August 2010

Vermi-Cake Update

Just over a month ago, I spent part of a rather mellow Friday making “vermi pancakes” with my daughter. It was a lot of fun, but we only ended up making a handful of them, so I was left with lots of extra “batter”. Rather than simply dumping it out (into a worm bed, of course) I decided to make a sort of vermi-cake out of it by flattening it down in the bottom of a Rubbermaid tub. I then left it to sit in my shed until last week, when I finally decided to test it out as a worm food.

First, I pulled back the straw from a particular stretch of my vermicomposting trench worm bed.

I then simply dumped the “cake” in…

…watered it down thoroughly…

…and covered it back up, before leaving it to sit for about a week or so.

This morning I decided to see how things were coming along with the cake – specifically, how the worms worms were responding to it. Well, the good news is that the worms seem to LOVE it! The cake was literally crawling with worms. Unlike some of my “homemade manure” mixes, I don’t think there was even any lag time before the worms started moving in. Removing a lot of the moisture before leaving the mix to sit was the key, since it was able to remain fairly aerobic while it dried out even more.

Making the pancakes and cake was mostly “in good fun” (something fun to do with my daughter that I could also share with my readers). I certainly didn’t any serious plans/expectations as far as creating a practical worm “food” goes. In thinking about it some more though, I think this could actually be a great way to not only produce an excellent food/habitat material, but also one with a “shelf life”. I have little doubt that I could have left my vermi-cake to sit for months before use, and it still would have been appealing to the worms (once hydrated). Microbes will often tend to go into a resting state once moisture content drops to a certain level – bouncing back pretty quickly once provided with water. So, I think it would also be a good idea to use aged food scraps when making the cakes.

Anyway – just some…uhhh…food for thought!

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Wooden Stacking Bin-08-17-10

Just a quick update on my wooden stacking system. As you can see, I’ve decided to add a second tray already – something that may seem surprising. I normally recommend that people wait until the first tray contains a fair amount of vermicompost before adding a new one – but given how shallow these particular trays are, I figured it might not be a bad idea to go this route.

I started by partially filling the second tray with wet corrugated cardboard, but since then I’ve also been adding some coffee grounds and filters. So far there hasn’t really been much sign of the worms moving upwards, but I can’t say I’m too surprised, given the fact that there is still plenty of food value in the lower tray. Speaking of which, I realized that this double tray approach actually lends itself quite well to vermicomposting with coffee grounds since a lot of grounds just end up falling down to the first tray anyway.

The contents of the first tray seems to have settled quite a bit since the worms were added, so I’m confident that they are busily munching away down there. I did a little digging around this morning and saw lots of healthy looking worms, so I’d say we’re on the right track so far.

All in all, I’ve been pretty pleased with how well the system is working. I expected it would need a lot of additional moisture during the dry summer weather we’ve been having ever since I set it up. But it actually appears to be retaining moisture quite well. I’ve added quite a bit of water, don’t get me wrong – but I can easily leave it for at least a few days between watering sessions without any worries about it getting too dry.
I do see some dry coffee grounds around the outer walls, but most of the grounds seem to be staying nice and moist.

Anyway – that’s it for now. I’ll probably provide another update in a couple of weeks.

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Do Worms Like Beer?

I must admit to feeling pretty apprehensive when I saw the subject of this email (same as the title of this post) from one of our readers! I had visions of beer being poured directly into a worm bin (which might sound like fun to some, but certainly wouldn’t be great for the worms!)
As it turns out, it is a query about brewery wastes – one of those tricky materials that – while certainly offering plenty of “food” potential – warrants a very cautious approach.

I had read somewhere that worms like beer , so I took a trip to the closest micro-brewery and after a couple of taster sets , decided my red worms might like a couple of pounds of spent malt . I mixed it in
with the other compost and 5 pounds of red worms , much to my surprise they didn’t seem to like the excessive heat the malt was throwing off (still fermenting?) and seem to have all perished! Please advise your readers to “not try this at home” as the “brewery worms” seen on TV , don’t seem like home brewers!!!
I have now resorted to having to lie to my wife as to the current condition of OUR worms ! Do you have any advise on what I should tell my wife ?

Warmest Regards

Hi Haven,
Hopefully your wife isn’t one of our regular readers! I couldn’t resist adding this as one of our “Reader Questions” posts since it is a topic that deserves some attention!

I myself have not used brewery waste in a worm composting system for quite a few years now, but when I DID experiment with it, I had a VERY challenging time getting it to work well as a “food” material. Like many others, I’d read that it was supposed to be a fantastic material for vermicomposting. Edwards and Bohlen (1996), in fact, offer this glowing review on page 247 of “Biology and Ecology of Earthworms”:

[Brewery waste] needs no modification in terms of moisture content to grow earthworms. Worms can process it very quickly and grow and multiply rapidly in it.

This is not even close to what I experienced with this material. I found that it had the tendency to become very foul very quickly, and as such, was not well received by the worms even in relatively modest quantities and/or when mixed with other materials.

Looking back now, with quite a bit more experience under my belt, I can certainly see why this may have been the case. It is something akin to adding material straight from a bokashi bucket into a worm bin – something you can get away with in moderation (and when using a larger, well-ventilated system), but a bit trickier with smaller enclosed bins. In both cases, you are dealing with a material that is very anaerobic and which has undergone some fermentation. Well, we all know what fermentation can produce – alcohol! Not exactly something you want to be adding to your worm composting ecosystem!

I’m guessing there must be different kinds of brewery wastes. I just can’t see how else Dr. Edwards (mentioned above – who was involved in the original research being referred to in the book) could have reached that conclusion otherwise! In my experience (and clearly, the experience of others) this material definitely DOES require some “modification” prior to use!

What I would likely recommend now is some sort of “pre-composting” (or at least “aging”) period before attempting to use the material in a vermicomposting system. Some may recall how long it took for Red Worms to colonize that “bad” bokashi waste I dumped out in my yard this summer (see “Bokashi Gone Bad” and “Bad Bokashi Update“). Clearly, even when excess moisture is allowed to drain, and the material is allowed to sit exposed to the elements, it can take quite some time for aerobic decomposition processes to become re-established.

If one had a compost tumbler and lots of dry absorbent material (such as coco coir), plus some mature compost, I suspect you could speed up the process considerably! In terms of knowing when the material is “ready”, my recommendation is simply to go with a good ol’ smell test (this applies to any material you are planning to add to a worm composting system for that matter). Some stink should be fine (and again, in larger open systems you can get away with a LOT more than in a small enclosed bin), but if the material still smells really foul when you dig into it, it likely isn’t yet ready to be used as worm food.

Unfortunately, my talents as a marriage counselor aren’t exactly on par with my vermicomposting know-how, so I’m not really sure what to recommend you tell your wife, Haven! (haha)
If I was in your shoes, I’d likely use the quote from Edwards and Bohlen (highly reputable worm experts) as a starting place from which to build my case! You didn’t even put the worms in pure brewery wastes, as they seem to be suggesting! It was a perfectly honest mistake the way I see it.

Smoothing things over with a new batch of worms probably wouldn’t hurt either!


Edwards, C.A. and P.J. Bohlen. 1996. The biology and ecology of earthworms (3rd Edition). Chapman & Hall, London, 426pp.

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Worm Inn Tomato Garden-08-13-10

Worm Inn Tomato Garden
Hideous back-drops aside, it seems that this hanging tomato plant has done just fine.

As promised, today I want to chat a bit about my hanging (vermi) tomato gardens. Let’s start with a recap – back in July, when I was still trying to find “homes” for the last of my 30 + Tomatoberry plants, I decided it would be fun to try out some hanging vermi-tomato gardens. The first system I set up was a regular hanging tomato planter, while the other was a kooky system created with an old Camo Worm Inn (see “Worm Inn Tomato Garden?“). In both cases (especially the Worm Inn system) the plants had been sitting in small pots for too long, and were starting to show signs of stress – so, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

Both plants seemed to bounce back quite nicely from initial declines (you try hanging by your feet for awhile and see how you like it! haha), and looked as though they might do well over the long haul. Since then, the Worm Inn plant has definitely emerged as the “winner” of the two, however, still looking good and continuing to grow.

Looks like we may yet get a decent crop from the Worm Inn garden

The plant in the smaller system basically reached a certain size (fairly small) and started gradually going downhill from there. It has produced some ripe fruit already, but all in all, the performance of this plant has probably been worse than even the mostly sickly of the bucket plants.

This hanging tomato planter hasn’t done so well!

Again (as with the bucket systems), I can’t say that this is TOO surprising. There is really no comparison between the Worm Inn and the small plastic planter as far as promoting good root health goes! The Worm Inn holds much more material, and is also a lot more “breathable” than the other container.

There seems to be at least some sort of worm population in both of these systems (worms actually seem to be doing very well in the Worm Inn), so I’ll be keen to take a closer look once the plants are finished (should be very soon for the plastic system).

Next year I will definitely set up both of these hanging planters again, but I will more than likely try a different variety of tomatoes, and will set up the normal planter the way it was intended. I will also make sure to start with smaller, healthier plants!

I’ll definitely provide at least one more update (perhaps a final wrap-up) for the Worm Inn garden – likely sometime next month.

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Bucket Tomatoes VS Trench Tomatoes

Bucket Tomato Next to Trench Tomato
I can’t see a difference. Can you see a difference?

I have a sneaking suspicion that I will be finishing things up with my bucket tomatoes sometime over the next couple weeks, so I think it might not be a bad idea to write some posts about about them, and just generally about my tomato growing this season (should have a hanging tomato update for tomorrow).

I apologize for the ugly slab-o-cardboard in the picture above, but unfortunately it’s a real challenge to capture the outline of vegetation in my backyard jungle – it all blends together!

I’ve reached some conclusions about the use of hybrid (composting/garden) systems – at least as far as tomatoes are concerned. The smaller the system, the smaller the plant is going to end up! And yes, I feel pretty darn sharp sharing that little pearl of wisdom!

OK, so perhaps that was a pretty obvious expectation! Haha
What I didn’t expect though, is just how much of a difference it can make when you provide the tomato roots with room to spread out! The plants in the first picture are both of the “Tomatoberry” variety, yet one is many times the size of the other one (the big one is as tall as I am). Don’t get me wrong though – I love my little bucket plants too, and have been grazing on the bright red (and oh so sweet!) fruit almost daily since they started ripening a while ago! The huge trench plants are definitely taking longer to produce ripe tomatoes – but when they do, LOOK OUT!

You probably won’t be too surprised to learn that I’ve had loads of fun trying to properly support these trench (and raised bed) plants. In fact, I basically just gave up on most of them (the one pictured above is pretty well the only one that I would consider well supported). You can see below what one of the unsupported plants looks like. This is likely the biggest among them, but as you can see they are certainly taking up quite a lot of space!

Worm Composting Trench Tomato

The success of the tomato plants growing next to (and within) my trench beds definitely has me excited – making me wonder what would be possible if I were actually an experienced (or more accurately a talented) tomato grower. If they were properly supported and pruned, and grown in an organized manner I suspect one could produce a pretty substantial crop (it will be interesting to see how many tomatoes I end up growing as it is!). I have some ideas re: how I can potentially take all this to the next level in future growing seasons. I am a tomato fanatic through and through, so I’m certainly pumped about the fact that they seem to do so well in “vermi-gardening” systems.

Not sure I will bother with the bucket approach next year – or at least not with tomatoes. Like I said, I’ve certainly grown plenty of yummy tomatoes on these plants, but I’ve also found them to be a bit of a hassle (and somewhat unsightly), so it might make more sense to concentrate on doing things properly!
I should mention that the wooden box tomatoes have definitely done quite well (as I think I already mentioned in another post) – certainly far better than the potatoes last year – so there is a reasonably good chance I would try that approach again!

And what about the hanging systems?

Well, you’ll just have to wait until tomorrow to find out!

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Vermi Lasagna Gardening-08-11-10

“Compost Ecosystem” bed with “three sisters planting” (corn, squash and beans)

I recently received a quick email update from our Lasagna Gardening correspondent (haha), Paul Letby, and as per usual I asked if he minded me sharing it here on the blog (since I know a lot of people are interested in this approach).

It certainly looks as though things have been coming along nicely!

Hey Bentley! I’m just writing a quick note of what’s gone on lately. It’s super hot outside, and I don’t want to heat up the house with the computer.

Checked the garden I seeded with redworms this spring. The tomatoes have fallen over with the weight of the fruit! So there were some bare patches I could access and check on the population. There’s alot more than I added that’s for sure! The first handful of material brought up four or five worms! It’s kind of a where’s Waldo shot though. Can you spot them? They seemed to congregate where I had left them kitchen scraps, and the last time I had access to put that stuff out there was nearly a month ago. I’ll give em a fresh batch… when I can walk outside without cooking in my own juices! I also found the biggest redworm I’ve ever seen, certainly bigger than anything my indoor system produced.

Sorry about the quality of the pics, all I have is my camera-phone.

We’ll chat later, the computer already is producing heat. Ack!


Paul sent me a short follow-up with some additional pictures as well. He mentions a topic I think Larry D has been looking into, so I’ll be interested to get his thoughts on that (Larry – are you out there? haha)

I am adding a few pics from the feeding this morning. Vermi Borscht! There’s some beets in the mix to make it all purple. Do you think this will enhance their colour? My that’s really is vivid. The camera is sensitive to this colour, it wasn’t THAT crazy purple/red!

It was forecast to be hot again today, so I got up early and harvested from the garden, then fed the worms. Sure enough, I get home and it’s 33C and 41C with the humidex. Ack! Corn loves it though.

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Outdoor Vermiponics-08-10-10

Basil in Vermiponics Bed

It’s been a while since I posted an update on my outdoor vermiponics system. I haven’t really done much with it since setting it up other than adding some alpaca manure over top, and a thin layer of grass clippings, so I can’t say I’m too surprised by the lack of exciting results.

That being said, it did produce a respectable crop of basil (which, as you can see is starting to flower), and we’ll be making a nice batch of pesto with that this weekend! The grape tomato plant did very poorly, and I have little doubt that this is simply due to the fact that there wasn’t enough fertilizer power in the bed for the amount of space it had to occupy.

A small “weed” lettuce plant popped up back in July (almost certainly from a seed that hadn’t germinated in my indoor bed) but it hasn’t done much since then.

I would like to try some other leafy greens such as kale once the basil has been removed, but I think I’d better conduct a pretty thorough cleaning of the bed first – will be a good opportunity to see how the worm population is doing!

Stay tuned

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