Vermicomposting Trenches – 2009 – Update

Vermicomposting Trench

It’s been a little while since I wrote my last trench-related post, so I thought it might be a good time for an overall update. It has definitely been an interesting year on the trench (and gardening-in-general) front – lots of encouraging results, but also some important lessons learned.

Unlike last year, this summer has been exceptionally cool and dreary. August has been much more ‘normal’, which is certainly a relief, but June and July were less-than-ideal for my heat- and sun-loving crop plants.

As you may recall, this year I expanded my vermicomposting trench network, and switched over to bedded horse manure as my main food stock (although I have still been adding my own food waste, and grass clippings). The worms have definitely been thriving in the trenches – happily converting everything into rich worm compost for the benefit of the nearby plants.

I’ve been having a lot of fun with my sandbox trench garden this season. I decided to try growing sweet corn and pole beans, but have also let a few left-over potatoes (last year I grew potatoes and pumpkins) do their thing.

Vermicomposting Trench - Sweet Corn

My dad (a retired cultural anthropologist) inspired the bean/corn combo when he explained how/why North American indians used to grow these two crops together. Corn is a nutrient-demanding crop, so the beans (which fix nitrogen in the soil) help out in that department, while the corn stalks act as natural supports for the climbing bean plants

Pole Bean Growing Up Corn Plant

So far, this definitely seems to be a winning combination! Even though I live in corn country, and have been bored to tears by this plant for most of my life, I must say that there is something really cool about having your very own big ol’ corn patch in a suburban backyard. It adds a small (but welcome) element of added privacy in my yard (something that’s been sorely lacking in previous years), while simultaneously giving local pedestrians something interesting to look at. Having a crop of pole beans in the mix is just an added bonus.

This year my ‘pumpkin patch’ simply got moved over to my main trench garden (benefiting from one of my 2009 trench expansions). I love the idea of growing our own Halloween pumpkins (the bigger the better), so I suspect the pumpkin patch will be part of my garden(s) for many years to come.

Thus far, the pumpkin plants have done very well – especially in the past few weeks (with some extra heat, sun and rainfall)!

Vermicomposting Trench - Pumpkin Patch

After growing my pumpkins in the sandbox garden last year, I am all too familiar with the tendency of ‘winter squash’ plants to basically take over a rather large patch of backyard real estate. This year my plants seem to be even a little more ‘pushy’ – barging their way right into the corn patch! Trying to reclaim their old stomping grounds perhaps?
πŸ˜†

Vermicomposting Trench - Pumpkins

Last year I cut the pumpkin plants back a lot, in an effort to keep things neat, and so I’d still be able to mow the lawn in this part of the yard. This year however, I’ve decided to have more fun with the process, basically leaving the pumpkin plants to roam as much as they please.

My favorite place in the yard now is actually the very back corner of the sandbox garden, where I can basically hide out in the foliage! Behind me is my new sunflower garden, and in front – my corn and pumpkin patches.


As I alluded to above, this year’s gardening efforts haven’t ALL been quite so rewarding! As you can see in my very first image, my tomato plants got off to an excellent start (essentially forming a tomato plant hedge along my fence), albeit a rather slow one due to the cooler temps. The same was true for my zucchini plants – which once again looked like they were straight out of Jurassic Park!
πŸ˜†

Jurassic Park Zucchini Plants

Unfortunately my over-confidence got the better of me, and I learned a very valuable lesson about proper plant spacing! Last year I crammed my plants in pretty tightly, but managed to get away with it – which I’m sure is at least partially due to the fact that we had fantastic gardening weather (hot, sunny, but still with lots of rainfall) last summer.

I think all that success went to my head, and I ended up cramming plants in even more tightly than before. The problem is, when you crowd together a bunch of plants that are all growing really well, you create dense zones of vegetation with greatly reduced air flow. Add cool, damp weather into the mix, and it’s not really too surprising I ended up getting burned.

So what’s the damage?

My zucchinis have still been producing reasonably well (can you imagine how badly off a zucchini plant would have to be in order to not produce any fruit? haha), but the tell-tale signs of plants in distress are very evident – the zucchinis have been growing quite slowly, and quite a few of them have started rotting right on the plant when small. I guess this is what you get when you try to grow four plants where should be at most two!

On the tomato front

My roma tomatoes have been hit by some sort of serious foliar disease – I suspect it is either ‘Early Blight’ or ‘Septoria Leaf Spot’ based on the appearance, but it’s been a while since my last plant pathology class (haha), so I’m not 100% sure. The growth of these plants has been so dense, and I didn’t even realize I had a problem until my ‘hedge’ started looking a little lopsided (when some of the plants were in really serious trouble). The disease starts on the leaves/stems close to the ground and works its way up – so if you are not attentive, by the time it makes its presence known it will be too late to really do anything about it.

Diseased Tomato Foliage

If I had simply planted two or three fewer plants, and paid a bit more attention, I suspect this could have been avoided altogether.

Despite the damage from the disease, I am still hopeful that I’ll be able to get a decent crop of romas. All the plants have quite a few green tomatoes on them, so we shall see. My ‘patio tomatoes’, which are planted next to the romas, seem to be doing perfectly fine, so I’m at least happy about that! I have also let a couple of tomato ‘weed’ plants spring up in other locations without getting yanked, so we’ll see how those do as well.

All in all, despite the extensive damage to may favorite crop plants (tomatoes, that is), I am still very pleased with the results of my ‘vermi-gardening’ efforts this year. I will actually be writing about some other Red Worm gardens I’ve been testing out with great success in the near future.

I’ll be sure to provide a final trench wrap-up post at the end of the season as well.
8)

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Comments

    • Heather
    • August 12, 2009

    Bentley, the answer to your plant problems is right under your…trenches! Vermicompost tea is a powerful anti-fungal and foliar feeder when used to drench the plants. I make a “made to order” Worm Tea for our Dallas, TX organic gardeners. Mix 2-3 oz of vermicompost and 1 oz of dry or horticultural molasses per 1 gallon of rainwater (or tapwater left out 24 hours). Leave the lid off so the beneficial micro-organisms will have oxygen. Shake or stir every so often. 18-48 hours later use as a foliar feed on your plants. I lift the leaves to get bottom and top of leaves and let solids (teeming with micro-organisms) fall into the soil below. The micro-organisms seem to “eat” the fungus on plants. My customers have used it on powdery mildew on squash, brown patch fungus on St. Augustine grass, and several other fungal problems with almost overnight success! It won’t cure damaged leaves, but will stop the fungus and invigorate your plants.

    Good Luck–let me know if you try it and how it works!
    Heather

  1. Thanks for the update Bently. I have has some similar problems with my own zucchinis and Tomatoes. With the immature zucchinis going rotten on the plant and the plant seems affected by mould or something. The tomatoes went great at first are loaded with fruit but now seem to have stopped with no new growth or new flowers. I have never grown vegetables before and am very interested in the companion planting technique like with the beans and corn.

    That’s a great suggestion Heather with the vermicompost drenching but what is horticultural molasses and where would i get that? What does it do and is there a substitute for it?

    • Heather
    • August 13, 2009

    Robyn,

    Any organic garden center or nursery or feed store might have either dried molasses (which is attached to some sort of used grain hull) or the liquid horticultural molasses. The liquid “horticultural” is cheaper than the food grade molasses you buy at the store.

    The beneficial micro-organisms need oxygen and “food” to flourish. Think of the molasses like sugar feeding yeast in rising bread. The benefit of using dried molasses is there might be extra nitrogen in the grain hull it is attached to, but I have found the liquid form easier to measure/pour and creating less sediment that sticks to the plant leaves. Dried molasses might be cheaper. I pay about $13 US for a gallon of the liquid–it goes a LONG way at an ounce/gallon of worm tea. I can’t remember how much a bag of dried molasses is. Either works great to help your plants.

    • Duff in VT
    • August 13, 2009

    Bentley, I feel your pain re: tomatoes. I hand-raised my 24 seedlings, took them from sunny window to sunny window all Spring. Planted them carefully, staked them and covered through several frosts. They were amazing, tall and jungle-like with loads of fruit setting. We went away overnight and came back to find them hit by the late blight. The fruit is black and the plants are all dead. This is the blight that caused the Irish Potato Famine in the 1800’s. While we won’t starve, I am sure going to miss my favorite from the garden…. fresh tomaotes.

    • Bentley
    • August 13, 2009

    HEATHER – it’s funny you should mention this. I was very recently reading an article about this guy who grows world record vegetables up in Alaska. His attributes much of his success to compost tea. It reminded me of the fact that I am LONG overdue for getting into ‘tea’ making/using. While I would harvest compost from my trenches (since it is being invaded by plant roots and is full of composting worms), I do have lots of great vermicompost and even some really nice worm castings (more refined stuff).
    Based on what I’ve read, I am probably too late as far as completely rescuing my plants goes, but I’m sure an extra little boost of beneficial microbes won’t hurt! I actually made up a very simple batch of tea this morning (nothing fancy – no additional microbe food etc) and used it all through the garden. I will more than likely make some really good stuff next week, using those nice worm castings I mentioned. (will be writing about all this fairly soon as well – thanks for reminding me about this, Heather!)
    I also wanted to mention that I removed my most sickly looking zucchini plant to allow some more air flow and reduce the crowding in general. I’m amazed how quickly the remaining plants have responded. They looked positively perky (haha) this morning and have all kinds of new flowers emerging! Really cool.
    I have also been working with the tomato plants to see if I can clean them up (and straighten them up) a bit to get more air flow and light shining in the lower zones. This should help the fruit to ripen as well.
    Anyway – I’m feeling better already!
    Thanks again
    πŸ™‚

    • Heather
    • August 13, 2009

    Remember, the vermicompost has more living organisms than the castings, so it will be better as an anti-fungal. Good luck.

    Sorry, Duff…it would have been like losing a family member to see all my hard work turn black in the tomato patch!

    • Bentley
    • August 13, 2009

    ROBYN – I’m still learning about this gardening stuff myself. I have dabbled for many years, but this is really the first year I have focused on learning proper techniques etc (most of the learning started AFTER I planted the zucchinis and tomatoes – haha). The worms have certainly help me to avoid major distasters and to grow some pretty awesome looking plants – BUT, I now know I can’t let that go to my head.
    πŸ™‚

    DUFF – sorry to hear about your crop! That sounds terrible.
    Luckily ‘early blight’ isn’t quite as devastating (different disease organism) as the ‘late blight’, and it typically doesn’t affect the fruit (thankfully), so I may end up not doing as badly with my crop.

    • Bentley
    • August 13, 2009

    Hi Heather,
    Good points – I will definitely use both. The batch I made up today was created with some nice rich vermicompost from the bottom of a big outdoor worm bin. It actually had quite a few worms in it – poor guys! haha
    I dumped out the wet material from my ‘tea bag’ into one of the trenches, so I’m sure they will be fine. (it was a pretty quick brew session)
    8)

  2. If you oxygenate your worm tea while you’re making it, you don’t have to worry about your worms drowning. Compost worms have been reported living quite happily in the filters of actively oxygenated ponds where they happily munch up all the fish poop collected in the filter medium!

    • Bentley
    • August 14, 2009

    Haha – I was really only joking around, Catherine. But you are definitely right about that. I’ve actually been meaning to set up my ‘ultimate’ Red Worm system at some point – it would basically be a grow bed (with gravel and some organic matter) that would receive water (slowly) from some sort of fish holding tank or pond. The worms would keep the bed free of gunk and would contribute to the fertility of the plants (as would the fish of course), and they would love to soaking wet – yet highly oxygenated – environment.
    8)

    • Janine
    • August 30, 2009

    Very interesting thread ! I am grateful for the tea as antifungal tip – Thank you ! thought I would share some of my lessons in growing tomatoes.

    Cages are so important to support the branches and protect the plant. Second is allowing the plant to grow until it reaches some good size and fertilizing – just once even, with a bloom boost (organic of course) and then when the flowers start to set fruit start snapping off leaves until there is good air flow through the plant and no canopy shading the fruit. The fruit tastes best when sun-ripened, the plant puts it’s energy into fruit rather than sustaining all that foliage and very importantly it greatly reduces the likelihood of disease.
    The other huge thing is NEVER ever water in the evening, I cringe when I see people do this as they clearly have no idea the trouble they invite by doing so. I strictly water in the morning. This may be why the squash fruit are falling off. That and squash don’t like water from above, I try not to get the plant wet but hand water straight to where the root ball is located.
    And the last thing is, do not compost your sick tomato plants, but burn them or send them to the dump. You may even find these nasty blights will live in the soil and whatever you do don’t plant tomatoes in the same spots for the next couple seasons. Technically we should always rotate all garden crops to prevent build-up of the various nasties.
    Bentley I agree with you corn is so easy to dismiss – until you grow it and witness the process of it’s growth, see the pollen showers and the tassels popping ! I am growing it for the first time this year too, I am growing an ancient corn with striped kernels, some of the plants have stripes and one is even quite red with red pollen too. These seeds had been stored for 10 years and had 90 some percent germination anyway. I am going to grow much more next year. It’s been a lovely summer here in Montana, one of the very best in memory – in the garden anyway.

    • Bentley
    • August 31, 2009

    Hey Janine,
    I thought I’d be ok with only using cages, but they’ve all fallen over! Next year I’ll be spacing the plants out well and using much better support! I read a LOT more about proper veggie gardening earlier this year and there seems to be a fair amount of support for the idea of not pruning determinate plants at all, so I kinda took that advice and ran with it. What’s funny is that last year when I didn’t really know what I was doing, I ended up creating serious supports for each plant and really hacking everything back towards the time when the fruit were starting to ripen. I ended up with a super crop of tomatoes! haha
    Anyway, not sure what all I can do at this point – I started to try and get the plants up and supported but I could tell that it was going to take hours to do all of them so I ended up just leaving them be. I will try and cut back a fair amount of leaves though to help the green tomatoes ripen.
    Next year I will be switching the locations of the corn and tomatoes for sure. This way I’ll end up with a nice corn privacy fence along one side of the yard, and the tomatoes will be in a zone where they’ve never been grown before so hopefully no serious disease issues.
    8)

    • Andrew
    • October 19, 2009

    Bentley, I know I’m late in joining this discussion, but I thought I’d let you know that this blog post inspired me to dig a small worm trench for my first attempt at winter gardening. My climate is much milder than yours, so starting arugula & Chinese broccoli from seeds is still possible even in October. Thanks for the idea & inspiration!

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