November 2009

Nutrient Loss From Worm Food

Intriguing question from Carolyn:

Many posters to the various online worm sites mention
draining the liquid from frozen or partially rotted worm food and
feeding the worms only the fiber.

Are sugars, enzymes, vitamins, minerals and microbes lost down the

I would have a tendancy to pour any excess liquid from frozen
produce or from a far along worm food collection pail into a bin of
recently harvested vermicomposts. The liquid food would be very
broken down and ready to eat. The moistue would encourage the eggs
remaining in the vermicastings to hatch. In a few months these worms
too can be harvested.

Hi Carolyn – I don’t think anyone has ever asked me a question like this, but you make a very valid point!

When food wastes (particularly fruit and veggies) are frozen or allowed to rot, the cellular structure of the materials starts to break down, often releasing a fair amount of water all at once. As such, the practice of draining excess liquid off before adding the materials to a worm bin is often not a bad idea at all. This is especially important with enclosed, plastic bins – your ‘typical’ small-scale worm composting bin – since pooling of liquid in the bottom can occur very easily, potentially creating swampy, anaerobic conditions.

I myself don’t ever drain my waste materials – instead, I mix them with a lot of absorbent bedding materials and/or add them to open systems where excess liquid is not a concern . Speaking of which, there are obviously going to be cases where it will be really beneficial to make sure all the liquid remains with the waste materials – such as when you are adding frozen wastes to an outdoor worm bed during the summer. The frozen material will help to cool down the system, and the liquid released will help to add important moisture (which in turn also can help to cool the system if there is adequate air flow).

I guess when it comes down to it, while you likely WOULD lose some nutrients etc, you would still be left with a decent amount of the ‘good stuff’, and since you’d be adding more materials on a fairly regular basis I suspect your worms wouldn’t ever suffer from any sort of nutrient deficiency. Worms certainly grow bigger, faster etc in different waste mixtures – and perhaps those people who consistently drain off liquids will end up with smaller and/or fewer worms over time – but all in all, I think these worms are highly adapted for feeding on all manner of biodegradable ‘waste’ materials.

As far as microbes go, you definitely don’t need to worry about losing them. They reproduce SO quickly that any lost in the drainage liquid will quickly be replaced by new ones growing in the leftover material.

Your idea re: pouring the liquid on to finished vermicompost is interesting. I would definitely only do this if A) I wasn’t adding so much that liquid was draining out of the bottom (since you’d then be losing valuable stuff from the compost), and B) If I was not planning to use the vermicompost anytime soon. You’d definitely want to allow time for everything in the liquid to be stabilized. You mentioned “in a few months”, so I get the feeling my second concern isn’t applicable.

Anyway, I hope this helps. Thanks for bringing up this interesting topic!

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Red Worms and Backyard Composters

Whellbarrow of Compost
A load of material from my backyard compost bin, ready to be added to my winter worm beds

Yesterday was hands-down one of the nicest (if not THE nicest) days so far this fall. Looks like we are going to see the exact same conditions today as well (how often does that happen in the fall?) – sunny, calm, and temps up close to 20 C / 68 F! Keep in mind that normals for this time of year are probably more like 7 or 8 C (~44-46 F), and conditions last week were a lot worse than that.

Like a lot of people in my neighborhood, I decided it was time for my final grass cutting (and yard clean-up) for the season – what’s funny is that it was probably only my second grass cutting this fall in general! As I mentioned in another recent post, I was excited about having the opportunity for one last cut since it meant I would end up with a nice mix of grass clippings and mulched fall leaves (I still hadn’t raked up any of the fallen leaves on my front lawn).

With everything coming together so nicely yesterday (and since I was already out in the yard), I decided it was also a great opportunity to empty my two ‘backyard composters’. One has been used in a typical manner (receiving food waste, yard waste etc), while the other one has been my compostable cat litter bin (I’ll write more about this one in another post).

I’ve been surprised in the past with my worms’ ability to survive in one of these backyard bins over a winter, but I figured there was no point taking a chance. Aside from that, this provided me with more material (and worms) to add to my trench beds – which are currently being bulked up in preparation for winter.

While I didn’t ever purposely add Red Worms to the ‘regular’ composter, it certainly comes as no surprise that they managed to become established in it nevertheless (just as they did in the cat litter composter).

Red Worms from Backyard Composter

The upper layers of material weren’t all that rich in worms, but once I started getting into the really wet stuff at the bottom I started seeing LOADS of them!

It was a valuable reminder of the fact that Red Wigglers can do extremely well in a backyard compost bin – assuming they are provided with adequate living conditions. Likely the most important consideration is moisture. These enclosed, plastic bins (this one is called an “Earth Machine” as is given away by the regional waste department) can work quite well if you are regularly adding lots of fruit/veggie waste, since these wastes tend to be very water-rich. They also happen superior food materials for worms, in comparison to yard waste, grass clippings etc (although these materials can also be good if prepared properly). Even when you are adding these water-rich wastes regularly, it’s probably not a bad idea to add water to the system periodically as well. Something I like to do is to take the lid off of my bins during rain showers since this provides a bit more of a ‘natural’ moistening process.

I know I am biased here, but I truly believe that everyone who uses one of these ‘regular’ composters should also be using compost worms. These systems rarely ‘hot compost’ the waste materials added – they are not large enough, plus the wastes tend to be added slowly over time, so it only makes sense then to help the process along with worms.

I hadn’t added anything new to this bin in a little while, but earlier in the fall I had completely filled it with yard waste (zucchini plants etc). It was amazing to see how low the level of material in the bin was when I emptied it yesterday (it was probably about 1/3 full).

I guess the one downside of using worms is that you’ll end up with lots of the worms in the compost (unless you feel like taking the time to separate them). Of course, this is not an issue if you are using some sort of vermicomposting trench or ‘vermi-mulch’ garden – but obviously there aren’t too many people out there actually using these methods.

Given how quickly a population of composting worms can regenerate itself, I guess this is not really a major concern. Your average backyard compost-warrior will likely only remove compost from one of these bins once or twice a year, thus giving the worms plenty of time to bounce back.

As mentioned above, I will be writing a bit more about my cat litter composting bin in another post this week. You can also expect to learn more about my winter bed preparations in general at some point as well.

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Rabbit Manure & Bedding & Baking Soda, Oh My!

Here is a good question from Jillian:

We use a rabbit bedding made from recycled newsprint and it
contains some baking soda. I was thinking about saving the used
bedding, manure and all, to feed our worms. During the summer months
I could hot compost outside, though in the winter it isn’t really
possible. Do you think that the baking soda used for deodorizing the
rabbit’s bedding would cause problems with the ph in the worm bin?
Thank you!

Hi Jillian,
Rabbit cage bedding (containing manure) would be an excellent ‘worm food’ – it’s the baking soda that makes me a tad nervous. I’ve faced the same dilemma myself with my compostable cat litter – I was thinking about adding some baking soda to help with odor reduction, but then it suddenly dawned on me – baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) contains a LOT of sodium.

I just grabbed a box of it from the back of my fridge for reference purposes. This “pure baking soda” contains 164 mg of sodium per 0.6 g (600 mg). A quick calculation tells me that this material is basically 27% sodium by weight. So, say you decide to add 50 grams of the powder to your bedding – that would be 13.5 grams of sodium.

In all honesty, I’m not exactly sure what effect sodium itself has on worms, and wasn’t able to track any more information down. As I told you via email, worms tend to be extremely sensitive to inorganic salts – so for example, it definitely would never be a good idea to add inorganic fertilizer to a worm composting system (if you were trying to boost nitrogen or something like that).

Even if the sodium doesn’t harm the worms (which I still suspect it will), it is definitely known to be harmful to plants when present in high enough concentrations, so the castings you end up producing might not be all that great for growing anything.

If you are really keen to vermicompost your rabbit bedding (again, highly recommended) perhaps you can try something like peat moss as an additive to help reduce ammonia odors, rather than the baking soda.

NOTE: I just noticed that you mentioned that the bedding already contains baking soda, so I guess the first thing to do is determine how much there is in the material, and perhaps think about trying a different bedding material (again, if you are really interested in vermicomposting with it).

Hope this helps!

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Great Pumpkin Raid of 2009

A trunk-full of halloween pumpkins – little do they know what horrors lie ahead!

If only I had a pick-up truck!

Last week, on a whim, I decided to put a little ad on a free classifieds website to see if I could round up some fall leaves and perhaps some leftover pumpkins. It was almost more of an experiment just to see if people would respond than an actual attempt to round up a lot of good worm composting material – especially given how late I ended up posting it (after Halloween, and towards the end of leaf-raking season).

Well, I did manage to get some nibbles, and one of these was from a person who lives about 2 minutes (by car) from me – someone who was more than happy to give me her five pumpkins. SWEET!

For once, procrastination actually ended up being beneficial! I didn’t head over to pick up the pumpkins until the evening before garbage pick-up, so as it turns out there were a fair number of pumpkins ‘kicked to the curb’ by other people as well. I’ve never been the type of person who is all that comfortable taking other people’s garbage – but I decided to step outside of my comfort zone (haha) and save some pumpkins from ending up in the landfill.

In some ways it is definitely a little disappointing to see anyone, let alone numerous people, tossing their pumpkins out with the regular garbage – but in their defence, this particular neighborhood is quite new so I’m not too surprised that backyard composting isn’t as common out there yet. Interestingly enough, as I drove back towards home (through older neighborhoods) I couldn’t find a single pumpkin sitting out for garbage day. There do seem to be lots of pumpkins still sitting on people’s porches etc though, so I might go out for a second round of pumpking picking this week.

I am quite happy to have all this valuable worm food available these days since I am preparing my outdoor beds for their winter slumber. To make the situation even better, after some really cold temps this past week, we are now into a warm, sunny period for a few days. Rather than simply raking up my own leaves, I’ve decided to take advantage of the nice weather and give my lawn one last cut. In other words, I’m going to end up with a LOT of mulched leaves mixed with grass clippings – an excellent material to provide both insulation and food value for my worm beds. I also recently secured a couple of large straw bales, so everything seems to be coming together nicely!

I was thinking it might be fun to put together a little video about this experience (once I’ve collected more pumpkins and/or added the material to my beds), but here are a few more pictures to tide you over until then!


Giving me the evil glare right to the end!

Our own jack-o-lantern was the last to go. Sorry, buddy – the worms need to eat!

I managed to get all but one pumpkin in the can – lots o’ worm food!

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Mosquito Dunk Fruit Fly Fungus Gnat Update

Fruit Fly Larvae
Fruit fly larvae – up close and personal

Back in the middle of August (oh how time flies!) I wrote a post about my plans to test out ‘Mosquito Dunks’ as a means of getting rid of fruit flies and fungus gnats in a worm bin (see “Can Mosquito Dunks Kill Fungus Gnats and Fruit Flies?“). Well of course – me being me – while I DID get around to setting up some bins outside to attract some fruit flies, I failed to actually get going with the experiment until some really cold fall weather finally made me realize I needed to act fast or risk losing my outdoor fruit fly ‘culture’.

So, being the smart fellow that I am, I decided to bring a culture of fruit flies indoors where my systems were happily chugging along, fruit-fly-free! Oh well – I always enjoy ‘taking one for the team’ in order to make a learning experience out of it, so now that I am enjoying a serious infestation of fruit flies in my basement, I know it’s finally time to get started!

I’ve set up a bunch of new apple cider traps, and the other day I started brewing my mosquito dunk water. I’ve decided to proceed somewhat cautiously with this experiment – largely due to the fact that someone left a comment on the other post (mentioned above), indicating the potential for actually harming the worms. While I’m not 100% convinced that this will be the case, I also don’t feel like being so reckless with my worms’ well-being as to simply starting pouring the stuff on my indoor beds. I might as well make sure it’s even going to kill the larvae before taking the risk of inflicting harm on my dear wormies!

As such, the original fruit fly culture container brought in from outside has become ‘ground zero’ for my experimentation.

Fruit Fly Container

This container has a piece of corrugated cardboard and a virtually-liquefied cucumber in it. There are lots of fruit fly larvae visible on the cardboard (such as those ones in the first pic) and until recently there were also lots of adults. I released them all when I opened the system to apply the dunk liquid A) accidentally and B) because I am trying to see if the larvae will mature into adults once their food source has been soaked in ‘dunk juice’ (Brain wave! If all this works out for me – I should really think about marketing my new fruit fly killer as ‘Dipteran Dunk Juice’! Haha).

To apply the liquid I used a small syringe and slowly soaked all zones where the larvae were visible – I made sure to move any run-off around the entire container as well.

So far so good – all I noticed today was the presence of two tiny adults. Fruit flies develop VERY quickly, so I’m hopeful that this is a positive sign. Many of the larvae DO still seem to be moving around, but we’ll see how they are doing in another day or two. The bacterium in ‘Dipteran Dunk Juice’ (TM) causes these larvae to stop feeding – so it’s not like some sort of instant poison or anything like that.

If it looks like the larvae are dying off, and no more adults are being produced we’ll move on to ‘phase II’. I’m still not planning to put the liquid on my actual beds yet – first I will set up a small experimental system, perhaps with a chunk of rotten fruit (or fruit-juice-soaked cardboard) in it, along with some worm bin material and a small number of worms.

Stayed tuned!

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Interesting Gift Ideas for Worm Fanatics

Worm Slippers
Worm slippers – created by Esther Nijdam

It is always a lot of fun connecting people worm folks from across the world – it really reminds me just how GLOBAL this little thing we like to call the ‘web’ truly is (they don’t call it the ‘world wide’ for nuthin)! I’ve received emails from vermicomposters – or those thinking about getting involved – living in South Africa, Australia, Romania, UK, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, India and Mexico (among others). Well, up until a little while ago I had still never received an email from anyone living in Norway (or any of the other Scandinavian countries for that matter), so it was a bit of a pleasant surprise when I received some vermi-questions from Felieke van der Leest.

Jail Worms Brooches

Technically speaking, Felieke is actually Dutch – she moved to Norway from The Netherlands last year.

Just an educational aside here – as Felieke explained to me, the name “Holland” is actually more for tourists, so if you want to seem a tad more cultured (haha) when visiting the country, you might want to use the other name.

I highly recommend you check out her website (her name above links to it) – you will see that she has created some pretty fascinating pieces of jewellery! One such piece, which for some reason I find strangely more intriguing than the rest (wink wink) is the one pictured to the right. These are brooches called “Jail Worms”, and rest assured that if I was a brooches kinda guy – I’d be all over these like a Red Worm on a cantaloupe!!

By the way, here is a little blurb from Felieke’s bio:

Animals have a special place in Felieke van der Leest’s heart. She provides many animals with a busy social life as ornaments, gives a select group a nice home in museums and she placed a few oversized specimens in the center of everyone’s attention in meeting rooms and stairwells. Jewellery, object or light fixture, the scale or function is not the aspect that inspires Van der Leest: the telling of unusual stories is always her main motivation.

Van der Leest has enriched jewellery design with the introduction of textile techniques. Combining this with gold, silver and plastic, in ten years time she developed her own idiom. She drew from her childhood in Emmen where she would visit the local zoo and also from her metalsmith education in Schoonhoven. Her unbridled imagination later came to full bloom at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. For someone who normally works with hand sized pieces it is remarkable to develop monumental installations. Nevertheless, Van der Leest has already produced some ‘jewels’ for public spaces, cooperating with her cousin in Neef Nicht Design.

Anyway – after I helped Felieke with her vermi-questions she sent me a picture of her boyfriend’s worm-adorned feet (first photo above) since she thought I might get a kick out of it (no pun intended). Of course, upon seeing such cool slippers, I did what I do best and begged her to let me share them with all of you!

As the picture caption indicates, these marvelous creations were actually made by Esther Nijdam, who in the words of Felieke is “a very talented young Dutch designer” (also a former intern of Felieke’s). Please be sure to check out her website as well (find the link in the photo caption).

Unfortunately, neither of these cool worm gifts will likely be available from any time soon, but if you happen to be a worm person (or have one on your Christmas list) living in Europe, then you might want to support these talented artists by purchasing from them!

I just want to close by saying thanks again to Felieke for the interesting email exchange. If nothing else, perhaps this post will help to inspire some creative souls (those partial to vermicomposting) over here in North America to come up with some great gift ideas like these!

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Red Worms Love Rotten Straw!

Red Worm habitat
This old straw bale has become something of a Red Worm apartment complex

I’ve had a bale of straw sitting on the edge of my driveway since mid summer, and not too surprisingly it has started to rot. I guess it’s also not too surprising that it has become more appealing to my resident population of outdoor Red Worms as well. This actually caught me off guard initially – one day earlier in the fall I removed some of the straw to add to my big outdoor worm bin and found myself face to face with a lot more worms than I expected to see! The straw had a lot of fungal growth in the middle but what amazed me was how dry it was – definitely NOT optimal moisture conditions for the worms!

I’ve certainly found worms underneath my bales of straw before, but never so many right in the bale itself (well ok – there are loads of them in the walls of my ‘Winter Worm Bed‘, but that’s different). Makes me wonder what would happen if I actually put some of it in an enclosed worm bin and moistened it even more. Hmmmm…

Red Worms living in straw bale

Straw is a fantastic worm composting material, but just like some of the other ‘fantastic’ materials – such as coffee grounds, fall leaves, and grass clippings – there seems to be a subtle art involved in terms of getting it to work on its own. Of course, straw mixed with manure works very well since the manure holds water much more readily and also adds plenty of nitrogen and microbes into the mix.

Anyway – all of this has reminded me that I wanted to do a ’50 Cocoon Challenge’ using straw. Obviously I can’t use this particular bale (haha), but I am hoping to get some new ones fairly soon!

On a related note, I also wanted to mention that I will be starting up my shredded cardboard ’50 Cocoon Challenge’ very soon as well. Both of these should be very interesting since no ‘regular’ food will be added.
Stay tuned!

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