April 2010

New Vermicomposter Questions

Here are some questions from Nikki:

I am new to composting, and decided on redworm indoor composting. I have had my bin now for about a month. My worms seem to be doing very well, however I’m concerned I could be feeding to soon. I have been adding about a quart size baggie of scraps and additional bedding each week going corner to corner.
Today I dug around and noticed that I have worms (even new worms) in each corner along with remaining food. My bin doesn’t smell or offer any signs of overfeeding I’m just wondering if I should leave it be for a week or so before adding more food. I have dirt, bedding, food, and worms all mixed together from top to bottom. I thought they would eat from bottom to top leaving compost on bottom as they ate upwards.
I set my bin up with a solid thin layer of wet newspaper, bedding(wet), food in corner, more bedding(wet), then worms (dirt bedding and all they came in) (which I think was way more bedding than worms) then I added a top solid thin layer of wet newspaper. I “water” freqently to keep the moisture level consistant.
Everything seems all mixed up now. I have read that the worm compost is toxic to the worms, and I’m worried that there will be to much for them before they eat all the bedding and food.
Any suggestions ? or does it sound like my bin is going the way it should ? I don’t want to over feed or cause a harmful environment for my worms.

Hi Nikki,
Definitely some great beginner questions there – I’m sure a lot of people are wondering the same things! First and foremost, let me say that your approach seems to have been very good thus far – so good job!

There are a few things that could be playing a role in the apparently slow processing of these wastes. For starters, it should be expected that a new system will take some time before really moving along nicely. A month is a decent amount of time, but if the first 2-3 weeks were really slow, it wouldn’t be too surprising that you still aren’t making much progress.

The quantity and quality of worms is also an important factor. Not sure how many you started with, but it was a fairly small number and/or they weren’t in good shape when you received them, this could lead to delays as well.

A very important factor can be how the waste materials are handled. Not all wastes are created equal – some require more processing than others (if you expect to see a fairly uniform consumption speed). I recommend letting wastes age to help start the break down process – you might also think about freezing/cooking/chopping/blending as ways to break down the structural integrity of the materials, so as to help microbes colonize much more quickly. My general approach is to store materials in a scrap holder for a period of time (until full) then toss in my deep freezer, then thaw and chop/mix with dry bedding materials (shredded cardboard). Check out my “Homemade Manure” video to see what I mean. You need to be a bit careful with all the water released when you do this though (which is why I mix with a lot of bedding). Speaking of which, I generally don’t recommend adding water at all to enclosed plastic bin systems – unless of course you have really good drainage. You didn’t mention what type of system you are using, but I thought it would be a good idea to mention that for all those who are using regular plastic “worm bins”.

As far as worm compost being toxic – let me share my thoughts on this. Be assured that worms CAN live perfectly fine in habitats containing a very high percentage of their own wastes (castings). In other words, the claim that worm castings are “toxic” is definitely misleading! Real issues CAN however crop up if you continue to add food waste to a worm bin, and stop adding bedding on a regular basis. Eventually, you will indeed end up with a pretty unfriendly habitat for the worms, and you may even manage to kill them off. Bottom-line, this is definitely NOT something you have to worry about, based on the age of your system, and the fact that you are being so diligent with your bedding additions.

All in all, Nikki, I am really impressed with how patient you’ve been, and the just generally the approach you are taking. A LOT of newcomers are much more impatient and end up overfeeding their systems. I always recommend letting the worms “be your guide”, and to implement some of the waste-handling strategies outlined above. The worms should definitely work more quickly on the materials when you help the process along and when the population size increases.

One other brief thing to mention as well. Temperature can have a major impact on processing speed. If you bin happens to be in a cool location (outside or in a garage, in some northern location for example) this MAY be contributing. That being said, I also want to caution people about overheating a system as well (which can happen very easily). Please don’t leave plastic bins out in the sun for any length of time – even if the air temps are relatively cool, the system itself can absorb the solar energy and become a vermi-oven faster than you might realize.

Anyway – hopefully this has helped!

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Rock Hard Worm Castings

Here is a question from Joel:

I havested some castings but it was wet, I aired out the castings but
then it became hard as a rock. How can I get a nice crumbling casting
that is soft and not a rock hard castings that basicaly I can not do
anything with it?? please help.. Joel

Hi Joel,
Someone else recently asked the exactly same question so I thought it would make sense to write a response out on the blog. I’m sure this is something a LOT of people have encountered! I’ve certainly created my fair share of vermicompost cement over the years!

I don’t know what it is exactly that causes the material to solidify to effectively (the worm mucus perhaps), but I think some materials scientists should be looking into this – we could have the next revolutionary drill bit material on our hands here! haha

Seriously though, it is incredible how hard this stuff can get! I clearly remember the frustration of trying to revive a set of wooden systems I’d neglected down in my father’s basement. Not only could I not re-hydrate the material, but it was incredibly challenging even to break it up and get it out of the boxes!

Generally speaking, you are going to encounter this far less often with systems that receive frequent attention. The key here is to not let the castings get wet and then pressed together and allowed to dry. In the case of a flow-through system, my recommendation would simply be to keep things moving along – don’t just leave it to sit for a month or two at a time. I have learned this first hand with my first couple of Worm Inns (which can dry out fairly quickly as it is) – when I finally decided to dump the contents of these systems into an outdoor bin, the compost inside was pretty solid. I’ve encountered something similar with a wooden stacking system that I’ve used.

My current Worm Inn has materials packing down in the bottom (actually a good thing since it prevents everything from just falling out) but because it is being used so frequently, everything is staying moist and the vermicompost I’m scraping from the bottom is great stuff.

For those of you who are dumping out the contents of a plastic worm bin, my major recommendation would be to mix the material a LOT initially to break it up, then continue to mix and break it up on a daily basis. A small hand fork should work quite well for this task. As long as you can prevent large clumps of castings from staying pressed together while drying out, you should be ok!

Anyway – hope this helps!
Thanks for the great question.

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Worm Power Grows by 800%!

Business is BOOMING for my good friends at Worm Power, and I like to think that this bodes well for the vermicomposting industry in general. Some of you may recall that I interviewed Tom Herlihy (president) a couple of years ago (see “Interview With Tom Herlihy – Worm Power“), and actually predicted at the time that Tom’s success would only continue to grow (Nostradamus, look out!!! haha).

Shawn Ferro (from WP) dropped me an email this morning to let me know about a recent article (and video) published on a Rochester news website, and I highly recommend you check it out! Really fascinating stuff!

Here is an excerpt:

Worm Power’s millions of workers just do what comes naturally to produce their product.

“They’re Darwin’s favorite organisms,” said Tom Herlihy, president of Worm Power. “His first and last books were about earthworms.”

Eight million of them are working for Herlihy. Following his eight-fold expansion of Worm Power this year, he expects to employ many millions more worms.

What do they produce? They make vermicompost, an all organic super fertilizer. The Avon facility is the only place where it is being produced by this system, on this scale.

Worm Power is expanding right across the street from Coyne Dairy for a reason.

Cows are known for producing milk and another by-product which can be a steaming pile of problems for farmers. One cow produces 120 pounds of manure each day, so the 1,000 cows at Coyne Dairy can put out 120,000 pounds a day.

Be sure to check out the full article here: Worm Power in Avon Expands 800 Percent

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Leaves & Yard Waste as Worm Food

Here is a question from Armand:

Hi. I am looking into getting some worms, primarily to do
something useful with the piles of yard waste I generate. I mulch to
no end but I still end up with piles of leaves in the end. I think
some worms may help me out if I start to compost them. she thinks
worms are very interesting. So the question is: would worms eat up my
leaves & how much should I buy? Currently I have about 3 cubic yards
of yard waste. Thanks

Hi Armand,
This is a great question since it addresses something a lot of people are likely wondering about – namely, “can I use composting worms in a regular composter to process my regular waste materials?”. I talk so much about “worm bins” (and Worm Inns – haha), and don’t really discuss the use of Red Worms in a normal composter all that much.

The good news is that composting worms can be VERY effective in a backyard composting system – and in fact, I would highly recommend that people add them to these systems since they can help to greatly speed up the process.

There are some important things to keep in mind though. You need to stick to the fundamentals of worm composting (thereby providing at least the minimum requirements of the worms) in order to be successful. You can’t just pile up a bunch of leaves and grass and weeds, then toss in some worms. First and foremost, I would recommend creating a high quality worm composting “habitat”. In order to do this you will need some absorbent bedding materials and some “food” materials.

If you happen to be able to get some well-aged livestock manure (preferably from a farm – not a garden center), this would be the ultimate material to get started. Alternatively, you could mix up some “homemade manure” instead, with perhaps a bit more emphasis on the bedding materials (than suggested in the video and my other homemade manure posts). Once you have a good food-rich (and well moistened) environment for the worms, you can basically toss in whatever you want (within reason, of course). Fall leaves are excellent once moistened and starting to rot. A really great mix is mulched leaves and grass clippings – just lay the leaves out on the grass and run over them with the lawn mower. I would also continue to add water-rich food wastes to a composter containing Red Worms since these materials will not only provide food but they’ll also help to keep things moist.

With backyard systems, one of the things you will definitely want to avoid is adding too much material all at once, since you don’t want the system to overheat and kill off your worms. If you DO have a large volume of material, I recommend doing some “pre-composting” (hot composting for a short period of time) before starting to add the material to the system with the worms.

In terms of how many worms to buy – with outdoor systems there really isn’t any minimum in my mind since it’s not a big deal for everything to sit and decay before the worm population becomes well established. Unless you are pretty savvy with setting up a good composting worm habitat, I would actually likely recommend starting small – since adding a lot of worms to an improperly prepared outdoor system can often result in a lot of worms leaving in a hurry (meaning that most of your money spent has been wasted). A great way to stock an outdoor system is to buy worms that come with their own habitat material – this way they are more likely to settle in and stay put. You might think about putting an ad in a local classified site (Kijiji, Craigslist etc) to see if you can get a small amount of worm-rich material from someone in your area (who is also keeping composting worms).

Anyway – I hope this helps!

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Worm Inn Stand

DIY Worm Inn Stand

I’m quite surprised that I wouldn’t have written a post on this topic a lot sooner, but I guess hindsight really is 20/20!

Anyway, as the title implies, I want to talk a bit about Worm Inn stands – basically, letting people know what sorts of options are out there. Many of you will likely remember that my dad and I build a DIY stand last fall. So far it has certainly worked MUCH better than the small, flimsy wooden laundry hamper stands I used originally. As such, I have been sharing the specs with Worm Inn customers so that they can create something similar for themselves.

Let me remind everyone that I am NOT a talented DIY person (my dad is somewhat better, but not by much), so I have little doubt that many of you could improve upon this design by a long shot. But here ya go, for what it’s worth:

The system basically consists of 4 legs and 8 support beams. The upper supports overlap the legs, while the lower supports are actually in between the legs (refer to photos to see what I mean).

Upper supports – (4 x) 21″ length x 3.5″ height x 0.75″ width – the lengths are really the only important consideration. We were just using some scrap wood I had lying around. I would still recommend some sort of flat boards up top though (and overlapping of legs) since it provides you with spots to screw in the hooks.

Legs – (4x) 36″ in length – ‘2×2’s (you’ll notice that the names of boards can be a little misleading – even though it’s called a ‘2×2’ the dimensions are somewhat less than that – again, the 36″ is the important dimension there)

Lower Supports (4x) 18″ length – ‘2×2’s – as mentioned, these sit in between each pair of legs, and help to straighten the structure out a bit.

(4x) Screw hooks – I would get ones that are a little sturdier than the ones we got. I’m not sure how these ones will fare as the weight increases. As you can see in one of the pics, we had to play around with the location of the hooks at little bit in order to be able to get all the loops over them. You MAY even want to decrease the upper and lower dimensions of your stand if you want the Inn to hang a little more.

Now, it probably wouldn’t hurt to discuss some of the other options out there as well. Some may recall that Robyn Crispe (the original creator of the system) tried both a hanging set-up and a laundry hamper stand – with a definite preference for the latter. I agree with this wholeheartedly – not only does hanging make it more difficult to move the Worm Inn around, but unless you use some seriously heavy duty bungee cords (or something comparable) you may also run into issues once the system becomes really heavy.

Hanging Worm Inn

Laundry Hamper Worm Inn Stand

I’m pretty sure that Robyn got her hamper stand from Target, so if you are keen to keep things simple, and go with this approach, I recommend you check them out. As mentioned, the stand I originally tried was a smaller, wooden one (available from Canadian Tire, up here in the ‘Great White North’), and while it worked great initially, as the weight of the system increased it became more and more unstable. I can only imagine what would have happened had I been adding the sorts of quantities of waste I’ve been recently adding to my system!

One other cool stand idea has been suggested by the new owner of the Worm Inn brand, Jerry Gach. He has created a really nifty stand using PVC pipes and special corner pieces. The only downside is that those corner pieces can sometimes be a bit challenging to track down!

Anyway – hopefully, this helps to show some of the possibilities. If anyone has created their own stand and would like to share it with RWC readers, be sure to drop me a line!

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Believe it or not, one of the most popular posts on this entire site happens to be one that has nothing to do with worm composting! Go figure.
It seems that more than a few of you have a keen interest in Black Soldier Fly Larvae (BSFL) as composting organisms – and I certainly can’t fault you there. I myself find the topic to be quite fascinating as well. I think the only thing that’s really held me back from actually trying this approach out is the fact that I live in a relatively cold climate (where you don’t find naturally occurring BSFs).

The post I was referring to above is “Vermiman’s DIY BSFL BIN“, which was posted about a year and a half ago and STILL continues to receive new comments (68 in total, as I write this post). Some of you may recall that the initial interest generated by the post, and the connection I made with Dr. Paul Olivier (who I must apologize to for mistakenly referring to as “Dr. Paul Oliver”) – a well known BSF expert. As a result of this connection, I posted a YouTube video version of a intriguing powerpoint presentation that Dr. Olivier put together (you can view it here: “Black Soldier Fly Larvae – Revisited“).

Anyway – long story short, I have been recently thinking about adding more BSFL content here at RWC, and strangely enough someone sent me an email the other day informing me that Dr. Olivier had some publicly available plans for a DIY BSFL system. I e-mailed Dr. Olivier directly and he provided me with more info (and some images). As such, I thought this would be the perfect time to launch a new “Soldier Fly Larvae” category on the blog, where I’ll add all future posts on the topic.

Here is a link to the PDF plans for this system: DIY BSFL Bin

Hopefully some of you Do-It-Yourselfers with an interest in BSFL composting will give this system a try. If you have any questions/comments be sure to post them here. If Dr. Olivier’s contribution to previous discussions here is any indication, I have little doubt that he’ll be more than happy to field any questions and take part in any discussions that result from this posting.

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Vermicompost and the Valentine’s Day Philodendron

In my most recent “Worm Inn Overfeeding Challenge” post, I mentioned that I started putting the newly harvested vermicompost (from the Worm Inn) to good use right away. As you will see in this video, my first fun test will simply be to see if I can nurse a philodendron plant back to good health. You can probably gather from the title of this post that there is a bit of a backstory here, so that kinda makes it a bit more fun!

One of the REAL turning points for me with this hobby came fairly early on, when I made my first vermicompost harvest (simply digging some of the material out of the bin I was using) and added it to the pot of a small Monstera plant (closely related to this philodendron in the video). I was completely floored by the results – the plant truly started living up to its name, and just took off like a shot. Based on what I had read about worm composting (and specifically, vermicompost), I was certainly expecting decent results – but it definitely exceeded my expectations.

SO, I am quite eager to see if there will be a similar result with this plant!

Apart from likely doing a video update at some point, I thought it would be cool to take pictures of the plant on a regular basis (as often as I can remember). This morning I took my first set of shots (included one below), using a cardboard box back-drop as a frame of reference. The plant has already perked up quite a bit, but that’s to be expected after a good watering and switch to a bigger pot. I’ll be interested to see how it looks in a month or more.

Philodendron Day 1

Once the weather warms up a bit, I plan to do some real tests with the vermicompost I am harvesting from my Worm Inn, to see how different plants respond to it, and what sort of differences there are (if any) with control plants (those that don’t receive vermicompost). I’ll talk more about those experiments fairly soon!

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