July 2008

MacGyver of the Worms

One of the cool things about the ‘blogosphere’ is that it provides me with a great opportunity to meet lots of interesting, like-minded people. I recently received an email from one such individual, who seems to share my interest in geeky, hands-on science projects, such as worm bins and hydroponics systems.

Unlike me however, this person (who refers to himself only as ‘Hydroponica’) is much more of a technically gifted problem solver, so he enjoys rigging up various contraptions and systems for himself – very often using items already present at his house.

One such rig, recently installed in his worm bin, is an LED night light – used as a means of discouraging the worms from crawling up the sides of the bin (and sometimes out on to the floor). To me it seems like a really nifty idea since it uses very little power, isn’t so bright as to stress out the worms, and won’t give much (if any) heat. As he points out, it does limit you in terms of worm bin location, since you’ll need an outlet nearby (or at least an extension cord), but that’ hardly an issue in most homes. I would imagine one could also find some sort of battery powered LED light to use instead if the bin wasn’t near an outlet.

Be sure to check out his blog post for all the details: Worm Bin Modification
He also chats about some other interesting techniques for keeping worms inside a bin, so it’s definitely worth a read. Oh, and he refers to me as “a genuinely cool guy”, so that never hurts either!

[tags]macgyver, worms, worm composting, led, worm bin, vermicomposting[/tags]

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Tomatoes As Worm Food?

End of the year harvest (fall 2006) from my tomato bed. I collected even MORE rotten ones, which went straight into my outdoor worm bin.

This post was inspired by a interesting reader discussion that seems to have sprung up on one of my recent blog posts (see: Apartment Vermicomposting – Revisted). One of the topics being discussed is that of tomatoes as worm food – i.e. should they be fed to your worms or not?

Tomatoes are a water-rich, acidic food item so some caution is certainly warranted. I’ve personally used them as worm food with great success – in my experience, worms seem to gravitate towards the moist, rotting flesh of tomato, the same way they would with various types of melon.

As mentioned in the caption above, in fall of 2006 when I was cleaning up my tomato bed I collected a huge quantity of leftover tomatoes (not the ones in the upper picture – those were eaten) and added them to my big outdoor worm bin. [ Just as an side – if you are wondering why so many tomatoes were still green, it is because they were started very late that year].

I also added ALL the tomato plant waste (pictured to the right), after chopping it up quite a bit. Not too surprisingly, the bin did heat up quite a bit, but neither that nor the large amount of tomato waste seemed to harm the worm population (not noticeably anyway).

Incidentally, it was the addition of all this material that led to the growth of my “compost bin tomatoes” last summer.

By the way, if you are concerned about the acidity of tomatoes, you might try adding crushed egg shells to your bins to provide some extra buffering capacity. Adding lime is an option as well, but keep in mind that composting worms generally prefer a somewhat acidic pH anyway, so you definitely don’t want to go overboard with this.

Anyway – just my 2 cents (not to be taken as ‘gospel’ by any means)! I would definitely be interested to hear about any negative experiences people have had with tomatoes.

[tags]tomatoes, composting, worm composting, vermicomposting, worm bin, composter[/tags]

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Steinernema feltiae VS The Fruit Flies

As mentioned in my recent post about gnat-killing-nematodes, I’ve decided to test out these nematodes against another pesky worm bin fly – the fruit fly! They are reported to be effective against a wide assortment of fly (and other insect) larvae, and as I’ve discovered they do actually work reasonably well against fungus gnats.

I must admit to having zero trouble breeding my initial stock of fruit flies. One of the waste materials I receive from my restaurant composting project is apple waste – lots and lots of it, I might add. It consists of cores and heaps of long apple peelings that have been removed with a special machine, so everything is very uniform. The peels strings are a little creepy actually, resembling squid tentacles, or a heap of…gasp…WORMS!!

Anyway – this stuff is prime fodder for fruit flies, as I have discovered in my outdoor composting systems! All I did to attract my initial bunch of breeding adults was put some of this material in a small, lidless rubbermaid bin (outside) and let it sit. It didn’t take long before swarms of fruit flies were hovering around the bin.

I next divided the peelings between two separate bins, added lids, then simply left them to sit in a larger bin for a number of days – plenty of time for the fruit flies to do their business and for larvae to start hatching.

Today, I drained off the liquid from the decaying apple sludge (which contains zillions of little fruit fly maggots), added some absorbent cardboard so that it’s not quite so much of a sloppy mess, then added some of my trusty nematodes to one of the bins

As per usual, this is not meant to be a rigorous scientific experiment by any means. I simply want to see what happens. Hopefully the nematodes will have a pretty major impact on the fruit fly larvae in the one bin, but we shall see. The nematodes are only supposed to be good for a couple weeks in the fridge, and I think I’ve past that point now, so they very well may be no good anyway.

Only one way to find out!

I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted!

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Predatory Flatworm – Bipalium kewense

Not too long ago I joked about being scared by the ‘scorpions’ in my worm bin. Well today I am writing about a creature that would genuinely strike fear into the hearts of any worm farmers that found them in their beds – we are talking of course about the dreaded land planarian (aka ‘flatworm’ or ‘shovel head worm’). Our vermi-friend, Dwayne, shared some of the fantastic images he captured after finding one of these slimy suckers in one of his outdoor worm bins a little while ago.

He emailed a University of Florida entomologist (and flatworm expert), Dr. Paul Choate, to find out what exactly it was. Dr. Choate identified it as Bipalium kewense, a relatively common flatworm species in Northern Florida.

I was actually in contact with Dr. Choate myself last year, requesting permission to use some of his great planarian images. Here is one showing what can happen when you put an earthworm and predatory flatworm together in a petri dish! Pretty scary.

Image courtesy of Dr. Paul Choate, University of Florida

Land planarians can be a serious earthworm predator in certain parts of the world – generally they are more of a threat in warmer regions, but certain species are found in more temperate zones as well. They are particularly dangerous because they can reproduce incredibly quickly, and have been reported to wipe out an entire worm population (in a worm farm) in a matter of days.

Long-time worm farming expert, Larry Martin, shared his experience (in a Casting Call interview – Vol. 2, #4, p.6) with flatworms after moving to Florida, claiming they wiped out 3,000 lbs of worms in less than seven days, before proceeding to feed on eachother!

Unfortunately there isn’t any reliable solution for getting rid of these worms once they become established, since their requirements (moisture, darkness etc) are similar to those of the earthworms themselves. If you start seeing any of them, be sure to remove and kill them right away. It’s probably not a bad idea to move some of your worms to a more secure location (an indoor bin perhaps) so you at least have a partial insurance policy.

Dwayne apparently found his specimen in an above-ground wooden bin, sitting on a concrete pad – so they certainly don’t just find their way into exposed windrows (although, perhaps they would be more of a threat in those sorts of beds).

Thanks again to Dwayne for sharing his images!

[tags]flatworm, planarian, worm bin, worm farm, worm bed, vermicomposting, vermiculture, bipalium kewense, earthworm[/tags]

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Reader Questions – 07-16-08

Here are some great questions from Scott – very much related to some of the concepts I touched upon in my recent ‘Restaurant Vermicomposting‘ post.

We live in Utah and we have hot summers and cold winters. Our home
sits on a lot that is a little over one acre. On our property we have
four grow boxes and a large conventional vegetable garden. The grow
boxes have a “soil” that is a mixture of city compost (tree composted
using sewage), steer manure, vermiculite, peat moss, and potting soil.
The soil in the yard is a light yellowish-tan clay. There are no
worms and it is quite alkaline. To get things to grow in the soil I
have been told by a landscaper that you can amend the soil with sulfur
to lower the pH. We added compost from a compost tumbler and city
compost to the vegetable garden. The garden is growing fairly well.

I have a compost tumbler and have been wanting to get into
vermicomposting as well. I am curious about a few things. Could red
wiggler worms be put in my grow box to help improve my “soil?” How
about in my vegetable garden? What vermicompost system works best for
a family of nine that does not require a lot of maintenance? How do
you protect the worms in very hot and very cold seasons? Could the
worms be added to the yard as well? We are planning on landscaping
the yard and adding city compost as topsoil. what do you think?

Hi Scott,
Sounds like you have a really interesting set-up there.
While it is a pretty standard recommendation to not add composting worms to conventional garden soil, it certainly can be done if the necessary requirements of the worms are provided. In a nutshell, you simply need to provide a supply of rich organic matter if you want Red Worms (and others) to stay put.

As I’ve discovered this summer, there are a variety of ‘systems’ you can build in or on top of your soil for what is essentially in situ vermicomposting. The method that has been working incredibly well for me thus far is the vermicomposting trench – from what I can tell, this is a fantastic way to keep a healthy population of Red Worms in your vegetable garden, and to provide your crops with an ongoing supply of nutrients and moisture (not to mention the growth-promoting properties of worm castings). Aside from the initial labour of digging the trench and adding in a bunch of waste materials, this is a very low maintenance system. I simply pull back the upper layers of straw etc and dump in chopped up food waste (if you don’t chop it at all it can be and even longer-term slow release fertilizer). I usually mulch my lawn clippings back into the lawn, but this year I’ve actually been harvesting them to add them to my trenches, along with any weeds I pull.

Another method I’ve found to be successful is simply using waste materials as a mulch over my soil, then covering with straw (or other carbon-rich materials). I seem to have a very healthy population of composting worms in the beds where I’ve been doing this, and the plants growing in these beds seem to be doing very well. I think the key is having a large enough population of worms, and a high quality habitat for them to live it. If you simply dumped a heap of rotting waste on your plants you may find that their growth ends up stunted, or they end up diseased since these materials can contain lots of phytotoxic compounds generally produced via various anaerobic processes, and/or various plant-disease organisms. With a large worm population (and other creatures) and a nice habitat matrix (more on that in a minute), these materials are getting aerated and processed quite quickly, and all liquids are passing down through the ‘habitat’ zone, where countless aerobic microbes are likely breaking down most of the harmful compounds that might be getting produced.

This ‘habitat’ concept is something I stress a lot when it comes to worm composting. I always suggest that people set up their worm bins a week or so before adding the worms, so that they arrive to find (hopefully) ideal living conditions. The same holds true for outdoor systems as well – although it is generally easier to keep worms happy in larger outdoor systems, where they can easily move to avoid any poor conditions that develop. Nevertheless, I still recommend initially adding a lot of material from a vermicomposting system that is already up and running, or simply mixing a bunch of bedding with waste materials (food) and letting that age for a bit before adding the worms. Once this habitat is in place there is far less chance of harming your worms (or the plants for that matter), since there will always be this buffer zone where the worms can retreat if necessary.

Hope that makes sense! I’ll definitely be writing more about my various outdoor systems soon.

While the soil surface system is definitely not the best choice for an ‘all-season’ worm bed, a vermicomposting trench system should definitely help your worms to stay cool in the summer and above the freezing mark in the winter – in order to keep your system really active you will likely need to have access to a decent sized waste-stream (to help maintain adequate microbial heating). If you added some straw bale walls along the edges of a composting trench, then piled materials up to fill the space (between walls), I suspect you would have a great system for winter vermicomposting.

I personally use a big wooden worm box with a removable insulation wall (you can learn more about it >>HERE<<), but this year I will likely be testing out multiple winter composting systems. As for the best worm composting system for a family of nine, if you are looking for ultra low-maintenance, I would suggest going with outdoor trenches or pits (or a big wooden system like the one I have). If you want something you can 'play with' a little more, I recommend setting up a medium to large system indoors - a big Rubbermaid tub (preferably one that's not too deep) could work very well. I should mention that it's not a bad idea to keep at least 1 or 2 smaller systems indoors anyway, even if you do most of your worm composting outdoors. It's kinda like an insurance policy that helps protect you in case of severe weather or other hazards that can wipe out your worm population. Ok - regarding your last question, using worms as part of your landscaping is totally doable, but again you will need to provide them with a habitat where there is a lot of rich organic matter. Let's say you mulch all your gardens with wood chips - well, there is no reason you can't have food scraps, shredded cardboard etc and worms underneath munching away and adding castings to your soil. Hope this helps!

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Apartment Vermicomposting – Revisted

One of our loyal readers and worm friends, Sherry, recently sent me a photo of her worm bins. You may recall that Sherry helped me kickstart our ‘Reader Photos’ section on the blog with a photo of her cat Bud sleeping on a worm bin..

It seems that Sherry has continued to expand her vermicomposting nook, and after reading my recent ‘Reader Questions’ post about apartment vermicomposting wanted to show what can easily be done in a small space (in her apartment) – odour-free.

Very cool! Certainly a great indication of what can be done with relatively little space.

Thanks again to Sherry for sharing the photo.

[tags]vermicomposting, indoor composting, worm composting, worm bins, indoor gardening, composter, apartment composting[/tags]

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Restaurant Food Waste Vermicomposting

Back in May, shortly after starting my own composting business, I decided to see if I could track down a local source of ‘food’ for my worms. While we certainly do produce a fair amount of compostable food waste ourselves, I knew it wouldn’t be nearly enough to feed the worm herd I planned on growing.

I decided to approach the owner of a very popular restaurant in town, At the Crossroads Family Restaurant (usually referred to simply as ‘Crossroads’) to see if he might agree to part with some of his coffee grounds and egg carton cardboard. Little did I know I’d be opening a much bigger ‘can of worms’ (literally and figuratively)! As it turned out, the owner – Anton Heimpel – was very open to the idea, and seemed keen to provide me with plenty of other materials as well. So we sat down for a meeting hammer out all the preliminary details.

Fast forward two months (from my initial contact), and the project is still going strong. The funny irony is that I still have yet to see a single batch of coffee grounds (the material I originally inquired them about).

I’m certainly not complaining. Crossroads provides me with literally hundreds of pounds of vegetable and fruit waste per week. Needless to say, my worms are extremely well-fed!

The project has been an eye-opening experience to say the least. It has been a major commitment in terms of both time and energy. I pick up buckets (like the one shown above) 6 days a week, unless other arrangements have been made, then chop up the material by hand before using it in various composting systems.

I’ll be honest, for the first couple of weeks I was wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into (and I still have my moments – haha). Aside from the fact that it felt like I was spending all my time handling the wastes, I also didn’t really have the necessary systems in place to utilize all the materials – at least not in a ‘neighbour-friendly’ manner! Speaking of which, given my close proximity to neighbours and the fact that my backyard is so visible, I’ve had to work extra hard to keep things looking and (even more importantly) smelling ok! It has meant that a lot more time needs to be dedicated to waste handling, BUT it has also been a great learning experience. I’ve discovered some cool composting techniques, and I’ve also learned what NOT to do with food waste!

Here’s an example of the latter category…

Something I tested out early on was the use of temporary storage vessels for precomposting. These are basically big Rubbermaid tubs with many, many holes drilled in them. I chopped up the food waste, mixed in some soil (to kickstart microbial action), then dumped it in the bins, which were lined with cardboard. I figured that with all the air holes, and regular stirring, the materials would remain relatively odour-free as they started to decompose.

I figured wrong!

I’m sure this could work ok for some materials, especially if lots of shredded cardboard was mixed in as well, but I receive lots of brocolli and turnip waste – both of which have the tendency to get pretty skunky as they break down. It also certainly didn’t help that I ended up leaving one of this bins for quite a few days in my shed without ANY mixing of the materials at all! You know it’s pretty bad when you can actually smell a powerful rotting odour coming from a closed shed – and you can’t even imagine how bad it smelled when I opened the door.

Even my trusty backyard composter couldn’t help me out with the never-ending waste stream. I tried adding materials to it early on, but it just ended up reeking! So much so, that all the contents ended up being dumped into another system I’ll be describing in a minute.

Thankfully, I finally started to hit upon methods that worked – and worked well! Most of them center around the idea of ‘pit composting’ – basically you dig a hole, you dump in the waste and you cover it up! Relatively easy – and completely odour-free. For the first few weeks I felt more like a squirrel than a ‘compost guy’, but the important thing is that I was able to handle all the materials – and was able to create some nice pockets of slow-release fertilizer while I was at it.

In an effort to make my pits more worm-friendly, I made sure to add lots of cardboard at the bottom and a layer or two in the heap itself. I also hit upon an even better system – the vermicomposting trench (something I’ll be writing a lot more about). In fact, it was via my first trench that many of my methods-gone-wrong were rectified. I put a thick layer of shredded paper and cardboard down along the bottom of the trench, then basically dumped in all the nasty stuff, before covering with some soil and peat moss.

I think the real turning point in all this came about once I was able to secure a steady supply of straw for myself. Having ample amounts of c-rich bedding material on hand has made all the difference. I’ve been able to add thick layers of straw over top of my trenches, and was even able to get two backyard composters up to full capacity without too much stink!

The combination of 1) warmer temperatures, 2) having more systems in place, and of course 3) a worm herd that’s continued to grow by leaps and bounds has helped to make this a much more enjoyable experience in recent weeks. Oh, and did I mention the monstrous, healthy plants I’ve been growing as a result?

No?? Ok, well that will have to wait for another post!

Stay tuned – much more to come!

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