June 2009

Worm Bed Potato Gardens

Worm Box Garden
Is it a worm bin or a garden…or both? We shall see!

My eco-gardening expansion continues unabated, despite the fact that we are essentially into the month of July already. I’m not sure what’s gotten into me this year, but suddenly I’ve become a gardening fanatic!

As I wrote in a recent newsletter, Red Worms are playing an important role in all of my gardening efforts this season. Most people are familiar with my vermicomposting trenches, but I haven’t yet talked about some of the other methods I’m testing out.

After seeing my brother-in-law’s ginormous potato plants (imagine what potato plants would have looked like during the Jurassic period – haha) during a recent visit, I decided I needed some potato beds this year as well. Some of you may recall that I was somewhat disappointed with my ‘sandbox garden’ potato crop last year. Well, as it turns out, it was enough of a ‘bummer’ to initially make me not want to bother with them this season.

Once I saw the tiny box garden my brother-in-law was doing so well with, I concluded that perhaps all I needed was a new approach. I remembered that there were two big wooden boxes – previously used to grow worms – still sitting down in my dad’s basement, and decided they would be perfect for the job.

Of course, rather than building a run-of-the-mill garden bed as most people would do, I knew I had to try something with a vermi-twist!

I’ve written previously about compost bin potatoes and tomatoes, and have seen enough monster plants growing beside the bin to know that an active vermicomposting system can actual work quite well as a grow bed. As such, I’ve decided to actually try and grow potatoes (and bush beans, as you can see above) in my worm boxes this year. It should be interesting to see what happens.

While the worm-worked manure will no doubt be appreciated by the plants, the somewhat unstable nature of the grow bed may cause trouble. Apart from all the worm movement down below, the contents of the system will also continue to settle as particle size becomes reduced. I will need to continue layering new material on top, and I’m not sure how the plants will handle this. Presumably they will continue to grow towards the sun, but they will likely end up with really long stems (most of the length sitting below the surface). At least with manure you don’t see nearly the volume reduction as you would with food waste, so that should help. It will also help that most of the material added to the boxes was already pretty well processed.

From a vermicomposting perspective, I’ve worried that the bins will get too hot for the worms since they are sitting in direct sunlight all day, and have a thick layer of straw on top. The straw of course is a double-edged sword. It’s great for keeping everything moist down below, and for shading the worms from the sun, but it will also reduce evaporative cooling, which can be important for a worm bin on hot summer days.

Anyway – we’ll see how it goes. No matter what happens, I have little doubt that it will be a fun learning experience, as always.

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In the Night Garden

As mentioned in my ‘Vermicomposting Trenches – 2009‘ post, this year I have expanded my network of trench systems. My main expansion was the creation of a new trench in front of my strawberry garden. Unlike crops such as tomatoes and zucchinis, shallow-rooting (and spreading) strawberries won’t likely benefit all that much from the system, but I certainly didn’t need much more incentive than the fact that I was going to have more habitat to grow my worms in. Aside from that, as you can see in the image above, I also went to the trouble of creating a ‘living mulch’ system (containing plenty of Red Worms and lots of habitat) over top of the bed, so the needs of the strawberries certainly weren’t ignored altogether.

In general, I’m really glad I decided to clean up this garden and install the trench because it was a total mess! Renegade Hollyhocks and Chinese Lantern plants were running wild, and its potential for producing any sort of decent strawberry crop seemed to be waning with each passing day.

Strawberry bed in need of an extreme makeover

I decided not to go to the extremes that I went to last year – ie. basically ‘digging to China’ in order to create the ultimate food waste disposal system. As mentioned, I’m working mainly with bedded livestock manure this year, with no pressure to dispose of it – so I was focused more on creating a nice summer bed for my worms. In other words, deep enough to offer a cool retreat down below, and enough volume to house a decent population of Red Worms.

My Dad plays ‘foreman’ while my daughter checks trench depth

As the title of this post (and the first picture) might suggest, I actually did a lot of the work on this system after the sun went down. My work was interrupted during the day and I really wanted to have it finished for the next day, when we were expecting rain. It was certainly an interesting experience gardening by flashlight.

Apart from the manure mix, I also added a ‘false-bottom’ of corrugated cardboard. This allowed me to get rid of some waste cardboard I had lying around, but it’s also just generally a good material to include in any trench system. It soaks up and holds excess moisture and provides good habitat for the worms. In fact, there is considerable evidence to suggest that paper products can even help to stimulate Red Worm reproduction (something I’ve witnessed myself).

Bottom of the trench lined in corrugated cardboard

Over the cardboard I added all the manure mixture I had on-hand, which basically filled up the trench to just shy of the ground level. Next I added several bags of food waste that had been sitting out in the sun for awhile (helps to speed up decomposition of the wastes and the biobag holding them).

Lots of food waste added to the trench

Lastly, I added a nice thick layer of material I refer to as ‘compost ecosystem’ – basically material that most of the worms have been harvested from (loads of young worms and cocoons though), which still has a lot of food and habitat value. The worms will continue to process this material and lots of good stuff washes down into the root zone of the plants every time I water (or it rains).

Strawberry patch looking not so shabby in the light of day!

Actually, the very last thing I did was add a decent layer of straw over top of everything (as I mentioned in my American Robin post). Aside from helping to keep the Robins off, the straw is great for keeping everything moist down below. This added layer of ‘protection’ comes with a price however, as I recently wrote about over on the Compost Guy blog (see ‘I’ve Got Slugs in My Beer‘).

I’ve also added some additional layers of manure since setting up the trench, and I’m happy to report that the worm population seems to be thriving! As for the strawberry crop…well, let’s just say it’s a work in progress.

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50 Cocoon Challenge – Update #2

Decomposition continues in the 50 cocoon challenge bin

Here we are, another couple of weeks since my last 50 Cocoon Challenge update, so I figured I had better sneak a peek in the bin (actually did so yesterday) to see what’s going on.

It certainly looks as though the contents of the bin have continued to decompose nicely, with fungi still playing a pretty major role in the process.

Worm Bin Fungi
What was once paper towel is now home to bizarre fungi

While I wasn’t greeted by a thick cloud of gnats when I opened the bin (like last time), they are certainly still there. As you can see in the next picture, the tiny mites are still there as well

Lots of Worm Bin Mites
Loads of tiny mites still coat the lid of the 50 Cocoon bin

Of course, the big question on everyone’s mind is whether or not there are worms yet. I’m happy to report that I did in fact find quite a few baby worms! Interestingly enough, I wasn’t actually able to locate ANY cocoons – this is not to say they’ve all hatched, but my guess is that a fair number have.

The biggest worm I found was probably about 1 inch in length, and there seemed to be a fairly wide range of sizes between this and the ‘newborn’ stage. The really small ones are still quite difficult to spot, so I suspect it will take some time before I can get a better idea of how many worms are now in the system.

Baby Red Worms - Yeah!
Baby worms! Whoohoo!

I’m really excited that we now have worms, and can’t wait to see how quickly they develop into adults. On that note, I suspect I’ll need to monitor the bin a lot more frequently now just to make sure I know when the first worm matures.

Stay tuned!

Previous 50 Cocoon Challenge Posts
The 50 Cocoon Challenge
50 Cocoon Challenge – Update #1

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Turbo Light Harvesting Method

Recently, I wrote about David L’s tub harvesting method, and mentioned my ‘modified version’ of the light harvesting method (promising to write about it soon). I managed to make a video about this on Friday, with the intention of sharing it with you before the weekend – but these darn things take SO LONG to upload!

Oh well – it’s always nice to have something to write about on Monday…

I apologize for the video kinda getting cut off at the end – I needed to keep it under 10 min and my memory card ended up filling just before the 10 min mark anyway. I also wanted to point out that the green bottle off to the right hand side is not a beer bottle (lol) – it is in fact a fruit fly trap I made a long time ago (haven’t had issues with these pests for quite some time)…honest!

In a nutshell (for those who want a quick synopsis), my ‘turbo’ light harvesting method involves the use of two shallow tubs, a table and a bright flourescent light fixture. The one tub is the ‘holding tub’ and contains material with high concentrations of worms. The other tub sits empty most of the time and is where the actual harvesting takes place. Basically, after I’ve let the worms munch away in their holding bin for a few days, I can start to transfer fairly small amount of material (with loads of worms in it) at a time over to the one end of the empty tub. The worms head down (away from the light) and I start scraping away vermicompost until I get to the bottom where there is a dense concentration of worms.

Rinse, and repeat…

For those of you thinking about doing this with a regular worm bin, simply dump the contents of the bin into the holding tub and let it sit for a few days. This will allow some time for the wet, anaerobic stuff to dry out (and become aerobic). As is the case the with the regular light harvesting method, it’s not all that much fun when the material you are trying to harvest is soaking wet.

Speaking of which, it is important to mention that the type of material you are trying to separate the worms from can have a major impact on the speed of this method. I’ve been using a really nice bedded horse manure (containing small wood chips) as of late and it has really helped to speed up the harvesting. Manure + straw for example takes a lot longer to work through, as will the contents of a regular home worm bin if you don’t let it mature for long enough and/or remove the bulky (undigested) stuff ahead of time.

The cool thing about this method is that it offers more than a means of transferring worms to a new bin. This way you are able to concentrate worms as well – especially useful for anyone interested in selling them.

As I suggest in the video, it really helps to use the light to your advantage – rather than getting to the point where you are basically picking the worms out (time consuming!!) prior to hitting the serious concentration at the bottom, simply loosen up the material a bit, which lets in more light, then step away from the task for a little while. I like to do a bunch of different things while I am harvesting so as to limit the amount of time spent picking worms.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that this is a great way to harvest large quantities (5 lb+) of worms, but it has certainly served me well for my small worm biz up here in Canada (not to sound like a broken record, but again, this is totally separate from the worm business based here on the RWC website, which relies on large-scale U.S. worm farmers with real equipment! haha ).

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Texas Vermicomposting

Here is a question from Wayne:

I would like to start a worm composting bin. I want it
outside. I have a lot of scrap lumber laying around. My qestion is how
big? Also I live in Central Texas so is the heat going to be to much
for them. I would love to do it indoors but my wife is having none of
it including the garage. Any advice on size would greatly help. Thanks

Hi Wayne,
I’ve heard that the heat of summer can get pretty crazy in Texas (and other southern states), so site location will certainly be a very important consideration. For starters, I’d strongly suggest constructing the bin in a full-shade location – preferably as spot that still gets a decent breeze.

A wooden system is definitely a great idea since it will ‘breathe’ much better than something made out of plastic (I would never, ever recommend putting a plastic worm bin outside in Texas summer heat). As long as you keep the material nice and moist, the evaporative cooling should really help to lower the temps inside.

I would also make the system partially in-ground if possible – even if this simply meant digging a pit below. The subsurface soil should be a fair bit cooler than the ambient air temps. Perhaps partially embedding the bin into a north-facing hill (if you happen to have one of your property) would be another option.

Size of the system is an important consideration. I’d recommend a fairly large bin (perhaps a cubic yard or bigger) since this will help to prevent rapid temperature and moisture fluctuations. Of course, with larger size you will need to be a lot more cautious about what, and how much you add to the bin – particularly when you first set it up. You should definitely start with a really high carbon-to-nitrogen ratio habitat – lots of shredded cardboard, newsprint, peat most etc. Mix in some food materials as well, but definitely don’t fill the entire thing with manure for example, or you’ll end up with even more heating concerns. Bulky materials like the shredded cardboard will also help to increase airflow (and evaporative cooling) in the bin.

When all else fails, you might also try various artificial cooling techniques. One of the easiest methods is to simply rotate a bunch of frozen water bottles in the bin. If on the other hand you are looking for something a little more high-tech, perhaps Nathan’s ‘Counter Current Soil Cooler‘ on the Vermicomposters Forum would be up your alley.

Hope this helps, Wayne!

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David’s Tub Harvesting Method

David Lozowsky’s tub harvester

Quite some time ago I made a video and wrote about my ‘Garbage Bag Harvesting Method‘ for separating worms from mature vermicompost. The idea behind this method was that it was a simple, inexpensive, and passive means of transferring worms to a new bin. Anyone who has gone down on all fours with a tarp and the contents of a mature worm bin to do the “light harvesting method” will know all too well that this is not the most enjoyable way to spend your time (speaking of which – I currently use a modified version of the light harvesting method that I will be writing about soon).

I received an email recently from good vermi-friend (and long-time reader of RWC) David Lozowsky, who shared with me his method for separating worms from vermicompost. His method is based on the same principles as the garbage bag method, but in my opinion is a much better approach. Rather than using a thin film of plastic, David simply uses an empty bin (of the exact same dimensions as his worm bins) with 1/4″ holes drilled in the bottom.

Interestingly enough, David uses the exact same bins as me – Rubbermaid Roughneck totes with the following dimensions: 24″x16″x8.75″ (LxWxH). This is as close to a ‘perfect’ DIY tub for vermicomposting as you can get (in my humble opinion) – it’s cheap, durable, holds a lot of worms/compost, and has a great surface-area-to-depth ratio.

Getting back to the topic of discussion…

Essentially, what David does is let a given worm bin mature over the period of time (hopefully he’ll chime in and let us know approx how long it takes before he harvests). As you can see in the pic below, the bin is full of vermicompost with very little (if anything) in the way of recognizable ‘food’. If you saw a close-up of the original photo, you’d see that it was also full of Red Worms.

Once mature, a new system is prepared so that the worms have a tempting new habitat to migrate into (the photo below shows what the new system might look like). The tub harvester is then placed on top of the new system (sans lid, of course) and the contents of the mature bin are added. Next, two desk lamps are positioned over top of the harvesting tub to help encourage the worms to migrate downwards. After 12 hours or so, the material is mixed up to help the compost to dry out a little more and encourage any of the remaining stragglers to make the journey to the new bin.

According to David, this method has worked extremely well – I seem to recall him mentioning that only 5 or so adults were left after his last harvesting session.

Of course, people are going to naturally wonder about cocoons and hatchling worms – always the main issue when it comes to harvesting vermicompost. Like any other method, this approach will almost certainly result in plenty of cocoons and young worms being left behind. If this is a major concern I suggest letting the material sit for at least a few weeks in a new bin with some tempting food material (aged manure, water melon etc) sitting on top. Any worms left over should congregate in this area, and there should be some hatching of the cocoons as well. You won’t likely get every last one, but at least you’ll be able save a lot of little wigglers this way.

I personally don’t worry too much about this sort of thing. I have such an extensive system of trenches and compost ecosystem zones out in my yard that I feel secure in the knowledge that any left over worms will be able to find a safe haven without too much difficulty.

Anyway – that’s basically it. As you can see, this is a nice easy (and inexpensive) way to move your worms to a new bin, and end up with some fantastic compost in the process!

Thanks again David for allowing me to share this on the blog.

All images courtesy of David Lozowsky, Brampton Ontario

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Enemy #1 – The American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

American Robin

As a child I was a very avid birdwatcher – imagine the passion I now have for vermicomposting, but focused on birds instead. I was sure I was going to become an ornithologist when I grew up.

It’s funny remembering back to those days, because this year I have officially declared war against the birds – ok, maybe not ALL the birds. Just the ones that threaten the well-being of my outdoor worm population. The American Robin is leading the way in that department.

As I wrote yesterday, I’ve expanded my vermicomposting trench systems. Needless to say, when I first started seeing Robins out in my trenches gobbling worms like crazy I was NOT impressed!

Apparently these birds are supposed to be territorial, with only one bird dominating a given area. Well, I guess the worm buffet bonanza my trenches offer these retched avian marauders has led to a new set of rules being established – I’ve seen multiple Robins in my trenches at once, with no signs of aggression towards one another whatsoever.

Along with the new set of Robin rules has come a new set of rules for yours truly!
{insert evil grin}

I’ve been starting to feel like Elmer Fudd fending off ‘wascally wobbins’ in my yard, but thankfully I haven’t resorted to any form of violence…yet. Well, ok – I have been throwing tennis balls at them, but never really at them – just in close proximity to them.

There’s been one bird in particular that’s got an unbelievable amount of nerve – or stupidity, depending on your perspective. Judging by his lack-luster coloration, I’d say he is a yearling (born last spring) – this would also help to explain why he seems to have a death wish.

I’ve literally run after this bird yelling with fists-a-shakin, only to have him fly a few feet off and continue on his merry worm-picking way. If my property wasn’t so exposed (I’m sure my neighbors already think I’m a complete nut)…well, you can let your imagination go wild on that one.

Ok, I’m mostly kidding – these birds have been driving me bonkers, but I’ve actually been having some good success keeping them away. The ‘tennis ball method’ has worked quite well, but thankfully I seem to have hit upon some passive methods that are even more effective!

I noticed my neighbor had laid down shiny silver and red tape over rows of new seedlings. Doing a bit of research online, I discovered that this is a strategy for keeping birds out of your garden (apparently the red flashing reminds the birds of fire, which they are instinctively afraid of). After learning the cost of said tape (I’ll keep my arm and leg, thanks very much), I decided to make my own version.

I made some scarecrows using shiny aluminum pie trays hanging from upright supports. It is quite breezy around here, so my hope was that the flashing and banging of the trays to help to scare the birds away. This method seemed to work quite well – my tennis balls were starting to feel neglected.

It certainly hasn’t been fool-proof though. Once birds get used to these sorts of deterrents, they’ll often simply start ignoring them. On calm days when the trays aren’t banging around as much the birds also seem to feel more at ease and back to their usual worm-eating ways.

The real turning point came after I noticed that the robins weren’t picking at my sandbox trench once straw was added over top – the same was true for one of my other straw-covered trenches.


I recently added straw to my main trench as well and I’m happy to report that the results have been fantastic! I think it has something to do with the birds feeling uncertain about their footing while walking on the straw. Interestingly enough, when I had a thick layer of grass clippings on the windrow, Robins were on it like white on rice. Where do Robins normally hang out and feel safe?

The lawn, of course!

Anyway, now that my trenches seem to be completely devoid of Robins I almost feel like something is missing. haha!

I guess I kinda enjoyed the challenge of trying to outsmart them. Oh well, on the plus side, it is certainly nice not having to worry about my worm population being gobbled every time I leave the garden unattended!

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