Today, my boyfriend’s daughter and her Brownie troop visited City Farmers Nursery in San Diego. They got to see all of the animals, plant their own fava beans to take home, and make a worm bin. It was a fantastic experience for all of the girls, both because it was fun and also because it was educational. I don’t know if there are any badges associated with what we did, but who cares. It was totally a blast. Definitely, definitely try this at home!
A while back, I brought my boyfriend’s younger daughter to City Farmers Nursery. She got to pet the chickens and rabbits, feed the goats, and dig for worms. We brought the worms back to my place, where she helped me rip up newspaper to feed the worms.
We had such a great time, that my boyfriend’s older daughter wanted to visit the nursery too. The plans evolved and it turned into an outing for her entire Girl Scout troop – 18 seven year olds (plus several siblings and parents). Today the girls had no school, so we all met at the troop leader’s house and carpooled to the nursery.
Bill, the owner of the nursery, gave us a tour. He told the girls to call him Farmer Bill and explained how he started the nursery when he was 16 years old because he liked to grow plants. He said he also liked to recycle, and then asked the girls to look at what they were standing on. It was mulch. Bill told us he got it for free. It was ground up yard waste that somebody would have to pay to dispose of in the landfill, so they were grateful that he would accept it for free, and he was grateful to get it for free. The mulch keeps weeds from growing and keeps the ground from getting dusty.
Then Bill asked for a show of hands: How many people go to the grocery store to buy their food? All the girls raised their hands. How many people NEVER went to the grocery store for food? Only Bill’s hand was up. He grows all of his own food at the nursery, he explained. On the tour, he would show us what he grew and how he grew it.
Bill showed the girls a milkweed plant and he explained how the plant lives symbiotically with monarch butterflies. The butterfly pollinates the plant and lays its eggs on it. The eggs hatch, and the caterpillars eat the leaves and then spin cocoons. The plant grows new leaves to shelter the cocoons. Then the caterpillars emerge from their cocoons as butterflies and pollinate the plant, completing the cycle and starting it again. The plant, of course, produces seeds once the butterflies pollinate its flowers, and then Bill takes the seeds and plants more milkweed plants.
As we walked, the girls got to see all of the animals (bunnies, chickens, turkeys, ducks, goats, a horse, etc). Bill told the girls that most of the animals were rescued from people who had them and didn’t want them. He’ll give the many of the animals away if people can care for them properly, and he’ll adopt new animals if they are unwanted.
Bill has a small flock of chickens for meat and for eggs. He had Cornish/Rock crosses for meat and a variety of other breeds (including some Aracaunas) for eggs. Bill told the girls that brown chickens lay brown eggs and white chickens lay white eggs, but Aracaunas lay green and blue eggs. The ducks lay eggs too – green ones. However, that is just the color of the shell, so you can’t get green eggs and ham from them. Oh, and brown cows make white milk, not brown milk. (Technically, it’s not true that the color of the chicken determines the egg color. Some say the color of the earlobe will tell you the color of the eggs though. However, if we’re talking about some of the more popular egg breeds, it is true that White Leghorns lay white eggs and Rhode Island Reds – which look brown – lay brown eggs.)
I raised my hand and asked if he used the chickens poop for anything. Oh yes, he said. Some of the girls wrinkled their noses at such a gross idea. Bill said that the larger the animal, the more it poops – and the smaller the animal, the stronger the poop. Chicken poop is very strong stuff. Bill composts the animal poop and uses it to feed the plants. Then he gives plant waste to the animals to eat, and thus, he has very little waste at all! He even re-uses dog poop. He fills garbage cans full of it and lets the worms eat it up. Then he uses the worm poop on ornamental plants (not food plants).
Bill showed the girls his house, and told them that he doesn’t want to drive far to go to work, so he lives at his worm. Then he said we were standing between two other homes – a home for turtles and a home for koi fish. Both types of animals were rescued. He asked the girls two questions: “How can you tell the difference between goldfish and koi?” and “What’s the difference between turtles and tortoises?” Koi have whiskers and gold fish do not, and turtles can live in water whereas tortoises do not. Bill also has a desert tortoise, which we did not see on our tour.
As we walked, Bill showed us his “apple orchard” – five apple trees planted far away from the path so that nursery customers wouldn’t pick the apples. He said when his apple trees have no apples, then he doesn’t eat any apples. When the trees do give him apples, he eats them. If he gets too many apples from the trees, he dehydrates them so he can eat them year round.
Next, we saw his garden. It is very special, he told us, because he uses no machines to grow his food. All of his vegetables come from the garden. I spotted peppers, chard, strawberries, basil, tomatoes, and lots of cruciferous veggies. Near the vegetable garden, he has a big swimming pool filled with tilapia. The pool was recycled, and the water came from the rain. The fish live on mosquitoes, duck weed, and plant waste. Bill uses the fish’s water (together with the fish’s poop) to water and fertilize his plants. Thus, the fish require very little in inputs and they are virtually free for him to raise. I didn’t ask him about heating the water, but tilapia like to live in warm water – about 80F. Then again, we’re in San Diego, so maybe the water stays the right temperature naturally. Bill preserves his tilapia in salt once he harvests them so he can avoid using electricity for refrigeration. He said a fish preserved in salt can last up to five years.
The last thing the girls did was a quick project. Each girl got a small container with holes in the bottom and filled it with dirt. Bill told them the dirt included bat poop and worm poop. He gave them each a fava bean and had them plant it about an inch deep in the soil. Then he told them to take it home and water it and put it in full sunlight. He said only water it when you touch the soil and it feels dry. He also explained that fava beans fix nitrogen in the soil and they are therefore used as a cover crop.
Last, he gave the girls a quiz question: Why are plants on earth? He promised a prize to whoever answered it right. Nobody got it right. I thought, well if you boil it right down, every creature’s goal in life is to reproduce. If an organism has no ability or desire to reproduce, then it goes extinct. But why did plants evolve in the first place? I don’t know. There’s an abundance of animal waste (poop, CO2, etc) and the plants use it, and we use their waste. It was an available ecological niche and they took it. Is that what Bill was getting at? I went with that answer. Wrong, he said. Plants exist to reproduce. We often think they are here to feed us or to give us oxygen, but that’s not why the plants think they are here. It’s just lucky for us that they happen to do nice things for us along the way. (He didn’t say this, but they use us quite well actually. For example, they get people and animals to plant their seeds by producing tasty fruits that people and/or animals eat. Then of course we either drop the seeds or throw them out or poop them out, and they can grow. And, of course, as humans figured this out, we domesticated several species of plant by intentionally planting them, and selecting for traits we like best.) The prize Bill had was a Farmers Almanac for Kids. He donated it to the Brownie troop since nobody got the question right.
The girls’ attention spans were more or less gone by then, so we had them eat their lunches and then we all carpooled back to the troop leader’s house.
Back in my boyfriend’s car, we had the supplies to make a worm bin ready. I bought a bag of worms on the way out the door (full of worms and dirt), and we brought them back to the troop leader’s house. There, I sat with the girls in a circle and asked them what worms like to eat. Several people raised their hands and gave various answers. I added that we can give them food scraps, and listed off several like apple cores, banana peels, leftover Jack-o-lanterns, green bean tips… One of the girls added that you can give them the leaves and hairy stuff you take off of corn. Great idea, I told her. Then I asked how many of the girls had parents who drank coffee. Lots of hands went up. Well, you can give the worms coffee grounds too. And you can give them paper, like old newspaper and junk mail. Before making our bin, we also talked about three things we don’t give to worms: plastic, meat, and cheese. But you can give them egg shells, as long as you crush them up into bitty worm-size pieces.
With that, we got started. We had 2 bins that fit into one another. My boyfriend drilled holes in the bottom of one of them for drainage. The girls each took pieces of newspaper and shredded it into the bin. Then I showed them some food scraps we brought – a top of a bell pepper, some leftover oatmeal, squash seeds and pulp, leftover grapes that had gone bad, and coffee grounds. We put that in the bin too. Then we put water on everything so the worms would have a moist enfironment. Next came the worms. I ripped open the bag and asked the girls to each grab and handful of dirt and worms to put in the bin.
That’s when the fun REALLY started. The girls LOVED the worms. Most of the girls wanted their own worms to take home. One of the adults present tried to make the case that girls weren’t allowed to have worms without parental permission. That didn’t fly. The girls grabbed tupperware containers and gathered up handfuls of dirt, worms, and shredded newspaper for their new pets to eat. We helped them put holes for drainage and holes for air in the containers. Many of the girls wanted to name their worms. They were especially excited about the baby worms they found. The smaller the worm, the “cuter” the girls thought it was.
One girl’s mom was there and she thought the worms were DISGUSTING. She was horrified that her daughter wanted a worm to take home, but she let her do it anyway. She said the girl wasn’t allowed to touch the worm once it went home. The girl looked like she had no intention of obeying that rule. It was thrilling to see how enthusiastic the girls were about the worms, but troubling that they were getting feedback from the adults around them that the worms were gross. After all, people probably couldn’t exist on this planet without worms. They make it possible to grow all of our food!
We gave the troop leader worm bin instructions in advance, so she said she’d print them up and distribute them to the parents of each Brownie. I told the girls that they could use the worms’ poop to grow food in their gardens, although I don’t know how many girls have gardens (or even yards) and how many of them were listening. For parents who don’t want worm bins or pet worms, letting the worms go in the garden or yard might be a good compromise. That would still fit with the spirit of the activity, as the worm would be doing all kinds of good work in the soil outdoors.
My boyfriend’s daughter LOVED her worms. Even after everything was all done and the girls’ parents began showing up to take them home, she and another friend were still elbow deep in the worm bin, finding worms and naming them. Once we got them home, she asked me to help her name them. So we dug around in the bin and found several worms. We named one after each of us. I told Jill the worm that she/he had to be the best worm ever. (Another interesting worm fact I told the girls: every worm is both a boy AND a girl.) We named one worm Brownie and another one Try-It to commemorate the activity today with the Girl Scouts. Other ones got names like Slither and Wiggles. While naming the worms is a bit silly, I’m thrilled that she’s excited about her worms, so I’m happy to participate in worm-naming.
We plan to go back to the nursery to buy garden supplies, plus our Girl Scout wants to go back without her troop so she can have the animals all to herself. I think it’s a great idea. I look forward to getting our garden started, although technically we just did that, because step one is good soil, and that’s what the worms are making for us.