April 2008

Creepy Pants Update

I just thought I would provide a quick update on my ‘Creepy Pants’ vermicomposter experiment. Since writing my first post about the system I have had the chance to test it out a little and iron out some potential issues early on.

One thing I didn’t really touch on was the fact that jeans are themselves somewhat biodegradable, so the system is definitely going to deteriorate over time, eventually falling apart completely. This will likely take quite a long time, but it is something to keep in mind nevertheless. I’m sure you would have ample warning before materials (compost etc) start to fall out on their own, but you may still want to locate a system like this in an outdoor location, or at least in a basement (as I have done). One solution would be to use synthetic pants (wind pants / fitness pants) – these could work very well and would be very resistant to decay. Just make sure to keep them out of direct sunlight (a good idea just for the sake of protecting the worms anyway), since it will weaken the fabric over time.

As I discovered, it is also helpful to provide enough support ropes to keep the composter in an nice upright position – not only will this make it easier to drop waste materials down inside, but this also helps to keep the moisture distributed more evenly. I originally only had the one rope attached to two of the belt loops. I ended up adding another rope (for two more of the loops) along with a single bungy cord as well to help pull up a drooping corner.

Similarly, I realized that there should also be some sort of prop wedged between the two legs to hold them apart – otherwise you will end up with wet contact zone where the pants themselves are likely to start rotting much more quickly. I found that a single toilet paper roll works very well!

I’m not really sure how things are shaping up inside the composter, but I suspect the worms are doing just fine. I’ve added a fair bit of waste and have watered the contents of each pant leg every day. I’ll likely now just leave it as is (continuing to add water though) and monitor the waste zones from above (using a flashlight) to see if I can detect worm activity. Once I see that the materials are being consumed I will continue adding wastes once again.

Anyway, that’s all for now! I will continue to provide updates as things progress with the pants.

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Sour Worm Bin Follow-Up

As soon as I finished writing my last post, I decided enough was enough – it was time to rescue my Euros from the horrible conditions clearly present in their bin (as indicated by the mounds of mite cadavers piled up on the floor close by). So I grabbed the bin and headed out to my big outdoor vermicomposting system – one that has up till now only been occupied by Red Worms.

I wasn’t sure what sort of gruesome mess I might find down in the bottom of the sour bin, but I knew there were at least a few Euros still alive (I found some yesterday when digging around).

As it turns out, the entire lower half of the bin was pretty much fine – a tad anaerobic perhaps, but certainly not the toxic nightmare I was half-expecting. I found countless healthy looking worms, along with plenty of juveniles as well, so that certainly has me breathing a sigh of relief! In all honesty, I could have easily just scooped the materials (and worms) from the lower half back into the worm bin and continued on my merry way with that system. Little did I realize it was only the materials in the top half of the bin that were in really bad shape.

No problemo though – I am really interested to see how they fare in the big outdoor bin.
As per usual, I will keep everyone posted!

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From Bad to Worse – Sour Worm Bin Decline

Heaps of dead mite bodies on the floor beside the bin

Well, it seems my recent attempts at getting my European Nightcrawler bin back on track are failing miserably thus far. When I looked down at the bin yesterday I was shocked to see a LOT of strange sawdust-like powder accumulated on the outer surface of the lid (near the air holes) and in various heaps on the floor around the bin. I can honestly say that I’ve never witnessed anything like this before!

Upon closer examination using my trusty Eyeclops hand magnifier, I realized that the dust was made up of countless tiny mite carcasses. These particular mites are much smaller than the round shiny ones I’ve written about before (which by the way seem to be doing just fine in this bin), so I don’t think I’ve ever really realized they were there. Given the amount of dust that has accumulated outside the bin, I’d wager to say that they were hugely abundant in the bin.
I actually found some living specimens of the same species huddled up in a writhing mass on the underside of the lid, but I suspect they won’t last much longer.

Interestingly enough, the worms seem to be ok for the most part. I saw one sluggish worm up on the surface yesterday, but it buried down into the material once the lid was off. With each passing day I am more and more impressed with these Euros. There’s no doubt in my mind that Red Worms would have been trying to get out of this bin by now and at least some would have perished I’m sure.

So what now?

I think it’s safe to say that there is nothing I can do to help mitigate the situation in the bin – it’s definitely time for an overhaul. This may sound odd (given my desire to keep a pure culture of Euros) but I’ve decided to dump the bin in my big outdoor worm bin. I want to see how well the Euros do in that bin and whether or not they can compete with the Reds. I have one other small Euro bin going at the moment, and know that I will easily be able to separate out some adults once they are in the big bin (they look quite a bit different from the Red Worms) for future Euro-only systems as well. This way I can also see what’s going on down below in the sour bin – hopefully it won’t be too ugly!

I’ll definitely take some pictures and write about it here shortly!

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Odour Removal Via Vermicomposting

A few days ago I received an e-mail from an RWC reader, Eve, who wanted to share her interesting experience with setting up a new worm bin. I asked if it was ok to share her email here since I knew others might find it really interesting as well.

Hi Bentley,
I am starting up a worm bin and have had the most amazing thing happen.

I followed your instructions for the deluxe worm bin.

Adding bedding became a challenge.

I don’t get junk mail or the paper only the Wednesday advertisements they are all on shinny or color paper so that was out and i needed something to use. I ended up using an old phone book, by old i mean eight years old. It was on a shelf in a out building. It was ate by bugs and nasty we tossed it out on the to-be-burned heap last summer and never got it completely burned it sit outside all winter. A home for stink bugs. If you have never met a stink bug you are so lucky. Anyway it stunk like stinkbug, mildew, ashes and black mold. I collected cardboard, a gallon of sawdust and the garden soil then mixed it in with the phone book strips.

Then my fridge went on the fritz and froze everything. I added all the vegies to the mix along with coffee grounds and trimmings from my house plants. Most of the frozen veggies were of the cabbage variety. Then i let it sit a week.

By Sunday the smell coming out of the worm bin was just down right nasty. So i figured it wouldn’t hurt to add composted steer manure too. So i added a gallon and mixed it in good. That manure was the best smelling thing in the tub, at this point i was starting to wonder what i was getting myself into. But it was to late to toss the whole mess out, i had already ordered a half pound of worms.

Tuesday the worms arrived. They were in bad shape we had had a late spring snow storm and they sat in the mail box for hours. They were a non moving lump but alive so dumped them into the worm bin. The pour things took over an hour to burrow into the bedding. I put up with the smell to watch them do it.

So here is the amazing part. The next day 24 hours later i take off the lid and it doesn’t smell all that bad, all the smells were there but just not as strong. Tonight 72 hours after i put the worms in the worm bin it smells like wet paper.

I just can’t believe the smell went away that fast. Have you had an experience similar to this? I read that there is no smell but does it always happen so quick?


That is SO cool, Eve. Thanks for sharing!
I’m really glad you brought this up since it’s something I haven’t talk about here. Worm composting is in fact an excellent way to reduce odours in organic wastes, and yes I have witnessed this multiple times myself.

When you leave wet wastes to sit and rot on their own they are going to tend to go anaerobic and thus end up producing a variety of unpleasant smelling compounds. Without any turning or aerating of the materials the oxygen can’t get in to where it is needed. When you add composting worms into the mix they start moving the materials around, spreading everything out and thus improving the aeration in the bin. This is why no turning is necessary with worm composting.

Once the aerobic microbes take over, you start to get the more ‘earthy’ smells being produced. There is a group of aerobic bacteria (with fungi-like characteristics) called the Actinomycetes that play an important role in aerobic decomposition, and are the organisms primarily responsible for the fresh earthy odour of good soil (and compost).

Compost itself is also an excellent odour-eater. In fact, biofilters made with finished compost have been used for years to remove odour causing compounds from air. I actually just came across an article yesterday that described how compost biofilters were able to remove more than 95% of the ammonia gas from the air during a particular research study in Denmark. The complex structure of humus not only provides lots of potential binding sites for different chemicals, but there is also a huge surface area for aerobic microbes to inhabit, and these microbes can breakdown these odour-causing compounds and/or use them directly as a food source.

As such, it is not unreasonable to predict that as the amount vermicompost in a bin increases, so too would the odour-reduction potential in the system. This of course is dependent on conditions in the bin though. If you add too much food, or let your bin go anaerobic in general, it probably won’t matter how much compost is in the bin – it’s still going to stink.

Last summer I witnessed the incredible difference the presence of composting worms can make in a backyard composter in terms of odour reduction alone (there are of course other benefits to adding worms to these systems). I decided to set up a ‘regular’ compost bin just for the fun of it, and to see how the composting process (and results) would differ from my large outdoor worm bin. I built up what I thought was the ultimate compost heap. I had lots of shredded cardboard mixed in with my ample kitchen scraps – certainly enough to soak up lots of excess moisture and to greatly help with air flow.

The hilarious part is that within a few days the bin stunk to high heaven. I could literally smell it as soon as I stepped out onto my deck (the bin is 20 – 30 feet from the door) – the powerful stench of rotting food waste. It was quite a humbling experience!
Mr. ‘Compost Guy’ creates a backyard composting nightmare!

It all comes down to me being so used to setting up vermicomposting systems (and taking the odour reduction for granted) that I forgot ‘regular’ composting heaps are a somewhat different beast. I ended up adding worms to that bin as well, and not too surprisingly the odours disappeared relatively quickly

Anyway, thanks again for sharing that, Eve!
I’d be interested to hear if there are others out there who have witnessed this as well!

[tags]vermicomposting, worm bin, compost bin, composter, food waste, backyard composting, composting, compost heap, worm composting, worm composter, rotten food, compost, biofilters[/tags]

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Worm Colour Variations

Here are some more great questions from one of our loyal readers, Apple (who previously asked about mites and worm cocoons).

questions – when i turn the bin, i see many of my worms are a dark
magenta color, which seems normal to me, but a few of them seem light
peach or pale pink. are the pale ones sick or dying? they all seem
very active. do red wigglers come in many colors?

i noticed a tiny beetle in my bin today. it’s an indoor bin, so i’m
not completely sure how he got in. is this ok, or could it present a
problem to the cocoons and/or worms?

for a while i was adding crumpled dry newspaper as bedding but now my
compost seems clumped and chunky with newspaper balls. i try to
separate it as best i can, and have since stopped adding newspaper.
will my compost ever take on that rich texture with the newspaper
clumps in there? i’m seeing many more castings since i stopped adding
the newspaper, but i’m not sure if it’s going to get too damp. i’ve
been adding torn egg cartons too.

Hi again, Apple!
You’ve definitely hit on an important point about the colour (re: spelling – I’m from Canada, eh! haha) range in ‘Red Worms’. This species comes in a huge array of colours and sizes, even within the same worm bin sometimes – it’s no wonder they end up with so many different common names (people assume they are different species).

I have seen them range in colour from dark reddish purple to light orange cream – sometimes with distinct stripes, other times not. One thing that DOES seem to be consistent is a yellowish region at the tip of their tail. Where they are located in a worm bin seems to possibly influence the colour as well – those down in the really wet, semi-anaerobic zones seem (in my experience) to have more of a bright orange colour than those located closer to the surface. Perhaps this might have something to do with hemoglobin levels – not really sure. (although, I would expect this to actually result in a much brighter red colour, not orange). Those worms living in very wet conditions are usually a fair bit larger as well – presumably due to water retention.

Regarding the health of your worms, my general rule of thumb is that if they are vigorous and active they are probable doing just fine. If they are sluggish and unresponsive this is not a good sign. (sounds like yours are doing great).

Periodically, certain varieties of beetles can end up in an indoor vermicomposting bin (they are certainly more common in outdoor bins) – usually via material that came in from outside. I definitely wouldn’t worry too much about them. Some of the larger beetles can be predatory, but even those pose little threat to your worm population.

One of the things I don’t like about newsprint and other paper wastes is the tendency for these materials to get matted down. An important role of worm bin bedding is to help maintain some air flow in the bin. This is why I generally prefer shredded cardboard. That being said, I wouldn’t worry too much about the clumps of paper that have formed in your bin. They should breakdown over time. If you do want to speed up the process simple break them up by hand and spread the material around the bin a bit.

I’m glad to hear that you are still adding cardboard. It definitely helps to continue adding bedding along with food wastes since – as you suspected – the contents of your bin can become waterlogged otherwise (assuming no drainage, that is).

Anyway, hope this helps! Thanks again for the questions, Apple.

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The Creepy Pants Vermicomposter

If you didn’t think I was kooky already, this post should put you over the edge!

Some time ago this bizarre idea for a vermicomposting system popped into my head. I was thinking of ways to make a simple ‘continuous flow’ system that would allow you to easily collect castings without having to worry about separating out the worms later.

Continuous flow systems, like the one I’m using for my 4 worm experiment are great because they take advantage of a composting worm’s tendency to follow a food source (whether it be in an upwards or sideways direction) and move away from their own waste (worm castings). Like my wooden stackable bin, most of these types of systems are rigid containers of some sort.

The inspiration for my ‘creepy pants’ idea came from the landscape cloth funnel vermicomposter of the ‘Digestive Table‘, and a commercial system known as the ‘Swag’ (see video below).

These systems are brilliant in that they involve a much simpler design, are far less expensive to make, and are very easy to use. I figured I would take it even one step further and come up with a system that utilizes something most people already have – old jeans (or any other pants) that no longer get worn. They have a considerable volume capacity, so you could likely process quite a bit of waste and house a lot of worms. They are also very breathable so they will provide ample aeration, but still thick enough of keep out a lot of light.

Yesterday, I finally decided to make one of these systems for myself. As mentioned recently, I have a lot of aged manure and new Red Wigglers so I figured it was a prime opportunity to set up some new systems.

Normally, I would set the pants system up exactly the same way I set up a regular worm bin. I would mix a lot of food waste with shredded cardboard, then simply let it sit for a week or two. For this system however, because I already have this nicely aged manure and worms I can get started right away (since the manure provides habitat and food for the worms). All I did was 1) Hang the pants from one of my basement ceiling supports, 2) Close off each of the legs using a pull-tie (cable tie?), 3) Add some shredded ‘egg carton cardboard’ in the bottom of each pant leg (for moisture absorption), then 4) Add aged manure and worms to each of the legs. Now they are ready to receive food scraps (I’ll likely add some more worms first though since I want this system to work quickly).

You would likely need to add water to a system like this since a considerable amount of moisture will pass through and evaporate from the pants. If you keep your pants composter outside, I would recommend hanging it in a shady location – from a shady tree perhaps? I think this would be a really fun project for kids.

Once your system is totally full you can start testing out the vermicompost in the bottom of the pant legs. Simply loosen the pull-ties and let some of the material drop down into a bucket. If it looks good you can harvest some of it from both legs. One other possible idea, if you don’t want to bother emptying it at all – you could probably remove a lot of worms from the upper layers then simply turn the system into an outdoor planter. Cut slits down the pant legs and insert young plants (herbs would work very well) directly into the vermicompost. You can then move it to a sunny location to allow the plants to grow – just make sure to keep it well watered since it will likely dry out very quickly!

So there you have it – the ‘Creepy Pants Vermicomposter’. Try it out for yourself!
Just so ya know, I’m also going to put together a quick video about this system, and will of course keep you posted on how it is working for me.

Oh, and by the way – in case you are wondering about the name – you try hanging a pair of empty pants from your ceiling and see if you aren’t just a little bit creeped out too!

Kind reminds me of that Dr. Seuss story…

…I was deep within the woods
when suddenly I spied them.
I saw a pair of pale green pants
with nobody inside them.
I wasn’t scared but yet I stopped.
What could those pants be there for
What could a pair of pants at night
be standing in the air for?

Excerpt from What Was I Scared Of? in “The Sneetches and Other Stories” by Dr. Seuss.

Other (Later) Creepy Pants Blog Posts:
Creepy Pants Update
Moldy, Creepy Pants
The Pants Come Off!

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Bugs Ate My Worms!

This question comes from Wendy, who is worried that various worm bin creatures are having a negative impact on her worm population.

I started worm composting following your instructions and adding a
pound of worms. Things were going great for a few months. I even
saw some worm eggs and I was able to harvest some castings. Then the
little flies came, little triangle, slow flying things. I haven’t
seen a picture that look like them so I don’t know what they are. I
also noticed little brown seed like things in the bin and then very
little squirmy things. I don’t think they were baby red wigglers,
they moved weird, not like a worm, kind of like a maggot – but much
much smaller. Then the bin started smelling bad and I noticed that
the worms were not moving much. I think the things ate the worms, I
can’t find any, not even dead ones. Help!!!

Hi Wendy!
Ok, so let me get this straight. You have:
“little triangle, slow flying things”, “little brown seed like things”, and “very little squirmy things”?

Sorry – couldn’t resist! All teasing aside, I do know how tough it can be to figure out what all these various bin creatures are.
I’m not 100% sure what your triangular, slow moving flies might be, but whatever they are there is probably a reasonable chance that the little maggots are the juveniles of these flies. The brown seed-like critters are probably a species of mite.

Is it likely that any of these creatures would eat your worms?

Not really…well, assuming this is an indoor bin, anyway. If it is located outside there is a somewhat higher chance of it being invaded by something that can harm the worms.
It definitely sounds as though some (if not all) of your worms have died. I’m not surprised that you can’t find any though – dead worms generally decompose very quickly.

Unfortunately, without seeing the bin for myself or knowing what you’ve been using for food etc, it is tough to know for sure what might have happened. As for what to do now, I would definitely recommend starting up a second bin and moving over as many live worms as you can find. I would also try mixing a lot of fresh bedding into the old bin then letting it sit for awhile, left alone. You mentioned there being cocoons in the bin, so you may be surprised to find that the bin has bounced back with a new worm population in a couple months.

Anyway, sorry I can’t be of greater assistance! Feel free to provide any additional details or ask any other questions you may have.



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