As some of you may recall, a couple of years ago I decided to remove a large quantity of material from my sandbox trench and basically start fresh. It was a really interesting experience, and I ended up with a large quantity of beautiful, rich “black gold”. I ended up using it as a sort of compost-mulch for my raspberry bed.
Earlier this week I decided to do it all over again, after noticing that the bed was no longer supporting nearly as many Red Worms (yet there were loads of soil worms), and that the material was looking very well processed and ready for use. I was also in need of some place – somewhat separated from the rest of my outdoor beds – where I could put material containing a LOT of Euro cocoons.
Today I was getting ready to put together a self-mocking post entitled “Bentley’s Ultimate Bin…For Growing Isopods”, telling you all about how my “ultimate bin” project ended up being a total dud for Red worms, but a top notch way to breed loads of isopods (aka “sow bugs”, “wood lice” etc).
Things have continued to move along (slowly but surely) with my “Ultimate Backyard Worm Bin” project. Most of the overheating has subsided and I’ve been seeing more and more Red Worms moving in (and even laying cocoons) – especially around the sides.
I’ve been mixing in more shredded cardboard and watering the system fairly regularly. I’ve also recently started adding lots of coffee filters (as you can see in the image above). As an added bonus, taking the time to rake out the filters and other materials in the coffee grounds mix (such as egg shells and small amounts of fruit/veggie waste) leaves me with some nice looking grounds that I’ve started laying down as a mulch. Previously, the stuff coming from the coffee shop was only fit for hidden applications. lol
As you can see below, my first mulching project has involved creating a nice thick bed of grounds out in front of my backyard composters. I wish I had some “before” pictures for this location – it was a REAL eyesore (OK, so it’s still a work-in-progress! Haha)! Apart from just making this corner of the yard look nicer, I also want to see if the mulch bed will end up with lots of Red Worms in it. I suspect that I will need to pile it on pretty thick if I want to keep it from drying out all the way down, but we shall see!
Getting back to the ultimate bin…
I recently received a huge load of beautiful well-aged horse manure (even had some Red Worms already in it) and I am toying with the idea of adding some to the bin. On one hand this sort of feels like “cheating” since I really wanted to see how the worm population would do in a cardboard-dominated bin, but at the same time, if this is really going to be an “ultimate” bin I need to do everything I can to create the best habitat for the worms.
I will definitely give it some more thought, and let you know what I’ve decided to do in my next update!
Things have settled down a little on various fronts, so I’ve found myself with a bit more time to “play” (i.e. time to start fun projects that I can write about here). The first thing I’ve been working on is a continuation of last year’s “Cardboard ‘n’ Coffee Vermicomposting” project. As some of you may recall, last July I basically just tossed stacks of cardboard drink trays into my big wooden backyard bin – along with other materials, including a large quantity of coffee grounds – in an effort to see how long it might take Red Worms (and other critters) to process the cardboard. OK, I also just generally needed some place to put all those stacks of trays! lol.
As is often the case with my fun projects, I basically forgot about the bin and moved on to other things – at least until later in the fall, when I needed a spot to dump a surplus supply of coffee grounds (I was continuing to pick them up from a local coffee shop, but my winter bed was well stocked by that point).
See a pattern emerging here?
As things started warming up this spring, I finally started treating the bin more like a vermicomposting system than a garbage can (lol), adding deposits of food waste along with more coffee grounds, and the level of material seemed to drop a fair bit. That’s not to say it was remotely close to an optimized worm bin though – as per usual (when working with lots of coffee grounds) everything overheated and I ended up with lots of grayish, dried-out grounds, and barely a worm in sight!
A short time ago I decided that enough was enough – it was time to finally get the bin working properly! Thus began the creation of “Bentley’s ‘ultimate’ backyard worm bin”!
In spite of the difficulties I was encountering with the coffee grounds, I knew the contents of the bin would actually provide me with a great starting place for creating a top notch worm bed. I figured all I’d need to do – at least initially – was to mix in LOTS and LOTS of shredded cardboard/paper, and to add LOTS of water. No “food” of any kind – just bedding and water.
I must say the strategy has actually worked out quite well so far! The contents have continued to heat up, but not quite as much as before, and when I turn everything over it actually looks (and smells) quite good.
Today, I decided to take things one step further by lining the inner walls of the bin with sheets of cardboard. Normally it’s just slats of wood sitting between the contents and the outer environment, so everything stays pretty dry around the outer perimeter of the composting zone – especially when there are lots of coffee grounds. With the inner cardboard walls, the bin should still be able to “breathe”, yet retain a lot more moisture (another advantage of mixing in so much shredded cardboard as well).
Once my inner wall was in place, I felt inspired to mix in even more shredded cardboard (and water down yet again).
My original plan was to continue mixing in bedding until the bin was essentially full. I’m starting to think this might end up taking longer than expected, though! As the system becomes more and more optimized it seems to be composting more and more effectively – so the level of materials has continued to go down.
Nevertheless, I’m already having a LOT of fun with the project (feels like the “good ol’ days” – haha), and can’t wait to see how the system turns out. It seems as though the worms are already starting to move into the bin again, so I don’t think it will be too long before the bin is crawling with them.
RWC worm friend, Cassandra Truax, recently shared a really cool link on the RWC Facebook page and I knew I just had to share it here as well. I’m not sure how long the video and article will stay online (News websites can be bad for quickly removing, or at least moving content) so be sure to check it out while you can.
The video above features a very cool new vermicomposting system that was developed at Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU).
Here are a couple of blurbs from the article (basically just transcript of video):
This machine, developed at SVSU, speeds up the process by grinding up things like wasted food and grass clippings. That material is then sent into a chamber filled with thousands of worms.
SVSU officials think they might be able to mass produce the Worm Factory for about $1,000 per unit. Widespread use could go a long way in reducing the amount of wasted food and paper products sent to landfills
Back at the end of April I received an email from Robert Bishop, the property manager for YMCA Camp Greenville, a “resident camp” (open year round – for summer camps and various educational programs) in Greenville County, South Carolina. He was assigned the task of taking care of the camp’s rather neglected 3-compartment worm composting system, and was hoping to get some advice on how he might get it up and running again.
Seeing how enthusiastic Robert was about the project, and how cool the camp vermicomposting system is I decided to ask if he might be interested with sharing the project with us here. He was more than happy to do so, and it’s only been due to my busy schedule that I’ve taken so long to get the ball rolling here on the blog. I’ve started with his first installment, and one additional update (from May 8th) below. I hope to get a current status report from him fairly soon and will post that once it becomes available.
The bins: We have an outdoor 3-bay wooden composting setup. Each bay (bed) is approx. 4ft x 3ft x 4 feet deep. Each bay is separated by a removable frame that has 1/8″ hardware cloth, which allows for migration between each bay. The bin has removable fronts for cleaning/emptying, and each top is a hinged wooden frame with metal roofing attached. The back side of the compost bins are vented with 1/8″ hardware cloth at the top, middle, and bottom. The entire frame is set approx. 4″ into the earth, and has an open bottom for drainage. The bins are not insulated in any way, and are exposed to heat and cold extremes.
Current conditions: These beds have not been very well cared for, yet the worms I have found inside seem to be doing well despite their living conditions. I am going to assume that these are newer hatchlings (I hope that is the proper term) that have emerged this spring. They appear to be around 1/2 to 1 inch long, and by rough estimate there are 600 – 700 worms in each of 2 active beds.
Bed #1 contains sticks, wood chips, pine needles, leaves, and a little bit of food that has been mostly composted. The bin is approx. 2/3 composted.
Bed #2 is filled with completed compost and a mixture of unprocessed wood chips. I have managed to screen out a medium sized wheelbarrow full of finished compost, and it appears to be very nice, clean, and rich with a wonderful, earthy aroma.
Bed #3 contains wood chips, sawdust, leaves, sticks, and some decomposing veggies. It appears that the bedding is approx. 1/3 composted.
My short-term goals: I feel that the best way to ensure success with these beds is to clean one side out, screen the finished compost and remove worms, and start over with fresh bedding and food. Once the new bedding has aged, I plan to screen out the other beds and transfer all of the worms into the new bed. Then I can begin to monitor the worms and get their environment under control, and eventually introduce new worms into the mix and get the composting under way. I have access to our dining hall scraps daily, and have a lot of cardboard and leaves/grass clippings to process. I will also have horse manure to add into the mix once our summer programming starts in late May.
~ May 8th Update ~
Been a busy couple of weeks for the camp, but I have managed to put in some hours cleaning out the compost bins and re-doing the bedding. I have lined 2 of the beds with cardboard on the sides and bottom, and I used hand-shredded cardboard and grey egg crates mixed with decomposing leaves and pine needles,plus I mixed in some partially composted woodchips and plenty of water, and added in approx. 5 lbs of fresh vegetable scraps and crushed egg shells. I let this sit for about 6 days before adding in the worms and composted material they were in. Waited 3 days and then checked the beds…..the worms are thriving! I now have a very large colony of worms growing and eating, and have been adding 2-3 lbs of fresh vegetable and fruit scraps per day, alternating between 2 of the beds.
If you’ve followed the blog for a while, or have at least spent some time perusing articles, the term “vermicomposting trench” will more than likely ring a bell. These in-ground vermicomposting systems quite literally opened the door to an entirely new, exciting world of vermicomposting/gardening possibilities for me – and I certainly haven’t been shy about letting people know!
Pretty funny when you consider how it all began…
In late spring of 2008, shortly after starting up my own worm composting business, I decided to get in touch with a popular local restaurant to see if they might be interested in giving me some of their compostable waste materials. As it turned out, the owner was very eager to sit down and chat about the possibilities, since this had been something weighing on his mind for some time. All of their organic wastes had simply been getting tossed in a dumpster up to that point, so he was certainly open to the possibility of exploring some environmentally-friendly (and hopefully less costly) options.
Long-story-short, thanks to a BIG dose of naive excitment on my part, and my ability to convince the owner (and even his rather cynical manager) that I knew what I was doing (haha), I left that meeting having agreed to take the ENTIRE composter-friendly waste stream (fruit & veggie waste, egg shells, and coffee grounds) off their hands – literally hundreds of pounds (and many garbage cans full) of material each week.
C’mon – it’s almost entirely water, right? No big deal!
Well, for the first couple of weeks it probably didn’t seem like such a big deal. I had lots of “food” for my worm herd, and I was getting lots of exercise outside, hauling bins and chopping up the materials by hand (with a shovel, that is! lol). Gradually my enthusiasm started to wane, however, as it became apparent not only that the project was going to require a HUGE time commitment on my part but, even more importantly, that perhaps my medium-sized suburban property might not be the ideal setting for dealing with all that organic waste.
After quickly overloading all my various composting/vermicomposting systems, and then many of my various empty containers, I went into squirrel mode and started digging holes all over my yard so I could bury all evidence of my unbelievable stupidity (haha)!
Eventually I even ran out of good spots to dig holes…but still, the wastes kept a comin’!
It literally got to the point where the stench of rotten food waste would hit my nose as soon as I stepped out on my back deck (to this day, I am amazed that I didn’t end up with a single complaint!). I knew that even if I DID pull the plug on the project (increasingly looking like an inevitable outcome), I’d still have to deal with a LOT of rotten material that was only becoming more foul with each passing day. I needed a drastic solution, and I needed it “yesterday”!
That’s when the trench idea popped into my head! I can’t remember for sure, but I would NOT be surprised in the least if my first plan was simply to dig a really deep trench and then bury everything – but regardless, I (thankfully) ended up settling on the idea of setting up the trench like a giant worm bin instead.
The rest, of course, is history!
I certainly won’t claim that my vermi-trenches ended up being the answer to ALL my waste troubles. As it turned out, I did end up having to discontinue my waste pick-ups in early September (only a few months after I began) due to time constraints and cooler weather (thus slower processing speeds). Still, just the fact that I was able to quickly take care of what would have become a much nastier situation, and then to continue on with the project for a few more months is nothing short of a miracle!
This doesn’t even factor in the positive impact the trenches have had on the adjacent garden beds (specifically, the plants growing in them)! I certainly haven’t conducted any rigorous scientific research, but I still think it’s safe to say that the trench systems have had a positive impact on my backyard plant growing efforts!
PROS of the Approach
1) Eco-friendly approach for fertilizing your plants while taking care of your organic “wastes”.
2) Can help to reduce the need for summer watering – especially when water-rich food wastes are used.
3) The system is quite well-protected against hot/dry and cold conditions.
4) Once set up it can be used for multiple seasons
5) No need to harvest compost
6) Can be a great way to handle lots of compostable waste materials
CONS of the Approach
1) Labor-intensive when first set up.
2) Not ideal for locations with high water table and/or potential for flooding
3) May not be ideal for locations with REALLY hard clay soils or underlying layers of rock.
4) Extra precautions may be needed in locations where various animals can wreak havoc (moles, rats etc)
5) Certain (non-native) earthworm species may not be appropriate for use in some locations – especially those worms adapted for at least a partial soil habitat.
6) Can sink substantially if you don’t continue to add wastes periodically (better suited as a “continuous” system than a “batch” system).
In case you’re wondering why I don’t really write about my vermicomposting trenches anymore – it’s because they’ve basically filled in permanently and turned into vermicomposting windrows! haha
I am still using them in the exact same manner as before during the growing season (i.e. continuing to add rich organic wastes, and planting crops nearby) – and I’ve continued to be impressed with the results!