February 2010

Mini VermiPonics System

It may not be pretty – but let’s see what this system can do!

Earlier in the week I wrote a post about “vermiponics“, and mentioned that I would be setting up my own little system. Well, I’m happy to report that said system is officially up and running. It doesn’t have any worms in it yet – I want to let the water flow through it for at least a few days before adding them (kinda like aging a worm bin before stocking it with worms).

It probably didn’t hurt that I used to be a hydroponics hobbyist, and had also acquired some additional equipment with the intentions of setting up a small aquaponics system. As a result, I didn’t end up having to buy anything for this particular system (not that it’s particularly complex).

Here is a basic run-down of the equipment/material I used for my mini vermiponics system:

  • Small submersible fountain pump (adjustable flow with max output of 125 GPH) + tubing
  • Grow bed gravel (purchased years ago from a hydroponics supply store)
  • Smaller Plastic tray (for grow bed) – one of the trays I wrote about >>HERE<<
  • Larger plastic tray (for reservoir) – same type used for my “vermicomposting trays
  • 2 small plastic louver vents – same vents used for my “Mini” Worm Composting Bin
  • dryer lint (NOTE: I don’t user disposable dryer sheets)
  • shredded egg carton cardboard
  • poultry feed
  • 4 glass mason jars (supports)

I should mention that I am basically flying by the seat of my pants here, so please don’t assume that there is any expertise behind this set up! I wanted the bed to have both organic and inorganic materials (hence the addition of the shredded cardboard and dryer lint) – in all honesty, I actually think this will end up being a great use for the lint! Aside from not liking the idea of leaving the worms to crawl around in a bed of jagged rocks, I think the absorbent materials will definitely assist with moisture distribution and retention (the former being more important given the fact that the water will be circulating constantly).

Some of the supplies used to create my vermiponics system

I had originally planned to simply drill quite a few (regular 1/8″ or 1/4″) holes in the bottom of the tray, but I think the vents are a nice alternative. Not only does it take less time to drill two vent holes (assuming you have a hole-cutting bit), but since the vents have a wall that extends a distance up into bed this should help to trap some materials down in the bottom (for further processing) that might have otherwise simply drained out of the holes.

Drilling holes for my two louver vents

Vents pointing inwards for water retention in bottom of the system

I decided to go with gravel for my bottom layer in the bed. I thought that it might be better for trapping materials that make their way to the bottom (smaller gravel bits, food etc). I basically added enough to bring the level up to the top of the vent walls.

Started with a layer of grow bed gravel at bottom

The next layer consisted of a lot of dryer lint. I made sure to pull it apart as much as possible so that the worms will have any easier time navigating through it (and just to generally improve surface area).

Next – added some dryer lint (which contains lots of cat hair in our household)

Before I went any further with my layering, I decided to clear an area in the middle for my “feed tube”. This will (hopefully) make it easier to feed the worms, since I won’t need to try and bury it in among the plants. In a sense this will be like a mini “worm tower“. I created the tube simply by drilling some holes (again, using the 1” hole-cutting bit) into the sides and bottom of a yogurt container. I am going to experiment with using a removable burlap sac as the actual food holder though. This way the tube can always remain in the bed, but I can still remove the feeding zone to clean it out or just generally see what’s going on inside (maybe do worm counts etc).

Holey yogurt containers, Batman! This will serve as my feeding tube.

I also decided to see what would happen to shredded cardboard in a bed like this. Obviously it will break down over time (and more quickly that the lint), but I think it might provide some good additional food/habitat value for the worms as well.

Some shredded cardboard, just for the fun of it!

I then topped everything off with a final layer of gravel. This should help to secure all the light materials down below, and will give it more of a grow-bed look! (haha)

Topped everything with another layer of gravel

As mentioned earlier, I used four mason jars (water-filled) as support legs for the bed. Again – no real rationale here other than the fact that I happened to have four of them available, and no other prospects for solid supports!

Filled some mason jars with water and used as supports

I should mention that before I actually put the bed up on the supports, I made sure to run some tap water through it for a few minutes. I wanted to make sure everything was nice and wet, but also wanted to ensure that any worm-unfriendly chemicals – if present (in lint, on gravel etc) – would get flushed out as well.

Once everything was up and running (with pump on etc), I decided to add some compost ecosystem material on top. This should help to inoculate the system with beneficial microbes. I also sprinkled some poultry feed over the top as well (making sure to wet it down) so there would be some food for the worms when they are added.

Added some compost ecosystem material to liven things up a bit

I’m still not sure what plants to grow. I was thinking that lettuce would be a good choice, given the fact that it’s fairly cool in the basement (I’d love to grow basil, but it might take too long to germinate). I was also toying with the idea of trying something super-easy like chia seeds, just for the sake of being able to see how the system performs fairly quickly.

One other thing to mention – I also placed a piece of mosquito dunk in my reservoir. I seem to have some fungus gnats these days, and am hopeful this will keep them from getting out of hand in the grow bed!

Anyway – I am certainly looking forward to getting things rolling with this system soon (seeding, adding worms etc), and will of course keep everyone posted!

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Poultry Feed

Poultry Feed as Worm Food
Big Ol’ Bag of Poultry Feed. Let’s see what the worms think!

Ask any old time worm farmer to list off some good “foods” for helping to fatten your worms, and there’s probably a decent chance that “chicken laying mash” will be on that list. I’ve always been curious about this mysterious (to an suburban worm warrior like myself) material, and hoped to someday have the opportunity to test it out as a worm food.

Well, I’m not really sure if I actually have “official” chicken laying mash, but I do now have myself a nice quantity of “Poultry Feed” (recommended for a range of ages, but actually called “Chick Starter Complete”) and can’t wait to see what the worms think of it! I am especially excited given the fact that I now have a nice uniform food material to use in the small “vermiponics” system I am putting together this week!

Here are the specs for this food, in case you are curious:

Crude Protein…………Min 20.00% (not too shabby!)
Crude Fat…………Min 2.00%
Crude Fiber…………Max 4.5%
Calcium…………Actual 1.00%
Phosphorous…………Actual 0.75%
Sodium…………Actual 0.18%
Vitamin A…………Min 12000 IU/kg
Vitamin D3…………Min 2000 IU/kg
Vitamin E…………Min 20 IU/kg

My favorite line is what it says under “INGREDIENTS”:

A list of the ingredients used in these feed may be obtained from the manufacturer or registrant

Maybe I’ll write in to Purina just for kicks and giggles (and horror and screams?)

Poultry Feed - Up Close and Personal
With a little water, and a little rot, the worms should love this stuff!

I have plans to try out a variety of different “feeds”, including “Worm Chow” (believe it or not, Purina DOES indeed make this) if I can get a hold of it – but this chicken feed should get us off to the races for now!

Stay tuned!

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Worm Inn Journal – 02-02-10

Worm Inn Pro
Just over 4 lb of food (and other) wastes ready to be buried

I just wanted to post a quick “Worm Inn Journal” entry today. Back on Jan 22, I mentioned my decision to see how much food waste I could process with the system (see “Worm Inn Journal – 01-22-10“). As it turns out, I didn’t actually start adding more food materials until Jan 26. The total amount I have added so far is 9.83 lb – or the equivalent of roughly 1.4 lb a day. Not too bad, but I’m hopeful that I can improve upon this.

I am doing relatively little in the way of waste preparation. The materials generally sit in my scrap holder until the “BioBag” insert is full. At this point I toss the bag out on my deck to freeze for a few days to assist with further cellular degradation (specifically for some of the more resistant plant/fruit materials). Next, I simply dig a trench on one side of the system, dump the waste in, then cover with materials from the other side. Waste is added on alternating sides each time (and just so we’re clear here – I’m not literally adding 1.4 lb per day. I’ve actually only added wastes three times during the seven day period).

Given some of the (bulky, resistant) stuff I’ve been adding, in some ways I’m surprised by the fact that I’ve been able to continue adding materials at this rate. If this was an enclosed Rubbermaid system (with similar surface area), there’s no question that I would have reached the point of seriously “overfeeding” by now. So that’s cool!

I may make an effort to further grind/chop wastes at some point to see how much of an impact that has on the volume of material that can be processed. Will stick with the bulky stuff for now though – am somewhat curious to see if I’ll hit any sort of “wall” (causing issues in the bin and/or simply having no more room to add materials).

So far so good! I likely could have added materials on BOTH sides today if I had wanted to really push the envelope, but I figured it might be better to play things a bit safe for the time being.

Anyway, I’ll provide another update sometime next week for sure!

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Unlike most hydroponic grow beds, there are thousands of Red Worms in this one!

I can’t remember exactly when I first stumbled across the “aquaponics” concept, but I DO know that it was quite a few years ago and that I was completely floored by the fact that fish waste could be used to successfully fertilize plants (for those of you not familiar with the term, “aquaponics” is simply a morphing of hydroponics and aquaculture). I thought hydroponics was a really cool idea to begin with, but based on my fascination with ecosystems and “nature” in general, it only made sense that I would quickly gravitate towards this approach…at least mentally, anyway.

You see, unlike vermicomposting – something I’ve been fascinated with for probably about the same amount of time – I still have yet (as of this writing) to actually set up any sort of aquaponics test system! I certainly have lived vicariously through the aquaponics activities of others, however!

I’ve been a member of the S&S Aquaponics email listerv for many years, and HIGHLY recommend this incredible information resource for anyone who has an interest in this sort of thing (be warned though – the volume of emails can at times be pretty heavy). To get signed up, all you have to do (if I’m not mistaken) is send a blank email to: aquaponics-subscribe@townsqr.com

[UPDATE: I’m not sure this e-mail group is active anymore but there does seem to be an archive page active >>HERE<<]

Over the years, as I’ve become more and more involved (and obsessed – haha) with vermicomposting, I’ve naturally started dreaming up various ways to incorporate worm composting into the aquaponics process. Probably the most logical idea (in my head, anyway) has been to simply add Red Worms to an aquaponics grow bed, since I know how well they can thrive in very wet conditions – assuming they are provided with at least some oxygen. To me it seemed like the ultimate habitat, since apart from the high moisture, I knew the worms would also greatly appreciate the rich microbial buffet laid out before them. Add to this the fact that worm bi-products have been shown time and time again (via academic studies) to help stimulate plant growth via various mechanisms, and it seems like a no-brainer to stock a grow bed with them.

What’s a little strange, though – in a “hindsight-20-20” kinda way – is the fact that I’ve never even considered the notion of setting up a bioponics system (“bioponics” just referring to a natural hydroponic system in general) without ANY fish involved at all!

Well, thankfully that idea DID cross the mind of Jim Joyner – a LONG-time member of (not to mention prolific contributor to) the S&S Aqua list mentioned above! Unlike yours truly – as far as aquaponics is concerned – Jim not only talks the talk , but he also walks the walk, having set up multiple thriving plant growth systems over the years. Needless to say, when I first caught wind of Jim’s “aqua-vermiculture” systems a couple of months ago, I certainly sat up and took notice – but it was only recently (after the topic came up again on the email list) that I finally decided to contact him to learn more about what he’s been doing.

As I discovered, Jim is not only incredibly knowledgeable and experienced, but he’s also a very nice guy, and he seemed more than happy to let me share his photos and some of his information (adapted from posts originally submitted to the S&S list) here, and just generally help me out in any way he could.

One thing Jim would probably like me to emphasize right off the bat is the fact that his work in this area is only in the “preliminary” stages of development. I don’t know if it’s modesty or his engineering/science backrgound (or a little of both) coming out, but rest assured that his efforts thus far have still been very impressive!

In a nutshell, what he has been doing is growing various crops in five 4’x8’x6″ “flood and drain” gravel beds, in which he has also stocked Red Worms. Initially, he fed his worms only rabbit food (13-15% protein) – which the worms consume readily – but he found that nitrate levels in the system were on the low side. In an effort to boost nitrogen, he decided to start feeding with “de-fatted” soy bean meal as well, so as to bring the total feed-protein level up to 32-34%. The the soy meal does not break down as readily as the rabbit food though, so he does some form of pre-composting (although refers to it as “fermenting”) with it before adding it to the beds.

As efficiently as the system seems to work (for both plants and worms), Jim feels his current set up is a little “clumsy”, since it can be difficult to feed the worms and tend to the plants in a shared bed. As you’ll learn later, he has plans to create a system that has separate plant/worm beds (while still being linked, of course).

Vermiponics System
A pretty serious set-up in its own right – but Jim Joyner has plans for expansion

What’s interesting about an aqua-vermiculture system, as compared to a typical aquaponics set-up is that (based on Jim’s findings) you can essentially feed the worms the equivalent of 30% less food (than would be fed to fish), while still producing the same nutrient load for the plants! This in itself is pretty amazing, but here are some other advantages of the worm-centric approach:

  • Less concern re: low dissolved oxygen (DO) levels – so less pumping needed
  • Similarly, a lot less water is required – similar to a more traditional hydroponic set-up
  • Negligible ammonia produced (unlike in fish waste) eliminating the need for additional bio-filtration set-ups (apart from the grow beds themselves)
  • Ideal temperatures for worms tend to be similar to those for growing plants (as compared to temp requirements for fish like Tilapia)
  • Much easier to keep the system balanced – no significant changes over time as there are with fish (growing from fingerlings to adults, and then being removed from system altogether)
  • Worms are incredibly tolerant and productive in general – not to mention self-regulating. Once you are up and running with a system like this, apart from feeding, you wouldn’t need to concern yourself with the worms at all
  • Worms grow and reproduce MUCH more quickly than fish
  • Pound for pound, worms are worth FAR more than most fish species

Red Worms in Vermiponics Bed
Red Worms thrive in the rich, moist (yet oxygenated) grow bed environment!

I mentioned above that Jim has plans for expansion this year. Here is what he has in mind:

1) I am modifying the present system (pictured above) by adding a 4’x4’x10″ bed with gravel for worms only. I will take most of the worms out of the growing beds and put them in the special bed. (Having some worms in you beds is still a good idea; they clean up convert all manner of wastes to nutrient.)

2) I am building a new larger system (3000 sq foot GH). I will grow the plants in 5, 4’x96’x6″ rafted water beds (much like UVI* except they don’t need to be as deep). Water will flow constantly through them. The worms beds will cycle every 6 to 12 hours to flush nutrient from the beds into a common sump. I will likely do the cycling with.a bell siphon in a storage tank.

3) For my garden, I am creating a aqua-vermi-composter. Essentially, it will have one 20 gallon tub water storage tank (imagine it setting on the highest level, This will drain every 12 hours (via a bell siphon tripped by the rate of water flowing in from a garden hose.) into two 20 gallon tubs about 4/5th filled with gravel and worms. The two tubs will drain directly into a 300 stock tank. I will dip or drain the liquid from this to feed my garden in the summer, particularly heavy feeders like corn. this has no pump (nothing is recycled), hardly any moving parts.

*UVI is the “University of the Virgin Islands” – widely known for its work in the field of aquaponics

As you might imagine, I am certainly looking forward to receiving future updates as Jim’s new systems are set up and put into action this spring. I want to take this opportunity to send my sincere THANKS to Jim for agreeing to assist me in putting this preliminary article together.

All of this “vermiponics” stuff has my mind reeling at the moment, and you can be sure this won’t be the last you’ll read about it here! In fact, I am currently in the process of setting up my own mini test system and I hope to bring you a post about that a little later in the week!

By the way, if you want to learn a little more about aquaponics in general, you might want to check out the aquponics page I added to the Compost Guy website quite some time ago (in need of some TLC – but still some helpful links there)

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