April 2011

Flyer Worms

I’m pretty familiar the tendency of Red Worms to gravitate towards moist paper-based materials in a vermicomposting system – such as corrugated cardboard and newsprint – but I must say that I was shocked by the number of wigglers I recently found in the middle of an old stack of flyers that somehow ended up in one of outdoor my worm beds! Wow!

During drier weather I’m sure moisture is a big factor, since paper and cardboard often stay moist longer than some other materials – but since it’s been really wet recently, I’m wondering if it might have more to do with cold temperatures (as mentioned in another post, it’s been an unusually cold spring).

Whatever the case, it certainly makes me want to experiment a bit! Maybe it will help me come up with the ultimate “worm trap”! haha

Anyway – just thought I’d share that! I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted.
8)

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Windrow Coffee Grounds Update

Just wanted to post a quick update for my continuing outdoor-coffee-grounds-vermicomposting efforts. As mentioned a few times, I’ve been receiving grounds from a local “fair trade” coffee shop here in town, and the arrangement has provided me with a good opportunity to “play” with this material.

In the past, I’ve run into issues with grounds when adding them in concentrated zones in outdoor beds. They seem to over-heat and dry out quite readily. The key has always been to keep them nice and moist, and basically just to let them sit. Any time I’ve found decent numbers of worms in coffee grounds (outside) it’s been in older, wet material.

This spring I’ve been trying something a little different. I’ve been combining coffee grounds with well-aged (and heavily bedded) horse manure. This is a material that holds water well, and worms go crazy for it by itself, so in some ways you might say I’m “cheating” a bit here – haha! I should point out, though, that while the two materials are in the same beds, I am not (yet) actively mixing them all that much. Generally, I’ve been layering the grounds underneath a thick cover of aged manure in a effort to keep them wet. I’ve also been making an effort to keep the grounds in relatively shallow layers.

The one concern I had with this approach was that the beds would get too warm, but given how incredibly cold this spring has been (by typical standards), the additional warmth in the beds has actually been appreciated. We shall see how things pan out once the warmer weather arrives, though!

So far so good! I’m finding lots of worms in zones that have lots of grounds, and for the most part the grounds seem to be staying quite moist (fairly wet weather as of late has helped I’m sure). I am definitely starting to appreciate this material more and more!

As mentioned in my last post, I have plans to construct my own compost tumbler sometime this spring (hopefully in the next 2-3 weeks), and one thing I really want to test out is mixing and “pre-composting” coffee grounds with other materials to see if that makes them even more appealing to the worms.

Should be fun!
8)

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Worms in Compost Tumblers

A question from Kristine:

I have a compost tumbler with about 1000 worms in it. I’ve noticed
here lately that some of them have turned a little pale:( Do u no why
this is happening?

Hi Kristine,
In all honesty, a compost tumbler is not an ideal habitat for composting worms. For one thing, tumblers are designed to be rotated – but worms are generally going to prefer a habitat that’s not being disturbed all that much. Sure, you COULD simply set up a tumbler like a worm bin and never rotate it (or very rarely), but in my mind that would be a waste of a good tumbler (especially if it was one of the expensive commercial models). In general, compost tumblers are designed to be hot (or at least semi-hot) composting systems, so aside from stressing the worms out with lots of disturbance, there’s a decent chance you’d end up cooking them or killing them off via ammonia release.

I should, however, point out that compost tumblers can still be fantastic tools for us vermicomposters! They offer an excellent way to “pre-compost” various challenging materials like coffee grounds, grass clippings etc, and just generally a great way to make food mixes that your worms will go crazy for! I have plans to construct my own compost tumbler this spring so I’ll certainly be writing a lot more about all this before too long.

Just so ya know, composting worms can do very well in regular backyard composters. Be sure to check out these posts if you want to learn more:
Red Worms and Backyard Composters
Composting Worms In Your Backyard Composter

8)

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Black Soldier Fly Horoscope

Our good friend, Larry Duke, sent me this hilarious picture today – and I just HAD to share it here (with his approval of course)!

It seems this little guy is a Leo – although, too bad there is a chunk-o-turd blocking much of the horoscope!
Still, looks like he needs to wise up and start polishing those social skills! (tis always “mating season” in BSF land after all!)
😆

Thanks for the laugh, Larry!

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Vermicomposting White Paper

Well, it’s spring cleaning time here in Kansas. Letty has done her best to clean everything that holds still long enough. She had been saving ALL of the junk mail since last spring. Letty had two 18 gallon tubs of junk mail and office paper and dropped it at my feet saying “ I have been saving this (something in Spanish) for months, now get rid of this (something in Spanish only louder this time)!”

So, I started to shred everything, I didn’t have the courage to tell Letty that the white paper has been bleached and the ink may contain heavy metals that will kill the worms if used in a large quantity. I hate to throw away good garbage and besides, Letty does want to help, I couldn’t let her down by putting the paper in the trash.

The topic of this post is: How do I neutralize the potentially harmful properties of the office paper?

“Chlorine is used in pools and drinking water because it is a great disinfectant. It is able to kill bacteria and algae, among other things. Chlorine also makes a great stain remover, but not because of the chlorine itself. Natural stains (as well as dyes) produced by everything from mildew to grass come from chemical compounds called chromophores. Chromophores can absorb light at specific wavelengths and therefore cause colors. When chlorine reacts with water, it produces hydrochloric acid and atomic oxygen. The oxygen reacts easily with the chromophores to eliminate the portion of its structure that causes the color.”

~ Excerpt from: http://www.howstuffworks.com/question189.htm

Wow! I didn’t know that, so what does a simple guy like myself do?

I decided I would try sodium thiosulphate.

It seems that “The thiosulfate anion is tetrahedral in shape and is notionally derived by replacing one of the oxygen atoms by a sulfur atom in a sulfate anion. The S-S distance indicates a single bond, implying that the sulfur bears significant negative charge and the S-O interactions have more double bond character. The first protonation of thiosulfate occurs at sulfur“. (I did a cut and paste job on this quote, I thought it sounded real techy).
No problem. All I have to do is replace an oxygen atom.

This stuff is sold at Wally World, it is called fish tank DECHLORINATOR. Cost me $5.00 to treat a couple thousand gallons of water.
http://www.firsttankguide.net/dechlorinator.php

I put the shredded paper in an 18 gallon tub and fill it up with the water and 10ml of dechlorinator. I mixed that around a little bit, let it sit for a few hours, then drained and let it sit for 3 days. I then took a giant handful of the paper and mixed in with one of my project bins with about 1000 worms in it, if the worms die, they die in the name of science. The project bin also has horse manure in it.



This is the product I used.



The bin of treated paper.



The project bin.



Close up of project bin.



Close up some worms.



These plants have had the treated paper in them for a week.



Close up of the plant with the bedding and some leaf mulch.



I planted these about 6 weeks ago, the plant on the right I set up as a worm bin.

It has 500 worms in it, a layer of horse manure, and a layer of the treated paper. I put the paper on about a week ago.



Top view of worm bin/plant.


After a week, the worms are fat and juicy, no bugs, no migration, no smell. I think I can call this a success so, I went a little further as these photos show.

If this project stands the test of time, that is even more trash diverted from the landfill.


‘Mark from Kansas’ is an avid vermicomposter from…well…Kansas, and contributing author here at Red Worm Composting. When he is not tending to his OSCR worm bin, Mark also enjoys spending time with his wife Letty (who also doubles as his trusty vermicomposting assistant) and picking petunias (ok, Bentley just made that last bit up).


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Using Castings and Worm Tea in the Garden

Some interesting questions from Robert:

I’ve been your supporter for years now and you seldom mention how to
use worm castings and worm tea in gardening. So, my questions are:
1] How much soil do you mix with how much castings?
2] How much worm tea should I use on an outdoor garden plant? On an
indoor potted plant?
3] Will too much castings or worm tea burn a plant or grass the way
chemical fertilizer does?

Hi Robert,
You are absolutely RIGHT – I definitely haven’t spent all that much time on these topics. This is likely due to the fact that I don’t actually use worm castings or worm tea all that much in the garden, believe it or not! I typically prefer to employ various in situ vermicomposting systems instead, since these save me from having to do any harvesting/screening etc. A prime example of this is my “Vermicomposting Trench” approach (links to a list of related posts on the blog). As for the worm tea situation – this is actually something I keep meaning to get more serious about, but just haven’t gotten around to quite yet (this is the year, I tell ya!! lol).

Still, I do want to provide you (and others) with a proper response, since this seems to be a topic a lot of people want to learn about.

Let me start by saying that there are a lot of different “grades” of worm castings – I actually prefer the term “vermicompost” for exactly this reason. That is to say that it’s very rare that someone would end up with “pure” worm castings – no matter how much sifting and screening you do, you’re almost certainly going to end up with some other “stuff” in there. These grades of vermicompost I’m referring to are really just (approximate) indicators of the percentage of other stuff (and on the flip side, the percentage of actual worm castings). As you might imagine, the material I would consider high-grade vermicompost – what I might even be tempted to refer to as “worm castings” – would indeed have a very high percentage of actual worm turds, whereas a “coarse grade” vermicompost would be a bit more…uhhh…chunky?
😆

This isn’t helping is it? (haha)
Perhaps some pictures would aid my explanation! In the first two pics you will see vermicompost that’s been screened to 1/4″, while the next two pics show what I mean by “coarse grade” vermicompost – which, as you can see, tends to have a fair amount of other “stuff” in it.




I should point out that, while the 1/4″ screened vermicompost is a really nice material, screening it to 1/8″ would more than likely help you get closer to “pure” worm castings.

As far as putting these materials to good use goes – in a nutshell, the coarser the grade of material, the more I will use. The beauty of really top notch vermicompost is that a small amount goes a long way. My favorite way to use it is to simply drop a small scoopful in the bottom of a planting hole, or around the base of an established plant.

If you happen to be a tomato grower, you may want to check out this article (thanks to Brenda B. for telling me about it):
Instructions on How to Grow Better Tomatoes. They recommend using worm castings (among other interesting suggestions!), and as you’ll see, they agree with my “little goes a long way” philosophy.

[Just so you don’t think I’m making this stuff up, I should point out that this assertion is actually based on scientific research – the team under the guidance of Dr. Clive Edwards at Ohio State University has found repeatedly that even small amounts of vermicompost in soil mixes can offer significant benefits for growing plants – more on that in a minute].

As for the “chunky” stuff, I often prefer to use this as a kind of “vermi-mulch“. My favorite mixes to use are actually those that still contain plenty of worms in them, since (as mentioned) my aim is usually to create some sort of in situ vermicomposting system that will continue to offer vermi-goodness to the plants for the duration of the growing season.

Here are a couple of video posts (relating to vermicompost and in situ vermicomposting systems) you may want to check out as well.

Composting Worms in Raised Beds
When to Harvest Vermicompost

Regarding the use of vermicompost tea – since I am not an expert in this department, I’ll fall back on the experience/knowledge of someone who IS – my good friend, Mike “Strawberry Guy” Wellik. I highly recommend you watch his “Brewing and Using Vermicompost Tea” video below.

OK Robert – perhaps now would be a good time to respond to your ACTUAL questions!
😆

1) I’m going to interpret your first question as basically “what percentage by volume of my soil mix should consist of castings” – hopefully that is close to what you are asking. As mentioned earlier, the great thing about castings is that small amounts (of good quality material) can typically go a LONG way. Atiyeh et al. (2001) found that substituting as little as 5% vermicompost (made from pig manure) in professional-grade horticultural soil mixes resulted in a significant increase in plant growth. What’s really interesting about this is that ALL the plants (including controls) were provided with a normal inorganic fertilizer regimen – thus suggesting that whatever benefits the vermicompost was providing, it went above and beyond basic N-P-K fertilizer value. In that particular study the researchers found that 25-50% substitution had the greatest impact on growth, and this seems fairly consistent with a number of other studies conducted by OSU researchers.

2) Again let me point out that I’m no worm tea expert – but my feeling is that you can’t really add “too much”, assuming it is made properly. The few times I’ve made it, all I did was repeatedly dunk a cloth bag of vermicompost in a big bucket of rain water until the water was dark brown in color. This liquid was then applied liberally in the garden using a watering can.
I would definitely be very careful with non-aerated teas though, especially with potted plants. Various compounds created via anaerobic processes can be phytotoxic (harmful to plants).

3) This is an interesting question, and unlike my hunch on the worm tea front, I’m definitely leaning towards “yes” – there is such a thing as “too much” high-grade vermicompost. I’ve done growth tests with 100% vermicompost and found that plants actually seem to suffer in comparison to those that receive a smaller percentage of the material. This seems to be consistent with what researchers have found, and Atiyeh et al. (2001) in particular suggest this could be due to higher salt concentrations and poorer porosity/aeration. (FYI – in my experience, this is not typically the case with the coarser grade materials)

I would definitely say it’s not quite the same as chemical fertilizer “burns”, however, and I’d actually be surprised if you could add enough to your lawn to cause problems. Nevertheless, this is something I recommend keeping in mind for potted plants.

————————————-
All this being said – unfortunately one of the really tough things about this topic is the fact that while we have catch-all terms like “worm castings” and “vermicompost”, the material they refer to can vary a GREAT deal from one source to the next. I’ve talked about various “grades” of end product – but really, that’s just ONE factor to consider. Different starting materials, different methods/conditions etc etc etc can impact the properties of the castings/vermicompost.
As such, my recommendation is always to test things out for yourself!

Anyway, Robert – I realize this was a rather long-worded, meandering explanation, but hopefully you (and others) found some value in it! Thanks for writing in.
8)


REFERENCES
Atiyeh, R.M., Edwards, C.A., Subler, S., Metzger, J.D., 2001. Pig manure vermicompost as a component of a horticultural bedding plant medium: effects on physicochemical properties and plant growth. Bioresource Technology 78: 11-20.


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“Worm Juice” – The Secret to Growing the World’s Hottest Chillies?

Someone recently pointed me in the direction of a really interesting article (thanks again, “Babe Ruth”!) called “Aussies grow world’s hottest chilli“.

It doesn’t really contain much info relating to vermicomposting, but as you can probably guess from the title of my post, there is certainly some relevance! Here is a blurb:

Marcel adopted Neil’s idea in using liquid runoff from a worm farm – ‘worm juice’ – to fertilise the crop and he believes this is the secret to the super-hot chilli.

“He originally worked with it but didn’t understand why it worked,” says Mark, who studied the fertiliser. He discovered that worm juice contains nutrients, plant growth hormones and promoters, beneficial bacteria that colonise the root area, and chitin from dead insects that triggers the plant’s natural defence systems.

Pretty cool!
8)

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