December 2008

Winter Worm Composting – 12-30-08

Unfortunately NOT an updated picture of the big winter worm bed!

As mentioned in my previous post, I am without my trusty digital camera this week, so unfortunately I can’t provide you with any new pics.

Blubbering aside…

The last couple of days ended up being REALLY important for getting my winter vermicomposting systems in good shape for the cold months ahead.

Did he just says systemS?

That’s right folks – not only did I finish off the big bed at my dad’s place (will be adding more material early next week though), but I even decided to get one of the beds in my yard set up for winter warmth. It won’t be nearly as formidable as the larger bed, but is certainly a huge improvement over its previous state.

It all started with a few days of relatively warm weather (and lots of rain). Not only did the rain wash away much of the snow – thus exposing some of the beds in my yard – but it also started to thaw out the manure sitting in the bins waiting to be transported over to my dad’s place. Add to that the fact that the new lack of snow suddenly made my yard into serious eyesore (garbage bins + bales of straw + piles of manure – you do the math – lol), so that certainly didn’t hurt when it came to convincing my wife of the importance of my (holiday weekend) winter composting operation.

Aside from coinciding with mild weather, the completion of the big bed also came at a time when the system was starting to warm up quite nicely on its own. My dad took some temperature readings late last week and the middle of the pile was 15 C (59 F) – a major improvement over the last readings I took. It was much cooler around the edges, but this doesn’t concern me at all – as long as I can create a nice warm (and expanding) core, I know there will be no trouble warming up the entire system over time. There is plenty more material to add, and also a lot that can be done to make the walls a little more snug (filling in gaps etc), so I think we are in really good shape now.

Despite partially thawing in the bins, the manure was a bit of a chore to work with. Thankfully it was very easy to get it out (since the outermost region was where thawing took place), but it took some effort to break it up and spread it out. We only ended up adding half of the bins to the pile, opting to put the rest in my dad’s basement for now. To add some more insulation value, we topped up the bed with straw from two bales. I’m pretty sure the warmer temps in the middle zone, combined with the added insulation will cause the rest of the manure in the heap to thaw out. Adding lots of warm material next week will certainly help as well.

As for my smaller bed (formerly known as the ‘Sandbox Self-Fertilizing Garden‘)…

In all honesty, I hadn’t planned to do anything more with it. Winter swept in before I’d had a chance to really protect it from the cold, so I figured I’d just let sleeping worms lie…until spring, that is. Seeing it fully exposed once again, and knowing I still had the better part of a cubic yard of manure (plus bales of straw) sitting in my driveway, I decided it might not be a bad idea to revisit my original plan.

I first added some of the manure to the long vermicomposting trench that runs the length of the fence (yet another bed with no real winter protection), but still managed to get a good mound piled up on the main bed – along with some fall leaves, a lot of food waste and the straw from one bale (added over top for insulation).

I ended up doing most of the work last night, during undoubtedly one the craziest wind storms we’ve seen this year. It is truly a miracle I was able to accomplish what I did. Try working with massive tarp (which needed to be folded multiple times), loose straw, and loose leaves in a serious wind storm and you’ll see what I mean.

It was actually lot of fun though, and it felt really good to get that bed ready for winter. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that the top few inches of the bed were frozen solid (although easily broken up), down below I found lots of active worms – I can only imagine how active the bed will become now. Unfortunately, it won’t be nearly as accessible as the worm bed at my dad’s place, but I’m sure I’ll check up on it at least a few times over the next couple of months – and even more importantly, it should stay quite active, leaving me with a large, thriving population of wigglers by the time spring rolls around!

Previous Winter Worm Composting Posts

Winter Composting Extravaganza 2.0
Winter Worm Composting – 12-08-08
Winter Worm Composting – 12-15-08

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Worm Inn Journal – 12-29-08

Brown Worm Inn

We’re definitely overdue for another ‘Worm Inn Journal’ update (and new posts on the blog in general). Certainly a couple interesting developments to report on.

In a previous post I mentioned that some fruit flies had started hatching from the Inn. Well, that minor invasion seemed to disappear quite quickly, only to be replaced by a fungus gnat invasion.

What’s interesting is the fact that – although certainly more serious than the fruit fly situation – the gnat population has yet to explode the way they have in the past. There is a far great chance of this happening with fungus gnats since they don’t rely on food waste for sustenance.

Any moist decomposing organic matter seems serve as suitable fodder for the larvae – in other words, it is next to impossible to completely cut off the food supply, as can be done with fruit flies.

I suspect once again, that the robust ecosystem in the Inn is playing an important role in keeping the gnat population in check. Given the vast quantities (relatively speaking) of decomposing matter in the system, I really don’t think that competition from the worms plays as important a role as it may have in the decline of the fruit fly population.

In other Worm Inn news…

I’ve actually decided to start up a second Worm Inn. I’ve been so pleased with my first Inn that I decided to test out another one using only…drumroll pleaseEuropean Nightcrawlers!! I’ll be really interested to see how the two systems compare.

Speaking of Euros – I am planning to start my ‘Euro Shipping Sale’ next week, so if you’ve been thinking about trying these big composting worms out for yourself, this could be a good opportunity to do so!

By the way – in case you are wondering why I’m using one of Robyn’s images for this post, rather than showing off the new set-up – unfortunately, I left my camera at my sister-in-law’s place (more than an hour away) the other day, and won’t likely be able to get it back for at least a week.

As such, the blog will likely be a little ‘plain Jane’ this week. The timing of this probably couldn’t be much worse, since I have a lot of cool vermi-things going. Uggggghhhhh!!
Oh well – the show must go on!

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Take Two, and…ACTION!

OK, so I spoke too soon!
It might not have been the best idea to try and schedule my manure hauling just before a huge winter storm hit! I ended up getting caught up with other important tasks on Thursday and, well…haven’t really had much opportunity for good driving conditions ever since!

Anyway, there IS still more white stuff on the way, but I’m really hoping to at least get the materials over to my dad’s place in the next couple of days so we can start warming up the manure again. I’m hopeful that all this snow will at least provide a good thick layer of insulation for the bed in the meantime.

This is going to be a pretty busy week on the Christmas front, so not sure how much I’ll be posting. I should get at least one or two posts up though. Believe it or not, I actually posted something over at CompostGuy recently that you may want to check out. It is an update on my ‘Sandbox Self-fertilizing Garden’ – which employed one of my vermicomposting trenches. Speaking of which, I am hoping to provide a final wrap-up for the vermi-trench series.

Talk soon.

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Manure Madness

Horse manure (in bins and under tarp) and straw bales – a winter worm composter’s best friends…apart from the worms, that is!

Just a quick update for all y’all. Earlier in the week my farmer friend dropped off 2 cubic yards of partially aged horse manure and 12 bales of straw. Today I’ll be transporting as much as I can over to my dad’s place, where we will first attempt to warm up the material (in bins, in his basement), then add the vast majority of it to the worm bed, layered with and then covered with straw.

Not sure if I’ll have the chance to wrote more this week unfortunately, but you can expect to see an update soon!

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Winter Worm Composting – 12-15-08

Winter Worm Bed Inches Closer to Completion
Hi Everyone – another quick winter vermicomposting update. On Friday I managed to get over to my dad’s to work on our big worm bed a little more. I was hoping to see the temperatures in the bed a little higher due to the piling of the materials, so you can imagine my disappointment upon discovering that the temps had actually gone DOWN! I couldn’t find any zones in the 10 C (50 F) range – most of the spots I checked were hovering around 5 degrees C (41 F)!

We had a freeze-thaw cycle with some rain fall since the last time I was there, and there was a decent pool of water (with a layer of ice on it) up on top of the tarp (see image).

My Own Above-Ground Winter Pool!

If you are ever looking for a cheap way to create your own make-shift pool in the summer, I recommend erecting some straw bale walls, making a mold inside with some soft soil, then simply laying in a heavy duty tarp (lighter colours would obviously be best). It might be a bit of an eyesore, but hey you’ll stay cool, right?

Back to composting…

I took a tub of food waste (mixed with compost) with me to bury in the middle – thinking it might help to stimulate some heating. We also added a couple buckets of manure, but my optimism was certainly waning by the time I left. I know all too well what can happen once temps are down this low – it is VERY difficult to stimulate natural heating. Just as a huge mass like this will tend to hold heat well, so too will it hold the cold. I also realized that aside from needing a LOT more material to help start the warming process, we just need a lot more to fill in the bed in general and mound the heap up a little so water doesn’t pool on the tarp. There is no point using straw bale walls if the material inside isn’t snug up against them (and obviously no benefit if there isn’t any heat to keep in).

All that being said, believe it or not, things are really starting to look up. My dad and I have been looking into the possibility of using eavestrough heating cables to at least provide some artificial assistance until the temps start warming up enough to get the microbes going – I think this might be just the solution we are looking for. Apart from that, this week I’ve been able to arrange with a farmer friend to get a shipment of straw bales (enough to finish the bed off) plus a cubic yard of manure, which should be enough to really fill in the bed and get things going! I’m pretty excited.

I’m optimistic that the bed will be in much better shape by the time the weekend arrives, and will certainly keep everyone posted!

Previous Winter Worm Composting Posts

Winter Composting Extravaganza 2.0
Winter Worm Composting – 12-08-08

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Best Time For Worm Bed Construction

Here is a question from Bobby:

I need to build a new outdoor bin is better to build it now
while it is cold or wait until spring. This is a great site didn’t
know there were so many worm enthusiast.

Hi Bobby,
This is a great question. I would say that now (as in any time in the fall/winter) is definitely the best time to set up an outdoor bed, but it really does depend on what you are trying to do and where you are located.

I am currently setting up a winter worm bed with the intention of breeding lots of worms in time for Spring (when demand for worms will likely be considerably higher). I’m still not 100% sure how successful I’m going to be in terms of generating enough warmth to keep the worms active, but I am very optimistic.

If you are located in the far north (eg. northern Minnesota, Alaska etc), it might make more sense to start something indoors and wait until spring to set up an outdoor system. Although, that being said, I’m sure I would be determined to find away to create an active outdoor worm bin in those regions as well if I lived there! (I’m stubborn like that)

Even a system that stays very cool is going to be much better than no system at all – all sorts of microbes can decompose materials (albeit more slowly) at lower temps than you might expect, and Red Worms are very cold tolerant, so they will stay at least semi-active as long as temps stay above the freezing mark in the bedding. This way, as the weather starts to warm up a bit (you can help the process by putting a black tarp over the bed) in the Spring the worms will get really active and start breeding like crazy. In other words you will have a serious headstart on getting a thriving system going – and you’ll likely need fewer worms to get started as well.

If you are located in an area that gets snow and typical winter weather in general, you’d certainly be better off building an insulated system. Straw bales are an excellent – and relatively inexpensive – building material. Aside from their incredible insulating properties, they offer the advantage of being easily movable, so you can change the dimensions/shape etc at any time. They will also help to insulate the bed from excess heat in the summer. Yet another advantage of this material is that it will also be a fantastic long term food source and habitat for the worms.

Apart from insulation, you will also need a heat source – something that is relatively easy to achieve with a large volume of organic materials, the right C:N range, enough oxygen – and of course the assistance from countless microbes. In other words, a cold weather system should generally be larger, and receive more ‘food’ than a warmer climate system.

Hope this helps!

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Winter Worm Composting – 12-08-08

Alfalfa Hay Gets Added to the Winter Worm Bed
My dad buries our remote temperature sensor in the heap

Yesterday, my dad and I were able to dedicate an hour or so to our winter worm bed. Not nearly as much time as I would have liked, but a LOT better than nothing. Since writing my last winter composting post I decided that our bed needed to be reduced in size so we could make it a little more snug and reduce the number of straw bales needed to build the walls. Aside from that, the smaller bed will be much easier to access (without the need to climb right in). As you can see above, we still do not have enough bales, but I’m happy with our progress nevertheless. The heap as it is now should be able to generate warmth much more readily than it could with the materials spread out so much.

Concentrating Materials For the Worm Bed
Raking materials over to one side for our smaller bed

Moving half the bed over was not an easy task, and actually remains incomplete since I ran out of time. Those of you who have followed the Compost Guy site may recall the “Jumbo Garbage Garden” that my dad and I set up in the summer – back when I was trying to deal with large quantities of restaurant food waste. We started by creating trenches in the soil, then adding lots of cardboard and food waste before filling them back in with dirt. Over top of our multiple trenches we added a considerable amount of brush (with lots of woody materials) – this would essentially act as a ‘false bottom’, helping to draw air in from below the composting mass. Over the brush we layered cardboard, food waste and straw – this was intended to be the worm zone.

Since then, we’ve added plenty more food waste, straw, aged manure and leaves on top – plenty of good stuff to get our worm bed going. What’s really interesting is that as we moved materials over from the one side we discovered that the zones with the highest concentrations of worms were actually the trenches down below the soil. I wouldn’t have thought the oxygen concentration would be high enough down there, but Red Worms never cease to surprise me!

This year, rather than making my dad take trips out to the heap with a compost thermometer, we thought we would try a different approach. Last Christmas he gave me a remote thermometer device – generally intended to monitor outdoor temps and humidity from the comfort of your home. We are hoping it might work well as a remote compost thermometer as well. We sealed it up in a plastic bag with some dry cardboard and buried it in the heap. So far the results haven’t been all that exciting, and we are now wondering if the unit is going to work for us at all.
Remote Digital Temperature Monitor

Compost Thermometer

When in doubt, it never hurts to break out the trusty long-shaft compost thermometer to take readings manually. When we did so recently we saw temps in the range of 5-10 degrees C (41-50 F) – certainly not as warm as I’d like, but really not too shabby given the fact that the materials hadn’t yet been piled up and we are well into freezing winter weather now. I suspect that once the bed is enclosed with straw bales, and more organic matter is added it should warm up quite nicely. I am hoping to add a large quantity of fresh manure to the heap to help kickstart the warming trend. I have also been stock-piling food scraps at home for the purpose of adding them to this bed at some point as well.

Yesterday, before putting the tarp over top we added a layer of alfalfa straw on top of the heap – this should help to add some insulation, while gradually becoming a valuable food source for the worms.

Partially Finished Winter Worm Bed With Tarp Over Top

I am hoping to finish up our winter worm bed in the near future – although I’m not sure when we’ll be able to get a hold of 10 more bales of straw. In the meantime, I suspect that the worms will be totally fine now that their habitat has been piled up and partially insulated.

Anyway – I’ll definitely keep you posted!

Previous Winter Worm Composting Posts
Winter Composting Extravaganza 2.0

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