Vermicomposting: Vermis Aren’t Vermin

June 12, 2010

Get ready with the big “ewwwww!” I’m going to talk about worm composting.  Worm composting is an excellent way to recycle your household organic waste, cut down on the garbage going to landfills, and inexpensively create a fantastic garden fertilizer. Good eco-karma points — and it’s easy.

Worm compost is made in a container filled with moistened “bedding” and red worms. You add your food waste, and the worms and microorganisms will convert the entire contents into rich compost. Here’s what you need to get started:


A Worm Bin: There are websites that sell ready-made worm bins via mail order. My worm bins are simply opaque Rubbermaid® plastic tubs with lids, with holes drilled in the sides for drainage and ventilation.

The “rule of thumb” is to create 2 square feet of surface area per person per week, which is about 1 lb of scraps per week.  Create a “bed” for the worms with moistened 1” black and white newspaper strips. Keep the bin in a shady, protected spot, so the worms don’t get too hot in the summer or freeze in the winter.

Worms: You need to use red worms or “red wrigglers.” Standard garden worms don’t work, so leave them digging away in your garden. I purchase my red worms locally in Santa Cruz, and there are local suppliers around the Bay Area, as well as mail order suppliers. Contrarily, the red worms will not do well outside of their bin, so there is no danger of introducing a non-native species to your garden.

Worm Food: Feed your worms fruits, vegetables, bread, grains, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, eggshells, you name it. Unlike some compost heaps, there is little odor. Just don’t put meat or dairy-based items in your worm bin as it can start to smell bad and attract scavengers.  And don’t add grass or other yard clippings, as the compost can get too hot and cook your worms. Put a layer of shredded paper over each food addition.

Harvesting Your Compost: In as soon as 3 months, you can start using your compost. At first, I dumped my bin out onto paper and then put the worms and newer scraps back into the bin, saving the dark worm castings for the garden.  After I outpaced the worms, I started a second bin and now alternate between the two, letting the worms complete their thing in the first bin, while I start the process again with a new set of worms in a second bin.

For use in the garden, many people steep a worm casting “tea,” and water with it. I just spread a 1/2” layer of the compost at the base of my plants and water it in.   For additional information on worm composting and resources, check the California government site at and/or your own county’s Waste Management website.

The Sky’s the Limit

June 12, 2010

Over the years, as my garden has matured, I’ve found I’ve had fewer and fewer gaps to fill. The good news: the garden looks lush, the weeds are at bay and maintenance is what I decide it is.  The bad news: if I want to put in something new, something has to go. This was certainly the case last year when I wanted to put tomatoes into the sunniest corners of the yard.  Out came the lavender in the front and out came the pots for the back.

I’m apparently not the only one with space challenges. I open up the flood of garden catalogs coming in, and to a one, they are showcasing ways to plant vertically.  There are vertical solutions for …everything: poles with bags for planting “upside down” tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, you name it; vertical bags to hang on fences for lettuce and strawberries; window boxes and rail-sitting hay basket planters for herbs.  And the nice part is they can all be seasonal. Once the harvest is complete, the bags and boxes are down and stored (unless you want to plant them with annuals).   Remember: just as with your ground dwellers, make sure you have a reliable water source for your aerial garden. One vacation without regular water and all your work is for naught.

An additional trick I’ve discovered with my pots is to “refresh” the dirt each year before planting again. Otherwise I find myself buying bags and bags of new dirt, while looking for hidden corners of the yard to dump the old dirt. To refresh, I empty the dirt from my planters into my wheelbarrow; add worm castings, green sand, time-release fertilizer and water crystals and mix it all up together. If it’s moist, I let it bake in the sun to dry out.  (Note: If there is obviously a fungus problem in a particular planter, don’t reuse that dirt.)

If you have comments or your own vertical planting solutions you’d like to share, please visit the blog on my website and let us all know!

Let the Planting Begin!

May 22, 2010

Although we are blessed with year-round wonderful weather in the Bay Area, fall  through spring is the optimum time to plant.  In fact, most woody plants should be  planted as early in fall as possible to ensure good root establishment.  Winter rains,  moderate temperatures, natural soil moisture and the plant growth cycle all contribute to  fall planting success.

Where to begin? In preparation for your new plants, make sure you know your soil. Is it  sandy? Clay? Acidic? If you know what you have, you can either plant plants that work  well in it or bring in new soil, replacing what you have or building raised planting beds.

And great news on the budget front: studies have shown that planting both a one- and a  five-gallon size of the same species at the same site at the same time can produce  surprising results: in three to five years, both plants will be the same size!  Even better, in  seven to ten years, the one-gallon plant will be more drought-tolerant than its larger  companion.

If your landscape looks a bit bare using one-gallon plants, use ground covers, perennials  or annuals to fill in the gaps. Avoid the temptation to plant your shrubs closer together,  since that will make for higher maintenance down the line when they grow up.

Water-Wise Landscapes

May 22, 2010

Even though it seemed they would never end, the rains have subsided for the year. We are entering our typical dry summer months. Now’s a great time to assess your garden and consider making some modifications that will save water — and save you on your water bill.

Number one on the list to making your garden water wise is “lose the lawn.” Lawns are great if you have kids and pets, but grass is water gulper. You should make your little spot of green as small as it can be to still meet your needs. Certainly consider replacing most or all of your front lawn with curb-appeal planting beds; very few families play in their front yards. And if you haven’t already, take a look at replacing your thirsty bluegrass with some of the newer types of grasses that require less water.

The second step in creating your water wise landscape is installing a drip sprinkler system. Except for in a lawn or other ground cover area, your sprinklers serve you better if they drip rather than spray. Overhead spray uses a lot of extra water and is inefficient in planting beds, where some plants get too much and others too little water. Fortunately, there are kits for converting overhead sprinklers to drip, so you don’t have to pull everything up and start over.

The third step is landscaping with water-conserving plants. More and more beautiful “drought-tolerant” plant materials are in the nurseries every year. You don’t have to plant cactus! The East Bay Municipal Utility District has put out a gorgeous color book, Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates, with hundreds of water-wise plant descriptions, pictures and landscape ideas. You can order the book online (or find local bookstores who carry it) at the East Bay “MUD” site:

Finally, don’t forget to top off your water-conserving efforts with a 2-3” layer of mulch. It will not only curtail water evaporation but also keep the weeds at bay, fertilize your garden and improve your soil’s texture over time.

Getting Started with Your Landscape

May 22, 2010

Having difficulty visualizing your ideal garden? Try taking this survey to help clarify your thoughts and get your creative juices flowing.

To start, think about the style of garden you’d like. I’ve described just a few popular garden styles below. Of course, your final garden doesn’t have to include every item listed in the style description. And it’s OK to mix and match features from different categories. That’s a style, too!

Mediterranean: Gray green plants. Olive trees, rosemary, lavender, herbs. Italian tile accents, blue-tile fountains. Citrus in terracotta pots.

South West: Sculptural cactus, succulents, bougainvillea. Crushed gravel, flagstone, adobe tile, stucco. Dry riverbeds.

English Country Garden: Roses, lavender and clipped boxwood. Lots and lots of flowers. White picket fences and arbors. Brick.

Japanese: Maple trees, bamboo, azaleas, rhododendrons, ferns, moss. Quiet and calm. Simple water features and striking natural accents.

Tropical: Lush deep greens. Banana plants, cannas, palms, tropical vines, gardenias. Hot colors. Jungle fragrances.

Native: Plants and trees indigenous to our area like manzanita, ceanothus, oak, salvia, blue-eyed grass, penstemon. Drought-tolerant. Butterflies, hummingbirds, other wildlife.

Once you’ve got some ideas about your preferred garden style, ask yourself some practical, non-style questions as well like these: Besides looking good, what does your garden need to do for you? That is, do you want to fit in entertainment areas, play areas, a vegetable garden or fruit trees? Are there any views that need blocking? Any that deserve enhancing? Do you have any specific plant allergies? How much maintenance are you willing to do or have done? Do you have particular objects that you want to incorporate into your design like a
stream, a sculpture or a hot tub? Do you have any particular problems with pests like deer, squirrels, gophers or neighborhood pets?

This survey is by no means exhaustive, but by getting some of your ideas down on paper, you’ll be a step closer to the garden you want.

Let Your Garden Take Flight

May 22, 2010

When you’re looking to add pizzazz to your garden, think beyond simply introducing more colorful flora to introducing colorful fauna as well. Birds add movement and color and interest to your yard, and the first step in attracting them is “just add water.”

Incorporating a birdbath into your garden design is good. Adding moving water with a fountain – or a stream if you’re lucky enough to have the space—is even better. It doesn’t have to be grand. My two-tier, 3’-diameter lion’s head fountain maintains a constant parade of birds from dawn to dusk. It’s that easy.

If you want to take your avian floorshow to the next level, you can add food sources. I like my food sources to be natural, growing ones, so I don’t have to feel guilty when the feeders run empty (and the birds don’t leave me for greener pastures!). The hummingbirds love the year-round Callistemon (bottlebrush) buffet, dwarf citrus, Jasmine polyanthum (pink jasmine) and the salvia. My other winged visitors head for the pyracantha, viburnum, cosmos and, of course, the sunflowers. You can find more bird-feeding plants for your garden on

Once the water and plants are in, the birds take care of themselves, and all you need to do is pull up a chair and enjoy the show!