The Call, Column 46 – Compost: It Does An Urban Farm Good

9 05 2016

(May 8, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Compost: It Does An Urban Farm Good

Urban farming is a good way to care for the land, take part in the production of the food we eat, and match human ingenuity with nature’s accumulated wisdom in a system that benefits both parties. Unlike much of human industry, which conforms to the model of (raw materials)-(labor)-(product)-(end use)-(waste), natural processes are all part of an indefinitely-sustainable, cyclic system. As you can probably guess, a major component of this system is the mechanism where the “waste products” are turned back into “raw materials” – a process called decomposition, which is driven by erosion, microorganisms, and other slow but effective actions taking place on and in our planet. And, like in so many other areas of human-environmental relations, the careful injection of a little ecologically-inspired human manipulation into an otherwise natural process can actually make it work better, to both our benefit and that of the natural world. In the case of decomposition, this is an activity that almost all of us can do, and produces the most useful product for the least amount of effort of anything you can do as an urban farmer. Let’s talk about composting!

What is Compost

            For those of you that don’t know, “compost” is a loosely-defined term for any organic matter –from manure, to leaves, to grass clippings, to food scraps – which has decomposed to the point of “biological stability”, where it will not decompose further. In a natural, geological timescale, this decomposition can take decades or centuries, but is a vital linkage between the waste and death that are unavoidable, necessary occurrences in the Earth’s biosphere, and the formation of new life. It is the mechanism by which the Earth recycles its unneeded products back into the non-biotic “spheres” (into water, air, and most importantly, soil), which in turn actually increase the Earth’s ability to make new life!

But when an urban farmer makes a compost pile, a very small amount of effort at the right times makes the slow, natural process of decomposition happen in less than a year, and in as little as a few weeks.

How and What to Compost

  1. Throw all of your organic matter into a pile on the ground.
  2. Turn it with a pitch fork or shovel (or let your chickens do it) for five minutes every few weeks.
  3. Repeat

That’s it. You may think I’m joking, but I’m really not. In the most minimalist way, organic matter that’s concentrated into a pile and aerated (turned, to make sure there is fresh air dispersed throughout) will become rich, usable, biologically-stable compost in between a few weeks and a year, depending on ingredients.

But with a little more conscious effort, you can make the process happen faster, and produce more, better compost. First of all, I want to stress that aeration is key. Decomposition can happen either as an aerobic process – where the chemical reactions, and the bacteria that are involved, thrive in an oxygen-rich environment – or an anaerobic process – where there is little-to-no oxygen, and the reactions and microbes are different as a result. Anaerobic decomposition produces more of a sludge end-product, in addition to copious amounts of methane – which itself is useful as a fuel source, but nonetheless explains the smell of a landfill. But unless you’re planning on compacting and encasing your food scraps in concrete, your compost is already an aerobic decomposition process. By turning it regularly, and therefore injecting air throughout, you make sure those aerobic microbes thrive, and those oxygen-based chemical reactions can happen uninhibited. I can attest to this from personal experience – for years, my compost took a long time to break down and did not do so satisfactorily; I started turning it more frequently this year, and the level of decomposition that used to take months now takes a week or two.

The next consideration is the types of materials you compost. As I said: if you throw any organic matter into a pile and turn it occasionally, it will decompose. But by maintaining a proper carbon-nitrogen ratio in the pile, you can speed up the process and make better, more fertile compost. I won’t go into too much detail here, but the “brown”, carbon-rich materials include fallen leaves, twigs/branches, paper products, and other dry, often brown-colored plant material; “green”, nitrogen-rich materials include food waste, recently-living (green-colored) plants, grass clippings, and manure. To make the best, fastest compost, you should aim for about three parts brown materials to one part green materials, by volume; this can be as simple as throwing on a copious amount of saved fall leaves each time you bring out your food waste, or adding a handful of pulled weeds (I’m sure we all have some to spare) together with the branches you’ve picked up in your yard. You’ll also want to break compost materials down into the smallest pieces possible, to quicken the process.

Complete lists are available in many places on the internet and in the library, so I’ll just give a basic idea here: any material that came directly from an animal, plant, or microorganism, or which could be consumed by one, is fair game in composting. But if you’re like me, you want to use all waste for its highest value purpose, which is oftentimes not compost. Answer the following questions in order, to determine what to do with a particular item of organic waste:

  1. Is it still edible for humans? If so, find a way to eat it. This could be candied citrus peels, vegetable-scrap-soup, or bread pudding (not that I would otherwise advocate eating bread or sugar).
  2. If not, is it still edible for animals? Bearing in mind the toxicity of some things (i.e. chocolate for dogs, avocados and citrus for chickens), you can feed many food wastes to animals. Consult a trusted source, but I can tell you that my chickens are like garbage disposals, turning spoiled milk, garden weeds, and pepper seeds directly into eggs.
  3. If not, is it otherwise usable by humans, like in the garden? Rather than composting big branches, they may be usable as stakes in your garden; shredded leaves and grass clippings also make nice mulches. Crushed egg shells, coffee grounds, and improperly dried hot peppers can all be used in specific ways in the garden, that maximize their value above and beyond composting.
  4. If not, is it otherwise usable by animals? I often grow small amounts of grains; rather than immediately composting the stalks, I use them as nesting material for my chickens first; leaves are similarly used to line the bottom of the coop.
  5. If not, can you use it for energy? This is heavily dependent on what systems you may have set up, but is essentially making use of the energy stored in organic material that would otherwise be lost as heat in composting. This could range from burning wood (at the simplest) to using an anaerobic methane digester to turn waste into natural gas (at probably the most complex) and everything in between, most of which produce an end-product (ashes, sludge, etc) that is then compostable.
  6. If not, compost it! It may not seem like it, but since the bulk of your urban farm’s organic wastes are leaves and grass clippings, and since there are limited 1-5 uses for these beyond garden mulch (especially if you don’t have chickens), you’ll still have plenty of composting materials.

My Uncle Lambri is my de facto mentor and co-conspirator when it comes to all things compost. He meticulously manages the fallen leaves, grass clippings, food waste, rabbit manure, and garden waste in and around his home in order to produce perfect, valuable compost, which he uses to build up the soil in his yard and garden. His primary motivation for such enthusiastic composting is simple economics – rather spend the time collecting and bagging all of that organic material to be hauled to the state landfill (or town composting facility), he spends less time and effort to compost most of it – and produces rich topsoil, which he then doesn’t have to buy. He has turned a waste stream into a source of natural resources, looping the standard, linear model of (fertilizer/loam)-(lawn/ornamental plants)-(yard waste)-(landfill) unfortunately employed by most home-owners, into a regenerative cycle.

Why You Should Compost

            If I haven’t already convinced you that you should drop this newspaper (or turn off the monitor) and find a suitable location in your yard for your new compost pile, then prepare for that to change. Compost completes the nutrient cycle in every natural environment, and therefore closes the production loop on an urban farm, contributing to resilience and self-sufficiency. It turns nutrient- and energy-rich, but otherwise unusable organic wastes into an ultra-fertile component of topsoil (called “humus”), so you gain space in your garbage can (side note: since we started composting, our garbage can is half the volume it was before) and eliminate the need to buy soil and amendments, saving you money.

By adding compost to your soil, you increase its biological activity, and (curiously) both its water storage capacity and drainage capability; it aerates the soil, acts like a potent probiotic, complete with earthworms and other beneficial insects and microbes, and boosts the soil’s mineral and organic matter content, and therefore generally its fertility.

The making and using of compost saves money, increases food yields, and is beneficial to the natural environment. And you can reap all of this benefit with as little as a small container in your kitchen to collect food waste, and 10 minutes of effort per week. Now go start that compost pile!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.


The Call, Column 45 – Decision 2016: A Report Card on Environmental Advocacy

24 04 2016

(April 24, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Decision 2016: A Report Card on Environmental Advocacy

Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”

~Wendell Berry~

            You can probably tell, if you’ve read my column, that I have a deep concern for the political issues involving the health of our environment, the development of our renewable energy supply, and the sustainability of our agriculture. It’s no secret that these are the issues that I use in deciding for whom to cast my vote.

As I’ve made pretty clear in the past, I believe those three topics to be of the absolute greatest importance to human beings, present and future, and our continued comfortable existence on Earth. We all require food in order not to die, and it is wise to produce (and politically, encourage the production of) that food by means that don’t destroy our ability to do so in the process. We all require energy to heat our homes, power our transportation, and create and share information, and it is in our best interest to invest in renewable, alterative sources, rather than be reliant on fossil fuels doomed to run out in the very near future. And we are all utterly dependent on the Earth’s environment, with our fates as individuals and, even greater, as a species tied intimately to its health – so it might be wise for our governments to prevent localized pollution, and work to stop human-caused climate change while we still can.

Today, we’ll discuss each of the five 2016 presidential candidates – Senator Bernie Sanders, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Former Governor John Kasich, Senator Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump – and their stances on the above issues. I’ll draw from their official campaign websites, along with their voting and opinion records as recorded at, and give them each a grade for their overall advocacy in issues of the environment, energy, and agriculture.

Let’s begin with the Democrats, who are neck and neck in a race that has increasingly become a cage match between bold, anti-political progressivism and politically-expedient moderateness. Both Senator Sanders and Former Secretary Clinton have sections on their websites dedicated to climate change and the related policy, and are in fact the only two of the five candidates who do so, despite climate change being a present and immediate threat to our species’ wellbeing.

Senator Bernie Sanders has a long, proven record on environmental, energy, and agricultural policy, receiving a score of 90% from the League of Conservation Voters. His website includes strong language about the threat of human-caused climate change and its root causes, both direct (fossil fuels) and indirect (the economic drivers that motivate their use). It also includes sections against localized pollution, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of natural gas, and the related infrastructure, and support for small farms and rural agricultural communities. His voting record is pristine when it comes to these issues. He has consistently supported US and international climate change legislation, the adoption of renewable energies to supplant fossil fuels, regulations on localized pollution, GMO labeling, public transportation, and the protection of natural ecosystems; he has consistently opposed offshore and ANWR drilling, unsustainable agricultural practices, and subsidy programs that choke out small farmers.

Bernie Sanders get an A.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton often aligns with the Democratic Party’s views on political issues, including environmental ones, and received a score of 89% from the League of Conservation Voters. Like other areas of her campaign, she has similar language as Senator Sanders on her website, including detailed pages on climate change and energy reform as well as the preservation of small-scale agriculture and rural communities. Her voting record reflects support for climate change legislation, renewable energies, and more sustainability considerations in the transportation industry, and opposition to ANWR drilling, and she has only recently made these issues important parts of her platform. She is lukewarm on nuclear power, and was indifferent-to-supportive of the Keystone natural gas pipeline prior to this campaign. Her campaign has also indirectly benefitted from contributions by the oil and gas industries.

Hillary Clinton gets a B.

And now, for the Republican candidates. Historically, the environment has not been a topic of discussion or debate within Republican primaries, while energy has been, only insofar as our supply is a national security concern (which is one important part of the discussion). This election cycle is different, with climate change coming up during a debate in March. Three of the four candidates at the time – Senator Rubio, Mr. Trump, and Senator Cruz – denied both the fact of human-caused climate change and the value in taking legislative action to mitigate its effects, while Former Governor Kasich took an approach relatively more aligned with the science, accepting the truth of climate change and a certain level of human responsibility for it, and advocating for moderate energy policy. Let’s start with him.

Former Governor John Kasich is the Republican candidate with the highest level of support for pro-environmental action, though his website does not include a section on any of the relevant topics. As mentioned above, he accepts the fact of human-caused climate change and has used his gubernatorial and (in the past) legislative power to affect some change towards greater sustainability, a stance which deviates greatly from his party’s belief. In some cases, he has opposed climate change remediation and renewable energy legislation; in others, he has supported such laws when they make provisions for economic growth. However, he voted against the Kyoto Protocol in 2000.

John Kasich gets a D, with bonus points for being a dissenter.

Senator Ted Cruz does not dedicate a page on his website to any issue related to the environment, agriculture, or energy. He has repeatedly denied the fact of human-caused climate change, instead perpetuating untrue arguments in an attempt to discredit climate science and comparing environmentalism to a religion. He has taken contributions from the fossil fuel industry, which are reflected in his voting record. He has consistently opposed legislative action on climate change, the promotion of renewable energies, and the protection of natural environments, and instead supported pro-fossil-fuel legislation and offshore drilling.

Ted Cruz gets an F, and I’m being generous.

Mr. Donald Trump also doesn’t dedicate any space on his website for issues related to the environment, agriculture, or energy, instead focusing on the important issues of the needlessness of political correctness and the absolute necessity of a border wall. He does not have legislative or other political history to draw from, but has consistently used harsh language (i.e. “hoax”, “con job”, and profanities) to deny the fact of human-caused climate change and other basic tenets of environmental science. He has made negative and factually incorrect statements about renewable energies, animal welfare, and environmental regulations, and supports the complete disbanding of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Donald Trump also gets an F, for not handing in the assignment.

We stand at a cusp in human history, where our action – or continued inaction – on climate change and other environmental issues will decide the fate of humanity. Problems of environmental health, sustainable agriculture, and a renewable, stable energy supply are some of the most important that we face as a nation, a species, and a planet, and we must choose our leaders based on how well they are poised to solve them. Rhode Island’s 2016 Presidential Primary is on Tuesday, April 26th, and I urge you to get out and vote for a better future.

And now that this column is done, I guess it’s time to go put that sign up on my lawn.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call and Times, Column 30 – And God Saw That It Was Good – Where Faith Meets Environmentalism

29 09 2015

(September 27, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

And God Saw That It Was Good – Where Faith Meets Environmentalism

We’ve talked a lot about the environment – the problem of global climate change, the issues surrounding human waste production, and the environmental harms of industrial agriculture. In these and many other columns, I’ve quoted verses from the Bible as defense for my calls to action, and have used a more general spirituality to motivate a new environmental ethos. These parallels, and my frequent citations of them, are not an accident.

I am firmly of the belief that how sustainably we interact with Nature – the global climate, each local ecosystem, and our fellow living creatures – is a central, indispensible component of our religious beliefs. Not only is this treatment a reflection of one’s faith in a Creator God but, I would argue, a foundational responsibility of ours, as human beings living on this planet.

As a bit of background (if you couldn’t already guess), I am a Christian. And while I am not Catholic, I see the Office of the Pope as one of the most important, venerable leadership roles in the global Christian community and indeed, in global political leadership as a whole.

I, like so many others, have been delighted with the progress that Pope Francis has already made in matters of social and environmental justice. A central theme of his papacy has been the proper treatment of the Earth: this was the subject of his second encyclical, Laudato Si’, and has been a major discussion topic of his visits to the U.S. Congress, White House, and United Nations over the past week.

In light of the Pope’s visit, and his encouraging call to action on global climate change and environmental protection, I would like to make my own bold call to action: Environmental protection and sustainability are necessary components of Christianity. Here’s why:

  • The Earth belongs to God, and it is inherently good. In Genesis 1, the description of each era of Creation ends with some variation of the bold assessment, “God saw that it was good”. The story poetically describes the creation of all physical reality, beginning with the Big Bang and cyclically narrowing in scope to the Earth, its environment, and a few grander classifications of life. It is implied that each component is essential to the function of the greater whole, but it is stated very clearly that each is good and necessary in its own right. In countless other places in the Bible, notably in the Psalms of David and the Book of Job, it is made clear that God finds beauty in the functioning of the Earth and the diversity of its life, and that unadulterated Creation is the yardstick to which we must measure human successes and failures.
  • Flourishing, sustainable life was and is a central goal of Creation. Through Genesis 1, God’s basic commandment to each set of created beings is that they are to “be fruitful and increase in number”, filling ecological niches all throughout the Earth and building Earth’s fertility and solar energy capture. The inherent sustainability of this ecosystem is summarized in God’s promise to Noah and the Earth (Genesis 8): that the cyclic, regenerative nature of the days and seasons would not ever cease.
    In the familiar parable of Matthew 6, similar in nature to Psalm 104, Jesus emphasizes the idea of Divine Providence – that every creature, from the birds, to the flowers and grasses, to human beings, have their needs met by a divinely-created and –maintained ecosystem. This principal is what Wendell Berry has more recently termed “The Great Economy”, where the very nature of the Earth is to create and maintain life while actually expanding its ability to do so.
  • Human beings were created as caretakers of this good Earth. In Genesis 2, we are placed in the Garden of Eden with the explicit instruction to “work it and take care of it”, to enjoy the bounty of Nature while working to improve it. Even the command to have dominion over the Earth and to subdue it speaks to this general goal – that we must work against the harsher elements of the ecosystem but together with the constructive ones.
    This idea, that human intervention can improve Nature, has actually been borne out by Allan Savory’s ideas of Holistic Management. Through the “technologies” of holistic land and resource management, our footprint can become a monument of carbon sequestration, topsoil growth, and biodiversity. That is our purpose here.
  • It is possible to harm the Earth with our bad decisions. In Numbers 35, God commands the Israelites, “Do not pollute the land where you are…Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell.” Warfare is given as the immediate example of this pollution, but from here arises the idea that we are spiritually connected to the land, and that our actions have lasting effects.
  • God does not want this. Ever. The Bible is full of examples of self-imposed limitations – placing boundaries on our expansion and exploitation, even when Nature or our abilities would not otherwise do so. A case in point comes from Deuteronomy 22, where we are given the cryptic commandment: “if you come across a bird’s nest beside the road…do not take the mother with the young.” We can enjoy the products of Nature, but we must stop ourselves short of destroying the source of these products – in this case, the mother bird. Especially as human populations were expanding (and in all the time since), the need to stop ourselves from destroying the well while pumping the water is one central to our lives on this planet.
  • But we have disobeyed. We have harmed the Earth. Climate change and generalized environmental destruction were not really occurrences in biblical times – but they are now. And the prophecies given in Isaiah, particularly in Isaiah 24, sound eerily like a description of global climate change.
    Anywhere we look, harm is being done to the Creation. Loss of biodiversity, exploitation of limited natural resources, depletion of topsoil and freshwater reserves – these are all the products of human activity, and will all be further exacerbated by climate change.
  • It is our duty to act; inaction is the same as opposition. In the well known parable of Matthew 25, Jesus states firmly that “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Ignoring a problem here on Earth – whether it be one of social welfare or environmental protection – is akin to ignoring God. Beyond this, climate change and other environmental problems are issues social justice and welfare. By inaction, we are allowing others – often those who did not cause the problem – to suffer. God has deemed this unacceptable.
    At the White House last Wednesday, Pope Francis called us to action on climate change, deeming it “a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.” In front of Congress on Thursday, he made a bold statement, that “now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at…protecting nature.” Just as the verse above tells us, it is our duty to act, and inaction is unacceptable.

 Before I eat, I say a prayer of thanksgiving for the work of the sustainable farmers, the sacrifices made by the plants and animals, and the indispensible value of the Earth and its ecosystems, for providing me with sustenance. This is a sincere prayer, and one whose value I hope others can see.

For much of human history, we understood Nature – and God – enough to know that the two are inextricably linked; that God is the maintaining force behind the natural world, and that the global ecosystem is capable of providing for all of our needs, if we make our goal to protect, rather than destroy.

As a Christian, and more generally as a human being who believes in the Divine power that drives our material world, it is my duty to be an environmentalist. Pope Francis, the leader of the largest Christian church in the world, shares this belief. Do you?

I’d like to give a quick shout out to the North Smithfield Garden Club. Two weeks ago, I had the honor of being invited to speak at their monthly meeting about natural pest and weed control methods. They’re a great bunch, committed to the beauty and productivity that comes from growing a garden, and guess what? They are looking for additional members! Shoot me an email if you are interested, and I can put you in touch with their President, Jo-Ann McGee.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call and Times, Column 24 – The Art and Science of Vermiculture

7 08 2015

(July 5th, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

The Art and Science of Vermiculture

It’s an understatement to say that topsoil is the glue that holds the Earth together. But how it is formed? We’ve dug deep into the mysteries of topsoil, explored natural material cycles, and discussed organic methods for soil fertility. But one aspect of this amazing substance that we haven’t really covered is the little creature responsible for making it: the humble worm.
Consider this your first and only warning – this column is about worms, and the steps that an urban farmer can take to make more of them. If you, like my grandmother, are squeamish about this topic, it’s best to put the newspaper down and go for a walk. I’m just kidding – there are dozens of them in each square foot of the ground you’d walk on, so it’s best just to continue reading.

In today’s column, I want to introduce the simple but powerful art of “vermicomposting” or “vermiculture”. This isn’t nearly as complicated as the technical names imply. Vermiculture leverages the natural tendencies of worms to create rich compost and more worms. For the urban farmer, this means putting some worms and organic material in a box, and letting nature do the rest.

The construction of a vermiculture system (a “worm bin”) is quick and inexpensive. Minimally, you need: a 10 to 20 gallon plastic tote box, preferably 12-18 inches in height, with a tight-fitting lid; a second tote or a tray that the first tote can fit into, with high enough walls to hold a few inches of drainage liquid (called “worm tea” – though I wouldn’t recommend drinking this); two bricks or wooden blocks; and a drill with a small drill bit (1/16th-1/8th inch).

To construct the bin, first drill some small holes in the bottom of the tote, separated by a few inches – 20 to 30 in total. If the tote is uneven along the bottom, make sure to drill at the lowest points. These will provide for drainage.

The lid of the bin needs to be tight-fitting, to protect the worms from bright sunlight and rain. In the lid, you need to drill around a dozen ventilation holes, a little larger than the drainage holes. Alternatively, you can cut a small (postcard sized) rectangular hole in the center of the lid using a utility knife, and attach a piece of screening (i.e. an old window screen). Glue generally doesn’t bond to this type of plastic, so my preferred method is to drill small holes along the outside of the ventilation hole and use plastic zip ties, string, or wire to tie the screening to the hole. This method is more complicated, but I believe it makes for better ventilation.

That’s basically it. You put the bricks or blocks into the tray and set the plastic tote on top of them, so it won’t be submerged in the tea. I used a second plastic bin, so the drainage holes would be protected from direct exposure. Now, it’s time to fill the bin.

First, line the bottom (of the main bin) with a few inches of high-carbon bedding material. This could be shredded paper or cardboard, peat moss, or shredded leaves – I used half newspaper and half leaves. You need to wet the bedding material enough that it absorbs water, so that it’s comfortable for the worms. On top of this, put a few shovelfuls of garden soil, just enough to cover the bedding. This introduces beneficial microbes to the bin, as well as non-biological, which aid in worm digestion. Finally, you add in your worms and some food (more on this below), and a piece of wet paper or cardboard across the top to keep the bedding and vermicompost from drying out.

Traditionally, the types of worms used in vermicomposting are red wigglers (Eisenia foetida) or red earthworms (Lumbricus rubellus), which thrive in high-organic-matter environments. It is possible to harvest these by hand, in dark, damp areas of your yard, where leaves and leaf mould cover the ground – but this is time consuming. Red wigglers can be purchased online, from many garden stores or even Amazon and EBay, or you can find a local vermicomposter in your area (Craigslist is a good place to start) who will be dividing their worm bin and would sell some to you. I got my red wigglers from a friend who vermicomposts.

Worm bins are capable of digesting most organic materials. Favorites include most vegetable and fruit wastes (with the exception of citrus and any plant in the onion family), coffee grounds with the filter, tea bags, and starchy leftovers (better used to grow the worm bin than the vermicomposter’s belly). Fat and oil, bone, dairy, and meat scraps can added as well, but should be a small portion of the total food input.

There is essentially no day-to-day maintenance of the worm bin. You should make sure the contents stay damp (not soaking, but not dry), and feed the bin only as fast as the food is digested. The first few weeks will be slow going – the worm population starts small, and it takes time for microbial populations to colonize the bin (and these are actually what the worms feed on).

The bin should be placed in a shady area – a basement, garage, or shed is good, or a cool, shady alcove outside. You don’t want it in direct sunlight, which makes the worms uncomfortable, and can heat the bin. The optimal temperature range is around 50 to 80 degrees, which means that special attention should be given on hot summer days. The worm bin must be put inside during the cold of the winter if you want the worms to survive (it doesn’t smell and is indiscriminate).

So why would an urban farmer want to go to the trouble of growing a box of worms?

Vermicomposting is faster than regular composting, and merely through their digestion, the red wigglers turn organic materials (and even ordinary topsoil) into worm castings – a valuable soil fertility amendment that is even better than compost. Castings should be extracted from the bin by moving the contents over to one side and filling the other with new bedding and feed. The worms will slowly migrate to the new organics, and the castings can be extracted.

The collected drainage (worm tea) is also a powerful liquid fertilizer that can be diluted and sprayed onto plants – this provides them with nutrients, and is known to enhance microbial activity in the topsoil.

And then, there are the worms themselves. After a few months, when the worm populations have skyrocketed, it is wise to begin extracting worms to keep their reproduction rates high (this is called maximum sustainable yield). These can be put into the garden or the compost, where they will continue to do their good.

They can also be used more directly in food production. Feeding them to backyard chickens or fish can offset feed costs, and make egg, chicken, and fish production more self-sufficient and sustainable. This is my ultimate plan for my system.

            Healthy worm bins have tens to hundreds of thousands of worms in them. Each red wiggler has around 2 Calories in it, and a laying chicken (for example) consumes around 400 Calories per day. That means that 50 worms could easily make up 25% of the hen’s diet (in addition to whatever other bugs she found herself) – if that’s not a huge step towards self-sufficiency, I don’t know what is.


My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call and Times, Column 22 – Water, Water, Everywhere: Urban Rainwater Harvesting

7 08 2015

(June 7th, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Water, Water, Everywhere: Urban Rainwater Harvesting

Remember that three-day stretch of nearly constant rainfall early last week? I have to admit, for every raindrop that hit my roof, I died a little inside. You see, there’s this one special project (well, there are hundreds, but I’m going to focus right now) that I’ve been meaning to do for years but have never gotten around to, which has become one of my latest obsessions: rainwater harvesting.

Otherwise known as rainwater catchment, this is exactly what it sounds like. By installing a waterproof container at the bottom of a downspout gutter, the rainwater that falls on that portion of your roof can be collected and stored for future use.

Later on, I will describe a simple catchment system (the basic plan that I will be using). But before we get into the practical, let’s talk theory: why exactly would I want to go to the trouble of installing rainwater catchment on my house?

Being a coastal state in the Northern Atlantic, Rhode Island is blessed with relatively rainy summers (though someone might want to remind the climate about that this year). With that said, rainfall often comes in short bursts of thunderstorms, while our farms, gardens, livestock, and people would probably be better off with a little water every day rather than a biblical flood twice a month. The basic motivation for rainwater collection is the same as many other homesteading projects – if you save it during times of plenty, you’ll have it during times of little.

For every inch of rainfall, a 100 square foot area of roof (the size of a small bedroom) passes 62 gallons of rainwater – more than you can shake an umbrella at. Taking the average roof area in our region to be about 1000 square feet (U.S. Census Bureau), and Rhode Island rainfall to be 3 to 4 inches per month, a total of nearly 20,000 gallons of rainwater falls onto the average roof in the 9 non-winter months every year! Because of how easy it is to harvest, those 20,000 gallons ($100, at our rates) of clean, free rainwater are essentially wasted in most homes in the country, my own included.

The rule of thumb is that vegetable gardens require 1-2 inches of water per week in the summer, including rainfall. It’s entirely possible that we could get this much rain, but there’s a catch: a garden does much better with frequent watering, rather than what would otherwise be a cycle of flood-drought conditions. By collecting and storing rainwater when it is abundant, it can be used to irrigation the vegetable garden during periods of little or no rain.

Being a frugal, environmentally-conscious, thinking-in-cycles, conservationist engineer, these numbers are too appealing to pass up. I will be constructing a simple rainwater catchment system in the next few weeks, and I’m writing this column to hopefully motivate you to do the same.

With that, the central question is: what do I need to build a minimalist rainwater catchment system? While I can’t give a complete tutorial here, I will address the different components (there really aren’t that many) of a rainwater collection system. The internet is full of step-by-step instructions about how to build these fixtures for very little money, and I would recommend as a good place to start.

The first step in rainwater collection is the downspout. Most homes already have these, but they often have to be adapted (and probably shortened) so the water can run into your collection container rather than onto the ground. In addition, I’ve encountered many urban farms in my research that employ what is called a “first flush system”. This is essentially a clever piping system that discards the first few gallons of each rainfall. This is desirable, because asphalt roofing tiles that were hot prior to the rain can leach small amounts of heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the first bit of rainfall. By stopping the first few gallons from going into the rain barrel, you prevent those chemicals from ending up in your garden. What’s more, it helps to remove most bird droppings.

The next step is the storage tank, commonly called a cistern or a rain barrel. This can be as big or as small as you like. Pre-assembled rain barrels or assemble-it-yourself kits of 50-100 gallons are available for sale online and from many garden stores for around $100. In my opinion, it is easier and less expensive to build one yourself.

A simple, sturdy trash can works just as well, and makes the whole enterprise much more cost effective. It must have a tight-fitting lid, to prevent animals and insects (mosquitoes) from getting in. To this, you basically have to add a screened hole in the lid for the water to enter, and a watertight spigot near the bottom, to which you can attach a hose, for water to exit. An overflow system is also a nice addition: essentially you make another hole on the side of the barrel, near the top, so that excess rainwater can feed elsewhere (another rain barrel, perhaps?) once the primary container is full. Again, I direct you to one of many DIY websites for specific instructions to suit your individual budget and needs.

Finally, there is the (optional) distribution system. The water can simply be taken as-is from the spigot – a watering can or bucket is all you need to disburse it to those organisms in need of it most. A hose can also be attached, allowing you to water manually.

In my opinion, the state-of-the-art distribution system is drip irrigation. By laying out special (or homemade) irrigation piping throughout your garden, you can deliver water directly to the roots of your plants, minimizing waste and reducing weed growth. This is my preferred system, and I will be building one sometime in the near future.

One other thing to consider: the higher the rain barrel is raised up, the more water pressure (and higher flow rate) you will have in the distribution system. This doesn’t matter as much if you’re using automatic or unmanned drip irrigation, but if you’re watering by hand, a higher flow rate means less time spent watering. Something as simple as inexpensive, cement cinder blocks can do the job of adding a few feet to the height of the container.

Rhode Island house bill RI HB 7070 of 2012 set up a 10% tax credit for the cost of installation of residential and commercial rainwater catchment systems. Rather than illegalize rainwater collection, as has been done in certain other states, Rhode Island is actually encouraging its residents to collect rainwater. And they do so for good reason.

It is healthier for your plants, healthier for your animals, and healthier for the environment. And while I would not recommend drinking it yourself (insect larvae, toxic compounds, algae and other microorganisms will undoubtedly be present in the water), collected rainwater serves as an important buffer against short rain-free periods, more serious droughts, and problems with the municipal water supply. Remember, my friends: resilience is the product of practical forethought.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call and Times, Column 15 – Joy to the World

9 02 2015

(December 5, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Joy to the World

I hope everyone enjoyed a reflective, family-filled, homegrown Thanksgiving holiday. Christmas is around the corner, and as we move into the holiday season, what the economists and lending institutions must surely call “the most wonderful time of the year”, I see it as a timely opportunity to write on a topic that I’ve been waiting a long time to share.

If you’ve noticed, this column has taken on a common theme over the past few months. This idea is that it is our responsibility, as consumers, co-producers, and (most importantly) urban farmers, to guide the local and global economies toward a better state than the present one. As we’ve discussed previously, this can be done by reducing waste, by “solving for a pattern” in our production and consumption of goods, and by buying food responsibly, with sustainability as the key measure of value.

As consumers, we shape our economy through the products we purchase and, in doing so, support a production system that either heals the environment, local communities, and our fellow human beings, or further damages them. In the spirit of that motive, and to put a nice finish on my theme this Fall, I want to discuss three general but interconnected habits of consumption: buying local, buying used, and repurposing whatever we can.

To my pleasant surprise, this is a concept that has really taken off in the past few years. The idea is that, by shopping at locally-owned and –operated businesses instead of chains and big box stores, whether you’re buying products you would otherwise buy or, better yet, making a point to buy things that are locally-manufactured, -made, -grown, and –raised, your purchase stimulates your local economy. It’s hard to exactly quantify this effect, but the American Independent Business Alliance ( has found that an incredible 48% of money spent at local, independent businesses is recirculated through the community, in stark contrast to the 14% of that spent at chain retailers. This means that spending money at local, independent businesses is more than three times as stimulating to the local economy than buying equivalent products elsewhere.

Given the nature of this Urban Farmer column, my first suggestion is, of course, to buy food from farms (urban and commercial alike) in your area. Because food is the most basic good we need to survive, it is important for all communities to have a resilient and sustainable local foodshed. But beyond food, it is imperative that we, who know what sustainability really means, buy from local businesses whenever possible. Most communities are home to independent businesses offering basically every good and service we could need to purchase – from building supplies, to handmade art and jewelry, to electronics repair, it’s better to shop local. For those of you in my area, the Blackstone Valley Independent Business Alliance ( is a trove of information about businesses in the area, and serves as a much-appreciated advocate for the local economy.

It took an insightful email from a reader, Mary, for me to start thinking about this, and I’m so thankful for her correspondence. As a perfect complement to buying local, it is hugely beneficial for consumers to buy lightly-used and repurposed goods wherever possible. Depending on what’s available locally, these can include used books, electronics, tools, and even lightly-used clothes and furniture, all just as good as if bought new, but often at a small fraction of the price.

We live in a throw-away economy, where the availability of cheap labor and the efficiency of mass-production catalyze the flow of cheap, low-quality, plastic goods from developing countries to our shores and our stores. It is very easy, almost second nature, for us to buy and throw away these goods as quickly as their low cost can justify, forgetting the strip mines, sweat shops, and immeasurable pollution that it took to make those widgets. But this system can, and should be, turned on its head.

To switch our buying habits from mass-produced goods to high-quality, lightly-used ones would yield some pretty significant benefits. It saves money, of course, while delivering an identical or superior product. It saves energy and natural resources, by making the manufacture of an additional laptop or the printing of an additional book unnecessary. In this way, buying lightly used also does wonders for environmental health: less waste is produced, less fossil fuel is burned, and less mining is done. As an added bonus, because buying used generally means buying from a locally-owned business, and because the greater durability of American products is often a given, doing so stimulates our national and local economies as well.

This concept is probably where the skills and ingenuity of the urban farmer come in most handy. If our goals are to reduce waste, eliminate unnecessary consumption, save money, help the environment, and (though this week’s weather makes it hard to imagine) produce food efficiently and naturally in our own urban farms, then the practice of repurposing is absolutely necessary. It is pretty self-explanatory, but repurposing is basically finding new uses for old or otherwise used materials and goods, which serves both to keep them out of the landfill and eliminate the need for the manufacture of whatever it is that is being replaced.

There are countless examples of this, but in keeping with the Christmas spirit, here are a few good suggestions for repurposing. For the past few years in my home, I have been using newspaper instead of wrapping paper for my gifts. Not only does this reduce my house’s consumption of shiny, colorful paper that will ultimately be discarded after little practical use, but it also makes use of something (newspaper) which already served its initial purpose, and which would be recycled anyway. The next example involves the fate of a Christmas tree. Instead of being hauled to the landfill (something that I can’t believe is still being done), a Christmas tree at the end of its life can be treated like any other plant material: the needles, dried, can be used as a great mulch for acid-loving crops like blueberries; the skeletal stem and branches can be used as a trellis or stake in the garden; and at the very least, the entire thing can be composted into some great humus for next year’s garden.

Being stewards of the Earth means consuming as little as possible, buying goods that are responsibly made and secondhand, and making our home economies more productive, and definitely more sustainable, than the national and global ones in which we’re forced to take part. That old mantra of “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” has served its purpose, but I think it needs a little update if it’s to be applicable in our modern economy. Instead, as we’ve discovered over the past three months, how about we “Reduce, Reuse, Buy-used, Repurpose, Recycle, Up-cycle, and most of all, Compost”.

In our role as co-producers (maybe it’s time to drop that title of “consumers” now, eh?), it is our unique responsibility to vote with our buying power, and push the economy off of the ruinous path that it’s currently on, and towards sustainability and resiliency. It’s time to kick the idea of “rational self-interest”, the single motivation that economists assign to you and me, straight to the curb. We have to choose to operate our economy by the crazy notion that it can’t exist without the Earth. And if we can view the surface of the Earth not as a strip mine and a garbage heap, but as our only home, then it stands to reason that the less we take from it without giving back, the better.

To all my readers, I want to wish a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a joyous holiday season. This is the time of year when those of us who toil under the Sun, who understand the beauty and mystery of Nature and the simultaneous insignificance and danger of destructive human endeavors, are given a chance to rest. Rejoice in the natural and supernatural lights which burn bright in our wonderful world, and let the season restore your faith and hope in the year to come.

And with Christmas less than three weeks away, I’ll leave you with a classic but relevant quote. In the eternal words of Dr. Seuss, “It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!” Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!’”

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.