November 2008

Steinernema feltiae and Red Worms

Just a quick tidbit of interesting info to share…

A recent reader question about predatory nematodes (and their usefulness in a worm bin) reminded me of the fact that I came across an interesting scientific journal article that discussed interactions between Eisenia fetida (our good friend the Red Worm) and Steinernema feltiae.

You may recall that I was quite pleased with the initial effectiveness of S. feltiae against a serious population of fungus gnats that had developed in my vermicomposting systems (see Steinernema feltiae – Fungus Gnat Killer). I also tested them against fruit flies (see Steinernema feltiae VS The Fruit Flies), but didn’t end up with any conclusive results unfortunately.

One of the things I wondered about in the case of adding the nematodes to a worm bin is the potential competition/predation from the bin inhabitants, including the Red Worms themselves. A composting system tends to have a much more diverse ecosystem than that found in regular soil or inert growing media – where these nematodes are usually applied. Undoubtedly the sheer numbers of the nematodes being added certainly helps to explain their initial effectiveness, but it seemed as though something was decreasing their overall potency over time (although, that being said, I should mention that I have not had a really bad infestation since then).

This article (see reference section below for more info) seems to support one of the hunches I had – that Red Worms do indeed kill off nematodes via passage through their digestive system. The researchers were actually wondering if earthworms could improve the effectiveness of the nematodes by helping to disperse them, but found that the opposite was true. The digestive enzymes of E. fetida are simply too potent to allow safe passage of the nematodes through their gut.

Definitely something to think about, especially if your vermicomposting systems have high worm densities (although, with high enough worm densities the threat of serious gnat/fruit fly invasions will be greatly reduced).


REFERENCES

Campos-Herrera, R., Trigo, D., and C. Gutiรฉrrez. 2006. Phoresy of the entomopathogenic nematode Steinernema feltiae by the earthworm Eisenia fetida. Journal of Invertebrate Pathology, 92: 52-54.

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Worm Inn Journal – 11-10-08

My Camo Worm Inn

Some of you may recall me starting what I referred to as the ‘Worm Bin Journal‘ early last spring – a special project originally intended for newsletter members only. Well I’ve decided to start up another journal project – but this time it’s the Worm Inn Journal, and it will be a completely public affair.

As I mentioned not too long ago, I ordered a number of Worm Inns (to sell up here in Canada) and was given a complimentary test system – something I’ve been meaning to get set up ever since. I think the major issue slowing me down was my intention to add 3 lb of worms. Basically this means 3 lb less available to be sold to customers. Given the consistent demand for worms this fall, I opted to postpone the set-up of my Worm Inn.

Finally it dawned on me one day that I didn’t HAVE to start with 3 lbs – I could always just add more worms over time until I reach the target quantity (I’m dazzled by my own brilliance sometimes – lol). Apart from having that ‘Eureka’ moment (haha), things DO seem to be winding down for the season up here as well, thus it’s less of a issue to set aside worms for this project. SO…I finally got my Inn up and running with just over 1 lb of Red Worms (so far).

As you can probably tell from the photo above, I need to work on getting my Inn to hang properly – it’s looking a little sloppy at the moment (due to my poor hanging skills, I can assure you).
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I’m actually thinking very seriously about buying a laundry hamper stand similar to the one shown in my ‘Worm Inn Update‘ post (which features one of Robyn’s product shots). I think this is definitely the way to go since it looks good and allows you to easily move the system around.

Setting up the system was very straightforward. As mentioned in other posts, I’m lucky enough to have considerable amounts of aged manure bedding (basically manure mixed with straw then allowed to rot for a period of time) on hand, so it’s very easy to create a nice ‘worm habitat’ in any new system I am setting up. Normally I would mix shredded cardboard with food waste and let this sit for a week before adding the worms. With the manure bedding I can add the worms right away.


Cardboard False Bottom
The first thing I did was add a ‘false bottom’ of moistened shredded cardboard (moistened after picture was taken). This isn’t absolutely vital – just something I like to do to keep the main contents of the system away from the bottom during the initial start-up phase. This cardboard will eventually be released from the bottom (likely undecomposed) once I start taking out vermicompost.


Manure Compost Added to Worm Inn
I next added a layer of the manure compost


Adding Worms to the Worm Inn
Next, it was time to add the worms – my first 1.1 lbs. I will likely add another 2 lbs or so during the next couple of weeks.


Worm Food added to Worm Inn
I then added another layer of the compost plus some rotting food waste I happened to have ready to go.


Cardboard Bedding on top
Yet another layer of the compost, then a thick layer of shredded cardboard over top. Because the system is open I decided to spray the upper bedding layer with water (after picture taken). I will likely need to add water to this system on a regular basis to keep things moist for the worms.


It is very exciting to finally have my Worm Inn up and running! I looked in this morning to make sure my worms weren’t trying to make a break for it and was very pleased to see lots of them up in the rotting food waste layer – presumably happily munching away on millions of microbes.

Unlike my Worm Bin Journal, I plan to provide updates for this project on a much more regular basis (at least one a week). So stay tuned!

Should be a lot of fun!
8)

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Cat Litter Vermicomposting

Eco-friendly Cat Litter

One topic I’ve been asked about quite a lot is pet waste vermicomposting. Of course, it is totally understandable – after all, there are millions of pet owners in North America, and dealing with pet waste materials is definitely one of the not-so-enjoyable responsibilities associated with taking care of our furry friends.

For quite some time I’ve been meaning to make a video (and write) about an design idea I’ve had for a pet waste vermicomposting system. As I’ve mentioned at least a few times here on the blog, it’s definitely NOT a good idea to add pet (or human) wastes to our regular composting systems. There are some exceptions to this rule – the poop from vegetarian animals like rabbits, guinea pigs etc should be totally fine, although you should still be careful using it based on the high nitrogen content.

Originally I was planning to set up my own pet waste system in the backyard (making sure to take lots of pictures) and then collect cat poop from our two litter boxes and add it to the system (likely testing out my biodegradable poop bags while I was at it). Notice I didn’t say that I was planning to add my cat litter to the system. If you are using clumping (or regular) cat litter, as we have been doing for years, you definitely DO NOT want to add this stuff to a composting system. Back when I was young and dumb I did this and ended up with the most disgusting clay-poop cake you can imagine. Not exactly worm- (or environmentally-) friendly!!
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During a recent visit to our local supermarket, I noticed they were offering a new ‘green’ cat litter (‘Presidents Choice’ brand – likely a familiar name only to my fellow Canadians). It’s not the cheapest stuff, that’s for sure, but it claims to be twice as absorbent as clumping cat litter – and more importantly it is ‘compostable’!
Whoohoo!

I picked up a couple bags of the stuff today, and I am really looking forward to testing it out (likely in one litter box to start). Aside from feeling good about no longer sending hundreds of pounds (or more) of clumping cat litter to the dump every year (not to mention the hassle associated with cleaning and throwing it out in the first place), the green cat litter is really going to help me test out my pet waste composting system.

I’ll certainly write a lot more about this once my system is up and running, but I figured it was worth mentioning now so all you pet-fanatic-vermicomposters out there have something to look forward to.
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When To Add More Bedding and Stop Adding Food

Here are some good questions from Gayle:

I was wondering, when do I add more bedding? I started my worm bin and have had the worms for about 1-2 weeks. they seem to be doing fine. I seem to have a lot of waste to put in though. I have rotated putting the waste around the bin, but I feel like I would be putting waste on top the old waste. do I need to add more bedding? do I need to just wait a while to add more waste? I used an 8-10 gallon Rubbermaid container. the bedding was about half to the top. I do have another Rubbermaid container, do I need to split the worms and make 2 bins? help!!! how much is too much waste?
thanks for your help.

Hi Gayle,
If you feel like you are piling waste materials on top of waste materials it is definitely time to stop adding more. This is especially important when just starting out with a new worm bin. Almost invariably, worms in a new system need some time to adjust and won’t be processing wastes at their full potential. I always recommend letting the worms be your guide. If it seems like they are consuming the food quite quickly, then by all means add more, but if not just let them be for a while. This way you are far more likely to avoid a dangerous over-feeding situation. I know it can be frustrating when you have a lot of wastes to compost and it seems like the worms can only process a fraction of it, but patience is definitely important when just starting out. I can assure you that over time the worms will start consuming more and more of your scraps.

It certainly helps if you can aid the composting process somewhat. Cutting, freezing, and cooking of the wastes can help kick-start the breakdown process – but some caution is warranted since it is easier to add too much waste at once without realizing it (especially if you cut it up into really small pieces).

When just starting out – assuming you have a lot of bedding in your bin to begin with – you shouldn’t need to add too much more bedding for the first little while. If you notice conditions getting a little wet in the bin however, it might be a good time to start adding some dry bedding every time you add food waste (or every other time). Simply put some in the bottom of your feeding pockets.

As for splitting your worms – unless you feel that you have too many for your current bin, I would definitely wait at least a few months before splitting up your population. Starting another bin with a new batch of worms might be a better idea if you are really keen to process more wastes (and don’t want to wait for your system to become more efficient).

Hope this helps!
8)

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Homemade Manure

Worm Food

Don’t worry, this post doesn’t have anything to do with pooping in your worm bin.
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A little while back I wrote about my (relatively) new ‘Vermicomposting Tray‘ systems – one of the steps I’ve taken in an effort to help increase the efficiency of my operation. One of the interesting topics discussed in the comments section of the worm tray post was that of blending food waste – something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit as of late (again, thinking of different ways to increase the efficiency of my systems).

In all honesty, in the past when I’ve been asked about using food puree as a worm food, I’ve tended to warn people about the potential perils of this practice. I certainly had good intentions – after all, if you aren’t careful with wet food pastes you can end up with a nasty anaerobic mess, and potentially even some dead worms. For the most part, I’ve steered clear of blended food over the years for this very reason.

Now that I’m mostly using open systems, and have a lot more experience under my belt I’ve decided to re-visit the food blending notion. There is considerable evidence (presented in the academic literature) to indicate that foods with smaller particle size can dramatically increase worm growth, and (not surprisingly) greatly speed up processing time as well. That being said, decreased particle size can be a double-edged sword, since small particles also have small spaces between them – meaning less air flow and thus greater chance of anaerobic conditions.

To combat this potential issue I’ve been creating what I like to refer to as ‘homemade manure’ – a similar notion to that suggested by one of our readers in the comments section of the post discussed earlier. Basically the idea is to create the best of both worlds – greatly increased surface area of blended food waste, without the sloppy wet mess typically associated with this approach. The result is something like manure – but potentially even more valuable as a worm food.

My dad gave me his old food processor/blender, which has basically been sitting on his cupboard shelf since it was given to him, probably 15-20 years ago (he loves to cook, but I guess not THAT much!). Unfortunately the food processor component doesn’t seem to be working at all. Definitely a bummer – but the silver lining is that the blender seems to be surprisingly powerful (although nothing remotely close to my ‘ultimate’ system).

So how is this ‘manure’ made?

I’ll admit that I’ve been cheating a little bit by actually adding some aged manure (fairly dry stuff, to help absorb excess moisture) into the mix since I have plenty on-hand. You certainly don’t need to do this. Really, all you need is your wet food paste plus something absorbent (preferably carbon-rich), along with something that will inoculate the mix with microbes.

I’ve been using my favourite type of cardboard – ‘egg carton cardboard’ – as the absorbent component. Peat moss, coconut coir, or shredded newspaper would likely all work very well also. In order to inoculate the mix with microbes (assuming you don’t have aged manure) you can use any compost from your bins or backyard composters, or some partially decomposed leaf litter (I think this would be excellent stuff) if you have a forest (or aged leave pile) near by.

I’m realizing that there are endless possibilities for different recipes. I’ve been blending a wide variety of materials – basically anything that ends up in my kitchen scrap holder – without giving it much though, but I do want to start being more selective to see how different mixes perform. As I’ve discovered, blending is a fantastic way to break down and mix in egg shells – not to mention tough fibrous wastes like banana peels.

Thus far I’ve been extremely pleased with the results, to say the least! The worms go crazy for it – more so than actual horse manure I added as a test (although, if I blended and moistened the manure a little more they may have reacted similarly).
The areas where I’ve added the material in the bins are now teeming with worms.

No more waiting months for resistant materials (like carrots, broccoli etc) to get broken down, that’s for sure.
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Anyway – as per usual, I will keep you posted on my progress! One thing I’d definitely like to compare is worm growth when fed blended vs non-blended wastes.

Should be interesting.



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