Saturday, January 15, 2011

Worms and Zen Gardening

I recently wrote a blog post denouncing gardening as "hard, back-breaking work," having grown up helping my father tend our vegetable garden. That blog sparked debate amongst my friends and family. Friends complained. "If you can raise hens, why not vegetables?" Many of them offered to help, even, in exchange for picking their way through my garden patch.

My Aunt Becky reminded me that it's in my genes to be a farmer. "Your grandfather raised chickens, had thriving vegetable and flower gardens, and helped his community plant Victory Gardens after the second World War." That was the most compelling argument. And so, despite my best efforts to embrace simple living, or maybe because of this ambition, gardening is back on the menu.

To ease initial distress over the prospect of adding to my bailiwick, I signed up for a series of Saturday morning workshops with the Fairfield Organic Teaching Farm, the first of which was on composting, that I attended yesterday. I anticipated that I would be nestled among would-be horticulturalists, like myself, learning how to rotate one of those big, black, plastic drums in my back yard. Mistakenly, I believed that all I had to do was shell out a hundred bucks for one of those drums, throw stuff in it, and let it "cook" under the sun's rays. Not even close. Instead, I sat with chemistry savvy, experienced gardeners (there might have been newbies mixed in, but they remained quiet... probably wishing to remain invisible, like me).

I was dazzled by the speaker, Nick Mancini, Certified Master Gardener and teacher extraordinaire, and even more impressed with the knowledge everyone (except me) seemed to possess about composting already. And what I went home with? Worms. A large, brown bin of worms, with a starter compost mixture of shredded paper, cardboard, and left over vegetable and fruit scraps from Mancini's fridge, along with a toss of oyster shells and soybean meal. This was intended as a prize for a raffle I had "won." Oh dear.
Making a Red Wiggler Wormery and Sniffing Worm "Tea"

I presented the new gift to my family. "You brought home worms?" They were incredulous. My son was the most horrified. He turns a pale shade of green at the mention of which hen his fried egg came from.

"That's a Beatrice egg," I say to him, puffing out my chest with pride.

He recoils, "I don't really want to know where my food comes from, Mom."

But, isn't that why I started this hobby to begin with? Same goes for the worms. "Worm poo makes great organic compost," I announce, with a little less certainty.

"Eeewwww," they all reply, in unison.

Dear Lord, what have I done? Well, to start with, I learned that worm poo does make the most amazing compost fertilizer. Vermicomposting is the official term. "Worms," I tell my daughter, "are the ugly little angels of the earth." Mancini refers to them reverently as, "the souls of the dead." His grandfather convinced him of this so that he would take care not to break the wiggly critters in two when pulling them from the compost heap.

Apparently, in the world of organic gardening, Red Wiggler worms provide beneficial organisms, nutrients and minerals to the soil that sustain healthy plant life and growth. Compost made from worm poo improves soil structure, texture, and aeration as well as increasing water retention. Plants grow stronger and have deeper root systems for better drought tolerance and disease resistance. Fascinating, I know. Perhaps more information than you or my son needs, but there it is.

So, here I am at the beginning of yet another new adventure: Organic gardening and vermicomposting. Have I enhanced the quality of my life or did I just add another layer of complexity to it? I had a eureka moment in speaking with Mancini yesterday when I said to him, "As a child, I remember enjoying my dad's garden in our first house, because the garden was small and located just behind our porch... Easy to get to and maintain.When we moved out to the country, Dad planned a larger garden, and my mom insisted on it being placed at the back of the property, and we lived on two acres." What drudgery! The garden quickly turned from hobby to chore in my mind, one that I resented. So, in the light of day, I realize that a small, well-planned, efficient garden, placed in a convenient location just off the kitchen, could be the answer.

Aunt Becky's story of my grandfather also reminded me that he engaged in
vermicomposting. I remember as a girl being mesmerized at the sight of a giant worm pile in his back yard. I never understood the connection between his prolific gardens and the worms until now. And so in April, my daughter and I are doubling our flock of egg-laying hens, buying a large coop and run, planting a 4x8 raised bed vegetable garden and keeping Red Wigglers for their organic compost. It all sounds so complicated.

The only peace of mind I hold on to is a simple garden design, so that it will be as low maintenance as possible. A Zen Vegetable Garden is what I envision... an oasis of green tranquility, overflowing with fresh produce, for my family to enjoy. Brie has offered to help, of course, while the men in my life stand from a safe distance, promising only to eat what we grow. Channeling my grandfather's and Dad's spirits should help -- we'll see what actually blooms from all this planning. After all, Spring is 63 days away. I still have time to change my mind, though, what to do with all those worms?

(Ssshhh...The chickens would just love them!)