Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tales from the Bucket Bag: This Bag Will Self-Destruct In...

So, that’d be a No on the compostable plastics for by-the-bag bokashi finishing. Or at least, a Not Suited for my particular situation. Other people may have different needs, so here’s the brief:

The compostable bags most accessible around here (all the same brand pictured above) do not respond well to getting wet--so you can’t store them where they may get rained on, and even dew is a concern. Integrity retained less than three weeks if exposed to weather, regardless of contents. For me, that’s not really long enough. And of course, if the bokashi comes into contact with the bag...well, even the retailers say they’re not recommended for use with high-nitrogen, high-moisture compostables:

We strongly recommend that wet grass clippings be left on the lawn, where the clippings will quickly biodegrade and add nutrient value to your lawn. Placing wet grass clippings in either a paper bag or a BioBag can stimulate bag decomposition within three or four days.

I’m not so sure about the fragility of heavy paper leaf and lawn bags, but these writers are if anything being conservative with their estimates when it comes to their own product. In some case, the bags just melt away into nothing; rather cool, but not of any particular use.

But if the goal isn’t to have a discrete (and discreet) bokashi-and-leaf unit, these can be incorporated into other landfill-alternative scenarios. Bentley’s had nice results feeding filled bags to his worms, and while BSFL don’t seem inclined to chew through plastic no matter its source-material, once it breaks down enough to allow access, grubs will quickly dispose of the whole thing.


Monday, February 22, 2010

It's In the Bag

Saturday morning's garden chore was a good deal messier than I'd expected--in part from lack of practice and weather conditions, but also lack of forethought. Next time will be better, and there will certainly be a next time. This was notable largely for being my first garden bag.

Since posting my intent to try this, I've acquired two small testing spaces to plant them in, one I'll be administering, and one that will adopted by someone else after I've started it. Haven't decided yet whether I'll be trying the same mix and technique in both or not, but it was time to decant a curing bucket and I had all the necessary supplies, so I figured I might as well mix up a bag and worry about the details later.

Problem the first: declaring a top. The paper leaf and lawn bags are designed to stand on their narrow bottom for ease of filling, but to use as a garden, you would logically set it on its side. If I wanted a thick soil layer in the top of the bag once it was placed, I'd have to take care how the bag was filled, stored, and transported. After a few minutes of fiddling, I decided it wasn’t going to happen that day; for this bag, I’d do limited soil mixed in with the leaves and bokashi, and add more soil at planting-time. Which meant there was no need to declare a top immediately. (Phew!)

Problem the second: "dried" leaves. Our drought has officially been declared at an end--temporarily, if you ask me, but that's irrelevant. What matters is that, while it wasn't actually raining Saturday, the sky'd been doing what my grandparents would call "spritzing" off and on the past few days. Some of my leaves were damp enough to make kitchen gloves a better option than the ones made for the garden. Not sure how much excess moisture that added, but paper's breathable enough that it won't go anaerobic; my major concern was that the soggy, relatively heavy, acidic leaf-mats, together with the wettish bokashi, might damage the bag’s integrity too much for me to able to neatly move it later. Guess we'll see.

Problem the third: vermiguilt 2010. A garden bag needs soil; I decided this particular bag needed to start with about a gallon of what some gardeners call "living soil," soil with microbes and perhaps some macro-digesters, plus organic foods for same in all stages of decomposition, and the odd inorganic for bulk and drainage. Procuring this was simple: The planter stack is now shorter by one layer, its contents gone into the bag. Worms and all. While more caring and reasonable vermi-people might be willing to separate out the worms from the food/bedding/humus/soil/whatever, I am not. In the first place, I'm lazy. In the second, garlic-scented worms? Okay, so they're not so repellent as BSFL, I still have no desire to handle the things. And in the third, it's not like they're scarce around here, not these days. Verne's done so very much colonizing I recently accused him of having gone feral. (Was he ever domesticated? Sorry, not on point.) He wriggles is way into any welcoming environment, and there's at least a chance the smarter ones might manage to survive the bag, if they're careful, maybe. Then again, maybe not. Fresh-cured bokashi is acidic, plus there's an almost inevitable heating reaction when mixing cured bokashi and dried leaves. Not sure about wet dried leaves, but if moisture content's the only retarding factor, the reaction should occur once sufficient evaporation has taken place. The bag's not tight-packed, so the reaction will fizzle--nowhere near enough dirt in there to add significantly to the pressure--but will it end in time to keep the worms from cooking? No idea, hence the guilt. But whether or not this particular set of Verne-aggregates thrives, I'm confident more will want to move in once the contents have cooked awhile.

Which brings me to problem the fourth: storage. Ideally, a garden bag might be assembled in place, wedged into a bed-box and left to cure. But that's not yet possible for me, as the raised-bed dimensions have not been marked out in either testing space, nor the edging materials acquired. Leaf and lawn bags are too identifiable to leave them in plain sight, since helpful neighbors might cart them down to street-level to be hauled away, or other greedy gardeners take them to add to their own compost piles. I had thought to just stick this bag beneath the porch, but that’s perhaps not the best option with our imminent inclement weather--better it be under a tarp and on something that will shed water, I think. And, um, maybe a wee bit insulated for the worms’ and microbes’ health? The curse of the groundhog is upon us here in Austin, you know...

Might not have been the best time to start this bag. But, hey, I'll learn something from the experience! Even negative results can be helpful, and about the worst that'll happen here is that I'll have to rebag the bag.


--image from the brilliantly named GardenSnob

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Verne-Day

Nowhere to put a candle, but it’s about time to celebrate Verne’s birthday. Coming up on a year since I began this second venture into vermicomposting--and I have to wonder how I ever managed to kill that first set!

Yes, okay, I do remember having parboiled the critters, indoor wormery plus Texas heat proving a fatally bad combination. And the early iterations of Verne didn’t do all that well, either, before I gave up and moved them all outdoors where they belong. But the so-perfectly-named red wigglers are so very resilient out there that I’m finding it hard to remember just how vulnernable they can be.

Small bin and temperatures under 15 degrees F? They barely even slowed down. Temperatures above 100 didn’t seem to bother them much, either. A month or two with no additional food? Fewer baby wrigglies, but no other problem. Overstuffed container? Ooh, look: hatchlings. Neither drought nor flooding containers killed them off, and even the ones in the neglected winterized closed-container test are surviving, if doing less well than those allowed to wander. (Which may not be the right verb, as it tends to imply feet, but my thesaurus doesn’t have a vermi-setting. Sorry.) And wander (slither? Slide?) they do, into every planter with any form of bokashi barring the very freshest and most acidic.

And not only planters. I knew that, of course; Verne and his earthworm cousins flock (squiggle?) to bokashi juice dilutions and so on, too. But it hadn’t really occurred to me that they might be so attracted to the stuff that they’d go places they really shouldn’t.

What can I say? They don’t have feet, I forget how mobile they really are. But I sprayed some full-strength AEM in a trash bin a couple of weeks ago—to deodorize it—and, while I had the trigger bottle in hand, spritzed the outdoor ashtray, too. Which, appropriately enough near my place, is a terra cotta pot filled with clay kitty litter.

Just the one Verne-aggregate in there when I saw it, and I promptly removed it to a less inhospitable environment, but I couldn't help wondering--if worms adapt to their environment, would I Verne pick up a taste for nicotine?

Happy -ing,


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Rigged to Succeed

Last fall, I bought the cheapest potting soil available to see how much of an improvement bokashi could make. Some of that soil, layered with bokashi, was put to as immediate a use as feasible; a few gallons of it I set aside to rest until spring.

The placement of those resting planters may have presented an unfair advantage. Though I wasn’t intending to cheat! It’s just that I have so little space (especially since I started measuring my life by the bucket -G-), and the matched set of five filled one-gallon planters seemed so very suited to stacking, so I stacked the things. And where else would a stack of planters go but next to the worm towers?

The first of my seed orders arrived last week, and there was a break in the weather today—must be time for sowing! Or at least mixing a seedling soil. Wandered out to bucketville intent upon collecting a bit of vermicompost (not pure vermicast, as that’s too strong for seedlings), maybe a bit of composted bokashi, and some potting soil. Figured I might add some Spanish moss for airflow, sand for certain crops, all the usual, but first the basic dirt-and-nutrients.

Verne, Sexton, and the third planter tower I keep pretending is only temporary and have thus not named were all overdue for feeding and ready for a harvest, so I collected some finished vermicompost (and such vermicast as had precipitated down into the reservoir layer). Reaching for planters gets to be kind of automatic by the time you’ve deconstructed three towers, so I’m not sure the difference in design really registered, though I did note the absence of a plant at the tower-top. A clay saucer?

Oh, right, I thought, this is the spring soil test. Well, it’s not really spring, but last-frost’s not too far off, let’s see what we’ve got. So I tipped the saucer off and hauled the top planter down to take a look. What I saw was yet more red wigglers living up to their name. Not, mind, so many as in the established worm towers, but probably enough to start a new wormery with. And I saw the same in every planter in the stack. Without the trivets and internal bracing I installed in the tower wormeries, too—apparently, composting worms are far less sensitive to pressure than I’d assumed. The soil was fairly wet, but responded easily to gentle forking, the ideal cake-crumb texture so often cited and so rarely seen, at least by me. Some volume reduction had occurred, as the bokashi broke down and the worms ate and the storm-waters flushed loose bits away, but I figure I’ve got about four gallons of incredible soil ready for the planting.

Can’t say just now how it compares to high-quality retail soil, as I haven’t got any of that. I did plan to buy some, but...why? My last batch of in-house mix from the Natural Gardener didn’t look as healthy as this! Feels like I’d just be throwing money away.

Not buying any worms this year, either. But I might be forced to invest in a few more seeds...

It never ends, does it?

Happy spring is about to spring,


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Add-A-Bag Garden?

We're enduring a small spate of seasonal weather here in Austin, so I can't do anything about this idea right now except record it--but I've just found my next post-bucket experiment, and I can't wait! Hardly revolutionary, nothing more than a small tweak, really, but if it works...

1) Choose a compostable bag* suitably sized for a determined garden space.

If you're a small-space gardener, that may well be a doubled grocery bag; folks with room for larger raised beds could use leaf and lawn bags or those canvas sacks used for coffee beans and other staples. Not sure about compostable plastics, but it might be worth a try.

2) Combine well-cured bokashi, dried leaves or shredded paper, and soil or a soil-based potting mix in the bag. Close and set in place. (If using a grocery bag, roll top down, then wrap bag with twine and tie, and placed with the rolled side down.) No need to clear the ground first, though if your greenery is especially vigorous, a layer of cardboard or several newspapers might not be a bad idea.

3) Secure and let sit the requisite two weeks? (There's a testable variable! But, sure, why not. Allows for starting some seedlings or a trip to the nursery.) Then,

4) Using a spade or shears, cut V-shaped holes into the top of the bag. Into each hole, insert a spadeful of best-quality potting mix and a transplant. Olla pot(s), if using, should be placed now, too. The garden bag having been planted, it should be treated as appropriate for the region and conditions. And finally,

5) Repeat when your next bucket's cured.

It's the Add-a-Bead model of gardening: Find a spot, plunk down a bag, go on your merry way. Come back in a fortnight to plant the bag-in-place and set another beside it. Continue until all the world's a garden. ...yeah, okay, maybe not. But every time I help build a raised bed, I'm surprised at how much dirt it takes. This way, you could start with such soil as you had and acquire more as the situation permits.

Will this work? No reason why not, though there are several variables to be tested. Is it worth collecting paper bags if you're not a slightly obsessed bokashi-er? I think so, though, again, this is as yet only a rainy-dayweek's dream.

Like planter-finishing, this does require messing around with the cured bokashi, though only once. (Oh, joy: another test! Using disposable liners here.) Still, it's not like dumping a bucket into a bag of leaves is all that difficult. Bags do mean less time-in-sight than with planter-finishing, and using the bag as a planter means less mucking about with soils, too. It's altogether a neat--pun intended--solution to the eternal question of post-bucket protocols.

With free or repurposed bags, plus dried leaves and shredded paper, this can greatly reduce the expense of creating a raised bed, and allow for that cost, as well as the physical labor, to be spread out over time. Not to mention keeping that carbon-source out of the landfill where it does no one any good at all. (Hey, it's phone book season again! Home delivery of entirely useless but easily compostable pages. Yippee?)

How much dirt to add? Well, ideally there'd be at least three inches of soil on what will be the top of the bag when it's placed--once you've got that, then for the rest, I'd probably start with my usual one cup per half-gallon of bokashi, plus an additional half-gallon of dried leaves or quart of shredded paper. I've found that to work quite well in producing slow composts and worm-food. More dirt won't hurt a thing, it's just the most expensive ingredient in that mix, so I tend to ration it. Put it up top, where it'll do the most good, and let the organics break down below. Though there are limits; I seem to recall the lasagne garden people citing six inches as the maximum between soil layers, and while this wouldn't be a pure compost layer, that's not an unreasonable place to start.

Not that it's an issue with grocery bags, but there's always the chance someone will fall for my reverse fence-painting line. "Hey, you know what'd be fun? I could come install a raised-bed garden on your property?" -G-

And, oh!, think of what a demonstration garden this might make. If it works, it's simple enough for kindergarten classes. Step right up and take a look at The Clean Your Plate Garden. So easy, even five-year-olds can do it! How's that for a pitch?


*No, the photo's not of a compostable bag. That's a "construction debris bag," as featured in a story a couple of years back on TreeHugger and GroovyGreen. And if I can get my hands on something in that line, or a more common landscape cloth bag, I'll certainly extend the test.