The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting by Chris McLaughlin

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Composting

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Composting

Maybe you’re already a gardener, ready to plant some vegetables to reduce your grocery bill and gain some peace of mind about what additives you will not be putting into your family’s bodies. Or, maybe you secretly yearn for a yard filled with colorful flower blossoms from early spring until late fall.

If you see yourself in either of these scenarios, then The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting: Turn your organic waste material into black gold, is for you. No, this isn’t a book about planting a garden. It’s about how to nourish the soil you will use to grow amazing veggies and posies. And, I have to say, it’s even fun to read.

Compost Happens

“The first thing you need to know is that no matter what you do—compost happens,” author Chris McLaughlin says. She sets out to educate, support, inform, and entertain her readers.

I’ve always been a kind of a sucker for the “idiot’s guide” type of book, since I don’t know all that much about anything. I’m not much of a gardener, but I started a compost pile 20+ years ago as an environmental gesture to remove organic waste from the garbage can.

McLaughlin is right, “compost happens.” I knew nothing. I did my composting with the most minimal effort possible. I created a designated spot in the far end of the backyard, put some landscaping logs around it, and began dumping all the kitchen waste there. (Even I knew enough not to put in any meat scraps.)

All I did was keep a covered bucket under the sink, then haul it to the backyard when it was full. Then I dug a small hole and poured it in and covered it up with some dirt. The microbes and worms did the rest. Simple.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t know about the valuable applications of the black gold I was creating has been a terrible waste. After reading this book, I realize I have been accumulating a pile of invaluable compost without actually putting it to use.

From “Idiot” to Composter

In this enjoyable, easy to read, and surprisingly thorough and diverse book, McLaughlin moves us from “idiots” to knowledgeable composters ready to create black gold with minimal effort and maximum results. She not only tells us how to make the stuff, but how to use it effectively and with ease.

Most environmentalists are aware of the rebound in “locavore” eating and the mushrooming of home gardening: community gardens, potted mini-gardens on apartment balconies, backyard gardens, plots shared with neighbors, and even indoor greenhouses to extend the growing season.

But we also are recognizing the urgency for using more sustainable methods. These are part and parcel of the composting process:

  • eliminating synthetic fertilizers
  • using natural weed control
  • growing plants that are healthier and more disease and pest resistant
  • conserving water

McLaughlin reminds us that “composting is sustainability at its finest.” It’s good for our gardens, good for us, and good for the earth. She quickly addresses the issue of common myths and bad reps about composting, such as it attracts rodents, or it stinks, or it requires lots of time and effort and is very complicated or expensive. Nix on those. Read on.

Composting Made Simple

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting is well organized, succinct, and rich in information, helpful hints, and DIY instructions. I particularly enjoyed the iconic little sidebar boxes in each section that address potential problems, provide definitions about terms and techniques, offer fun facts, and afford opportunities to “dig deeper.”

Perhaps most encouraging is the admonition: “Ignore anyone who tells you it has to be a certain way. Use a system that fits your lifestyle.” Yes!

The Basics of Composting

Here are the nuts and bolts (or shall we say, “the humus and mulch”) found within the 193 not-dense pages:

Part 1 – “The Dirt Beneath Your Feet”

  • Learn what makes soil healthy and fruitful, and discover the benefits of composting.
  • Find out how it works and the four main things every compost pile needs.
  • What to compost and what to avoid.
  • The difference between a “hot” and “cold” compost pile, and how to do it.
  • Inexpensive do-it-yourself methods of building your pile.
  • How to shop for commercially available bins.
  • Troubleshooting if necessary.
  • How to use the gold, once it’s ready.

Part 2 – “Worm Wrangling 101: Vermicomposting

You can do without the worms, as I have for 20 years—or read it and then decide. You’ll definitely be better informed. This chapter covers:

  • How to harness the power of worms for particularly potent composting.
  • Everything you need to know about housing and feeding worms.
  • What to do with all that rich worm poop

Part 3: “Creative Composting: Beyond the Bin”

  • Bed, Sheet or Sandwich Composting (you’ll have to read it, I’m not telling)
  • Grasscycling for keeping grass clippings where they belong – on your lawn
  • Mulching is composting, too
  • Planting cover crops for adding nutritional value to your soil
  • Taking compost into the community as a way of sharing the wealth and building community

I told you this book was thorough and diverse.

Three Additional Resources

In the back of the book, McLaughlin gives us these helpful resources:

  • Appendix A: A useful glossary of terms for easy reference
  • Appendix B: The “Resource Appendix,” with helpful websites and blogs on composting, a list of retailers selling composting supplies, other books on composting, a list of university extension offices, and some composting organizations
  • Appendix C: “Compost and Worms in the Classroom,” a fun resource for teaching kids, complete with activities and classroom planning

A Gift to the Earth

If you are or are going to be a gung-ho gardener and composter, this book is invaluable. If you are a new or casual gardener, this book is invaluable. If you are no gardener at all and just want to expand your horizons, this is also valuable and fun to read. If you want to help the planet and cease from putting your organic material down the garbage disposal or in the garbage can, by all means, take a look.

The truth is, I don’t feel like I’m as much of an “idiot composter” as when I began reading. And McLaughlin supports whatever composting efforts I decide will fit in my lifestyle. That’s a gift for me, my garden, and the Earth.

The Fine Print

Blue Planet Green Living received a free copy of the book reviewed in this post. No other compensation or incentive was provided.

Blue Planet Green Living’s policy is to review only those books we feel merit overall positive comments. If we do not like a book more than we dislike it, we do not review it. We are not influenced by free books and provide our honest opinions. For more information, please visit the Policies tab on the top navigation bar.

Blue Planet Green Living has an affiliate relationship with Amazon.com. If you purchase this book or any other products through Amazon by clicking on our affiliate link, Blue Planet Green Living will receive a very small financial compensation from Amazon, which we use to sustain this website.

Miriam Kashia

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living

Growing Citizens and Leaders through Organic Gardening

A group of kids gathers around a bucket at the invitation of volunteer Bob Packard. “Yuck!” says one 10-year-old, looking at the squirming mass Packard has scooped up in his hand.

At the Children's Vegetable Garden. Photo: Texas AgriLife

Students at the Children's Vegetable Garden. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

“No way!” says another kid. “Worms are cool!”

Inside Packard’s bucket are dozens of red wigglers, earthworms that make gardening easier by processing vegetable matter into compost. Packard, a retired salesman and amateur vermiculturist, was recruited  to teach these inner-city San Antonians about the benefits of using worm compost to grow vegetables. The kids are participants in the Bexar County Children’s Vegetable Garden Program. Each has a personal garden plot to sow, tend, and harvest.

“At first, the kids’ attitude was either ‘Yuck!’ or ‘Wow!’” Packard says. “Most went from ‘Yuck’ to ‘Wow’ by the end of the session.”

In addition to finding out that worms are pretty amazing creatures, the kids in the program learn about organic farming and get some firsthand experience with the benefits of hard work. We talked with program director, Hector J. Hernández, Youth Gardens Coordinator for Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Bexar County, to find out more.

A volunteer talks with the students. Photo: Texas AgriLife, Bexar County

A Master Gardener volunteer talks with the students. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

HERNÁNDEZ: This is one of the oldest children’s gardens in the nation. It was started in 1983 by Brigadier General Dave Thomas, who was a member of the San Antonio Men’s Garden Club. The men were all ex-military. They brought kids in and showed them how to garden.

Students who want to participate have to apply. There are only about 55 beds, so space is limited, and it gets filled every season. We have two planting seasons every year, and it takes about 17 weeks for one whole season. We meet every Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m.

A family works together on a student's garden plot. Photo: Texas AgriLife

A family works together on a student's garden plot. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

BPGL: Where is the garden located?

HERNÁNDEZ: We have approximately half an acre at the back of the San Antonio Botanical Garden, which is part of the City of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department. The beds are about 3 1/2 feet wide by 12 feet long. One bed is assigned to each gardener; if two kids from the same family participate, they each get their own bed to plant.

BPGL: Are parents involved?

HERNÁNDEZ: Parents are welcome to attend, but the children do the work. Spending quality time together is a big draw.

BPGL: How do the kids decide what plants to put into their plots? Do they get help from adults?

Tending the seedlings requires care. Photo: Texas AgriLife

Tending the seedlings requires care. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

HERNÁNDEZ: We have two growing seasons, with two separate groups of kids. We have a list of plants that we help the kids with in the fall and another in the spring. For example, in the fall, we plant cole crops, like cabbages and broccoli. In the spring, we plant squash and beans. We plant tomatoes in both the fall and spring. We also have a section that is a bonus plot, where they can plant whatever they want with our guidance.

David Rodriguez, our county extension agent for horticulture, gives the children a schematic of what’s going to be planted where. Then we work with them to plant each item. One Saturday, we could be planting broccoli and cauliflower transplants and sowing carrot seeds. Another Saturday, we might transplant tomato plants. Other than the bonus plot, all the plots look the same.

Gina Rodriguez directs the Bexar County Master Gardeners and other volunteers in the agenda for the day; she’s a great help. The educational activities and curriculum are drawn from the Junior Master Gardener program.

BPGL: Are you teaching the kids about organic farming?

HERNÁNDEZ: At this point, the garden plots are not certified organic, but we are organic. And we teach sustainable farming methods. We use organic products to control pests and to fertilize the plants. We also teach students how to do companion planting. They plant marigolds to learn about using natural plants as pest control.

The children get guidance from volunteers. Photo: Texas AgriLife

The children get guidance from volunteer Master Gardeners. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

When Bob Packard gave a presentation on vermiculture, the kids were very excited about the worms, and made their own community worm bin. Those worms would die if we put them into the soil here in San Antonio, so we keep them in the bin. They feed on the vegetable waste we give them. Then we spread the compost every three or four weeks, depending on how finely ground the food matter is when we put them in. It’s a quick turnover.

Reaping the benefits of hard work. Photo: Texas AgriLife

Reaping the benefits of hard work. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

BPGL: It sounds like there’s a bit of expense, buying seedlings for the students to plant. How do you fund the program?

HERNÁNDEZ: There’s a small participation fee, but much of the program is funded by the Bexar County Master Gardeners through fundraisers. They finance the program when it comes to seeds and fertilizer. They do a lot of educational outreach, such as water conservation and educating the public on gardening. They also do fundraisers like poinsettia sales and other plant sales. We get a lot of donations and support from San Antonio’s green industry. They also help train volunteers.

BPGL: What happens to the produce the kids raise?

HERNÁNDEZ: They get to harvest whatever they grow and eat whatever they want. What isn’t eaten gets donated.

BPGL: What else do the students learn through the program?

HERNÁNDEZ: They learn how to be good citizens and leaders by giving back to the community. And when the kids cultivate, they see the fruits of their labors. Sometimes their “fruits” aren’t as big as in another student’s plot. That gives them incentive to try harder next year. It also teaches them firsthand about the relationship between work and reward: You really do reap what you sow.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts:

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Sustainable Living Profile: Jessica Klein

Sustainable Living Profile: Jessica Klein

When Jessica Klein gets hungry for organic produce, she doesn’t have very far to go. “I have my own little sustainable garden,” she says. That’s a bit of an understatement, as Klein raises a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs on a bit less than acre of land. She lives with her husband on the southern exposure of Tiger Mountain, near Issaquah, Washington.

An abundant harvest from Klein's greenhouse. Photo: Jessica Klein

An abundant harvest. Photo: Jessica Klein

Klein has what she calls “quite a green thumb.” But from what we can see in the photos she sent us, she has ten green fingers and probably a few green toes. The photos alone are enough to start us yearning for fresh, juicy, red tomatoes, crisp green cucumbers, and crunchy orange — and red — carrots. By the time the interview is finished, we’re both ready to get out seed catalogs and start planning for the spring.

We interviewed Klein by phone from her home. We wanted to learn more about how she manages to get such lush growth and robust produce in a place where, she says, “It rains about a gazillion days a year.”


BPGL: Tell us about getting started with the greenhouse.

Klein: When I decided to get a greenhouse, first I did some research to determine what kind to buy. Then I watched the sun pattern in our backyard to figure out just where it should go. We have a lot of 150-foot trees on the property, so there’s not much sun. Location was critical.

I chose a brand called the Sunshine GardenHouse. The model is the Mt. Rainier series, which means it’s a local product — made and manufactured on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. (In fact, they drove it up and delivered it to my door.) It’s made of redwood, with polycarbonate walls and automatic solar vents.

BPGL: What did you have to do to get the property ready and then set up the greenhouse?

Preparing the greenhouse foundation. Photo: Jessica Klein

Preparing the greenhouse foundation. Photo: Jessica Klein

Klein: Our backyard was full of brambles, so we had to clear a space for the foundation. After we dug down about 4 or 5 inches, we laid a foundation of cinder blocks around the perimeter and put gravel around the outside. On the inside, we spread a permeable weed cloth to control the weeds, and unrolled chicken wire on top of that to keep the vermin from digging in from the bottom. We placed a flexible drainage pipe around the inside perimeter with an exit hole out one side.

Next, we covered the wire and most of the pipe with a layer of gravel up to the top of the cinder blocks and more around the outside of the greenhouse. That was our base.

On top of that, we built the framework and covered it with the polycarbonate walls that came with the kit. The greenhouse itself is 8 feet by 12 feet. We put it up in two days, but I think we could have done it in one. It probably took us longer than it might take someone in an area where it doesn’t rain so much. We spent a lot of time having to deal with the inevitable water runoff.

BPGL: Did you run any electrical or water lines to the greenhouse?

Klein puts on the last piece of roof. Photo: Brett Klein

Klein prepares to put up the last piece of roof. Photo: Brett Klein

Klein: No. We decided not to put electricity in, because it’s a long way from the house. And in addition to costing a lot, we just didn’t want to have a long electrical line running through the property. Besides, the solar vents work automatically to let out excess heat. We didn’t need to put water in, because of all the rain. When the plants get dry (which hardly ever happens), I just pull a garden hose over and give them a soak.

BPGL: Considering the cost of the building against the cost of the food you’ve grown, what do think the return is on your investment, your ROI?

Klein: Well, we didn’t purchase the cheapest model of greenhouse, or the most expensive one, either. I think we spent about $3,000 on the kit, then maybe another $200 for the raised beds inside. We used some recycled planter disks outside the shed — they look like big saucers. Then we bought trays, buckets, tools, and hoses. We spent about $125 on the worm bin.

And I joined the Seed Savers Exchange. I bought organic and heirloom varieties of seeds from the Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa. They have varieties you can’t get most places. They grow their own and replenish the seed stock. So that was $35 for the annual fee, plus the cost of seeds.

The total cost of everything probably came to about $3,500.

What have I gotten in return? I’ve saved probably 4 or 5 bags of garbage from going to the landfill. So, from that I saved maybe $10.00 in landfill costs. I fed all of our food waste to the worms. They gave me about $10-$15 worth of the richest fertilizer in the world, worm tea. And I probably got about $10.00 worth of rich soil from the compost. So, how much is that? About $30 or $35.

BPGL: What did you save in produce by growing it yourself?

Klein: Let’s see. In our area, tomatoes in stores have to be flown in, so they cost about $3.99 a pound. I can’t tell you how many pounds I grew! And I can grow them four, five, six months of the year.

Emerging seedlings. Photo: Jessica Klein

Emerging seedlings. Photo: Jessica Klein

When we moved here five years ago, we started planning for the future, by planting fruit trees and such. We’ve been sowing the seeds (no pun intended) to get more production as time goes by. In my whole garden, I have three types of lettuce, zucchini, green beans, kale, peppers, eggplant, carrots, Brussels sprouts, jalapeños, cabbages, edible borage flowers, and all of my herbs, basil, oregano, parsley and more.

We also have fruit trees — an Italian plum tree, a three-graft cherry tree, an apricot tree, a peach tree, a five-graft Asian pear tree. And then we have grapevines, and wild blackberries and huckleberries, too.

I only buy organic produce, so the cost of that is even higher than in a regular grocery store. Without my garden, I probably spend about $15 or $20 a week for produce at the grocery store. But I certainly wouldn’t have consumed $3,500 [the cost of setting up the greenhouse] in vegetables. This year, I probably saved $400. That doesn’t seem like much, but this is just my first year.

BPGL: Do you see other benefits to growing your own produce?

Klein: Yes. The most important thing here is not the money. You have to remember that all of this food was grown organically. That means I know there are no poisons in them, no fertilizers or herbicides. There’s huge psychological ROI in knowing where our food came from, who handled the produce, how the plants were cared for. And I didn’t have to drive to the store to buy any of this.

I get a ton of exercise working in my yard. I get to plant seeds and watch them grow. I get to pick a ripe, red tomato from the vine and eat it. How much is that worth?

Maturing crops. Photo: Jessica Klein

Maturing crops. Photo: Jessica Klein

I do this for my family. I get to give my dad bags full of fresh tomatoes, which he loves. My mom loves the zucchini. And my sister loves the green beans. There is no price tag on that.

I don’t consider myself an earth-shattering change-maker. I just try to do my part. I support the locavore movement, which means eating food grown in a certain radius near your home. The point is to get to know your local farmer. Farmers’ markets are huge out here in the Northwest.

BPGL: Isn’t raising your own produce a lot of work?

Klein: Getting it all started was a lot of work. And at planting time, yes, it’s hard work. After that, it only takes about an hour a day. And during the long winter, when I’m stuck inside, I’ll be thinking about what I’m going to plant, just waiting to get outside and put in those long days again.

Tomato vines growing in Klein's greenhouse. Photo: Jessica Klein

Tomato vines growing in the greenhouse. Photo: Jesssica Klein

It’s such a labor of love, pure joy.

BPGL: Tell us about your worms. How did you get into that part of the gardening?

Klein: I read a couple of books. Amy Stewart’s From the Ground Up, which tells about how she grew her first garden when she knew nothing at all about gardening; and The Earth Moved, which is about vermiculture.

At the time, I thought, This sounds like something I could spend a lot of money and time doing, and I know I’m the type to jump into a project and then let it slide. But then I thought, What the heck? I want to do it. So, 15 minutes after I finished The Earth Moved, I was on the phone buying a worm bin.

The worm bin sat in the entry to my home for the winter. We fed them all our food trash and it didn’t smell at all. It was so easy to maintain, I couldn’t believe it. Then when summer came, I got the message from my husband, and I moved it out to the deck. A neighbor helped me take the bin apart. We scooped out the compost, drained out the worm tea.

Our worms are red wigglers. They’re quick movers, those little guys. They really do compost everything right down to black gold. There’s not much discernable that’s left when they’re done. I found one avocado peeling, but when I touched it, it disintegrated.

Reaping the reward. Photo: Jessica Klein

Reaping the reward. Photo: Jessica Klein

I’m so glad I did this. I’ve always been into recycling, and this kind of recycling is easy enough. Well, maybe I think it’s easy and for others it’s hard, but it’s what I can do.

BPGL: What about eggshells? Can you feed the worms eggshells?

Klein: They love eggshells. They compost them down to nothing. In fact eggshells are good for their tummies. And coffee grounds, too.  They’re just crazy little munchers! It really is very easy to take care of them.

BPGL: Do you ever find that you run out of food for the worms?

Klein: No, right now, I find that my worms keep up with my food and my food keeps up with my worms. They just turn all my food scraps and garden scraps into beautiful compost. It’s great! If we ever run out, we have loads of leaves and yard waste we could feed them; but, so far, we haven’t had to do that.

Klein's saucer garden. Photo: Jessica Klein

Mini gardens in recycled planting disks. Photo: Jessica Klein

BPGL: With organic gardening, where you don’t use any herbicides or pesticides, what are your biggest problems?

Klein: My nemesis is the slugs. The greenhouse tends to take care of the plants inside [because the slugs can’t get in], and they can’t crawl up into my round planters, but they’re everywhere else. I tried to put out dishes of beer. I heard that would work, but my dog drank them all. [She laughs.] So, I can’t do that anymore. And, I planted marigolds to attract the ladybugs to eat the aphids.

BPGL: Any other pests?

Klein: Oh, yeah, the deer. The dogs keep them way most of the time. And I had a bear walk through my yard last spring. Then there are all of the possum, raccoons, and coyotes. We also have occasional bobcats, and puma.

And, of course, with so much rain, we have mold. In fact, besides slugs, my biggest issues are with the climate. There’s not enough sun and too much water.

BPGL: What’s next for you?

Klein: It’s my hope that as I learn more, I’ll be able to teach other people.

BPGL: What advice would you give people about starting their own organic garden at home?

Klein: Start small, say with an herb garden on your deck. Or grow even just one vegetable to begin with. Just do what you can do. The hardest part is to make the decision to do something. Once you take the first step, everything else is reward.

Joe Hennager and Julia Wasson

Founders

Blue Planet Green Living (Home)

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Ranching Underground Livestock

Mary Somerville probes a compost bin for worms to show us. Photo: Joe Hennager

Worm castings are the ultimate fertilizer,” Kevin Somerville says. With a flat-end shovel, he carefully turns the compost pile in a shallow, wooden bin to reveal a squirming ball of red earthworms. Kevin’s wife, Mary, shows us the tiny, white babies, not much wider than a piece of thread. The biggest of the worms is only a couple of inches long.

Joe digs his hands into the rich soil. “It’s warmer than room temperature,” he reports, “and slightly moist.” I’m too busy taking notes to stick my fingers in, but the soil looks soft, inviting, and well aerated.

Vermiculture, or worm farming, is an important element in the Somervilles’ plan for their 140 acres in Johnson County, Iowa. Just this year, they received certification as an organic farm. The compost they’re making will enrich the soil for next spring’s crops of organic hops, sweet potatoes, and alfalfa, as well as their family garden.

Taking a Scientific Approach

Mary holds a moving mass of compost and earthworms. Photo: Joe Hennager

“The land is the most important thing,” Kevin says, explaining how they will grow quality produce without the farm chemicals and pesticides so widely used in commercial agriculture.

“If you have healthy soil,” Mary adds, “you’ll have healthy plants; they won’t be as susceptible to disease or bugs.”

The Somervilles take a scientific approach to creating healthy soil. “We had comprehensive soil testing done to measure the minerals in the soil,” Mary says. By learning which nutrients were needed, they could determine exactly what they should put into their compost pile to provide a healthy living environment for the worms as well as the best nutrient mix for their fields.

“It’s similar to human health,” Kevin says. “The land needs certain nutrients.” Some of those nutrients, the Somervilles purchase from Humus Health Organics in Kalona. “The rest,” he says, “we add as vegetative matter.”

About 12 months ago, the Somervilles constructed a large, flat bin in one of their outbuildings, then layered it with torn cardboard, shredded newspaper, grasses, and piles of pre-composted fall leaves. “We used a recipe,” Mary says, “to get the nutrients we needed.” When the bin was ready, they purchased 30 pounds of red wiggler earthworms from an organic worm farmer.

In optimal conditions, red wigglers will double their population in four months. In the past year, the Somervilles calculate, their 30 pounds of worms have become 240 pounds. “We call it ‘ranching underground livestock,’ ” Kevin says with a laugh.

They’ve built several additional bins to accommodate the expanding worm population. Three are currently in use, containing about a foot-deep mixture of red wigglers, black worm castings, yellow pieces of chopped organic hay, decomposed brown leaves, brown cinnamon sticks, and a variety of other herbs and spices. Sounds like an odd mixture, until the couple explains.

Earthworm Haute Cuisine

One of the huge piles of leaves (complete with biodegradable bags) from local city leaf collecting. Photo: Joe Hennager

One of the huge piles of leaves (complete with biodegradable bags) from local city leaf collecting. Photo: Joe Hennager

It takes a huge amount of plant matter to sustain a compost operation this big. The Somervilles have been highly resourceful in finding just the right materials to give the worms an ideal home. After all, the earthworms are the “machines” that process plant matter into rich castings (worm manure) for farming. It’s critical to keep these critters well fed and happily reproducing.

Stacked in the Somervilles’ barn are several pallets of 50-pound bags. At first glance, they look like sacks of animal feed or seed for the next year’s crops, but Kevin tells us it’s 100 tons of worm food. “We got a mother lode from Frontier Herbs in Norway, Iowa. I picked up two truckloads of herbs and spices from them just today. And there’s more waiting for me.” One hundred tons of herbs and spices? That seems like an expensive diet for earthworms.

“I got them through an exclusive agreement with Frontier Herbs,” he says. “It all started with a timely phone call. We needed more plant material, and Frontier Herbs needed a place to get rid of all the stuff they couldn’t sell. The spices might be outdated, or the bag might be torn open, or there might be material in the bag that makes it unusable. Our agreement with them is that this will only be used in our compost, not for anyone to eat.” It’s as good a deal for Frontier as it is for the Somervilles, as it keeps them from paying to dump the unusable food in the landfill.

We drive to another part of the farm and see two huge piles of decaying leaves. We see yet another example of resourcefulness. When nearby cities collected fall leaves, they needed a place to dump them. Again, the Somervilles were willing recipients of someone else’s vegetative waste. Here on their farm, Nature is recycling herself. Deep inside the piles, leaves are beginning to decompose. They’ll be used as pre-compost in the new bins the couple will start when the earthworms have finished the job in the current bins.

Worm Harvest

This hand-turned tumbler separates the worms from the soil. Photo: Joe Hennager

This hand-turned tumbler separates the worms from the soil. Photo: Joe Hennager

When the Somervilles determine that a bin of soil has been fully composted, they’ll sift out the worms using a “worm tumbler.” As the tumbler is turned, nutritious castings will fall out, and the worms will be gently captured in another container. The screen size optimizes collecting the smaller worms and eggs so little “livestock” are not lost. The collected worms are then redistributed into newly prepared bins, to start the composting process all over again.

The Somervilles will mound some of the new soil from their bins around the base of the organic hops plants their 24-year old son, Seth, farms on a portion of their acres. They’ll spread the rest on land for their root crops. Their goal is to sell all of their crops locally, to keep the carbon footprint of their farming operation low in yet another way.

Asked whether “anyone” can try vermiculture, even in a small yard, or if it’s just for farmers, Mary says, “There are composting kits of various sizes available on the market. We have a friend in Tempe, AZ who is feeding his worms on table scraps and vegetation from his yard. The worms are quiet little workers who need no care when you leave town for the weekend. It’s a great way to capture the household waste stream and reduce your trips to the lawn and garden centers for nutrients for your landscape or houseplants.”

Sustainable Farming

“Big Ag has a ‘conservation ethic’ of planting fence row to fence row,” Mary says. “I wish they’d work toward a balanced landscape. If farmers would devote even five percent of their acres to conservation practices, such as adding buffer strips to keep water from running off, that would make a big difference in the stability of the soil.

“I compare it to tithing at a church,” she adds. “You set aside a small percentage for the greater good. But too many land owners choose not to farm in a conservation-minded way.”

Iowa farmers typically have limited biodiversity in their plantings, alternating crops from feed corn to soybeans in a regular rotation. Every few years, some farmers do another crop rotation and grow an alfalfa/grass mix to restore the nutrients. This family farm operates on a completely different philosophy. The Somervilles are conservationists who live their beliefs. The evidence is everywhere we look.

Essential Grant Support

Restored wetlands on the Somerville farm. Photo: Joe Hennager

Restored wetlands on the Somerville farm. Photo: Joe Hennager

When we first arrived, the Somervilles’ daughter, Kristi, showed us a restored a wetland area that had been drained off for farming. “Some farmers plant their wetlands, which end up being flooded year after year, anyway. They don’t get any crops to speak of, but they keep trying,” Mary says.

The Somervilles decided that allowing the land to return to its natural purpose and stay that way made better ecological sense. Restoring the wetland was partially made possible through a whole-farm conservation plan that included waterways and contour buffer strips. The land is a home for wildlife now, where once it had scant crops that used more in energy than it produced in food. From their house, they can see pelicans, wild turkeys, ducks and other water birds.

In two sections of their fields, the family has reestablished native prairies and used native species in their buffer plantings. They received some financial assistance through the Johnson County Soil and Water Conservation District. “With good burns, we’ll have a beautiful prairie,” Mary says. “We want to make pathways so people can enjoy it.”

With a Trees Forever grant, they brought in skid loader with a tree shearer attachment to battle back invasive species. Their goal was to start an oak savanna and allow the native prairie to flourish. “It takes a lot of time and effort to battle back invasive species. Once you get the native plants established, you just need to be patient, and eventually they’ll take over again. Our children and grandchildren will really enjoy what we are doing in our lifetime,” Mary explains.

Growing a “living snow fence” is another part of the couple’s plan. They planted three rows of various types of trees and shrubs to keep snow from drifting over the county road they use to access their farm. The row closest to the field alternates red osier and nine bark. The middle row is white pines. And the row closest to the road is two varieties of spruce. The project has yet to be evaluated for effectiveness, as it will take years for the trees to reach sufficient size to provide the needed barrier. “The tall prairie grasses between the trees and the road might be just as effective at capturing the blowing snow,” Mary says.

The grants and financial incentives the Somervilles have received come with strings attached. They require a tremendous amount of dedication, time, and hard work. But, along with the couple’s own resourcefulness, the funds provided are making their dream of sustainable agriculture a reality, leaving the world a healthier place for all of us.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (home page)