Where Did the Worms Go?

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I sat down the other day to write my next entry about worm composting to discuss how easy it is, how great it is, etc. etc.  After all, I’ve been successfully raising my worms for over a year. But before I began writing, I decided to visit my little worms to see how they were doing. I hadn’t fed them in about week or so and thought they might be hungry. And to my chagrin, I found that my worms were DEAD, GONE!!! Oh no, what did I do wrong? My heart sank, my urban farmer confidence shrunk, and I felt so sad.  I noticed a few things: ants, a white fuzzy mold, tiny white, thin worms (were those new baby red worms?) and lots of critters running around that weren’t worms.

I called Malibu Urban Worms (the place where I bought my once vibrant worms over a year ago).  I awaited their response with baited breath.  Meanwhile, I looked up “dead worms in worm composter” in Google and got a few answers, but none that satisfied me. I wanted to speak to the expert myself.

Thankfully, Lara from Urban Worms called me. She told me not to worry, that sometimes the worms die from the heat or overfeeding.  After our worm discussion, this is what I concluded:

  1. I may have fed the worms too much food (typical of a New Orleanian, always trying to overfeed those we love).  This is a no-no for worms because it can cause the bin to overheat and kill the worms. Usually a little pile of food in one corner of the bin is enough for 7-10 days or more. I had put two piles in each corner. Obviously too much.
  2. I need to keep the temperature gauge (that usually comes with the worm bins) inside the bin so that the temperature is always visible when feeding or checking the worms.  The ideal temperature is between 40˚F – 80˚F.  If the temperature begins to approach 80 degrees, you can cool the worms off by adding a little cold water into the bin.
  3. Have no fear. Just like with gardening, we learn from trial and error.  I bought some new worms at our local nursery, gave them some food and am ready to help them flourish.

And for the other activity that I observed in the worm bin?

  • The tiny little white worms? They are called enchytraeids or pot worms. They are beneficial in that they assist in breaking down food material in the bin.
  • The ants? They come into worm bins when the bin is a little too dry. Ants do not hurt the worms and will go away when the moisture returns.
  • The fuzzy white mold?  This is just part of the food breaking down.  Just stir it into the rest of the worm castings.
  • The other critters?  They are  a normal part of a worm bin ecosystem.

It has been a couple of weeks now and my new worms are fabulous.  Soon I’ll have more castings and worm tea to feed my garden.

BELL PEPPER ROT?

During my routine garden check, I noticed that my brand new bell peppers looked gorgeous. But wait, what is that?  A weird whiteish/brownish spot? Two of my peppers looked like they were rotting. What could have caused that?

It turns out that this is actually called SUNSCALD. And funny enough, it is most prevalent on green fruits like bell pepper.   The sun-damaged areas can then be vulnerable to insects and disease.   Oftentimes a fruit that was previously in the shade and then exposed to direct sun will get sunscald.  To prevent this awful sunburn, cover the exposed fruit with a lightweight material to diffuse the light. In general, it’s important to keep the foliage healthy to give the fruit natural shade.

I cut off the peppers with the sunscald to prevent any bugs from moving in and wreaking havoc on the rest of my garden.  Since most of the pepper was healthy, I removed the sunscalded section and used the rest of the pepper in a salad. My next round of peppers so far look great. I’ll report back if anything unsightly occurs.

Battling Ants and Aphids – Part II

In my last post, Battling Ants & Aphids Part I, an army of ants harvesting aphids had taken over my tomatoes and my artichoke.  I set out Terro Ant Baits to see if they would keep the ants at bay. Well, the ants (and the aphids) are still around.  The Terro Baits can take up to three months to work, time that my tomatoes don’t have. My tomatoes are at the end of their season anyway, so I’ve decided to pull them out and start over.  I set aside the green tomatoes to make Fried Green Tomatoes.

Sometimes pulling out your veggies that aren’t doing well feels really good.  It’s almost like getting rid of stuff in your garage that you don’t need anymore.  Once I removed the tomatoes, I added a few handfuls of Dr. Earth Start Up fertilizer, a few handfuls of worm castings and some water. I’ll let the soil sit for a few days to give it time to rejuvenate.  It’s nice to make space for new veggies.  I’ll plant some beans, lettuces, and Brussels sprout in that space.

With the artichoke plant, I need to keep it going.  Artichokes are perennials (they will last for years and produce artichokes a few times a year).  I am going to continue to keep the Terro Baits out while spraying inside the artichoke with Pyola to kill the aphids every ten days or so. Pyola is a powerful organic pesticide, so I’ll also spray worm tea on the leaves to strengthen the plant every few weeks.  Hopefully this slow and steady method will keep my artichoke alive.  We’ve harvested one artichoke so far (and it was delicious) and have three baby ones growing. It is certainly a determined plant despite its battle with the aphids.

The most important guideline in gardening is to embrace “failure.” As the Latin maxim goes, Discimus Agere Agendo, we learn to do by doing.  The only way to learn how to garden is to do it. The wonderful thing about gardening is that you can always start over and that feels great.

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Fried Green Tomatoes

When it’s time to pull out tomatoes, oftentimes there will be lots of green ones left on the vine. This is the perfect opportunity to make fried green tomatoes. I mix my green tomatoes with sweet grape or baby tomatoes for a combined taste of sweet and tangy.

INGREDIENTS:

  • Green tomatoes of any variety (as many as you want to cook – ideally at least 1 pound)
  • Baby red tomatoes (use a ratio of 1:1 or 2:1, green:red tomatoes)
  • 1 egg (more depending on the amount you want to cook)
  • Flour (1-2 cups)
  • Progresso Italian Bread Crumbs (ratio of 2:1 white flour to bread crumbs)
  • Olive Oil (for frying)
  • Sea Salt & Freshly Ground Pepper to taste

KITCHEN TOOLS:

  • 3 bowls
  • 1 platter
  • 1 plate
  • Paper towel
  • Large deep skillet
  • Metal tongs
  • Metal slotted spoon or spatula

DIRECTIONS:

Slice the tomatoes into 1/8 inch slices and place into a bowl. Scramble one egg and put into a separate bowl. Mix flour and bread crumbs into a separate bowl. Dip the tomatoes into the egg batter, then the flour and lay them individually on a large plate.  Make sure the tomatoes are fully covered with the flour mixture so that they are dusty (not wet) with flour. Meanwhile, heat 1/4 inch of olive oil in the deep skillet  (the amount of olive oil depends on the size of the pan). Heat the olive oil until it bubbles when dropping in a test tomato. Fry the tomatoes in batches for a few minutes on each side. Do not flip until one side is golden brown. If the oil is not hot enough, the tomatoes will be soggy.   Lay each batch of fried tomatoes on a paper towel to soak up extra oil. Add a layer of paper towel on the platter in-between each batch of fried tomatoes. Add salt & pepper to taste.

Serve immediately and enjoy.

Note: Olive oil has a low smoke point- do NOT overheat the olive oil.

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Battling Aphids and Ants – Part I

I planted my tomatoes in May or June (honestly, I can’t remember), but it was sometime in the late spring.  I bought four heirloom tomato seedlings from Jimmy Williams at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market.  I followed Jimmy’s advice and didn’t trim off the “suckers” and  let the tomatoes run wild, only picking off leaves that looked yellow and unhealthy.  Before I knew it, a month or so later, we had gorgeous tomatoes that were delicious.

But then I got BUSY. I was working 50 hours per week and didn’t check my dear tomatoes every day or so. While I was driving away on the I-10 into Hollywood to work, the aphids were moving in.  And then the ants followed.  Not good.  Ants and aphids have a symbiotic relationship. The aphids feed on the plant and excrete “honeydew” which the ants WANT. The ants are so obsessed with this honeydew that they will fight off aphid predators and actually bring the aphid eggs into their nest to protect them. The ants will then transport the aphid eggs to a new plant location.  This situation doesn’t bode well for any crop. My tomato plants weren’t looking happy, their leaves were yellowing and the fruit yield tapered. The ants and aphids had also attacked my artichoke plant.

I first attempted to hose off the aphids. They wash off really easily as they are delicate little critters. You can even wipe them off with your fingers. But, the next day, the aphids were back. So I got my organic aphid sprays and tried different ones over the next few weeks.  They were all effective for the aphids, but no match for the ants.  I then bought ladybugs.  They stuck around for a while (a sign that there is food like aphids for them), but then they took off. The ants were incorrigible.  Ugh! Was I frustrated and my poor tomatoes and artichoke were suffering.

I went to the Good Foods Festival in Santa Monica and met Christy Wilhelmi of gardenerd.com.  She is extremely knowledgeable and she told me that I MUST get rid of the ants to get rid of the aphids. She recommended Terro Ant Baits which are safe for organic gardens. You can find them here.  I purchased a pack and I’m still waiting for the results.  I’ll get back to you and let you know how it goes.

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