July 2008

Say Hello to My Little Friends

European Nightcrawlers

Kinda felt like taking some worm photos today, and thought I would make a blog post out of it. My first image is a close-up shot of a group of European Nightcrawlers (Eisenia hortensis). I haven’t written much about my Euro bin in quite some time, so they certainly deserve some time in the limelight!
😉

I hope to chat more about Euros in upcoming posts – I’m actually planning to test out Euro growth/reproduction, to see how it compares with that of Red Worms.

Looking at a shot with only Euros in it doesn’t really tell you how big they are in comparison to Reds, so I included a look from further out (same photo, but now including a group of Reds beside the Euros)

European Nightcrawlers & Red Worms

As you can see, these Red Worms have a striping pattern (similar to the Euros). Many of my Reds don’t have this, and look more like the photo below. The worms in the lower photo are actually smaller than the striped ones. I’m always amazed by the differences in appearance from one population of Red Worms to the next. I once believed that Reds living in manure tended to become larger and striped, but neither the ‘wild’ manure worms I was given this past spring, or those in the picture below (which were raised in manure) seem to have any striping.

Red Worms

I’m wondering if perhaps the smaller darker worms might be the very close relative of Eisenia fetida, Eisenia andrei. I’ve read that many Red Worm populations are actually a mixture of these two species (seem to recall that E. andrei tends to be smaller). That being said, I’ve also read that they can only be distinguished from one another reliably via molecular analysis, so I’m not really sure.

Anyway, they are all good composting worms – and that’s what counts!
8)

[tags]eisenia fetida, eisenia hortensis, eisenia andrei, red worms, red wigglers, euros, european nightcrawlers, worm photos[/tags]

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How Many Worms Is Enough?

A lot of people who are thinking about getting into vermicomposting wonder (understandably) what quantity of worms they should start with. There are plenty of recommendations out there but really, no one suggestion is necessarily better than the next. As such, I thought this might make for a good topic of discussion.

In a nutshell (and in my humble opinion), the quantity of worms you start with entirely depends on what you are trying to do, and how quickly you are trying to do it. I’ll be honest – I used to wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea that worms should be allowed to “grow into their system”. In other words, you start a bin with relatively low densities of worms (less than the standard ‘1 lb per square foot’ recommendation), and simply allow the worm population to gradually increase over time, presumably reaching a ‘carrying capacity’ for the given system at some point.

I definitely still see value in this approach, but now that I have my own worm business and have played around with dense concentrations of worms, I’ve come to recognize the composting power of putting a LOT of worms in a relatively small system! You may recall the post I wrote after putting 5 lbs of worms in a “holding bin” for a couple weeks while I was away this past Spring (see “5 lbs of Red Worms – WOW!”). When I arrived back home I couldn’t believe how thoroughly they had processed the upper levels of bedding and food waste. I also couldn’t get over the number of cocoons I found.

For anyone interested in building a large population for their own use or to sell, this is definitely something to consider. I ended up harvesting a large proportion of the worms in the ‘holding system’, but it is now crawling with countless juvenile worms that hatched out from all those cocoons. I suspect that keeping worms so densely packed not only increases the opportunity for mating (they certainly don’t need to look far for a partner), but it also triggers the breeding urge to help protect against the possibility of a population crash (something that might occur in a ‘wild’ population). If you set up a series of identical bins and then simply moved most of your adult population from one bin to the next – leaving them to sit for a couple weeks in each – you could potentially end up with a serious worm nursery (good thing they don’t need diaper changes – haha), while still maitaining a large proportion of your original stock.

Anyway, I’m kinda going off on a tangent here…

Back to the topic of ‘more vs less’. Let’s look at a breakdown of the advantages/disadvantages of starting with more worms.

    Advantages:

  • Greatly increased processing power – more waste materials can be added, and less lag time between feedings
  • Less issue with ‘pest’ organisms since they are generally being outcompeted by the worms
  • Less chance of odours developing since the worms are actively aerating and consuming material – also less chance of poor conditions developing in general (for the same reason)
  • Finished castings produced more quickly
  • Great way to build up a larger worm population
    Disadvantages:

  • Costs more money initially
  • Much more important to provide excellent habitat for worms
  • If something goes wrong, it goes wrong in a BIG way
  • Potentially more tendency for worms to roam (but again comes back to importance of excellent habitat)

As I’ve discovered many times myself, when you start small there is a much greater chance that other worm bin inhabitants will become ‘major players’ in the system, thus potentially limiting the upper size limit of the worm population. It can also be frustrating for a newcomer to sit and wait for their worms to get settled in and then grow in numbers before being able to REALLY witness the true power of vermicomposting. Don’t get me wrong – this approach may be perfect for some.

If you are a person who really wants to test out vermicomposting, but you don’t mind (or you even prefer) doing so in a leisurely manner, then starting small is the best way to go. Just set up a bin add a small batch of worms or even cocoons for that matter, and then simply add food materials every once in awhile (or don’t add any more food at all – the worms will consume all the bedding if the ‘normal’ food supply gets cut off, and will likely be totally fine for months).

If on the other hand you need (or at least want) results FAST, then starting with a larger population is definitely the way to go. In some ways, I suspect that many of the newcomer nightmares would be avoided if people simply set up their system well initially and added a decent quantity of worms. There would be less chance of overfeeding – which alone leads to many other issues – such as pest populations, anaerobic conditions, fungal spore production etc – and people would more quickly see how cool vermicomposting is. This approach does require more involvement though – so it’s a trade-off!

Anyway – just my thoughts on the matter. I’d be interested in hearing what others think about all this.
8)

[tags]worm composting, composting worms, red worms, worm bin, worm bed, worm density, worm breeding, worm reproduction, worm farming[/tags]

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Rats and Outdoor Trenches

This question comes from Melinda, and pertains to the topic of composting trenches – specifically, whether or not they are prone to invasion by pest animals.

Bentl[e]y, I was wondering if you have had any problems with
rats. we have a canal behind our house and will get rats eating my
garden plants. they like tomatoes and cucumbers. I had a composter a
few years ago but the rats got inside it from underneath. I was
thinking that adding a trench might keep up with our excess waste that
the worms can’t just yet but worried about the rats.

Hi Melinda,
I think I am quite lucky as far as my location goes – for whatever reason we don’t seem to have ANY pest animals, other than the occasional bunny rabbits that munch on our perennials. You can even leave stinky garbage bags sitting out overnight here without any concern that a raccoon or even a dog will tear into it!

I suspect that if the rats are eating your veggies and getting into your composter, there is a reasonable chance they will sniff out the goodies in your trench as well. One of the things I love about the trench system is that it is pretty well odourless (unlike my non-vermi backyard composters) – but Rats and other animals have a much more powerful sense of smell than we do.

You might try “pit composting” and see if they get into that. Simply dig a hole and fill it with food waste & ‘brown’ materials like shredded cardboard etc – then cover it over with soil. If you find that the rats are digging into that, then you won’t have much chance with the trench. If they DON’T seem to detect the pit, perhaps you can try out a small trench.

Hope this helps, Melinda!


I’d definitely be interested to hear if other people have issues with pest animals getting into their composting systems. Please write in or add a comment to this post if you have something you’d like to share!
8)

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Killer Catnip

giant catnip plant

So I’m thinking about getting into the catnip business…
😆

I realize the above photo is pretty poor quality, but I thought it would be fun to post it as yet another demonstration of the power of vermicompost! There is a tomato plant somewhere in there, and of course the Clematis up above, but most of the foliage you see belongs to what seems to have become a catnip bush! The plants in this bed are certainly getting plenty of nutrients from my big worm bin, but this is also one of the beds I’ve been adding food scraps to this year, so that likely helps as well.

Monty the Cat

Our cats stay indoors full-time so they don’t get to romp in the catnip bed – what’s hilarious actually, is that when our cat Monty DOES manage to escape (seems to be his mission in life), he runs right past the catnip, straight to the lawn where he consumes as much grass as quickly as he can before his inevitable capture.

Last year, the catnip plant (which was a decent size, but not the monster it is this year) was a regular stop for the outdoor cats in the neighbourhood. I remember one black cat in particular that made multiple visits – he/she even rolled around on the deck, as if to tease our cats (who were at the window intently watching).

[tags]catnip, cats, worm compost, vermicompost[/tags]

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Worm Bed Watermelons

Worm Bed Watermelons

One of the known “disadvantages” of vermicomposting vs regular (hot) composting is that weed (and other) seeds are not killed during the process. Anyone who has left vermicompost, or even the inside of a worm bin, exposed to light is likely no stranger to the sight of various seedlings springing up.

I generally pluck these seedlings out and turn them into compost themselves, but this year I decided see what would happen if I simply let them grow in one of my outdoor worm beds. As mentioned, I’ve been testing out different ways to process restaurant food wastes in a neighbour-friendly manner. Aside from my trench vermicomposting method, I’ve been experimenting with the addition of waste materials directly on the surface of a garden bed (see ‘Garbage Gardening‘ over on the Compost Guy blog).

I started up a worm bed in one of my small gardens in an effort to increase my composting area. It just so happened that the waste I added during the initial set-up had a lot of watermelon leftovers in it. Once I saw how quickly the seedlings popped up, I got to thinking that it might be fun to see what happened if I let a few of them continue growing. As is often the case with my yearly plantings, the melons got a late start – but hopefully I’ll still get the plants to bear some fruit before the end of the season.

I have also been adding waste materials directly to other beds where plants were already established and have been pretty impressed with the results. Lots of composting worms seem to be more than happy to congregate in and underneath the decomposing waste materials, and again I am seeing plant roots spreading amongst the waste materials as well.

One waste material that has worked surprisingly well is turnip. Given the fact that it is a pretty tough root vegetable, and has a waxed skin (to help it keep for months in storage), I thought for sure that it would very challenging to decompose. While it certainly does take longer than other materials, such as lettuce, for whatever reason the worms seem to love it. I’ve simply be piling it in underneath my straw mulch and leaving it alone. Whenever I check back I always find lots of worms crawling around on it.


I will admit that dealing with all this food waste has involved a LOT of work this year, but as you can probably tell, I’ve been having a lot of fun with it!
🙂

[tags]watermelon, worm beds, worm composting, vermicomposting, in situ composting, organic gardening, red worms, red wigglers, food waste[/tags]

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Making Microbes

As I’ve written multiple times, composting worms don’t so much feed on the waste materials as they do one the microorganisms that have colonized (and are decomposing) the material. Based on this fact, I’ve thought of various ways to deliver microbes to the worms without necessarily feeding them rotting wastes.

When I was young I remember learning that if you add grass or straw to a jar of water then let it sit in the sun for a few days you’ll end up with a soup of assorted aquatic microbes – various algae, paramecia, amoebae – some of them even visible to the naked eye when held up in the light. I’ve often thought about using this same idea to create a microbe soup for my composting worms. If a bedding material like corrugated cardboard was allowed to soak in this ‘soup’ and then fed to the worms, I suspect they would love it.

As a fun little experiment I think I’m going to test out this idea by comparing the rate at which microbe-cardboard and plain-water-cardboard are colonized and consumed by the worms.

Making microbe soup is extremely easy. All you need is a bucket, some water (preferably rain water or aged tap water), some organic matter (eg. grass clippings), and a cheap aquarium air pump (with tubing). In a sense, it is kinda like making compost tea. Simply fill your bucket with water, add your waste material, then gently aerate it while leaving it to sit in a sunny location for few days.

As I suggested with the compost tea, you might even try adding a source of simple sugars, like molasses or honey, to help boost the microbe population even more.

I have actually been playing around with this a little bit this year. I put some rotting spinach in a bucket of water and aerated the mix for a few days. This water was then used to hydrate coir bedding, which I was using for a new worm bin. It is hard to say for sure if the worms liked the ‘new and improved’ mix, but my hunch is that it was likely at least a little more inviting than plain ol’ coir soaked with water.

I suspect that adding aeration isn’t nearly so important as it is when making vermicompost tea. In some ways I think a non-aerated bucket might be a little better since you won’t end up disrupting the colonies of organisms multiplying in the water column. The more vigorous the aeration, the more likely you just end up with slimy strings of biofilm stuck to the sides and bottom of the container – I’m sure this stuff would be like caviar for worms, but you won’t be able to soak your bedding with it the way you would with a uniform mix. Nevertheless, adding at least a little aeration is probably advisable so that you don’t end up with a stinky, anaerobic mess.

I’ve been adding some food waste to a water-filled garbage can (I’ve been using to store rain water), and have been fascinated with the community of organisms that have developed. The water has become quite cloudy – very likely a good indication that the microbial population has grown considerably. I’ve also noticed the appearance of many Chironomid (midge) larvae (aka ‘Bloodworms’) – almost certainly there to take advantage of the rich microbial buffet available to them. It is times like this that I definitely wish I had my outdoor aquaponics system up and running (something I had planned for this summer), or at least an aquarium with fish. Bloodworms are outstanding as a fish food.

Anyway, I’m going to start adding some of this water to my indoor worm tubs, and will start up a separate bucket to prepare for my little experiment.

Stay tuned!

**UPDATE**

Since writing this post, I discovered firsthand why it is important to keep your microbe mix aerated! If the liquid stinks, DO NOT add in to your worm bin (or do so in a very small area to see what happens). I added some stinky water to a couple of my worm tubs and ended up with some dead and dying worms. I really didn’t think that the concentration of harmful compounds (that can be produced via anaerobic digestion) would be high enough to create issues, but clearly I was wrong. Luckily, I didn’t lose too many worms, but I’m still kicking myself for being so careless with it.

On the positive side – everyone who reads this gets to learn from my mistakes! (as per usual)
😆

So – once again – DO make your own microbe water, but make sure to add aeration from the start. Definitely DON’T add it to your worm bin if it smells really bad.

[tags]microbes, microorganisms, paramecium, amoeba, protists, algae, worm food, vermicomposting, worm composting, worm bin[/tags]

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The Vermicomposting Trench

I’ve been looking forward to writing this post for quite some time now. As I mentioned in the post about my restaurant vermicomposting project, the trench idea started as somewhat desperate attempt to deal with the large quantities of food waste I’ve been receiving each week. Since that time, it has become much more than that – I like to think of it as a long-term, slow-release, natural fertilizer factory (or LTSRNFF for short – haha).

I situated my first trench directly in front of my tomato bed, thinking that it might help them grow somewhat better. Unlike last year, I decided not to add slow-release fertilizer sticks so that I could see the full potential of the natural method (or all of the negative repercussions if it didn’t work). One thing I was somewhat concerned about was the fact that I didn’t set up the trench well before the planting of the tomatoes – in fact, the trench ended up going in a week after the tomatoes were planted!

My concern revolved around the fact that I was adding lots of stinky, anaerobic waste (from other food waste composting attempts gone wrong) and materials that were not very well stabilized (decomposed) in general. It is known that various phytotoxic compounds can be produced via anaerobic processes, so I worried that I would end up stunting the growth. The ideal situation would involve setting up your trench months before you plant anything, so that by the time they go in, there is a rich supply of composted materials to start tapping for nutrients.

As I have discovered however, a trench can really go in at any time! I’ve seen no indication that the plants have been suffering as a result of their close proximity to the trench – and I think that right there is the key – the “close proxity”. You are not, after all, planting your crop directly in anaerobic sludge. You are basically giving them the option of spreading their roots in that direction. The interesting thing is that they do in fact seem to send roots into the material (composted or not) quite quickly.

One thing that likely helped my tomatoes right off the bat was the fact that I added a scoop of Worm Power worm castings into each hole. As I’ve discovered this year, worm castings are a fantastic material for helping any plant get started, whether it be a seedling or a transplant.

Time to move on to the actual creation of a vermicomposting trench. The set of photos I’ve included below actually feature the third trench I installed this year – basically a continuation of the tomato bed trench. I recently wrote about my lack of gardening skills over at CompostGuy.com, and this was a prime example. I planted this bed (which contains zucchinis and several different legumes) way later than I should have, and again dug the trench even later still. Yet again, the composting worms have come to my rescue – I added quite a bit of worm compost (harvested from my outdoor worm bin) into each hole, and more was added as a top dressing as well.


The first thing I (obviously) had to do was dig the actual trench – certainly the most labour-intensive and tedious part of the job. The depth and width of the trench is definitely up to you. I chose not to go down quite as far with this trench as I did with the one in front of the tomato bed. Keep in mind, the deeper you make it the more anaerobic it will be down below. This may or may not be an issue – just something to consider. Deeper (and wider) trenches have the advantage of being able to hold more material.


Next, I added a lot of coarsely shredded corrugated cardboard. This creates a bit of a ‘false bottom’, helping to absorb excess moisture from the rotting waste materials, as helping to balance the C:N ratio of the mix (I like to err on the side of higher C when vermicomposting).


It may look like straw, but this is actually partially decomposed material from my backyard composters. As you may recall, I had zero luck when I initially tried using my backyard composter (only one was active at the time) to compost food waste, but once I had a lot of straw available I was able to start using the composters again – with much greater success, I might add.

This pre-composted material should create a good ‘habitat’ for the composting worms added later. You don’t really need to add this (I didn’t add any to my first trench) – I just happened to have it on-hand, and knew it would work well in the trench. This is important to keep in mind when building a composting trench – don’t focus so much on exact instructions as you do on the principles involved, and the materials you happen to have on-hand. If I installed 5 trenches, I can pretty well guarantee that they would all be different – BUT, they would all be constructed with the principles of vermicomposting in mind.


Here is another layer of shredded cardboard. This time it was shredded egg flats (from the restaurant) – in my opinion, the best kind of cardboard to use for vermicomposting. As you can probably tell, the vermicomposting trench is set up in a ‘lasagna composting’ manner, with alternating layers of ‘greens’ and ‘browns’ (again, with more emphasis on browns, since it is a worm system).


Next, I added a lot of chopped up food waste – apple peels and cores, carrot peels, turnip peels, lettuce, broccoli stalks, egg shells etc. It was added in fairly shallow layers, but given the length of the trench, it was actually quite a lot of material.


I’ve actually left out a couple more alternating layers (I’ll include everything in the video I’m going to make), but I think you get the general idea. One of the important steps not shown was the addition of composting worms. I basically just harvested a LOT of partially mature vermicompost (containing lots and lots of worms) from my outdoor worm bin and added it as a layer over some moistened coconut coir. I have continued to add more worms since then as well. If you want to get your system working for you very quickly, the best bet is to add a lot of worms at once – you may however want to get yourself a compost thermometer before doing so. Since these trenches can hold a lot of material, they can also heat up quite a bit – the last thing you want to kill your worms or cause them to leave the area.

The final step involved adding a nice thick layer of straw. This helps to keep moisture and bad odour in, and hot sunlight and worm predators (like Robins) out.



That’s pretty much it! So far, I’ve been blown away by how well these trenches are working for me. My tomato plants are literally bigger than any tomatoes I’ve ever grown before – and we’re only part way through the season! I think the limitless water-supply (released from rotting waste) and readily available nutrients, combined with the seemingly-magical growth stimulating properties of worm castings has created the ultimate environment for ‘growing stuff’. I’m not 100% sure I would see the same results with trees, shrubs and perrenials – but I’ll certainly be interested to find out!

Needless to say, I’ll be providing more updates as the growing season progresses. As mentioned, I will also be putting together a video all about making a vermicomposting trench.

Stay tuned!

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