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A Green Thumb Without the Benefit of a Garden

By Sara Gebhardt
Saturday, May 29, 2004; Page T09

Spring and summer can bring out garden envy in many apartment dwellers. Some handle the gardening itch by tending to a few house plants. Others, such as Adams Morgan resident Eve Bratman, go a lot further.

After she found out all the spots were taken in her neighborhood's community garden, the former gardening teacher, who worked with community gardens in Chicago for four summers, refused to give up her passion for the earth.

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So Bratman, 24, who shares her one-bedroom apartment with her boyfriend, invited some more living creatures into their home when she bought 250 earthworms on eBay.

"I am very interested in sustainable living," said Bratman, who holds a bachelor's degree in environmental studies. "I came up with the idea of using all of the aluminum cans from canned tomatoes or beans and planting seeds in them. I bought worms for indoor composting and am creating dirt by composting."

Bratman has been reluctant to tell her neighbors about the worms she keeps in a four-gallon plastic container underneath her sink for fear of how they might react. But now that her system is thriving, she is proud of it and says she is slowly "coming out" about her worms.

When she realized 250 worms weren't enough to create the dirt she needed for her herb, tomato and pepper plants, Bratman ordered 2,000 more earthworms that are up to five inches long.

She throws food scraps into the worm habitat, which includes moistened leaves and a newspaper covering to keep the worms' bodies at the right temperature. The pound of worms consumes about quarter of a pound of food a week. The digested food "comes out as really rich soil," Bratman said.

Bratman said her composting experiment is working well. With rubber gloves, she separates the soil from the worms and uses it to boost some of her store-bought indoor plants, including a Christmas cactus, five tomato plants, three pepper plants and herbs that include dill, basil, sage and thyme. She grows them in aluminum cans in each room of her fourth-floor apartment and in window boxes that she bought at a local farmer's market.

She hopes that with more time, and thus more composting, she can use solely the dirt she produces in the bin under her sink.

"The worm compost adds to the richness in the soil. You can really tell. People call it black gold. My plants are really dark green. It really works," she said.

Bratman said the plants have livened up her apartment. "I love having plants around me and all the green. It's beautified our apartment and our surroundings," she said.

"It's been a challenge for my creative side to try to figure out ways to create green. It's not quite the same as digging in the dirt, but you know, it's a close second."

It's not necessary to go as far as Bratman has to garden in apartment complexes. Many people are increasingly exploring container gardening, the easiest way for apartment residents to get their gardening fix.

"Container gardening has been one of fastest-growing segments of the gardening world in the last five years," said Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturalist for the National Gardening Association, a Vermont-based nonprofit organization established in 1972.

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