Composting, cover crops, and red worms
Saturday morning was warm enough to draw more than 38 people to Martin Luther King Junior Community Garden for seminars and discussions on composting, cover crops, vermicomposting and the benefits of ladybug larvae.
More than a dozen people attended the first of two composting seminars, led by Bill Maynard, master gardener and director of community gardens for the city.
Sacramento waste reduction coordinator Doug Houston opened the 8 a.m. event by speaking about waste reduction and the cost of green waste. Houston told the group that Sacramento pays for green waste disposal. Bins cost residents less money each month, and they are environmentally friendly because green waste is kept out of the storm drains, he said.
“Food waste in the garbage means organics go into the landfill,” he said. “The organics create methane which becomes greenhouse gas. Yard waste is a valuable resource.” He then confessed that he keeps a composting bin in his office.
Each attendee received a kitchen composting bin, a container of parsley to plant, a composting booklet, seeds and a discount coupon for a composting bin at Home Depot.
Houston introduced Bill Maynard, who told the group there will be 11 community gardens in Sacramento by the end of the month. Each plot could generate $400 worth of food per year.
“Fall is my favorite time of year,” he said. “Free carbon falls from the sky,” referring to leaves.
He led the first of two lectures on composting and discussed the differences between hot and cold composting, saying that hot will happen faster but takes more effort, and cold takes about nine months and will happen whether we want it to or not. Both require carbon and nitrogen layers.
Carbon should be both the top and bottom layer and consists of leaves, twigs, newspaper using soy-based ink like Sacramento News & Review or The Sacramento Bee, hair and cotton dryer lint, Maynard explained.
Nitrogen layers should be living or still green, like lettuce and spinach, but not Bermuda grass or diseased plants.
“Look under leaves for aphid eggs,” Maynard said. “The eggs are laid in the fall and hatch in spring. Most of the year aphids are all female and are born pregnant.”
Plant materials were circulated for attendees to examine for evidence of disease or eggs.
A short question-and-answer session followed with questions about whether the heat would kill Bermuda grass and seeds.
“If the compost pile gets to 133 degrees for several days, the heat may kill the seeds,” Maynard said. “The temperature can rise to 160 or 180 degrees, but it’s best to let the Bermuda grass dry out and use as part of the carbon layer.”
Maynard warned against using weed seeds or morning glories due to flower overproduction, or too many coffee grounds, because of the acidity. He added, though, that rhododendrons and azaleas prefer more acidity.
When asked how moist to keep the pile, Maynard said “like a wrung-out sponge,” adding that the pile can be in the sun or the shade, but that worms prefer cool, and the pile should be protected from rain.
Maynard suggested using compost at the root zone of plants or to place around the plants, and said of the odor that “it should smell like a nice, earthy scent.” A stinky pile needs more nitrogen.
“Always end with a layer of carbon, to act as a cap to prevent flies from laying eggs in the pile and deter rodents,” he reminded the group before leading them to the cover crop demonstration.
Maynard called cover crops green manure that “enrich the soil.” He said the crops should be cut down by Feb. 15, and by March 15, “the average last frost date,” gardeners may plant at their own risk, reminding attendees that frost does not mark its calendar.
Fava beans, bell beans, field mustard and winter wheat are good winter cover crops. Buckwheat is good for summer. Maynard demonstrated the planting of both fava beans (in rows) and mustard (scattered).
Maynard also mentioned that he is working with the Sacramento Food Bank (3rd Avenue and 33rd Street) and will manage the garden education center. Monthly gardening classes will begin in 2012.
The group moved to hear about the benefits of composting with worms and how to build and maintain a worm farm. Worm Fancy’s Michelle Himed, a self-described “compulsive recycler” and Kate Waldo, a “vermaholic,” led the discussion on vermicomposting.
Himed opened by speaking about the history of Worm Fancy and their goal “to educate, build worm bins, and get into classrooms.” They want to reach the youngest generation, the kindergartners, and teach them what happens when they throw a banana peel into a worm bin.
Waldo described the difference between the bins for the classroom, which are single unit bins, and manufactured, multi-layered bins that can be kept in a house or office. Plans for building a classroom unit were available. A plastic bin, water or soda bottle plastic top and some black shade screen were the primary materials used.
Worms require bedding, which can be almost any type of paper. It cannot be the glossy pages from many magazines. They approved the pages from Edible, which was available at the event, as bedding material.
“Worms eat paper as fast as they eat kitchen products,” Waldo said. “They eat the microbes on top of the food.”
Worms cannot be fed everything, though.
“No dairy, no meat and no oil,” she said. “Worms breathe through their skin, and being coated in oil will kill them.
“It’s best to begin with a pound of worms, which is between 800 and 1,000,” she continued. “They are voracious eaters and can eat up to one half of their body weight each day. One pound of worms will eat about three pounds of food each week.”
Attendees were warned not to overfeed or to permit the bins to “get too hot or too smelly.”
“Worms are prolific,” she said. “One adult worm can have up to three cocoons per week and can have between one and 20 worms per cocoon.”
If people were concerned about overcrowding, Himed reassured “the population will regulate itself.”
Waldo reached into the school bin and pulled out a handful of paper. She discussed the types of paper products to use, adding that layering should be used like in composting. Several worms tried to burrow into the paper.
“Worms need to be trained to burrow down, so when first adding works to the bin, it’s best to begin by exposing them to about an hour of light so that they learn to stay down,” Himed said.
The bin’s temperature should be cool, and the bin should be kept in deep shade or inside the house. Mini swamp coolers made from frozen water bottles can help keep bins cool during temperatures above 90 degrees. Worms should also not be too cold, so sometimes miniature holiday lights might be used.
Harvesting should occur every three months and will produce five to six gallons of casings, which equates to nearly one cubic foot. This is enough to start planting in spring. Some casings sold in the store are dry and do not offer the same benefit.
Several people remained to speak about worms, while Maynard led another group to the pumpkin plants and discussed the benefits of ladybugs in the garden.
“Many times, gardeners will kill the ladybug larvae because they think it’s a bad bug,” Maynard said. “In fact, it’s a good bug that eats a lot of aphids before it changes into a ladybug.”
Yes to composting and community gardening
Most attendees were seeking out composting information for their home gardens. Several people said they enjoyed the seminar and discussions very much and had gained a lot of information. Some people had not yet begun their gardens; others had just started; others had been gardening for a long time.
Heather and Joseph Cromartie said they would probably use both traditional composting and vermicomposting at some point in their home gardens, where they are growing greens, carrots, bell beans and tomatoes.
On this visit, one community gardener harvested Swiss chard, saying the rain helped a great deal before she attended the day’s second composting seminar.
Maynard reminded attendees that there are still several plots available. The next plot sale at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Garden is Oct. 18.