Worm Share

By Amy Youngs The Worm Share project encourages symbiotic relationships between humans and worms. Through experimental artworks, participatory designs, workshops and networking technologies, I facilitate the travel and propagation of composting worms into domestic spaces and encourage others to do the same. In exchange, the worm colonies provide valuable ecosystem services.

Eisenia Foetida is a species of worm suited to living in a wide variety of situations, including domestic spaces. These hearty creatures are able to efficiently turn our food and paper waste into plant fertilizer. Vermicomposting (worm composting) can happen in a very local way—in a kitchen, a basement, an office or in a bin embedded in furniture—and it can empower individuals to participate in the reduction of greenhouse gases. Landfills and organic wastes thrown in traditional composting bins decompose and emit methane, a greenhouse gas that is more potent than carbon dioxide. On the contrary, the process of vermicomposting emits no harmful gas or unpleasant odors. The byproduct of worms is a nutrient-rich material that looks and smells like soil.

The project began with artworks that integrated live worms into sculptures and furniture within domestic spaces. In my sculpture Digestive Table, for instance, a flow-through worm bag was built into a functional table so humans could literally share a meal with worms. People observed the composting activity of the worms on an LCD screen built into the table surface and connected to an infrared camera that monitored the worms’ activity below. I posted the building plans for this sculpture online to help popularize vermicomposting by inspiring others, who might also have desired a useful and aesthetically pleasing worm home, to reproduce the table. I soon discovered that there was far more demand for a simpler, utilitarian version of the flow-through worm bag—one without the table or the camera technology. Once I posted my simplified worm bag designs online, a community of builders developed. People I’d never met began to construct their own bags, ask me questions, post suggestions and upload photos of their finished projects—many of which, based upon a builder’s needs or the materials available, diverged widely from the original. I was impressed with the improvements and evolution of the design that spontaneously occurred just within the comments section of the instructions webpage: With more than 59,000 viewers and 160 public comments, this project has had more exposure than most of my gallery exhibitions.

Recently, Worm Share has taken on the form of workshops that encourage people to design their own creative worm bins to fit their lifestyles and the needs of the worms. Everything from custom kitchen cabinets to bike trailer bins have been imagined and some of the new designs are being field tested now. All of the workshop participants who are ready to build their bins, are encouraged to take home a pound of free starter worms, which come from my own worm colony. Worms are a never-ending, regenerative source, multiplying based on the amount of food and space available. Workshop participants also learn how they can double their efforts to reduce greenhouse gases by freely sharing their worms with friends and strangers. Worldwide worm sharing is possible through the online network,, which encourages people to identify their general location on a map and willingness to share worms with others. Free and anonymous worm sharing regularly takes place in my town via porch drop-offs. In exchange, I encourage the people receiving starter worms to "pay it forward" and become a future worm-sharing node within this community of creative design and open-source sharing.

Click on the image to advance to the one. Point the mouse at the bottom of the image to see additional controls.

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[/aslideshow] World map of vermicomposters (red markers identify a person willing to share):

Photos of Worm Share Workshop at Spaces Gallery in Cleveland, OH:

Digestive Table sculpture and worm bag construction plans:

Contributor’s biography Amy M. Youngs creates biological art, interactive sculptures and digital media works that explore the complex relationship between technology and our changing concept of nature and self. Obsessions include creating artificial nature experiences, spying on worms and constructing indoor, edible ecosystems. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she is an Associate Professor of Art and Technology at The Ohio State University. To learn more about her, please visit her website at

Photo Credits: Photo 05 is a compilation of photos that were posted to the comments page of Young's "Instructable" for building a worm bin. Photo 08 from Spaces Gallery Staff.

Re-establishing Ancient Agricultural Practices: Lessons from the Recent Past (Part One)

By Jennifer Huebert Editor’s Note: This article is the first of three case studies investigating ancient agricultural practices. Look for the next installment in the Winter 2012 issue.

One of today’s most pressing global issues is the need to produce food more efficiently in order to feed the growing world population (1). This issue has been addressed with solutions ranging from genetically modified food plants to mechanized large-scale monoculture cropping practices. However, modifications people make to the landscape to cultivate food create significant and often destructive changes in the environment (2). Conscious efforts must be made to sustain agroecosystems and conserve natural resources so they can function in perpetuity.

There are important reasons to look to the ancient past for possible solutions to today’s agricultural problems. The environmental and social problems humans face today are not new. In fact, humanity may have faced the very same challenges millennia ago; people developed strategies to survive, and, at other times, the choices they made led to their ultimate demise. By looking at the past, we can see that cultures that modified ecosystems in environmentally unsustainable ways did not endure (e.g. 3, 4). We must study challenges faced in the past and attempt to learn from mistakes. In doing so, we can learn how to deal effectively with today’s problems.

Forces both cultural and natural—climate fluctuations, shifting dunes, geographic exploration, wars—acting over widely varying spans of time combine to make the world an unpredictable and constantly changing place (5). Cultures must be able to adapt because the environment and the world around us are continually changing; I argue that cultures must also adopt environmentally sustainable subsistence practices to ensure their long-term survival. In order to effectively implement change, these practices must fit within the social and economic systems of the cultures that use them (6).

In the distant past, when civilizations survived hard times there was often no record of their successes. Strategies once used to survive in difficult environments may be long forgotten; adaptive strategies may have occurred as an accumulation of subtle changes over long spans of time. When faced with looking at cultural and environmental changes over the long durée, archaeology can provide a unique perspective (7). As an interdisciplinary field, it also has the ability to bring together humanist and scientific disciplines in its pursuit. All of these attributes make archaeology especially suited to help people understand the consequences of the changes they consider effecting in the modern world (2, 4).

The study of ancient agricultural practices can thus provide valuable data to modern-day farmers, crop scientists and policy makers. Some agronomists have advocated that participatory development that uses sustainable practices is the answer. These practices encourage people to be self-sufficient in their means of food production, and ensure local control over resources and techniques used to raise crops (8, 9). An added benefit is the ability to apply a uniquely local perspective to management strategies that mitigate risks (10). This review, presented in three installments, explores case studies where forgotten or fading traditional agricultural practices were revived to address modern-day agricultural challenges. Examples were chosen to compare and contrast these initiatives in different cultures and geographic regions of the world. Each example illustrates a distinct problem to solve, and has a unique history to consider. Additionally, the teams all take different approaches to planning and implementing their projects. All face significant challenges and meet with varying degrees of success.

There are several key questions that should be addressed when considering the successful revival of forgotten agricultural technologies (4, 8-10).

•          First, is the practice appropriate for current environmental conditions? A landscape that once may have been a green pasture may now be a barren desert.

•          Second, is the practice sustainable? This answer may not be easy to discern without extensive study and experimentation.

•          Third, is there a clear benefit for the cost of implementing the practice? The practice may be very labour intensive to initiate, but if the returns are significant perhaps the investment is justified.

•          Fourth, is the technology accessible and are methods to implement it appropriate for this culture? Methods that require exotic tools and equipment may not be sustainable, and techniques that are unknown may be deemed risky or met with cultural resistance.

•          Finally, the ideology of the present society must be taken into account. The social networks that structure society and the motivations and needs of groups within must be understood, both for effective learning and to continue teaching these practices to the next generation (6).

Three case studies will ultimately be presented, along with a review of how effectively each initiative addressed the foregoing concerns. The projects will also be revisited to establish where they are today, and to assess whether these resurrected agricultural practices have benefitted modern-day societies.

Case Study #1: Runoff agriculture in the Negev Desert, Israel

Despite perceptions that the desert is a barren landscape, various forms of agriculture have been utilized to make desert areas productive. Modern irrigation systems have often been seen as the only solution to solving water problems in these areas, however these systems can be economically and technologically unattainable for many people (11). The techniques of runoff agriculture can provide an alternative. These techniques involve either channeling and storing seasonal desert floodwaters, or pumping the water through a system of chained wells to irrigate fields (12).

The remains of large-scale agriculture are seen throughout the Negev Desert of southern Israel, including thousands of hectares of stone walls and farmsteads, although the tradition and techniques have largely passed from memory. These remains were the source of scholarly speculation about the effects of severe erosion and climate change for more than a century before attracting the attention of a young Israeli botanist, Michael Evenari. Evenari considered that if the desert had once been farmed, it had the potential to be productive again (12). Evenari and an interdisciplinary team of scientists including archaeologists, agronomists, geologists and hydrologists, set out to study the remains of these ancient farms in the mid-20th century. Initially, the team’s goal was to prove theories about the effectiveness of runoff agriculture, rather than to revive ancient farming practices in this region. However, the project was later expanded to include extensive study of the desert climate, rainfall patterns and plants that could thrive under arid conditions.

After defining their project, the team set up a base at one of the ancient farmsteads and began to study the desert environment (see image 2). They first had to establish that the Negev had actually been a desert in ancient times, putting to rest speculations regarding a collapsed environment caused by erosion or climate change. Using archaeological excavation and aerial reconnaissance techniques, the team mapped stone walls, mounds, channels and dams that had been used to control seasonal flood waters in the desert (12). They discovered that water was channeled to the farms and, through varying arrangements, conveyed directly onto the fields or into cisterns where it was later distributed during the growing season. Three basic types of farms were identified. One involved simple terraces of low stone walls called wadis, which resemble a series of steps (see image 1). Wadis channeled floodwaters and prevented erosion. Another type of farm consisted of terraced fields and a farmhouse or watchtower, all surrounded by a stone fence. Hillside channels directed water to the terraces, and a series of stepped channels intricately directed the flow of floodwaters and pooled it for later use. The third type of farm was larger and far more elaborate, designed to catch runoff from very large wadis and direct it through a series of canals.

What were at first thought to be simple remains of single-occupation farm settlements were actually the layered remains of numerous, subsequent occupations. Archaeological excavations assisted the team in understanding the patterning and duration of human occupation dating back more than 10,000 years. While early residents settled near water sources, later residents settled along desert trade routes. Historical records, including ancient papyri discovered during archaeological excavations (12) indicated that this area was extensively settled to protect Nabataen trade routes across the desert, and later to support Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Desert farming was intensely practiced over these time periods. Historical documents indicate that the Negev desert was intricately divided up based on water rights enforced by law. After about AD 700, the desert region was taken over by people who did not need to protect these routes. Traffic decreased, and the farms were abandoned. The area has since been home to Bedouin, a traditionally nomadic peoples who occasionally farm small plots of land.

Two ancient farms were reconstructed in the team’s initial field season. These were highly experimental projects intended to collect data about rainfall volume and to observe water runoff patterns. Water was collected from the first seasonal flood and a test planting of trees and crops took place. Crops planted included grapes, almonds, olives, fruit trees and barley. Fodder crops, legumes, fibre plants and vegetables were added in subsequent seasons. Fields were fertilized with animal dung left in the area by Bedouin animal herds, with the addition of some modern fertilizers. Bedouin residing in the area assisted with the first planting (12).

The team’s first experimental season did well despite a severe drought that followed. Evenari and his team took on a larger-scale project of 80 plots of land, planted extensive fruit tree groves the following season, and reported successful harvests. Systematic evaluation of these desert runoff collection systems indicated that over 50 percent of rainwater could be collected with these methods (13). Over the next 15 years, the team continued to cultivate, observe rainfall patterns and study desert crop plants on the reconstructed farms. In 1970, one farm became a training centre to teach others how to use these methods to cultivate crops in arid areas (12).


Did this case study satisfy the criteria outlined for a successful revival of forgotten agricultural technologies? After much research, Evenari’s project team concluded that these practices were sustainable in a desert environment. It was remarkable that even unattended for many hundreds of years, water was still being channeled to the ancient cisterns during heavy rainfall. The team concluded, after examining historical documents and archaeological investigations, that desert farming had actually been practiced extensively here for a very long time. It only became a forgotten technology when trade routes through the desert were abandoned and / or remote borders were no longer maintained.

The team performed background research and experimented for several seasons to establish that these practices were appropriate for the current environmental conditions. They concluded that these cultivation techniques were still viable and productive in the Negev.

The immense effort and skill required to initially build walls and terraces throughout the desert in ancient times is thought to have involved labour coordinated from a state centre (14). Once these cultivation structures were in place, however, no extraordinary amount of labour was needed to farm the desert. Additionally, the cultivation techniques used in these systems did not require tools or technology that was out of reach for the Israeli food producers of the region.

Evenari’s project was conducted in large part to benefit the then newly formed state of Israel, and because of this, the initiative was well-supported on many levels. It should be noted, however, that the desert is also home to Bedouin. In his concluding remarks on the Negev project, Evenari mused that it would have been ideal to turn the desert into a productive environment for the Bedouins while preserving their cultural heritage (15). While it is not clear whether this aim was achieved, the model farm is now a worldwide teaching and research centre for the study of agronomy, plant and soil sciences in arid environments. It has affected change in arid farming practices in ten different countries (16), making it by all measures a successful re-establishment.

Part Two in this series will present a case study focusing on the revival of raised-bed agriculture in the Lake Titicaca basin of Peru.


1.         Uphoff NT (2002) Introduction. Agroecological Innovations: Increasing Food Production With Participatory Development, ed Uphoff NT (Earthscan, London), pp xv-xviii.

2.         Rogers JD (2004) The global environmental crisis: an archaeological agenda for the 21st century. The Archaeology of Global Change: The Impact of Humans on Their Environment, ed C. Redman SRJ, P.R. Fish, and J. D. Rogers (Smithsonian Books, Washington), pp 271-277.

3.         Diamond JM (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, New York).

4.         Redman CL, S.R. James, P.R. Fish, and J.D. Rogers (2004) Introduction. The Archaeology of Global Change: The Impact of Humans on Their Environment, ed C. Redman SRJ, P.R. Fish, and J. D. Rogers (Smithsonian Books, Washington), pp 1-8.

5.         Barton CM, et al. (2004) Long-term socioecology and contingent landscapes. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 11(3):253-295.

6.         Kolata AL, Rivera O, Ramirez JC, & Gemio E (1996) Rehabilitating Raised-Field Agriculture in the Southern Lake Titicaca Basin of Bolivia. Tiwanaku and its Hinterland : Archaeology and Paleoecology of an Andean Civilization, ed Kolata AL (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington), Vol 1: Agroecology, pp 203-230.

7.         Kirch PV & Sahlins MD (1992) Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii (University of Chicago Press, Chicago).

8.         Browder JO (1989) Introduction. Fragile Lands of Latin America: Strategies for Sustainable Development, ed Browder JO (Westview Press, Boulder), pp 1-10.

9.         Uphoff NT (2002) The Agricultural Development Challenges We Face. Agroecological Innovations: Increasing Food Production With Participatory Development, ed Uphoff NT (Earthscan, London), pp 3-20.

10.       Wilken GC (1989) Transferring Traditional Technology: A Bottom-Up Approach for Fragile Lands. Fragile lands of Latin America: Strategies for Sustainable Development, ed Browder JO (Westview Press, Boulder), pp 44-60.

11.       Fernandes E, Pell A, & Uphoff N (2002) Rethinking Agriculture for New Opportunities. Agroecological Innovations: Increasing Food Production With Participatory Development, ed Uphoff NT (Earthscan, London), pp 21-30.

12.       Evenari M, Shanan L, & Tadmor N (1982) The Negev: The Challenge of a Desert (Harvard University Press, Cambridge).

13.       Evenari M (1974) Desert Farmers: Ancient and Modern. Natural History 83(7):42-49.

14.       Haiman M (2006) ADASR - Ancient Desert Agriculture Systems Revived.

15.       Evenari M, Shanan L, Tadmor N, & Aharoni Y (1961) Ancient Agriculture in the Negev. Science 133(3457):979-996.

16.       Lange OL & Schulze E-D (1989) In memoriam Michael Evenari (formerly Walter Schwarz) 1904–1989. Oecologia 81(4):433-436.

Contributor’s Biography

Jennifer Huebert is a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland, New Zealand. She is an archaeobotanist with a particular interest in the identification and analysis of archaeological wood charcoal. Her primary research topics include the study of human palaeoecology and the development of arboriculture in the archipelagos of East Polynesia.

Georg Gerster (Image 1)

Creating a Sustainable Desert Metropolis

Artists have long appreciated the desert for its otherworldly landscape. Painter Georgia O'Keefe devoted much of her late career to capturing the distinct elements of the American Southwest, and architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright felt a strong connection to the desert – a place, he said, which inspired its own singular style of architecture. Environmental artist Joan Baron is no different in her appreciation of the desert's unique attributes and the creative opportunities they present. Such opportunities are the subject of Baron's ongoing urban landscape installation, The Edible Landscape Project – a unique rental property for those who crave the hands-on approach to their food source.

The Homeowner

In 1980, Baron bought and renovated a house on the same street as her property with the goal of creating a functional desert living space far different than your typical track house. The rental home offers her tenants a completely edible landscape and the opportunity to collaborate with her art and environmental sensibilities in a garden setting.

Baron bounces ideas off her tenants to try to answer the question that drives her art: what is it that sustains us?

"Respecting the land and what it can provide for us, living in purpose, growing one’s food and spending time outdoors with nature all contribute to best practices for sustained happiness and well-being," Baron says. "This is the making of a sustainable desert metropolis."

The Tenants

Midwest transplants, Melissa and Ben Beresford left their native Chicago to begin their respective graduate programs in Tempe. Disappointed by the sterile apartment landscape of the Phoenix metro area, they took a chance on a less traditional rental agreement when they found Baron’s project.

"We liked the emphasis on sustainability, and we both come from a family of gardeners, so it was perfect," says Melissa, who added that she and Ben had limited knowledge of how to garden in a climate with six growing seasons. Shortly after moving in, they started reaping the benefits.

Both successful harvests and failed attempts have taught them a great deal.

The Lessons

Baron and her tenants have learned the importance of strategically planning and planting for the best sun orientation. Fruit trees can handle more sun exposure, so south-side planting tends to work best. Plants that need a bit more shade can still be planted on the south side as long as some shading is provided.

They have learned that raised plant beds allow for companion planting—spatial relationships that are mutually beneficial—such as tomatoes with pole beans and kale, broccoli and cauliflower with garlic and dill.

"Mint and chives help to repel bugs and aphids, while spinach provides a living mulch for garlic," Baron says. "Marigold and oregano provide overall protection."

Raised beds also offer an element of flexibility. They can be custom designed to fit a space, and in the summer months if the raised beds need more shading, shade screen tents can be added. The beds also make it practical to use locally produced mulch and soil as well as fish oil and other nutrients.

"The beds allow me to provide my own soil mix rather than rely on the hard-dirt soil found on most properties," Baron says.

Finally, they have learned to focus their gardening energy on lesser known foods rather than the ubiquitous types of produce they can get cheaply from their local grocer.

"I encourage people to try different varieties of greens, such as microgreens or different varieties of basils or mints," Baron says. "When you go into a grocery store you will find one basic choice for your basil."

The Edible Landscape currently produces three varieties of plums, Anna apples, Desert Gold peaches, figs, pomegranates, Valencia oranges, Meyer lemons, Mexican limes, kumquats, blood oranges, Swiss chard, kale, arugula, society garlic, six varieties of peppers, artichokes, Armenian cucumbers, rosemary, oregano, sage, fennel, dill, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, okra, lavender, thyme, mint and lettuces.

"Joan taught us about some of the native medicinal plants of the desert," Ben says. "We have creosote growing along with senna, agaves, aloe, globe mallow calendula and Navajo tea." Cresote, a prevalent desert shrub, helps cure sore throats and congestion, while senna, in small quantities, can help treat digestive problems.

Re-imagining Desert Space

Growing food makes up only half of the equation, Baron says. The other half is how to use space and materials efficiently—a key idea to developing a sustainable desert metropolis.

"The Edible Landscape Project is a look at a different kind of system," Baron says.

For example, Baron collects the desert's most precious resource with a rain gutter that guides rainwater into a 400-gallon cistern she created from a section of metal culvert. She also stripped the driveway of concrete to reduce heat island and improve water absorption. She created more opportunities for natural cooling by planting five mesquite trees that are now fully grown and provide up to 40 feet of shade in the front garden. Using limbs of the native ocotillo, Baron constructed a living fence to help create a communal space for the tenants in the front garden as opposed to the back. Baron sees the frequent non-use of homes’ front space as a lost opportunity.

"We live in a backyard culture, and often the front spaces are dismissed and not considered as viable active areas," Baron says. "The ocotillo provides a lovely sculptural element to the landscape of the front space. It’s private yet welcoming."

Baron also planted a row of hollyhocks and sunflowers in the back alleyway of her studio. The gardening tactic has community implications as well: to make a shared space, solely reserved for the discarding of trash, more welcoming to the community that shares it.

If the focus of the Edible Landscape Project is how to live more sustainably in the desert, then its underlying theme is community stewardship. Baron and her tenants break the mold of the traditional owner-renter relationship, in that they must work together to care for the property and make the project grow—literally. The sense of community the project cultivates is what ultimately leads to further success.

When it comes to creating a sustainable desert metropolis, Baron reminds us that we’re all stewards, and we can all share in the bounties of nature.

Contributor's Biography:

Britt Lewis is a graduate student in the Department of English at Arizona State University, where she is studying ecocriticism.

Radishes for Adoption: A Network of Ad-Hoc Food Producers

Motivated to build relationships around local food production and self-sufficiency, "Radishes for Adoption" brought about the playful transition of verandas, rooftops and unused space into tiny, food production areas in Kyoto, Japan. In spring 2009, artist Markuz Wernli Saito encountered people in front of a supermarket and asked them to "adopt" five radish seeds each. Radishes are edible within just a few weeks. The artist claimed (truthfully) that there wasn’t sufficient sun and space for growing veggies at his house. Eventually, 30 adopters agreed and signed up to grow the radishes at their homes and meet with the artist once a week for the well-being of the plants. This project brought diverse people into a networked food-growing venture, regardless of their gardening experience or lifestyle. After seven weeks of mutual learning and encouragement, the radishes were made into vinegar pickles and exhibited in an installation of illuminated jars. The project concluded with a radish-tasting party where the participants came together for the first time to share their experience while nibbling on homegrown produce.

Over the project’s two-month duration, the artist made 182 home visits with the radish growers and spent about 80 hours providing gardening advice and encouragement. To reach the adopters, the artist biked about 850 miles. The radish growers spent approximately 400 hours (fifteen minutes per day) to raise a total of 200 plants. During the course of the project, four seeds allegedly ended up in the stomach of a bird. When the roots were pickled, most of the insecticide-free radish leaves became part of the food chain for lice, slugs, or bell maggots. Two radish growers happened to move and took their adopted crops with them.

Radishes for Adoption was an attempt to engage people who didn't know each other in something that was not only bigger than themselves but also playful. It seemed unlikely to get strangers to work together on a project like this, but they did so enthusiastically. Online documentation on this progression of growing food, relationships and commitment is available here:

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Contributor's Biography

Markuz Wernli Saito
 is an interdisciplinary artist who playfully directs—rather than restricts—the engagement of audience and project participants. The creation of unusual encounters and collaborative situations in everyday life becomes his work. Employing communication strategies in food culture, personal habits and everyday actions, he completed projects like "Thank You Notes to the Garbage Men" (Kyoto, 2007), "130 Tea Moments" (San Francisco, 2008), "The Taste of Hands, Circulating Kimchi" (Seoul, 2010), "Dancing Cooks, The No-Menu Restaurant" (Anyang, 2010) and "Growing Fence, Vertical Garden For Rent" (Kyoto, 2011). Markuz works as independent artist, creative problem-solver and educational advisor for art institutions in Asia and beyond. Visit his website at to learn more.

The Urban Foodshed Collaborative

The Urban Foodshed Collaborative provides a space and structure for New Haven youth to connect to the potential of the land around them. The youth grow food as well as their entrepreneurial abilities, and through this process, UFC grows young leaders. View the documentary here.