Garden On, Vashon
Gardening, cooking, building, designing, dreaming…
Mary Margaret & Todd Pearson don’t want to spent their days weeding. The Pearsons want to entertain, to host croquet and whiffleball games on the lawn, with enough paths through the meadow and forest to let kids and dogs run free. So their big, gray-shingled Cape Cod reigns over a spreading lawn, specimen trees, and clipped box hedges around flagstone patios and tiny perennial beds, all of this neatness and symmetry surrounded by a shaggy lupine meadow with a path running through it.
Mary Margaret & Todd Pearson built the house in 1992, moved in a year later. In addition to the yard, they soon planted “the things that would take longer to grow”: the Himalayan birches, tulip poplars, red maples, and Japanese snowbell trees, the boxwood hedges around the trees closest to the back patio and driveway, finally some limited perennial beds around the house. “We didn’t want garden beds with lots of plants—we wanted to be able to take care of this place ourselves,” Mary Margaret told me. “We like the symmetry and formality of the boxwood as a background for more free-form plants in the beds.”
The lupines are all that’s left of a 16-17 wildflower mix that was spread in the clearing with the grass seed. The Pearsons cut a path through it every spring (takes an hour or two), then mow the whole meadow in August after the lupine goes to seed. “We like the transition the meadow makes between the manicured yard and the woods; our property is tidiest next to the house, more progressively “native” as it approaches the forest,” said Mary Margaret.
This year, the path loops past an entrance into the forest the Pearson kids created when they were little explorers; it’s now watched over by Dean Hamner’s statue, “Guardian.”
The property’s unfenced, and consequently they’ve had the unasked-for services of Bambi Pruning. “We once had about 14 cherry, plum, and apple trees, raised beds and raspberries. But we didn’t want to fence, and since the deer loved everything we planted, we just gave up. We have enough ‘King’ and ‘Jonagold’ trees left for applesauce; they’re oddly-shaped because the deer pruned them.”
Unserviced by the deer, the boxwood hedges are trimmed once a year by Todd. Inside the box-boxes are Styrax Japonica, or snowbell trees—the same small trees that grace the entrance to Vashon Library. How well box hedges are used in this garden: as divider between green and gray, as concealer of trees’ bare ankles, as background to perennials. Interestingly, they are NOT used to as boundary between mown and wild grass; presumably wild grass would just wriggle up and through a trimmed hedge and spoil its tidy look.
Mary Margaret rides her mower around the lawn couple times a week during the growing season. Every spring Todd aerates the lawn, then fertilizes immediately afterward, as the soil “is your typical, terrible Vashon soil. We wouldn’t have this lawn if we didn’t fertilize, but once a year is enough to keep it healthy,” she told me. And after the lawn is aerated, it holds water better and doesn’t need much irrigation: for the perennial beds, watering is on an automatic timer.
Most of the work, she admitted, is keeping the driveway graded and picking up blown-down wood around the property. For that, Todd went in on a Kubota tractor with his old friend and neighbor, Tom Langland. “Mary Langland and I were skeptical at first, but we now admit we could not do this work ourselves without the tractor to move wood around or its backblade to grade the driveway.” And lucky them, they have no noxious perennial weeds to continually fight—not even blackberries.
So if you’re thinking they did a lot of work to prep for Garden Tour, you (and my husband, who’s got a bet going with Todd), would be wrong: except for re-opening the forest path, Pearsons have done nothing out of their usual routine to make their garden ready for your viewing pleasure.
So walk the meadow loop-trail, taking in the many views of the house through the lupines and grass seed-heads (allergy-prone, be forewarned…) This green-n-gray place is soooothing, just the kind of place to walk barefoot across the perfect grass or park yourself in a chair with a tall, cool one. No worries here… it’s all low-maintenance.
Perhaps I shouldn’t wax superlative so early in these previews of the Vashon Allied Arts Garden Tour. After all, this is only the second garden I’ve seen so far. But the Dockton garden of Whit and Mary Carhart is TRULY an amazing accomplishment and may be the highlight of this year’s tour.
Here’s a guy who’s put in the hours learning about plants—taking classes, going to conferences, volunteering at a big public garden. Then he brings it all home to his hillside garden above Dockton: combining all that learning with tons of plants, time and muscle, the assistance of experts and artists, and yes plenty of money. Result, a garden that rises fulsome as yeast around the feet of the towering firs, as elegant and well-arranged as the best Japanese garden (I’m thinking, of course, of the one in the Portland West Hills).
Whit Carhart, a retired radiologist, and wife Mary got this property in 1993, remodeled the house, then moved in June 2000. During those first years, Whit went to classes at South Seattle CC’s horticulture program, toured Heronswood, joined the NW Horticultural Society, the Hardy Plant Society, and the NW Perennial Alliance. Beds around the house started to swell outward with hostas, mountain laurels, mayapples, saxifrages, ligularias: bold textures, plump plantings. Then he started volunteering at the Miller Botanical Garden, going twice a month to weed and talk plants with plant curator Richie Steffen.
To the north through the trees is the “Woodland Gazebo,” so named because the stone-laid gathering space is so evenly circled by the “posts” of towering doug firs. ”The Miller, though it’s larger, is also a woodland garden much like here, so many of the plants and ideas you see here are from that garden,” Whit told me. Plants are in tiers: Japanese maples and snowflake viburnums stretch sheltering limbs over groundcover collections of candlelabra primroses and unusual ferns, alliums and astrantias, rodgersias and lewisias, accented with golden flings of Japanese forest grass.
Whit said, “We like eye stimulation,” and the coral colors of the gazebo chairs certainly are that. Mary Carhart, who’se in charge of placing the artworks around the garden, found the blockhead statues of running kids on the website of the Stockholm Botanical garden; the artist is from Zimbabwe. She also carved the totem before the entrance gate.
In 2007, they hosted the Garden Tour Gala. The day after, he started developing the Upper Garden on the hillside behind the house. On the immediate, drier slope, Whit planted moor grasses, sedums, and four varieties of manzanita— the lupine seeded itself. As he reached a natural terrace, he turned over work to landscape architect Terry Welch and his crew. And it’s here, passing through the MoonGate, that you’ll hear yourself (and everybody else) cry out “WHOA!” to see the pond, stream, and distant waterfall that Terry wrought.
But climb higher: the photo at top was taken from the “Macheii (Japanese Sitting Shed) that sits on an outcropping up and behind the waterfall. As you take in this strolling garden, notice the logs laid with their ends cleverly concealed with perennials; this is part of the craft suggested by Richie Steffen in his workshop “How to Plant on a Slope.” Whit said, “When I heard about Richie’s class, I said to him, ‘I’ll give you the slope, the rocks, logs and plants, and a group from the NPA to come do whatever you tell us to.” So he agreed: he came one afternoon, we gathered, he would explain the positions of logs and rocks, and we’d put them there. Not ALL of this, of course—just this section by the white camas.”
You’ll see that section at the foot of two beautiful specimens of Dogwood ‘Venus,’ a cross between our native dogwood and Cornus Kousa. Also along this slope are collections of birches, Pacific Coast irises, lewisia and saxifrage, weigela and calycanthus ‘Hartlage wine’ (developed by Richard Hartlage, the prior garden director of the Miller Botanical Garden, when he was still a horticultural student.) So many plants, so well sited, so very healthy and happy.
Up in the viewing shed, you’ll find a paver with a Japanese symbol. Its maker, Al Bradley, said it meant “eternity.” But Terry Welch said, “No, it means ‘water.” Turns out, said Whit, depending on whether or not you use the accent mark, it means both water and eternity.
This is an ambitious garden, as extensive as any big park garden, so don’t come already tired by touring. It’s not just all the hillside trails: it’s the thought of all the work/time/muscle/education/$$$$ spent on this garden that WILL take the wind out of your sails. Or, it just might inspire you. But either way, plan to be AMAZED.
Mukai Farm & Garden OPEN HOUSE on Monday, June 18
Island Landmarks new board members would like to invite you to an Open House at the Mukai farm and garden on Monday evening, June 18th, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The Mukai farm address: 18017 107th Ave. SW, Vashon.
The Mukai farm and garden is a historic treasure and precious community asset. Island Landmarks, a local non-profit, was set up in 1995 and charged with stewardship of the property. Over the past several years, Island Landmarks has been inactive and the property is in need of restoration. To remedy this situation, over 70 islanders recently became members of Island Landmarks, convened a special meeting on Monday June 4th, removed the old board, and unanimously elected 11 islanders as new board members, with the goal of revitalizing the Mukai house and garden for the benefit of the broader community.
Please stop by, tour the house, view the gardens, become an Island Landmarks member, and meet the new board. At 7:00 p.m., the board will meet to discuss next-steps; all are welcome to attend this meeting as well. There will be lots of opportunities for islanders to become involved in the Mukai farm and garden community initiative. Contact one of us if you’re interested in helping or join us on Monday June 18th at the open house as we celebrate our efforts to reclaim this property for our island community.
The new Island Landmarks board: Glenda Pearson, President; Ellen Kritzman and Helen Meeker, Vice Presidents; Yvonne Kuperberg, treasurer; Rayna Holtz, secretary; Bruce Haulman; Lynn Greiner; Bob Horsley; Anita Halstead; Kelly Robinson; and Sally Fox.
Three events are coming up in the next few days that you might be interested in.
TOMATO TRELLISING with Jenn Coe
At the Food Bank Farm on 260th & Wax Orchard Road, Jenn Coe will show you how to prune & trellis indeterminate tomato plants. Indeterminates are vining tomatoes such as Brandywine, Early Girl, most of the cherry and heirloom tomatoes. It’s tomorrow, Thursday afternoon June 7th at the Food Bank Farm at 24026 Wax Orchard Road. Workshop & demonstration from 1 to 1:30, with plenty of time for practice afterwards (probably on the tomatoes planted in the food bank hoophouse.) Rain or shine, everyone welcome.
Perennial Plant Sale in Gold Beach at Caroline Brinkley’s garden
Caroline Brinkley is “going to try to sell off most of my plants.” She propagates exotic and beautiful plants from around the country, nay the world. Having opened her garden to an informal tour last weekend, she has (possibly) tired of having visitors trip over all the small potted plants lining her garden pathways. So she’s having a sale this weekend. That’s her garden in the lead photo, plus these choice plants below from a garden so colorful, it can sear your eyeballs. Sale will be on Saturday from 10-2, and Sunday as well, if there’s a lot left. 25850 75th Ave SW in lower Gold Beach: look for the front yard planted right to the street with low-growing flowers.
Dan Hinkley, founder of Heronswood, speaks at Blue Heron this Sunday afternoon
Intrepid plant explorer Dan Hinkley, who founded Heronswood Nursery on Bainbridge, will speak at the Blue Heron THIS SUNDAY, JUNE 10) ! (no, NOT the weekend of the tour, June 23-24) starting at 3pm.
Hinkley will reveal how he looks at building beautiful Northwest gardens to include plants that work in our marine climate and are low maintenance, in this afternoon lecture and slide show. Book signing, wine, and appetizers included. Tickets are $30 per person, or $45 including one Garden Tour ticket, at the Blue Heron.
(The first of four previews of the 2012 Vashon Allied Arts Garden Tour. )
My mind keeps wandering back into this garden off Dockton. It’s not spectacular, or over-the-top, or stuffed with flowers or rare and curious plants (with some exceptions).
This is a garden where two boyish spirits have been at play these last dozen years. Here, you’ll find paths burrowed through woods. Wind-shorn sticks rearranged into structures. Tongue-in-cheek “garden beds” and a flowery nine-square “quilt.” Fowl, fabulous to look at, held captive in their cage. Evidence of Having Big Fun around every bend.
These two acres are the last remnant of land homesteaded by Bruce’s great-grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant who rowed over from Tacoma to claim 80 acres around 268th in Dockton. The two BFs moved here in 2000, and “it was a mess of alders, nettles, and brush.” Now it’s mostly a woodland garden, and the guys have thickened the woods with plantings to create privacy barriers between themselves, neighbors, and the road. The “Wel.Come.Inn” sign on the house came off one of the family’s old beach cabins.
Use your eyes here, or you’ll miss good stuff. For instance, the lego-like constructions of branches that fell during recent windstorms. Or the “birds nest” basket of maple and grapevine stems. The first path veers off left as soon as you enter the property. Around the bend you’ll find a pair of tall thrones made by Jim Chabot around a small table holding a blue-glass orb. Sit down, and you’ll feel big as a God here, musing on the tiny problems of the blue Globe under your hand.
Bruce was a military brat; he tells me “whenever we moved to a new place, I just had to make paths.” So paths criss-cross all over these two acres, tiles by Clare Dohna marking each intersection. There’s a big-leaf maple that got smashed during a tree-felling project five years ago; its stump was cut down to 3′ high and ignored until the guys re-discovered it had taken on this spider-legs-in-the-air form. It now shelters Barry’s grandmother’s Kwan Yen statue, watching over this “magical space.” (Nearby, look for the nine-square arrangement of potted impatiens he creates every year.)
The paths weave in through woods and around island beds full of raspberries, irises, hosta, huckleberry, columbine, and a bird-seeded coltsfoot—whatever wants to grow there. Barry is the plantsman, but he’s not fastidious, letting things grow where they want and keeping natives in place “to blend in with the scene.” In the densification planting along the road, ferns lacily arch over fat hostas, a red rhododendron nearly hides in the shady depths while a potted sunset fuchsia screams LOOK AT ME! in the front row.
Though his planting style is casual, Barry has acquired a few exotica. To the left of the house is a lychee tree, its long pointed leaves clustering from arching stems (it’s to the right of a windmill palm). And towering over the back chicken coop is a Chilean Fire Bush that only ten years ago was a $3 plant sold at the Seattle Arboretum: today it’s at least 25′ high.
Though they now both work in house renovations, Bruce is the lead builder of the two. It’s he who offered to build Barry the chicken coop of his dreams. “I told Barry I couldn’t LIVE with his collection of chicken stuff anymore, so I offered to build him a coop with a Chicken Museum if he’d move his paraphernalia out of the house.” So Barry got some real chickens to go live with his chicken cards, calendars, coasters, crockery, and china-chicken lamps. This may just be the most amusing thing you’ll see in this garden tour, so don’t fail to eyeball what’s behind door #1 at the coop.
In that coop they keep ducks, chickens, and Golden and Lady Amherst pheasants. Barry caught the male Lady Amherst (Lord Amherst?) and flared its cape for me. As gaudy as that was, what caught my eye were Bruce’s four compost bins, a hot-compost system that fires up to 160° within days, thanks to all that chicken manure. No wonder their garden grows so lushly…
Though I haven’t seen all the gardens on tour this year, I am going to bet that this garden will leave you the most relaxed. It’s mere-mortal-scale, reminding us that for working folk, gardening is a part-time pleasure, an arena for play, not ambition. Start your tour here: you’ll leave with a smile on your face.
We’re getting a few days of good transplanting weather through this weekend. The lettuces I planted two days ago sized up immediately, and after last night’s rain, I can witness they held up their leafy arms and shouted “Amen!” Other plants that have risen from my earth recently include arugula, cresses, radishes, potatoes, and FINALLY some peas. Perhaps it was the SuperMoon of last week … perhaps it’s the peripheral influence of California’s solar eclipse … perhaps it’s the shadow of the gardener … but more likely it’s the perfect confluence of enough rain, sun, and warm-enough soil.
All cool-season crops will love this weather. Tomato plants can go into the ground now if they’re hardened off and if given a little protection for those cooler nights. Hold the peppers and basil in the greenhouse for a couple weeks, and if you haven’t already, you can sow cukes or squashes in large pots so they’ll be in first leaves by their June planting window.
True Value posts on Facebook that their inventory of vegie starts is running thin. VIPP is having a plant sale quite soon, and I know that Pacific Potager is still selling 60 kinds of tomato starts and other plants at the Farmers Market. So while we have a forecast through this weekend of cool mornings and light sunshine in the afternoons, go get those plants and tuck ‘em in while the heavens smile upon us!
La Bionda Wants a Pizza Wagon
A few thoughts on dirt from Rebecca Wittman
Dirt: It’s what’s for supper!
by Rebecca Wittman
I got dressed up this week for a trip to Seattle, and as I sat in the ferry line I was momentarily horrified to see half an acre of dirt under my fingernails. I’d been working in my garden earlier, and too lazy to find my gloves. So there I sat, sporting a brown accessory that clashed with my black dress. But the people I was seeing in the city know this dirt-under-the-fingernails part of my life, so I wasn’t concerned about harsh judgments. The grubby fingernails boarded the boat and went to the party.
I have always secretly loved the look of dirty fingernails. I think they signify a healthy relationship with Mother Earth. Growing up on the farm, we gave cursory scrubs to hands freshly blackened from the garden. We ate carrots right out of the ground without a moment’s thought to washing them. I watched my dad wrap his filthy mitts around his harvest sandwich in the summer fields, and I now believe his longevity (91 and going strong) proves there were as many benefits in the dirt as there were in the sandwich.
The blacker the dirt, the better the crop. That’s the refrain I grew up with. The memory of manure being spread around the hay pasture to this day brings a smile to my face. Beautiful rich soil made even wealthier by deposits of nature’s fertilizers.
Food retailing in modern times has taken a lot of the fun out of dirt. In fact, people who’ve never raised their own carrots — or anything else — harbor an aversion to the idea of dirt. To the majority of eaters, dirt is a dirty word. Worms are disgusting. Poop is nasty. They have no understanding of the nurturing universe down below their feet. I think we need to turn that around. Let’s spend a moment appreciating dirt and passing that appreciation along to the next generation of food consumers. If people understand the role dirt plays in the arrival of their next meal, they’ll connect more viscerally to the kind of food they should be eating. Not food that has been processed to death, but food that is whole — a single degree of separation from its native soil.
Come to the Farmers Market this week and find food that isn’t a distant, overprocessed memory of its original self. Find whole nutritious food, separated from its native soil just hours before its arrival at the Village Green. And as you prepare your feast that night, think about the beautiful black dirt that helped make it all so delicious. And while you’re at it, give a shout out to those worms.
Four flying hours after a stampede of buyers swarmed the tomato tables of the Vashon Garden Club plant sale, I looked up, saw it was 12:30, and we’d moved over 400 tomato plants into eager gardeners’ hands. Hoop-la! What a blast THAT was!
We fielded a lot of questions about how to raise these plants. So garden readers, here’s a quick run-down of how to grow tomato plants here.
HARDEN OFF FIRST: Translated, get your greenhouse-grown babies acclimated to the outdoors, by leaving them outdoors for two hours today, and two additional hours each day for a week. Water daily.
PLANT WHERE THEY’LL GET 6+ HOURS OF SUNBEAMS DAILY. And more sun is better if you have it. If your best sun is on a deck, get a BIG 20″ pot or half-barrel and fill with premium potting soil.
FEED: Toms are heavy eaters, so plant in rich soil with fertilizer added.
PLANT DEEP: Tomatoes are planted deep: more roots will grow from the stems to help with water uptake later. Dig a sloping, rectangular hole—think “stairs to the subway” shape—and put the rootball in the bottom, the top cluster of leaves just emerging into the light. Firm soil around rootball and stem, leaving the top leaves above the earth. (And for those of you who bought a plant with flowers on it, I know you’ll hate to do this, but clip that yellow cluster off. Those first fruits aren’t much good anyway, and you want the plant to concentrate on leaves and roots this month, not fruit.)
SUPPORT NOW: Now, avoiding where the rootball and stem are buried, jam a tomato-cage around that topknot of leaves. (That’s for a bush tomato: for a vining indeterminate that wants to grow tall, give a 5-6′ stake.)
SWADDLE FOR AWHILE: Nights are still cool, and tomatoes will stop growing when night temps are below 50°. Still, we gotta get growing, so to keep these babies warmer, surround the tomato cage with an enclosure of clear plastic, reemay cloth, or Walls o’Water. I use dry cleaner bags slipped down around the cage, with a big hole in center-top so rain can get to the plant (protects against Bambi, too). You can also tent over your whole bed with a hoophouse of reemay or clear plastic: just leave some windows for bumblebees to get in and excess heat to get out.
WHEN NIGHTS REACH 50° AND MORE YELLOW FLOWERS COME— At that point, remove the cover so that bumblebees can get at the flowers. Watch them sometime: they pollinate through “buzz pollination” by vibrating the flower so that it releases the pollen within. You can be the bee, too, by giving the flowers a little shake.
That’s it for now. You should start seeing fruit set in July and, if we have a good season, ripening beginning in late August. And since the weather folks have announced La Nina’s demise, we DO have a chance for a tomato year! Good growing!
Happy May Day! It’s been awhile since I posted some colorful eye-candy, so in this week leading up to the big Garden Club Sale on Saturday, I thought it would be a great time to preview what’s blooming in time for the sale.
From Kay White’s greenhouses comes dozens of blooming geraniums, fancy-leafed geraniums, tomato plants, and not quite 100 fuchsia baskets—even a few geranium baskets! Below are Geranium ‘Platinum’ with dark green leaves with a white edge and coral flower, next to geranium ‘Grossensorten” a clear pink over smoky blue-toned leaves with chocolate zoning. What drama!
If you’re mostly interested in big, colorful geranium blooms, you’ll appreciate the choices Kay’s staff will offer—especially you quilters who will laugh at the carnival colors of “Mrs. Quilter.” If you prefer more intimate joys, such as fragrance or tactile softness, you might enjoy trying Fancy-Leaf Pelargoniums. If the geranium seems to have a tiny flower, pinch a leaf instead and see if you can tell what plant is “Prince Rupert’s Lemon” of “Attar of Roses” or ‘Nutmeg.”
They’ve also been growing tomato plants, extending the varieties you can choose from: more cherry tomatoes like ‘Tomatoberry’, ‘Sweetie’, or ‘Sweetheart’, a grape tomato. Cool-tolerant tomatoes include ‘Northern Delight’ and ‘Momataro’, a favorite of Monument Farm. There are two romas, including ‘Ranger’, and a gold tomato, ‘Gold Nugget.’
Highly Unusual Perennials from CJ Brinkley
I’ve been around the plant nursery a few times, but some of the perennials we’ve been growing in the high school greenhouse for CJ Brinkley, I’d never heard of. Today I sought out some photos and information about these plants, and boy, some of them sound PERFECT for our climate. CJ seeks out plants and seeds from near and sometimes VERY FAR, so these are choice plants you’re not likely to see.
This is a photo from “Annie’s Garden’ of Incarvillea arguta—a hardy gloxinia. This orchid-like flower blooms on a bushy plant up to 3′ high/wide in mid-summer. Looks beautiful, huh?
On the left, a Tracehlium Caeruleum “Blue ThroatWort.” This has dome-shaped flower heads several inches across that are crowded with tiny, tubular amethyst or white flowers resembling allium. Foliage is deep green brushed with plum highlights. Though a perennial, blue throatwort performs as an annual and blooms summer to fall. 3 feet tall and wide. Excellent cut flowers. Provide neutral to slightly acidic, well-drained soil in full sun with some shade in the heat of the day. (from www.finegardening.com/plantguide).
On the right, the amazing-looking Salvia Barreliera: gets 3-5′ tall spikes of these blue flowers.
Here are two rock garden plants: Phacelia Sericea and Caiophora coronata. Phacelia, or “PurpleFringe” looks rather like a small, smoky Blazing Star: it’s a clumped perennial 4-16″ tall, with foliage covered with silky hairs giving it a silvery color. This is a common mountain wildflower native to Colorado. Caiophora is from the Chilean mountains: it’s a low rock garden plant with a fringe of large, ice-white balloon flowers. Both plants will want dry conditions and full sun.
Dicliptera suberect “Hummingbird Plant” (not shown): Felty grey leaves adorn this 20″ tall x 3′ wide, heat- and drought-loving deciduous clump, topped from late spring until fall with terminal clusters of tubular orange flowers…a hummingbird’s dream come true…
Above: Ratibida “Mexican Hat” and a Red Geum.
As you can see, we’ll have some choice plants for your garden. Plus a boutique of garden items, sedum centerpieces, books, vegie starts, and for you early-birds, baked goods on sale to hold you until the doors open at 9am. It’s at the Old Napa store on the west side of downtown Vashon—follow the sandwich boards. And don’t get between me and my new Blue Throatwort!
The Competitive Spirit rises in me when I notice vegie starts from Langley Fine Gardens and Bel-Red Nursery show up at Thriftway. I too am growing vegie starts for sale on Saturday, May 5th at the Garden Club Sale at the Old Napa Store. And I want you to know that, in another ten days, you’ll have a whopping selection (literally hundreds) of EARLY TOMATOES, in gallons and in 4″ pots. If you want a decent chance of a ripe tomato this August, come shop our sale—here’s what we’ll have to offer:
EARLY TOMATOES, in order of ripening—
You would think that most Islanders compost. Most of us have the need for a Personal Refuge Dump, the acreage to hide it in the wilderness, plus juicy compostables are easy to find.
Yet when I polled my favorite captive audiences this winter, I was surprised how few—a little more than half—did compost piles. And one lady said “You should poll again, this time asking ‘If you don’t compost, do you use a worm bin? I do, and I love mine.”
So I asked. And was I surprised: about 20% of these already-gardening crowds had worm bins. The favorite alternatives to composting? feed scraps to chickens or worms.
Later, I did an informal questionnaire about composting and alternatives, and 15 readers responded. While 13 of these 15 readers do passive piles—ie cool composting—many said they no longer dump kitchen scraps into the compost because of raccoons, rats, or flies.
One respondent who had a stacking compost bin from King County said, “The coons learned to jump on the roof to collapse it, so I put wire around it and a temporary lid—it became quite the contraption. Then there was the time I tossed in kitchen scraps and a rat few into the air, did a U-turn and disappeared.” Now, she says, she just buries her food waste.
Whenever I brought up the subject of composting, I would hear about varmints. Many Islanders, it seems, have given up composting because of them.
A worm bin, however, is like a safe for kitchen scraps. Make it big, make it heavy, and the critters can’t get in.
“Mine’s like a coffin—a 2′x 4′ box with hinged lid and a handle to lift the top,” said Deborah Teagardin about the system like that in the photo above. She ordered hers from the Worm Guy, Mark Yelkin, who used to make “Wiggle Worm Castings” for sale at True Value. “We went to a presentation and were very impressed with the system: he could make us a plywood worm bin, with delivery and worms, for around $100.”
“It’s very heavy, but it works so well that when we moved, we emptied it out and took the system with us. It keeps the raccoons and rats out. And it gets rid of our kitchen scraps for us.”
The chest is divided by a 1/4″ hardware cloth into two halves. About twice a year when one side’s become stuffed full kitchen scraps, she’ll pull out the old bedding full of worm castings “that’s been mellowing awhile” and use it as side-dressing around garden plants. “In the summertime the flies and pill-bugs get pretty bad, so I just ‘Open-Throw-Slam-Walk Away’ without looking.”
Another friend, Vicki Clabaugh, made hers out of an old chest from Grannie’s Attic. She told me “I do not use much of the actual compost because it is full of seeds from tomatoes, cukes, melons, peppers, etc, and these seeds sprouted EVERYWHERE the first year I used the compost. Now I fill 3-6 pails halfway with compost and then top with water. Stir daily for a few days. Then I use this tea, after straining it through an old screen, to water pots and my raised bed, especially when planting seeds and starts. I dump the compost left in the bottom of the pails back into the worm bin.”
Yelkin said, “Worm tea is like ‘Red Bull’ for plants, it has so much microbial activity.” He said a tomato with just a skinny taproot will sprout a lot of mini-roots off that taproot if fed worm casting tea. Another blogger at redwormcomposting.com said that he “fed a worm-tea based fertilizer to his tomatoes and they got husky and darker green fast.”
Getting a Bin—
As Worm Guy, Mark Yelkin used to manage several large composting bin arrays, offering a “2 buckets of scrap for 1 bucket of worm compost” to subscribers and local restaurants. But personal difficulties and “too much silverware and junk” in the buckets from certain restaurants, plus a closure of the Dirt Yard where he had been based, put an end to Worm Guy enterprises.
However, he’s back on the Island and eager for some odd jobs, so he told me he would be open to making more worm bins. Best way to contact him: 206.683.6575 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also make this worm bin yourself: this link will take you to the 4-page “How To” pdf, which includes a cutting and materials list. www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/static/pdf/WormBinPlans.pdf
Another good system often recommended is a big Rubbermaid tub-within-a-tub: you’ll find plans online.
Getting the Worms—
Worm bin wigglers are not your standard 6″ earthworms. They are Eisenia fetida, also known as Red Wigglers, and they are the worms found in compost piles and in manure piles. They are adapted to living in rich organic rotting material rather than earth and in dense populations in warmer temperatures.
You can collect them yourself if you have a compost pile or exposed dirt: just lay a big square of moist cardboard on top, wait a few days and you’ll find scores of red wigglers have gathered on the cardboard’s underside.
You can also get worms from Mark, or from Ann who demonstrated on Worm Bins at Mariposa Garden’s Compost Fests in 2009 and 2010. She sells them for $15/lb; you can contact her at email@example.com. Or you can get them from her favorite website on the subject, www.redwormcomposting.com.
Ann said you need about a pound of worms for every square foot of bin volume. They’ll eventually multiply into gazillions of worms, but they will not reproduce more than the space in your bin can handle. Be patient: worms don’t so much EAT your scraps as suck on the slurry generated by decomposition, so it’s a good idea to let moist bedding and scraps moulder for a week or two before introducing the first worms.
And they’ll be a lot quieter than chickens.