Lately, I’ve been spending insufficient time harvesting and preserving, a little bit of time sowing something for winter, and a great deal of time watching small beasts.

Even a little pot garden is a city in itself, and the compost bin is a tower block. If bustling life is a good indicator for rapid decomposition, it’s absolutely thriving.

Bustling equals a very audible rustling when the lid is opened and thousands of woodlice react to the intrusion. These busy little detritivores seem to do most of the work and as much as I chuck in the level drops by another few inches each week.

They really have the most peculiar charm.  I understand the reasons why us humans might have (relatively) illogical urges to care for big-eyed fluffy kittens but have not been able to pin down why woodlice can elicit similar feelings. I don’t think it’s just me: I learned recently that some people know them as ‘chuggypigs’ – a name that seems imbued with a certain amount of affection.

I could watch them for a long time and – when I have pressing tasks to do – have watched for a very very long time…

Occasionally I am distracted by juicy great worms which, though mostly content to munch away below, sometimes sashay to the surface. Or by the sight of a truly fearsome slug or a spider very keen to get more closely acquainted with the friendly little woodlice. All good signs of a thriving ecosystem.

I have pictures of these bugs too but it has recently been suggested to me that not everyone likes to look at such things and that perhaps one can overdo the slime, defecation and violent death. So I shall resist and hope there is no objection to the quirky little fellows above.

Flowers or something else pretty/ fragrant/otherwise inoffensive next; more death and poo next week.

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Time to focus on garden friends and to check in with my allies, the worms.

"Virtually all of the world's fertile land has passed many times through the gut of earthworms"

Worm Towers

I installed the worms a couple of months ago in a diy attempt at a tray-system wormery – the construction of which I described here. The plan was for the worms to deal with the bulk of my kitchen waste, so I could leave the bokashi bins for the otherwise uncompostable (such as cooked waste, bones, dairy etc) and the (small) compost bin for garden waste. After enthusiastically over-feeding them when first installed, I’ve been trying to leave be and let the system settle.

Last night, it was time for an inspection, and all seems to be well. They don’t really seem to have increased in number but I guess that’s probably to be expected for a small system, and those that are there are fat – and fast as they whip away from the light.

From carrot tops and teabags to glorious mud

From carrot tops and teabags to glorious mud

That was good news, but more importantly, the bottom tray is already full of rich fertile ooze. I suppose the picture to the right might not be to everyone’s taste, but to my mind it’s a minor work of art crafted by some of the most useful creatures on earth, and it’s enormously satisfying to see food scraps converted into something that will go on to complete the cycle: producing next year’s food – and next year’s food scraps.

“Without the work of this humble creature, who knows nothing of the benefits he confers upon mankind, agriculture, as we know it, would be very difficult, if not wholly impossible”

“Without the work of this humble creature, who knows nothing of the benefits he confers upon mankind, agriculture, as we know it, would be very difficult, if not wholly impossible”

The first picture shows a fairly finished tray; the second one is a tray still in progress. It also shows as much of a worm as I could get in shot: they move so darned quick. You can also see a little of the bedding of torn up newspaper. (They’re lefty guardian readers; I’m still trying to teach them how to do the cryptic crossword). Anyway, this progress doesn’t seem bad at all for less than three months work, especially considering there’s always so much to do when one moves into a new place. I’m told that worms take a while to settle and get into the swing of it.

The tower system is also working really well. If you don’t look at the pictures above with the same relish that I do a tray system is the sort you need. Now the worms have finished in the bottom tray they’ve made their way up to the tray above where the fresh food is being added. I can simply remove the processed tray and empty it wherever I want to use it, whereas many of the systems with just one box need some reasonably time consuming and hands-on work to extract the good stuff, separate the worms and return them to the system.

My system needed to be fairly temporary as we’re renting, so I couldn’t dig up the garden even if there were enough room to do so. I also wanted to have it near the kitchen door. There are all sorts of materials that could be used to build this sort of thing, but I was keen to recycle what I already had. This constrained the design somewhat, but I was very satisfied to see this model costs £94.45 compared to my £0. It’s a bit prettier, but not £94.45 prettier. My roof garden was basically free too – filled with leftover plants and self-seeded nasturtiums I relocated. I’ve harvested a good stock of chamomile tea and lots of flowery salads from this roof and watering the plants occasionally helps keep the worms damp. And from what I’ve read many people with some of the well-known models have had problems with worms drowning (if they forget to open the tap regularly) or being lost (when they do open the tap and the worms all wash out). Try a coffee filter over a hole – works a treat.

Smug? Yes, a little. But really just pleased to know that homemade can do the job too.

I’ve been working long hours lately, so had planned a quiet Friday night in to recover myself. Instead, I have been on a murderous rampage.

Rest in peace, little bastards

Rest in peace, little bastards

When we moved here, back in February, the owner had left their beer-traps in the garden for us. That should have been a sign.

I gave it a go for a bit of fun, though father-of-frugilegus has always been cynical about their effectiveness. The first morning I checked the traps I counted 50 corpses before I concluded the total was ‘a lot’. That should have been a sign.

Despite that body-count, every seedling I planted in the beds disappeared overnight, the only indication it had ever existed a memorial trail of slime. I took that as a sign.

I ordered nematodes after that, and I have to say they were pretty effective. After a week, some seedlings survived. They certainly didn’t thrive, but the old nibbled stalk was actually visible here and there.

I kept up the slug-traps, trying old orange juice that had been lost in the back of the fridge instead of beer, and shook a few bodies into the compost bin once a week. I sprinkled some coffee grounds around seedlings every now and then. Though nematodes are only effective for about six weeks, I thought I must have taken out the hordes, and could control the rest with various fermented juices.

So, I planted out borage and strong cucumber plants. I positioned a climbing frame for the cucumbers to play on and, that night, dreamt of their fruit. The next morning, I went to welcome them to their first new day, and found just a few slimy stalks. That should have been a sign.

Friends or foes ... or utter bastards?

Friends or foes ... or utter bastards?

Still,  I was distracted by compost. The bin in the garden is not a good one, and when we moved in was full of organic matter that showed no interest in decomposing. I had given it a stir, added lots of brown matter and the contents of a bokashi bucket, then later a few worms, in the hope of getting it going. Things were looking good. An ecosystem developed: woodlice, wriggly things, beetles and the odd snail. I smiled on it benevolently, thinking that a wriggling bin is a healthy, decomposing bin.

Just as a weed is only a plant in the wrong place, I decided a snail is only an evil murderous bastard when it is in the wrong place.

Pah!

A compost bin is no more than a base from which vast hordes are unleashed under cover of darkness. It provides a mollusc with snacks during the day, but one mustn’t eat too much in the bin – one must save oneself for the night raids on pots of beans, tender cucumber shoots, and if one’s feeling adventurous, following the trails of shelled-scouts and slimy outriders into the herb bed.

Tonight it rained. Though the young basil I put out might find it a bit of a shock, on the whole it was welcome because the water butt is empty and the lawn is sulking (the lawn is a whole other story). I wandered out with the torch, thinking vaguely that I could check whether it was snails nibbling at the runner bean bucket.

But, upon finding a full-scale attack underway I was overtaken by bloodlust. Arming myself with a plastic bag on my hand, I grabbed and dropped, grabbed and dropped, each victim clunking into my bucket of water. Haha!

For the pernicious fault of gluttony, as you can see, I'm prostrate in this rain.

For the pernicious fault of gluttony, as you can see, I'm prostrate in this rain.

I can’t kill beetles, but it seems I can kill molluscs.

Though apparently not that easily. Putting snails in cold water doesn’t work. They squirm about and take turns to crawl on each other and then crawl out. It seems I should have used very hot water. An hour ago, I’d have said I wouldn’t have the stomach for it, but seeing as I’ve spent much of my Friday night sprinkling salt on antennae as they break the surface like little periscopes I don’t know if that is true any longer. I’ve never fancied salting slugs before, and it was expensive salt too, but none of that bothered me for a second when I found a speckled slug making a break for freedom. Later, overtaken by guilt, I poured in a can of beer too. So some died horrifically, but hopefully others died happy.

Tomorrow, more nematodes. And a new zero-tolerance policy. They had their chance with the compost bin and they’ve blown it.

"Virtually all of the world's fertile land has passed many times through the gut of earthworms"

"Virtually all of the world's fertile land has passed many times through the gut of earthworms"

Worm Towers is a new-build project offering accommodation across three floors to an initial quarter kilogram of worms, situated in the borders of Kitchen Door and within easy reach of local composting facilities. This eco-friendly development is created entirely from reclaimed materials, and boasts a thriving roof-garden.

Worm Towers offers a significant expansion of local organic waste disposal capacity, with the additional benefit of the rapid generation of a nutritious growing medium.

Project components

(1) Blue delivery tray
Previous work: Supporting the transfer of goods from wholesaler to grocer.
Current position: Facilities support – Raise worm towers above ground level, allowing the operation of (2).

(2) Hummus pot
Previous work: storage of chickpea-based product.
Current position: Distribution executive – collection of nutritious worm fluids and transfer to plant-feeding delivery apparatus.

(3) Cafetiere filter (over drainage hole inside bottom tray)
Previous work: Sifting coffee; made redundant when company disbanded after industrial accident.*
Current position: Security – Facilitating exit of excess fluid while barring descent of stray residents.

(4) Polystyrene food delivery containers
Previous work: transporting mackerel from Cornwall to Frugilegus’ fridge, courtesy of veg-box scheme.**
Current work: Drainage tray, accommodation and catering floors, rooftop garden. It is hoped that the materials selected will help to keep worms cool in summer and stop them freezing to death in summer. Easy to install ventilation and elevator shafts (poke a hole of appropriate size in walls and between floors).

(5) Furnishing
Shredded newspaper presoaked in rain-water, handful of compost to help residents settle in, damp cardboard covering. Residents are then supplied with food-waste and the occasional portion of ground down eggshells as they dislike acidic conditions. For this reason, onions and citrus fruits are also avoided.

(6) Caretaker
Residents start life on the bottom floor, remaining there until they have filled it with poo. They will then continue their work on further floors. The caretaker of Worm Towers provides regular food and fresh bedding at a rate tailored to residents’ appetites and clears up after them, replacing cleaned floors at a higher level in the building for their continued use. Luckily the worm casts provide a fertile growing medium for use in the surrounding garden.

(7) Roof garden
The stark modernist design of Worm Towers may not to be everyone’s taste, but its impact on the landscape is softened by the fragrant flowering plants that adorn its top floor. While the plants require some watering in hot weather, any excess water is not wasted, as it drips through the building maintaining cool and damp conditions on lower floors.

* Yes, it was dropped

** I know, I know, I’m supposed to return them for re-use. But I forgot to put them out, and then stopped ordering after a succession of vegetable disappointments.