How Does Your Garden Grow?
For the early years of my life, my parents had this incredible garden that we harvested and ate from. I would wander around the amazing jungle of corn and tomatoes, dig holes to China with the kids I grew up with, screaming our high pitched little girl screams when we found a worm! We would pick carrots and beans that were barely ready for harvest, sometimes remembering to rinse the dirt off them under the outdoor spigot, but most of the time not. I remember how magical that place was and how that beautiful, soft soil felt in my hands and how fresh and flavour filled everything tasted.
My parents also had a vacant property on where we would go and stay in campers on weekends. It was the land I first fell in love with. I was the youngest of the family by 14 years and needed to keep busy. A bit of a pest when I was bored. My sister and my mom enjoyed reading their tabloids in the sun, while my dad puttered around with something or other that needed to be fixed. It was a lakefront property and we didn't have a boat. I would bug my sister and my mom every five minutes to go swimming, because really? How can you have a lakefront property and not want to go boating, or swimming??? And then there was fishing. And fishing was their answer to keep me busy and not pestering them while they discussed Elizabeth Taylor and her drinking problem. Again. I found something new to pester my mom for. Money. To go buy the $1/dozen juicy fat dew worms from the Esso Station at the corner. The ones in the soil were plentiful, but were too short and skinny for me to catch a BIG Bass!! I was on a mission. I wanted to catch the biggest fish of Lake Simcoe and bring it home to my family for dinner. Often I think my record was for my persistence and determination, than it ever was for anything larger than a sunfish or a rock bass. In other words, I never caught anything large enough to keep. Until a few years ago. But that's another story.
Those large fat juicy dew worms, also commonly known as Canadian Nightcrawlers, had me fascinated and I wanted to bring them home as pets. Apparently my mom was completely disgusted with the idea of keeping my pet worms in her fridge next to her fine, homemade goulash leftovers. They fascinated me more than fishing - I have some anglers close to me that are probably gasping at the thought right now. Those worms stuck in my head for a lifetime, like a little tickle in the back of my brain. More so than most of the fish I caught, (except of course, for that one I wanted to bring home as a pet and keep it in a bucket). I would observe the dew worms in their styrofoam containers and the moss they used to pack them in back then. I would lie on the damp ground, the grass still glistening with dew and pull the worms out of their bedding and watched them move around and squirming, (I didn't know back then that sunlight was their kryptonite). And then I watched one cast off their poop. It looked exactly like the soil they were inching their way around in. It was as if it all came together for me in that moment when I was around 7 or 8... The soil is made up of worm poop! I knew there were kajillions of worms that lived in soil, and they were probably responsible for quite a bit of that soil. Worms are important little creatures! And in some places of the world, big creatures too!
It took a couple of decades later before my life turned me back to thinking about that moment and the worms and their magic. It's 9 years ago now when I began my journey working with worms as an organic gardener and hobby worm farmer. Back when I started, I wanted to see if what everyone was saying about growing with worm castings was true. I think turning our lives completely in a different direction with the worm farming as our primary focus pretty much is a testimonial of the truth.
One thing I have always done with my gardens because of my curiosity and my love for experimenting, is try new things. New methods, new plants, new ideas. Full out organic gardening and incorporating worms into my gardening were part of one of those experiments.
When I was a kid in the '70's, one of the boxed cereal brands at one time had a promotion and put a selection of seeds as their "prize inside the box" and instructions of how to cut out the box on the dotted lines and make it into a pot to grow the seeds. I was so excited! I'd buy more cereal today if they still did that - that's if I bought cereal for myself still. I ended up with the marigold seeds and immediately grabbed some dirt from my mom's garden and planted them. I think I must have forgotten to water them, but that led me to keep trying. Soon again after, when other kids were doing chemistry set experiments or trying to launch themselves to the moon, I tried to grow a kernel of corn in a cardboard box, All I can say is that it sprouted. I think my mom found it and threw it out. But it was still very cool to see it happen. And I still get a thrill when I see a sliver of green breaking through the earth.
My adjacent neighbour to my backyard is a traditional Italian gardener and a retired senior. He and his wife have been here since their house was built in 1972 and have had a number of people as their neighbours at this property until I bought it and got here at the young age of 28 and very single. He and his wife are always looking over the fence at my property. More often than not, it's probably to get a good laugh at my attempts and failures of finding the perfect method of gardening for me as my back and circumstances changed over the years. He's always asking me, "Eh!... Whach u doin' over dare?" And over the years I ask him advice. I wasn't crazy about the idea of his suggestion the use of mothballs for the squirrels, being as they are carcinogenic and made of benzene and I don't even want to smell one within a mile of my kids. Some of the stuff I do is so "out there" that he doesn't have a clue how to advise me. When it comes down to our styles, I am pretty sure he thinks mine is nuts. But like I said, he is a traditional gardener. He has his tomatoes, his zucchini, his basil, all in a neat tidy, obsessively weeded rows in the back of his lot. God bless him for all the work he puts into his garden beds every day of every growing season. I'm not quite that enthusiastic or obsessive about my weeds. I now intentionally let mine grow for their medicinal or culinary value - he doesn't know this and it drives him nuts to see my property covered in weeds alongside his pristinely hand manicured golf course of a lawn. He and I have a good, over-the-fence neighbour friendship. Sometimes we disagree, but in the end we always end up meeting at the fence and I pass him some fresh eggs from my 3 chickens, and he gets back into his good mood again. (Or is it maybe I have returned to being in his good graces by passing him the freshest eggs he has eaten in years?) He and I talk about our gardens, our apple trees, I tell him how mad I am for him cutting down healthy trees, we would have great debates and disagreements over that. But every so often he shares his stories about how the previous owners of my property were avid gardeners, (I bought the house for the land size and the giant garden the previous owners had left behind), and in their time here they would plant potatoes in their garden every year. "Potatoes?! Come on!", stepping back with both his hands stretched forward and his fingers pinched and head slightly turned to the side in his old school Italian way. "Why po- tate-Os?!" (His thick accent comes and goes depending on how fast he speaks or how often has repeated and refined the statement. Oh, and he is a retired hairdresser. He apparently has had lots of opportunity to talk about the previous owners' potatoes to his clients.) "They're so cheap at the store! Too much work!"
I wonder what he would think about me as a gardener if I told him I have between 200-300 lbs of potatoes growing on my patio right now?! That's hoping all goes well, and so far it has. Four different varieties and organically grown on approximately 12 square feet of space! And I paid under $20 for what I would have had to pay $150 for at our local discount grocery store. I often find when I buy potatoes, they are green or rotten, but only to discover this after I have brought them home and am preparing a meal for my family of seven. Having a large family to feed can be financially and physically back breaking just to go shop for food. Weekly visits just for the sale items and necessities for everyone's different needs can run between $300-500, with carts overflowing and lumbering down the aisles, and praying the cart doesn't topple over, or God forbid, another shopper barreling down the intersection of the aisles with their cart,,, EVERYTIME I take a corner at the grocery store. And of course, because I am hellbent on a healthier lifestyle, we don't buy the things coupons and sales are created for! All of this becomes aggravating and hard work when I am trying to save some money and am being sold inedible, chemically laden, genetically modified, packaged in plastic, "fresh" produce! I can't even think about how much potatoes are to buy organically for my large size family. I won't look at the prices when I am at the organic farmers market and I am able to buy them there. That $20 investment I made, (including seed potatoes and castings and potting mix), was so I can stop bitching and actually do something about it. So far, it really didn't take a lot to make that change.
Remember, my company motto is "Greener Choices For a Greener Planet". When I do these things, these experiments, I do them with low to no budget in mind so that I can see what it takes to grow an abundant supply for food for a low income family. My parents were post World War II European immigrants who were raised during the Depression. I had learned a lot from them. I am still learning and doing research so I can practice the best techniques to feed my family the best I can and teach them for others to do it as well. It is a source of knowledge you only get from experience with trying out many different things in the practical setting. And that experience can be costly if you do it large scale, and everything bought sparkly shiny and brand new in it's cardboard packaging and plastic. From the global point of view, that isn't the most green action to take. In this case, having a father who was a hoarder actually worked to my benefit. In retrospect, I have made the best choices I can to save money, feed my family what I grow organically, reduce my expenses, (significantly, I might add), increased my income sources, (somewhat significantly at this time), and all of this is bundled up into one big reduce, reuse, recycle, repurpose, greenest choices wherever possible, do no harm, environmentally friendly, sustainable, positive benefits to the planet, and oh my God, I am saving the world with worms, tidy package.
K. So maybe I am standing on a soapbox now and getting a little too ridiculous. However, it's all true. Spend as much time as I do scouring information for Vermiculture and Vermicomposting as I do, and you will be sitting there and agreeing with these statements too.
Wow. Even I have to sit back and take this in for a minute.
So, now back to my potatoes...
Our municipality recently changed our garbage collection to the cart system. All of our residential garbage cans became obsolete almost overnight. So I repurposed what I had here. With two properties and my late father being a hoarder, we had a few garbage cans kicking around to experiment with. I decided to try an experiment with potatoes and worm castings and our now repurposed garbage cans for container gardening. I took 5 organic potatoes that had sprouted and just chucked them into a garbage can with holes in it that had a few inches of potting soil and castings on the bottom. Cutting the eyes out seemed like too much work and too risky for a so-so gardener like me. Ya, I make mistakes. Why take the chance? Maybe even by doing that I could have made a mistake. But within a few days they began to sprout. So I started a second garbage can with red potatoes. They started to sprout and grow quickly too. Every 6" inches of growth, I threw more castings on. An organic farmer friend of mine told me that the best potatoes he tasted grew in straight castings. So I thought I would give it a try and see how it goes. Being a worm farmer, I have as much castings available to me as I want, despite my current size and production. (I have some good friends who like to share). So far, the plants seem to be doing extremely well, growing over the rims of the cans and blooming. In just under two months. At the end of June, I started a third bin. This time a barrel, with some organic russets. I'm hoping, despite their late planting and the size of the barrel, they will have the same promise of success as the other two do. I'll do some pics and videos at some point in the future to give everyone the grand tour of our Redneck Backyard. It's cool, but it's nothing to brag about. Yet.
I know this is a long blog entry and it could be the first time you are reading of my adventures in the Redneck Backyard, and the worms, so I am going to end this soon. But I do have to tell you one quick thing before I end this.
While I was writing this, I had to stop for a moment. Another neighbour (my dog walker - no I am not that lazy, I am busy and get deep into stuff I can't stop in the middle of to take my dog for a walk. And I am supporting a local small business), was telling me about how her husband saw my Italian neighbour's tomato plants. She has asked for my "worm poop" on her husband's behalf. You see, at the beginning of this season, I shared some of my castings with my Italian neighbour, the traditional gardener, for the first time, along with the fresh eggs that I bribe, I mean shower him with. He was skeptical. And like I said before, traditional. I told him, "Try it. It's not going to do any harm, it's non-toxic, organic and vegetarian. Please tell me how good they are when they grow. You are going to love them!" So I guess he put the castings with his tomato plants.
Now here's the funny part. I've been driving our dog walker NUTS since she started getting to know us. She had never met any one, let alone heard of anyone who farms worms. She would come in to get my dog and I would be elbow deep in worms that I was preparing to ship for an order. She would get so completely grossed out that she couldn't look at me and walk straight out the door with my dog. Some days she would tell me to shove my worms you-know-where and to get lost. "I don't want anything do with your worms and your poop!" Over time, I got her to the point where she can look at a pound of worms in a bucket. I wouldn't dare show her a pound dripping from my hands! Not yet. I knew her husband was the gardener of the house. And I knew one day she was going to be asking me for some castings and taking some of my "poop" to her husband, because all gardeners eventually hear about castings and want to try them to see if they are really THAT good. Today was that day that I was waiting for! I am brewing some casting tea to go with the worm poop I am sending her home with her shortly. I knew this day would come. :D