Monday, February 21, 2011

Touring the Food Revolution

Yesterday I took my three girls to Sweet Water Organics for a tour of their facility at 2151 South Robinson Avenue in Milwaukee. Sweet Water is an indoor urban fish and vegetable farm in operation since 2008. I've been following their progress over the last couple of years and figured it was time to check the place out. Tours are $10 and absolutely worth the money if you have any interest in learning about pioneering sustainable agricultural practices occurring right here in Milwaukee.

Sweet Water is a fascinating project that brings the aquaponics system made famous in recent history by Growing Power's Will Allen to a repurposed industrial building on Milwaukee's south side. Aquaponics involves creating a growth cycle whereby fish like Tilapia and Perch are farmed in tanks; the waste they create is used to fertilize edible plants like lettuce, wheat grass, watercress, sprouts, and so on. This is an organic, sustainable growing method with the potential to revolutionize the food industry.

On our tour we congregated in a classroom and heard the back story of Milwaukee's aquaponics revolution from former Growing Power board member, Sweet Water co-founder, and local food revolutionary James Godsil, AKA "Olde." Following the lecture we were able to explore Sweet Water's aquaponics system. My three young daughters helped feed the fish. We then heard all about the science behind the aquaponics method. Following our aquaponics lesson was a Q + A period that was still going when I had to leave (my daughters started getting antsy). We were there for at least an hour and a half.

Sweet Water tours are every Wednesday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at Noon; children under 10 are free. Growing Power (located on the north side of Milwaukee) gives daily tours at 1 p.m.

Learn more about Sweet Water Organics at

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Wonder of Worms

This weekend I'm giving a vermicomposting workshop to our neighborhood garden club. It's the first workshop I've ever done on the subject and I'm thrilled to be able to share my knowledge of this unique practice with others. In case you're unfamiliar, vermicomposting is a special way to return the nutrients in vegetable waste to the soil. It involves keeping earthworms indoors, using them to eat coffee grounds, apple cores, carrot peelings, and other waste. They eat kitchen scraps and turn this "garbage" into a rich natural fertilizer.

My interest in vermicomposting began several years ago, when I began hearing that folks were keeping "pet worms" in boxes in their homes and using them to compost. I was fascinated by the idea of having a little composting factory right in my house. So one day I decided to give vermicomposting a try. I did some research and built my own bin using an 18-gallon plastic storage tote. I bought several containers of red wiggler worms from a local bait shop, dumped them into the bin atop moistened newspaper strips, and began my vermicomposting adventure.

Truth be told, my first couple of years experimenting with worms were rocky. All went well with my first bin until I started noticing tiny fungus gnats all over the place. Frustrated with the pests, I moved the bin outdoors, buried the too-moist, nitrogen-rich bin contents with with dry, carbon-rich materials, and left the bin alone for a spell – a very long spell. In fact, I left the bin outside all the way through the winter. When I returned to the bin in the spring, I had a container full of lovely compost, but no worms! It was then that I learned the hard lesson that worms cannot survive above ground outdoors during a Wisconsin winter.

Determined not to give up, that spring I started a new bin, this time with a bucket of worms from Growing Power in Milwaukee. As I started to get the hang of vermicomposting I soon added a second bin. Then a third. Then I started building bins for friends and family. I'm now at the point where I'm so into vermicomposting that I just launched a little side business called Gardens, not garbage! to help others establish their own worm bins. I also hope to continue to give workshops in the area. Vermicomposting is a fabulous way to reduce waste while creating an amazing organic fertilizer in the process. If you do it right it doesn't smell and works like magic.

The best perk of vermicomposting, for a gardener like myself, is being able to use vermicompost to revive tired houseplants. I brewed up some "vermicompost tea" about a week ago using this method. Before using the tea to water and fertilizer my houseplants (everything from dracaena to dwarf pomegranates, figs, and coffee plants) I decided to try something I recently learned about in my Master Gardener class: I gave my houseplants a shower. I took all my houseplants and put them in my two bathtubs, then rinsed them with warm water, cleaning dust from their leaves (excessive dust can inhibit photosynthesis). After rinsing the leaves and soil thoroughly, I allowed the water to soak through the pots, washing away the build-up of salts that can occur in the average houseplant pot due to treated water. After their bath, I poured my brew of compost tea on the plants' leaves and into the pots. The compost tea serves the dual purpose of acting as a foliar rinse and a fertilizer. The beneficial microbes in the tea strengthen the plant, positioning it to better resist diseases and pests. The tea also adds nutrients to the pot, bringing dead soil back to life.

My plants now look so healthy and shiny and new. Though the task of showering them was a bit painstaking, I don't imagine that the process will have to happen more than once or twice a year. Of course, I will probably repeat the compost tea every few weeks, because it's so beneficial. It doesn't take much vermicompost to make the tea – only about a quart per five gallons of water -- and it's fairly easy to make. The benefits are definitely worth the trouble if you want happy house plants!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Little Bit of Good News About a Lot of Snow

By now most of us are channeling our way through mountains of snow following snowmageddon (I’m taking a short break to warm my frozen hands after shoveling for two hours this morning). Building up so much snow against our bungalow caused me to return to a question I have every time we get dumped on like this by Mother Nature: do the heavy banks of snow against a house's foundation act as a kind of insulation, helping to retain heat? Or does the snow act more like ice in a cooler, chilling the house?

I'm inclined to believe the snow insulates more than it chills. It's tough to find a very scientific answer to my question, but these two blog write-ups on the subject seem logical enough: "Using Snow to Insulate Your House" at and "It's cold! What difference does snow make?" from The conclusion is that snow does have an insulating quality, though I would suspect it's minimal -- foundation snow berms and a little roof top snow help, perhaps, but unless our homes are totally buried they're not insulated all that much.

That said, I haven't found a source yet that says snow chills a house. So keep shoveling! There's nowhere else for this much snow to go anyway, other than against our homes. Hopefully it's helping to keep our houses a tiny bit more insulated so that when we return inside from shoveling, we're a little warmer.