July 2008

Reader Questions – 07-14-08

Here is a question from someone wondering about apartment vermiculture.

I recently moved into a new apartment and have been wanting to start
some kind of gardening project. I am an avid fisherman and would like
to know if it would be possible to breed worms within my apartment or
possibly in the small area I have available outside. I’m living in
Southern Illinois; to give you some idea of the climate situation. My
biggest concern is not so much space but odor, I really can’t afford
to loose my deposit!

Thanks so much,

Hi Ryan,
The the short answer is absolutely YES! You can most certainly raise worms in your apartment – in fact, one of the key advantages of vermicomposting over some of the other typical composting methods is that it can be done on any scale. There are many apartment dwellers who have opted to divert some of their food waste into a worm bin, rather than throwing it in the garbage.

It’s important to mention that there are only certain types of worms you can easily raise in your apartment however. For example, the big ‘Canadian Nightcrawlers’ that many people use for fishing cannot be raised very easily indoors – they are deep soil burrowers, and thus need a lot of space (and prefer lower temps).

Likely the most common worm used for indoor vermicomposting (and outdoor vermicomposting, for that matter) is the Red Worm (Eisenia fetida). These worms will happily feed on your rotting fruit/vegetable waste, and coffee grounds – among numerous other things. Red Worms can be used for fishing, but are probably best suited for smaller fish, such as trout or panfish. In my humble opinion, the ultimate composting/fishing worm would likely be the European Nightcrawler (Eisenia hortensis). They have the larger size, so are more versatile as a fishing worm than Red Worms, but possess similar composting abilities as their smaller cousin (although some would argue that they are somewhat slower to process wastes and not as prolific in the breeding department).

If odor is your biggest concern, then you shouldn’t have all that much to worry about. When done properly (not very difficult), vermicomposting does not produce foul odors. It’s always a good idea to use lots of ‘bedding’ materials (shredded cardboard, newsprint etc) and to bury the waste materials you add to the bin. It’s also very important to avoid overfeeding the worms, since this is probably the easiest way to create a stink!

If you are looking for some instructions on how to set up a worm bin, be sure to check out my video page (I have a couple videos devoted to the topic – located near bottom of page).

Hope this helps!

[tags]worm bin, vermicomposting, worm composting, composting, red worms, red wigglers, european nightcrawlers, earthworms, worms[/tags]

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Steinernema feltiae – Fungus Gnat Killer

Steinernema feltiae
Fungus gnat killed by predatory nematodes, Steinernema feltiae (other critters are springtails)

Back in April I wrote about a ‘fungus gnat invasion‘ in my wooden stacking vermicomposting bin. Well, ever since the first outbreak of gnats I have been trying to stay patient as they’ve proceeded to set up shop is pretty well every indoor bin I have.

My wife has been fairly tolerant of the gnats that have managed to make their way upstairs, but I knew something needed to be done prior to having my mother-in-law come to stay with us for a little while. As mentioned in my creepy pants wrap-up, it’s not that she gets offended by these things – it’s more a matter of trying not to look like a complete slob (difficult enough as it is when you have a vermicomposting operation in your basement!).

As I’ve written before, fungus gnats (Bradysia sp) are unbelievably difficult to get rid of once they’ve become well established in a worm composting system. As bad as fruit flies can be, I actually find them much easier to deal with, since they can be trapped quite easily, and are reliant on certain ‘foods’ to keep them going – once these are exhausted, the population tends to crash. Fungus gnat larvae on the other hand thrive in most vermicomposting systems – especially those that have been active for at least a few months – since they are nice and moist, and offer a wide array of decomposing organic matter to keep them well fed.

In the past I have tested out the predatory mite Hypoaspis miles as a fungus gnat control, but ended up disappointed with the results. The problem with biological controls is that they tend to be somewhat ineffective when used for serious infestations. They tend to be more effective when used as a defense mechanism, or during a light infestation.

Nevertheless, I decided to try out a different biological control this time – predatory nematodes, Steinernema feltiae. I felt a little more optimistic about them simply because each batch contains millions of them, and every time they attack a fungus gnat larvae many more nematodes get produced.

As soon as the nematodes arrived last week I mixed them up with water, and applied them to my indoor bins. Basically they work like little larvae-seeking-missiles – once they track down fungus gnat (or other fly) larvae, they penetrate their body and release a bacterium which does the actual killing. The nematodes then reproduce like crazy and basically burst out of body of the host, before venturing off to find another target.

I knew that even if the nematodes did end up controlling the gnat population, it would likely take some time before I observed an significant results. Still, I’ve been keeping a close eye on the bins to see if I can find any signs of gnat destruction. As picture above demostrates, I have indeed found evidence that the nematodes are working. What’s interesting is that while the nematodes are supposed to attack and kill the gnats while they are in their larval stage, I have been finding a lot of adults that seem to be badly infected, or dead (as in the photo). I suspect that they were invaded shortly before becoming adults and still managed to pupate, only to then die shortly thereafter.

I am still seeing quite a few adults flying around, but the stacking system (which was a serious fungus gnat hub) seems to have far fewer gnats crawling out of it now. I am optimistic that my overall population of gnats in the basement will be greatly reduced within the next couple weeks. I actually still have some of the nematodes (in water) sitting in the fridge – they apparently last for a couple weeks. I will likely apply them again to certain (badly infected) bins, and I also want to conduct some tests.

These nematodes are reportedly effective fruit fly predators as well – something I want to see for myself. I have a nice healthy population of fruit flies in a couple of my outdoor composting bins, so I’m going to lure some of them into small bins containing fruit scraps, then apply the nematodes to one of the bins to see if they have any effect.

As per usual, I will certainly keep everyone posted!

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Harvesting My Vermicompost

A big ol’ tub of ‘black gold’, ready to be put to good use

For whatever reason, when I first built my backyard worm bin I was a little too intimidated to try adding a compost harvesting door. After all, it was a pretty major accomplishment for me to even be able to build such a bin (I’m no handy man), so I didn’t want to push my luck. Looking back, I just have to laugh since I now realize how simple it would have been to install the door at the time.

In some ways I am glad I didn’t install it however, since it might have tempted me to start harvesting the material a lot earlier, and I wouldn’t have the huge supply of it now – a time when I actually need it! As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, this year I am receiving large quantities of food waste from a local restaurant (going to finally write about that very soon), and I have also started my own composting business. As such, it only make sense that I should demonstrate the benefits of using vermicompost in my own gardens – something I really haven’t done up until now.

After cutting out the first panel I could see the rich vermicompost just begging to be harvested!

The actual process of making the harvesting door simply consisted of me cutting out two pieces of board, connecting them together, then re-attaching them with hinges. Easy peezy!

Aside from the heaps of beautiful compost in the bottom of the bin, I was blown away by how many little tiny (undoubtedly malnourished) Red Worms there were – so the benefits of harvesting were two-fold. I simply left the material out in the sun and gradually scraped away all the vermicompost while the worms continued to dig down. Eventually I was left with a big writhing mass of worms at the bottom. They all went into an indoor conditioning bin where they will be re-hydrated and fattened up with good food – I’ll likely end up with multiple times the weight in worms harvested when all is said and done. I’ve already noticed that the level of materials in the big indoor bin is going down very fast, so there must have been a LOT of worms.

By the way – I actually also found a couple of the European Nightcrawlers released into the bin after their (indoor) bin went sour. I didn’t think I’d ever see any of them again. I have little doubt that there are a bunch more in the vermicompost not yet harvested.

I made my compost door construction into a fun family event – ok, so my brother and nephew did all the work! 😆

It’s been really cool having so much vermicompost on-hand. I feel spoiled! At first I was very conservative with my use of it, since I’m so used to having small amounts produced in much smaller indoor worm bins, but I’ve gradually gotten used to the fact that I have a LOT – and plenty of great opportunities to put it to good use (I will talk about using worm castings in another post).

I suspect the mass of material in my big bin is going to start settling pretty soon, which as mentioned, will likely be the end of my compost bin crop of potatoes and tomatoes! The upside is that it will free up more space for fresh materials up above.

[tags]vermicompost, worm compost, compost, worm castings, composter, worm bin, compost bin, fertilizer, soil amendments, red worms, european nightcrawlers[/tags]

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Compost Bin Potatoes

Last year I wrote about the tomatoes that started growing out of my big outdoor worm bin. Well, this year it seems that another member of the Solanaceae family has decided to make its presence known – that’s right, I’ve got a potato plant growing out of my composter! Just for fun I also planted a tomato seedling in the side of the bin, and some others right beside the bin in the soil. I had a lot of fun with my compost bin tomatoes last year, so I thought it would be fun to help them along this year, after it became obvious that they weren’t going to spring up on their own (unlike last year).

The difference this year however is the fact that I cut myself a compost door (will write about that in another post) and have been taking full advantage of the ample quantities of fantastic worm compost in the bottom of the bin. Unfortunately this is not going to help my compost bin plants out at all – it is only a matter of time before the contents of the bin settles down, likely taking much of the plants’ root systems with it.

As you can see in the picture to the right, I’ve already exposed some small potatoes while removing worm compost, and there isn’t much I can do about it if I want to continue taking advantage of this great material.

Oh well! I have lots of other cool in situ vermicomposting projects on the go this year, and I’ll tell you all about them very soon!

[tags]potatoes, tomatoes, compost bin, worm bin, composter, vermicompost, worm compost, worm castings[/tags]

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Making Vermicompost Tea

A topic that a lot of people getting into (or already involved in) vermicomposting seem to be interested in is that of ‘worm tea’ – also known as vermicompost tea, worm castings tea, or just plain compost tea. Many assume that worm tea is simply made by collecting the liquid that drains out the bottom of a worm bin (if it has drainage, that is), but this isn’t really the case.

In actuality that liquid is referred to as leachate, and definitely isn’t nearly as good as real worm compost tea. The problem with leachate is that it can contain all sorts of compounds produced in partially composted or anaerobic waste materials – some of these can actually be phytotoxic – that is to say they can harm or kill plants. If you dilute the leachate with aged water and aerate it for 24 hours or so, it should be fine. Also, when it really comes down to it, if you are simply pouring the stuff out in your garden (i.e. large area, lots of microbes) it’s probably not that big a deal. I’d be more concerned about using it directly on potted plants.

High quality vermicompost tea is made from…drumroll please…high quality vermicompost! Whether you make it yourself or purchase it, the material should look and smell like really rich black earth – the higher the percentage of actual worm castings (worm poop) in it, the more it should resemble coffee grounds. If you happen to be using a rubber tub type of worm bin, the material you harvest may be pretty wet, and not exactly what I would called ‘high quality’ stuff – at least not yet. I’d recommend simply airing it out once you have separated the worm from it. You can do this by spreading it out on a plastic sheet in a dry location – if outside, you might want to keep it in the shade just so you don’t completely bake all the life out of it.

The actual making of worm tea is very simple. I’m no tea guru myself, but I do know the basic principles, and in my humble opinion that’s all you need to make some great compost tea.

Here is a basic supply list:

  • High quality vermicompost / worm castings
  • Some type of permeable bag – the muslin bags used to hold soaps etc can work really well, but even panty hose would likely be a great choice.
  • Aged water – if you are using tap water you should let it sit for a day or two so as to remove the chlorine. Preferably, use some rainwater or pond water if you have some on hand.
  • A bucket
  • A basic aquarium air pump and tubing – an airstone will help, but it’s not vital
  • **Optional** – a source of simple sugars – molasses works very well. This is used to help increase the population of beneficial microbes in the mixture. Some claim that it is not a good idea since it will also potentially increase pathogens, but the way I see it – there actually need to be pathogens in the material for this to happen! Yet another reason that really high quality compost should be used

I simply poured two watering cans full of water over top of my muslin bag of vermicompost (which is tied at the top)

The amount of vermicompost used is up to you. For the batch I made today I used approx. 500 ml (I filled up a empty cottage cheese container). Academic research has indicated that worm compost is pretty potent stuff, with a little going a long way. So you really don’t need a massive amount to make a batch of tea – especially if you are adding some extra microbe food. Speaking of which, many of the serious worm tea brewers out there swear by a wide variety of additional amendments in their teas – materials like rock dust, kelp etc etc can apparently help to boost populations of the ‘good’ microbes, while adding some additional nutrients to the mix.

I added about a tablespoon of molasses for kicks and giggles – again, I am no expert here, but I do know this will help to boost microbial activity in the mix at least somewhat.

Lastly but certainly not leastly (thats a word – honest!), I plugged in my air pump to start aerating the tea. I will likely leave it going for 24 hours or so.

That’s pretty much it! Something I’ll likely do while the tea is brewing is move the tea bag around a bit just to make sure I’m getting a lot of the good stuff out. Normally (in an actual compost tea brewer) the bag would be suspended in the water column somehow to maximize flow of water through it, but I have little doubt that my mix will do just fine with the aeration and some addition shaking of the bag.

I’m not 100% sure what I’m going to use the tea for. I’m thinking about trying it on my big Hollyhock plant which has been suffering from various ailments and attacks from pests over the last few years. I gave it quite a bit a vermicompost this year, which definitely seems to be helping, but I think a foliar application of the worm tea might help it even more.

Anyway, I will keep everyone posted, and will certainly be talking a lot more about worm tea and vermicompost in coming weeks/months.

[tags]worm tea, vermicompost tea, compost tea, compost tea brewing, vermicompost, worm castings, worm compost, compost, compost tea brewer, beneficial microbes[/tags]

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