Living Lighter on the Land

Seasons of want and plenty

I’m not a foodie but I have a couple foodie friends who would rather eat dirt than a winter tomato from the supermarket.  After hearing their arguments and giving my taste buds some time to reflect, I am beginning to agree.  At the Armsrong Education Center, I am trying something new this year: my partner, Sarah, and I bought 40 pounds of organic heirloom tomatos from Amawalk Farm in Katonah, NY, and processed them into sauce for the winter.  Come January, when the mealy tomatoes get shipped in from who knows where, we will be thawing out bags of tomato sauce for pastas, pizzas, chillis and more.  Here is what the process looked like:    
We met a farmer and asked if we could buy slightly damaged tomatoes at a reduced price.  They were happy to sell off tomatoes that weren’t otherwise marketable.  After a quick trip to their farm, we came home with two big boxes of assorted heirloom tomatoes. 

A quick rinse

Some of the tomatoes were a bit under ripe so we set them aside to eat in a few days.  They will not be made into sauce.  This informative pictures appeared on the side of the tomato box.  The tomato faces are cute. 
We cut up the sauce tomatoes and removed any damaged parts.  On average, each tomato had one or two small spots that needed to be cut out and composted.  This step took roughly 2 hours. 
  
We placed the tomatoes into a oven pan and added good olive oil, salt and cloves of garlic.  We broiled the tomatoes for roughly 25 minutes.  We stirred the tray two times to make sure the garlic didn’t burn. 
  

Amazing



We spooned the sauce into freezer bags

Mmmmmmmmmmmmm



What does freezing bags of tomato sauce have to do with Living Lighter on the Land?
1)  Food is nature, nature is food.  We can’t fully understand and appreciate nature without understanding our food and bigger ‘food systems’.  We may not think of a single asparagus plant as part of the ecosystem, but when you consider our country’s land cover, agriculture plays no small role.  In America, the millions of acres of agriculutral land (formerly wild forests, prairies and wetlands) still connect with the greater ecosystems through their soil, water, plants, animals and the atmoshphere.  There’s no two ways about it: our agricultural operations are big part of our new ecosystems.  To rethink your place in nature is to rethink your place in your food system. 
When I thaw out my sauce in the winter I will know exactly where it came from, who picked it, who shipped it, who cleaned it, who cooked it, and who bagged it.  That’s food safety.  Also, I will know how the farm operates, the philosophy of the farmers, how the farmers treat their land and how the farm fits into the greater ecosystem.  That’s land stewardship. 
2) Eating in season, or perhaps more accurately stated, buying in season.  When we buy food out of season, that food gets shipped from very far away.  Southern California and Florida are the closest large winter-food producing regions, and much of our winter food comes from Central and South America.  A tomato that travels 3,000 miles (and the fuel that was required to do so) doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.  I’d rather buy it from a farm five miles away and freeze it.       
Freezing is just one option.  You can pickle, jar, smoke, cure, and dehydrate your food to keep it for the winter.  It’s surely not easier than driving to the supermarket, but it puts you back in control of your food.  Plus, you can feel good knowing that you would have made your grandmother proud. 

Land stewardship is kind of like a cocktail


Adorable...and awesome

Living Off The Grid

Source: http://www.idealhomegarden.com

The more adorable side of conservation

Remember the three R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle?  Well, I just realized that they are listed in order of importance. While recycling is awesome, we should really focus on reducing our consumption and, in the example below, reusing the things we already have.  

This little piece of wall art hangs next to my sink at the Armstrong House Education Center to instruct my guests of our sponge reuse policy. I cannot take credit for this – it was inspired by a friend of mine. Feel free to replicate.  Stay tuned for more adorable conservation-based wall art in the future.  Send me yours and I will post it on the Blog.

Setting goals

Last week’s post was about a weed called mile-a-minute vine that is spreading through our forests and killing other plants.  I began my last post with the musing ‘what is a weed?’  The word ‘weed’ isn’t technically a botanical term; there is not a group of plants that botanists have described as ‘weeds’.  Instead, weeds – or undesirable plants – are only weeds within a certain context.  For example, a dandelion growing along the railroad tracks may not be considered a weed, but as soon as it pops up in your lawn it certainly is.  Likewise, sugar maple seeds are very welcome to germinate in the forest, but the gardener will rip them up once they sprout among her kale.

Dandelion, a common weed.  

From these examples you can see that a plant’s context is what makes them a weed and their weediness usually stands in our way of achieving a goal.  For example, the gardener is trying to raise some food for her family.  Garden=context.  Food=goal.  Weeds=reduce food production.  Once there is a context and a goal is set, weeds take form.  Once a person builds a garden and is committed to growing some food, plants like lady’s thumb and sorrel automatically become the weeds, simply because these plants grow quickly in full sun and can crowd out our vegetables.  It really has nothing to do with the plants themselves, their weediness is simply a result of our decision to keep a garden.  No gardens, no weeds. Simple.

The mandala garden at the Armstrong House Education Center, where we get our fair share of weeds growing among the desirable vegetables and herbs.  

Lets think bigger than our backyard garden.  What are our goals for Pound Ridge’s land?  Once we set some town wide goals, our town wide weeds will take form.   Believe it or not, conservation is a bit like gardening.  Conservationists, just like gardeners, decide what we want to remove from the land, what we want to keep on the land and how we want the land to appear/ work.  Of course, its easier to control your backyard garden than something huge and complex like a forest or a watershed, but the principle is identical.  Gardeners and conservationists follow the same process: we identify our context, set our goals and manage our weeds.

So I’ll ask you again, what are our goals for the garden of Pound Ridge?

It is safe to say that the people of Pound Ridge have at least one common goal: forests.  People move here because of our beautiful trees.  Our forests are pleasing to look at, give our homes privacy, provide us with shade in the summer, keep our soil in place, provide food and shelter for hundreds of forests critters and dazzle our eyes in the fall with their colors.  Honestly, our honorary membership in Southern New England would be revoked if we didn’t have such forests – the New England states would simply laugh us off stage.  Beyond all these reasons, we must admit that there is something magical about forests that touch our soul.  Can we all agree, then, that we like our forests?

An artsy photograph I took of a forest in Pound Ridge, NY.  We surely love our trees around here.    

So back to our formula.  Context= Pound Ridge.  Goal= a forest full of trees.  Weed=?
This is easy. The greatest threat to our trees is the cute and fuzzy white tailed deer, period.  At their current density, virtually ZERO NEW TREES are being recruited into the forest.  Sure, we have trees now (fewer by the storm, mind you) but we will have less in twenty years, far fewer in fifty years and in one hundred years Pound Ridge will be hanging onto its forested past via a few giants.  Good bye New England, hello NY metro.

A white tailed deer browsing a tree branch

What will our future landscape look like?
In general, the forest will grow older and older and without new recruits, we will see a large gap in the age demographics of the trees.  The youngest trees we have now (roughly 10-15 years old), will always be the forest’s youngest trees.  Therefore, in 50 years, the youngest trees will be 65 years old, standing over an understory that is open, bare, and sparsely vegetated.  Instead of an understory of native trees, we will have extensive shrub thickets of deer resistant invasive plants (Japanese barberry, wine berry, multiflora rose) under an aging canopy.

What’s the gardener to do?               
As conservationist/gardeners we have to decide what we want our landscape to look like in 20, 50 and 100 years.  Once we set our goals, lets get to work managing our weeds.  I, for one, vote for trees.

If you are new to this white tail deer conversation, there are plenty of resources to become acquainted with.  See below.  If you are a veteran of this conversation, what are you doing to grow more trees?  I currently have 40 young trees growing in a small nursery at the Armstrong House Education Center.  Soon I’ll have 60.  In addition to planting native trees, maybe we should come together as a town and do something about our deer.  These weeds are certainly within our power to manage.  

Deer related resources:

Background ecological information
http://www.na.fs.fed.us/fhp/special_interests/white_tailed_deer.pdf
http://www.duke.edu/web/nicholas/bio217/ekc7/deer.htm                       
           
Local conservation groups measuring the effect of deer on plants
http://www.mianus.org/2012/07/main-deer-exclosure-is-now-open-to-public/

Deer hunting in Pound Ridge, NY
http://www.townofpoundridge.com/boardsandcommissions/deer-management-pound-ridge

Conversations about effective control measures
http://www.mianus.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/RECORDREVIEW3.9.10_Contraceptive_darts_may_hold_key_to_managing_deer_population.pdf

Know your weeds.

I didn’t always know that any plant could be considered a weed.  I thought that all weeds shared a similar physiology, evolution or life cycle which united them into an unpopular class of plants.  This is not true.  A weed is just a plant that, for some reason or another, people don’t like: its perceived as useless, clogs underground plumbing, costs us money, mires our farm equipment, out competes more desirable plants, poisons our livestock, shades our crops, etc.  What’s more, a weed in one location – intentionally killed, uprooted, and criticized – may be coveted elsewhere.  A plant’s weediness really all depends on who you ask and what they want.

So ask an ecologists what they want and they will say ‘diversity’.  Diversity is coveted by ecologists because, by definition, it suggests that many organisms are alive and well and it ensures an ecosystem’s productivity and resilience.  Essentially, if extinction is the enemy, diversity is our greatest ally.  Ecologists, as well as anybody, know about weeds.  Here in the forests of northern Westchester there are weeds which threaten to decrease its diversity.  You may have heard them referred to as ‘invasive species’.  Today’s post is about one in particular: mile-a-minute Vine (Persicaria perfoliata).

A great poster showing all parts of the mile-a-minute vine.  Learn how to identify this weed in the field. 

        
Aptly named, this plant from Asia can grow, grow, grow over everything in its path.  With its little barbs (see picture) it can successfully hang onto the leaves, stems, and stalks of other plants as it rapidly grows up and over them.  Through research it has been shown to decrease local diversity…very weedy indeed.  Its an annual plant which means that it overwinters as a seed; the plant’s vegetative parts do not persist for multiple years.  To stop this plant from spreading we need to halt its production of seeds.

Right now, the third week of August 2012, the mile-a-minute vine on the Armstrong Preserve are about to flower – I can see their swollen flower buds ready to erupt.  Remember back to elementary school biology – first come the flowers, then come the seeds.  In order to stop this plant from spreading we have to kill it before it makes seeds.  In other words, we have to kill it now.

Removing mile-a-minute vine is not necessarily difficult.  Using work gloves, you can easily pull the plant out of the ground.  BE SURE TO PULL OUT THE PLANT’S ROOTS.  If you break the stem, plant material left in the ground will begin to grow again.  It is inevitable to miss or break some vines, so get in the habit if revisiting sites a week or so after you pull vines, just to clean up any remaining plants.  After you pull the plant out of the ground you have to put it some place where it will desiccate and die (on a stone wall, driveway, etc.).    

A patch of densely growing mile-a-minute vine

If we miss our opportunity to kill this plant before it flowers and sets seed, it is likely to gain more traction in our area.  Patrol your property and spend an hour or two removing this ecological weed.  If you don’t steward your own backyard, no one else will.  
For more information on mile-a-minute vine, see these on line resources:
http://www.nps.gov/plants/alien/fact/pepe1.htm
http://www.hort.uconn.edu/mam/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persicaria_perfoliata

Partnering with cover crops

What do you do when your feeling run down?  Some people need comfort food or a warm bath. Others sleep more or pop a packet of ‘Emergen-C‘.  As we mature, we all learn how to alleviate our own exhaustion.  We are not the only thing that gets run down and exhausted; we are a lot like soil in this respect.  As it turns out, our health and the health of soil are both influenced by the relative amounts of vitamins, carbon and water we contain.  When one of these gets thrown out of balance, bad things can happen.  To a gardener, exhausted soil looks like poor fruit production, sickly and discolored plants, and erosion.  The question then – and the topic of today’s post – is: how do we recharge our soil?  How do we restore its vitality so that our crops thrive and be bountiful?  There are many soil conditioning methods, but one way in particular honors this month’s thread of ‘partnerships‘.  Cover cropping.

A sick girl.  Like us, our soil can become run down and unhealthy.  Unhealthy soil needs attention and conditioning.  

Cover cropping is the act of planting beneficial plants in between cycles of crop plants.  Cover crops are diverse and plenty; rye, barley, various oats, clovers of all types, alfalfa, peas, buckwheat, reed canary grass, wheat, millet, soybean, vetch, kale, turnip and flax are just a few.  Each performs a unique job and benefits the soil in its own way.  For instance, rye is used through the winter to reduce erosion while barley ‘scavenges’ nitrogen from the soil (a good way to keep it from leaching or volatilizing).  Here is a great website that explains the various benefits of cover crops.  However your soil is acting run down, there is a cover crop that you can partner with to help it.          

This book is commonly referred to on the internet.  It is geared toward larger gardens and farms yet is still very informative and worth consulting if you are interested in managing your soil with cover crops.  

This spring and summer at the Armstrong House Education Center we used three cover crops to rejuvenate our garden’s soil.

1) Peas (Pisum sativum).  Peas (along with the common clover, alfalfa and soybeans) are in the fabaceae or ‘pea’ family.  Like most plants in the fabaceae, peas are capable of taking gaseous nitrogen out of the atmosphere and converting it to a form of nitrogen usable by plants in a process called ‘nitrogen fixation’.  You may have heard of this famous group of agricultural plants commonly referred to as ‘nitrogen fixers’ which actively increase the amount of nitrogen in the soil.  These plants provide us with an alternative to store bought, synthetic fertilizers, which have been shown to enter waterways and negatively effect aquatic ecosystems.

The flower of our pea cover crop.  Not only does this plant add nitrogen to the soil, it produces edible pea pods.  

2) Oats (Avena sativa).  These are called ‘nurse’ plants because they help the peas get established and grow.  The oats grow very quickly and suppress weeds while the relatively slower growing peas can develop and also act as scaffolding for the pea vines to grow upon.  After they die, the oats add carbon and nitrogen to the soil.  The peas and oats came together in this package.

3) Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum).   This fast growing plant suppresses weeds and is good at scavenging soil phosphorus and calcium, thereby keeping it from being washed away.  I have found that many insects are attracted to the white flowers of buckwheat.  On warm summer days I was amazed to see well over a dozen species of flying insects working the buckwheat flowers.  Among them were the Armstrong honeybees, which will be supported into the nectar-limited fall by our abundant beds of buckwheat.  We currently use buckwheat from Botanical Interests.

How to manage cover crops?
Each cover crop is managed differently.  How/where/when to sow crops varies among the plants, as does growing time and method for killing.  Generally, we sow cover crops from seed allow them to live for a preferred amount of time and then kill them.  The plants themselves are either left to decompose in the garden or composted.

At the Armstrong House garden, I allowed our peas, oats and buckwheat to flower before turning them into the soil (roughly 6 weeks of growing time).  To reduce the amount of bulky organic material I had to work in, I cut and composted the top halves and allowed the bottom halves to decompose in place for 2 weeks.  After these two weeks, I chopped up the remaining stems into very small pieces and literally raked them into the soil as I sowed a new crop of buckwheat.    

Future cover crops?
After the current cycle of buckwheat is ready to turn into the soil we will plant crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) as a winter cover crop.  After germination, the clover will over winter in the garden and bloom in the early spring.  We choose this cover crop because it is a nitrogen fixer and a source of early spring nectar for our honeybees.

We will continue to use a variety of cover crops at the Armstrong House Education Center as we learn more about our soil’s needs.  Think about what causes you to feel sick.  You make suffer from the flu, chicken pox, strep throat, arthritis, sciatica, or depression.  Each illness is remedied differently.  Likewise, in the future we may employ cover crops to perform different jobs such as erosion control, adding nutrients or organic material, honeybee forage or breaking up of compacted soil.  Check the blog or come to an event in our garden to see our current cover crop.
                

A partnership...with the dead

Once upon a time, Westchester County’s land was cleared and trees were the exception, not the rule.  Trees were sparsely sprinkled across the landscape and grew reliably in only a few locations: shading the farm house, lining the prominent road, marking the property’s corner, bordering the swamp.

A painting of 1830’s New England.  

If trees were the exception, farms were the rule.  Specifically, sheep farms.  Oh yes – most of the old rock walls you drive past were erected to keep in place big, silly looking Merino sheep.  During the late 1700’s and early 1800’s wool was one of New England’s biggest inland industries. With the opening of the American West by mid-century, the cold rocky soils of New England were abandoned for the cold prairie soils west of the Mississippi.  Some eastern farmland was simply abandoned…and thus began the trend of reforesting New England. Starting then, trees became more of the rule and less of the exception.               

A Merino sheep in need of a hair cut.  
As an abandoned farm grows into a forest we can expect to see a certain pattern in the plants.  At first, fields of flowers and shrubs dominate.  Soon after, fast growing and short lived, ‘weedy’ trees – like birch, black locust, and eastern red cedar – take over.  Eventually, slower growing and longer lived trees – like the white oak – assume their position on the old farmland.  Across New England,  when farms were left to revert back to forests, the eastern red cedar became a very common tree.

An old field naturally dominated by eastern red cedar trees.  As forests in southern New England regrow from cleared land, they often pass through this stage, which remains evident even after the trees die.   

At the Armstrong House Education Center you can still see this early stage of reforestation.  Here, like in many other forested parts of southern New England, you will see hundreds of eastern red cedar trees standing dead or dying in the shadows of larger trees.  These trees thrived in open, full-light conditions but were slowly killed by the surrounding forest as they were shaded out.  Their naturally rot and insect-resistant wood allows them to persist in the forest as dead trees for over a decade.  Currently, living cedars are not very common; most of the cedars you will run across in Northern Westchester County take the form of fence post, gates, benches or hand rails.

The Pound Ridge Land Conservancy has entered into a partnership with this tree.  The cedar is rot resistant and strong, making it ideal as a long lasting, outdoor building material.  Here at the Armstrong House Education Center we use eastern red cedar posts to hold up our garden fence, prop up our mailbox, keep up the shed wall, strengthen the chicken coop and support the hanging branch of an old gray dogwood tree.  To say the least, we think very highly of its usefulness.

Strong cedar posts hold up our garden fence.

Four cedar posts act as the central support system to our chicken coop, seen here in progress.

A cedar helping to hold up our outdoor work shed

A slender cedar post holding up a very old dogwood branch

So what about this resource in the future?  Will our forests provide us with eastern red cedar to build with in twenty years?  Not unless we plant some new ones today.  And that is exactly what we are doing on the Armstrong Preserve.

Why isn’t eastern red cedar growing in the forests of Northern Westchester County today?

Two reasons:
1) These trees require abundant light to get started, which the forest floor does not provide.  Much of Northern Westchester County is forested and the few places that are not forested are typically mowed.
2)  White tailed deer destroy the trees that have managed to find an appropriately sunny location.  In this respect, the eastern red cedar is like all the other trees in the area – the deer are keeping them from growing.  Without a change, our forests will look a lot different in the future.   

To ensure that there will be red cedar for the future we grow it in the following sunny places:
1)  Our tree nursery, a well-lit fenced area attached to our garden.
2) The Armstrong Preserve’s cliff face.  This bedrock cliff is bathed in sunlight and is out of reach from deer.
3) And coming soon, eastern red cedar will grow in our meadow.  As part of the Armstrong Meadow Management Plan, we will be establishing a zone of small trees and shrubs around the meadow’s perimeter, which is currently occupied by Japanese Barberry.    

Eastern red cedar growing on a rock cliff at the Armstrong Preserve
How does using eastern red cedar as a building material help us Live Lighter on the Land?
By using wood that is produced in our forests we don’t have to import wood from overseas.  This means we use less fuel for shipping.  Also, by being intimately involved in the production and harvest of the wood, we can better understand and appreciate the impact of our actions.  In other words, we can clearly see the ecological impact that our building projects have on our landscape.      
Can you form a partnership with the eastern red cedar?
You sure can.  Just pick a sunny spot on your property and plant a few eastern red cedars.  While they are growing you can actively harvest some dead cedars from your property and you won’t be exhausting your supply.  The goal is to always have some new trees growing for future building projects. 
Remember, you need to keep them safe from deer until they are big enough to protect themselves.  You can simply fence them in, or spray them with a deer repellent.  You can buy very cheap saplings from the state here.    

*The introductory paragraph to this post is a generalization of New England’s landscape history.  For more information on this interesting topic see here and here.  

Partnerships with a BUZZ

Hey, do you like sweets?  Of course you do, who doesn’t?  Have you ever thought about the sugars inside your yogurt, muffin or Snickers bar?  Do you know where sugar comes from? Here in the United States, sugar commonly comes from either sugar cane or corn syrup.  Less common sources of sugar include beets, maple syrup, concentrated fruit juice and honey.  The last one – honey – is the topic of this week’s blog.  Here at the Armstrong House Education Center we have entered into a partnership with a colony of honeybees; we keep them alive and well fed and in return they produce for us honey and wax.  It’s simply beautiful.

Members of my honeybee school checking on a hive in May.
How do honeybees produce honey?
Honey production is a multi-step process, which the honeybees carry out naturally.  First, certain ‘forager’ bees leave the colony to find flowers.  At a flower, they extract nectar (essentially sugar water) and bring it back to the hive.  There, they store the nectar in their comb and process it into honey.  They do this by adding enzymes to the nectar and evaporating the water out of it.  Initially, nectar is roughly 80% water.  In the end, honey is roughly 18% water – the rest was removed by evaporation.   Once the honey reaches the right concentration, the bees ‘cap’ the part of the comb that it is in.  Capped honeycomb means finished honey!

Capped (left) and uncapped (right) honey comb.  The bees cap the honey when it reaches the right sugar concentration.  It is from this capped form that we harvest the honey.  

Honey harvest at honeybee school.  The class used a hot blade to cut open the tops of the comb.  From here, the comb was centrifuged and the honey was released.  
Why would bees go to so much trouble just to make honey?
To the honeybee, honey represents food for the winter.  It’s a simple cycle – honeybees make honey during the growing season, store it in their comb and eat it during the winter.  Without this winter food the bees would starve to death. 
Does extracting honey necessarily mean the death of the colony?
Nope.  The point of beekeeping is to keep the bees alive (hence, beekeeping).  If your bees die, you are out bees, honey and your investment.  Therefore, it is important to leave enough honey in the hive to support your bees all winter long.  If done carefully and correctly, beekeeping can result in honey for our consumption and the long-term health of the colony.  It’s a win-win situation. 
Isn’t it a whole lot easier to just go to the store and buy honey?
It is certainly easier, but it is a lot less fun and rewarding.  Keeping your own colony of bees connects you with nature and provides deep insight into another creature’s life.  Plus, much of the honey for sale at your supermarket is tied to industrial agricultural.  How?  Large-scale honey producers truck their bees around the country to collect nectar from large monocultures of crops such as almonds, cranberries and blueberries.  Local honey is usually made from nectar from small, diversified farms, and the bees are able to provide pollination to the area’s wild plants throughout the growing season as well.  Lastly, making honey at home or buying it locally reduces the need to truck honey in from distant corners of the world.  Much of the world’s honey is made in China and Argentina; shipping it from across the planet is obviously unnecessary.     

A blooming almond grove in California.  Most of the world’s almonds come from this type of monoculture farming.  Hundreds of thousands of honeybees are trucked in to pollinate the trees.   
Honeybees and your vegetable garden
In the process of extracting nectar from flowers, honeybees carry pollen from one plant to the next.  This pollination is crucial to the plant, for without it, the plant can’t produce its fruit.  The best way to ensure that your garden is fully pollinated (aka, fully productive) is to recruit the help of a workaholic pollinator like the honeybee.  With their help, every flower the garden produces has the best chance of being pollinated and turning into a future piece of food – maybe a tomato or a snap pea.  

How do I get my own honeybees?
There are many options for buying honeybees and beekeeping equipment: websites, paper catalogues, local beekeeping services, etc.  The honeybees at the Armstrong House Education Center were purchased from Bedford Bee Honey Bee Service of Bedford, NY.  Its proprietor, DJ Haverkamp, has been keeping bees for over twenty years and is currently teaching beekeeping classes at John Jay Homestead in Bedford, NY and Teatown Reservation, Ossining, NY. 
Bedford Bee Honeybee Service is a company based in Bedford, NY that provides great honeybee services, including an April-October honeybee school, queens for sale and private hive maintenance. 

I want to keep bees in my backyard, but I don’t want to spend the time taking care of them.  Can I still keep bees? 
Yes, companies like the Bedford Honey Bee Service provide a honeybee care service.  Much like a pool service, Bedford Honeybee service will ‘open’ the hive in the spring, provide any maintenance or care throughout the season and ‘close’ the hive in late autumn.  

What does keeping bees have to do with Living Lighter on the Land?
The best backyard food producers are dedicated land stewards; they work to retain their property’s natural resources such as rich soil and clean, abundant water and biodiversity.  Remember, in these types of partnerships with nature, the energy you put in is rewarded.  

Also backyard food production is an ecologically responsible alternative to the large scale, industrial farming that has become common in the United States.  For an awesome primer on agricultural trends of the last 50 years, see this.  Lastly, producing food in your backyard – be it honey from bees, eggplant, basil or goat milk – cuts out the fossil fuels used in its transportation.

Partnerships

It seems like our world is shrinking.  Everywhere is accessible – the Internet picks up where the interstate highway system leaves off.  We have lightning-fast, global communications – with a satellite phone you can check your stock quotes from the arctic tundra.  Exotic fruit is available all year round – you can buy a star fruit in Shoprite on the winter solstice.  Of course, the planet is the same size it has always been, but it is starting to feel less enormous.  Among all of this planet shrinking, two things remain: 1) human kind, and 2) the rest of nature.  It is no longer an option to separate the two; to coexist we must forge long-lasting partnerships.

Here at the Armstrong House Educational Center, I am doing just that.  I am practicing the old saying of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ with nature.  I have entered into a partnership with some interesting critters and they have (in a way) agreed to take out my garbage.  No, I haven’t trained a troop of chimpanzees to clean my house; I am talking about red wiggler worms.  In something called vermiculture or vermicomposting, I use worms to turn my food scraps into compost.  In fact, they eat more than just household food scraps – these little suckers can take down my coffee grounds, the New York Times, shredded pizza boxes, plant trimmings, kleenex, egg cartons, orange peels and old bread.  It is through this partnership, and others like it, that we can reduce our use of resources and Live Lighter on the Land.

Did Tate say ‘worms’?
Yes, worms.  For those of us who don’t have outdoor space for compost, using worms is a great indoor alternative.  Did Tate say ‘indoors’? Yes, indoor composting.  If managed properly (and believe me, it is easy) these worms don’t produce any foul smells or attract flies.  Vermicomposting is very simple – all you need is a worm bin (see below), some organic waste and some red wriggler worms.  The worms eat the organic material and poop out ‘castings‘, which can be directly used as compost.  Simple.  

A red wiggler worm working its way through a pile of organic debris.  They consume food scraps and leave behind castings – a very nutritious growing medium for plants.   

Why not just throw our organic debris in the garbage?
If we think of our organic debris as valuable material and not just ‘waste’, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to throw it in the garbage.  Once we throw it out, it is wasted – buried in a landfill or burned in an incinerator.  This organic debris is filled with energy, nutrients and minerals that can be recycled and used again in our gardens.  Also, by recycling our used organic material we don’t have to spend money and fossil fuels to transport it.  Check out what the United States Environmental Protection Agency says about food waste.  According to them, in 2010, food waste accounted for almost 14% of the municipal solid waste stream!  Now that’s putting the waste in ‘food waste’.          

Where does Tate keep his red wrigglers?
My worms live happily in the corner of my kitchen in a simple plastic container called a ‘Wormcycler’.  The Wormcycler is a closed container comprised of a stack of square, mesh bottomed trays. The mechanics are simple – worms and organic debris are placed in the lowest tray.  The worms slowly eat the organic debris and once their food supply is exhausted, they naturally migrate upwards to a fresh tray.

My plastic ‘Wormcycler’ bin.  This product was generously donated to the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy by worm composting company Nature’s Footprint.  You can see that the Wormcycler sits neatly in the corner of my kitchen.             

Where did Tate get his Wormcycler, and can I get one?
My Wormcycler was generously donated by Nature’s Footprint, a company specializing in vermiculture and home gardening equipment.  You can get your very own Wormcycler at a discounted price through Nature’s Footprint’s Create Compost Direct Delivery Program.  Ordering is easy, just see the instructions on the poster below.

A promotional poster.  You can buy a ‘Wormcycler’ at a discounted price if you use the PRLC’s special code.  See instructions on the poster.  


Where can I get my own red wiggler worms?
There are many places you can buy red wiggler worms online.  You can even get them from Nature’s Footprint when you get your Wormcycler.  Another fun website is Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.  

How do I care for my worms?
It’s actually pretty easy to keep red wigglers alive.  The worms like a slightly moist environment (not dripping wet, but moist to the touch).  It is easy to regulate the level of moisture by adding more wet or dry material.  These are indoor critters – they like an environment between 50-80 degrees F.  If you need specific care information, check the Internet; a quick on-line search will yield dozens of vermiculture websites.  To make it even simpler, the Wormcycler comes with its very own easy-to-understand instruction manual that outlines the Do’s and Don’ts of worm husbandry.

Won’t the Wormcycler attract flies and turn stinky?
Your Wormcycler will be fly and odor-free if you follow these two key rules:

  1. Only feed the worms what they are going to eat.  Over feeding attracts unwanted critters
  2. Make sure you have the right level of moisture – not too dry, not too wet.

Really, if your worm bin is acting up, its because you haven’t paid any attention to it.  I check my worm bin roughly once every three days and spend roughly 10 minutes making sure everything is fine and dandy.  

What does the inside of a Wormcycler look like?
When you first add your organic material (50% food, 50% bedding), individual food items will be recognizable.  Over time, as the worms start to eat the material, the contents of your Wormcycler will become indistinguishable and black.  Once all the food is eaten and the worms migrate upwards to another tray, you can harvest your compost.  In these pictures, you can see how my food scraps broke down in just one month.  

Day 1 of my Wormcycler.  I added bits of food, old leaves from houseplants, shredded newspaper and coffee grounds.  
Black gold, 4 weeks old.  Most of what you see here has been produced by red wiggler worms.  The large uncomposted items are mostly pieces of eggshells.  Next time I will make sure that I dry and grind up my eggshells before adding them – this will ensure their proper breakdown.    

Wait, Tate said that this was a ‘partnership’.  What do the worms get out of it?
In addition to their world-class fame and popularity, red wiggler worms used in vermiculture are provided with an ideal living environment.  They are well fed, well cared for and safe.  It is in our best human interest to rear large populations of red wiggler worms and keep them as a tool in our waste reduction/ waste recycling.  By producing less waste we can literally Live Lighter on the Land.  

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