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Garden Partners E-mail
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Sunday, 11 September 2005

by Stephen White, from our issue #12

In the gardening world of Maryanne Caruthers the term "garden partners" has many meanings. She is working in partnership with many to produce the bounty of vegetables and fruit that come from her 75 x 100 foot Portland city lot. In a very real sense it is a community garden that includes the efforts of her next door neighbor as well as some neighbors four doors away. She has another partnership in the communities of worms which she has respected and worked with from the very beginning of her garden over 20 years ago. (See "To Dig Or Not To Dig" pg. 13.) This respect seems to know no bounds. She has not only continued to use gardening practices that create a perfect habitat for her wormy garden partners, but has even gone so far as to build them a "high-rise condo".Most worm boxes I've seen, with some exceptions, fit the term "box" very well-- but not Maryanne's. The ingenuity and artistry that she combined to create a multi-storied habitat for worms and their fellow decomposers is far from a box. The first thing one might notice upon encountering it is that it is covered with garden aphorisms in beautiful calligraphy. Hand-painted by a Portland friend of Maryanne's, Kim McDodge, these quotes remind us that, "Only two things $ can't buy, true love and home grown tomatoes." . . . "Do feed the animals of the underground zoo so they can feed your plants." . . . "A natural agricultural product of our neighborhood is grass clippings. Use them wisely." That's to name just a few. And, on the top, for all those who share this wormy garbage conversion system, are the reminders of what to put or not to put into it. Most of these do's and don'ts are standard, but here we are encouraged to put even "laundry lint trap collections" as well.

Maryanne assured us that she has never brought in worms for this system. This is truly a case of "build it and they will come." Because of the design, size and configuration of this structure there are earthworms doing their job on the bottom, where it contacts the garden soil, redworms performing their role in the middle and Soldier Flies making an appearance and playing a useful part on top. That's right, Soldier Flies! You may have even seen them on top of your own worm bin. They are those really gross, as in large, disgusting looking, larvae. That's one stage you will spot them in and the adult stage is an equally large very slow moving (as to almost appear comatose) black fly. Maryanne likes these good guy flies in her worm bin as in both stages they also dine on decaying matter, thus serving as just one of many important organisms in the composting food web.

When Lee and I visited Maryanne's many layered worm condo one rainy, January, Sunday afternoon, it was partially disassembled, but for a purpose. This layered system has an annual cycle which allows the maturing and then harvesting of the vermicompost at the same time that the system is being started in a new location in the garden. The build-up of compost takes place mainly in the active time of summer when a larger amount of food scraps are placed in it and the worm activity is perhaps the greatest. Starting a new condo, while the first is still occupied, is made possible by having two bottom units, the section with 1/4 inch hardware cloth on the bottom, one of which is stored when not in use. About Oct. 1, Maryanne takes her second bottom unit and sets it on the ground right in one of her 4-foot-wide garden beds. Next, she takes the top frame and the lid section off the old box and begins stacking the new condo. At this point her two-legged garden partners are instructed to begin using the new dump location. Her other garden partners, the worms, etc. don't need instruction -- remember-- build it and they will come. This is in part due to the fact that the garden soil in Maryanne's garden is already very biologically alive. Thus by
feeding food waste to it the appetites of the micro and macroorganisms are stimulated and they grow in number to meet their task.
The old location which is now in its maturing stage gets a topping-off of sawdust or peat moss, as a "roof," and is left to "settle" over the winter. Maryanne often buries chicory roots in this "roof," which, due to the inherent plant nutrition still remaining in them, produce more leaves covering the top of the worm condo. She thus obtains a second crop from the plants she harvested in the fall. By Feb. 1, she begins to move the other frame sections, one at a time, into place at the new location. Then, sometime between late May and early July, she distributes the worm compost all over her garden, especially inoculating any areas that look like they could use some worms. Then she plants Japanese cucumber starts where the old worm condo stood, and stands back to watch them, figuratively, jump out of the ground.

Thus, the seasons turn as Maryanne and her garden partners continue their community gardening and worm composting experiences in her every-inch-a-garden yard.

Many of Maryanne's gardening experiences/observations appear monthly on the fourth Tuesday, along with recipes and her artful sketches in the FOODday section of The Oregonian newspaper. Her column is titled, "A BEAN, A GREEN & A GRAIN." If you are in Oregon, look for it. It is a harvest of creativity, wisdom and heart.
Last Updated ( Sunday, 18 September 2005 )
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