Part 1 will bring you up to speed.
In August and September, and October and November, I spent way too many hours focused on leaves. Every dog walk involved leaf status monitoring. When is that tree going to start dropping? Should I ask neighbors whether I can have their leaves, or should I simply wait for their yard waste bags to appear in the alley, then slip out under cover of darkness and acquire them? Will they think I’m insane? Am I insane?
I realized that I’d never truly noticed when the season turns. I was used to maybe seeing a bit of yellow here and there, and then bam! it’s red and orange and they’re falling and crunching under foot. Surprisingly, that experience didn’t change much even as I closely scrutinized trees on a daily basis. It was still pretty sudden. And I needed to take action.
As I’d been waiting and watching, I’d also made ready. I bought a Toro 51609 Ultra 12 amp Variable-Speed Electric Blower/Vacuum with Metal Impeller. It turns out that most electric leaf blowers can also run in reverse, sucking up leaves and shredding them with that impeller. The metal impeller is important, since plastic ones will get chewed up pretty quickly by twigs. The Toro comes with an adorable little zippered vacuum bag that you can sling over your shoulder as you work. It fills up in about 3 minutes, then you have to detach it from the blower, unzip it, empty it, rezip, reattach, and get back to sucking. That sucks. After one afternoon of that nonsense, I ordered the WORX WA4054.1 Leaf Pro Universal Fit Leaf Collection System for All Major Brands Blower/Vac (be sure to watch the video, too). This is a brilliant contraption—in concept—that fits over the top of a large plastic trash bin. The shredded leaves are blown through a large hose into the bin, which only has to be emptied every 15 minutes (my dedicated trash bin is around 64 gallons, but you can even fit this puppy onto a standard 96 gallon Chicago waste bin). As I said, it’s a brilliant concept. In practice, it’s pretty dusty and messy because the drawstring attachment to your trash container can only be tightened so much. This year, I might take a cue from this reviewer who modified the lid of his can to accept the hose.
Hold on, why am I doing this?
Because composted fall leaves are a miracle of nature. As Mike McGrath says in his book and in his TEDx talk, trees take all these nutrients and minerals from the earth, store them in leaves, then drop them on the ground at our feet. We then rake them up, stuff them into bags and throw them away. Sometimes they’re sent to municipal compost facilities who might sell them back to you. Sometimes they’re sent to the dump along with all our other garbage. Insanity. (If you have a lawn care service, it’s possible that they’re composting your leaves. They’d be foolish not to.) What can you do with leaf compost? Spread it on your lawn to feed and improve the soil. Spread it on your flower beds and your vegetable garden and your house plants. Other than the electricity to shred the leaves (which is a consideration) it’s free. And as long as you use ear protection and a dust mask, it’s fantastic being outside and sucking up leaves.
Yes, I took bags from neighbors, dumped the contents on my driveway, and shredded away. Yes, I drove through alleys, stopped, loaded the car with bags of leaves, and brought them home. Yes, I watched a neighbor shred his leaves with the very same blower/vac I own (the bag slung over his shoulder, it must have taken him forever). Yes I even chatted with him as I walked the dog, never letting on my true interest. And yes, I went back later that evening and took 8 big bags of leaves that didn’t have to be shredded by me. I feel a bit guilty about that, so this year I’ll offer to let him use the leaf collection attachment. Yes, I raked and vacuumed and shredded the leaves of three neighbors. I might not do that again because it was so much work, but I also plan to share some compost with them when it’s ready.
You said something about a worm bin?
According to this report, “roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted.” Also: “Fruits and vegetables, plus roots and tubers have the highest wastage rates of any food.” Also: “Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).” I love how they spell tonnes, but those statistics are insane. The report details the many factors that contribute to this waste all up and down the chain, and there are many things that you, the consumer, can do to help:
- Don’t eat so much
- Really try to buy only what you can consume
- Buy local (the food is fresher)
- Don’t buy on appearance alone (bruised fruits and vegetables are often tossed even though they’re perfectly fine)
- Within reason, don’t throw out food simply because it’s past its sell-by date
- Donate food to charity
- Start a worm bin and turn your kitchen scraps into black gold
I’ll admit that I’ve wasted a lot of food in my time. Mostly lettuce that’s been forgotten in the fridge. Worms love lettuce. They also love apples and banana peels and carrots and roots and tubers and fall leaves. They don’t love citrus, meat, cheese, and oils so don’t put those in your worm bin. Dry your egg shells, crush them with a rolling pin or mill them in a coffee grinder or NutriBullet. The calcium is great for your soil, and the grit cleans the worms’ gizzards. Chop up your unused fruits and vegetables, then toss them in a plastic container in your freezer. When it’s full, say once a week, let it thaw and then feed it to your worms along with some shredded paper. Yes, office paper, newspaper, pages from the phone book you’ll never use; run it through a paper shredder and you’re good to go. Freezing the food helps to break down the fibers and can also kill fruit fly eggs. Microwaving also works. You can even pulp it all in a food processor (the smaller the food, the faster the worms can process it) but that’s a lot more cleanup than I can tolerate, and it creates excess moisture in the bin.
Where do you get a worm bin?
You can make your own; there are all sorts of instructions on the web. Or you can get something like the Worm Factory 360 WF360B Worm Composter.
Where do you get worms?
You’ll need to order your worms separately. I got Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm 1,000 Count Red Wiggler Live Composting Worms. They arrive in a box, and inside that box is a breathable bag, and inside that bag are roughly a thousand Eisenia fetida. They’ll be undersized and listless because they’re shipped a bit on the dry side, which helps protect them from both heat and cold, apparently. You’ll have already prepared your Worm Factory with the bedding materials they supply, so you just empty the bag of worms into the middle of the tray, maybe with some water. Add your food in two of the corners and cover with moistened newsprint. Then leave them alone for several days. The worms will find the food and get going.
What else comes with the worms?
Yeah, I’ll be honest, it’s not quite that simple. As long as you follow the instructions that come with your Worm Factory and maintain proper moisture levels, the bin really doesn’t smell at all. It’s kind of amazing. However, you will very likely have some fruit flies. It’s important to know that fruit flies are completely harmless, but they can be annoying. One of the reasons you lay moistened newsprint on top of the food is to keep flies from laying their eggs in the food. Some of them still figure it out, though. There are other tricks that help, such as keeping a small jar of apple cider vinegar nearby. The flies are attracted to it and drown.
The bin really needs to stay indoors so that rats and raccoons aren’t attracted to it. Also, the worms would freeze and die in winter, and they’d probably get cooked in the summer. They thrive from 55 to 75 degrees, so our enclosed back porch will be their home as soon as it’s a bit warmer. Right now, they’re in the basement. It’s mostly important that the bin be in or near your kitchen, so that it’s easy to feed and maintain your worms.
You’ll have to steel yourself for a few surprises. I can guarantee that you’ll open your bin one day and completely freak out at all the other little bugs in there. Small, white pot worms, red and brown mites, a host of incredibly tiny little indecipherable bugs. The Worm Factory booklet has a whole section that talks about these critters, and they’re almost all beneficial and harmless. In fact, the worms aren’t really eating the food, they’re eating the millions of bacteria that are eating the food. These guys have been at this for billions of years, and now they’re at it in your kitchen. Remember, too, that they want to stay in the bin. It’s dark, and there’s food.
Depending on how things go, after several months your first tray will have been processed and you can harvest the worm castings. I was hoping to harvest our first tray last week, but I took a look and decided to give them another few weeks. (There were also some worm cocoons in there that I didn’t want to disturb.) The castings look a lot like dirt. Beautiful, black, nutrient-rich worm compost. This stuff is so powerful, it’s a good idea to mix it with your other compost so it doesn’t shock your plants. You can also make “tea” to water your plants.
One other thing
I was interested in traditional composting for many years, but never worked up the energy to pursue it. My brain glazed over whenever I read about the need to carefully balance greens and browns. More importantly, throwing your kitchen scraps into an outdoor bin can attract squirrels, rats, and raccoons, and I’ve never really liked the plastic “tumbler” composters because they don’t hold very much.
Separating the process into “leaves outdoors, worms indoors” just makes sense to me.