April 2008

‘Wild’ Red Wiggler Worms

As I mentioned in my last post, my dad recently obtained a large quantity of aged horse manure for me (a close friend of his is an avid rider). It was actually the lady at the horse boarding stable who collected the material. My dad – knowing how much of a Red Worm fanatic I am – had casually asked her if she ever saw any worms in the manure piles. She said that she had in fact seen lots of them, and when she learned about my interest in them, offered to collect some of the material for us!

My very first encounter with Red Worms actually occurred when I dug into a huge aged horse manure pile while working at a stable one summer (when 14 or 15 years old). I was told that I was welcome to take as much of the manure as I wanted back home for my dad’s garden. When I dug in and lifted the first pitchfork load of manure I couldn’t believe my eyes – it was absolutely LOADED with odd looking (to me at the time) reddish striped worms. Being an avid fisherman, I was much more familiar with the larger, brown Dew Worms (Lumbricus terrestris), or the other brown/gray worms found in my garden soil, but finding so many worms in one place – and not even in soil at all – certainly shocked me. My shock however quickly turned to excitement – I had visions of starting up my own little bait business in my dad’s backyard, and decided to gather as many of the worms as I could.

Once back at home, I at least had the sense to add the worms to my dad’s compost heap, but unfortunately it was very dry and consisted primarily of old grass clippings and woody debris. You can probably just imagine my disappointment when I returned the next day and found NO worms left in the area! My bubble was burst, and the dreams of my bait empire crushed – so I decided to give up on Red Worms – at least for a decade or so.


My main point here is that aged manure piles can be a major (and usually overlooked) gold mine in terms of getting yourself a supply Red Worms. Many farmers, stable owners etc pile manure outside for extended periods of time and don’t have the slightest care about any worms that might end up living in the material. Often, the material ends up spread on fields or gardens, but if you ask nicely and explain your interest, I’m sure most people wouldn’t hesitate to let you poke around in their manure heaps and even take some buckets of manure home with you.

Not all manure piles will contain composting worms – only those that have had them introduced, since these worms don’t live in regular soil (like the typical ‘garden variety’). All it would take is one or two cocoons stuck to the bottom of a birds foot. Aged manure heaps represent pretty well the best habitat for Red Worms, so the population in the heap would likely increase very rapidly (at a rate that would put my ‘4 Worm Experiment’ to shame, thats for sure – haha!).

So what am I going to do with my new worms and aged manure, you might ask?

Well, this morning I added a lot of material (with worms) to both of my outdoor compost bins to help boost worm populations in those systems. I’ve also used some of the no-worm material in my ‘sour worm bin’ (as mentioned), and have added it to some of my other indoor bins as well.

I’m also likely going to start up at least a couple new vermicomposting systems inside! Should be fun.

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Sour Worm Bin Saga Continues

My Euro bin after the addition of shredded cardboard and well-aged horse manure

Just thought I would provide a bit of an update on my sour worm bin situation.
As I said in the other ‘sour bin’ post, I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands to see if I can get this bin back in good shape.

The first thing I did (earlier in the week) was shred up a considerable amount of cardboard – the variety I refer to as “egg carton cardboard” – and added it to the upper layers of the bin. In this case it was actually shipping cardboard (keeps products stable inside shipping boxes), but it is essentially the same stuff. I really like it because it absorbs water very readily and also seems to break down much more quickly that corrugated or other types of cardboard.

The rationale for adding this material is that I want to absorb a lot of moisture in the upper region of the bin and also help to aerate this area as well, not to mention providing a more worm-friendly zone of material (once it is moist enough for the worms to move into).

Originally I was thinking about adding some brown leaves to the bin, but as it turns out, my leaves are very dry and likely wouldn’t help much at all. What I was hoping for were moist, partially decomposed leaves that could introduce lots of beneficial aerobic microbes and again contribute to the ‘worm friendly’ habitat I’m hoping to create.

I’ve opted instead to use some well-aged horse manure (that was originally bedded with straw and saw dust). My dad managed to secure a large quantity of this material, some of it absolutely jammed full of red worms I might add (something I’m going to talk about in another post). The particular bag of material I used (for my sour bin) is very well aged and doesn’t have any worms or cocoons (that I could see). I’m hoping I don’t end up instroducing Red Worms into my Euro bin, but it is a chance I’m willing to take – it certainly won’t be the end of the world.

It is interesting to see the difference between the material containing loads of worms and the stuff that contains none. Both are clearly well-aged, but the material with worms in it has lots of chunks of still semi-recognizable manure. The other material almost just looks like finished compost (although there is still a lot of straw/sawdust residue). Both materials have a nice earthy odour (not a manure smell), but the wormy batch is definitely somewhat stronger.

Both of these materials would make an excellent starter bedding for a new worm bin, since they are quite well stabilized, but still should have some food value as well (especially the stuff that is already full of worms, obviously).

Like rotting leaves, aged manure will help to introduce lots of beneficial aerobic microbes to my Euro bin and will offer a bit of a safe haven for the worms. Hopefully it will help to shift the balance towards a more worm-friendly environment.

Anyway, I’ll let you know how things turn out!

[tags]worm bin, anaerobic, manure, red worms, red wigglers, european nightcrawlers, worm composting, vermicomposting, compost[/tags]

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Worm Castings vs Vermicompost – Whats The Diff?

I tend to use the terms ‘worm castings’ and ‘vermicompost’ interchangeably here on the site, when technically speaking they are not quite the same thing.

Worm castings are literally little worm turds (for lack of a better word – haha) – that is to say, material that has gone in one end of the worm and out the other. If you have 100% pure worm castings (virtually impossible to achieve) you should have a material that looks a lot like coffee grounds.

Vermicompost is really a more accurate term when it comes to the material produced in most worm composting systems. It is basically a mixture of worm castings, partially composted wastes, and any resistant materials that won’t readily break down. Really high quality vermicompost should have a high percentage of worm castings in it, but the chances of having every last bit of material in your system pass through a worm at least once is pretty slim.

I’ve talked previously about the awesome vermicompost produced by Worm Power. Although I referred to it as ‘worm castings’, it isn’t 100% pure castings, but there is definitely a very high percentage. If I remember correctly, they actually let the material pass through the flow-through system twice in order to ensure that it is as close to pure castings as possible!

The problem is that there are no standards in place to dictate what percentage of worm castings has to be present in order for a product to be “100% pure” – nor are there really any ways to accurately measure the castings percentage. It really just comes down to the look and feel of the material, the reputation of the company producing it, and of course its ability to boost plant growth.

Anyway – definitely not trying to split hairs here – just thought some of you might be curious about the technical difference between these two terms!

[tags]worm castings, worm compost, vermicompost, vermicast, compost, worm composting, vermicomposting, worm power[/tags]

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Lethargic Worms & Worm Tea

Here is a two part question from a reader wondering why her worms aren’t doing so well and her ‘worm tea’ output is so low.

I followed your video for setting up a worm bin and letting
it age. I got the worms last week and added them to the system,
supposedly 1000. There always is like 10-20 up around the top. And
some of the worms are lethargic and a bit limp. Because of the
escaping issue, I checked them out, some places they are more lively
and eating the decaying stuff but there are definitely those that
seem like they are hardly living. I think I anticipated they would
be a bit more lively. if healthy. I have a second rubbermaid
underneath the first. But have got no worm tea. I actually added
about 4 cups of water just two days ago and it was all absorbed. I
checked the acidic level and it seemed to be OK. I’m sure a sound
like a paranoid newbie. My husband calls me a worried worm mother.
I’m afraid of killing all my worms. My question is: if there is no
worm tea, does that suggest it is too dry? If some worms seem limp
and lethargic is that just normal? Thanks for your input. JoEl

Hi JoEl,
You didn’t mention how you obtained your worms, but I have a sneaking suspicion you ordered them and had them shipped. If this is indeed the case, your worms are likely suffering from the stress of the ordeal (especially if they were shipped from far away). Perhaps the worm dealer even had them separated and ready for shipment prior to you placing your order (i.e. in preparation for orders coming in), or they use a harvesting method that causes a lot of stress on the worms. It’s hard to say for sure what sort of trauma your worms have been through, but based on your description I think it’s quite likely that this is what has happened.

I’m glad to hear that some of your worms are actively feeding, and seem to be more responsive! The silver lining of this cloud is that even if some of your worms die, those that survive are likely much tougher worms and your future population(s) will therefore likely be healthier as a result.

As for the ‘worm tea’…

You’ll likely notice that I’ve been putting quotes around the term. Technically speaking, the liquid that ends up in the reservoir is not really worm team – a more appropriate term would probably be ‘leachate’. In order to properly make good worm tea you generally need to use high quality finished worm castings (vermicompost). This material will be much more stabilized and will contain all sorts of great beneficial microbes. Leachate on the other hand, while it can certainly contain nutrients, can also potentially contain some phytotoxic (bad for plants) substances produced via anaerobic processes etc. If diluted with water, this liquid can be perfectly fine – especially if your bin is much more mature – but generally it is best to make worm tea once you have some finished compost.

Worms love it wet, so as long as you have good drainage in the bottom of your upper bin it should be fine to add water. The fact that you added 4 cups of water and none drained seems odd though. You might want to make sure your holes are functioning properly, since you definitely won’t want liquid pooling in the bottom of the upper bin. Assuming your drain holes are working fine, your system must have been a tad dry if it was able to absorb 4 cups of water.

One thing to keep in mind with running a lot of water through the bin – you’ll likely end up with a compost that is not as rich in nutrients (since a lot of them will be carried away in the water), but if your main interest is producing leachate for your plants then this may not be a big deal.

Anyway, I hope this helps!
Thanks for the great questions.


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Fungus Gnat Invasion

Well, it seems the slow population growth of my ‘4 worm experiment‘ bin worms has left the door wide open for other compost organisms. When I opened the bin up last week for a watering I noticed a fair number of small maggots on some of the rotting waste materials. Digging around some more I realized that the entire bin was LOADED with them – they were everywhere! I wasn’t 100% sure what they were, but suspected they were a variety of fungus gnat.

Something that suddenly dawned on me was the fact that house would likely be crawling with adults within a couple of days! Sure enough – when I checked back a day or two later, the bin was absolutely covered with gnats, both outside and in – and there were quite a few buzzing around my basement office (where the bin is kept) as well.

On the bright side, I DID also happen to notice that there were quite a few young worms in the bin, so hopefully within the next couple months I’ll finally have a normal vermicomposting system! I’m really interested to see what sort of vermicompost I can make with it (since it is a stackable bin).

Oh yeah – almost forgot! HAPPY EARTH DAY everybody!

[tags]worm bin, fungus gnats, red worms, vermicomposting, vermicompost, worm compost[/tags]

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Symptoms of a ‘Sour’ Worm Bin

Half an avocado absolutely coated with white mites

Well, it seems my experiment with adding bokashi to an indoor worm bin has ended up having semi-negative repercussions. I just HAD to add that second helping, didn’t I?

For some reason, seeing that the worms were finally moving into the material inspired me to push my luck by adding even more. Unfortunately, that ended up causing what people commonly refer to as a ‘sour’ worm bin. Truth be told, I am actually quite happy about it, since it provides me with the opportunity to experiment with getting things back on track in the bin, and should be a valuable opportunity for learning (both for me, and for those reading the blog).

So how do I know that all is not well?

One obvious indication is the unpleasant odour that greets my nose when I open the bin. I’m not sure how to describe it – it’s not the typical smell of rotten food waste, and it’s certainly not the nice earthy smell of a properly balanced bin. It’s more like the smell of badly spoiled milk, and makes me understand why people refer to it as ‘sour’.

I’ve also noticed a massive increase in the populations of white mites and white worms. The mites are coating everything. As I’ve written before, the mites themselves are not ‘bad’ or ‘harmful’ – but when a population explosion occurs it typically is an indication of a pretty major shift in the balance of the bin. Generally it occurs when excess food has been added and when conditions become more acidic (the two often go hand in hand). Large amounts of food clumped together can easily go anaerobic, producing acids and alcohols (among other things).

Just the amount of waste I added (too much!!) was bad enough – but what made it worse was the fact that the material was already anaerobic since it had been fermenting in the bokashi bucket. As mentioned, everything was totally fine after the first addition of bokashi scraps. After a few days I could smell that aerobic conditions were getting re-established, and the worms were readily feeding on the materials. At that point, I should have simply let them continue processing that material for awhile before adding any more!

Interestingly enough, I added a LOT of bokashi waste (probably 4 times as much) to my outdoor composter a little while ago and it was full of worms very quickly! Certainly an indication that the size of your system can have a major impact on its ability to handle various waste materials.

One other indication that something was ‘off’ in my indoor bin was the behaviour of the worms themselves. Like I said, they had moved up into the first layer of bokashi waste and seemed to be actively feeding on it. Once I added more however, they were suddenly nowhere to be found. Digging down I can find them below, but they definitely seem to be avoiding the upper layers of the bin!

I must say I’m pretty impressed with the tolerance of these European Nightcrawlers though! I suspect if this had been a Red Worm bin, I might have at least a few dead worms (or worms attempting to escape) on my hands.

As far as trying to rectify the situation goes, I’m definitely not going to doing anything drastic, like add lime or anything like that. I want to gradually shift conditions in a positive direction, not throw things completely off-kilter! I think the addition of a thick layer of fall leaves, shredded cardboard and ground up egg shells will be a good start.

I’ll be sure to keep you posted on my progress!

[tags]worm bin, sour worm bin, anaerobic, bokashi, vermicomposting, worm composting, food waste, european nightcrawlers[/tags]

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Red Worm!

Red Worm with a second tail – WORM POWER!!!
(apologies to those of you unfamiliar with the TMNT theme song – haha)

Well folks, our ‘Reader Photos’ section definitely seems to be off to a good start! Keep em coming! This one was sent in by Jim Stephanoff, and NO it is not a big worm on top of a little worm – it is indeed a two-tailed Red Worm!

An old friend of mine actually promised me a picture of a two-tailed worm from his bin quite some time ago, but this is the first one I’ve actually seen. Pretty cool!

I’m not sure what exactly causes this (likely some sort of mutation), or how often it occurs, but it is quite interesting.

Thanks again for sending it in, Jim!

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