Gardening with Worms
Many gardeners might be reluctant to garden in Penfield, NY. Just a few miles from the Canadian border halfway across Lake Erie, this suburb of Rochester, NY, features small house lots, neighbors who pride themselves on their meticulous lawns, and hungry deer and other wildlife with no natural predators and plenty of nearby shelter in parks and golf courses.
Yet here urban homesteader Joe Gersitz has chosen to make his stand. Driving up Hotchkiss Circle to his house there is no chance you will go wrong. Instead of the pristine landscaped yards which surround him, Joe has chosen production agriculture on his shaded front and back lawns. The fruits of his efforts are lit-erally to be seen everywhere – piles of produce surrounded by stacked hoops, stands and trellises which have been taken out of use by the time of my October visit, soil covered by cardboard and cover crops, massive compost bins, rain barrels at every gutter, plastic bins and trays, watering cans, solar dryers, dug ponds, partially dismantled small greenhouses, buckets and makeshift devices of every sort.
“I grew the squash vertically this year,” he grins “in front where I have the cover crops now. In the circle were tomatoes and where the taller cover crops are was squash, melons, and cucumbers. I’m going to the store now to get some tomatoes for our lunch!”
He takes a few steps and selects some ripe tomatoes from among those soaking up sun in a plastic bin resting on an aluminum ladder placed over two inverted 5 gallon buckets.
At the beginning of the Second World War, when he was 11, Gersitz started a victory garden and, he says, “I’ve been gardening ever since!”
When he was a little older and deciding what to do with his life he said it would have been to go to a monastery or be a farmer. So in his thirties he took vows and joined the Jesuit order, teaching at the order’s schools. He had been trained to teach math and physics, but hoped to study and teach theology. It turned out, his superiors said, that there was more demand for foreign languages. So he became certified in French, Spanish, German and Latin.
“When you teach languages,” he observes, “you can do all sorts of interesting things based on the culture of the language. When I was teaching French in Brighton once in third grade, we made wine! It depends on the principal, of course.”
The order’s teachers lived on the campus where they taught and not much land was available for Joe’s gardening passion. But that changed when he met a woman he wanted to marry. Released from his vows, Gersitz married, left the campus and bought the house in Penfield. Since then, he has become an expert in making much of his small space!
“I’ve been living here 42 years,” he says. “I have about 2000 square feet in growing areas if you count the front and back yards. From that we get enough vege-tables for us and enough to give away to friends and to our Food Shelf.” (The ‘Food Shelf’ is what Joe calls the local food pantry because it has so little food that it doesn’t qualify for designation as a pantry, having only one fillable shelf!)
“You can see the cause of my shade,” he continues, “the neighboring trees to the south. Twenty five years ago I started growing in the back, to the south, but the neighboring trees got taller and I don’t have much sun there now. So 6 years ago I decided I had to have more sun and started to build beds up here in front. I get close to 2 months of all day sun here in front before the house begins to shade it.”
For many years Joe worked at the local food pantry where they had lots of vegetables and fruits that had gone by. So he brought them home and started big compost piles. That got me him trouble with the neighbors for awhile, he says, but now they walk their dogs by and stop and talk.
Many of his neighbors mow their lawns a lot, seemingly trying to attain a manicured golf course look. Gersitz jokes that his lawn is part of a golf course too, just that he’s in charge of the rough!
“One of my neighbors helped me build my hoop house,” he recalls. “But others don’t understand this at all. I have a theory that the one across the street who is mowing right now, his lawn gets cut every time he needs to get out of the house and away from his wife. Sometimes it is two and three times a week!”
One of the biggest deterrents for home gardeners, Joe feels, the reason countless people stop, is the presence of predators – deer, woodchucks, rabbits, raccoons, but mostly deer.
“I have trouble.” He sighs. “I found excrement on the lawn once, and signs that they have eaten the tops of my tomato plants a few times. I see paw prints. I have to do all sorts of things to keep them out. They live in my neighbor’s trees. There are just little pockets that support them. There are waterways nearby, where they can drink, that used to support mills in the 1800s.”
Gersitz has kept them out with a wide combination of deterrents. He used rebar to construct a 7-foot tall deer fence. He sets out buckets of his own urine. He knows where each animal comes from, and what they like to eat (rabbits like peppers but not eggplants), so sets up fences appropriately.
As a proper homesteader, Joe likes to raise animals as well as plants. But doing that in a suburban environment is difficult.
“About 7 years ago,” he recalls, “not knowing that chickens are livestock — which is forbidden in Penfield — I had chickens. But I got complaining letters about the roosters’ noise and once they wandered around for a half hour. So I had to get rid of them. In the City of Rochester, however, you can have chickens. And a woman who lived in Brighton, a classy suburb of Rochester, had chickens because she needed them for her health. But she moved to Penfield and they gave her a hard time. It was a violation of town zoning regulations!”
Gersitz also practices the homestead art of food preservation. Not only does he can and freeze, he has built a solar dehydrator.
“Drying doesn’t take any storage space,” he points out, “and it doesn’t take electricity like to run a freezer. It was from plans I got in Mother Earth News. It sits out there in the driveway all summer and I haven’t lost anything. It has no fan, no power — it’s driven by nature. It will go up to about 140 degrees, that’s the top temperature it will reach. You can regulate that by adjusting the angle to the sun or opening a little ventilation window.”
He had solar panels installed on his roof this April and now sells power every month.
“I only use half of the power I generate,” he beams. “The other half goes onto the grid. The panels will produce as many as 20 kilowatt hours a day, and Marion and I use about 7 of them. The average American uses 30 kilowatt hours a day!
He paid $11,000 out of pocket for the panels, after New York state paid about $2700. He is also eligible for a 30% federal tax credit and a 20% state tax credit. But his and his wife’s income is from the state retirement fund, he says, and that is not taxable anyway.
“Two years ago,” he continues about he homesteading efforts, “I dug a pond to hold extra water for when we have a drought. I have an electric pool pump to get it out. I can put an exterior filter on it to keep particles out. You can even get canvas tanks that hold 750 gallons to store water until you need it.”
About 8 or 9 years ago Joe got interested in worms making compost for his garden. He thought he would do the gentleman’s thing with a little plastic bin. But he didn’t have much luck.
“The idea for a household bin,” he explains, “is to let worms digest your scraps, leaves, any organic matter that can be made small enough for them to eat. Ide-ally if you are doing this inside you will have a screen over it to keep out flies and other insects. You gradually try to move all your worms to one end by put-ting new feed there and attracting the worms to that. Then you make a pyramid of the castings and every day scrape off more of this top surface because the worms don’t like light and will go toward the bottom. After awhile you move the worms again and repeat the process with the new castings.
“I tend to ignore things at times, however,” he continues. “At the end of the season I hadn’t managed my worm bins much but I had a nice compost pile and I said ‘Let’s see if the worms will be happy over the winter in the compost pile.’ It was 8 feet long and 4 or 5 feet high. I figured that if it gets cold they’ll find a warmer place by going down farther. So I dumped my bin there. It still had a few worms in it. Well, in the Springtime I got the most beautiful product! That sold me on it. It was just amazing! Worms were throughout the whole pile.”
Of course these were the small, composting red wrigglers Gersitz had gotten with the bins – the kind he called ‘manure worms’ as a kid in Buffalo. Earthworms and night crawlers – the big worms – seem to want to be in the soil. But the composting ones like the top couple of inches. In the woods they would be in the decaying leaves and top soil layers that have decaying organic matter. If they have enough material to eat they will stay warm by burrowing down when it gets cold.
“Like you and me,” Joe stresses, “if they are uncomfortable they will try to ease it and go down below, deeper in the pile, where it is warmer. You can’t put them in a hot compost pile, but a lot of compost is just right for them. They like a moist environment like a semi-wrung out sponge. My pile was mostly leaves, tons of leaves. I have some neighbors who I’ve trained to bring them to me, but most of them I would pick up in the neighborhood, then shred them. That’s the best thing for worms, that shredding. They can attack the leavers better then.”
Joe’s worms reproduced very quickly. If you put some with some feed under any kind of cover, he says, when you come back in a few days there will be 30 or 40 worms under it.
“I tell people you don’t have to go out and buy them,” Gersitz insists. “If you build it, they will come! And they do, people tell me later.”
Gersitz interest in worms was stimulated by reading Mary Applehof’s book “Worms Eat My Garbage” and a lot of magazines – Mother Earth, Organic Garden-ing – where worms come up every so often. He also went to a workshop at the NOFA Summer Conference a few years ago on worms.
He built a bin at first just based on his reading and listening – where to put holes and so forth. He also got a kit one time and used that, but gave it to a grand-nephew. He still has a worm bin system that he bought.
“These are bins,” he points out, showing it to me “and there is a gridwork in the bottom. You put your bedding there – torn newspaper or whatever and worms and garbage – I put in coffee grounds. You put a little water in the top to make sure it is moist. It drips from one bin to the other. But a raccoon got into it 2 nights ago and knocked it over.”
But Joe stopped working with bins and trays eventually. He still has some tray-based systems that he lends out to schools to see if the kids want to tend them. In NY state the first grade curriculum includes a spring unit on worms. So he goes and gives talks to the kids. But for his own home he didn’t care about keeping everything neat and clean since it was outdoors, and he had huge compost piles that needed the worms.
“What I’ll do with this smelly stuff that I put in here all summer,” he says talking about the material in the worm bins, “is put it into one of my big compost piles, and it will be devoured by the worms. You don’t have to have that many bins. Partly my system is explained by laziness and not managing properly. You should start with at most two bins filled, and you harvest the bottom one and add an extra one on top. The worms work their way up to the fresher garbage. It’s all ground up vegetable waste. But I didn’t grind it up well enough. Ideally you should puree it. If I don’t, it just takes longer.”
“When I start weeding,” he explains in his own defense, “I’ll come over here with many wheelbarrow loads of weeds in one mornings work. That is green stuff. This is mostly leaves at the moment, but has a lot that was green in it. That is a lot of material. Now I have three compost piles for worms. I don’t have a worm bin, I have a worm factory – about 27 cubic yards.
“Then I’ll inoculate this full compost pile with worms this fall,” he continues, “so they are working through it this winter. This other one the worms are still working in and I’m getting leachate from. I’ll clear this out this fall and start a new pile here. That third one was empty but I’ve been filling it with garbage. Worms can make these piles reduce down from 4 feet to 1 foot tall over 4 to 6 months. Over a summer that can happen.”
To inoculate a pile Gerstiz just takes a few scoops from an old pile and adds them to the new one. The worms do the rest.
“Not a lot of management in this,” he says. “I’m sitting out in the sun and drinking my lemonade! Some people may be put off by the ugliness of my compost bins, and I don’t really treat them very well. But they work! This has all been processed by the worms. They’re finding every little bit of nutrition in there. I’ll be harvesting this and incorporating it in the soil this fall, and they’ll get working then in the fresh garbage.”
When the president of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, sent out an edict to his managers that they should give away free coffee grounds, of course Joe was quick to get some!
“I tried with the local manager, though,” he says, “and he wouldn’t give me the pure coffee grounds. All he had access to was a mixture with other garbage and trash and said I would have to sort it out by putting it through a screener.”
But he took them and figured the worms could do the sorting. They did, but it slowed them down. Apparently the Starbucks coffee cups, which appear to be paper, actually have a very thin plastic lining that worms don’t like. But they did like the coffee grounds!
“I think they like the coffee because of the caffeine,” Gersitz surmises. “But it also steps up reproduction, I think. Now I’m thinking of putting in 80% coffee grounds and 20% kitchen waste.”
Anyone who has observed worms much knows that they do not like to be exposed to air or light very long.
“They love to be underneath something that protects them,” Joe says, “from rain and predators, I guess. That is why you see so much corrugated cardboard here. They will live in it. I use it in all my paths here and in the garden. The corrugation makes these perfect narrow tunnels where the worms meet their spouses! The cardboard is worm apartments! They just love them. The cardboard gets eaten up eventually and I add more.”
For several years Gersitz used the castings from the worms directly in his garden. But he found an easier way to do even that.
“I don’t deal much during the year with their excrement,” he explains. “The more convenient thing is to collect the leachate. I dug out the bottom of two of my bins, sloped it, put a pool lining plastic in there. That hole I dug and lined is at the lowest part of the pile — like a swimming pool with a deep end. The green pool-liner is one foot deep at the level, and here it is two feet deep. I dug it that way, and the land pitches that way. I collect four or five gallons in a tank and use that for the garden. If it is dry I add water to the pile, otherwise the rain is enough. It has to be moist.”
Joe dilutes the leachate 20 to 1 with water, or sometimes 10 to 1 or even less if he knows it is going to rain. He put it on the crops with a sprinkling can.
“I have rain barrels at all four corners of the house,” he says, “so I have rainwater to use for diluting. Otherwise I’d have to use town water, which is treated. Of course, in dry times I can fill a barrel with tap water and let it sit a few days and the chlorine evaporates out of it. That delay also warms the water up, which helps the plants. Our tap water usually comes in between 50 and 60 degrees. They don’t like cold water.”
The leachate is always dark and has a little smell when it is warm from the sun, but not much. That is his only fertilizer.
“Here is my gold,” he says, pouring out the leachate. “I am told it has about 8 times the nutrition of the compost itself. Whenever it rains my buckets will fill up every other day. And if it doesn’t I’ll still get a couple of quarts out every other day.”
Gerwitz doesn’t really know what worm castings are rich in but figures that, like manure, they probably are high in nitrogen. This is partially borne out by the fact that if you put too much on tomato plants they will grow to 8 or 10 feet tall, giving you too much foliage and not enough fruit.
One of his secrets using worms is crushed egg shells. Joe says it gives them calcium as well as giving them something in their gizzard to grind food. He collects egg shells from places like churches that do pancake breakfasts. Then he brings the shells home and adds them to the compost bins for the worms to digest and add to their castings.
Gersitz says the quality and size of his produce has changed a lot since he started using worm fertilizer.
“This is my second planting of celery root,” he says, “ and the Swiss chard has been so rich, half again as high as normal. I really believe in the importance of soil.
“According to the Buddha,” he continues, “a human being must be the author of his health or of his sickness. Well, as far as I’m concerned, healthy soil means healthy plants means healthy people!”