Posts Tagged ‘Compost’

Worms and Potatoes

October 9, 2011

When I pulled back the worm bedding, this is what I found.

Two winters ago, J & I made a foray into vermiculture. We keep the worm bin in the basement, where we alternate layers of shredded newspaper with food waste. The worms plunder their way through this bin, leaving behind one of the richest manures on earth.

Throughout the winter, whenever I notice that something I’m storing in the basement has gone bad, I chuck it in the bin. (I store turnips, cabbages, squash, onions, potatoes, and other items in the basement over the winter.) In late winter this year, all the potatoes sprouted like crazy. Many of them were small and not worth saving, so into the worm bin they went.

Harvesting worm castings is a tedious job. The method is to make a bunch of little piles in the bright sunlight. The worms bury deep into the piles to avoid the light. You take the castings from the top and sides, then wait for them to bury still deeper and again scrape around the edges. But truthfully, you never avoid getting a bunch of the worms along with the castings—at least I don’t.  I tend to put the task off, but today I figured I better take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather to get the job done.  When I dumped the box onto a tarp, I found the most amazing thing.

The potatoes I had tossed in months earlier, had thrived in the worm bin. With no leaves for photosynthesis, these potatoes had somehow multiplied like crazy. The worms didn’t seem to be eating them at all, but they did seem to eat all around them. Many of these potatoes came out of the bin shiny and clean (though not the ones in the photo here), except that they were covered in worms that were not eating them. None of the potatoes had gotten very big—most were smaller than my pinky, but some of them grew in sizable clusters.

How did the potatoes grow without photosynthesis? None of the potatoes still had the sprouts that had caused me to pitch them in the first place; they were not even trying to get to sunlight or set roots. And why did the worms leave them alone? Was the potato growth simply able to outpace the pace of the worms, or did the worms avoid eating them for a reason? And why didn’t these potatoes begin to decompose anyway, even without the worms? They were in a moist, sometimes wet, place for more than six months, I’ve seen potatoes rot under much better conditions, even in the ground.  I have to wonder if there is some sort of symbiotic relationship going on. If anyone has any knowledge about this, I would love to know more!

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You Can’t Get Manure from Sacred Cows

January 4, 2011

Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind
Gene Logsdon
Chelsea Green Press

When Katie Couric televised her own colonoscopy to encourage early detection of colon cancer, it worked. Suddenly, people in late middle age found themselves having to answer to their children and friends as to the state of their bowels. The incidence of colonoscopies increased as death rates for the cancer decreased. Perhaps we need some celebrities to take up the case for the product of colons: manure. In the circles I run in, Gene Logsdon passes for a celebrity, but maybe we could get some extra lift if we recruited Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga. They might appeal to a different sort of audience than a curmudgeonly old farmer from Ohio.

With Logsdon, you don’t get a lot of sentimental prose about the uplifting feeling of holding sweet-smelling fully composted manure in your palm. No, he gets right down to business. He tells you where to get your animals to dump, how you handle a pitchfork, and for that matter the right kind of pitchfork to use. He doesn’t skip past the stage where the manure stinks to high heaven, he just helps you get through it.

By talking about pitchforks, I’ve already lost the policy wonks. They will tell us that the only way we can manage manure to save humanity is to build giant anaerobic digesters that will harvest the methane from the septic lagoons of factory farms. Logsdon argues convincingly and at times mockingly otherwise, pointing out that such farms are not only an abomination from many moral and environmental perspectives, but that in the long run they are not economically viable.

One of his favorite hobbies is attacking conventional wisdom as espoused by the talking heads. If agri-business considers something essential, he’s bound to show how it’s really an unsustainable fad. However, refuting the arguments of agribusiness is just a side track, the main line of the book is reserved for explaining how he believes manure management does work. He is confident that eventually everyone else will figure out what doesn’t work. (more…)

The Unending Gift of Compost

October 11, 2010

 

A picture of compost soil

Image via Wikipedia

 

Compost is amazing. I spent a few hours yesterday sifting the last couple months worth of the compost I’ve been collecting. Or rather, I’ve collected vegetable scraps and they are now sweet-smelling compost.  I use a 35-gallon plastic trash can for my main compost collector. I drilled holes in the side and bottom to provide air flow, and I roll it around once a week to keep it aerated. I also have a less-useful metal trash can with no holes drilled in it that I use when the first collector fills up. Because of the lack of air flow, the compost in the metal can gets pretty stinky, but I stir it around as best I can with a stick once a week. Yesterday, I poured all the compost onto two tarps in the morning and let it dry all day before sifting it. When I returned late afternoon with my sifting frame (some hardware cloth stapled to scrap 1x2s), the sun was already hanging low in the sky. Summer is truly waning. How pleasant then, to come across the mass of corn cobs and to remember sitting around the fire when Heather, Jonathon, Eliza, and Simon came to visit. We laid the fresh corn on the coals, then pulled back the shucks and silk to eat up. (The corncobs, of course, were not yet decomposed and went back in the collector.) Sifting farther, I came across a wine cork and remembered the lovely bottle I shared with Sigrid when she visited. Digging still deeper, I found the stem from last year’s jack-o-lantern, hardly decayed at all. I thoroughly enjoyed my unorthodox excavation of food scraps. It’s practically just a bonus that I now have about 40 gallons of compost in the basement, waiting to be mixed with potting soil or applied to the garden.