Monday, December 14, 2015

(Business) Trip To India - November 2015

If you'd rather just view the pictures from India rather than just the few shown on this page (or rather than trawl through the text below) you can do so by clicking here.

In November I was able to get across to Gurgaon, which is just south of Delhi in India.  The main objective of the trip was to meet our off-shore development and support teams who we have worked (very) well with over the last few years.  I don't get to travel much (work or otherwise) so I jumped at the chance, not least because India is high on the list of places I have always wanted to go.  The big shame though was that Tamsyn couldn't come with me and see her own country before I did!

So the trip started well, helped of course by travelling Business class, which is just amazing - I'm really not sure what first class gives you over and above that but I really doubt you need it whatever it is.  The flight was smooth (good for my "love" of flying) and we landed in Delhi at 08:55 in the morning having flown through night (08:55 is 03:25 in the morning UK time).

As expected the heat hit us as soon as we stepped off the plane. At 28C in November it was nothing short of beautiful, but the biggest shock was the traffic! Oh my, I have never experienced anything like it; everybody uses their horn but not in anger like in the UK but rather to tell other road users they are there.  Bearing in mind there is no concept of lanes (or even direction) and that other road users could be lorries, cars, bikes, scooters, cows, horses, pigs and people crossing the road (and even, if it's night, an entire wedding party singing and dancing down the road) it seems to work well and it certainly makes every trip to the office an adventure.  It's the one thing I didn't get used to the whole week.

The hotel, The Westin, is beautiful (and 5 star) and proved to be pretty much perfect as it was 20 minutes form the office, which added to the adventure of getting there and back every day...




After a bit of a sleep and a wander around the hotel we got to the office at about 4.30pm India time, got our security passes, shown an office we can use, logged in and answered a few emails before being taken out at 5pm to go to a place called Cyber Hub which is basically a "mall" of restaurants and bars in the middle of an office complex where you have the likes of Google and Microsoft.  We ended up in Soi 7 or rather outside it as it has a roof terrace that, once dark, you wouldn't know you were outside (as it was about 25C) having various platters of food and sampling their own brewed beers.  You will see from the pictures what happened next but we were all somewhat more subdued come Saturday morning! :)




Saturday we got the cab (at our disposal 24 hours a day until Thursday) and went out to a plant nursery/farm in between Gurgaon (where we are staying) and Delhi, where Prisihita and Prerna (two of the girls from the office) translated for me to ask loads of questions. The nursery was both flowers (many the same as we get here such as Dahlia's, Chrysanthemums, Marigold's and Petunia's etc but also palms of all types as well as weeping figs (Ficus) in pots but about 6 foot tall). The farming side was more like a nursery/large allotment for vegetables as well - a couple of large fields split into beds growing various things; cabbages, mustards, radishes (different to ours - long white things) and so on. They don't mono-crop like we do but split everything into large beds and companion plant.

Apparently butterflies and pigeons (there were plenty of both about) are not a problem but peacocks drive them mad!

Both the girls asked about them supplying their local market - most of this stuff goes to Delhi (which is huge) so fresh herbs are harder to come by in Gurgaon. The whole issue of getting people to buy (and sell) local appears to apply here just as much as it does in the UK.

On a composting side it was harder to describe so I didn't push it. I also didn't want to bore everybody too much as they had given up their Saturday to show us around. I think they do compost as they rotate crops but the soil was parched and had to be watered regularly so, to me, it looked like it needed a good 2 inches of organic matter. It might get it for all I know but it was very red clay type soil and needs watering daily.

The biggest shock for me was finding out that one of the girls husbands had been impressed with how I wasn't embarrassed to say my family were farmers! Apparently, in India, farming is classed as one of the lowest forms of work because you are working in the dirt. Quite the contrast to the UK where everybody expects you to be landed gentry if you own a farm...



Once done there the driver drove us past quite a few similar set-ups causing lots of honking of horns and people swerving around us before taking us into Delhi to The Red Fort, which was quite stunning and an experience getting in what with beggars, the crowds and having to check your pockets every time somebody bumped into you! The girls managed to get us a Guide for 100 Rupees (£1) - he had started at 500 Rupees (£5) which I thought fairly cheap but watching them in action was amazing. He turned out to be fairly terrible but I learned quite a bit about the place so it was certainly worth it and I got some great pictures. The big eye opener for me was not necessarily the number of birds (pigeons mostly - they're the same the world over) but the quantity of Eagles flying around. Also parrots and Indian magpies (which were more like prettier Starling's and sang beautifully).



From there we stopped off at a small restaurant the girls knew that was lovely; hidden, small, and won loads of awards apparently. I've no idea what I ate as I told them I like sweet over hot but I tried everything. The one dish I did recognise was Biriyani. What we've noticed here is that everything is smaller portions, brought out regularly rather than all at once and a lot less oily. So you have a great meal and walk away sated rather than bloated and stuffed. It really felt like my taste buds had been awakened for the first time and I think Indian food in the UK will now be a bit of a let down...

Sunday we started off taking it easy; trip to the gym, sitting in the sun by the pool and enjoying the sunshine and hotel facilities before picking up Prishita (who had thankfully volunteered to take us shopping) to take me shopping for gifts and clothes for Tamsyn and the children. I hate shopping and don't think she quite realised what she was letting herself in for but I think it went OK. Except for Christopher that is - I wanted to get him an Indian cricket top but you couldn't find one anywhere. if you want a fecking Manchester United top they were everywhere but nothing for India (we ended up getting it mail order and delivered to the office in the end).


Proof I went shopping (can you spot the tourists?)

The rest of the week unfortunately involved working but it went well I think and we came back with loads of ideas on how we can improve things at work. Blah blah blah.

One thing that I really got from the office was the tea! They brew it differently to the UK by putting all the ingredients in together and bringing the lot to the boil and it was truly amazing! Luckily, Prishita shared my love of tea and we would grab a cup whenever we could. It was divine and again, cheap at 7 Rupees (7p) per cup!!! Imagining the same thing from somewhere like Costa and I reckon it would be nearer 300 Rupees (£3) and not taste anything like as nice.

We did get out a few more times and have a great time with the guys; once to a place called The Kingdom Of Dreams where we saw a live show of a Bollywood film called Zangoora, which was absolutely amazing; a live show with the most energetic dancing and music I have ever seen. It was basically The Lion King set in India with more magic and no animals (OK it was nothing like The Lion King) but it absolutely blew me away (and I felt really bad that Tamsyn wasn't there to enjoy it as this really is more her thing).

Outside of the theatre is a street with buildings from every state in India and live shows of various cultural music and dancing just going on as and when. You can get food specific to the state as well as buy gifts from there as well. In the UK you would expect the food to be rubbish and any gifts to be over priced tat, but here the food was amazing, dirt cheap and the gifts weren't bad either (so I stocked up on some more for the family).




Having shown us some culture the next night was a trip to Smaash, again at Cyber Hub, where we did bowling and had food.  And there's another difference between India and the UK - in somewhere you would do bowling the food would be disgusting and over priced. Not in India - we had an array of dishes bought out to us and they were all amazing.  I was starting to get a cold and this Paneer Chili (basically cottage cheese but nicer) enabled me to not only breath through my nose again but also my ears!



From there we went back to Soi 7 for more (much more) brewed on site beer...



I was a little depressed to leave to be honest - we achieved a lot work-wise, definitely cemented the working relationship and generally had a ball while doing so.

However, I was also made up on the way home to capture this picture while flying over the mountains of Afghanistan.



Tuesday, September 01, 2015

The Hotbin 3 years on...

I've had my Hotbin since 2012 and blogged about it a year later to say how I was finding it and got some great advice from the guys at Hotbin which really helped keep it functioning well.

Recently Hotbin have started up a forum for users to get hints & tips, ask general questions and get experience and h
elp from others and I can honestly say it has been a bit of an eye opener for me and I've picked up a few things well worth sharing.

For the whole of this year I have been struggling to get the temperature above 50C with occasional peaks of 55C on hot days, a far cry from the 60-65C I can normally get during the summer months.

Well thanks to the forum I heard that the air holes at the bottom can become blocked which seriously impedes the flow of air and therefore stops the bin from reaching the temperatures it is capable of.

I empty my normal compost bins twice a year and decided to empty the Hotbin as well and give it a good clean, which other than the lid is not really something I've bothered with beforehand.  So (and thanks to the forum for this tip as well) I removed the top layer of uncomposted waste  and laid it on some cardboard for adding back later.  This waste was hot and VERY smelly!  The reason for doing this was so that when I emptied the compost from the bottom of the bin the fresher stuff didn't slip down and mix with the ready stuff still stuck at the back.

The compost at the bottom of the bin wasn't quite ready as it was quite compacted but it was good enough to go in my normal compost bins for ageing.  I've done this before and come next March this stuff will be finished and ready for mulching my plants so it's all good.

And sure enough, once the bin was empty and I started to clean it the air holes at the bottom were completely blocked.  While trying to sort them out I noticed that the very bottom could be removed and cleaned separately. That will teach me to read the instructions!  



This has not been cleaned like this since I got it in 2012 so I'm sure it will make a difference, especially when you see what was underneath the tray!

That brown sludge is exactly that, almost solid sludge stopping air from coming in from the grill.  I removed it with a trowel and gave the whole thing a good wash with the hose pipe before putting everything back together and adding a layer of bark and the previously removed top layer back in.

The bin is now less than a quarter full and the temperature 2 hours later was already showing at 50C from the thermometer in the lid. I've heard it said that the lid thermometer often shows as 10C less than the actual waste but I wasn't adding the other thermometer as it was too far down and I didn't fancy falling in!

Tip of the day: Do not clean a Hotbin with a high powered hosepipe while you have washing on the line - it does not make you a popular husband :)  


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Troubleshooting Your Wormery

Further to the damp and compacted conditions you can find in your wormery after prolonged rain and/or Winter - see http://blog.sherlock.co.uk/2015/04/looking-after-your-wormery-in-spring.html - what else should you look out for?

Here’s 5 of the most common things I see in my wormeries:

1. Insects
In the winter and early spring there isn't much of a problem but as things start to warm up there are a number of insects who somehow manage to make a home in your wormery.  Most are OK as they (or their larvae) eat the waste and generally help in the process of breaking things down nicely.  As you get more experienced you will be able to match up the conditions with the insect and act accordingly.

Some of the more common ones are:
a) Pot worms - these are small white worms that many people mistake for baby worms.  They are fine if you don’t mind them BUT they do indicate damp conditions and a compost that is starting to become acidic.  To get rid of them in the short term leave a slice of bread in the wormery overnight.  

Small white pot-worms
The next morning you will find said bread absolutely teeming with pot worms so remove it and put it on the bird table to give your birds a treat.  In the long term you need to aerate the compost so mix in some shredded paper and cardboard as well as a hand full of lime mix if you have some. This will bring down the pH and make for happier worms.

b) Springtails - these are very small white insects that aid the composting and are totally harmless as they eat fungi that grows on the waste. I use them as an indication that things are generally functioning well.
Springtails in amongst the worms
c) Fruit flies - they love the fruit you add and do no damage to the worms at all BUT there’s nothing quite like opening the lid and having them swarm up your nose and in your ears so you’re going to want to discourage them wherever possible. The perfect way to do this is to get into the habit of wrapping all your food waste in a sheet of newspaper before adding it to the wormery. The paper soaks up some moisture, the worms will eat it from below and yet the waste is protected from the fruit flies who can’t get to it to lay their eggs.  This is an especially good idea during the summer months. Alternatively, bury the waste underneath a good layer of shredded paper, again so the flies cannot get at it to lay their eggs.

d) Ants - these are a real pain because they cart off the cocoons (worm eggs that each contain a number of baby worms) so your worm population will suffer in the long run.  To keep them out you can stand the wormery legs in jars of water (ants won’t cross water) but if they do get in you will probably have to go hunting for the queen and remove her.  They are also an indication that the wormery is too dry so it may be worth adding some water to dampen the compost a bit. I know, I've been telling you how to stop the wormery getting too wet! It’s one of the reasons to keep a regular eye on things.

2. Overfeeding
Really this is one of the most common problems people have and it can be disastrous, especially with a new wormery.

When you first get a wormery add small amounts of kitchen waste and paper and keep an eye on how the worms are coping.  Once the population increases you can start increasing the amount of waste but always keep an eye on things.  Once established I try to make sure there is pure vermicompost about 3-4 inches below the top layer and that the worms are working well in your current layer of food.  This helps stop them from being over faced with too much to choose from and will keep conditions optimal.  

Another thing to remember is that most new wormeries come with a coir block to act as an immediate bedding and people worry that the worms are reluctant to move up to their kitchen waste.  This is because they are quite happy eating the coir block so only add a small amount of kitchen waste at first, a hefty amount of shredded paper and leave them to it for a bit.  They will move onto the kitchen waste once they are ready - just keep a regular eye on things so you know when to start feeding them more.

3. Type of waste
So what exactly can you feed your worms?  Well, they love variety (as do we all) so try and vary what you give them.  The following is a rough list of the things they like and what you should avoid:

Good:
  • Kitchen food waste such as vegetable peelings, tea leaves and coffee grounds.  Be aware that with teabags quite a few have a quantity of nylon in them to hold them together so although the worms will break into them and eat the tea leaves you may well be left with the odd teabag ‘ghost’.  They won’t bother the worms but you will notice them when you come to use the compost - just remove them when you add to other compost or borders if you want. I use a lot of teabags and it really doesn't cause a problem.
  • Fruit peelings such as banana skins and apple cores (beware of fruit flies with these - follow the tips above for wrapping your waste in newspaper).
  • Crushed up egg shells - the worms need the grit that these provide and they help with the pH of the compost. Worms lack teeth though so a great tip is to dry the shells in the bottom of the oven while you cook something else.  They can then easily be crushed into a powder and sprinkled into the wormery.
  • Shredded or torn up paper; newspaper, bank statements, credit card receipts, toilet roll inners, kitchen paper and tissues as well as brown corrugated cardboard from the likes of Amazon etc.

Bad (or at least not so good):
  • Cooked food such as meat or fish - this will rot and smell as well as invite unwanted guests to appear (to compost such things why not try Bokashi, a system that is sealed and works brilliantly with most things that a wormery can’t handle).
  • Citrus fruit and onion peelings as they are acidic. Very small doses may be OK but I find it best to avoid where possible, and add some lime every now and then.
  • Animal manure though possibly OK is best avoided as you cannot guarantee that it isn't from an animal recently wormed (disastrous).  Worms also cannot break down any pathogens it may contains so the finished compost may not be great for vegetable production etc.  I have used a wormery for dogs mess but a lot of care needs to be taken and I've only used the finished product for under the hedge.  

4. Position
Where you keep your wormery can really make a difference. You want it close to the house but sheltered enough to keep it safe.
In the Spring and summer try and keep it out of direct sunlight otherwise it will heat up quickly in the sun, bake the worms (or make them try and escape), cause excess condensation that then makes the compost too wet and generally make for a less than stable environment for your worms to work (too hot one minute and then quickly cooling down etc).
In the winter it needs to be out of the wind and rain so it doesn't get too cold and wet for all the reasons mentioned previously.
Try and keep a weight on the lid, such as a house brick.  This holds the lid firmly in place during windier weather as well minimising the number of escapees when conditions aren't optimal inside the wormery (especially when newly set-up).

Brick to help keep lid in place and bottle for collecting leachate
5. Regularly empty the sump
It is a really good idea to get into the habit of emptying the sump on a regular basis.  If it gets too full the compost will get wet causing soggy, anaerobic conditions as well as possibly drowning your worms.  The worm tea (leachate) makes a great liquid feed during the growing season and can be stored throughout the winter (or just poured directly on your borders).  Either way getting into the habit of emptying the sump is good so you avoid the sudden realisation that it hasn't stopped raining for a couple of weeks and you haven’t been doing it.  I guarantee you will find the odd dead worm come from the tap when you do get round to it and I wouldn't worry about it.  They seem to go to the sump to die - I just re-add them to the top when I check the bin over.

Conclusion
I appreciate there is quite a lot of information there but if you take the time to give the wormery a Spring clean and check over it will soon reward you with some fantastic compost for top dressing house plants and vegetables such potted tomatoes etc. You can then look forward to another bumper year safe in the knowledge that your waste is now working for you, as are your worms.

Looking after your wormery in the Spring


Now Spring is starting to show itself it is time to bring your wormery out of the garage, greenhouse or wherever you have kept it over the Winter months to keep your little workers warm and dry and, hopefully, still productive while the temperatures have been lower.  Of course some of you may have kept them out during winter and just kept the sump drained during the wetter times so that your hard working wigglers don’t drown but either way it is worth doing a quick check to make sure everything is functioning as we want and to prepare them for another year of transforming stuff we would normally throw away in amazing compost.

So What Makes A Wormery So Great?
For a quick run-down of what a wormery is and how it works this post covers the basics - http://blog.sherlock.co.uk/2015/04/so-what-makes-wormery-so-great.html


Getting a wormery moving again in Spring
Worms work best when it is warm and slow down a lot if the temperature drops.  In the winter it is generally a good idea to keep them somewhere warm and dry and feed them slightly less (tips and tricks here can be found at http://www.wigglywigglers.co.uk/blog/getting-your-wormery-ready-for-the-winter/)


But now Spring is on the way and the temperatures will (hopefully) start to rise you can bring them out of your shed or garage and start them as normal again (keeping a close eye on how fast they are dealing with what you give them).  


Slightly damp top layer
It’s a good time to check the state of the wormery itself as heavy winter rains may have left the bedding wet and soggy, which will compact the waste and block all the air pockets. Worms need oxygen to breathe and function well and don’t do well in compacted soil or compost.  Less oxygen also means an increase in anaerobic bacteria that can lead to rotting food, acidic conditions and some nasty smells.  These conditions mean your worms will be far from happy and may ultimately die so it’s a good time to check conditions and rectify them so that they are working optimally, ready to start creating that lovely compost you want for the forthcoming planting season.  Even if kept somewhere dry and warm it’s certainly worth checking everything is OK.


So what do you need to look for?
1. How wet is the compost and waste?  
If it’s very soggy you should mix in some shredded paper and/or cardboard (the Amazon box type cardboard is perfect).  I avoid glossy paper but any other shredded paper (credit card receipts and bank statements etc) should be OK as inks are mostly vegetable based these days.  Also, check all trays because if it’s wet in the top one it’s  likely to be the same in the others and you may need to add a layer of shredded paper to the middle layer as well.  This has the added advantage of allowing the worms to climb up to the next layer easier if it’s the type of wormery that holds the trays at a certain layer (can-o-worms and worm cafe for example).


Layer of shredded paper
2. Has the waste started to rot?
If you have overfed during the winter months then there may well be a layer of rotting food that will lead to anaerobic conditions, higher acidity and ultimately some nasty smells and dead worms. Be warned that once a bin goes off in this way mass worm death can easily follow and the smell will be so bad that you will never forget it.  It happened to me once with a wormery that had been perfectly happy for about 10 years - the smell was so bad I can actually taste it now just thinking about it!  

So, waste that is rotten and smelly should be removed as soon as possible and placed in a normal compost bin or heap where it will break down happily over time.  Chances are the bin will be quite acidic at this time so if you have some lime mix add a handful or two (most wormeries come with a small bag of lime mix to help you balance out the pH while it is being established).  Then fill the tray with as much shredded paper as you can (it is impossible for worms to overdose on paper) and leave them for a while before adding any new waste in small doses.
Lime mix and other accessories can of course be purchased from Wiggly Wigglers - http://www.wigglywigglers.co.uk/composting/wormery-extras/wormery-accessories.html


3. Do you still have worms?
Daft as this may sound but worms rot down very quickly once they die and if your bin has suffered a lot from frost, cold or anything else they may not like then they could all have died off.  Don’t worry though, they will almost certainly have left behind cocoons that will hatch and build up your population again but it is a slow process.  Once you know the Winter is truly over it may well be worth buying a new batch of worms to kick start things again.  These can be purchased from http://www.wigglywigglers.co.uk/composting/worms.html


4. Emptying the bottom tray
Now your wormery has made it through the Winter the bottom tray is likely ready to empty but there’s likely still the odd worm in there and this has been the cause of many a discussion.  Please read a previous article I wrote on emptying the bottom tray that can be found at http://blog.sherlock.co.uk/2009/03/emptying-bottom-layer-of-your-worm-bin.html

Conclusion
This should be enough to make sure your wormery is in tip-top condition for the new year but you'll still need to keep a close eye on things, especially in the UK where we have such changeable weather and quite a bit of rain.

Make sure you position your wormery somewhere out of extreme weather if possible, empty the sump regularly (for all that free plant food if nothing else) and keep a brick on the lid to stop it from blowing away if it is more open to the elements than necessary.

And above all else keep an eye on them to check they are keeping up with what you are feeding them.





So what makes a wormery so great?


For those of you who don’t yet own a wormery and wonder quite what all the fuss is about read on…

Can-o-worms wormery

In short, a wormery is a fantastic way of taking your kitchen waste and transforming it (in the form of ‘castings’) into a compost so high in nutrient value that I often refer to it more as a fertiliser than a mere compost.  It diverts such kitchen waste from landfill (if your Council doesn't already collect it) but also saves you from having to then buy in compost and mulch later in the year when you need it in your garden. A wormery will also produce a fantastic liquid fertliser that, when watered down at about 10:1, will provide organic feed to all your plants and vegetables thereby saving you yet more money.  If you don’t have plants to feed then just adding it to your borders will help improve the structure of your soil with a multitude of friendly nutrients and organisms.  If you don’t have plants or borders I’m sure there will be gardeners a plenty happy to take the castings and liquid feed off your hands (at least if they realise how powerful it is).

Composting with a wormery is a great way for people without the room for a compost bin or heap to compost.  They are generally small and neat and can be kept close to the house to save the trip down a cold and windswept garden in the winter.  “Eww, but  what about the smell?”, I hear you say.  Simple, there isn’t one!  Really, if a wormery is working correctly the compost should have a slight earthy smell and not cause any problem at all.

They come in all shapes and sizes as well but generally consist of a number of trays and a sump. Once the first tray is full you add the second and the worms will wiggle their way up through the holes in the tray above to get to the layer of new waste (generally once they have finished the tray they are currently in of course).  Once that tray is full you add another and the process continues until the last one is full, by which time the bottom one should now consist of a beautiful black gold, known as vermicompost, ready to be applied to plants as a top dressing, mixed with other compost to make a potting mixture or just added to your borders as a fertiliser-come-mulch that will feed the plants every time it rains as well as improve the quality of your soil in the long run.

Bottom tray, ready for emptying
For help with how best to empty the bottom tray please read http://blog.sherlock.co.uk/2009/03/emptying-bottom-layer-of-your-worm-bin.html

Resources
Wiggly Wigglers no longer sell wormeries but they do still sell the necessary items for keeping them in tip top condition - http://www.wigglywigglers.co.uk/composting/wormery-extras/wormery-accessories.html

Worm City sell a British built stacking wormery - http://www.wormcity.co.uk/wormeries.htm