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Autumn Leaves into Cold Compost

2015 leaves spending the year composting

2015 leaves spending the year composting

Autumn leaves are falling. It is time to turn those leaves into ‘black gold’ known as cold compost, and improving our soil.

It was not very long into my Heath gardening career that I met Larry Lightner of Northfield. By the time I met him he was retired from the Mt.Hermon school where he had worked with students to create and maintain some of the school gardens. He still had his own productive gardens and had produce to share. He also had skills to teach and share. Lightner was a promoter of ‘cold compost.’ Most of us know that when we make a compost pile it should be comprised of green and brown materials that will eventually heat up and decompose.

Hot compost is the standard way we all learn about compost. Lightner made good use of the wealth of autumn leaves to make cold compost. He made wire fencing frames of many heights and depths and sizes. Many of his cold compost frames were circular and about two or three feet or so high. Into those frames he packed his leaves. It is amazing how quickly fall leaves break down, and how many leaves can be added over time to such a frame.

Lightner said his cold compost piles could be made high enough to act as a big raised bed making gardening easier for those who had trouble getting down on their knees. My first cold compost piles in Heath were set up inside the stone barn foundation after the barn itself burned down in 1990. After the fire the debris had to be bulldozed and carried away.  The soil such as it was, was not what anyone would call good garden soil. Nothing would grow in it.

The answer was to fill the space by creating a series of wire fencing frames about two feet high and filling them with leaves, packing them down until the frame was filled. I made many trips to Greenfield collecting the bagged leaves that many people left by the side of the street. In the spring I made small indentations in the packed leaves, filled that space with a quart or so of soil and then planted vegetable starts. The important thing to remember about these planting beds is that they did need consistent watering. Rotting leaves do not hold water the same way that good soil does.

By using cold compost planting beds for four years, I actually built up soil that would grow plants, and the frames were put aside.

Last fall we had no need of begging for bags of autumn leaves. Our Greenfield garden was full of leaves. We still had some wire fencing and built a five foot high ring about four feet in diameter. All fall we dumped our raked leaves into that frame, packing them down harder and harder as the pile got deeper.

Releasing the cold compost

Releasing the cold compost

Last weekend we asked our good neighbors, Andrew and Ritchey to help us lift the frame and release the cold compost for us to spread on our garden. Then we would be able to start filling the frame again with this year’s crop.

Ritchey’s parents, Mike and Susan Ritchey, were visiting and on hand to photograph our efforts. We brushed aside the outside leaves, and everyone was amazed to see the beautiful black gold compost that filled the frame. What a lesson about the riches of a new fall harvest.

The cold compost looked finished, but alas, the center of the pile was only partially decomposed

The cold compost looked finished, but alas, the center of the pile was only partially decomposed

However, after Henry and I were left alone to spread the cold compost we realized that the pile had not decomposed fully all the way through. It turns out that even cold compost does need air and more water than our pile got, to decompose thoroughly. We had done a really good job of packing those leaves down hard. No air and very little water made it to the very center of the pile.

We spread the compost and rotting leaves anyway, wetting everything down. I also sprinkled a little soil and mulch over the less composted leaves. The soil will be richer for it in the spring.

Leaves can also be ground up with a mechanical leaf shredder, or you can run your lawn mower over leaf piles. The shredded leaves can be spread over the gardens as mulch and will almost have disappeared by springtime. However leaves are  handled, they return organic material and nutrients to the soil. Don’t miss this chance to enrich your soil.

I also want to let you know that the University of Massachusetts Extension Service Garden Calendar is now available. The 2017 UMass Garden Calendar features info about successful gardening during a dry season, as well as special tips for container gardening and extensive lists of suggested drought tolerant annuals and perennials for New England gardens. You can logon to to see calendar images and useful information all year long.  The photographs are a selection of plants chosen by the UMass Extension Landscape, Nursery & Urban Forestry staff for pest resistance, adaptability to specific growing environments, and seasonal effectiveness.

The calendar is $12. If you order before November 1 shipping is free. After November 1 there is a shipping charge of $3.50 for the first calendar and $2 for each additional calendar up to 9. There are bulk buying rates as well. If ordered by November 1 delivery before Christmas is guaranteed. For faster delivery order online at  You can also go online to get order forms to fill  out and mail with a check.

Compost – Cold and Hot

Cold Compost

Cold Compost

Some people curse the falling leaves. Not me. Of course, since the wind blows all the leaves off my hill, the only labor I have is to collect the bags of leaves from industrious neighbors. I can never get enough.

I learned the technique of Cold Composting from the late Larry Leitner. He collected leaves and pressed them down into fence wire frames that he made in various sizes and shapes. He prepared these cold compost piles in the fall, and in the spring, he planted seedlings right in the pile.  The leaves would have broken down substantially, and sunk down. The piles would not be as fluffy as they were in the fall. He would make a small indentation in the pile, fill it with a quart or so of garden soil and put in the seedling. Large vegetable plants worked well, like the coles, or summer squash, but herb and flower seedlings did just as well.  Since there is nothing but leaves in this compost pile it does not heat up. There is nothing to harm tender plant roots. The only thing leaf compost beds need is sufficient watering during the growing season. They will dry out quickly.

Larry liked these beds because it used the leaves for free fertilizer, and because neighborhood dogs  didn’t damage his garden.  I have planted in these beds when I didn’t have good soil. The harvest was good, and I ultimately ended up with good soil where I used these beds.

These days I mostly make cold compost in a compost bin that I got a few years ago. As the leaves break down (and they break down faster than you might imagine) I can add more leaves to the bin. You can see I have several bags of leaves waiting in the wings.

Of course, at this point in the fall I have lots of garden clean up items to put in my regular compost pile. I do not manage it in a very scientific manner, but I do add occasional layers of chicken manure to the weeds, vines, dead annuals and regular kitchen waste. It will break down eventually, and I will always need compost, early or late.

Composting gives me a sense of thrift, making fertilizer out of scraps and free leaves, and of environmental responsibility, working with the natural cycle beginning with the seed which grows, dies, rots and makes the nourishment for the next crop.

Trees, Leaves, Water and Magic – Compost

Autumn leaves of every sort on the lawn and into the South Border

If you have trees you will have leaves in the fall. When you start raking it can look like an endless job, with very little payback.  Not  true. The truth is that if you have a garden and trees you can have soil enriching compost. I harvest lots of leaves every fall.

Maple tree on the north side of our garden

We have lovely neighbors  on both sides of our garden and  they both have trees. Our Northern neighbor has a beautiful giant maple right next to our property line. Lovely shade in the summer. Our Southern neighbor has three giant oak trees her husband planted more than 40 years ago. All these trees give us leaves and seeds that have spent the season supplying birds, and all manner of pollinators. We have  our own trees from the river birches that we planted in 2015, and a Chinese chestnut tree on the west border of our garden. We also have many shrubs that shed their leaves as well.

Sycamore on the tree strip and a Lilac Tree on our lawn opposite the sycamore

In front of the house we have a Sycamore tree that is 51 inches in diameter and about 90 feet tall, statistics just given to us by the town Tree Committee. The sycamore not only sheds its leaves, it also drops spiky balls that hold the seeds. The tiny hairs on the seed balls can irritate skin and can cause some respiratory distress. My husband always wears a special  mask when he is raking around the sycamore.

The Lilac Tree, is  a real tree, Syringa reticulata. It does have  unique white blossoms that give us a delicious fragrance  perfuming the air in early June. Unless you are a neighbor you will not know where that perfume is  coming from.

Horse chestnut tree leaves

I’m not sure who owns the  horse chestnut tree, but were certainly do get a lot of its leaves, as well as chestnuts that keep the squirrels very busy and happy. Unfortunately, there is some kind of blight that discolors and dries the leaves long before shedding season. That blight can continue to harm the tree if the leaves area  composted. We rake up as many leaves as we can. We are not done yet this fall. We put those leaves in garbage bags and leave them out with our trash to be burned or destroyed. They do not go into  our compost bin.

Compost bins

This little collection of compost bins has different purposes. The two plastic bins handle our kitchen scraps with leaves added. One bin is always being filled while the other bin has usable compost. Both bins get stirred up periodically  to make the composting process move along.

That big black bag is a Smart Pots product and we load it with  leaves every year or  two. That Compost Sak and the handmade wire compost bin do cold composting.  The leaves in the wire bins break down more quickly  than  you might imagine. We can keep adding leaves for quite a while. Usually we can use the composted leaves from the wire bin  the following fall, if you stir  them us periodically.  In fact an aerater tool does exist and it would really move the process along.

Leaves behind the hugel, filling a trench created by the hugel

We also  dump leaves in back of  the hugel.  Our yard is very wet. We created the hugel to raise the wettest part to make  it usable for plants but we (unfortunately) left a kind of trench behind  the hugel. Our new project if filling that trench  with leaves and small branches.

Large compost pile

This is the large compost pile which began very early this year. There are some branches underneath the dead plants and leaves. I have the hope that there will be some aeration  that will help the pile turn into compost a little more quickly. This pile will take at least two years before be can spread the compost.

Our raspberry patch

We have three short rows of raspberries that got totally  out of hand because of poor pruning. I just performed  the proper pruning – and the raspberry harvest in 2021 should be more easily harvested. These bushes were planted two years ago in  this spot because they were more tolerant of wet soil. The blueberries we had originally planted did not thrive there at all.

Pruned raspberries

The raspberries are now pruned for a happier harvest in 2021. Some of the leaves and old canes are left on the ground. We make compost wherever we can, and the plantings seem  to approved.

We are not done raking all our leaves yet, but we are already looking forward to the rains, and snow that will feed the composting process. Next fall there will be new compost.


Time to Compost – Harvest the Biomass on the Ground

Front yard leaves - biomass

Front yard leaves – biomass

As far as I am concerned the leaves that fall in the fall tra-la are as welcome as the flowers that bloom in the spring. When I lived high on a windy hill in Heath all the leaves blew away. I helped a neighbor rake leaves, and took them away to my compost pile. I loved picking up a few bags of leaves that people left in front of their houses when I came into Greenfield to shop. I needed leaves for my compost pile. Now that I live in Greenfield I no longer have to go begging for autumn leaves.

If you have never set up a compost pile there are books like Let it Rot by Stu Campbell devoted to composting; many garden books give information about composting; and locally we have the Franklin County Waste Management District to give us directions about composting online at

After reading all the instructions my advice is not to worry about details too much and just begin. Compost is all about rotting organic material. Fast or slow the result is the same. So, just begin.

Don’t worry about ratios. Some directions seem to imagine us building a compost pile after we have been collecting enough green material like fresh grass clippings or spent annuals or other clippings, and sufficient brown materials like manure or dead leaves before we start our compost pile. Meat and bones are always forbidden. A compost pile should measure at least four feet high and wide. Sufficient size is necessary to build up heat in the rotting pile that will help break materials down and kill harmful pathogens and weed seeds. Explicit instructions like that have been known to stop me in my tracks.

Leaves - Biomass in the backyard November 10.

Leaves – Biomass in the backyard November 10.

Fall is a great time to start a compost pile because dried leaves, spent annuals and all the trimmings from cutback perennials make a good start for a compost pile. Alternate layers if you have green and brown materials, but don’t worry about it. Be sure to water the pile. A moist pile, not a drenched pile, will break down more quickly.

Compost directions always say to turn the pile periodically and that is certainly good advice, if not always easy to carry out. Some gardeners have the space and the forethought to build a three bin compost pile made out of cinder blocks or chicken wire or wooden slats. They begin the pile in space number one and when the space is full they turn the pile into space number two.  When number one is again full, fork number two into number three, and number one into number two. Then start filling number one. By the time number one is full again the composting materials in space number three should be ready to spread or dig into the soil. Continue in this manner forever.

I have seen an inexpensive compost aerator tool that you plunge into the pile. The tool has a long handle with little paddles at the bottom. When you pull the aerator out of the pile the paddles loosen and stir up the compost, letting in some air.

I have admired many compost piles, but mine have never been lovely or organized to look at. However they have made completed compost that helped me improve my Heath soil for over 30 years. Now I am beginning to improve my very poor, very heavy Greenfield soil.

I started with compost that I bought and we are lucky that we have Martin’s Farm right in Greenfield that composts on a major scale and sells compost, mulch, compo-mulch, and loam. Nearby is Bear Path Farm in Whately, also selling good compost. I needed to get my new garden off to a good start; compost and mulch were the way to do that.

Now that it is fall I am starting my own composting efforts in earnest. This summer I bought an Earth Machine compost bin at the Greenfield Transfer Station. I began by putting in weeds and kitchen scraps. Now I’m adding leaves that provide some real bulk. We also had some scrap fence wire and used it to build a special leaf compost container. It is about five feet tall and 4 feet in diameter. It is full of leaves, but they are already breaking down and we can keep adding leaves.

Cold compost pile

Cold Compost pile

Many years ago when Larry Lightner of Northfield was still alive and gardening he taught me about what he called cold composting with leaves. He made wire rings about three to four feet high and as large in diameter as he wished. He filled and refilled these rings with leaves over the course of the fall. In the spring the pile would have  shrunk substantially. He added more leaves if he had them. Then he would make an indentation in the leaves, fill it with a quart or so of good soil and plant vegetable or flower starts. It is important to keep plants in a cold compost bed well watered.

Lightner’s cold compost beds were essentially raised beds. They provided plenty of nutrition for his chosen plants. He could even plant and stake tomatoes on the outside of the wire ring. Their roots found plenty of sustenance from the nutrients going into the soil as the leaves broke down. The raised beds also kept neighborhood dogs and cats out of his garden beds.

I have another friend who told me she has an electric leaf shredder. Shredding leaves will certainly help leaves break down more quickly. She wants to use those shredded leaves as winter mulch on her garden beds. In the spring she told me they have pretty much turned into soil. Not much is left of the leaves at all.

There are many ways to make and use compost. It is a never fail project. It is a rewarding project. It is a project that benefits the garden, and keeps material out of the landfill or incinerator. Compost!

Another good link

Between the Rows   November 14, 2015

Thank you all for bearing with me while we hammered out the technical difficulties that kept the commonweeder off line for a few days.

Dear Friend and Gardener – June 8, 2014

First view of the Potager

First view of the Potager

Dear Friend and Gardener – I am going to have to go back a bit  to give you  the history of the  60 x 40 fenced Potager to explain why my main crop appears to be woodchips. Originally this garden began as a 12 x 12 foot veggie garden tilled and planted before I had my hip operation in 2003 and had to limit (try to limit) my garden activities. After my successful hip replacement I added a red raspberry patch right next to the veggies. Then when there was so much excitement about lasagna gardening and sheet composting I added another ten foot of vegetables at the end of  the raspberry patch.

My raspberry patch

My three row raspberry patch

This garden was essentially in the middle of a field and deer did come and take lunches here. A fence was needed. Potagers were all the rage with their combination of veggies, flowers and herbs. Well, I decided the time had come to fence an area that would protect all those things. We made a substantial investment in poles and wire, not to mention labor by my husband who insisted he was building nothing less than a stalag. A very different view of  the space than mine.  In this new space I added new veggie beds, scarlet bee balm, agastache, zinnias and a couple of flowers  that couldn’t find a place in the ornamental beds. I also added two blueberry bushes and a row of ten black raspberry plants, a cold frame made from a damaged pyramidal skylight and compost bins and pile.  You must admit I really really needed a lot of  room. I also needed room simple to maneuver because even after my hip replacement I am not as agile as I was. And that brings us to the  woodchips on top of lots and lots of cardboard to make paths. The cardboard comes from our Transfer Station and the woodchips from roadside clearing operations by the town. Rough chips, but functional and free.

This spring I confessed that the blueberries were not doing well, and that the black raspberries had to come out – and that was a job. Black raspberries are incredibly thorny and need more pruning than red raspberries, but most importantly they needed 2 inches of rain a week to produce an edible crop. Neither the clouds nor our well gave us this generous amount of water, so after a three year trial we ripped them out. No point in maintaining a space eating  crop when there was no harvest. Next year this space may be a winter squash patch but that project will have to wait until I finish digging up the roots. In the meantime I have planted two hills of Botanical Interests “Lakota”, a heritage winter squash in the space where I used to have a compost pile. The squash should cover an extensive area of chips.

The original garden space

The original garden space

I am beginning to think the paths are encroaching on the veggie beds, but I can pull them back. The cardboard and chips (which do need renewing every spring) make a very comfortable habitat for the worms. At this season the veggies are not easy to see, but there are bean poles, newly planted, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, as well as 50 red onions, summer squash and 2 tomatoes; The foliage in  the left corner is a bed of garlic with lettuces and beets on the other side of the bed. Cilantro volunteers coming up here and there.

Cippolinis and me

Cippolinis and me

There I am weeding a bed of cippolini onions, all the rage in our region. This is at the foot of the raspberry patch. On the other side of this path is a bed of peas and carrots. Too small to be photo worthy yet.

I may have confused you with all  the quadrants of the garden, but it lets you see the scope of my ambitions and foolishness. This is a one-woman garden.

I thank Dee Nash of  Red Dirt Ramblings  for hosting Dear Friend and Gardener, a virtual garden club where we can share news of our edible gardens. I hope it is mostly good news.

Spring Chores in the Garden

It is time to begin spring chores. But exactly how do we know when spring is beginning? A tough question. The only sure answer is that it did not begin on March 20 this year when the temperature was 16 degrees at 7 in the morning and remained cold and cloudy all day.

It was a very different story last year when the snowdrops were in full bloom and my first temperature record was 54 degrees with sun. The first day of spring 2012 led us into several warm days that had me planting lettuce, radishes and beets in the Early Garden in front of the house. I also started working in the main fenced garden, but this year I hadn’t even tried trudging through the snow to the main garden until April 7th..

As far as I can tell from my records the last frost last year was April 6. Amazing. There were cold and chilly days after that, to be sure, but my temperature readings, usually taken around 7 a.m., do not go below 30 and I do not note frost. Actually all of us can remember what an early spring we had with a fair amount of rain.

So how do we try to figure out a planting schedule based on estimated number of weeks from last frost?  Memorial Day weekend seems too timid, but this year I am starting to feel timid again.

What spring chores can we do? I finally got out and did some clean-up raking, because the snow had melted on the south slope in front of the house. However, I know spring raking and clean up is well begun in the lower elevations.

The calendar says seeds can be started in Heath, and I do have a few seedlings sprouted. I bought more peat pots, and more seeds are being planted, parsley, basil, and broccolini.  At the same time, I am hoping that I can plant peas in the ground within a week or two. Last year at this time I was planting seeds and seedlings in the Front Garden, and in the main garden. I did not trust the warm weather and covered all plantings with floating row covers. They protected tender seedling from the cold and from the rabbits that have been such a problem.

A walk in the main garden on Wednesday showed me that the melting snow is sending little streams of water here and there, occasionally making a little waterfall into a mole hole. There will be no planting here for a while.

It’s time to get out the pruners to thin out red and black raspberry canes.  My husband just took the loppers and a saw to do a major pruning of the Sargent crabapple. It is now much more horizontal and architectural. I still have to do some of the finer pruning. Sargent crabs love to be pruned.

Any perennials that were left to provide winter interest or food for the birds can be cut back in preparation for the new growth. I am always surprised at how early and how quickly perennials grow in the spring. This is a time when I can also start thinking about which perennials can be divided  and shared with the Bridge of Flowers plant sale in May.

To make sure I am not forgetting some of the obvious garden tasks that can be done in this early season I have been reviewing  the Week by Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook written by Ron Kujawski and Jennifer Kujawski.  Ron was an Extension Educator at the University of Massachusetts for 25 years and I know I can always look to him for good advice and information.

The Kujawski’s Handbook is useful not only because it gives you practical information about every aspect of vegetable gardening from soil building, starting seedlings, container plantings and controlling insects, and on through the harvest, the book is arranged like a three year garden journal so you can put in your own weather and planting records that will help you with your own garden planning.

Father and daughter Kujawski give tips about “petting” vegetable seedlings to help them be sturdier, the value of vinegar and clove oil to kill weeds, how to handle squash borers,  and a whole list of trouble-shooting to handle plant symptoms.

They also describe a slightly different technique of sheet composting. In the fall they dig a foot deep trench, fill it with six inches of kitchen waste (vegetable matter only) and then top it with soil. It will rot over the winter and in the spring you will have a rich fertile planting bed.

This is a technique that I have also heard referred to as ‘trench’ composting. One friend told me she essentially used this method, but she dug large round holes, and filled them halfway with kitchen waste, then soil. She marked each hole with a stake and planted her squash and pumpkins there in the spring.

Please let me know how far have you gotten with your spring chores. Once spring takes hold, the race is on.

Between the Rows  April 6,2013

Resolutions for a New Spring

Van Sion Daffodils March 25, 2012

Yesterday my earliest daffodils began to bloom – just in time for temperatures to plunge from their unseasonable summer highs.  Nothing is certain in a garden. How many times do we have to relearn this lesson?  The following takes me back a couple of weeks  – before we were all boldly planting seeds.

Beginning tomorrow days will be brighter longer. The sun will not set until 6:46 pm. It will seem like spring has arrived – even though we have another ten days before the official announcement. For me this seems like the beginning of a new year and my brain is buzzing with new plans and new projects all of which have a more than a passing resemblance to New Year’s Resolutions.

High-Impact Low-Carbon Gardening

Spurring me on to these resolutions are two new books. The first, High-Impact Low-Carbon Gardening, 1001 Ways to Garden Sustainably by Alice Bowe (Timber Press $24.95) has about the longest subtitle I have ever seen Garden Strategies for the preservation of the planet; The most fuel efficient garden practices; Plants for the changing climate; Design for disassembly; New ways to compost; The safest pest control. The book hardly needs an index, but in fact, an excellent index makes it easy to look up specific plants, techniques and best practices. A full glossary with information and many resources is included.

Bowe’s book is packed with information, but it is all readable and most of it seems eminently doable although not many of us will launch ourselves into the Jean Pain method of turning compost into a methane energy supply. The ideas and techniques in High-Impact, Low-Carbon Gardening will capture carbon emissions, moderate the urban climate, promote health and reduce energy consumption. That all ‘translates into less work and expense for us,” Bowe writes.

There is no way to summarize the 1001 ideas so I will tell you a couple of the new things I learned. I had never heard of the Japanese method of Bokashi composting, which is a fermentation process that requires a small bin and bokashi bran which is available online, if not locally. In two to four weeks the bin of bokashi is ready to use.

I also learned about bimodal plants. These are plants that can take flood or drought – although they might prefer one or the other. Storm and drought tolerant plants include sugar maples, amelanchier, oakleaf hydrangeas, rugosa roses, primroses, baptisia, and columbine, but there are many others. It seems that these days we barely know what season we are in, or whether it is flood or drought that we need to be preparing for.

There are engaging chapters about landscape design, for beauty in every season, and for function, gardens that will attract pollinators and other wildlife to the garden. Bowe adds that the sustainable garden includes food for the gardener. Even a tiny garden can include a few food plants that offer pleasure and nutrition in equal measure.

Year Round Vegetable Gardener

My second inspirer of resolution is Nikki Jabbour’s book The Year Round Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year No Matter Where You Live (Storey Publishing $19.95). Jabbour lives in Nova Scotia and the cover photo shows her collecting a generous harvest of lettuces, scallions and carrots from a cold frame in the snow.

Gardening year round means beginning very early in the spring by using low hoop tunnels and coldframes. Early and late gardening also means becoming familiar with cold hardy vegetables, most of which I have heard of, but some I have never tried. This year I resolve to plant some mache. About half the book is given over to an A (arugula) to W (winter squash) listing of hardy vegetables, how to plant and handle them.

Mache, also known as corn salad, can be planted as soon as you can work the soil. It needs cool soil and moisture to germinate which it will do in about 2 weeks. Spring planting will give you early salad. It can also be planted again in August through October for delicious winter salads.

Mache is familiar and popular in Europe. If I want to choose a North American early salad green I can plant claytonia, otherwise known as miner’s lettuce – even though the flavor is not lettucy. California gold rush miners found it very nutritious because it is a good  source of vitamin C.

Claytonia rosettes can be picked whole when the plants are young, or as they mature, you can just pick off the leaves you want and the plant will continue to grow. It also produces edible flowers.

Both of these greens need consistent watering. While we all want to conserve water there is no way around the fact that vegetable gardens need regular watering, especially when they are just beginning to grow. Having a water source near a vegetable garden is vital.

Jabbour gives vital information about siting and building the cold frames, low hoop tunnels and high hoop tunnels as well as using floating row covers that will extend your garden season in spring and fall. I like this new angle on intensive gardening getting more produce out of limited space and for a longer season.

There seems to be more and more interest in growing at least a few vegetables. Possibly because of the economy, or because of concerns about good health, or concern about the cost of food miles, or because freshly picked produce just tastes so good. No matter. Both of these books will get you resolving to eat more of your own vegetables over a long season in efficient ways that require less work and less money.

I will let you know how well I keep my resolutions.

Between the Rows   March 10, 2012


Vermicompost Harvest – Not!

My worm composting bin 6-20

I have been waiting for dependably w arm weather to harvest my worm compost, vermicompost. Composting worms cannot survive when temperatures go below 50 degrees. The weather has been so unsettled this spring, first hot, then cold, and then hot again. Even when it has been very warm temperatures in Heath get cool, and the weatherman kept threatening 40 degree nighttime temperatures.  My basement, where the worms live for at least 8 months of the year is a steady 50 degrees. This is not optimum, but they survive.

We took the compost bin outside and dumped it onto a big piece of cardboard. There was none of the shredded newspaper that had been the original bedding of the bin, but some bits of rotted bread and fruit from the last feeding were visible.  We left it for an hour. The idea is that worms move away from the light and will migrate deep into the pile and you can skim off the vermicompost, then put the worms, which should have multiplied, back in the bin on fresh bedding.

Me and Henry and worms

We returned to the bin to actually begin the harvest. We found a few worms, but not many. We were perplexed. Then as we sifted through the compost, we  noticed  that it was full of tiny tiny worms. The babies were too tiny to get a good photo, but after passing around handfuls of compost to daughter Diane, grandson Ryan, and a friend who stopped by, we all agreed there were tiny wriggling worms in the compost. And very few big worms. However the big worms were in good enough shape to reproduce – lucky for us.

New bedding for worm bin

There was nothing to do except prepare the washed bin with fresh bedding made of newspaper strips soaked for three or four days.

Ryan and me

Ryan and I then put all the vermicompost, such as it was, and all the tiny tiny worms, and the few adults, back in the bin. The bin will remain outside on the north side of the house where it will not get too hot in the summer.  Worms can’t get too cold, but they can’t get too hot, over 90 degrees either.  My plan now is that I will do a harvest in the fall, before I have to bring the worms indoors. I will keep the vermicompost until next spring when I can use it on the earliest plantings.  We will see if these worms make it through another winter. I admit the only Heath person I know who had a thriving vermicompost bin kept it in the house – handy to the kitchen. I am not quite ready to do that.

Monday Record April 20

Gray and chilly. Temperatures in the 40s with winds gusting at 14 miles and more. There is still one pile of snow in The Sunken Garden.

Still, I got a lot done over the past week. First I found out that the old daffodils growing here when we bought our house in 1979 are Van Sion, a heritage variety. I have Kathy Purdy of Cold Climate Gardening to thank for the ID. Van Sion is a beautiful frilly double daffodil dating back to 1620. It is available at Old House Gardens where the description “explodes into a froth of green and gold” includes the information that it is often found at the site of old homesites. Multiplies. And multiplies.

I also moved some daffodils that I planted in the lawn years ago. My thought was to turn the lawn into a golden sea. Could have happened, but since the foliage needs to ripen before cutting, it meant I couldn’t mow the lawn until just before the Annual Rose Viewing. Not good. This isn’t the best time, obviously, to move a plant about to bloom, but it had to be done, and I think they will settle in and bloom. They were only out of the ground for a few minutes.

The scillas, Siberian squills, are in full bloom, not only the ones that have self seeded in the weeds that had c0me up earlier.

Lots of cleaning up. Brush from downed trees. Weeds and wild raspberries in the rhubarb bed where I added compost.

I started building a new compost pile next to the slowly evolving Potager. Still moving cardboard and wood chips for paths.

The seeds that I moved into a temporary cold frame are thriving. I also planted sweet peas on the White Trellis, crib sides I pulled out of the metal bin at the Transfer Station, and Sugar Snap peas on a piece of fencing from the shed. I also planted Detroit Red Beets, Green Ice Lettuce and Neon Lights Chard. My seeds came from Fedco and Renee’s Garden.

The photo shows the White Trellis, and a plastic composting bin that was filled with last fall’s leaves. Later in the season I’ll use it for a potato barrel.

The lettuce starts, Red Fire, planted in front of the house in a new bed have suffered from being planted too early, and being bitten by frost a couple of times, but it is holding on. I planted lettuce and spinach seeds next to the starts.

Buds are swelling on the lilacs, tree peonies, rhododendrons, and even one early peony. Last fall I moved division of Joan Elliot campanula to the new cellar door bank and it is up, as is alchemilla. Rain is promised. Spring is here!

Worm Farm Progress

Worms alive!
Worms alive!


      “I used to say that one ton of worms could eat one ton of garbage.  I was always thinking big like that.  Then I found out that Seattle had distributed four thousand worm bins.  I did some figuring and realized that worked out to ten tons of garbage going into worm bins.  That’s when I realized—it’s happening!  It just isn’t happening the way I originally thought it would.”

Mary Apelhof, author of Worms Eat My Garbage


            As a gardener I have always been in favor of worms. I’m delighted to find them when I dig in my garden. I’ve even collected worms that washed up and onto the sidewalk or road after a heavy rainstorm and put them lovingly in my garden.

            I have been aware that their burrows help keep my soil aerated, and that their castings (manure) are valuable fertilizer. I even thought that, someday, I might start a worm farm.

            Last June I met Amy Donovan of the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District at the Riverfest in Shelburne Falls. She was there with the worm bin she used to spread the word about worm farming in area schools. That was a further prod, but it was not until the impending arrival of three grandsons that I decided the time had come. Building a worm farm would be a perfect project.

            Using Amy’s directions (which are available online at and the labor of three young grandsons we set up a worm farm with an opaque plastic bin. The boys drilled air and drainage holes in the bin and we put in about four inches of newspaper ripped into strips, soaked in water and wrung out.

Because that wet newspaper did not look very hospitable I had my grandsons add some old leaves and compost.

            I bought a pound of worms for about $30; they were delivered through the mail. They attracted no attention from the USPS, unlike the arrival of chicks.

            Over the summer various visiting grandchildren kept the worms fed. Worms are vegans. To keep a worm farm healthy the worms should only be fed vegetable trimmings, fruit scraps (except for citrus and pineapple), moldy bread, rice, tea and coffee grounds, but never never any meat or dairy products.

            Many people keep their worm farms in the kitchen or an out of the way spot in the house where the necessary temperature range is easily maintained. Worms prefer temperatures between 50 and 90 degrees, although between 65 and 80 is more desirable.  I kept the worms outside in the shade until I moved them into our newly repaired basement. The temperature is a stable 50 degrees, and when it dipped below that for a few days during a bad cold spell in December I thought my worms had died.

            When a grandson visited during the February vacation we inspected the bin and were amazed to find live worms. The feeding started again and it is clear that baby worms are being born.

            I also noticed that all the newspaper bedding had disappeared and was no longer recognizable. Worms eat newspaper, too.

One thousand worms can eat 3-5 pounds of food scraps a week. It is time for me to  harvest the valuable worm castings, known as vermicompost, for use in the garden.                 Vermicompost has been shown to be even more valuable than regular compost. It can be used in planting holes, as top dressing, and even as top dressing or in potting soil for indoor plants.

Vermicompost can be harvested every three or four months. The worms then go into a bin with new bedding.

Worms are not much trouble. They need bedding made of newspapers, moisture, and food. They do not need the large amount of soil and compost I added to the newspaper although a cupful of compost is helpful.

If the worms seem to be crawling out of the bedding and onto the sides and lid of the bin it means that something is wrong with the bedding, too wet, too dry, not enough food or too cold.

I did have some trouble with fruit flies, but cut down on the fruit I was feeding them and laid several sheets of wet newspaper over the top of the bedding. This seemed to make a difference.

The biggest challenge I face is keeping the temperature above 50 degrees

One potential worm farmer told me she was worried about the worms escaping and ruining local forests. She had read that non-native worms in the northern forests of our country and Canada are eating through the duff, the leaf litter on the forest floor that feeds the trees and other plants, stressing the trees and altering the eco-system for other animals and birds.

Composting worms, Eisenia fetida are not a threat.  If they get loose in the garden they will not survive our winter temperatures. Make sure any worms you buy are this variety, listed by scientific name.

It is Anecic worms like the common nightcrawler, Lumbricus terrestris, that are the threat.  They feed on surface litter which they bring down into their deep burrows, returning to the surface frequently.

For complete and detailed information about setting up a worm farm you can read Mary Apelhof’s book, Worms Eat My Garbage or go online to or or for information and worm bins that range in price from about $70 – $125.   


 March 28, 2009