March 2009

Over-feeding Challenge Update

Springtails
Hoards of springtails coating the surface of a rotting sweet potato


A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post outlining my hair-brained plan to try and ‘over feed’ some of my indoor worm bins. Later that same day I added close to 30 lb of rotting food waste to various systems in my basement – with certain bins (and ‘Inns’ – haha) receiving the vast majority of the material.

What I didn’t mention was the fact that I was leaving the next day for a bit of a mini vacation up north – a trip that would keep me away from home for almost a week (you may have noticed that there were no new blog posts during that time). If I had been using enclosed plastic ‘worm bins’ I likely would have been worried about what I might find when I got home, but I ended up leaving with nary a concern.

As I explained in my first over-feeding post, I only use open systems now, after discovering how much easier they are to manage – so I felt pretty confident that the increased aeration of the systems and the well-established worm ‘habitat’ would help to prevent any major disasters from occurring.

I must admit, I’m almost a little embarassed by how BORING the results seem to be ! haha
Apart from the odd mortality in the one bin that received the most waste (along with too much water, I might add), the results seem to be very positive across the board. A lot of the materials have disappeared or are at least unrecognizable, and the worm concentrations up near the surface seem to have increased.

I expected to see increases in ‘critter’ populations. Other than an apparent increase in springtail numbers (I think so anyway – there were a lot of them already in the systems), there didn’t seem to be any obvious population explosions. I suspect that if the bins had lids on them I would have ended up with a lot more mites and white worms.

I have noticed some funky smells – but again, it only seems to be in the bin that received the largest quantity of waste materials, and too much water. Undoubtedly, there were (and are) some anaerobic microsites, even with the ample air flow.

Anyway, I know this wasn’t the most exciting ‘challenge’ of all time, but hopefully it will at least hammer home the importance of a good ‘habitat’ and lots of (passive) aeration!

Now, I need to come up with something a little more interesting to test!
8)

Red Wigglers

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Storing Food Waste Before Feeding Worms

Here is a question from Melanie

You mentioned this on your site :

“I like to keep food waste in an old milk carton that sits under my
sink. Aside from the convenience of not needing to take it down to the
basement (where my indoor bins are located) or outside (to my outdoor
bin) multiple times per day, this also allows time for microbial
colonization of the materials – and don’t worry, you won’t have a
stinky mess in your container if you do it properly (I’ll definitely
write more about that in another article).”

Did you ever discuss this further on your blog? Β I’ve looked and looked and
can’t find it.

Good question Melanie!
I never DID end up writing more about that (that happens quite a bit – haha), but it’s certainly a good topic to talk about.

While the “old milk carton[s]” have long since been retired, I do still keep a container under my sink (photo below). It is a unit specially designed for the task – essentially a compost crock with biodegradable bag insert.

I have to laugh a little when I see these scrap holder containers with tightly fitting lids and carbon filters. I’m sure they work perfectly fine – but WHY create conditions that lead to bad smells in the first place?!

If you use a fairly well-ventilated system, and add some bulky, absorbent ‘bedding’ types of materials at the bottom, and interspersed throughout, you shouldn’t end up with odor issues. My favorite bedding material is shredded egg carton cardboard – it is VERY absorbent and easier to work with (shred etc) than corrugated cardboard (another worm favorite). I try to remember to add a handful of it each time I start up a new scrap bag.

So that is pretty much it, Melanie – the real secret is providing ventilation, and including absorbent, carbon-rich bedding materials along with the food waste!

Hope this helps.
8)

Food Waste Holder

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Composting Worms In Your Backyard Composter

Backyard Compost Bin

Spring is finally in the air here in Ontario and it’s time to start getting back to our outdoor gardening activities! One of those activities is of course composting.

As many of you know, I’ve continued to compost outdoors all winter long, but for most people, outdoor composting comes to a grinding halt as soon as the mercury starts dipping below the freezing mark in the late fall.

While composting worms are generally more often associated with ‘worm bins’ than your typical backyard composter, adding some of these garbage-hungry wigglers to your backyard bin or heap can be just the thing to help you start producing high quality compost much more quickly.

There are cetainly some important things to keep in mind if you plan on adding worms to a backyard composter though, since the process is quite a bit different and worms have certain requirements.

Moisture is likely one of the most important considerations. When you are employing traditional backyard composting methods, having too much moisture can really put a damper on things (no pun intended…well ok, maybe just a little bit – haha). I should know! A couple of summers ago, after rescuing a composter (pictured above) from curbside abandonment, I decided to set it up as a normal backyard bin.

Being the confident ‘compost guy’ that I was, I thought I knew what I was doing – forgetting that the techniques used to set up a vermicomposting system don’t necessarily apply when setting up a regular system.

Long story short, the bin ended up stinking to high heaven, primarily due to excessive moisture levels. Not only was it a huge blow to my ego, but it actually created a pretty worrisome situation – I was literally hit with the stench as soon as I stepped out into my yard, so needless to say, my neighbours and anyone walking by could probably smell it too!

Thankfully, Red Worms (Eisenia fetida) came to my rescue! I decided to add a bunch from my big outdoor worm bin to see what would happen – the result was nothing short of miraculous! Literally a day or two after the addition of the worms the smell was gone!

The moral of the story (in a round about way) is that the “wrung-out sponge” moisture recommendation often cited in composting instructions is not necessarily ideal for vermicomposting – at least not in an outdoor bin with lots of ventilation and drainage (it’s actually a pretty good guideline when setting up an enclosed plastic worm bin!). Composting worms thrive in very moist conditions – the challenge of course is to make sure they also have enough oxygen!

In order to hold plenty of moisture, while still allowing air flow, you will want to include some ‘bedding’ types of materials, such as shredded cardboard/paper, coco coir, peat moss etc. A mixture of bulkier materials (cardboard etc) with more absorbent materials (coir/peat) helps to create the best of both worlds.

Manually adding water is going to be especially important with the covered bins (like the one in the picture), since rain water won’t be able to get in – this even holds true for typical backyard composting, and in fact is probably one of the main causes of poor bin performance (which of course fools a lot people into thinking that they have no composting ability). Needless to say, during the hot, dry weather of summer this becomes even MORE important!

The location of your system is also quite important when thinking about adding worms – not as big a deal when using a really well ventilated bin, but the solid black plastic composters can certainly heat up a LOT when sitting directly in the sun. This extra heat can actually help the process along when you aren’t using worms, but for obvious reasons it can cause issues for a vermicomposting system.

Lastly, WHAT you add to the bin will also be an important consideration. As I wrote in my recent ‘Reader Questions’ response, you can’t just haphazardly add any type of yard waste and expect great results (with regular composting you can get away with this since everything will eventually work itself out). Huge amounts of grass clippings, woody materials, and anything containing toxins will impede the process, potentially even killing off your worms.

When you start off by creating a good worm ‘habitat’ (including plenty of those bedding materials discussed above), it definitely helps a LOT, but you still need to be aware of the worms’ needs, as you continue to add materials to the bin over time.

One approach that can work really well is to set up multiple backyard bins or heaps, with worms only in one or two of them. Start off by simply doing ‘regular’ composting with all your waste materials (also referred to as ‘precomposting’), before adding the partially composted waste into your worm system. This will greatly speed up the process, and if you do full-scale ‘hot composting’ first (requires a larger volume of waste than can fit in one of your typical backyard composters though) you can even potentially get rid of weed seeds and plant diseases prior to vermicomposting.
8)

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Yard Waste as Worm Food

Here is a question from Natalie:

Greetings Bentley! My husband and I are starting a
vegetable garden on our 1/2 acre of land this year to help with food
costs (don’t you love this economy?) and we wanted to start our own
composting. Both of our parents are composters, my in-laws in the
rotating bins and my parents in a big pile; however both of our
parents have more land on which to hide their composting sites. My
mom suggested vermicomposting because of our limited space. She
vermicomposted in her greenhouse when she was a teenager.

We searched through the internet and found the prices of most of the
bins to be above our means until I found your video on YouTube and
then browsed through your site. It has been very helpful and we have
set up our own bin system for less than $10. Thanks for saving a pair
of newlyweds some money!!

Anyway, I was wondering if any yard items were okay for the worms.
For example, we’ve been pruning shrubs, cutting back growth, and
pulling weeds and want to be able to use those. Can the worms handle
these materials or are they too hardy? Do we just need to use the
grasses and leaves or can we chip the wood into sawdust and use that
too? Are there any plants we need to stay away from? Any help would
be greatly appreciated. πŸ™‚

Hi Natalie,
I love hearing about people taking matters into their own hands like this! You are absolutely right about the value of growing your own food these days (with the poor economy – not to mention plenty of other good reasons), as well as not needing to spend a fortune to get started. In my humble opinion, the most expensive investment with vermicomposting should be the worms themselves, not a fancy worm bin – at least for anyone who really wants to get started with limited funds.

Ok, moving on to your question (an excellent one, by the way)…

There are definitely some things to keep in mind with yard waste. When it comes down to it, you really need to think in terms of decomposition potential. Ideally, worm ‘food’ should break down relatively quickly, should have a pretty high moisture content, and should have a favorable carbon-to-nitrogen ratio – generally somewhere between 20:1 and 40:1.

Obviously, there aren’t going to be too many waste materials that posses ALL of these properties, and that’s where mixing of different materials becomes important.

Soft green wastes, like grass clippings, weeds etc can work well as worm food, but it is best to moisten them, mix them with ‘brown’ materials like fall leaves or shredded cardboard, and let them rot for a bit. If you have an established outdoor worm composting system already, you will probably be fine just adding these at the top of the bin (good ventilation will be important though).

Woody, tough materials are not great as worm foods since the worms can’t derive much nutrition from them (not enough microbes are able to colonize them quickly enough). I would recommend chopping them up as much as possible and simply heaping them (or putting them in a regular composter) for awhile. Mixing with other waste materials such as grass clippings, fall leaves and manure can help as well. After a month or two they will probably be sufficiently decomposed to offer food value (but likely only if they were mixed with other materials).

Be careful with toxic plants like Jimson Weed and Poison Ivy etc – I definitely wouldn’t ever add these directly to a worm bed. If you hot compost them for a few weeks the toxins will likely be broken down completely, but you may still want to avoid using them just to be on the safe side.

Getting back to the ‘green wastes’ – it is also important to consider what the compost is going to be used for. I’m pretty mellow about weed seeds and diseased plants being added to my vermicomposting systems, but you certainly would not want to take chances with either of these if you have some ‘high end’ use in mind for your compost (selling, using on your prized flower beds etc).

Anyway – I hope this helps, Natalie!
I am actually going to be posting an article about using worms in your backyard composter this week, so you might want to keep your eyes peeled for that one as well.
8)

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The Over-Feeding Challenge!

It’s been awhile since I’ve had any sort of fun challenge here on the blog, and as I surveyed a big heap of food waste I’ve been accumulating (wondering how I was going to manage to feed all of it to my indoor worms), it came to me in a blinding flash of brilliance!
πŸ˜†

Not only will I not worry about adding too much waste at once to my bins, I will do so with gusto – just to see what happens!

The total quantity of food waste is about 25 lb, so certainly not off the charts by any means, especially if I was going to use it to feed my outdoor beds – BUT I only have a handful of indoor worm composting systems active at the moment, and my total number of worms is actually quite small – perhaps a few pounds worth, if I’m lucky.

I DO however have some things going for me here. For starters, most of these systems are well-established, so the protective ‘habitat’ is present to help buffer against any nasty conditions that might develop. Even the newer systems will have quite a bit of buffer potential since I have a LOT of ‘compost ecosystem’ material at my disposal. This is basically partially composted materials from which most of the larger worms have been harvested – it is fantastic stuff for starting up a new system since, aside from the protective qualities it offers, it generally contains LOADS of baby worms and cocoons.

I also have the advantage of using open systems, thus preventing the build up of any noxious gases, and greatly improving air flow (and thus oxygen concentration) in the composting zone.

The waste materials themselves have been aged in my trusty kitchen scrap holder for as long as it takes to fill the biobag insert (perhaps a week or so), then placed outside where they froze solid. Today I have been breaking up the materials a little as well. I don’t want to help the worms too much though, since a common cause of ‘over-feeding’ is simply adding too much stuff that can’t be broken down quickly enough.

Any predictions??

Well, in all honesty I actually don’t foresee any major problems developing (as in worm die off or mass exodus) – there are just too many variables in my favor here. What will however be interesting to see is how the worms respond, how quickly they process the materials, and what sorts of population explosions I’ll see among other compost critters. I’m sure there will be an increase in white worms, mites and springtails.

Anyway – should be interesting!
I’ll be sure to provide you with an update next week.

Stay tuned!
8)

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Adding Red Worms to Soil

This question comes from Jerry:

Have an organic farm, am thinking of adding the worms
directly to the soil. Any imput on that. Have used worm castings, but
trying to do so on 10 acres is daunting.

Hi Jerry,
Red Worms can survive in soil IF it is properly prepared ahead of time. In other words, you can’t simply dump them in regular soil and expect them to improve it (well you certainly can, but you’ll end up disappointed – haha). It is important to remember that they are not soil worms – yes, they are part of a bigger group referred to as ‘earthworms’, but don’t be fooled by this.

The ideal habitat for Red Worms (and other composting species) is rich organic matter – a combination of nitrogen-rich materials and carbon-rich materials, with plenty of moisture and microbes.
πŸ™‚

My suggestion would be to create vermicomposting trenches that run the length of each row of crops. I had a great deal of success using these last year in my gardens. You don’t even have to make them super deep or fancy (although deep trenches may be required if summer temperatures are extreme in your region).

Simply making rows of waste materials (like food waste, manure, shredded cardboard etc) alongside your plant rows, then inoculating with Red Worms would help to fertilize your plants. That being said, it is definitely better if these systems are in-ground though, since (apart from the protection from extreme weather) the plant roots will be able to directly access the compost being produced, rather than waiting for nutrients to percolate down through the soil.

You will certainly need a lot of worms (at least 1/2 lb per foot of trench) and a lot of waste if you want to hit the ground running, but advantage here is that your population will continue to grow (not the case if you simply add them to the soil). You could start with a lot fewer worms and build up your numbers over time, but you would likely have to sacrifice one growing season in order to do so. If you are using organic manure as the feedstock for the worms this probably wouldn’t matter since it would provide excellent fertilizer value on its own.

Anyway – I hope this helps answer your question, Jerry!
8)

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Why Are My Worms Trying To Escape??

Worm Escape

This is probably just about the MOST common vermicomposting question out there! I’ve had quite a few people inquiring about this just in the past week alone – so it’s definitely time I dedicated a post to the topic!

Let’s first talk about the word “escape”, since it is a crucial factor when it comes to evaluating the situation. If your worms are indeed trying to literally escape from your worm bins – especially when doing so en masse – you definitely have a serious problem that needs to be addressed right away.

If on the other hand you have a handful of worms crawling up the sides and lid of the bin, with perhaps a few dummies ending up dried up on your floor – you are probably ok! Especially if your system is brand new.

I would wager to say that when worms are added to a brand new vermicomposting system – especially after being shipped – they are far more likely to wander a little, than to completely settle in right away! Consider the fact that they are 1) being introduced to a completely new environment, and 2) have been in motion for at least a couple of days prior to being added to the bin/bed.

Worms raised by worm farmers on a large-scale basis will typically be kept in giant, open beds, and will commonly be fed some sort of manure. They are NOT kept in a million Rubbermaid tubs and fed food scraps – I can tell you that much for sure!
πŸ˜†

SO…

When they are introduced to this totally new environment (the enclosed plastic bin), it’s not too surprising that they are a little restless for the first little while! How you set up your system can have a major impact on the situation as well. I recommend setting the bin up at least week before the worms arrive, so they are at least have a microbially active habitat. You can take this a step further by actually adding some compost inoculum (compost from another worm system would work well), or aged manure if you happen to have either of these. Even some leaf litter (decomposing leaves, found at the bottom of an outdoor leaf heap or on a forest floor) could help a lot.

Aside from preparing the best habitat possible, you can also take some steps to help keep your worms down in the bedding once they’ve been introduced to the sytem. If it is possible for you to shine a light over top of the bin for a few days straight that would be great (use a fluorescent or LED light to save power usage). Something that has also worked for me is adding a LOT of dry, absorbent bedding at the top of the system (generally more applicable for enclosed, plastic systems) – this helps to keep the sides and underside of the lid really dry, thus discouraging the worms from roaming up there.

I can remember back to when I received my very first European Nightcrawler shipment. They were very restless for the first little while, and I actually lost some due to them crawling out and falling onto the floor. When I added a bunch of dry bedding to the top of the bin, it worked very well! The worms stayed down where it was moist, and I didn’t lose any more.

Generally, after a few days (probably no longer than a week at the most) the worms should be quite used to their new home. If you are using the light technique I’d recommend turning the light off for short periods of time to see what happens – start with 10, 15, 20 minutes and go from there if they seem to be staying down.

How do I know if there is indeed a serious problem?

Trust me – you WILL KNOW!
πŸ™‚

If the worms are all balled up together in various spots in the bin, or in the handles (in the case of Rubbermaid-type bins), or they are escaping via every possible route you’ve made available (even the smallest air holes), then it is likely more than just being unsettled and needing time to get used to their habitat. Almost certainly, something you have added in the bin is causing them harm.

If you are using potting soil (something I definitely don’t recommend) for example – this can sometimes contain inorganic fertilizer salts which can really harm your worms. Even though these mixes typically contain a lot of peat moss (a good worm bedding), I prefer to steer clear of them altogether. Other types of bedding might cause issues as well – for example, some white office paper can contain irritating or harmful compounds (bleach etc). I recall back when I was still pretty new to vermicomposting, I set up a big bin using only white shredded paper as bedding, and the worms were NOT impressed. This paper can be used in moderation (and some paper is totally fine), but it’s better to err on the side of caution in my opinion.

Of course, the ‘food’ material in the system is very often going to be the culprit – if there is a LOT of waste materials, and not enough oxygen this can lead to serious issues, as can having too much N-rich waste (eg. grass clippings).

If your worms seem to be extremely stressed out, I would recommend a major overhaul of your system. Set up another bin using lots of moistened bedding (shredded cardboard) and any good rotting material you can get your hands on (leaves, compost etc), and transfer as many worms over as you can. You may not need to chuck out the contents of the first system (assuming the issue isn’t a nasty chemical of some sort), since these things tend to work themselves out over time.

Anyway, hopefully this post will help to put some minds at ease! In my experience, most of the time there is nothing to worry about when worms are crawling up the sides etc. As I like to tell people – it’s like ‘survival of the fittest’. All the ‘dummies’ and ‘weaklings’ manage to kill themselves off early, so your population then consists of the most tolerant, healthy worms. Any worms hatched into the new system will be even MORE tolerant and adapted to live in that environment!
8)

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