September 2008

Bits and Pieces

Hey Everyone,
I’m hoping to start this week off on the right foot with a handful of new posts. A good place to start is with a quick update post to try and get everyone up to speed with what’s been going on with various mini-projects I started (or planned to start), along with some of the things I have in store for the weeks and months ahead. I’ve been really busy with my ‘real world’ vermicomposting business (among other things), but am definitely hoping to get back into a regular posting schedule here on the blog.

1) Making Microbes (see “Making Microbes” and “Making Microbes – Part II“) – Unfortunately I never really got around to testing this out. I soaked a fair amount of cardboard in an aerated microbial soup and then put it all in a big Rubbermaid tub. I’ll provide further updates once I start feeding it to my worms, but may not get around to doing a comparison with regular water-soaked cardboard.

2) Beneficial Nematodes (see “Steinernema feltiae – Fungus Gnat Killer” and “Steinernema feltiae VS The Fruit Flies“) – You may recall that I wanted to test the the effectiveness of Steinernema feltiae against fruit flies, after witnessing a significant reduction in my fungus gnat population once these beneficials were released into my bins.

At first it seemed as though the nematodes were really working in the fruit fly infested bins, but then one day when I opened the lid I was greeted by clouds of new adults. There looked like there were masses of white strands on the shredded cardboard bedding, so I suspect the nematodes had some sort of mass die-off. Based on what I read about them, I get the feeling they aren’t nearly as effective when temperatures are high. I had these bins outside in summer weather so there is a decent chance that the temperatures ended up being too high for them.

Bottom-line, I’m not 100% sure if I would recommend Steinernema for vermicomposting. They cost quite a bit, and I just get the feeling that the diverse worm bin ecosystem prevents them from maintaining their high initial numbers. My fungus gnat populations haven’t exploded again since I used the nematodes, but I’m not sure if that is due to residual nematode populations, or simply improved worm bin maintenance.

3) Robyn Crispe’s ‘Worm Inn’ (see “The Worm Inn” and “Worm Inn Update“) – There is a lot of exciting news to report on this front. I am actually going to dedicate a post to this topic very soon, so keep your eye out for that!

>>>COMING ATTRACTIONS<<< 1) Worm Trays – I used to keep all my (indoor) worms in various ‘Rubbermaid’ bins (ie. plastic tubs with lids), but now that I have a vermicomposting business I have been testing out other systems to see if I can find something relatively inexpensive, that works well and makes harvesting the worms easier. I think I have found such a system.

2) Worm Bed Watermelons, Part Deux – Remember how I thought that watermelon plants had sprouted and grown in one of my outdoor worm beds? Well, I was wrong.

3) Vermicomposting Trench Wrap-up – Fall has arrived, and my vermicomposting trench systems haven’t received any food waste for a month or so. I’ll share what has happened in the systems since my last update, and tell you about the nice big present that’s now sitting in one of my beds, thanks to my vermi-herd! (previous trench posts: “The Vermicomposting Trench“, “The Vermicomposting Trench – Part II“)

4) Manure Worm Mecca – At the end of August I wrote about the big, juicy Red Worms I found at a friend’s horse barn (in aged manure/bedding pile sitting out behind the stalls). Well, much to my excitement, my friend has been urging me to take as many of the worms and as much of the material as I can. In fact, it’s become a bit of a race against the clock. In a few week’s time the pile will likely be removed and spread over some local fields. I’ll tell you about the big plans I have for creating the ultimate outdoor worm haven, much closer to home and well out of harm’s way.

5) Experimental Vermicomposting Unleashed – Lastly, but certainly not leastly (that’s a word – HONEST!)…I am very excited to announce the upcoming launch of a project dedicated solely to worm composting experiments. I’ve teamed up with a good worm farming friend (not to mention a major player in the industry) to answer those burning vermicomposting questions that keep you up at night- “How long does it really take for a worm population to double?”; “Can composting worms tolerate temperatures over 100 F?”; “Which breeds faster – European Nightcrawlers or Red Worms?”; “How many worms are in 1 lb?”; “What happens when you only feed worms newspaper?” – and many, many more.
Combining real science, with practical worm farming know-how, our plan is to demystify vermicomposting and bring it to the masses in a fun and fascinating manner! Stay tuned!

Ok – I think that’s enough of an update for now! Time to start pumping those posts out.

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John’s Homemade Worm Harvester

Homemade Worm Harvester

After writing my post about Alan Bishop’s DIY worm harvester I received and email from John who had recently built something similar himself. He sent a long some pics and encouraged me to write about it on the ‘Share Board’. So here you go!

Here is John’s brief description of the system:

We used a 5 gallon bucket and some 1/4 inch screen & a Rubbermaid type tub. We
also added horizontal bars to act as beater bars to gently help the
process along.

Thanks again for sharing that John!

Homemade Worm Harvester

P.S. Apologies for the lull in blog postings – it has been a challenging week and a half, but things are looking up. I’ll be writing an update post (announcing upcoming projects/posts and revisiting some other stuff I let fall by the wayside) soon, so that should help to start getting things back up to speed around here.

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DIY Worm Harvester

I meant to write about this topic quite some time ago, but it somehow fell by the wayside during the summer. Thankfully a reader email re: worm harvesters reminded me about this overdue post.

For anyone who becomes even semi-serious about vermicomposting it is inevitable that the issue of separating worms from vermicompost will arise. I’ve found that with high enough densities of worms in my tubs I can harvest using the ‘light method’ quite quickly, but this is still far from the ideal method. I have also written about my ‘garbage bag harvesting method‘, which seems to work reasonably well, but isn’t really helpful for actually harvesting worms – it is better suited for transferring all your worms to a new system.

Earlier in the summer I had an enjoyable conversation with one of my worm customers (who came to pick up his order). Like myself this person has a keen interest DIY ‘eco’ projects – like worm bins and aquaponics systems – and is always on the lookout for cheaper ways to make really useful equipment.
At one point the topic of worm/vermicompost harvesting came up, and he told me about an article he had come across outlining how to make your own trommel harvester. Long story short, I asked him to pass along the link when he got home so that I could check it out for myself.

The article in question is called “A Homegrown Worm Harvester” and is found on “Bishop’s Homegrown” blog. I’ve had the pleasure of exchanging a few emails with Alan Bishop, the owner of the site, and I must say he is one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet online. His ‘homegrown’ site contains a wealth of fascinating information about his ‘ecologically-managed’ farm located in Indiana – I highly recommend you check it out. Unfortunately it looks as though he hasn’t been adding new posts for a few months, but hopefully he’ll get back to it once the cold weather arrives (and the harvest is finished). Just so you know, Alan also owns a really interesting looking forum called “Homegrown Goodness” – also definitely worth a visit if you are interested in homesteading and related topics.

Ok, back to the topic at hand…

Alan devised his home harvesting system after testing out a smaller version he built based on plans he found online. While certainly functional, he found that it took too long to harvest the quantities of material he had on-hand, so he decided to improve upon the design.

Alan’s new system is really cool, and it apparently also works very effectively. The trommel screen is basically just a plastic garbage bin that has been cut in half and then re-attached via a length of 1/2″ screen (with 1/4″ screen on the outside). To attach the screen to both halves of the garbage bin he simply used plastic cable ties.

I must admit that I became a little muddled trying to get through the rest of the instructions – while I’m certainly a DIY person at heart, that’s not to say I have any talent for building things. Part of the reason I emailed Alan originally was in fact to see if he could help me understand how the unit was actually constructed. He ended up sending me this helpful email:

Sorry about the confusion with my post, I think I was pretty sick when I actually wrote that and looking back, it is pretty hard to follow, I’ll try to elaborate here.

I turn it by hand basically.

More or less the basic premise is to cut a large plastic trash can in half and cut the bottom end out, buy some small gauge chicken wire and wrap it around one end of the trash can using those plastic lock in straps to attach it tightly to the trash can (you will have to drill some holes in the trash can in which to insert those lock straps) about an inch or two up from where you made the cut, take the other end of the trash can and do the same thing with the chicken wire on that end.

Then you build a frame to hold it off of the ground, we re-used some old deck boards we had lying around. The next step is to find a pipe or some other type of metallic rod that you can use to suspend the harvester through the middle of the frame at a 40-45 degree angle.

You will have to bore a hole in middle of the support board on each end of the frame, on the end in which you add worms and compost you want it to be high and on the end in which the unfinished material and worms will fall out you will want it to be lower (40-45 degree angle). You will then have to place a couple of wooden braces in each end of the trash can, cut them to size (to fit the diameter of the trashcan) and then use screws to hold them in place you will then bore two alligned holes through those for the metal rod. Since the trash can is held at an angle you will have to place some type of brace on the back side of one of the wooden braces to keep the trash can from sliding. We used some Koetter pins I believe.

So there you have it! Thanks again to Alan for sharing all this great info. I definitely want to see if I can build one of these myself, and encourage all you DIY worm buffs out there to do the same. Of course, if you DO make one (or some other type of harvester), please let me know!

[tags]worm, harvesting, harvester, vermicompost, worm castings, compost, red worms, compost worms, trommel, trammel, compost screen, screening, harvesting worms[/tags]

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Restaurant Vermicomposting Question

Here is an interesting question from Frank:

I read your article on Restaurant Vermicomposting and was
disappointed to read the sequel Restaurant Vermicomposting Post
. Would there not be a possibility to design a bin that can stay on site at the restaurant so you just have to go and collect the compost/worms every now and then? Or is that a dream?

Hi Frank,
That is a good question, and definitely highlights the importance of one of my recommendations in the post mortem. In order to really guarantee the long-term success of a project like this you need to find a way to get the restaurant as excited and involved as possible.

One thing I didn’t mention in my articles is the fact that I approached the restaurant owner about putting one or two backyard composters on the property – more as a symbol of their involvement than anything else (they would only be able to handle a fraction of what the restaurant is producing, and would need to be managed extremely well). Unfortunately he couldn’t even allow this since he isn’t the sole owner of the property itself, and the co-owners more than likely wouldn’t have gone for the idea.

Needless to say, trying to sell him on the idea of dropping many thousands of dollars for a climate controlled, automated vermicomposter that would take up space on site would have been a complete waste of time.

If the restaurant doesn’t get more involved than simply collecting and putting the wastes out for pick-up, there is definitely a greater risk of having the project completely derailed when any significant issue arises. In the minds of the restaurant staff, ownership of the project lies in someone else’s hands. If you can inspire them to take ownership of the project themselves there is greater potential for success.

Thanks for bringing this up, Frank!

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Zucchini Recipes, Anyone?

Zucchini Squash from my Vermicomposting Garden

This year I’ve been enjoying a bountiful harvest of garden crops thanks to my vermicomposting trenches. Only problem I’m going to have is trying to put all my produce to good use (have been giving a lot of it away as well).

I had been enjoying lots of small zucchinis on the BBQ earlier this summer, but then kinda let the plants go wild. In no time at all I ended up with a bunch of monsters (I can assure you that the picture above doesn’t do them any justice). While certainly impressive, I’m not really sure what to do with them – when they are that big I don’t really enjoy them as much on the BBQ. If anyone has any yummy recipes the for big zucchinis I’d certainly love to hear about them.

Just as an aside – for all of you out there with your own vermicomposting biz (or for those of you thinking about getting into it), I highly recommend growing lots of stuff with vermicompost so you can show your customers when they come to pick up worms/vermicompost. I had some people come by on the weekend, one of them being an avid organic gardener (ie she is much more talented at gardening than myself), and they were blown away. I had the zucchinis sitting in a wheelbarrow (hadn’t even planned to point them out) and when the gentleman spotted them he ran over for a closer look. He couldn’t believe how big some of them were. I sent them home with one, along with a bunch of nice tomatoes – yet another great advantage of having all this produce available when selling worms. Obviously these people were already intending to purchase worms, but I bet they’ll tell even more people about my business based on their visit here.

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Restaurant Vermicomposting Post Mortem

After 3 very interesting months of large-scale food waste vermicomposting, I decided to pull the plug on the project (see Restaurant Food Waste Vermicomposting to learn more about said ‘project’). I have far less time this fall for collecting and handling large amounts of wastes, and my capacity to process all the wastes in the systems I’ve set up (here and on my dad’s property) seemed to be dwindling by the day. With cold, wet weather of fall and even harsher conditions of winter on the way, it’s probably better that I stopped now anyway.

Naturally, I can’t help but feel guilty about my inability to continue, since the restaurant will once again be sending all their food waste to the landfill. They also might not be nearly as open to the idea of letting people take their wastes from now on, thinking that it will end up being more hassle than it’s worth. I actually asked if I could switch to only taking coffee grounds/filters and they decided it wasn’t worth the bother. The irony of their new perspective is that it was coffee grounds and egg carton cardboard that I had originally approached them about (and was met with enthusiasm). Oh well – lesson learned.

Beefsteak Tomatoes

Looking back, I am definitely impressed with what’s been accomplished – all that ‘blood, sweat and tears’ certainly wasn’t a total waste. I was able to divert literally tons of food waste that would have otherwise ended up in the landfill, and was able to put it to very good use. The materials have served as a massive supply of organic fertilizer (not as in certifiable, but in the literal sense of the term ‘organic’) for my gardens and major food source for a lot of composting worms! Even now with the supply cut off, the plants and the worms will continue to benefit from the materials for quite some time.

The project has also certainly provided me with an excellent opportunity to test out various composting methods. My most exciting discovery of course has been the value of vermicomposting trenches as all-natural fertilization and watering system.

Monster Zucchinis

Continuing on the positive side, I can’t tell you how nice it is now not having to constantly think about going to make waste pick-ups. To their credit, the owner and manager of the restaurant were quite accommodating towards the end when I expressed some concern about the pick-up schedule (up until then I had been making pick-ups 6 days a week), agreeing to simply put the bins outside so I could pick them up whenever I had time, rather than during a specific time window at the end of each day.

While I no longer have a steady supply of wastes to feed my worms, the quantity added to my systems up until now should keep the worms going for a while (as mentioned), and I have little doubt I’ll be able to secure plenty of waste from other sources.

For those of you thinking about starting a similar project with a local restaurant, here are some recommendations:

1) Start small – Tame your excitement (and the potential excitement of the restaurant owner) and start by taking small to moderate amounts of waste for a number of weeks or months to make sure you don’t end up biting off more than you can chew.

2) If taking decent quantities of waste on a regular schedule, be sure to fully plan out the project and discuss possible contingency plans with the restaurant staff – the last thing they want to deal with is a large quantity of rotting organic waste that you were supposed to take off their hands.

3) Make sure you have the time, equipment, and space to do the job properly.

4) Keep the channels of communication open at all times – don’t be afraid to let the restaurant know that some particular aspect of the project is not working smoothly for you. This sort of arrangement needs to be ‘sustainable’ from more than just an environmental standpoint.

5) Give lots of notice for any major changes or if you need to stop taking waste. This is especially important when dealing with larger operations (and more food waste) – remember, there is a full staff of people that needed to be notified and educated about this in order to get things off the ground in the first place, so don’t just pull the plug and leave them to deal with the resulting headaches on their end.

6) Try to get the restaurant staff as involved and excited about the project as possible – this way it becomes more of a team effort, and there is a greater chance that some workable solution can be found any time problems arise. If all the burden rests on your shoulders it won’t be nearly as enjoyable, and you likely just end up really stressed out.

Obviously most of these aren’t really an issue if you are only picking up some waste materials occasionally – they are more geared towards project involving a more regular pick-up schedule, and when more wastes are being taken.

In case you are wondering, these are NOT all things I failed at with my project (haha) – just things that have come to mind during the process. I certainly fell short in some ways, but all in all I think I handled everything reasonably well.

Bottomline, it was a very cool experience and I’m really glad I did it. I’d like to start something like this again, but would likely wait until I had a truck and a larger, rural property.

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Roaming Worms

Here is a good question from Dan. Very likely something that a LOT of people wonder about.

I just started a vermicomposting bin yesterday. It is a
rubbermaid bin, and I drilled lots of aeration and drainage holes. I
then added some vegetable waste, lots of newspaper, cardboard, coffee
filter, and papertowels about 2 weeks before the red worms arrived.
I’ve also made sure to keep the bin nice and moist. I just got the
worms yesterday and added them to the bin. I’m noticing whenever I
take the top off that I usually have 4-8 worms on the sides of the
bin. Is this normal for new worms to have a few escaping….or does
4-8 mean the entire population doesn’t like my bin? I can’t think of
anything about the conditions they wouldn’t like…Also, what do I do
with the ones on the sides…should I put them back in or leave them

Hi Dan,
Be assured that this is totally normal for a new bin – even if it has been set up ahead of time (although you should generally see less roaming in an aged bin). If the worms are in real trouble you will definitely know about it – there will be masses of them on the sides and coming out any holes they can find.

Roaming is simply a sign that the worms are still adjusting to their new environment. I have little doubt that the shipping process (assuming that’s how you got them) shakes them up a little, and by the time they reach you they are probably starting to adjust to the constant motion and vibrations, only to then be put in a quiet environment.

Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that it is very common for composting worms to be fed primarily manure when raised on worm farms – this is one of their preferred foods, and it promotes fast growth and large size so it makes sense to use it. Only problem is that when they are added to a food waste and bedding system it takes them some time to adjust. This is why it’s always a good idea to hold off from adding any more food to your new bin for a little while (assuming you added some when setting up) – the last thing you need at this time is an overfed bin!

There are a couple things you can try to keep the worms down in the bedding. If you take the lid off and shine a light on the bin it is unlikely that they will venture upwards, unless they are in real trouble (and assuming you have Red Worms – some species are less affected by light). Adding a really thick layer of dry bedding at the top of the bin can also help by drying out this area, making it a lot less desirable for the worms to roam up the sides.

I wouldn’t bother putting any roaming worms back down in the bedding (unless of course they’ve fallen out of the bin altogether) since they will probably just start climbing up the sides again. In a sense, it’s probably not a bad idea to let the roamers do their thing even if it means they end up drying out and dying – kind like ‘survival of the fittest’. You get rid of the roamers, and are left with more tolerant worms.

Anyway, hope this helps!

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