May 2011

Emptying my Backyard Worm Bin

It seems my recent sandbox trench excavation has inspired me to clean up a number of different beds on my property. Aside from the fact that I’m ending up with all sorts of beautiful (and unexpected) compost to use in my gardens, I’m also basically creating “new” systems for myself – systems that are operating (as composting beds) much more effectively than they were previously.

One of my clean-up projects involves the complete emptying of my backyard wooden worm bin. This is the first time it has been emptied since I first set it up so this is kind of exciting for me, especially since the vast majority of the vermicompost down at the bottom has been inaccessible (the compost door only really allows me access to compost near the front of the bin) until now!

I timed the clean-out of the bin with the excavation of the garden bed (turned worm bed in recent years) sitting next to it. As was the case with the trench, I was blown away by the sheer volume of rich compost I was able to remove (and then spread in a nice thick layer over one of my other gardens) – numerous wheelbarrow loads for sure!

Once I basically reached the clay soil below, it was time to start adding all the unprocessed stuff from the wooden bin.

In hindsight, I am really glad I decided to do this since the wooden bin was definitely NOT set up for optimized vermicomposting, that’s for sure! It had become a bit of dumping ground for left-over fall leaves (and the brown paper bags they were sitting in) this spring, and although there was quite a lot of food waste in there – it was concentrated in rather unpleasant zones of anaerobic slop towards the middle of the bin. There did seem to be quite a few healthy looking worms concentrated further down (where the food waste was), but I have little doubt that they will do even better in the new bed.

Once all the (unprocessed) material was transferred over from the bin, I covered the new system with a nice thick layer of straw.

As for the wooden bin…

I have lots of vermicompost that still needs to be removed and put to use (SIGH – it’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it! haha), but after that I’ve got something else in mind for this bin!

Should be interesting!
I will keep everyone posted.

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Awesome Vermicomposting System!

RWC worm friend, Cassandra Truax, recently shared a really cool link on the RWC Facebook page and I knew I just had to share it here as well. I’m not sure how long the video and article will stay online (News websites can be bad for quickly removing, or at least moving content) so be sure to check it out while you can.

The video above features a very cool new vermicomposting system that was developed at Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU).

Here are a couple of blurbs from the article (basically just transcript of video):

This machine, developed at SVSU, speeds up the process by grinding up things like wasted food and grass clippings. That material is then sent into a chamber filled with thousands of worms.

SVSU officials think they might be able to mass produce the Worm Factory for about $1,000 per unit. Widespread use could go a long way in reducing the amount of wasted food and paper products sent to landfills

Here is a link to the original article: Recycling project designed to feed worms, not landfills

Thanks for sharing this, Cassandra!

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Kid’s Camp Vermicomposting

Back at the end of April I received an email from Robert Bishop, the property manager for YMCA Camp Greenville, a “resident camp” (open year round – for summer camps and various educational programs) in Greenville County, South Carolina. He was assigned the task of taking care of the camp’s rather neglected 3-compartment worm composting system, and was hoping to get some advice on how he might get it up and running again.

Seeing how enthusiastic Robert was about the project, and how cool the camp vermicomposting system is I decided to ask if he might be interested with sharing the project with us here. He was more than happy to do so, and it’s only been due to my busy schedule that I’ve taken so long to get the ball rolling here on the blog. I’ve started with his first installment, and one additional update (from May 8th) below. I hope to get a current status report from him fairly soon and will post that once it becomes available.

The bins: We have an outdoor 3-bay wooden composting setup. Each bay (bed) is approx. 4ft x 3ft x 4 feet deep. Each bay is separated by a removable frame that has 1/8″ hardware cloth, which allows for migration between each bay. The bin has removable fronts for cleaning/emptying, and each top is a hinged wooden frame with metal roofing attached. The back side of the compost bins are vented with 1/8″ hardware cloth at the top, middle, and bottom. The entire frame is set approx. 4″ into the earth, and has an open bottom for drainage. The bins are not insulated in any way, and are exposed to heat and cold extremes.

Current conditions: These beds have not been very well cared for, yet the worms I have found inside seem to be doing well despite their living conditions. I am going to assume that these are newer hatchlings (I hope that is the proper term) that have emerged this spring. They appear to be around 1/2 to 1 inch long, and by rough estimate there are 600 – 700 worms in each of 2 active beds.

Bed #1 contains sticks, wood chips, pine needles, leaves, and a little bit of food that has been mostly composted. The bin is approx. 2/3 composted.

Bed #2 is filled with completed compost and a mixture of unprocessed wood chips. I have managed to screen out a medium sized wheelbarrow full of finished compost, and it appears to be very nice, clean, and rich with a wonderful, earthy aroma.

Bed #3 contains wood chips, sawdust, leaves, sticks, and some decomposing veggies. It appears that the bedding is approx. 1/3 composted.

My short-term goals: I feel that the best way to ensure success with these beds is to clean one side out, screen the finished compost and remove worms, and start over with fresh bedding and food. Once the new bedding has aged, I plan to screen out the other beds and transfer all of the worms into the new bed. Then I can begin to monitor the worms and get their environment under control, and eventually introduce new worms into the mix and get the composting under way. I have access to our dining hall scraps daily, and have a lot of cardboard and leaves/grass clippings to process. I will also have horse manure to add into the mix once our summer programming starts in late May.

~ May 8th Update ~
Been a busy couple of weeks for the camp, but I have managed to put in some hours cleaning out the compost bins and re-doing the bedding. I have lined 2 of the beds with cardboard on the sides and bottom, and I used hand-shredded cardboard and grey egg crates mixed with decomposing leaves and pine needles,plus I mixed in some partially composted woodchips and plenty of water, and added in approx. 5 lbs of fresh vegetable scraps and crushed egg shells. I let this sit for about 6 days before adding in the worms and composted material they were in. Waited 3 days and then checked the beds…..the worms are thriving! I now have a very large colony of worms growing and eating, and have been adding 2-3 lbs of fresh vegetable and fruit scraps per day, alternating between 2 of the beds.

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Sandbox Trench Excavation

Generally, when I talk/write about vermicomposting trenches I highlight the “benefit” of not needing to harvest compost from these systems. I’ve always thought of them as in situ composting systems best used to fertilize plants growing in the immediate vicinity.

It’s fair to say that my perspective has shifted somewhat after digging a LOT of material out from my sandbox garden trench and putting it to good use as a compost mulch on a rather unsightly looking raspberry garden at the back of my yard.

I almost felt like some sort of compost archaeologist as I got further and further down, scraping back the humus from several years of rich organic waste deposits. Down close to where I stopped my digging I found loads of egg shell fragments – literally the only real evidence of ever having added hundreds of pounds (if not more) of restaurant food waste to this particular system during the summer of 2008.

While I certainly wouldn’t refer to much of the material as “vermicompost” (other than the stuff up near the surface), it was nevertheless a beautiful, earthy peat-like mix that I was more than happy to heap onto the raspberry bed! I was so inspired by this unexpected bounty of garden-worthy material that I ended up excavating another bit of garden that’s been home to various worm beds – adding that material as a mulch to one of my other gardens.

I think this might end being a new spring activity for me! Aside from being able to put all this great material to good use, I am also being left with a nice empty space – ready to be built up as a brand new vermicomposting system once again. I’ll tell you what I did with the other bed in another post, but let’s now look at how I set up my sandbox trench again.

Normally I will start ALL my systems (trench or otherwise) with some sort of absorbent bedding material, but every so often I like to mix thing up a bit and live on the wild side! haha
I happened to have a lot of grass and sod I’d ripped up during my initial raspberry bed clean-up, so I tossed a bunch of that down in the bottom of the trench.

I decided not to get too carried away, though, and followed that up with a nice layer of ripped up drink tray cardboard.

Some of the other materials added included lots of rotting leaves, hay and vermicompost – from what’s left of my “winter windrow” system (now basically integrated with the rest of my windrow network) – coffee grounds, and weeds.

Lastly, I topped the bed off with a nice thick layer of aged horse manure (already containing some Red Worms) so I could still make use of it as a decent “worm bed”.

(OK, technically the “last” addition was a layer of straw – but I forgot to snap a picture! haha)


I’m not sure that I’ll be excavating any more of my trenches this year (I’m content to continue building up the windrows that now sit over top), but I do have some other compost excavation projects to tell you about soon!

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Lasagna Gardening-05-18-11

Quick update on the lasagna gardening front. Nothing too earth-shattering to report, but a few bits and pieces for those following along.

I have added some more wormy material to the bed since setting it up – motivated more by the fact that the material needed a home than by a desire to boost my worm population (that’s just an added bonus). Based on my limited explorations with a small hand rake, it does look like there is a decent Red Worm population in there already, but I’ll need to survey more areas of the bed in order to be sure.

Yesterday I decided to add some more food waste to the bed. I had two bags of aged material ready to be used, and the lasagna bed seemed as good a place to put it as any. Rather than burying the material (which, in hindsight, may have been a better approach), I simply dumped it on top, then started covering it with some rich material from the raised bed that sits next to it.

The more of this dark, earthy material (hesitate actually call it “soil”) I added, the more I liked the look of it! In the end I decided to add a nice layer of the stuff over top of the entire bed! I’m sure I’ll end up with another covering of straw before too long, but for now I’m content to keep it looking like more of a “normal” garden (and I’m sure my neighbors won’t mind either – haha!).

When we recently visited a nursery (mentioned in my last blog post), I grabbed a variety of seeds for this year’s backyard crop-growing extravaganza – including some potential candidates for the lasagna bed. I seem to recall referring to the 2010 growing season as the “year of the tomato” or something like that (as some of you may recall, I ended up with a serious surplus of tomato plants). Well, I think 2011 is destined to become the “year of squash” – and this time I’ll be growing them on purpose – not simply relying on the squash “weeds” that invariably seem to pop up in my beds.

As recommended by two of our readers (who made comments on the last lasagna gardening post), I made sure to grab a packet of “Delicata” (“Sweet Potato”) squash – although I’m not sure I have the right ones. There was mention of a “bush” variety, but the one I have mentions growth on “short vines”. So, I may need to grow these ones elsewhere. I also have “Italian Ribbed” zucchini, “Vegetable Marrow” bush squash, and “Golden Summer Crookneck” squash seeds – so I think it’s just going to be a matter of deciding on two for this bed.

Oh, and just in case you were thinking that I was be a wee bit dramatic with my “year of the squash” claim – I should probably point out that I will also be growing regular zucchinis, “Spagetti” squash, “Sweet Dumpling” squash, and my usual jumbo pumpkin plant! The good news is that I probably won’t need to mow the backyard at all this summer with all those squash plants roaming around! haha!

Anyway – should be fun.
Stay tuned!

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Vermi-Kids Update

Amazing how fast time flies, and how quickly kids grow! Seems like only yesterday that I was announcing Spencer’s birth and showing off the cool worm hat that RWC regular (and good friend), Anna K. made for him! (be sure to check out “Worm Head Jr” for some perspective).

Adaia, too, has continued to reach key milestones as well. Not too long ago I announced that she had started up her very first worm bin (see “Adaia’s First Worm Bin“) – and I actually have a very interesting update to share on that front in a minute – well, yesterday we went to the nursery and she picked out her very first potted plant! She chose a nice looking purple Impatiens – great choice if you ask me. I have little doubt that once we find a nice (larger) pot for it and mix in some rich vermicompost, she’ll be rewarded with multiple pretty blooms.

Ok – getting back to the worm bin…

Since Monday is “home day” for Adaia, I thought it would be fun to check-up on the system to see how the worms are doing. We have added some fruit waste since first setting it up, and a little water along the way (since it is open), but other than that we’ve basically let it sit.

The good news is that everything looks great! It seems most of the food waste has been converted into castings and the environment has remained nice and moist! We now have an official count on the worms – five, not four as I had estimated originally – the worms have “grown up” quite a bit so it was much easier to find them! I guess we’re going to need one more name (so far we have Cocoa, Cookie, Egg Shell and Theo, as mentioned last time).

Looks like we should be expecting to find some new babies at some point as well. I found at least three cocoons!

Last time I mentioned that Adaia wasn’t quite ready to let the worms sit in her bare hand – well, I’m happy to report that she’s made good progress in that department!

Now, for something really intriguing (at least for me) about this system. I am pretty sure that two of our five worms are actually Lumbricus rubellus! In hindsight it actually kinda makes sense since we were digging material from the fringes of my worm beds (where these other worms seem to be a bit more common).

As mentioned in my recent “Invasive Earthworms” article, Lumbricus rubellus is one of the non-native worm species that seems to be contributing to the issues in northern forests (where no earthworms were previously found), so I’ve been very keen to learn a lot more about them.

I will definitely be sending some specimens to Dr. Reynolds (mentioned in the Invasives article) to confirm the identification, but here are some reasons I’m feeling fairly confident about my hunch:

1) Unlike Eisenia sp, Lumbricus sp worms (such as the big “Canadian Nightcrawler”, Lumbricus terrestris) have a spade-shaped tail – think it may even be referred to as a “beaver tail” or something like that.

2) The coloration of this worm is also quite distinct from my Eisenia worms – while it certainly has some reddish-purple shades, it’s not nearly as vibrant – tends to have more of a dull coloration. It also doesn’t have any of the yellow banding that Eisenia worms have.

3) Apart from having more of a conical tail than L. rubellus, E. fetida also typically has a yellow (or at least lighter colored) tail tip, as shown in the last image.

If it turns out my “hunch” is correct this will be good news since I’ve been having very little difficulty spotting the Lumbricus worms in my beds. Apart from getting a positive ID on these worms, I’m also really interested to see how they do in my daughter’s little worm bin! I can pretty much guarantee that the cocoons I found are from the Eisenia worms (neither of the other worms looks to be mature yet), but I’ll be interested to see if the other ones do end up reproducing in this system.

Hard to say who is having more fun with this little experimental bin – my daughter or ME!! haha!
Whatever the case may be, I will be sure to keep everyone posted!

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Earth Machine Vermicomposting

When most people think of vermicomposting, they think of starting up some sort of typical “worm bin” – often a fairly small system kept indoors or at least inside a garage or shed. Backyard composters aren’t often thought of as ideal vessels for the process.

In all honesty, the way many people seem to set-up and use their backyard composters, they absolutely aren’t the ideal “home” for Red Worms. Whether they’re using them as a garbage can for sod, grass clippings and/or bulky yard wastes, or simply failing to maintain them properly, the likelihood of them having any sort of composting success with these systems is pretty low, let alone being able to turn them into a lean, mean vermicomposting machine!

Well, the good news is that your typical medium-scale backyard composter – whether its an “Earth Machine”, a “Soil Saver” or really, any other commercial or DIY bin – can actually serve as a fantastic outdoor vermicomposting bin!

One caveat I should mention right off the bat though! I can’t promise that this will necessarily be the case in every location and climate! Somehow I suspect that it might be difficult to use an Earth Machine as a vermicomposting system during the summer in Texas, for example. But I think it’s safe to say there are ways to make it work pretty well anywhere in the mid-to-northern temperate zones of North America (and similar climatic regions around the world).

As you might imagine, there are some important considerations to keep in mind when planning to add Red Wigglers to a composter. Rather than obsessing over C:N and “browns” & “greens”, it’s helpful to think in terms of “habitat” and “food”. Since we are all well-versed in the fundamentals of vermicomposting (right? haha) we know that composting worms need a habitat that provides moisture, oxygen, and warmth (but not excessive heat) in order to thrive. We also know that they need to have access to lots of rich, microbially-active “waste” materials for sustenance. If we can provide all of these requirements, while avoiding some of the hazards, such as excess ammonia volatilization, we are good to go!

The beauty of these bigger outdoor systems, as compared with our run-of-the-mill “worm tub” type of systems is that they tends to have much better air flow, and a much larger “buffer zone” for the worms once you’ve established the “habitat” – so they can be a lot more forgiving. During warmer times of year these systems can produce better vermicompost faster than some of the more traditional worm composting approaches as well!

OK – let’s start talking about how we do this…

The very first step I recommend – and this one is very important in my humble opinion – is to dig a decent sized pit down below where our composter is going to sit. Make sure to keep the diameter a fair bit smaller than the lower diameter of your bin, and dig it to at least 10-12″ deep. This is basically going to be our “worm safety zone” – even if you don’t plan on actively vermicomposting, it’s beneficial to set up this zone since the native soil worms will thrive there, and you’ll leave behind a nice rich deposit of material if you decide to re-locate your composter at some point (composter rotation can be a great way to fertilize different parts of your yard).

Fill this pit solely (or at least mostly) with some sort of absorbent, neutral bedding material. My favorite choices include shredded corrugated and “egg carton” cardboard. If you soak your cardboard in a bucket of water (something you should have on hand for the set-up process anyway) it will be much easier to tear and will be nicely moistened for the worms!

This pit will serve as a cooler zone during the heat of the summer, and a warmer zone once the weather gets cold – helping to ensure that our wiggler population is able to survive in the system all year.

On top of this moist bedding zone I recommend adding some good “food” materials for your worms. In the case of this system, I added coffee grounds and a nice “homemade manure” mix I’d recently mixed up using multiple bags of frozen food waste (among numerous other things). This way you basically have an active vermicomposting pit, and the worms can choose to move upwards from there as they see fit. As such, if we are planning to add the worms the same day we set up the bin – this would be a good time to add them. I generally recommend adding the worms a week or two later though (if still hot above, you should be able to add them to the pit zone via the compost access door at the bottom).

Moving upwards from the pit, my general recommendation is to set up the bin in a typical “lasagna” fashion. Alternate thin layers of “browns”, “greens” and a sprinkling of “living” material (coarse compost, rich garden soil, well-aged manure etc), making sure to moisten each time the three have been added.

Adding moisture is very important, but so is moisture retention (more so in a vermicomposting bin than in a regular composter), so make sure you include some absorbent materials (like shredded cardboard) among your browns. Bulky browns are also really beneficial as well, though, so I recommend adding some chopped up dry plant materials – even some woody wastes if you happen to have some on hand. These types of waste are excellent for increasing air flow in the system.

Even with a basic set of hand loppers you can make short work of a heap of bulky, fibrous/woody waste material – I recommend using them for all plant materials that go into the bin! Remember – we are trying to optimize for microbial colonization, and the greater the available surface area, the faster (and in greater abundance) the microbes will set up shop. This also helps us to get much more material in the bin!

Once you are up past the soil level it will make sense to put your composter in place over top of your pit – now you’ll be able to add quite a lot more material while still keeping your layers thin!

As you continue upwards, it’s not a bad idea to periodically mix your layers a bit using a rake or garden fork. This will really help to kickstart the composting process and establish the early “heating phase”.

Again, don’t forget about that watering can! Doing all your moistening as you go will be MUCH easier (and more effective) than trying to water down a mostly-dry system once it’s set up!

How much material you add initially is up to you. If you DO have enough to fill the bin, you may want to do so – if set up the way I’ve described, over the course of the next couple of weeks the materials should settled down quite a bit anyway. I recommend topping everything off with a nice thick layer of straw or some other carbon-rich cover material (shredded newsprint for example). This will help to keep moisture in (especially important if there isn’t a lid on your particular bin) and flying pests out.

If you have a long-stemmed compost thermometer, I recommend monitoring temps during the next 1-2 weeks. As mentioned earlier, even if conditions are still pretty hot up above (35 C / 95 F +) you should be able to add composting worms via the compost door at the bottom (but do check temps in the pit just to be sure).

Once you have a nicely “pre-composted” habitat zone, the worms should start moving up and processing these materials quite readily. Moving forward – while I still recommend adding materials in the same manner as described above, if you DO decide to get a bit lazy (dumping more than a “thin layer” of grass clippings for example – haha), your worms should have a nice protective buffer zone by then that will help to prevent them from being harmed!

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