By Penny Pawl, U.C. Master Gardener of Napa County
Some time ago I wrote a column about African keyhole gardens. These innovative gardens are circular and have a place in the middle for worm composting bin. The design has performed so well that you can now buy a wooden kit for such a garden.
Last winter, I had an invasion of gophers who were eating my produce before I could. All my raised beds needed to be emptied and new wire put in the bottom.
I had been thinking about adopting the keyhole garden method of composting. Here was the opportunity to put my plan into effect.
My helper and I cut the bottoms off of two garbage cans so the worms could move back and forth. Then we drilled holes all along the sides. These garbage cans were placed in the bottom of the beds right on top of the gopher wire. Then we surrounded them with soil, keeping the rims of the cans above the soil, and put the lids on.
Next I had to supply the bedding for the precious red wiggler worms I planned to add to the cans. Red wigglers are used in composting because they are the only worms that eat decomposing materials such as kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and plant waste. Any seeds that end up in the compost—such as seeds from watermelons or tomatoes—may reseed in the bin or when you spread the compost around, so be careful what you put in the bins. I once had a compost bin full of maple seedlings because I had added maple leaves.
The idea behind this type of composting is that the worms will move in and out of the cans and, as they do, will take some of the compost with them. By this method, the compost gets spread around and helps the plants thrive. Worm compost is a balanced fertilizer and helps improve the texture of your soil.
I fill the bins with plain cardboard, which the worms love, as well as newspaper, kitchen scraps and soft trimmings from plants. On top of the bedding, I put large black plastic bags to keep the bedding moist. Something good is happening in there.
I have noticed that these cans seem to dry out faster than my regular compost bins. Maybe moisture leaches out of the bins into the soil. I check the bins often and water once a week with a garden hose. I also noticed that these bins were warmer in winter than my free-standing bins, which is good for the composting process. The soil around the bin must be keeping it warmer.
Online I found red wigglers from Africa. They are bigger and longer and eat more. I put them in one bin only so I could check on how they do.
I don't know if I will need to clean these bins out like I do with the free-standing ones. In spring, I plan to take out all of the uncomposted material and see what the bottom of the bin looks like. That's where the compost it.
Since I created these bins, they have attracted other creatures such as snails and slugs. And greeting me when I check the bins are some small toads that catch all the fruit flies. One bin has six tiny toads in it. I have also seen two alligator lizards and a black racer snake.
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will hold a workshop on “Garden Basics IV – Landscape Thoughts” November 3. There will be a discussion of firewise and hillside landscaping; rain gardens and swales; different mulches and permeable hardscapes as well as possible solutions to problem landscaping areas.Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in/Walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.