The Worm Whisperer

The Worm Whisperer

A friend recently asked how to get started with worm farming and, honestly, I couldn’t answer, as my brother set it all up for me. If there’s a guy who knows a thing or two about worms, it’s him. Being knee-deep in worm muck is his happy place.

He helped me put together this handy how-to for anyone keen to get started. Be warned though – it’s addictive. Once you harvest that first batch of black gold, there’s no turning back, you’ll never throw your food waste in the bin again. Here we go…

What your worms will need

  • Like us, worms need oxygen to breathe, which they do through their skin.
  • Darkness. Too much exposure to light slows down the decomposition process; it might drive them away or even kill them.
  • Organic waste (balanced between ‘greens’ such as fruit and vegetable waste and ‘browns’ such as egg cartons).
  • A temperature of anywhere between 10 – 35 degrees celsius. They tolerate cold better than heat, so your bin should never be in direct sunlight.

Choosing a bin
A number of options are available — from fancy shop bought systems to a plastic tub with holes punched into the lid. Plastic bins are probably easiest and most convenient because they’re durable, lightweight and easy to come by (though try use food grade plastics to prevent chemicals leaching into your compost). One drawback of plastic — the air flow isn’t good so you’ll need to manage your feeding schedule carefully to prevent anaerobic conditions being created.

Wooden bins provide the best aeration for your system (again, look out for pressure/chemical treated woods). Other options such as cinder blocks or bricks work well too but are cumbersome and fairly permanent.

Setting up your bin

  1. Create a bedding of organic matter — torn up egg cartons, toilet rolls, shredded newspaper (avoid the glossy stuff) or store bought coconut coir. Soil directly from your garden will be too heavy for the worms and probably contaminate the bin.
  2. Add some food. You can include anything organic that will decompose — fruit and vegetable peels and scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds and tea bags. Don’t include meat, dairy or bones as this will attract pests.
  3. Let the bin stand for at least a week before introducing any worms.
  4. Start SLOW. People have a tendency to over feed in the beginning, but only add new food when most of the previous batch has been eaten. After a month or so you’ll get a feel for how quickly your worms can process waste.
  5. If you opt for plastic bins, a popular choice are stackable meat trays, as this allows you to grow your worm system as you go. Here’s how you do it:
    • Start with three (same-sized) trays. The bottom one will be for collecting any liquid run-off that comes out your bin. You can install a tap to help remove it.
    • The next level would be your feeding tray. This is where most of your worms will be, happily eating, growing and breeding.
    • If you want, add a third tray on top. This acts as a lid to keep out light and a means of separating your worms from your compost when the middle tray is full. The middle and top tray should have holes (about 6-8mm) drilled into the base to allow the worms to migrate to the top tray when the middle one is full.

Some Do’s

  1. Food waste releases moisture when it decomposes but a light sprinkle with a watering can will help ensure the entire bin is moist. But don’t over do it, you don’t want it soaked, as this will reduce oxygen in the system.
  2. Feeding: little and often is best. Anything from once a week to daily, depending on your level of involvement.
  3. Place the bin in a sheltered space, preferably covered, so it doesn’t get wet. Cover food scraps with shredded newspaper (hand-torn is fine); this helps keep fruit flies at bay.
  4. If you can, freeze your food scraps beforehand (allow to fully thaw before feeding); this will kill any fruit fly eggs and accelerate the decomposition process.
  5. If you add lots of egg shells, dry them out either in the sun or oven and crush them before adding. It’s not vital but will give your final product a better looking finish!

Some don’ts

  1. Check up on them too often. Constant disturbances will slow down their eating habits
  2. Place in direct sun
  3. Feed too much citrus, as it’s too acidic
  4. Feed pineapple and papaya seeds, as they can kill your worms. Rather save these for your traditional compost pile.

Troubleshooting

  1. Peek in your bin regularly (but not everyday). You should see rotting food and lots of worms wriggling about. It should be moist, and there might be other little critters crawling around. Common bin friends are springtails, mites (only a problem in excessive numbers), spiders, woodlice, the odd slug, small (not large) beetles, and centipedes (these can prey on worms but shouldn’t be a problem if you spot just one or two).
  2. Your worm bin is healthy if there is no smelly odour
  3. Conversely, it’s unhealthy if it smells bad! In this case it’s probably been fed too much and has gone anaerobic. Stop feeding the bin. Remove any uneaten food and gently turn your bedding in a few spots, adding torn egg cartons to neutralise it. After a week or so your bin should return to normal.

Sourcing your worms
Most good nurseries stock them. A small bucket of just worms (ie no soil or bin) will set you back about R350. If you’re impatient to get started or have some cash to spare, you could buy a ready-to-go system – ie the worms, already in soil, in a worm bin. That’ll set you back anything from R1,200 to R2,000.

Or, simply google ‘worms for sale in South Africa’ — suppliers change their prices depending on availability, so shop around for the best prices.

black gold
After months and months of cold composting we recently harvested two huge buckets of the most beautiful, dense, rich, organic compost, pictured above. Unlike hot composting, where you can harvest after a couple of weeks, with cold composting, it’s a much longer game, but still totally worth it.

Head over here for a step-by-step guide to hot composting. Here for the differences between a worm bin, a bokashi system and a regular compost bin. And here for a post on why composting is like therapy for me.

Wild and waste-free!

Wild and waste-free!

 

If you’re keen to whittle down your waste but unsure where to start, get yourself to the sleepy, scenic suburb of Glencairn on Saturdays. The Wild & Waste-free Food & Lifestyle Co-op stocks the essentials to get you up and running  — stainless steel and bamboo straws, reusable produce bags, unpackaged soaps and body products and toxic-free household cleaners (which you can decant into your own containers).

All those glass jars you’ve been stockpiling? Take them along and stock up on nuts, grains, seeds and pulses, gluten-free pasta and dried fruit (I also spotted cassava flour and baobab). There’s locally & ethically sourced fresh produce and flowers, honey (not on-tap, but in large recycled jars), and a smattering of delicious snacks like samosas and date balls.

Unless you live in the Deep South, it’s quite a drive, but make a morning of it! Combine it with a stroll on Fish Hoek beach, a Scratch Patch outing, a day at Boulders or a mooch around Simon’s Town. Even if you go just to kickstart your waste free journey, or need motivation to keep going, it’s well worth the trip.

The Co-op is in its Pilot Phase with many of the vendors on hand if you want the scoop on how their products are made. Hugely passionate Jade Khoury, the force behind the Co-op, is also around to help and inspire.

We’re looking forward to hearing more from Jade soon! Watch this space…

unpackaged soap
I love my lotions and potions, but it’s time to consolidate and experiment with less toxic, unpackaged products. Not sure I’ll ever be a one-bar-for-everything kind of girl, but shower gels and packaged soaps? So over them!
household cleaners
I recently loaded my trolley with bottles of Handy Andy, bleach and other effective but noxious household cleaners, and just knew it was time for them to go. Much as I love sparking, gleaming surfaces, I’m keen on the idea of just one cleaner in a reusable spray bottle to tackle the grease, grit and grime. Will let you know how this works out!
toothpaste
I do love the tingle of toothpaste, but I’m going to give this my best shot, as I love the idea of re-using this little jar, instead of tubes and tubes (and tubes!) of store-bought paste.

You can check out the Wild & Waste-free Co-op Facebook page here.

Coffee With: Renata Harper

Coffee With: Renata Harper

It’s time for our next Q&A! Just love these soulful, beautifully crafted words from Renata Harper, editor of EnviroKids.


Why do you do what you do?
The natural world is my muse. Writing is one of many ways that I can express my love for nature and celebrate her keepers and creatures. I took the position of editor at EnviroKids (WESSA’s quarterly magazine for young eco-champions), because it’s a powerful way to share the magic of our planet with young South Africans. As a reluctant “grown-up”, it also allows me to be childlike, to play and enthuse.

Even if wordcraft weren’t my chosen profession, I would continue to write for myself. I’ve written through confusion, anxiety and heartache and it always brings me to the other side. I guess I write mostly to make sense of myself and of the world.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be? 
I would love to have been born in a musical! More feasibly, I would work in wildlife rehabilitation (and write about it) or be a conservation documentary-maker. I don’t discount either as future possibilities!

The 3 books that have had the biggest impact on you?
Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari – it reminds us to look much further back and much further forward than we tend to.

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron – I experience it differently each time I work through it. More recently, it’s given me the courage to slowly opt out of routines and roles that don’t reflect who I am. Scary, but it couldn’t have come at a better time!

The Magic Faraway Tree series, by Enid Blyton – because I always knew trees held other magical worlds.

A quote you love?
“You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one…”

I also love this comment by Barbara Kingsolver, in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: One Year of Seasonal Eating: “People often ask me whether I feel I’m missing out on city life. I look around, at the mountains, at the setting sun, and I wonder who is missing out.”

Your perfect getaway – forest treehouse or beach shack?
Forest treehouse. I love the coolness and wisdom of trees, the diversity of life they support, the dancing of the light. (But an unfenced rustic bushveld camp would win, hands down, every time.)

Your favourite way to recharge?
SARK, one of my favourite creativity authors, writes: “When a child gets crabby, put them in water.” My version would be: take me up a mountain. Movement, exploration and adventure energise me as much as rest does. And I love a good movie! I often go alone, and at unexpected times, just to escape and delight myself.

Top of your bucket list?
Costa Rica – I’m fascinated by its biodiversity, as well as the environmental ethos embedded in its governance. Then Botswana… I’m just waiting to win a 4×4.

Advice you’d give your 16-year-old self?
Reach out when you need help. Support – financial, spiritual, practical – is everywhere and comes in the most surprising ways, if you just ask for it. And take tango lessons – if you don’t, you’ll regret it when you’re 37. Conversely, she’d remind me not to let others, even (especially!) those who are well meaning, to deflate me.

Your favourite ‘wild’ place in the city?
A time rather than a place: dawn, because it’s precious no matter where you are. In my urban life, I am alert to wild moments all the time, like the African harrier-hawk that raided the Cape sparrows’ nest in our garden and the squirrel that planted its own crops (peanuts, of course!) in our veggie patch. Without these kinds of wild reminders, I’d feel “ecologically bored”, as George Monbiot describes it in Feral.

Humanity in a hundred years – where do you think we’ll be?
If we can listen to nature’s calls and our own deepest, most authentic longings… if we can rewrite our story to be more compassionate towards the planet… I can see us thriving alongside nature. There are enough of us who care.

Your source of strength when the going gets tough?
A belief in a bigger picture, and knowing that I don’t always see it in the moment. And the kindred spirits in my life, both human and animal.

For you, winning at life is ……….
… when I experience time as expansive. I’m very aware of death and time is the most precious resource to me. I’m happy when I lose track of it, when I can follow my curiosity, play within a creative process. I hate having to rush though my day or a project, or to focus solely on an end-product. I start to feel down when my time feels squeezed. This has made working in a deadline-driven environment very difficult for me at times.

What you’d still love to accomplish in this life?
I’d love to experience a natural area intimately, to understand its needs, to witness its challenges and victories, to know its stalwarts and upstarts. Professionally I’d like to write a book on creativity as a way of living, as well as a humorous animation with a strong conservation message (I’ve written one brief scene!). And I’d like to finally start a blog.

Biting the hand that feeds

A school friend grew up on a tobacco farm in Malawi, and like me, had been sent to boarding school in South Africa at a tender age. At our 25th year reunion recently the topic of smoking came up, and she told how whenever she gives her Dad a hard time about his smoking habit, he reminds her that tobacco paid for her education.

I can relate. Plastic paid for mine.  Visiting my Dad’s plastic factory is a vivid childhood memory: the squishy sacks of plastic polymer; the noisy machines compressing the pellets; standing at the end of the production line, waiting to see the colourful cups being spat out, still warm and steaming; the words ‘injection mould’ and ‘virgin material.’ I remember long trips back to boarding school, our Kombi packed to the rafters with plastics that we’d deliver en-route.

And yet my Dad, unapologetically capitalist, ended up with green-leaning kids. Plastic has been top of our hit list in trying to whittle down our waste. My sister, a scuba instructor who sees first hand the state of our oceans, recently shared something on Facebook and screeched ‘Stop Fucking Using Plastic!’ And my brother is seldom happiest than when knee deep in worm muck churning out compost.

It’s a tricky one. My Dad worked his ass off so he could give us what he prizes above all else – a good education. Without that (plastic-funded) education, one that lifted us out of the structural limitations set by apartheid, our lives might have taken a very different trajectory.

Something to be mindful of when we rail against the system? We all need to make a living in the world. If we’re lucky, smart, or both, we manage to marry our ideals with our livelihood; others bump up against all kinds of socio-political barriers – work is a way to pay the bills, it can’t always be aligned with our beliefs or worldview.

So while it’s wonderful to have choices and hold fast to our ideals, there’s always the flip side. Someone on the other end whose livelihood depends on the thing we’re lambasting or crusading against. It’s a theme that can be applied most anywhere – poachers trying to eke out a living; children working in sweat shops to help put food on the table. For everyone trying to build what they believe to be a better world by challenging the system, there’s someone propping it up, living hand to mouth.

Those are extreme examples and I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent. Bringing it back to those pesky single-use plastics that are choking our oceans, I still avoid them. But I’m seldom militant about it; our push and pull world is after all stupendously complex.

 

Rookie errors

Broad Beans

I made some rookie errors when I planted our veggie patch last summer. I jumped in too quickly, without observing the patch – where the light falls, what the wind does – etcetera. The site is, it turns out, dank, with very little winter sunshine. But – never mind – I cut everything back, let it hibernate and ready itself for spring, and took a little break from urban gardening.

I also planted during a drought, which may have been a little unwise, but our well-point is up and running. The water tank and the patch are on opposite corners of the house (there were some space restrictions and it was the only way we could configure it). No worries – we’ve rigged up a very long hosepipe and fashioned a tap – and, with some effort, we’re able to feed the groundwater to our veggies. Minor obstacles.

It’s September and look at these gorgeous blooms that are springing to life!