April 2009

The Coffee Grounds Worm Garden

Mixing Coffee Grounds
My daughter helps me to prep the coffee grounds before putting them on the garden.

At the beginning of the month, I wrote about the large quantity of worm food I received from a farmer friend, including a huge box of coffee grounds. I’ve been playing around with the grounds as a worm food in the weeks since then, but haven’t started any fun projects to write about here (you know me and “fun projects” – haha).

Just as a quick aside, I should mention that I have been REALLY impressed with the grounds thus far. They do require a bit of extra work to make them worm friendly, but once they’ve reached that point, the worms go wild for them. My dad and I added a large quantity to our big “winter worm bed” (sheesh – it’s about time for an update on that, eh?), then soaked them down. He checked on the situation recently and was raving about the fact that the material is absolutely loaded with worms now!

Anyway, when I was outside doing some ‘gardening’ with my daughter (I use the term loosely, since there typically isn’t a lot accomplished – but it DOES tend to be a lot more fun! haha) I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if I added a large quantity of coffee grounds to the bed beside my big outdoor worm bin. This garden was one of my “garbage gardens” from last year so there are likely some worm cocoons and potentially even worms still there – not to mention the fact that it is right beside a pretty decent source of worms. The only real garden plant in that bed is a Clematis – since they enjoy acidic soil, I think this could work out quite nicely (there IS a monster Catnip plant that pops up each year as well, but I’m not too worried about providing ideal conditions for it).

Coffee Grounds Added to Garden Bed

Since the grounds are quite dry, my daughter and I mixed in some water before adding them to the bed. We then watered the material some more using a watering can. Some rainy weather recently has also helped to soak down the grounds (which will be important to help kickstart the decomposition process). As it stands, there is a pretty thick layer on the bed right now, but I think I’m going to make it even thicker today. Coffee grounds actually make for a really nice looking mulch – and you can’t beat the smell! haha

It should be fun to see if I can get the bed crawling with Red Worms!

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The Chia Challenge

Sprouting Chia Seeds

Early last year I tried to start a fun worm castings project with a ‘Chia Head’ (like a ‘Chia Pet’, but picture Homer Simpson’s head instead of an animal – haha). I never wrote about it here because it never really got off the ground. At the time I was battling a pretty serious fungus gnat invasion, and these little pests seemed to absolutely LOVE colonizing my Chia Homer – kinda taking the fun out of it!

My plan with the Chia Head project had been to see if Chia (Salvia hispanica) seeds would grow differently when briefly exposed to a solution containing a small quantity of worm castings (in that case, castings provided by Worm Power).

Well, even though the Chia Head itself had to be abandoned (I’ll try it again – I promise!), just for fun I ended up putting some of the seeds – some having been soaked in the water/castings solution, other just in water – in a grow dome on some wet cardboard pieces. As is often the case with my projects, the plants that sprouted ended up suffering from some serious neglect. The only thing I noticed initially was that the water treatment seeds actually germinated FASTER, so I really didn’t think anything was going to come of it. Little did I realize that for once, my neglect was going to lead to an interesting discovery!

Long story short – I basically forgot about the plants and they dried out. Oddly enough, those that had been exposed to the castings ended up being the only ones that didn’t die (when I re-hydrated the system, they quickly made a full recovery, while the water-only plants were definitely down for the count). I wrote a post about this – Worm Castings and Drought Resistance – and promised to redo the experiment to see if I could get the same results.

For some reason it popped into my head again recently, and I decided it might be a good opportunity to test out the vermicompost I harvested from one of my Worm Inns.

I must admit that serious science ended up thrown out the window with this second attempt – as you can see in the first picture (at top of blog post), I was a little sloppy with my seed distribution (among other things) between the two treatments (the no-castings treatment has a lot more seeds in it). This could have a serious effect on the results of course, since more roots will absorb water faster, thus causing this treatment to dry out faster. Duh!!

Anyway, I will definitely redo the experimental set-up fairly soon, but just for fun I will let it proceed as is for now.

Here is a run-down of my methodology…

Chia Seeds

I started by adding Chia seeds to two small containers of water

Chia Seeds

Next I added a small amount (perhaps a teaspoon) of vermicompost into one of the containers

Chia Seeds

I mixed up the water/castings solution, then left both treatments to sit overnight. The next day I gently rinsed the seeds (but as you can see, some of the vermicompost material stuck to the mucilaginous coating of the Chia seeds) and added some of them to moistened pieces of cardboard in a small humidity dome.

Chia Seeds

As was the case the first time I tried this, the seeds from no-castings treatment began germinating more quickly than those exposed to the castings solution.

The very first picture (at beginning of post) is one of the most recent taken. As you can see, the castings treatment seeds are doing just fine. The average leaf size seems to me to be a wee bit bigger than in the water treatment, and the green color seems to be somewhat darker. Other than that, there really doesn’t seem to be any major differences.

Anyway – that’s pretty much it for now! I will keep you posted on the growth of the seedlings. I won’t be adding any more water (other than what was added to moisten the cardboard) so they should start to dry out before too long.
Again, we’re NOT going to draw any serious conclusions from this yet. This is just the warm up round! haha

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Vermicomposting With Chicken Manure

Happy belated Earth Day, everyone! Yeah…you might assume that if there was going to be ONE day I might publish a post here it would be on Earth Day! Sheesh.

Oh well, I guess I like to go against the grain!

All joking aside, my offline worm biz is definitely keeping me very busy these days, but the good news is that I do have fair amount to write about here once I have a bit more time to do so.

Ok…with all that out of the way, let’s get to our Reader Question. This one comes from ‘L’:

I raise chickens and have an 8′ by 8′ compost area situated
right outside the coop roosting pit clean out. I have created a bed
of straw, shredded cardboard and paper, and kitchen waste (veggies,
fruit, coffee grounds). The area is situated to the north of the coop
so that light is limited to late afternoon. The pit is open,
surrounded on three sides by two tiers of cedar logs and one side
comprised of wire mesh. I would like to introduce worms into the pit
but am concerned that fresh chicken manure along with the straw and
pine wood chips could be harmful to them. Question: when is the right
time to add chicken manure to a compost that includes red worms?

Hi L,
Using chicken manure for worm composting be tricky business. It is very dry, contains high concentrations of salts, and can release plenty of ammonia as well – making it a very dangerous material when fresh. To potentially compound the problem, cedar wood can also create serious issues when used for vermicomposting systems, due to the potent oils it contains.

All this being said, I don’t think all hope is lost. Plenty of people have successfully used chicken manure for vermicomposting. The key will be to soak it down, mix it with C-rich materials, and let it age for quite awhile. You sound like you are on the right track, but you might think about adding some water to help drain off excess salts.

Let everything sit for awhile (maybe a couple of weeks) without adding more chicken manure (not sure if this is possible in your case), then dig some of it out and see how it looks and smells. You definitely shouldn’t add worms as long as there is a strong odor of ammonia. It should almost get to the point of having an ‘earthy’ smell. Your best bet is to test it out on a small scale before adding the worms. Take some of the material and put it in a small bin – then add a small handful of worms. See if they bury down in it or seem to want to leave the bin as fast as possible.

As for the cedar logs – I’m not sure what to tell you there. With a big enough system you MAY get away with having them, but it’s hard to say for sure.

I realize all this won’t come as particularly good news, but hopefully it helps a little anyway!

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Tiny Red ‘Bugs’ in Worm Bin

A question from Kelly

We recently started our bin. Picked up a large bucket of
worms/compost from Growing Power here in Milwaukee. Set up our bin
with bedding and food etc. we went on vacation for a week came back
and the inside lid had tons of water moisture on it. We actually
dumped it off (so we drilled more holes for air to release) BUT, we
also discoved little itsy bitsy tiny red bugs…the size of a
strawberry seed all over the inside lid were the water was trapped.
Is this a problem? Can it get worse? What can I do?

Hi Kelly,
It definitely sounds as though you have had a population explosion of mites (more closely related to spiders than insects). Check out the photo I’ve included below – do your ‘bugs’ look anything like the brownish-red critters? (the other guys are Springtails, by the way)
Mites VERY common in worm bins – especially your typical, enclosed plastic bin. Generally this isn’t something to need to worry about too much. They won’t harm your worms, and are just taking advantage of an available food source.

Mites and Springtails
Mites and Springtails on rotting melon

They seem to love wet conditions and water-rich food wastes like cucumber and melon. As I’ve written previously, now that I am using open systems (much drier and more air flow), I hardly see any of the common worm bin mites anymore – I’m sure some of them are still there, but likely living down where the moisture levels are higher.

I’d suggestion drilling a bunch more air holes (sounds like you are way ahead of me there) and adding lots of dry, absorbent bedding at the top of your bin to help create a drier environment in this zone. Also, if there seems to be excess food waste in the bin, you may want to cut back on the amount you are feeding your worms.

Hope this helps!

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Why Don’t Worms Crawl Out of the Bin?

A good question from Mark:

Quick question: Why don’t the worms crawl out of the holes
in the bottom and sides of the worm bin?

Hi Mark – sometimes the worms WILL crawl out, but generally only if the conditions outside the bin are to their liking, or they are in a real state of distress.

Let me see if I can illustrate with an analogy. Imagine it is the coldest day of the year, the winter winds are howling outside your home and the snow is coming down by the bucketload. All you have to wear are your pajamas. What is the likelihood of you wanting to open the door and head out into that, rather than stay inside where it is nice and warm, and there food in the fridge and a game on the bigscreen TV.


Seriously though, the bottom-line is that the condtions outside of the bin are usually pretty harsh for a worm – you’ll notice that if they DO escape from the bin, they will generally dry up and die quite quickly. Aside from low humidity, light is also another serious deterrent.

Hope this helps!

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Vermicomposting C:N Ratio

A question from Joyce:

I read about the C:N ratio. How do you increase the C? How
do you make sure the N doesn’t get too high? I am not a scientist or
chemist. I lost my worms to the “ammonia smell”. Thank you.

Hi Joyce,
Sorry to hear about your worms! They are indeed very sensitive to ammonia – even at very low levels, this gas can kill them quite quickly.
The good news is that keeping the C:N ratio pretty high is not very hard. One thing I should mention before getting into C-rich materials though, is that it is very important that whatever you are adding to the bin is not already emitting ammonia.

For example, you can have all the c-rich bedding you want, but if you add fresh manure to a standard worm (enclosed) worm bin you will almost certainly kill your worms. Same goes for any really foul, rotting material. The larger the system and the more air flow there is, the greater the chance it will be able to buffer the negative impact of the material being added.

Ok – getting back to C-rich materials…

Any of the typical worm bin ‘bedding’ materials, such as shredded cardboard, shredded newpaper, coco coir, peat most etc are great for boosting the C:N ratio – they also help to provide an excellent habitat for the worms since they are highly absorbent, and also allow good air flow (although the latter two, should be mixed with one of the bulkier types for best results).

The ultimate material however will be something that is ‘living’, such as really well-aged manure/straw, rotting leaves etc. These materials have the added advantage of being loaded with microbes, and potential sites for the conversion of ammonia into much less harmful nitrogenous (N-containing) compounds. This is why composts can work so well as a biofilter medium.

So you end up with the triple bonus of inoculating your system with lots of microbes, providing your worms with an excellent protective habitat, as well as helping to keep your system up in the optimal C:N range.

Hope this helps!

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Red Ants In Worm Bin

Here is a question from Karla,

I live in Texas where the red ants are always a problem.
Well at least once a month I find them in one of my bins. My bin or
kept on the deck in the back yard. Will they eat my worms? What can I
do to keep them out? Will ant killer, kill my worms?

Hi Karla,
Ants are a common pest in outdoor worm bins. Generally, if you maintain ideal conditions for your worms however, they shouldn’t create too much of a problem. Ants prefer much drier conditions than worms, so keeping your worm bed nice and moist (assuming good drainage) is a good start.

Ants also tend to be much more interested in the food scraps in a worm composting system than in the worms themselves. That being said, aggressive species like fire ants can probably cause some issues if abundant enough.

I definitely would NOT add any sort of ant killer to your worm bin – this could definitely harm or kill your worms, not to mention the rest of the compost ecosystem. Aside from keeping the system moist, perhaps you could try some other strategies to discourage the ants from coming in to the bin in the first place. Try setting up a perimeter of diatomaceous earth on the ground around your bin – this should greatly harm any ants that try to cross it, since it is essentially like a field of broken glass for bugs (ouch!).

You may also want to try some other relatively innocuous deterents. Put some honey mixed with borax in shallow dishes near the bin. The ants should start focusing on this pretty quickly, and when they take this material back to their nest, it can end up killing off a lot more ants.

If you know the location of ant nests on your property, you might try pouring boiling water on them – not the nicest thing to do (haha), but when push comes to shove, you gotta do whatcha gotta do!

Hope this helps!

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