The Worm Factory 360 and The Earth Moved (With Video!)

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When I first bought my own home years ago, there was one fact that made me particularly happy: as a responsible grownup and a homeowner, I was now allowed to get any pets that I darn well wanted, so long as I could take good care of them. No landlords or reluctant parents to tell me I couldn’t!

Chickens were an easy sell to my other half, since we love eggs, as were a couple of kittens. But after that, I started hitting a wall. “Guinea pigs!” I suggested. “Bunnies!” “Geckos!” Each of these brilliant suggestions was met with a dubious stare. Perhaps there were still some limitations on the pet front.

But when I read about vermicomposting, I realized that here was a pet that was useful, quiet, didn’t need their litter box changed, and wouldn’t get snippy with me if I went on vacation. There was still a doubtful eyebrow raise about the relative awesomeness of worms as pets, but there was hardly any reasonable objection to be made. I was to become a proud keeper of worms.

Figuring I’d better learn a little more about my new choice of pet, I picked up a copy of Amy Stewart’s The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms. Even setting aside my new enthusiasm about worms, the book kept me rapt until the wee hours of the night, learning about the relatives of my new pets. Amy has a knack of finding the story in anything, and the curious tales of worms, and the scientists and business people who work with them, read like a thrilling bit of fiction. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up!

And I discovered that worms made me very popular at cocktail parties (at least at the type of cocktail parties I go to). Nothing like  bit of worm trivia, delivered with a cheerful grin, to perk up a boring conversation. Fern Richardson apparently agrees; she started the Twitter hashtag #WormFact to share her favorite tidbits. The fact I can’t get over? There is a type of worm, I believe in Oregon, with lily-scented slime. LILY-scented! I wish I could keep them as pets.

Anyway, we all know the benefits of worm castings: great for seed starting (helps prevent damping-off), helps retain moisture for hanging baskets or container plants, and generally full of good stuff for the soil. Being able to grab a handful of castings anytime is a great way of giving plants a boost.

worm factory 360 (4)And this is why I’ve been using a proper worm bin, the Worm Factory 360, instead of some manner of DIY setup – the castings are super-easy to harvest. My first boss as a gardener had a DIY worm bin in a large tupperware, and on the first rainy day of the year, she had us spend a very long few hours harvesting the castings. It went like this: pick out worms, one by one by one, and after two hours of tedious worm-picking, my boss was able to use the harvested castings in her containers. I am tired just thinking about it.

But a proper worm bin has three or four levels, so as the lower levels fill up with worm castings, you just start adding your vegetable scraps to a higher level to lure the worms up out of the old castings so you can use them. If you’re impatient, something like melon or pumpkin guts will draw them up very fast, and you’ll feel like a rock star when you see how happy the worms are wallowing in their melon bits. It’s not too hard to be a good worm parent, as long as you eat your vegetables and have some occasional peelings, guts or rinds to share.

The Worm Factory 360 is easily the nicest bin I have tried. It is small and square, so it fits under a sink or among a container garden with relative ease, and the flat, sturdy top means you can set a cute pot on top to disguise it. It comes in black, green, or terra cotta, and it kind of looks like a modern little table of some kind once you get it set up. It’s certainly not an eyesore, which is more than I can say about the cats’ litterbox!

Would you like to try your hand at vermicomposting? Amy Stewart and the Worm Factory have teamed up to offer an amazingly awesome giveaway: A copy of The Earth Moved to get you inspired, and a Worm Factory 360 to get you started! Just leave a comment to enter and I’ll pick the lucky winner on Wednesday the 28th. US only. Good luck!

Congrats to Karen of Le Jardinet, who has won! And if you’d like a special discount on The Worm Factory, visit this link until April 30th 2012.

Monday Miscellany: Monsanto Trial, Happy Honeybees, NWF Triumph and Some Awesome Contests

Misc.pngMonsanto Trial The normally non-political Margaret Roach of Martha Stewart Living fame and A Way to Garden has spoken up about the Monsanto trial that starts tomorrow. Why is this important? Because Monsanto’s been genetically engineering seeds for common crops like corn, wheat and alfalfa so that farmers can spray their rows with the herbicide Roundup without killing their crops. [Read more...]

The Fiskars StaySharp Max Reel Mower

Testing-the-Fiskars-Momentum-Mower.jpgThis review is of the premium StaySharp Max reel mower. There are also two budget models available that have different features. Read a comparison of the three mowers in the Fiskars StaySharp line here. Lately, I’ve been realizing just how much I hate mowing my lawn with my old gas mower. It’s stinky, it’s noisy, and the vibrations from the mower make my arms feel weird for some time afterwards. And you know how I feel about garden tools that disturb the neighbors. It was obviously time for a new approach, but when I borrowed a friend’s push mower, it was insultingly hard to use. I mean, mowing should be fun, what with the smell of freshly-cut grass, the birds chirping, and the beautiful surroundings. Yet the traditional mowers make it anything but. That’s why I was so excited to see that Fiskars had created an updated version of the old-skool push mower, to bring it into the new millennium. If you’ve been reading awhile, you’ll know Fiskars makes a ton of my favorite tools, like this pole pruner, geared hedger, and dandelion weeder. So I was keen to see their take on a push mower, especially once I saw the crazy-good reviews on Amazon. The best part? When I mowed my lawn, my cats and chickens barely woke from their naps. Usually it’s a four-alarm sprint to hide from the mower monster!

Here are the geeky details:

  • It’s lightweight and easy to push, with an adjustable ergonomic handle
  • A simple adjustable knob changes mowing height from 1″ to a generous 4″ (the highest mowing option of all the mowers that I researched)
  • Has a “floating” blade design so the blades don’t scrape the metal casing, like with other push mowers. This means with good care, the blades need sharpening very, very rarely (every 5-10 years)
  • Reel mowers with their scissor action get a much cleaner cut than rotary mowers, which cut by tearing. No more brown grass tips!
  • Grass clippings were smaller and disbursed into the lawn rather than staying in unattractive clumps on my lawn.
  • Throws cut grass forward, rather than backward onto your shoes or sideways into your garden beds and sidewalk.
  • Optional grass-catcher bag available.
Besides the fact that it’s actually enjoyable to use, my favorite thing about the Fiskars StaySharp Max Mower is that it makes those organic and low-water lawn techniques actually do-able. For one, mowing your grass high helps reduce weeds and keep the lawn from drying out in summer, because the grass blades shade out weed seedlings and keep lawn roots shaded and cool. Yet the vast majority of mowers top out at a shameful 2.5 inches. It’s no wonder we’re all addicted to Weed ‘N’ Feed. We wouldn’t have nearly the weed problems we do if all mowers had the Max’s 4″ capability. Then, it’s best to leave the lawn clippings on the lawn, so they can break down and enrich the soil, keeping the lawn roots moist and adding nutrition to the soil. But rotary gas mowers spit out these yucky clumps that don’t seem to break down very gracefully. The way the Max mower sends an airy stream of teeny clippings in front of the mower means that I can hardly see the clippings on the lawn once I finish mowing. Score! Fiskars Momentum Reel Mower Update: Fiskars has revamped their mower line with two additional mowers. The StaySharp Max is the top of the line version, and they’ve introduced two “economy” models of mower for budget-minded people. Read up on the differences between the three mowers here (the premium Max, which I reviewed here, the Plus and the regular version), and check out the reviews on Amazon below to figure out which is the best one for you. Read reviews and buy here: Fiskars StaySharp Mower: Amazon.com Fiskars StaySharp Plus Mower: Amazon.com Fiskars StaySharp Max Mower: Amazon.com

Ditch the Sunhat: Sun Protection Tips You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

Wearing-a-hat-in-the-great-outdoors-photo-by-Kat-Reckling.jpgHold up, don’t report me to the Melanoma Society just yet. You probably shouldn’t actually ditch your sun hat. But if you’re like me and have never been able to get into wearing hats while gardening, here are two odd things I do to get a bit more protection than the average “slather self in greasy sunblock” strategy most of us use. After all, sunblock lotion doesn’t really stay put all that well in the part of your hair or the crinkly parts of your ears, now does it? Commence weird tips:

Eat more tomatoes, blueberries, and pink flamingoes

FlamingoesNew research has been coming out every day showing the beneficial effects of antioxidants, vitamin D, and omega-3 fats in protecting your skin from the negative effects of the sun. These nutrients can actually keep you from getting a sunburn by protecting your skin from damage at the cellular level. Astaxanthin is one such nutrient. It’s an antioxidant found in algae, shrimp, salmon, and animals that eat a lot of those things (mmmm… flamingoes). You can buy supplements of astaxanthin to provide protection if you’re in the sun a LOT (like me), or you can just eat more of these foods for some extra insurance. Lycopene from tomatoes has also been found to be helpful. Participants in one study ate three tablespoons of tomato paste per day (that’s 16 mg of lycopene) and saw a huge drop in sunburns. Mark’s Daily Apple has some great info here about which foods help the most. It’s not totally proven and standardized, so I wouldn’t rely on nutrition and supplements as your sole protection, but it seems like a smart backup plan for those days you forget the sunblock or miss a strip on a delicate patch of skin.

Powdered mineral sunblock

peter thomas roth sunblock powderThis stuff is insanely cool. It’s a sunblock, so it blocks all the different kinds of rays, and it’s powder, so it’s non-greasy and settles into the oddly-shaped parts of our ears and face easily. Here’s how it works: there’s a little tube of powder with an applicator brush attached. You take off the cap, dab the brush wherever you want to apply sunblock (you dab with varying degrees of vigor to get a lighter or heavier application), then you pull the bottom of the tube down to suck the bristles back into the body of the tube, so you can put the cap back on easily. It sounds messy and weird, but it actually works brilliantly. This is some seriously good design innovation. If I’m going to be out all day in the sun, I’ll apply sunblock lotion to create a sticky base for the powder, then dab powder anywhere that’s particularly sensitive (snoot, ears, etc.) so that I have a double layer of protection. For gardening just a couple of hours, I’ll use the powder by itself on my most burn-prone spots and call it good. This is the only sunblock I can get my manly other half to wear, since it’s unscented and doesn’t leave a yucky greasy layer on his skin. If you’re a lady, you’ll be happy to find you can apply this on top of your makeup without smearing everything. (I mean, that’s assuming you garden in makeup. I’m sure I’d look goofy if I tried such a thing, but surely some of you lovely ladies have the attitude to pull it off!)

How do you stay sunburn-free?

Share your tips and favorite sun protection products in the comments below. God knows I could use the help! Sun hat photo courtesy of the lovely kat reckling on Flickr, flamingo photo courtesy of wwarby on Flickr.

Monday Miscellany: Plants You Can’t Kill, Sprays That CAN Kill, and Assorted Other, Um, Miscellany

Misc.pngI’ll start out with the depressing bit: Despite the fact that many gardeners have a relationship of convenience with Roundup, and an “it’s not so bad” attitude about the harmful effects it has on the environment and on human health, scientists are continually discovering new ways Roundup is screwing with our bodies and our environment. [Read more...]

H. Potter Wardian Case: A Study in Kitties

wardian-2.jpgWhen H. Potter first sent me a Wardian case to try out, I was thinking of it as a pretty way of making small seasonal displays, and possibly a nice way of also rooting cuttings while having things look attractive. Little did I know that its highest and best use is as a kitten-safe decorating unit. So. Two new kittens around the house. Meet Mackerel, with his boyish swagger: Elliot And Tamir, our delicate princess: Tamir They have dictated our Christmas decorating strategy this year. My fluffy feathered owl ornament? Back in the ornament box. Our twisty glass ornaments? Not this year. [Read more...]

Book Review of Energy-Wise Landscape Design by Sue Reed

energy-wise-landscape-design.jpgReading this thorough design primer is like getting to chat with a knowledgeable and friendly expert for a few hours about how to create effective windbreaks, conserve on your heating and cooling bills through landscaping, create new energy sources to reduce your dependence on the grid, and generally preserve and conserve at every step in your landscaping process. What I liked best about the book is that Reed doesn’t assume any previous knowledge, but neither does she dumb down the content. I could see this being used as a textbook in landscape design courses to help students thoroughly understand the concepts behind her advice. But even though she’s thorough, it doesn’t read as a traditional boring textbook; I really enjoyed that she took a conversational tone in the book that made it easy to read. [Read more...]

Worm Compost: A Fictional FAQ for Vermicomposting

compostbumpersticker.jpgI’ve gotten a few questions lately about vermicomposting -composting in a small bin using worms. Folks seem to know that worm castings rock, and they are really expensive to buy. Other folks want worms for fishing. And still others just want a simple way of keeping their veggie scraps out of the landfill. So I made up a “Frequently Asked Questions” list here. No, nobody’s asked me these exact questions. But they should! So I went ahead and answered them for you. You are very welcome. (the photo above is of a bumper sticker I found online. So cool!)

Why vermicompost?

My answer to this has three components.
  • I like worms.
  • I like compost.
  • I think it’s cool to have an effective way of composting kitchen scraps that doesn’t take up much room. Most small-scale home composters don’t seem to work that well. (I do like some of the tumbler-style ones, but the Darth Vader heads – you can’t really get in there with your shovel to mix it up, so the stuff doesn’t break down.) Worms work.
worm compost bin [Read more...]