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Grow your own worm farm

Located on Level 6 of Melbourne’s Curtin House, Mexican restaurant Mesa Verde is at the forefront of sustainability in the country, having partnered with Worm Lovers founder Richard Thomas to carry out a huge eco-project on its rooftop, using Hungry Bin worm farms as its green centrepiece. Richard chats to MiNDFOOD about Mesa Verde’s game-changing garden and how you can grow your own one at home.

How did you get to be involved in worm farms?

I’m actually an ecological artist and work on all sorts of environmental projects. I’ve headed up two sustainability projects – one around forest conservation and the other around worms and composting organic waste sustainable food gardens (that’s a mouthful isn’t it). So a big part of what I do is bring all these elements  – design and functionality – to come up with an integrated, sustainable design, which really came to fruition on that project because it required all these different elements to come together.

How did the relationship with Mexican restaurant, Mesa Verde, eventuate?

It kind of evolved very organically. The owner of the building wanted to redevelop the top of the building. I pitched the idea – they decided to put in Mr Verde, they also needed to upgrade their cool-room to supply the rooftop bar so I said, ‘why don’t we build a food garden and a worm farm integrated with the cool-room, so that we can actually provide passive cooling to the cool room?’

What’s involved in that process?

If the cool room is in the shade, it is probably five degrees cooler than if it were in the blazing sun, so you therefore use less electricity to cool it. And so that was the first pitch, and then we started talking about the food we were going to grow for the restaurant. Some of the herbs and things they use in the restaurant aren’t readily available in the market, so we decided we could grow some of those ingredients in the garden with the right system.

We also grow herbs for the bar as well   – some of the lesser-known ones used in their cocktails, like olive bush and sage. We grow all these on the rooftop.

The other part of equation is the worm farm, so I’ve been involved with Worm Lovers for 10 years. We specialise in worm farming systems of all different scales. There are different angles to that – one of those is obviously on site organic waste management. Setting these up on site means we can process quite e a large amount of waste coming out of kitchen and turn this into high-grade  food source for the garden.

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How do worm farms work, exactly?

Worms are supercharged; they turn food scraps into incredible superfoods – chockablock full of nutrients and beneficial microbes that create the ideal conditions for really healthy, very robust and successful food crops. Basically, the flavours you get out of food that’s grown in worm castings is second to none – they tend to be very disease-resistant, they increase fruit cropping (you can get twice as many tomatoes from a tomato plant grown in a worm casting). The fantastic thing about it is it is pH0 neutral so you can pretty much grow any plant in it. It’s been really successful.

We don’t use any synthetic fertiliser; we don’t use any pesticides. The whole principal of biological gardens is that if the soil is healthy enough, then the plant can actually resist a lot of the pests and diseases naturally.

Could you grow a worm farm at home?

Absolutely – all of our systems are based around the Hungry Bin Worm Farm – which are available to the general public – and we ship them all over Australia. We’ve got a really good manual that comes with it – it’s probably the best worm farm you can get. It’s a new design that’s only come out the last few months, designed by a Kiwi guy – it’s on wheels so you can wheel it around. One Hungry Bin will service all the food scraps of a family of five and probably produce enough high-grade compost to fertilise a decent size vegie garden. So they are available to anyone really. There’s a bit of know-how needed – there’s a bit of training and love that needs to go into it – it is a living system after all. You do need to manage the input to get the water and nutrients and so on, but once you get it right, it’s pretty self-sustaining.

For more information on Hungry Bins and how to start your own worm farm, click here.

Growing Green

Growing leafy greens such as lettuce, rocket, and parsley for salads is one of the easiest and most rewarding gardening jobs. Because you’re harvesting foliage, it’s generally quick for the crop to reach the first picking stage. In addition, leaves tend to be less prone to pests and diseases than most other edible plants, as you can always harvest them as young, tender leaves before they have a chance to get damaged.

The key to growing edible foliage is to plant a variety of types so you’ll always have something on hand to pull together a salad at any time of year. You can readily grow most types from seed, which you can plant directly into the soil in your vegetable-garden bed. Similarly, the growing conditions are essentially the same for all of these plants, with a well-drained soil and plenty of sunshine promoting the best harvest. An ideal way of providing these conditions is to grow your plants in a sunny garden bed or in large pots on a deck or balcony in soil or general-purpose potting mix that is enriched with a complete fertiliser.

Another key to growing leafy greens is to ensure they always have good nutrition, so it’s a good idea to supplement fertiliser with liquid feeding. A general-purpose liquid food or liquid from a worm farm will keep your plants in constant production. It’s also good practice to continually harvest each week, as old foliage can become bitter tasting; constant picking stimulates the production of fresh new leaves.

The best & brightest

You can easily grow a number of lettuce varieties from seed. The most familiar is iceberg, with its tightly packed foliage that results in a ball-shaped plant. Oak-leaf types have a much looser growth pattern, with wavy leaves that come in colourful red, bronze, or green, adding a nice ornamental touch to your garden. Avoid growing lettuce through the hottest months of summer, as it produces flower stems, and the leaves become bitter and unpalatable.

Also, avoid growing it in the frosty conditions in winter.

English spinach is another versatile leafy green that’s at home in a salad or as a boiled vegetable. To keep a good supply coming for your summer salads, sow seed directly into the garden every few weeks from spring to summer. The young developing leaves are the best to harvest for your salad bowl.

Many consider beetroot to be an integral part of the antipodean hamburger. However, the young, tender leaves of beetroot can add a really crunchy texture to your salads throughout the year. Sow seed in any month to produce foliage, and through the warmer months, you can leave the plants to produce the familiar root crop.

More salad starters

Chives are members of the onion and garlic family, but instead of harvesting the bulbs, you use the tangy leaves as a garnish or to add zest to salads that require an onion-like flavour. Plants form masses of tiny bulbs that you can split up by hand to produce new clumps. To harvest, simply snip off the leaves at the base, which stimulates more to regrow.

Parsley is another extremely rewarding leafy green to grow; you can easily raise it from seed, and it continues to produce throughout the year. There are two types of parsley: curly and Italian. Both are useful for salads. The bright green, textured foliage of curly parsley also looks very ornamental in the garden when you mix it in with flowering plants.

You can use every part of the coriander plant in various recipes. A small number of leaves  impart wonderful flavour to salads, and you can use the roots in stir-fries and other recipes. Coriander is a fast-growing plant that you need to replace with fresh seedlings every couple of months. If you wish to have a continuous supply, sow a fresh batch of seed directly into the garden.

It’s best to grow all of the aforementioned herbs in large pots in either full sun or part shade in an all-purpose potting mix. Fertilise them in early spring and again in midsummer with a couple of teaspoons of general-purpose slow-release fertiliser. Harvesting them for the kitchen is a simple matter of pinching out the top few centimetres of the growing tips. This, in turn, causes the plant to branch out so that within a couple of weeks, ever-more-succulent new shoot tips are ready for you!

Branching out

The range of leafy greens available to the home gardener seems to be constantly increasing, as more edible foliage becomes available from seed merchants. If you’re feeling adventurous, look out for other unusual-flavoured foliage, such as mizuna, rocket, chicory, fennel, French sorrel, radicchio, and mustard.