September 2009

Worm Inn Journal – 09-29-09

Worm Inn Pro

In my last Worm Inn Journal entry I mentioned my plans to start up a Worm Inn Pro once my new wooden stand was available for use (as you may recall, I had set up a system for a customer prior to pick-up).

The other system made it safely to the customer late last week, so I decided it was definitely time to get the new system going this morning without any further procrastination! As you can see, I settled on the ‘Camo’ design for this test system. What can I say? That pattern just gets me revved up and ready for VERMICOMPOSTING!

I won’t bother getting into all the steps I took to set up the system, since I’ve outlined my basic methods for setting up a Worm Inn in a couple of posts now (the one linked to above being the most recent).

There is ONE important distinction worth mentioning however. This time around, rather than leaving the food waste and cardboard to sit for a period of time before adding a batch of worms, I have instead opted to simply add some of the material I refer to as ‘compost ecosystem’ right off the bat – and won’t actually add any concentrations of worms at all.

I offer the compost ecosystem material for sale up here (in Canada) as an inexpensive alternative to buying concentrated bags of worms. As such, this will be a valuable test to see how long it takes for a thriving population of Red Worms to develop from this material. There are plenty of babies worms and cocoons – along with other ‘critters’ – in the mix so there will certainly still be a decent amount of waste processing going on (in fact it should be really interesting to see how quickly waste materials DO breakdown prior to the development of a large population of Red Worms).

I added quite a lot of food waste mixed with cardboard today (along with two bags of ecosystem mix), so I will likely let the system sit for a week or two before thinking about adding anything else. Once it IS up and rolling with a lot more worms I do want to really put the system to the test in order to estimate how much waste I can realistically process on a weekly basis – and how much vermicompost can be produced.

Should be a lot of fun!

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Worms and Barometric Pressure

Interesting question from Chris:

I have 2 worm bins. One bin contains 2 lbs. of red wigglers, and the other contains 2 lbs. of African Nightcrawlers. I started both bins around the same time (last of June or early July). So far, the worms are doing great. They are even laying eggs. I have been feeding them cantaloupe and watermelon that has been blended up, and they seem to love it. I do have one question, though. For about the past 2 weeks, it has rained nearly every day. Every morning when I go out onto the carport (this is where I have my bins) there are many worms around the top of the bin on the bottom side of the lid. At first, I thought something was wrong with the ph level or moisture level, but after checking both out on the ph and moisture meter, everything seems
to be fine. The ph was at about 6.5-7, and the moisture level was at about 80%, so I figured it couldn’t be that. After some research, I read that when rain comes into an area, it brings barometric pressure with it, and the worms, which are naturally sensitive with pressure, come to the top of the bins. Can you confirm if this is correct, and if not, could you guide me on what I am doing wrong?

Hi Chris,
Good question, but not something I can respond to with any real level of expertise unfortunately! That being said, I’ll still be happy to share my ‘2 cents worth’, and will also touch on some thoughts offered by others.

You mentioned doing some ‘research’, so perhaps you have already come across this interesting (albeit dated) thread over on the GardenWeb forum: Foul Weather Worms. Kelly Slocum, a well-respected vermicomposting expert (who sadly has moved on to other fields of endeavor), wrote a fascinating response in that thread, suggesting that low barometric pressure may indeed cause worms to roam.

The problem I see with making any sort of firm conclusions (which Slocum does not do, by the way) is that low barometric pressure also tends to go hand in hand with high moisture levels (rainfall or at least very humid air) and dark, cloudy conditions – both of which can help worms feel a little more ‘at home’ out in the open (normally bright sunlight and dry conditions will discourage this).

Similarly, in a worm bin (especially one that’s been recently set up) it is not uncommon to have worms roaming up on the inner walls and underside of the lid when it is nice and moist, and especially when it is dark. If you put the bin in a sunny (or at least brightly lit) location, most (if not all) of the worms would go back down into the bedding. Similarly, if you added a very thick layer of dry bedding at the top of the bin (something I suggest to people when they have issues with roaming worms), this will tend to dry out this upper zone, which also causes the worms to head down to where it is moist.

So, in your situation, I find myself wondering if it’s actually the darker conditions and moisture-laden air rather than the barometric pressure that’s making your worms want to roam. Perhaps a combination of both?
I personally haven’t seen any significant number of worms out on the lawn or on the sidewalk unless it is actually raining (or recently rained), even when the sky is dark and stormy weather is threatening.

Still, I feel that the notion of barometric pressure affecting worm behavior is definitely NOT off-base at all – more a matter of wondering how much is due to the pressure itself, and how much is due to the other conditions typically associated with low pressure weather fronts.

Anyway – not sure if I’ve really shed any light on this situation for you, Chris – but as promised, there is my ‘2 cents worth’!

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Is My Worm Bin On Fire?

Here is a question from Heather:

Hi Bentley,
I have notice that the shredded bedding in my worm bin looks like it
has been burning (almost charred black and that brownish tinge). I
tried to wet it more, but then my worms seemed to disappear, so i
don’t know if I overwatered. Is it possible that my worm bin could be
heating up to the point where the paper is catching fire?
Thanks for helping me out. Love the newsletters too. very helpful.

Hi Heather,
That is indeed an intriguing question (and your subject header certainly made me smile). I’ll be honest, my initial reaction was “no way – not possible!”, but I decided that rather than assuming the role of a closed-minded ‘Negative Nelly’ (haha), I would look into it further.

I have certainly heard of spontaneous combustion occurring in straw storage areas, and even in largescale compost heaps, but my assumption with home vermicomposting systems is that they are too small, and too wet! That being said, I decided to read up a little on the process to see what I could learn.

I found a lot of really interesting info on this page: Fire – Compost and Organic Matter.

The temperatures required for the spontaneous combustion of organic matter are apparently as low as 150-200 C (212-392 F). What’s really interesting, is that while the heating is initiated by microbes, once it gets up past 70-80 C (158-176 F) – i.e. once the microbes are killed off – heat-releasing chemical reactions take over, continuing to drive the temperatures upwards.

Large volumes of material seems to be one important requirement (just as it is with hot composting), since a certain ‘critical mass’ is required in order to overcome the various cooling mechanisms at work (air flow, evaporative cooling).

It seems that my notion about the material needing to be quite dry isn’t necessarily true. According to the article, moisture contents as high as 45% still fall within the acceptable range for initiating the process. Given the fact that moisture can quickly evaporate from a pile during hot composting, and that large compost heaps often sit outside in the sun, I can now see how this could easily happen.

Getting back to the idea of this happening in a worm bin…

While I am still not sure that you could ever initiate a full-blown ‘fire’ in a worm composting system (it would have to be a huge system, and most of your worms would likely be killed off long before it happened), the aerobic decomposition process is in a sense akin to a slow biological ‘burning’. Paper that has been partially composted for example, often looks almost burnt. I suspect that the colonization of certain organisms can also make it look like there has been some charring of the material. For example, I’ve written previously about the way in which coffee grounds seem to develop a burnt look, even when decomposing in relatively small quantities – something I suspect is caused by the presence of certain fungi.

As for your worms disappearing once you added water, I’m not really sure what might be going on there! Hopefully they have shown up again since the time of your writing.

Anyway, I’m not sure if this has helped to answer your question at all, Heather – but thanks again for bringing up the interesting topic. It was cool to learn a little more about spontaneous combustion.

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Attracting Compost Worms in Your Backyard

Here is a question from Francisco:

Hi there,

I am learning about worm bins and have been trying to start one just by catching them in the backyard. Your blog is great and I have spent so many hours reading the old posts.

I am not sure if the worms I catch are even good for composting. Unlike what some people have done, I don’t just go outside after it rains to try to find them. I have been putting wet cardboards in shady/wet areas of my yard that have a lot of old dead leafs. I would move the leafs and lay down the cardboards. To my surprise, I am catching a couple of them every time I left up the cardboard. The worms are fairly red, very thin and about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch long.
Since they are coming up to eat the cardboard, is it safe to assume they are composting worms?

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Keep up the good work on the blog, I know I will definitely be reading it.



Hi Francisco,
Thanks for the email – that is a really great question, and this is certainly a topic in general that quite a few people have inquired about. Unfortunately, there seems to be a very common misconception that any old type of worm can be used for worm composting – which as you obviously know, is not the case. To compound this issue, the first worms people usually think of are the ones that come out after a heavy rain and/or those ones encountered when digging around in the garden. More often than not, these are exclusively soil-based worms – NOT those species adapted for life in rich organic matter (such as that found in a compost heap or worm bin)!

There are three basic groupings of earthworms – 1) ‘Anecic‘, 2) ‘Endogeic‘, and 3) ‘Epigeic‘. The anecic worms, such as the large ‘Canadian Nightcrawlers’ (aka ‘Dew Worms’ – Lumbricus terrestris) build deep burrows, typically extending down to the mineral soil layers. They live a relatively solitary life (coming up the the surface for feeding, mating, and to escape from flooded burrows), and generally thrive at cooler temperatures than those worms in the other two groups.

Endogeic worms are basically the intermediates between the other two groups. They are still soil worms, but are typically located closer to the soil surface. Unlike the anecic worms, they often create horizontal (rather than vertical) burrows.

The last group, the epigeic earthworms, are of course the ones we are most interested in from a composting stand-point. This group generally lives at or above the soil surface – typically associated with concentrations of rich organic matter (eg. leaf litter, manure etc). They also tend to be much more tolerant of crowded conditions and wider fluctuations in temperature. Because they live in these potentially harsh/challenging environments, epigeic worms also tend to grow and reproduce much more quickly than the other groups of worms (helping to ensure the success of future generations).

You are certainly on the right track with your approach, Francisco. If there ARE any epigeic species of worms located on or near your property, there is a decent chance you will be able to attract them to an area where you have added organic matter on the soil surface. Whether or not you will attract the best species and/or enough worms to make your efforts worthwhile, is another matter altogether.

I know that if I did the same thing in my own yard, I would end up with lots of Red Worms (Eisenia fetida) concentrated in the organic-material-rich-zones. As an illustration, I recently left a few (freshly harvested) zucchinis on my lawn for a day or two. When I went to collect them, I discovered a handful of small Red Worms underneath each of them! I can only imagine how quickly I could populate a heap of aged manure if I dumped it on my lawn!

If one of your neighbors happens to be composting with worms, or if they have found their way into the area via some other means, you may be in luck! More than likely though, you will end up with a mix of epigeic and endogeic species that just happen to be living close by.

The fact that you’ve found some small reddish worms could be a good sign, but the only way you will know for sure if they will work is to put them to the test in a worm bin. As for them coming up under your cardboard – this is pretty common for most types of earthworms. Leave just about anything to sit out on your lawn for long enough, and you’ll likely end up with quite a few worms congregating underneath.

Hope this helps!

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5 lb Red Worm Special

*** IMPORTANT – This offer is no longer valid. Please refer to the Buy Worms page for current pricing and availability ***

Red Worms

I just wanted to write a quick post announcing a special I’ve got running for this week. While my other ‘sales’ have now finished, this week you can get 5 lb of Red Worms for $85 (includes delivery to anywhere in contiguous U.S.). I MAY keep this running for an additional week, but there is a decent chance this will end on Saturday.

You are more than welcome to place an order now and have the worms shipped later (i.e. if you are going to be away next week etc) – but within reason, ok? I’m not the most organized person in the world, so trying to keep track of a bunch of orders that don’t need to be sent until Christmas (for example) is not my idea of a good time!

As always, if you have any questions/concerns don’t hesitate to email me. Please include “Red Worm Sale” in the subject header for quicker service.


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Quick and Dirty Worm Tea

Worm Compost Tea

This is a post I meant to write quite some time ago. Back when I first reported on my gardening woes this year (see “Vermicomposting Trenches – 2009 – Update”), someone added a comment suggesting that I use ‘worm tea’ to see if I could help improve the health of the plants. Strangely enough, I had just finished reading an article about a guy up in Alaska who grows world record sized vegetables, and claimed his ‘secret’ was that he uses compost tea religiously.

Needless to say, I felt inspired to go mix up a batch for my plants! It also really made me wonder what on earth I’ve been doing all this time – for whatever reason, I’ve never become serious about worm compost tea. I have loads of high quality vermicompost on-hand, barrels full of rainwater, some molasses in the fridge, and even some old aquarium air bubblers! I guess I figured my trenches and layers of vermi-mulch would provide enough benefit on their own.

Anyway, despite the fact that it was pretty late in the season by the time I clued in, I DID at least make one batch of brew. I decided not to go too crazy with it though, and didn’t end up bothering with the molasses and aeration.

Backyard Worm Bed

I started by raking some nice vermicompost out from the lower zone in my backyard worm bin. Some of you may recall that my brother and I built a trap door on that bin last year (see “Harvesting My Vermicompost“) – something I’ve been happy about ever since!

Worm Tea Bag

Next, I filled a large ‘breathable’ worm bag with the material. You certainly don’t need a fancy bag for this – any sort of cloth bag, or even nylon stockings should work fine. If you are going to completely immerse the bag, make sure you have a tight knot some the material doesn’t just pour out in the bucket of water.

All I did was constrict the top of the bag with my hand, and dunk the bag repeatedly into one of my water barrels. The vigorous dunking not only helped to get lots of ‘good stuff’ out of the vermicompost and into the water, but it also helped to aerate the mix.

Making Worm Tea

That’s basically it! Once I was finished, I then simply put the mix into a watering can (and perhaps some smaller buckets) and distributed it around my gardens. It’s hard to say what, if any, real benefit this one time application had – but I’m sure that bare minimum, it was at least a ‘souped-up’ (literally – haha) watering for my plants.

The reason I wanted to write about it here was simply to demonstrate that making worm tea does NOT need to be complicated! Sure, the mix probably would have been a bit more beneficial had I added molasses and aerated it for a period of time, but doing so is certainly not critical.

Oh – and don’t forget about the sludgy compost in the bag. Be sure to add that to your garden as well. There will still be some good stuff (and maybe even some worms and cocoons) left in there.

One thing is for sure – next year I am finally going to get really serious about using worm compost tea (starting early in the season), and of course I’ll be writing all about it here!

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Gardening With Red Worms – Additional Thoughts

Extensive Roots in Red Worm Habitat
Extensive network of roots growing through Red Worm habitat zone

As I alluded to in posts (and comments) from earlier this week, I wanted to share some findings relating to my trench and vermi-mulch gardening systems from this season. There is no doubt that I have been hugely impressed with both of these methods – clearly (at least to me anyway), they both offer real value in terms of helping crop plants to thrive without the use of any (off-the-shelf) fertilizers.

All along I’ve also predicted that they would be a great way to raise composting worms concurrently (especially in the case of the vermicomposting trench). I’m certainly not here to tell you that that is now 100% not the case, but nevertheless there are still some important considerations to…uhh…consider! (haha)

While the main root zones of plants growing adjacent to these systems are actually growing in ‘regular’ soil, what I’ve discovered is that the plants still send out a VERY complex network of superficial roots into these worm composting zones. I would imagine that in the case of the trench systems, this root network is even more expansive, since the compost-rich zone extends quite a ways below ground level.

Not too surprisingly, what this means is that the plants are constantly sucking water and nutrients out of these areas. Last summer this certainly didn’t make any difference because I was constantly adding heaps and heaps of water-rich food waste (from the restaurant I had teamed up with), but this year – now that I am using mainly manure, and have not feeding nearly as often – I have really noticed the sort of impact the plants can have – especially during extended periods of dry weather!

Composting worms (even more so than some other earthworms) rely heavily on relatively high moisture contents to maintain a given ‘normal’ size. They are basically little bags of water, thus when moisture is much more scarce, they can shrink greatly in size. What I’ve been finding during my recent surveys of various trench and vermi-mulch habitat zones is that many of them seem to now be loaded with zillions of teeny tiny worms! The areas when there are still lots of normal looking worms (such as in my big wooden worm bin), are also those areas that have received more wet food waste (and/or water) – or at least areas that have been able to retain moisture more successfully.

The material in some of my trenches has now sunken well down below ground level – certainly makes me realize that setting up some sort of a ‘batch’ (adding everything all at once then letting it sit) trench at the beginning of the season might not work as well as I had predicted (this isn’t what I did myself – but I’ve always thought it was an approach that might work well for others who didn’t feel like continuing to ‘feed’ their trench systems).

The vermi-mulch gardens seem to have been hit the hardest, especially now that we seem to be going through some sort of end-of-season drought period. I recently started cleaning up my bean and chard garden and noticed that the mulch zone was very dry, with seemingly few worms in it. Upon closer inspection I realized there were actually lots of worms, but they were very small for the most part, and seemed to be congregating in zones with slightly higher moisture content. I ended up raking up most of the mulch material in that bed and adding it my wooden worm bed and another garden bed where I’ve been consolidating groups of worms. I think it’s going to be fun to see what happens when these worms re-hydrate!

I am certainly not trying to suggest that composting worms can’t be raised in beds associated with gardens, but what I AM now much more aware of is the fact that these beds may need a fair amount of extra food/moisture if you want to provide the worms with anything close to ‘ideal’ living conditions. Obviously maintaining thick layers of straw etc over top can certainly help to reduce evaporation, but it doesn’t provide much protection against the water-sucking potential of all those roots and rootlets!

I suspect that if you maintain a decent sized windrow of good food/habitat material over top of your trenches, making sure to add new stuff at least once a week, you’d be fine. The vermi-mulch approach is obviously a lot more susceptible to drying out (since all above ground), but I’m sure that if you are diligent enough with topping the beds up with new material (and adding water), the worms would thrive there as well.

For all of you who may have experienced something similar, and are distressed that your worms have ‘disappeared’ – I highly recommend that you start by adding a LOT of wet food/habitat material, assuming you are still growing plants. If it is the end of your growing season however, you may want to try and consolidate your worm population as much as possible – perhaps setting up a new bed dedicated to concentrating (and fattening) as many worms as you can round up, so that they can then be moved to new indoor systems (or even ‘put to bed’ back in your trenches for the winter – something I will certainly be writing more about this fall).

I will be very interested to see what others have to say about this. Any similar findings? Contrary findings? It would be fun to get a discussion going.

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