November 2010

Winter Worm Windrow-11-29-10

Last week I (thankfully) decided to finally get things rolling with this year’s “Winter Composting Extravaganza”. While the images might make it seem like we are still enjoying some pretty typical “fall weather”, I can assure you that conditions are actually a lot closer to winter now.

As you can see, I’ve decided to stick with the “winter worm windrow” approach, since it worked so well for me last year. I started things off a few weeks ago when I chopped up all my giant sunflower plants and added the material to my windrows (making sure to add the most in the zone that would become my winter bed). Something I discovered back in late summer or early fall was that the worms actually really seem to like the decomposing sunflower heads, so I’m hopeful that this debris will provide both structure AND a long-term food source.

We also had a collection of pumpkins and squash left over from fall decorating and Halloween, so I certainly didn’t let those go to waste!

Once these were all chopped up (using a shovel and a big plastic garbage can) and mixed with some fall leaves, I created a depression in the sunflower waste and dumped everything in.

Next, I added several alternating layers of alfalfa hay and fall leaves (many of you will likely recall that I scored quite a few bags of these not too long ago), before watering everything down (with some help from my trusty assistant).

Lastly, I placed my big black tarp over top of the windrow and secured it with some bricks and stones (as shown in the first picture).

This past weekend I decided to add several more bags of leaves and about 5 lb of food waste. I also soaked some leaves and cardboard in about 2 gallons of dirty fish tank water (with some molasses mixed in for good measure) and added it all to the bed.

I still have a lot more leaves, most of a straw bale, and about half a bale of the alfalfa hay, so it looks like we’ll definitely be in good shape to get things rolling nicely. I definitely don’t want to go overboard just yet since the REALLY cold weather hasn’t arrived – no point burning through our fuel before we really need it, right?

Apart from plenty of my own food waste (which will be stock-piled in my freezer, then thawed and mixed with fall leaves and/or cardboard indoors), it looks as though I may have secured another good supply of winter worm bed “food” from a local business! Will write more about that soon.

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Happy Thanksgiving – Facebook Contest

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends!
We had our “turkey day” near the beginning of October up here in Canada, so I can’t help but be a wee bit envious (I LOVE turkey dinners!!).

I hope everyone enjoys a relaxing, food-filled day, and ends up with LOTS of scraps for your worms!

One little bit ‘o’ RWC business to mention while I’ve got your attention. Today was supposed to be the official deadline for entry in the 5000 Facebook Fan Fest, but I’ve barely made a peep about it for ages SO it only seems fair to let it run until the end of the month.

If you are interested, and have not submitted an entry, please send me an email with FIVE dates (again, these are you guesses for when we’ll hit 5000 Fans – currently sitting at close to 1800). Please don’t submit your guesses as comments on this post or on the Facebook Fanpage.


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Worms Are Trying to Escape

Here is a good question from Jim:

I am somewhat new to worm composting. I started earlier this
year. The bins were outside during the summer.
I moved my worm bins indoors a couple of weeks ago, just before the
first freeze. I pulled most of the compost out of the bins. As I
separated the worms from the compost, I put the worms with a little
bit of the compost back into the bins. I put the unprocessed material
back in the bins as well. I mixed dry grass, leaves and shredded paper
in the bins. I put the bins in the house in the basement.

The issue I have is, the worms seem to be trying to escape the bin. Each
time I go down there, the upper rim of the bin has quite a few worms on it.
Yesterday I thought that maybe the bin was too wet and the worms were
trying to get out of the moisture. I mixed quite a bit of shredded
paper in the bin to absorb some of the moisture. Today I went down to
put some scraps in the bin and I found lots of worms up around the
edge of the bin again. I have holes in the bottom to allow it to drain
and there doesn’t seem to be much liquid coming out of it. I am
wondering if you have an idea why the worms are trying to climb out?
Thanks for the info I have gleaned from this site in the past.

Hi Jim,
The topic of escaping worms in general is always a good one (VERY common concern), but you’ve also touched on another very interesting occurrence – something I’ve witnessed a number of times as well. For whatever reason, worms seem to be sensitive to rapid (relatively speaking) temperature changes. I’ve seen this when – like yourself – I’ve brought worm-rich materials indoors during cold weather, but I’ve also observed something similar when I’ve tried to cool down a batch of worms that was already warm. In the latter case, I had put a bag of worms in the refrigerator as a means of slowing them down and cooling them off prior to a (summer) customer pick-up. Minutes later, when I opened up the fridge to check on them, many had already found there way out of the breathable bag and were crawling around in the bowl I had place the bag in! I can’t say FOR SURE that it was the change in temperature that did it, but I’ve never witnessed anything quite like that when the bags have simply sat in the dark, so I definitely think it at least played a role.

It sounds as though you have the right idea in terms of discouraging roaming behavior. One of my recommendations is always to add a bunch of (dry) bedding at the top of the bin to help dry the sides and lid, thus discouraging the worms from venturing up from the composting zone. I also recommend taking off the lid and shining a bright light down into the bin. This (latter) approach can have two benefits – firstly, the light itself is an effective deterrent (assuming there isn’t something going seriously wrong down below), and secondly, the greatly increased air flow in the bin can help to remove gases that may be causing issues and reduce that humidity that builds up in an enclosed bin.

You MAY also have created issues with the addition of “dry grass, leaves and shredded paper”, or perhaps with whatever unprocessed materials were added back to the system, but in all honesty I’d be quite surprised if these were the cause of the roaming.

Assuming the worms have not yet settled down, my recommendation is to try the lid-off and light-shining methods to see if that helps them settle in. If not, you may indeed have something seriously going wrong in the bin, and your best bet may be to start a brand new system.

Hope this helps!

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BOM Coffee Grounds Update

I just wanted to post a quick update on the coffee grounds vermicomposting front. As you can probably tell from the picture, I’ve decided to discontinue the experiment.

Shortly after adding everything to my BOM bin, I reached the conclusion that the worms were not thriving in the grounds-cardboard system. Aside from looking rather unhealthy (thin and off-color), most of them seemed to be congregating in zones where there was still some of the compost material that came with them when they were introduced to the stacking bin.

I won’t say that I am 100% convinced that Red Worms can’t thrive in a coffee grounds & bedding system, but I’m certainly not 100% convinced that they CAN either. It seems that I’m making very little progress in terms of getting to the bottom of the “coffee grounds conundrum”. This is a strange, unpredictable material indeed!

Anyway, I’ve started adding food waste to the system and the worms seem to be doing better so I think I should be able to re-establish a certain degree of “balance” before long.

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Microbial Soup

I recently wrote about the little “Worm IV” rig I have hanging over my Worm Inn. What started as a nifty way to keep my Worm Inn hydrated, has turned into a fun little experiment to test out liquid feeding methods.

Let me point out right off the bat that this isn’t really particularly relevant for those of you who are using plastic enclosed worm bins, or even for the average hobbyist vermicomposter in general – this is just me having some hair-brained fun! I have a background in (and keen interest in) aquatic biology so I love finding ways to tie the two together (hence my fascination with topics like “vermiponics“).

I DO, however, think this (drip feeding stuff) might offer some potential for those who are interested in breeding lots of composting worms without the need for using food waste, manures or commercial feeds. The big question I have is whether or not paper-based bedding materials drenched in a nutrient-rich broth will support worm growth and reproduction to the same extent that some of the more typical “foods” do. Some of you may recall that this is something I’ve briefly explored before (see “Making Microbes” and “Making Microbes – Part II“) – but I don’t think I ever ended up really testing it out all that seriously.

As mentioned in the last Worm IV post, I decided to start using water from my daughter’s fish tank in my drip system. I figured there would be plenty of nitrogen (and likely lots of microbes as well) that could help the carbon-rich bedding materials to break down more quickly – thus offering the worms a more-readily-available food source.

Since then, I’ve taken things a step further and have actually started brewing up my own “microbial soup” in much the same manner as one would brew a compost tea. I put a small clump of dry alpaca manure in a mason jar filled with fish water, then added a small amount of molasses. I am oxygenating the mixture with a small aquarium air pump.

I started the brewing process yesterday morning and checked on the mixture throughout the day, but the only change I noticed was the slight “tea” tinge the water had taken on. The water was still very clear when I took a peek yesterday evening. By this morning, however, the water had become quite cloudy – so I’m confident that the microbial population has increased substantially. I took a whiff just to make sure it wasn’t going anaerobic and couldn’t detect any bad smells, so I think it should be completely safe to use (as I discovered the last time around, adding a stinky brew to a worm bed isn’t necessarily the best idea!).

Aside from continuing to drip down into the Worm Inn, I may also set up a small experimental bin or two. It would be interesting to see how cardboard soaked in this liquid compares (as a worm food) to cardboard soaked in aged tap water.

Anyway – I’ll keep everyone posted!

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Moisture Content and Stocking Densities – Impact on Growth and Maturation

One of the things I really enjoyed doing during my ill-fated masters degree program (apart from playing with my worms, this was probably one of the ONLY things I enjoyed doing! haha) was reading academic vermicomposting literature. I certainly don’t say that to look all sophisticated or anything like that. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s the summary (“abstract” – kinda like the “Cliff Notes” version of the article), intro and discussion sections that always hold the greatest appeal for me. I am definitely not a numbers guy, so my eyes tend to glaze over while reading through the “results”! haha

Anyway, this morning when I happened upon one of the many vermicomposting journal articles I have printed out, it reminded me that there has been a lot of really interesting research conducted in this field. Unfortunately, a great deal of it is not really all that accessible to the public at large. As such, and since I know a lot of readers are interested in the experimental side of things, I thought it might be fun to start writing posts about particular journal articles I have found to be interesting – perhaps it will help to stimulate some cool discussions!

On that note – here is the first article I have selected:

Effects of stocking rate and moisture content on the growth and maturation of Eisenia andrei (Oligochaeta) in pig manure

Authors: Jorge Dominguez and Clive Edwards
Journal: Soil Biology and Biochemistry, Volume 29, Number 3/4. pp. 743-746

As the title implies, in this study the authors set out to determine what sort of impact moisture content and stocking densities had on the growth and development of E. andrei. Just so you know, this species is another very common variety of “Red Worm”, and while they have been determined to be different than Eisenia fetida (species most commonly thought of as “Red Worms”), the two species are very often together in a given culture and can only truly be distinguished from one another via high-tech laboratory methods.

The authors conducted two main experiments in this study:

Experiment #1 – This examined the impact of different moisture contents. Four juvenile worms were placed in plastic dishes and fed 100 g of pig manure mixed with maple leaves (85g + 15g, respectively). Six different moisture content treatments were established (via the addition of water) – 65%, 70%, 75%, 80%, 85% and 90%. Four replicates were created for each treatment, and all dishes were left to sit for 44 days without further (food) addition. Treatments were monitored every 4 days, with a focus on three key parameters: 1) survival, 2) biomass of worms, 3) presence/absence of clitellum (indication of maturity). Moisture content was monitored every two days and water added as necessary (to maintain treatment level).

Experiment #2 – This examined the impact of different stocking densities at a consistent moisture content (80%). Each dish received 150 g of the manure/leaves mix mentioned above. The stocking densities were: 1, 2, 4, 8 and 16 worms per treatment – again there were four replicates for each. Every 4 days the worms were weighed and their level of maturity determined. The duration of the experiment was 48 days.

Both experiments were conducted at 20 C (68 F).


It was determined that moisture did indeed have a significant impact of the growth and maturity of the worms (although they were found to grow and mature in all treatments). The “optimal” moisture level was found to be 85%.
It was determined in the second experiment that stocking density also has a significant impact on the growth and maturation of Red Worms. The researchers found that 8 worms per dish was the most favorable stocking density (of those tested), with growth/maturation dropping off at the higher stocking density.

Interesting tidbits
– the authors state (in discussion) that temperature and moisture content of waste materials are the two most important environmental factors affecting the vermicomposting process.
– in the intro, however, they mention that moisture preferences can vary from substrate to substrate (so don’t assume this applies to all situations).

As is always the case with scientific experiments (or any vermicomposting results for that matter), I strongly recommend that the results of this study not be viewed as “set-in-stone” rules to follow. Many people may not realize it, but 80-90% moisture content is REALLY high – there is no way in a million years I would recommend that anyone keep their system this wet, UNLESS there is also excellent oxygenation (remember, moisture and oxygen content often tend to be somewhat mutually exclusive) – a prime example of a situation where this could work would be vermiponics. Worms can basically live in an aquatic environment if there is enough oxygen present.

In this study the authors were using tiny little dishes, so it’s not too surprising that the worms were able to survive in really wet conditions (since ample gas exchange still possible). I can only imagine how quickly they would have perished if they had been put in larger bins containing the pig manure mix at some of those moisture levels!

The results of the stocking density experiment were interesting. Clearly, Red Worms can do well at higher densities, BUT there is a point where the performance drops off. For those of us who want to grow lots of worms, this suggests that we should be splitting our bins (starting new systems) before conditions become too crowded. Similarly, it might not be a bad idea to avoid starting with a really high density of worms.

It all depends on your goals though – if, for example, you want to quickly produce lots of castings (and/or process lots of waste materials), starting with higher worm densities might make more sense.

Anyway – that’s basically it for this particular research article – hope you found this new (review) approach interesting. I had fun with it, and look forward to digging up some more articles to write about here!

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Worm Drip IV Update

Medela SNS (

My recent mention of the “drip bottle contraption” I am using with my Worm Inn (see “Worm Inn Journal-11-08-10“) seems to have created quite the little hubbub. I can’t say I’m too surprised, since it is a pretty nifty little system.

As someone recently pointed out (on the original “Worm Bin IV” post), the actual name for this is the Medela SNS (“Super Ninja Slow-Drip”) System. Little known fact, though – the actual FULL name is the “Medela Super Ninja Slow-Drip Annelidic Hydration and Feeding System (or MSNSAHFS for short).

Ted’s recent suggestion re: using some sort of nutritious “juice” instead of water, reminded me that my original idea for using the MSNSAHFS had actually involved using baker’s yeast pellets mixed with water. What I discovered with this particular solution was that the little tubes ended up getting plugged up – so I gave up on the idea.

The most commonly recommended “food” for the MSNSAHFS is baby formula – makes sense when you think about it since it contains lots of protein and nutrients to help those worms grow (wink wink). I may see if I can rustle up an old can of powdered formula to test this out.

Something else actually occurred to me last night as I was staring into my daughter’s fish tank. Why not use THAT water as my drip liquid rather than plain ol’ aged tap water? The nitrogen (and other nutrients) in the solution would help bedding materials to break down more quickly, and would certainly help with microbial- and worm-growth – but unlike with some other “food” solutions, there would be little chance of clogging up the hoses. I think this could actually be a neat way to keep the fish tank cleaner as well, since I can simply replace any fish water removed with an equivalent amount of aged tap water.

I am also going to try letting some alpaca poop pellets soak in the fish water (once removed from the tank, of course! haha) before pouring it into the bottle. This should provide some additional nutrition and make the soaked bedding even MORE appealing to the worms!

Anyway – just wanted to provide this update to let everyone know where I am headed with all this! Stay tuned!

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