brew kombucha or saurkraut I made? Not likely.
My best bet would probably be to attend the free lecture tonight at the Arboretum on bees, wasps and ants and I would LOVE to be there but I'm tired and dirty from working all day and it starts in ten minutes. sigh...
no exciting news on the romance front to report for the time being.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Pond muckabout on the horizon

Tomorrow I am cleaning out the pond outside my classroom. The pond was built with grant money from the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District several years ago. It was a one day project and my students and I were amazed at what we created together (with the help of some pro pond builders). Now, several years later, the bottom is filling up with goo and the poor fishies hide outs are submerged in it. I think they feel very vulnerable and I feel for them. I'm also eager to get that goo for my new front yard garden (and all the other places I plant and tend). It will be my first foray into using a sump pump and doing anything of this magnitude. We'll be removing all the water, fish, and plants and power washing the rocks until they are clean. Then refilling and dechlorinating and carefully replacing everything back into the pond. If you have a pond and are wondering how to do it I found lots of resources on google. Here's one:
One super important thing that I learned today (trying out my $175 super fancy sump pump that is supposed to absolutely not clog up and ruin the day tomorrow) is I need to put the pump into a container. A short bucket or plastic box (short sided) or the pump will suck up rocks and whatever else it is close to. I think the pump is okay but don't want that to happen again! One website suggested putting it in a milk crate but that still seemed like too big of holes and lots of potential for small rocks to go through.
It's also supposed to rain tomorrow. First time I scheduled this event it got cancelled because of rain and then it didn't even rain.
I'm praying for rain for my garden but I wish it would hold off until tomorrow evening so this project can get done.
If the sun is shining on the East side of Los Angeles county wish me luck!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Seeds! Just can't get enough...

If you don't know about Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog you are in for a treat!
I practically drool when I open the pages. True vegetable porn. The are all organic and all heirloom. What's not to like? A little kitschy and old fashioned (charming or annoying depending on how much traffic I had to sit through on my way home from work) and loaded with the most amazing things.
If you've never tried Gajo De Melon tomato I have to say 1) I'm a little sad I shared it because it's going to be harder to find seeds now and 2) who needs candy when you have this lovely little cherry around? It's beautiful and far and away the most delicious tomato I've ever had. Beautiful little pinky yellow fruits pop out all over the robust vines and it keeps on producing. Mine was in a 5 gallon pot and when my friend gifted it to me it was already covered in fruit. It kept producing all summer long and I just couldn't seem to get enough of it!
About the picture - I tried to find a shot of my tomato plant but no luck. Guess I was too busy eating to take a photo. Instead I took a picture of one of the yummy salads I make with produce from my garden and my favorite CSA - Tierra Miguel Biodynamic Farm. If you're in Southern California they are incredible (best strawberries you've ever had and they keep for ages!)
If you have a favorite organic heirloom seed catalog (they can't all have gone the way of Seeds of Change and Seed Savers Exchange I hope). Please share it!

Thanks for reading,

Welcome to my world!

I finally decided to start blogging about what's happening in my life and in my yard. This whole trademark thing has been an epiphany for me. I never realized how much I identified with the term "Urban Homesteading" before my friends the Dervaes apparently trademarked it. It is such a depictor of how I live and what I enjoy that I can't not use it! and the term was around long before either the Dervaes or I used it. It's really a movement and I am a part of this movement. I've been holding the candle of this movement trying to keep the flame from dying out for many years and I'm finally able to hold up my light and proudly share it with others.
I AM AN URBAN HOMESTEADER! and more so now since last weekend I hosted a "Swan Song for my Lawn" workshop with Larry Santoyo of Earthflow Design ( He designed and the class and I build the most beautiful spiral bed terraces where my front yard used to be. I'm dazzled, the neighbors are mostly supportive (the kids are CRAZY about the strawberries!), and I can no longer hide my urban homesteaderness.

Why I think I have something to add to the glut of info about urban homesteading is that I do not have a family that tends the garden, monitors the gray water system, or maintains my livestock. It's all me all the time. I am single. Not so much by choice - although I'm sure on a spiritual blah blah blah level that if I wasn't choosing it it wouldn't be so or some claptrap like that. I'm happy to share my story so that other people realize that although it takes a village to raise a child, it only takes one dedicated person to raise five rabbits, a tribe of (recently spayed and neutered) feral cats, a healthy hive of bees, gazillions of worms, dozens of fruit trees, and loads of vegetables. If I can do it with my CRAZY schedule anybody can do it!

as for the allusion to "Sex and the Single Girl" that's no accident either. I happen to be someone who very much enjoys life on the sensual side (how can you harvest a ripe peach and not be turned on?) so expect to hear snippets of that side of my life time and again too.

I'm happy to share my adventures and misadventures so stay tuned for more dirt!