Steward – March ’14 Real Dirt


Master Gardeners Visit American Waste

Effects of a Harsh Winter


Master Gardeners Visit American Waste

by Nancy Denison

Am Waste group photo

Newspaper, cardboard, metal, glass, plastics, nursery trays and plastic flower pots, oh my!  I usually drop off my recycling about once a month at the American Waste center off Hammond Rd and now I may be going more often after touring their facility.  I had heard about all the processing they can do so I was really interested in joining our group on Tuesday night.  WOW—who knew recycling could be so fascinating??!!

Laurel Durkin and Pat Cline, American Waste account managers, shared a short slide show and gave a bit of history of the company; privately owned, ten locations, 42 years in business and over 350 employees, and then led us around the huge sorters, separators, and shakers.  It was loud and cold out there but so interesting how certain materials were moved to their own spot- cans, plastic, paper, glass.  Then there was the self-baler for the cardboard, and the trucks coming in to dump their collection.  They even take construction/demolition materials!

This is an award winning adaptive reuse project which just began in June of 2011 and is the largest facility of its kind in the Midwest   I was very impressed with the attitude of respect shown by the line workers as well as the account managers.  Several times Pat shouted out a “Thank you” to the folks working a later shift for our tour as well as picking up items which flew out of the conveyor area.  And it is pretty darn cool that we have such a state of the art recycling center in our area.

If you ever have another opportunity to tour this facility, do it…you will be even more motivated to recycle than you were before! View one of our videos from our tour:

Video of the sorting line


Effects of a Harsh Winter

by Cheryl Gross

Struggling Arborvitae

We humans have spent a lot of time ‘dealing’ with an unusually harsh winter season.  As we look ahead longingly for Spring temperatures and the gardening/growing season, we may want to consider what effect all of this snow and cold has had on our plants and their environment.  To help parse this out, we contacted some local experts, Nikki Rothwell, Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station, Brian Zimmerman, Four Season Nursery,  Mike Jones, Benzie Conservation District, and Katie Grzesiak, Invasive Species Network.

On landscape plants, Zimmerman stated that the winter has been good. “Plants had a great growing season in 2013; relatively cool and sufficient moisture”.  This allowed plants to go into the winter with strong roots.  The heavy blanket of snow has insulated most of our landscape plants.  Further, he says “most winter desiccation comes on in the early spring when snow cover is minimal and we have fluctuations that take temperatures from above freezing to well below.”  He predicts there will be a “good flush” this spring and even if there is die back, that stored energy will push out a lot of new growth.

As for our fruit trees/plants, the picture is not quite so rosy.  Rothwell says it has been variable in the fruit belt up and down Michigan’s west coast.  Southwest Michigan’s peaches, wine grapes and fruit grapes are believed to have been hit hard by the cold temperatures.  The apples and tart cherries may be fine, however in Northwest Michigan, the wine grapes are the worry.  That variety does not appreciate the cold, but only spring will tell.  “Anything under the snow is fine”, confirmed Rothwell.  In Northwest Michigan, the almost constant cloud cover has helped to moderate the temperatures.  Clear skies drop the temperatures much lower.  Does this shed a different light on our feelings towards gray skies?

Mike Jones assures us that Michigan’s native plants, flowers, grasses, trees, and shrubs will all fare well this winter.  He too noted the 2013 good growing season and the value of ample snow cover for insulation.  “Michigan native plants are accustomed to, and tolerant of, the wide variations in our winter weather.”

Invasive species may have another tale to tell, with any luck.  “Water hyacinth and kudzu may be harmed by the harsh weather which will stunt it’s spread” according to Katie Grzesiak.  Both Grzesiak and Jones discussed the effect of heavy lingering snow on Garlic Mustard.  The Garlic Mustard begins it’s growing cycle according to temperature.  The mild winters and early springs have gotten it growing early.  Michigan native woodland plants are awakened by the hours of daylight.  The closer the temperature and light availability are in sync, the better chance our Michigan natives have to successfully compete against the invasive plants.

Other effects of the harsh winter on our environment include groundwater.  Jones is quite pleased with these weather conditions.  With a first snow by November 21, frigid temperatures freezing lakes, and bountiful snowfall,  we have a real strong possibility of recharging our ground water levels, thereby raising the levels of our spring-fed lakes.  Additionally, the ice cover has reduced the water loss through evaporation.  When will we know?  After it melts.  A quick melt will allow a lot of the precipitation to run into Lake Michigan helping that lake and others fed by runoff.  A slow melt will allow more percolation into groundwater.

The thick surface ice may not allow the lakes to warm quickly this summer.  The cooler the water, the slower the evaporation, according to Jones.  Another benefit of a long, cold winter.

Will critters and diseases be affected?  This, again, cannot be known till spring.  Rothwell suggests that diseases, such as powdery mildew,  which over winters inside buds, may be harmed by the nippy weather.  Jones has heard anecdotal evidence that bark insects are harmed by the cold.  Could the Emerald Ash Borer and other bark feeding insects be stunted?  While there is no evidence; there is hope.  Deer have difficulty finding food in heavy snow.  Jones reports deer have been engaged in greater ‘yard’ activity.  Their starvation food includes pine needles, cedars and buds.  These plants could see significant deer damage.

Personally, I am interested to see what, if any, rodent damage appears as the snow melts.  Sometimes, it is all quiet and still under that blanket of snow and sometimes…


by Cheryl Gross and Michaelek

Worm Bin


Composting plant waste provides significant environmental benefits. It reduces landfill contributions and creates good organic material to feed garden plants. Backyard composting piles can accommodate both kitchen waste and yard waste. These piles break down plant waste into valuable organic matter. A pile requires attention paid to the ratio of brown to green, moisture and air. There is also work and tending involved, it can only be done during warmer weather, space is essential, and it can be a very slow process.

Vermicomposting, or worm composting, can also save some food scraps from the land fill. Composting ‘sweet‘ kitchen scraps using worms is easier than maintaining an outside composting pile and has additional benefits. ANYONE can worm compost and it requires NO outside space. When done indoors, vermicomposting is a year-round activity with little effort. The product of worm composting is worm castings, a highly nutritious fertilizer. The two methods of composting are compatible. This article is all about keeping worms.

To worm compost, a gardener needs a small investment in a bin, a garden tool for turning, old newspaper for bedding, kitchen scraps, and worms. Checking on-line there are several options for worm composting bins or towers. A large (10 to 14 gallon) solid color plastic bin with a fitted lid is ample. A couple small PCV vents fitted into the sides to increase air circulation, or two rows of 1/8th inch holes drilled around the top is recommended.

Once the hardware is ready, the bin is filled with shredded newspapers (no slick, shiny
ads, colored comics or junk mail) and a cup of outside soil or active plant compost (these provide micro nutrients). Tearing or cutting the papers works; a shredder allows smaller pieces and is convenient. Fill the bin with the dry shredded paper and then dampen the newspaper with a sprayer or watering can. Turn over the paper to ensure the paper is evenly moist. The moisture should be similar to a wrung-out sponge. Not wet, but damp. Add the soil and/or compost.

Add red worms. The worms should be a red worm variety and not night crawlers. These worms are big eaters and adapt well to living in containers. They should never be ‘set free’ in your yard as they are a non-native species. Eisenia foetida and Lumbricus rubellus are two recommended varieties. These can be ordered online from several sources. Be sure you are ordering by the Latin name, not the common name. Try for starters.

When establishing your bin, begin adding food scraps slowly. While technically, the worms can compost any food scraps, they have preferences and some foods will add unpleasant odors to your bin. Avoid meat scraps, bones or fatty foods. Avoid cruciferous vegetables like cabbage and broccoli. Finally avoid onions, garlic and citrus.

Do feed them what they love. For example…bits of apples, pears, banana peels, melon rinds, carrot peelings, potato peelings, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, old cakes and baked goods… anything over-ripe. A worm can eat twice its weight a week. For example, if you have a pound of worms you can expect them to eat 2 + pounds of food scraps a week. Crushed egg shells will provide the calcium worms need to reproduce.

It is best to bury the scraps in the newspaper bedding. This will avoid aerobic decomposition, odors, and insect pests. Begin sprinkling the scraps in one corner and cover. In a few days add additional food in a second corner. A few days later add to the third corner, and so on. Your worms will find the food and begin turning the scraps into valuable fertilizer (worm poop).

Check your bin weekly and add moisture sparingly with a spray bottle if the bedding begins to dry out. Add more shredded paper if things begin looking too wet and soggy and leave the cover off for several hours. Add food when supplies run down. The worms like it moist and dark. When happy they will multiply and your bin will process larger quantities of plant scraps and newspaper.

After about 2-3 months, the newspaper ‘bedding’ will be gone…all turned into castings. At this point, stop adding food for two weeks in preparation for harvesting. Harvesting is simple; separate the worms from the castings and establish a fresh bin. Some folks prefer a more passive approach. Pile the contents of the bin on one side and add fresh moist shredded newspaper and food scraps to the opposite side of the bin and the worms will relocate themselves. Then, remove the castings from the unoccupied side. Others prefer to remove everything from the bin into about 6 separate piles. With good light, the worms dive to the bottom of each pile. As you scrape or pluck the castings from the top of each pile, the worms move down and away from the light. Take a break to clean the bin and reestablish the moist newspaper bedding and a cup of soil/compost, fresh food scraps, and crushed egg shells. Once the castings have been removed, the wriggling mass of cute red worms will be ready to be scooped up and deposited into their new home.

Worm castings can be used primarily two ways, dry and crumbled or as a ‘tea’, steeped in water. For dry applications, after harvesting, allow the castings to air dry. This eliminates the possibility of stray worms getting loose in your environment. Once dried, sprinkle around your landscape or vegetable plants or mix with potting soil. Alternatively, to use as a tea, add a baseball-sized ‘glob’ to a gallon of water and allow to set or ‘steep’ for 24 hours. Water your plants with the ‘tea’. The nutritional rating, or NPH of worm castings is .5-.5-.5. It is a gentle, non-burning fertilizer filled with rich organic compounds and micro nutrients.

Trouble shooting:

Your worm bin should be tended a couple times a week to add food scraps and check on the conditions of the bin.

Should you find it TOO WET, add more bedding, such as shredded newspapers and drier foods. Mix them in gently. If the bin gets sopping wet, you may drain off some of the liquid and use for worm tea.

Should you find it TOO DRY, especially in the winter months, add water and wetter food. Worms cannot survive and reproduce in a dry environment.

Vary the food you provide your worms. A ‘mono‘ diet is not healthy for them or your plants.

Worm bins generally have a fresh, earthy odor. Should your bin become ‘STINKY ’, add more dampened, shredded newspaper and cut back the amount of food scraps you feed them. The worms can ‘correct’ the bin balance in a few days.
Evidence of OVER FEEDING is a stinky odor and the addition of too many bugs. A worm bin will naturally attract some tiny insects, an insect infestation in a symptom of over feeding. Adding moist, shredded newspapers to better cover the food scraps takes care of this problem.

UNDERFEEDING is rarely a problem, as they eat their bedding. Before leaving on vacation, check to see that the worm bin has ample bedding to hold them till you return.

Worms can thrive at a wide range of TEMPERATURES, however, please keep them out of the sun in summer as an overheated bin will kill the worms. Alternatively, store your bin inside where temps are always above 40° in the winter months.

Finally, use UNSOFTENED water. Softened water contains salts which harm the worms.


Applehof, Mary, Worms Eat My Garbage: How to setup & maintain a vermicomposting system, Flower Press, ISBN: 0-942256-10-7