September 2007

Preparation for Winter Worm Composting

Preparing the winter worm bin

For the last little while I have been adding all my food scraps to my normal backyard composter, rather than my outdoor worm bin (pictured above), although as mentioned yesterday, I’ve now converted the composter into a worm bin too.

This year I am once again going to give winter composting ‘the ol’ college try’, to essentially see if it’s possible to vermicompost all year long up here in Ontario (Canada). My last attempt was documented on the EcoSherpa blog. You can find all the pertinent links (and pictures) on our EcoSherpa Squidoo Lens (photo links are part way down the page, followed by links to the blog posts).

[UPDATE 2018: EcoSherpa (and Squidoo) are no longer online so the links have been removed]

I will be providing full coverage on Red Worm Composting (and another soon-to-be-revealed site) this time around, so all my faithful vermi-friends (readers, not worms) will be able to follow along!

So why exactly am I not adding any more waste materials to my outdoor bin?

Basically I need to make room in the bin so I can 1) More easily add insulating layers of cardboard against the inside walls of the bin, and 2) Free up lots of space for fresh materials, which will be vitally important in order to generate a decent amount of microbial heat.

It’s been amazing watching just how quickly the level of the material in the bin goes down now that I’m no longer adding anything! Yet another reminder of just how awesome composting worms are when it comes to processing wastes.

This fall I will be collecting lots and lots of fallen leaves (may even ‘steal’ some bags from my neighbours’ curbside collections! 😆 ) – this will be very important for insulation and helping to keep the microbial fires a’ burnin! I’m also hoping to secure a supply of manure as well, since we’ll definitely need nitrogen if we expect to create a decent amount of heat.

Like last year, I will be insulating the outside of the bin. I’m thinking about using a thick layer of styrofoam insulation this time – should be better than the homemade system I created last year, and has the advantage of being easily re-usable next year. I will also once again put a tarp over top to help block wind and keep out precipitation.

I will also likely test out a new strategy this year for making sure the contents of the bin don’t freeze during the coldest months. It is actually a technique Mary Appelhoff (vermicomposting legend, who sadly passed away a couple years ago) used to keep her outdoor bins active during Michigan winters. What she did was put a bird bath heater inside a bottle of water and buried it in the centre of the bin. This ensured that the water in the bottle was always above zero, thus helping to keep the surround material above zero as well. I could of course go completely overboard and install soil heating cables, but I think that would be a tad excessive (not to mention expensive as far as my utility bill goes!).

Anyway, it should be a lot of fun! My neighbours will once again think I’m even more of a weirdo than they already do, and I think I can definitely succeed this time!!

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Getting Over The Hump – The Key to Vermicomposting Success

Contents of a small indoor worm bin

It recently dawned on me just how resilient red worms can be once they are settled in and adapted to certain conditions. I decided to dump the contents of one of my indoor bins into my ‘normal’ backyard composter (ie. not the one I made specifically for outdoor worm composting) to help speed things up and see if I can help reduce a serious fruit fly infestation.

It was a reminder of the fact that I don’t really take much of my own advice when it comes to vermicomposting anymore. 😆

As you can see in the picture above, the contents of my indoor bin are not exactly in an healthy, aerated state. On the contrary, much of the material is an anaerobic sludge (I don’t drill drainage holes in my indoor bins anymore). Yet the uppermost layers (not visible in the picture) are absolutely teeming with healthy, active red worms!

I think the key was providing the worms with a near perfect environment early on, allowing the population to grow on its own to fit the system (not introducing ‘X’ lbs per square feet of bin space right off the bat) and not fiddling with it too much. The rest seems to take care of itself.

I’m sure it also helps that the worms I introduced were healthy and came from a similar mix of materials (cardboard, foodscraps etc).

It’s unfortunate that most of the problems encountered with a home vermicomposting system tend to occur early on, when newcomers most need to be cut a little slack. It’s like an initiation period for vermicomposters. If you make it past the two or three month mark, you are laughing!

Here again are some of the important things to remember when just getting started:

  • Create a worm-friendly environment prior to introducing worms (I recommend mixing up some bedding with food waste in a bin, spraying it with water then letting it sit for a good week or two)
  • Let your worm population grow into the system – don’t necessarily go by the 1lb/sq ft rule (I’d recommend half that when starting out)
  • Don’t be so eager to ‘feed’ your new worms – if you have mixed in a decent amount of food waste with the bedding (as mentioned above), your worms should have plenty to eat for a while. Try adding small quantities of scraps and see how quickly they disappear – if the worms seem really eager to feed, slowly up the levels of waste you add
  • Mellow out when it comes to checking up on your worms all the time – they don’t really like to be disturbed, especially when they are already stressed (from harvesting/handling/shipping)
  • Start a second (smaller?) system and introduce some of your worms once it is well aged (acts as a small insurance policy)
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Red Worm Cocoons

As mentioned in my last post, I wanted to write something about red worm cocoons and post some pictures so that everyone knows what they are looking for.

The other day when I was digging through one of my bins I came across an unbelievable mass of cocoons (also called ‘capsules’). I usually have no trouble finding them in any of my worm composting systems, but I can honestly say that I’ve NEVER seen anything like this.

Unfortunately I could not get a good picture (camera didn’t know what to focus on) but I figured I would post the best one anyway.

Clusters of Red Worm Cocoons

I also took a much better picture of some cocoons I collected. As you can see below, worm cocoons have an oval or even tear-drop shape to them. They tend to be a dark straw-yellow colour, but become darker brown once the young worms hatch.

Red Worm Cocoons

The number of cocoons in a given worm bin depends on conditions and materials present. I’ve seen major increases in cocoon production in paper sludge, and you’ll often find a lot of eggs associated with corrugated cardboard if you happen to use it as bedding.

Temperature, moisture content and worm population are all important determining factors. If conditions in a system decline – food source depletion, drying out of bedding, temperatures drop etc – red worms will often start producing more eggs to ensure the success of future generations. I’ve read that some worm farmers will actually dry out their systems in order to get increased cocoon production (and then will bring moisture levels up again to stimulate hatching).

Worm cocoons can withstand conditions far worse than those tolerable for the worms themselves. Glen Munroe reports in the >Manual of On-Farm vermicomposting and Vermiculture that red worm (Eisenia fetida) eggs can even survive extended periods of deep freezing.

Cocoons can also remain viable for many years before hatching. Vermicomposting expert, Dr. Clive Edwards has heard of worm cocoons being able to survive for as long as 30-40 years (Casting Call, Vol 2 #6; p1).

The cocoon itself starts as a mucus band produced by the clitellum during reproduction. Once sperm is exchanged between worms (remember each worm has both male and female sex organs but most species still reproduce via cross-fertilization), the worms separate and the clitellum releases a compound which causes each worm’s mucus ring to harden. This hardened band is then slides off the worm, collecting sperm and eggs along the way. As it separates from the worm both ends are sealed.

One other little tidbit of interesting info…
I’ve read that worms hatched from cocoons in a given material will tend to be much better adapted than any adult worms introduced to the same material (assuming they weren’t also born in it themselves). If you buy worms that were raised in manure and try to feed them food scraps for example you may find that they want to roam initially (I have witnessed this myself). Adding a bunch of cocoons on the other hand should provide you with a thriving population of highly adapted worms (assuming you don’t mind waiting for them to hatch and grow up).

I’m actually surprised that more worm sellers don’t offer cocoons – they’d certainly be much cheaper to ship and could potentially result in more bang for your buck (each cocoon of Eisenia fetida will generally produce multiple baby worms).

Well, I think that’s enough about worm cocoons for now! If you have never seen any yourself, be sure to dig around in your bin and see if you can locate some.
My next goal is to see if I can get a picture of a cocoon with a baby worm coming out. I’m going to try hatching some outside the bin in a smaller system where I can keep close tabs on them. I’ll be sure to keep you posted on my progress!

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Corn Cob Composting

Yet another quiet spell here on the blog the last little while. Sorry folks! I’ve been very focused on a really important work project. Once I put that puppy to bed things should definitely get a lot more active around here!

Anyway, just thought I’d write a quick post to get things rolling here again. Back on Sept 3rd I added some intact corn cobs (along with other food waste and some cardboard) to my indoor bins to see what would happen. Today (Sept 12th) I thought I would check to see how things were coming along

As you can see we’ve made some progress! Things are definitely decaying, especially the peaches I put in. Unfortunately I had to dig around in the bin after taking this shot (was taking some other photos), so I won’t have any more shots with everyting in the same place (definitely more effective for showing changes over time). Oh well – I’m sure I’ll have plenty more worm bin ‘play by plays’.

I didn’t see too many worms crawling on the corn, but I did see many congregated beneath (in both bins).

I would imagine that there is a pretty juicy buffet of assorted microbes growing on the corn by now (and in fact you can easily see some of the fungal colonization in the picture above).

Both of my indoor bins (and outdoor bins for that matter) have a huge population of springtails. I discovered what look to be immature springtails today, but they may also be another (smaller) species. I’ve included an ‘extreme close-up’ below. The small gray flecks on the kernels are what I’m referring to. You can see the ‘normal’ springtails (with white ones) quite clearly as well. There also seems to be some eggs or small mites in the picture as well. I will have to investigate again soon to see if I can figure out what those are.

Anyway, that’s all for now! I took some cool pictures of worm eggs today, so stay tuned for a post about that in the near future!

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