June 2009

Vermicomposting Trenches – 2009

2009 vermicomposting trench
My main vermicomposting trench – expanded into a mini windrow

Last year I discovered the power of the ‘vermicomposting trench‘. As most of my loyal readers will know, it all started with somewhat naive attempt on my part to compost all of the usable food waste from a very popular local restaurant (see ‘Restaurant Food Waste Vermicomposting‘). In a desperate attempt to dispose of (in a neighbor-friendly manner) large quantities of rotting, stinking organic waste, I decided that burial was probably my best bet. The rest, of course, is history.

I’ve never been a particularly skilled gardener (although I’m working to change that this year), but it didn’t seem to matter much last year since Red Worms and a bunch of ‘waste’ came together to create the ultimate all-natural fertilizer factory. By the end of the summer I was basically begging friends and family to take produce home with them when they came to visit. The results were astounding – far better than expected, and far better than previous years when regular off-the-shelf fertilizers were used.

It certainly was a LOT of work dealing with all that waste and creating my trench (and pit) systems, but there was never a doubt in my mind that I would be using this approach again this year. The big difference of course, is that I’m no longer receiving hundreds of pounds of food waste each week. Not only did this excite me from a labor-reduction standpoint, but this also meant that I’d be back in the same boat as most of the people reading these articles. I knew it would take a bit of extra effort to ensure that I ended up with enough ‘food’ to sustain the worms and plants, but at least the project is going to be a lot more relevant for the average backyard composter/gardener.

Despite the fact that my waste supply has been greatly reduced, I decided that I wanted to expand my systems – widening my main trench so as to basically convert it into a mini windrow, and digging new trenches in other locations. A major motivator was simply the fact that by increasing the vermicomposting area, I’d be greatly boosting my Red Worm population as well – never a bad thing when you are in the ‘worm biz’!

My main foodstock of choice this year is aged livestock manure. I live in a rich farming region so there is plenty of this material available, and as I’ve written before, it is pretty well the ‘ultimate’ food for composting worms. Add to this the fact that it also has fantastic fertilizer value and it’s a no-brainer.
Apart from manure, I am still adding some food waste as well. We produce quite a bit ourselves, so I have been burying it in various locations along the length of my trench/windrow system as it accumulates.

Not too long ago I wrote about vermicomposting with grass clippings. Well, I’m happy to report that I have been adding a lot of mulched grass clippings to the windrows as well. Apart from the potential food value this will offer, the material serves as an excellent mulch (keeping moisture in) as well.

The ‘sandbox self-fertilizing garden‘ (links to article on Compost Guy website) is back in action with its own manure trench as well. As you may recall, I added a lot of manure and leaves to this bed to help prepare it for winter. After expanding my main (fence-line) trench, much of this material – along with loads of worms – was transferred over to help flatten out and clean up the sandbox bed for the growing season.
This year, instead of giant pumpkins and potatoes I will be growing corn and pole beans. I’ll write more about the sandbox system in future blog posts, but I will say this – so far so good!!

There is plenty more to write about in general, but I would rather break everything up into a series of posts rather than creating a monster article now – this will help me to get this stuff to you in a more timely manner.

Below you will see a few photos showing how my main trench was expanded, then mounded up with manure/compost, along with my most recent shot of the fence-line trench.

vermicomposting trench early in spring
After adding some straw in the spring

vermicomposting trench being expanded
Trench expansion – additional width with little extra depth/volume

vermicomposting trench heaped up with manure and compost
The trench after mounding manure and compost

Recent shot of vermicomposting trench
Latest view of my main trench – more manure + straw over top

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Rotten Straw as Worm Food

Good question from Paul:

I have several damaged wheat straw bales that I would like
to try vermicomposting with. they are 3′ x 3′ x 8′ weighing about 500
lbs each. I am wondering if I run them through a tub grinder and make
a long row on the ground if the worms would thrive in this row or
would I need to add something else for them to survive? What might
happen with this arrangement in the winter time? Here in South Dakota
it gets very cold in the winter but I think if the row of straw were
big enough there would be enough heat generated from the wet straw?

Hi Paul,
To a rabid vermicomposter like myself, that sounds like the ultimate cool opportunity to grow some worms. I’m definitely jealous – worms LOVE rotten straw! The fact that you have access to a tub grinder is definitely an added bonus. By increasing the surface area of this material you will definitely improve its food value

I’m not sure I’d class it as an ‘ideal’ worm food on its own however, since straw has a fairly high C-to-N ratio. I’m sure you could grow a population of red worms in it if it stayed wet and warm, but they might be on the small side, and the population might not grow as quickly as it would if you had some aged manure mixed in with it (run that through the tub grinder too – assuming it is solid like horse manure – smaller particle size can have a HUGE impact on worm growth). Food waste would work well too, but I get the feeling you might be able to track down some manure fairly easily.

The size of the windrow and the protective layers you add will have a major impact on its potential for winter activity. You may want to dig a trench and also add a really thick layer of dry straw over top. If above ground simple pile it up nice and high to help stimulate natural heating – adding manure and/or other good N-sources will be important in this case. If you contain everything within walls of good straw bales this could also really help keep the warmth in (large size will still be important though). This is what I did with a large outdoor bed last winter and it performed very well.

Do be careful with piling it up too much during warmer months though – the last thing you’ll want to do is have it overheat on you and kill off your worms. Maybe just start with the rotting straw in shallow trenches and gradually start to add manure, a little at a time until the cool weather really starts to arrive.

Anyway – hope this helps!
Good luck

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50 Cocoon Challenge – Update #1

50 cocoon challenge bin

Hi Everyone – just thought I would provide a VERY quick update given the fact that it’s been a couple of weeks now since starting the 50 Cocoon Challenge. I know that some of you are eager to learn if anything new and exciting has happened in the bin (i.e. worms have hatched).

When I opened up the bin I was greeted by what looked like a scene straight out of a science fiction movie – like some sort of alien planet landscape.

The fungi have continued to thrive, as has the rest of the ecosystem sans worms. Well, ok – I don’t know for sure that there are no worms. As expected, I am having a very hard time trying to locate babies (assuming there are any yet). I saw lots of white worms, but not baby red worms yet. I will most likely have to wait until they are larger before being able to spot them.

As such, we won’t likely have anything more than a rough guess of how long it took them to hatch, and unless I start finding them at a very young age, our juvenile-to-adult maturation time might not be all that accurate either. Nevertheless, I am still very interested to see how long it takes for the worms to go from cocoon to adult in this system. I hope to replicate the experiment with the ‘ultimate’ food/habitat – horse manure with bedding. This should provide an interesting comparison in terms of how different foods can affect maturation time.

One other thing to mention – the contents of the bin were looking a little drier than what I consider to be ‘ideal’ so I added some water.

Ok – that’s all for now. Hope to provide another update in a couple weeks or so.

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Dryer Lint Worm Bin – Update #2

Dryer Lint Worm Bin

A recent comment from a reader reminded me of the fact that it’s been more than a month since my last lint worm bin update, so I decided to open up the bin and have a look.

From the looks of things, not all that much seems to have changed from the last time I opened up the bin. The worms DO seem to have settled in nicely though, and must be doing ok with the solely coffee-grounds (and lint) diet they’ve been provided with since there are lots of them and they appear to be healthy and lively.

Worms in Dryer Lint Worm Bin

The lint itself seems to have broken down a little, but is definitely proving to be a lot more resistant than my usual shredded-egg-carton-cardboard bedding. I was happy to see that there wasn’t any pooling of liquid in the bottom of the bin, despite the fact that the contents appear to be nice and wet (just the way the worms like it). I’m sure this is at least in part due to the coffee-grounds diet. Fruit and veggie waste would certainly release more water.

I thought I would see more colonization of the lint by the worms, but only found a few small ones actually burrowed into it. This seems to indicate that the material might not have the ‘habitat’ value I was expecting. We’ll see how it fares over the long-haul though.

Apart from the Red Worms, there seems to be a fairly diverse population of critters in the system as well – unfortunately including a healthy population of fungus gnat larvae! Oh well, I guess this is the price I pay for being so carefree with my experimentation.

Anyway, that’s basically all there is to report on for now. I’ll try to remember to post another update in about a month or so.

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Grass Clippings as Worm Food

When people ask about using grass clippings (and green yard waste in general) in their vermicomposting systems, I tend to offer them fairly cautious advice. This is definitely NOT a material I consider to be an ideal worm food for the beginner vermicomposter. That being said, it’s potential as a worm food in general need not be ignored.

First, let’s examine why grass clippings can be a challenging material to work with.

For starters, this material has a low C:N ratio (approx 20:1 or so) and breaks down quite quickly – interestingly enough, these characteristics actually contribute to making this a valuable materials as well (we’ll talk more about that in a minute).

The potential issue here is that rapid breakdown of low C:N wastes can lead to the release of ammonia gas, which is very toxic for worms. Rotting grass clippings also tend to get matted together, becoming a bit of a slimy mess.

Another issue with this material is that it doesn’t hold moisture very well – at least not until it is well rotted. Since worms thrive in very moist conditions, the ‘habitat’ value of rotting grass (on its own) is very low.

Add to this the fact that grass can have pesticide and inorganic fertilizer residues on it, both potentially hazardous to worms. This is why I wouldn’t likely ever use grass coming from unknown sources (ie the stuff collected by landscapers).

Moving on to the positive aspects of grass clippings…

As mentioned above, the fact that grass breaks down quickly and has high N content can actually be a good thing, since this makes the material an ideal ‘microbe food’ (and we know how much worms love a diverse microbial community).

So how do we compensate for the low C:N and the poor moisture holding issues?

By mixing it with an absorbent C-rich material, of course!

Those materials I typically refer to as “bedding” are great for improving the food and habitat value of grass clippings. Bulky materials like shredded cardboard and shredded newsprint would have the added benefit of greatly increasing air flow as well.

My recommendation would be to simply mix your clippings with your bedding in a 1:1 ratio, soak everything (ideally in a location where excess moisture can drain away), then leave the mix to sit for a week or so.

You can also mix grass with other ‘brown’ wastes, such as straw and fall leaves, but you may need to let them rot longer in order to improve the moisture holding properties of the mix.

It is important to mention that this method is certainly not the ONLY way grass clippings can be successfully used as a worm food. In all honesty, my typical approach involves adding clippings in very thin layers to the top of my outdoor vermicomposting systems (such as my trenches). Since these systems are already well-established, there is no chance the clippings are going to create any issues – they can simply rot on top (and help to keep moisture in), and the worms can come up to feed on the material once it’s ‘ready’.

I haven’t really used grass clippings very much in indoor systems – this is definitely a bit trickier, especially when using enclosed bins. I do have plans to test this out though. I am planning to set up a system and use ONLY grass clippings as a food source (while it is available anyway), once the main ‘habitat’ is set up. I’m curious to see how well worms grow with a solely grass diet.

Stayed tuned!

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