Preparing For A Fall Harvest Science Friday examines the process of fall gardening — the crops that can be planted in autumn and the ways to prepare for next year. We also discuss the benefits of composting.
NPR logo

Preparing For A Fall Harvest

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Preparing For A Fall Harvest

Preparing For A Fall Harvest

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. The weather is getting chillier, the leaves are turning, and the boxes and boxes of apples are being trucked into the market.

Maybe you're going out apple picking this weekend and you, home gardeners, have probably plucked those last of the summer tomatoes on the vine, or maybe they're just beginning to finish up ripening like they are on mine.

But you know, just because it's windy and rainy, and autumn is signaling us outside, it does not mean that's the end of your gardening season. One of my guests today harvests a bounty of vegetables all year long, even up there in the snows of Maine.

She's here to talk about four-season gardening, and will answer your calls and questions on prepping your veggie plot for a cold weather. And we're going to talk also with my other guest about one of the most important ingredients for a bumper crop in your backyard plot and that is rich, black compost.

And with a little bit of care, you can put your potato peels, your coffee grounds, your yard clippings, your egg shells to work in your garden, instead of sending those scraps out to the landfill to sit for ages in those black plastic bags.

But you may not have a lot of time on your hand, so how much work does it take to do the compost? Probably less than you think. And we'll talk about one way you can do it right there in your kitchen, and include worms in the process to help you get that compost going. So we want to hear about your gardening questions.

Do you - well, we have some suggestions for you for veggies year round. Maybe you're trying to figure out why your compost heap you started last year. This is very common, why it just does not work? Right? You're not getting the compost you need. We'll give you an answer.

Give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Let me introduce my guests. Barbara Damrosch is the co-owner of Four Seasons Farm up there in Maine. She's also a gardening columnist for The Washington Post, and author of "The Garden Primer." She's here in our New York studios. Welcome to Science Friday.

Ms. BARBARA DAMROSCH (Co-Owner, Four Seasons Farm, Maine; Gardening Columnist, The Washington Post; Author, "The Garden Primer"): Thank you very much. Wonderful to be here.

FLATOW: And that's the Four Season Farm up in Maine. Where in Maine is that?

Ms. DAMROSCH: It's about two-thirds the way up the coast in the town of Brooksville, on a little peninsula called Cape Rosier. It's not far from Mount Desert National Park.

FLATOW: Wow! That's a great spot. Also with us is Deborah Martin, co-author of "The Complete Compost Gardening Guide." She joins us from Allentown, Pennsylvania. Not too far away. Welcome to the program.

Ms. DEBORAH MARTIN (Co-Author, "The Complete Compost Gardening Guide"): Thank you.

FLATOW: Let me ask you, Barbara, first. The Four Season Farm up there in Maine, do you garden all year round? Can you grow things all year round in the snow? Is that right?

Ms. DAMROSCH: We harvest all year round. During the dead of winter, there isn't much gardening going on, because the weeds aren't growing. There are no bugs to think about. The evaporation rate is not very great because of the low angle of the sun, so we're not really watering. We're really just picking. That's the great thing.

FLATOW: So it's growing and you're picking it.

Ms. DAMROSCH: It's growing a little bit. When the day slows down, so that it's below 10 hours of sun above the horizon, then growth very much slows, but that doesn't stop you from harvesting what you've already gotten in the ground.

FLATOW: Let's talk about some of the ABCs for people getting their fall gardens ready. What should they do?

Ms. DAMROSCH: Well, just to sort of put the garden to bed. I think one of the wonderful things you can do is first of all, clean up any debris, any weeds, get it really kind of good housekeeping pristine.

And then put down a couple of inches of well-rotted manure or good compost, and just let the freezing and thawing - assuming you have some freezing in your climate...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Open up cracks in the soil and kind of mellow in that topping that you've added. In that way, when you get ready to plant it in spring, everything will be ready. You know how in the springtime, you're kind of impatient but often the ground is too soggy?

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. DAMROSCH: If you don't have to till, or dig, or anything like that, you can just maybe stick in a row of peas and not worry about it.

FLATOW: Now what if I want to harvest like you do. I want to harvest veggies all winter. What do I have to do?

Ms. DAMROSCH: Well, you have to sow crops, really starting in September, October. There's still time, especially if you live in a slightly mild part of the country to sow a lot of greens, like, lettuce, and spinach, and corn salad, a wonderful little California weed, or Miner's lettuce.

Excuse me. Miner's lettuce is the California weed. Corn salad is another word for mosh, which is - it's so hard that you could practically grow on icebergs, any of the Asian greens, Baby Swiss chard, beet leaves, beet greens, these are all things that are very happy when it's cool.

FLATOW: But you can't just put them in the ground and leave them there.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Well, if it's - if you're in the south, you could.


Ms. DAMROSCH: Winter is your garden season very often down there.

FLATOW: Right. Right.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Because it's your summers that you have to struggle through. Up where I live, we have to use either cold frames, which is just a bottomless box on the ground with a glass lid that you vent, to keep it from cooking your greens.

FLATOW: It'll get that warm?

Ms. DAMROSCH: Oh, yes, yes. You really have to worry more about too hot than too cold for this.

FLATOW: In the middle of the winter, the cold frame will stay warm.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Depending on the crops, of course.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Something like mosh or spinach, just a cold frame alone would be fine, and also things like some of the fresh-dug root crops like leeks and carrots. Carrots love to be frosted a bit. They taste so sweet that we call them "candy carrots."



FLATOW: That's great. 1-800-989-8255, talking about gardening. Let's talk to Deborah Martin for a moment. What about building a worm box? I talked about this composting. What is a worm box for compost?

Ms. MARTIN: Well, Ira, if you want to keep composting all year round, and especially through the winter months when maybe you don't want to make a trek out to your compost bin to empty out a few kitchen scraps.

You can set up a worm bin in your home using a plastic storage container about 14 gallons or a little bit bigger, and you can make a nice home for the worms in there, and feed them two or three times a week, they'll eat, you know, a few pounds of kitchen waste. They like coffee grounds and other things, you know, peelings.

FLATOW: Well, thanks. Doesn't it smell awful?

Ms. MARTIN: No, it does not smell awful. If you're - if things are in balance, if - then worms are in a happy environment, it's moist, but not wet and they're doing their thing, it doesn't smell bad at all. It smells like moist soil. I think it has kind of nice fragrance, actually.

FLATOW: And where do you get the worms from?

Ms. MARTIN: I bought some at a bait store.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARTIN: I'd say that I saved them drowning, actually. But I started my bin with about 200 red worms.

FLATOW: So, you don't want to go out in the backyard, and dig up the worms?

Ms. MARTIN: No. Your free-range worms tend to be night crawlers, the ones that you see in your garden. And they prefer a cooler environment than that worm bin. The worm bin will tend to get a little warm as the things in it begin to decompose, and the red worms are actually manure worms. They typically live in a warmer environment than those earthworms you see outside.

FLATOW: So these farm-raised worms, if I might call them that.

Ms. MARTIN: Yes.

FLATOW: They live better indoors and they're used to being crowded, and they're better for your kitchen.

Ms. MARTIN: Yes.

FLATOW: And so give me the formula for how you put this all together.

Ms. MARTIN: OK. So you start with a big bin.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. MARTIN: And you drill some holes in it in the sides with a quarter-inch drill bit, just to give it a little bit of ventilation. You space those about six inches apart. You don't want too many, but some enough to let some air in there.

Then you wet sections of newspaper and shred them - just tear them into strips no more than three-inch piece as usually. And fill that bin pretty full with strips of wet newspaper and then mix in a cup of compost and a cup of soil. These are, you know, approximate amounts.

But those things give the worms some grip so they can digest their food. That's something that they need. And then you throw in a cup of corn meal. That's a starter food for your worms. Once you get it all mixed together in the bin, then you can add worms.

And like I said, I started with about 200 that I got at the bait store. Something I should mention to when you're tearing up that newspaper, it's nice to wear rubber gloves while you're doing that or else your hands will be really black by the time you're finished.

FLATOW: And how do you know when it - when the worms are ready for your garbage scraps?

Ms. MARTIN: It doesn't take long. Just a couple of days and you can kind of monitor the conditions in the bin, which by the way should have a lid.

FLATOW: Yeah, it makes sense.

Ms. MARTIN: And you know, you can check if the - if there's a lot of condensation under the lid or on the sides of the bin, and if the worms are coming to the top or climbing up the sides, it may be too moist, then perhaps you want to crack the lid open for a day or so to let things dry out, or else mix in some more dry newspaper.

FLATOW: And what should you not throw in there? What kind of food should you not throw? Anything?

Ms. MARTIN: OK, yeah. The worms, they seem do not like anything that has the potential to grow in terms of plant parts. So they don't eat seeds. That's good for us when we're talking about our gardens, but it's not something you want to put into your worm bin.

They like coffee grounds, they like tea bags, and they will eat - you know, they don't mind the filters or the bags.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. MARTIN: They like peelings, fruit peels, and if you've been, say, making apple pies, the peels from your apples - or if you're making apple sauce, all the parts that you're not going to use are good to go into the bin.


Ms. MARTIN: Egg shells are fine, bits of bread, crusts maybe that your kids don't eat or if you have bread that unfortunately has gotten moldy before you were able to use it. That's a great thing for the worms, they don't mind the mold at all. And cooked vegetables...

FLATOW: Gotcha.

Ms. MARTIN: Are fine as long they're not really heavily salted, or very buttery, or greasy. They don't like onions or onion family plants. And they're not really good with things like citrus rinds. But other than that, they are pretty agreeable.

FLATOW: Barbara, do you have a compost? Do you do this?

Ms. DAMROSCH: Oh, yes, certainly, I don't do it indoors, but I'm a serious and avid compost maker outside.

FLATOW: You have a chapter in your book on composting.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Oh, yes. It's the magic word.

FLATOW: And you can actually - I mean, we have on our website a video from Will Allen who just won a MacArthur Genius Award last week. We went up and videoed him in Milwaukee when were doing our show there.

And on our website, we have a video of him doing composting with worms and how to make worm tea, how to make the tea out of the worm. You can watch the video. We call it a potent-packed project there of fertilizer that's come out of the tea. And he showed us that you can actually make compost heat up, Barbara.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Well, that's what it's doing. It's the bacteria in your compost pile that are creating the heat during the decomposition of the organic matter. That's what makes it all work.

FLATOW: And he was actually lining the sides of his greenhouses outdoors with the hot compost, and heating his green houses, little green houses that way.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Sure, that's an old technique.


Ms DAMROSCH: Yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: Ever thought of that, Deborah?

Ms. MARTIN: Yes, yes, it is an age old process of keeping things warm.

FLATOW: Let's see, we have lots of listeners who would like to ask questions. Our number 1-800-989-8255, let's go them right now. Let's go out to Denver, Roland in Denver, Hi, Roland.

ROLAND (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.

ROLAND: Yeah, I have a question for Deborah regarding the worm bins.


ROLAND: I live in a very small 300 square foot apartment for Denver grad students.

Ms. MARTIN: Mm-hm.

ROLAND: And I would love to worm them in here, I hate throwing good food out. I mean it's not food I would eat, but it's worth something. And but I've heard all sorts of rumors about friends trying it and having problems with flies, and things going bad and things to that effect. How do you avoid basically maggots?


FLATOW: Thanks, Roland.

Ms. MARTIN: The main thing is to, you know, keep the bin closed when you're not, you know, getting involved with it, and also to kind of monitor the situation. Fruit flies and fungus gnats can become, you know, problems around a worm bin. And the main thing is to, you know, exclude them from their food sources.

And if you need to, to put up a little trap using - putting a little bit of, you know, rotting fruit into a jar with some soapy liquid, and kind of capturing them. If you notice fly larvae or a pupa on the sides of the bin, scrape them off.

And, you know, usually a bin that's well maintained, and you'll come to know if the worms are happy, if they're doing their thing, because you will see that they're active and you will not notice any off odors.

But the other thing is too when you put food into the bin to bury it down into the bedding, and then cover it back over again. And that put where the worms will find it and it kind of keeps it from attracting other pests that maybe you don't' want living in that bin.

FLATOW: We're talking about gardening this hour on Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News, talking with Barbara Damrosch and Deborah Martin. Barbara is a gardening columnist for The Washington Post and author of "The Garden Primer" and Deborah Martin is co-author of "The Complete Compost Gardening Guide."

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's talk a little bit more, Barbara about - you have your cold frame setup, you've got your veggies in there, how long can you expect to harvest food from that?

Ms. DAMROSCH: Well, it depends first of all on how cold your winters are. But you can also do tricks beyond the cold frame to make it go even further. One of the things we've experimented with is putting a cold frame inside an unheated greenhouse, so that gives you two layers of protection.

Each layer makes you a zone and a half south, so inside the greenhouse here at New Jersey instead of Maine, and inside the cold frame you'd be in Georgia. And even easier way to do it is to put Reemay which is just a brand of floating row cover.

That's the generic word for that white spun-bonded polyester material you can put over plants, either for insect protection or frost protection. That will give it a good layer of protection as well.

FLATOW: How about these water towers we see surrounding.

Ms. DAMROSCH: The wall of waters.

FLATOW: Does that work?

Ms. DAMROSCH: You know, I haven't used them because I have a little bit more efficient ways to go about doing a large number of plants. But I've heard that they are effective.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's see if lots of folks got questions about gardening. Let's go to Ben in Cincinnati. Hi, Ben.

BEN (Caller) Hey, how's it going?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

BEN: I was wondering. I'd heard somewhere that for your garden you should put a layer of dead leaves over it in the fall, to make sure that your soil is nice and rich in the spring when you garden again. Is that true?

FLATOW: Barbara.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Well...

FLATOW: Will the leaves decay over the fall?

Ms. DAMROSCH: Probably not completely. If you - one of the things you can do is to sort of chop off - up autumn leaves with the sharp spade into the soil to add some nitrogen. For instance, before a year when you're going to grow Brasicas like cabbage or cauliflower, broccoli or kale, they really like to have some autumn leaves chopped up in there.

I mean, sometimes people will just put a layer of something like straw or leaves, just as a kind of protective blanket. And ultimately they will decay. Whether it would happen in the winter time when it's cold and there isn't much decomposition going on, I think it might sort of depend.

FLATOW: Deborah Martin, composting with your worms, how long does this worm composting take from start to finish?

Ms. MARTIN: I've been able to harvest finished worm castings, in other words, you know, worm droppings and composts combined after about two to three months of my bin being in operation.

And I, you know, collected about a gallon or two gallons, you know, thereabouts of finished worm compost that I was able then to put into my garden.

FLATOW: How do you separate the worms out?

Ms. MARTIN: Ah, it's a lot of fun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARTIN: Yeah, I call it herding worms. And they're - they are very easy pets to tend. They don't have to be walked or, you know, really anything like that. To harvest the composting, not harvest the worms, you need to dump the contents of the bin out onto a tarp or some sheets of newspaper in the sunlight or in a lighted place.

And you make kind of a volcano shape out of that pile of material. And the worms don't like the light and so they go in to the middle and you can gradually then scoop off the top in the sides of your cone, and keep making a smaller and smaller cone and scooping off.

And then you do want to sift that stuff that you scoop off through a colander or something to catch any remaining worms that you might have missed.

FLATOW: Well, let me interrupt because we have to take a short break.

Ms. MARTIN: Yeah, sure.

FLATOW: And we'll come back and talk lots more with Barbara Damrosch and Debora Martin, so stay with us, we'll talk gardening after this break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News.

(Soundbite of ad)

(Soundbite of All Things Considered preview)

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about how to tend the garden in chilly weather, and how to make your own rich, dark compost at home.

My guests are Barbara Damrosch, co-owner of the Four Season Farm up in Maine. She's also a gardening columnist from the Washington Post and author of "The Gardening Primer." Also Deborah Martin is here.

She's co-author of "The Complete Compost Gardening Guide." Our number 1-800-989-8255. Barbara, you're up there on the coast of Maine, that's got to be a lot of seaweed that's washed...


FLATOW: I hear that's great compost.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Yes. It's great.

FLATOW: Great compost.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Yeah, it washes up on the road in big storms. And if you put it on your compost pile, it decomposes wonderfully, and a good source of nitrogen and all kinds of trace elements which are very important for plant health. And you can even put it right into the garden and dig it in.

FLATOW: Are there any other things that wash up that could be used for compost, like shells or anything?

Ms. DAMROSCH: Shells are wonderful. Things like clamshells take, might take a hundred years to break down, but that's fine. That's like, you know, a long-acting vitamin pill. But things like crustaceans, like lobster shells and crab waste we use those in the compost all the time. And those break down really quickly.

FLATOW: Couldn't you just dig them into the soil to break up the soil, or that's not a good idea?

Ms. DAMROSCH: You could. It's a little hard work I think. Well, yeah, we actually do often till them in. At first the seagulls will peck at them, but once they're a day old, they won't bother them. And when we put them among the compost pile, we'll often bury them just so the seagulls and the crows don't come down and make a mess.

FLATOW: So, Deborah if you're having your lobster dinner, then it's a good thing to take the shell and throw it in there?

Ms. MARTIN: Oh yes, absolutely.

FLATOW: To your kitchen composter?

Ms. MARTIN: Yes, you know, the more diverse the materials that you put into your compost, the more nutrients and the greater diversity of nutrients will come out in your finished compost to be available for your garden plants. So, yeah, the more stuff you put in, the better.

FLATOW: Jim in Cincinnati. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

JIM (Caller): Good evening or afternoon, how are you all?

FLATOW: How are you?

JIM: Good, I've been worm composting for 12 or 15 years, and it is just so easy.

FLATOW: What was your hardest thing to learn to get it right?

JIM: There was nothing to learn. I read a book. We had an old 55 half gallon or half a barrel, whiskey barrel. We filled it up with shredded leaves, and put the worms in there. And then we would use our kitchen scraps and we would start off, let's say 12:00, bury the scraps there.

And next time, we would bury them at 2:00, 6:00, work all the way around in a circle, and by the time we got to the first 12:00, all those scraps had been eaten and the worms had moved on, and you just continually do that. And there was - it was easy. There's no work to it. You just bury it, cover it and let it go. And the worms will do all the work for you.

FLATOW: Where did you keep your barrel?

JIM: We kept it in the basement. It was too big to keep in the kitchen.

FLATOW: You're doing it big time.

JIM: Well, yeah. It was just - that's what we had available and we used a plastic bag that we tied a rope around it as a cover, because we didn't have a tight fitting cover, but that still presented no problems. And we just generated worm manure every few months and it was fabulous.

FLATOW: Right, Jim, thanks for calling.


FLATOW: Good luck to you. 1-800-989-8255, a satisfied customer. Someone who obviously - it's not as difficult, I think people worried about the odor. They're worried about worms getting the source, and you say you can get it at the bait shop.

Ms. MARTIN: I think it's a great idea to do worms inside.

FLATOW: Barbara, how do you actually figure out what you're doing wrong out in your garden if you have this - let's say to have the cold frame or whatever, if things are not working out over the winter?

Ms. DAMROSCH: Well...

FLATOW: What's the biggest mistake...

Ms. DAMROSCH: People make?

FLATOW: That the amateur gardener, you know, is making when he tries to set up a cold frame. Is that they're cooking? They're actually cooking the veggies? Getting too hot in there?

Ms. DAMROSCH: Yeah, that's the worst mistake. And believe me, I've done it, too.

FLATOW: They don't realize how hot the sun is coming through the glass.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Yeah, the whole point of a cold frame is that the earth takes in sunlight, and then radiates the heat back at night. You want to keep that light, that hotness, in there. But then once the sun comes up in the daytime, it could be too much of a good thing.

So, we usually use a little notched stick to prop it open. If we're going out for the day, it's better to prop it open, and go away, and leave it on the cold side than the other way around.

FLATOW: I noticed you didn't mention in your cold-frame using other cold-weather veggies, I would think of in the broccoli family, for example, you know, broccoli or cauliflower, things like that.

Ms. DAMROSCH: You know, I haven't found that they do all that well in the winter time or kale. And those do well just as fall garden crops. I mean, we often have had kale almost up until Christmas time, and Brussels sprouts at Christmas time but they don't respond well to being inside a cold frame after that.

The small crops, if you do lettuce, do it as a baby leaf lettuce where you cut and comb it, and then it regrows. Don't do the big heads.

FLATOW: Good point. Jerry in Tallahassee. Hi, Jerry.

JERRY (Caller): Yes. Hey.

FLATOW: Hi. You're next.

JERRY: Thank you. Great show.

FLATOW: Thank you.

JERRY: I've got a rather elemental question, though. The city is doing a great job down here promoting recycling, and has provided some compost bins to residents.

FLATOWS: No kidding?

JERRY: Yeah. Not free, but cheap. And now, the question is where to locate a compost bin. I've got a concrete slab I could put it on. Or I've got a bare patch of earth that sat closer to the house, right up next to the house. What would be a good location and where does one put a compost bin?

FLATOW: Deborah, you're the author of "The Complete Compost Gardening Guide." Where should he put it?

Ms. MARTIN: Well, Jerry, I would tell you that you want to put that bin as close to where you want to use the compost as you possibly can. And the other thing is to make it convenient to be able to take materials to put into it. And so access is important.

Don't tuck it away and hide it, because then, you'll forget about it. Or you won't want to carry things to it and carry finished compost from it. You don't need to put it in the sun. In fact, if it's slightly shady spot, that'll help to keep it moist, to keep it from drying out too much.

JERRY: The bare earth is in the shade.

Ms. MARTIN: OK. Yeah. I will go bare earth, because it's got an open bottom, I'm guessing. And you're going to improve that spot underneath where the bin is, and eventually you may want to move that bin some place else, and you'll have a great and rich place where you can plant something else.

JERRY: Does it need to be elevated at all?

Ms. MARTIN: It does not.


FLATOW: Does he need to stir it up a lot?

Ms. MARTIN: It depends on how fast you want things to happen and what you're putting into it. But in general, if you mix in a sort of combination of dry things and wet things, some people would say green things or brown things, but if you combine those ingredients as you are adding them to the bin, there's not as much need for stirring.

But if you notice that it's getting soggy or if you notice that it's smelly, you want to get a stick or something and poke around and arid that, and use a pitch fork and let some air in there, and that will help to put to work the decomposers that work with oxygen, and it'll smell better then.

FLATOW: Thanks, Jerry. Good luck to you.

JERRY: Thank you.

FLATOW: Are you finding a lot more towns giving or selling composting bins?

Ms. MARTIN: Yes. Yes. A lot of places.

FLATOW: But you don't have to have a bin, right?

Ms. MARTIN: Oh, no. You can simply pile things up on the ground, or you can make a container out of wire fencing, or you can make a container using wooden shipping pallets fastened together. But you don't have to have any kind of a container. You can just pile stuff or even bury it, dig a pit then it put it down in the ground, too.

FLATOW: Do you agree, Barbara?

Ms. DAMROSCH: Yes. Absolutely. Compost pit works fine.

FLATOW: Yeah. I hadn't thought about making a pit. It's so common sense. I just pile the stuff. And grass clippings are great too, with compost pit.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Oh, sure. They really heat it up.

FLATOW: Well, talk about heating up, do you need a certain ingredient like a nitrogen? Does it have to have a lot of nitrogen to heat up?

Ms. DAMROSCH: Well, you know what you need is - you need two things. You need high nitrogen things and these are sort of the green moist things like grass clippings, and weeds, and kitchen wastes, and manure.

And then you need the carbonaceous things, the high carbon things like straw, or little twigs, leaves, things like that. And it's the fire and the fuel, the green stuff like the grass clippings are the fire, and the brown stuff is the fuel. And it's the action between the two that makes it cook.

FLATOW: Interesting. We're talking about gardening this hour in Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. That's an interesting thing. You have to balance the ingredients.

Ms. DAMROSCH: You put a lot of dry stuff in. You want to put some of that green, moist stuff on top, or the seaweed, that would be a good one.

FLATOW: And I hear people throw sawdust into their compost pits.


FLATOW: What does that supply with, Deborah.

Ms. MARTIN: That's a carbon source, and so you do need to mix in something like grass clippings or wet kitchen scraps, something green and moist to balance out that very dry and high-carbon sawdust.

FLATOW: Sally in Grand Rapids. Hi, Sally.

SALLY (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

SALLY: I have a question about my worm bin. I am wondering if I can put in computer paper or paper that has colored printing ink on it, or if that will harm my worms?

FLATOW: Like the Funnies - Sunday Funnies.

SALLY: The Funnies or you know something that I printed on my color printer at my home office.

FLATOW: Oh, your inkjet ink. Will that hurt, too?

Ms. MARTIN: In general, most paper and most inks are safe for the worms. You might look and see if you have any information about what the ink is made of. But colored inks - most inks that are available to consumers and are used in newspapers aren't soy-based anymore. And so it's not a concern at all for the worms.

FLATOW: Thanks, Sally.

SALLY: Great.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend. Barbara, can you also grow flowers?

Ms. DAMROSCH: In the wintertime?

FLATOW: In the wintertime. Is that possible at all inside the cold...

Ms. DAMROSCH: Well, we have tried that a little bit in the greenhouse. In our climate, they stopped blooming. Even things like calendula, which are very, very hard. The light level was too low for bloom. The Johnny Jump Ups were the only thing that really kept right on going.

FLATOW: And you know they always tell you to cut back. I was out cutting my roses back a little bit, and they always say to cut back all the seedpods off the bushes. You're giving me a frown on that one - not to do that.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Well, there is a different philosophy about cutting back things. Now, my outdoor gardens - my perennial gardens - I used to be you know, Ms. Neat-and-Tidy, and I'd go cut everything down to the ground, and I felt so, you know, organized and clean, good housekeeper. And I don't do that anymore.

I leave a lot of them standing. Anything that has a good strong stem I leave standing for seeds for the birds, nesting and cover for the birds. And it looks beautiful that way. All these catch the snow in different ways you know, like an ornamental grass would look different with snow on it than a Sedum with that big fluffy sort of snowball-head of white.

And it's something to look at, and the garden looks alive even with the little winter when I do that. And then, the first warm days I get out there, I have this wonderful job of gradually cutting it all back as the new little green nubbins are coming up again.

FLATOW: Terrific. Talking about gardening this hour on Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. I'm talking with Barbara Damrosch who is a co-owner of the Four Seasons Farm up in Maine.

She's also a gardening columnist for the Washington Post and author of "The Garden Primer." Deborah Martin, co -author of "The Complete Compost Gardening Guide." 1-800-989-8255. Wanda in Mountain View, hi.

WANDA (Caller): Hi. I have a nine-year-old daughter and she's interested in gardening. We have a garden and I've been thinking about starting a worm bin with her, and I'm wondering if you have any suggestions of children's books that would help her understand what a worm bin is like, and what happens, and what the worms look like, and what they do, and that sort of thing.

MARTIN: Well, I would have to go to my local library and check on that, but I have to say that, you know, sort of the classic guide to worm composting is called "Worms Eat my Garbage" by Mary Appelhof, and although it's not a children's book, it is really quite an excellent reference, and the standard that most people use when they are really serious about getting into worm composting, but it's a great project to do with your kids.

FLATOW: Sounds great. Good luck to you.

WANDA: OK. Thank you.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. We got some - a few questions from Second Life here, they're very interesting questions, let me get to them and I'll put them all in - I'll wrap them all up into one. We have one from Tekraith Dailing(ph). It says, can you turn worm bin into a planter?

Can you just drop seed - seedlings in and stick in the sun, I guess, and let the seeds grow out of it later on? Someone, Slector Darwin(ph) says, can you grow mushrooms in the same bin that the worms are in?

Ms. MARTIN: Hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARTIN: I think, if you put your worm bin out in the sun to grow plants in it, you would probably spell the demise of the worms then. They tend not to do well on that kind of a really warm environment, but, you know, if you're done tending the worms, you know, the worms will themselves become part of the compost, and not in any kind of ways that would be, you know, horrifying to you, you won't find worm carcasses, they'll just sort of melt into the stuff in the bin.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. MARTIN: So, you know, if you've done your science fair project, and you want to just convert the worms and their compost into a planter, you could do that. It might be a little bit rich for flowers. You might get more, you know, plants than flowers, but depending on what you're growing, it would be a pretty high nitrogen kind of an environment.

FLATOW: Barbara, any comment on that? How do you know - that's interesting that you bring this up when you're talking about the compost. How do you know when it's ready to do what - you know, to be used in the garden, Barbara?

Ms. DAMROSCH: Well, I think when it looks like soil, when it looks like the best soil you've ever seen, a rich, black gold, then usually it's ready.

FLATOW: You know...

Ms. DAMROSCH: When you can't distinguish what those original ingredients were, then it's finished compost.

FLATOW: I think people find it hard to believe that it will look like that.

Ms. DAMROSCH: No. I know, and they're so excited when they do it. Hey, I made compost.

FLATOW: And...

Ms. DAMROSCH: And it's very easy.

FLATOW: And then, you don't use it as soil, but as a soil appendage.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Yeah. You want to have as much organic matter in your soil as possible. A farmer considers it good if he or she has four percent organic matter. We've gotten our farm up to 10 percent. And it grows great vegetables.

FLATOW: And so next spring you put it on, or should you put it on this fall as you said earlier?

Ms. DAMROSCH: Either. Whatever you have in, put it on, when you've taken out one crop and you're sowing another one, put it on. Compost is nature's gift to the gardener.

Ms. MARTIN: That's right.

FLATOW: Deborah, you agree with how to use it?

Ms. MARTIN: Oh, yes. Absolutely. And you know, there's a good judge of when that compost is ready too. If it just smells like moist soil then it's good, it's ready. If it smells a little funky yet, put it back, let it cook some more. And if you still have a few chunks, but most of it seems ready, sift those chunks out, and use some to start a new pile.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Exactly.

FLATOW: And you'll get a good amount?

Ms. DAMROSCH: Mm-hm.

Ms. MARTIN: Yeah.

FLATOW: At the end o the - into the last few months - should take a few months?


FLATOW: And is it the warmer it is? The faster it will produce or the temperature really doesn't matter?

Ms. MARTIN: Most of the decomposers work better when the temperatures are, you know, above freezing, but some of them work at cooler temperatures, some work at, you know, modest temperatures, and some work when it's really very warm outside.

So, now you can have a whole range. During the cold winters, things slow down pretty much, but, you know, during summer things are cooking along, and that is heat from those decomposers, not from the outside air so much.

FLATOW: Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

Ms. MARTIN: You're very welcome.

Ms. DAMROSCH: Thank you.

FLATOW: Deborah Martin co-author of the "Complete Compost Gardening Guide," and Barbara Damrosch, co-owner of the Four Season Farm up there in Maine, also a gardening columnist for the Washington Post and author of "The Garden Primer."

If you have comments or questions, you can write to us at Science Friday, Four West, 43rd Street, Room 306, New York, New York 10036. Or surf through our website, it's Laura has got our SciFri Pick of the Week, a video up there, it's a giant pumpkin, you know, these people who grow these giant pumpkins we've got - Flora went out and watched one of the growers, and it won't surprise you there's an ending to it, there's a happy ending to this contest that he is in, and you'll watch him how he takes care of his giant pumpkin, and it's great holiday video, it's good for the whole year too.

Also we are podcasting and blogging, look, and maybe you have some gardening videos, you'd like to send it, click on the link and tell us how we can get your video. Have a great weekend. I'm Ira Flatow in New York. 5

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.