Hei Mahi Māra
Return of the worms
A beginner’s guide to growing organic vegetables
Nā Tremane Barr
The summer gardening season has been kind to us this year in the Shaky City, with cooler-than-normal temperatures and occasional rain helping stave off the need for the city council to impose a total water ban (so far).
The need to water by hand on alternate days has had its downsides, with strawberries and other fruiting plants not getting the water they need for maximum production. However, years of compost application to my soil have paid off, with high organic matter levels and therefore greater water-holding capacity, helping plants to remain productive.
The cooler temperatures are probably the only good luck we have had from nature in the last 18 months, and there hasn’t been any sign of the psyllid pest this season. This is a welcome bonus because rīwai (potatoes) prefer cooler weather and have done well. A colleague of mine was recently in Peru and visited a cold, mountainous area where they grow potatoes at an altitude higher than the summit of Aoraki.
Just before the February 2011 quake I bought an earthworm (noke) farm, and then largely neglected it. One of my New Year’s resolutions has been to look after it on a more regular basis. I have a Can O Worms farm that provides all the necessary gear and instructions on how to set up and maintain the worms’ living environment at a reasonable price. Looking after the worms has proved more difficult than I first thought, with regular attention required to provide an optimum worm breeding environment. However, without getting too specific, it boils down to finding a worm farm location that avoids hot sunlight, and using a cover to stop rain getting in. The worms need regular feeding of small amounts of kitchen and garden green waste. Their bedding occasionally needs turning to aerate the bedding material. The worm farm also needs to have lime (not dolomite) added to stop it becoming acidic. The return on this effort has definitely been worth it, with a regular supply of leachate that can be used as a liquid fertiliser, and vermicast (the compost the worms make from what they are fed).
An interesting fact: worms don’t actually eat green waste. They ingest the decomposing slime on it, and convert this into the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, enzymes, nutrients, amino acids and minerals that are so beneficial to soil and plant life. This mixture of organic goodies in the leachate and vermicast promotes stronger plant growth, flowering and fruiting; while increasing resistance to pests and disease. As such, it is the most powerful plant fertiliser on earth.
When I cleaned out my worm farm to start anew, I put all the vermicast around the plants in my tunnel house. These plants had been negatively affected by council-chlorinated water, but bounced back to a healthy productive state. The plants were also more resistant to aphids, and I haven’t had to spray pyrethrum at all this summer.
One of my regular garden habits in the growing months is that every Sunday before 8 am I spray my plants with a liquid fertiliser, using the diluted worm leachate (usually a ratio of around 10 parts water to one part leachate). In the early morning the plants are best able to take the nutrients through their leaves, but a liquid fertiliser can be applied to the soil at any time. This liquid tonic helps keep the garden healthy and productive, and also helps me keep an eye on what is happening in the garden.
Now that it is autumn, the garden needs to be prepared for the winter months. Old growth must be cleared and replaced by cover crops, and the garlic planting area prepared. Late winter vegetables must also be planted (such as lettuce, spinach, silverbeet, brassicas and so on); and cloches prepared for covering up the plants as the autumn chill sets in. I try to find space in the tunnel house to plant lettuces among existing plants. Tomatoes, capsicums, chillies and herbs should still produce well into June. With the outside tomato and corn patches, I throw lupins into the soil around them while they are still producing and as the lupins germinate, the tomatoes and corn die off in the cold and let the sunlight through.
In recent times gardeners have been raising legitimate concerns over the new Food Bill. However, it does provide exemptions for food grown at home for family consumption, given away or swapped for other food with friends. Unfortunately, due to the wording of the Bill, this is largely thanks to the benevolence granted by the state, rather than the recognition of a pro-active inherent right in an area the government has no business regulating in the first place.
As I see it, the issue around seed saving and swapping still needs to be sorted, or rather deleted, so that the status quo of gardeners being free to continue what they have been doing for the last 10,000 years is allowed to continue. The Out Of Our Own Back Yards (OOOBY) movement has also pointed out the issue around “unexempted” small scale trading by backyard gardeners might be onerous, particularly if it involved processed products like jams and chutneys. I would hope the government backs off and respects the rights of home gardeners to continue growing, sharing and trading food and seeds, as all of our tūpuna have done since the dawn of human civilisation.