October 2011

Coffee Grounds Vermicomposting – Fall Update

Back in the spring I wrote about the coffee grounds (pick-up) arrangement I had set up with a local coffee shop, and how I was using the grounds in my beds (see “Windrow Coffee Grounds Update“). I’m happy to report that the project has continued to hum along quite nicely thanks to the fairly modest amounts of material being produced (in comparison to my previous restaurant waste vermicomposting project). Aside from that, coffee grounds just generally tend to be a much easier material to deal with since they can be added basically anywhere, and you don’t need to worry about them getting too foul, attracting pests etc etc.

For the most part, all I’ve been doing is continuing to add layer upon layer of grounds onto my outdoor windrow beds (formerly known as “vermicomposting trenches“). In all honesty, I haven’t added much else to these beds (although there were certainly some deposits of food waste periodically throughout the summer). I thought for sure that the grounds were going to end up being a real challenge to deal with during the heat of the summer, especially once the serious drought hit – as I’ve written previously, coffee grounds seem to have a tendency to dry out really easily and then be difficult to re-wet.

As it turns out, the wet grounds ended up being very important for my beds – actually helping to ensure that there were moist zones down below where the worms were able to do ok. I must say that the cumulative benefits in terms of overall bed health have become readily apparent as well. The number of worms in beds now is very impressive!

There are a few factors that I think have made all the difference as compared to some of my previous coffee grounds trials. For one thing, these are used, wet grounds with lots of filters in them. Most of the grounds I experimented with previously were either unused or at least VERY dry, and contained no filters, so it took some effort to get them to the point of being “worm friendly”. These grounds I’ve been adding have also end up being exposed to the elements for quite some time, which really seems to make them even more appealing to the worms (although I’m surprised how quickly they can move into new deposits sometimes).

All in all, I am VERY pleased with the material, and feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to continue taking it from the coffee shop (and I imagine it’s nice for them not to worry about dealing with it too). This winter should be interesting! As per usual, I am planning to keep a stretch of bed protected from the elements, and hopefully with the regular addition of coffee grounds I’ll end up with my most successful winter system yet!
I’ll certainly keep everyone posted!

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Woman Smuggles Worms Into Mongolia…in Her Boot!

I recently received an email from Robyn Hepburn, creator of a blog called “Mongolian Mumbles”. She wanted to let me know about a vermicomposting story she shared on her site (looks to be from last spring). I thought it was pretty funny, and knew it would be the sort of story a lot other “Worm-Heads” might appreciate as well.

Here is a blurb:

In October 2009 I was staying with wonderful friends Mike & Judy in Sydney before returning to Mongolia, trying to cram over 30kgs into a bag probably made to carry less than 15kgs and I am only allowed 20kg anyway. Judy said ‘I will get some compost worms for you to take back to back to Mongolia’. As you can imagine I looked at her as if she was off her rocker. Not only is it probably illegal but did she realise that the temperatures in Mongolia drop to -40C below and that I didn’t have a lot of room in my suitcase.

Where was I going to keep these worms when I did get back to Mongolia?

Be sure to check out the full post here:
I travelled with worms in my boot…

Does anyone else have funny interesting worm travel/smuggling stories to share?? Be sure to leave a comment below!

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Red Worm Composting Survey

Hi Everyone,
Sorry things have been so quiet on the blog as of late – have been working on quite a few different things (not the least of which is “The Complete Guide to Vermicomposting”, of course! More on that in a minute). Those of you on the email list may recall my mention of planning to put together a survey for the RWC community. I’m really eager to learn a bit more about the readers/fans of the site, so as to (hopefully) better serve all of you! Originally I thought it would be fun to put together some sort of prize draw for all those who participate – but alas, it suddenly dawned on me that this is a completely anonymous survey!

(DOH!!! I’m not always the “sharpest tool in the shed”! haha)

Anyway – there are certainly still plenty of benefits to participating (and I’ll be sure to come up with some other type of fun contest), especially if you are a regular reader, and/or are eager to learn more about vermicomposting. I’ll be putting together a number of new resources (including an email mini-course), so knowing what areas people are keen to learn more about will be very helpful in terms of deciding what topics need the most coverage.

Getting back to the “Complete Guide”…
I’m happy to report that I’ve been making good progress on that front as of late, but said progress is still a fair bit slower than I’d hoped (as is often the case with big projects like this). I definitely don’t want to rush it needlessly just for the sake of getting it launched – but I also obviously don’t want to keep everyone waiting TOO long either (especially all you “pre-launchers”). As it stands, I’m hoping to have it finished by the end of the month – I’ll certainly keep everyone posted on that front!

If you are not on the email list, I highly recommend getting signed up! Aside from being a good way to keep up with RWC news/updates, you will also receive access to the 76 page “Incomplete Guide to Vermicomposting” (lol – ok, ok, that’s just the joke name!!), and will have access to the mini-course once it’s ready to go as well. OH, and it’s also a great way to find out the results of the survey (once enough people participate)!

Anyway – nuff said for now. If you don’t mind taking a few minutes to fill out the (100% anonymous) survey, that would be fantastic (you don’t even need to answer all 10 questions if you don’t want to). Here is the link:

>>RWC Community Survey<<

THANK YOU for helping me make this an even better vermicomposting resource!

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Human Waste Vermicomposting

Interesting message from Michelle:

We need to further process the human waste from our composting toilet!
I’ve read that vermicomposting could be the answer. Do you agree? Do
we need to make sure that the worms also get kitchen scraps? Also, we
are approximately in your USDA Hardiness zone (4 – 3ish) and want to
keep the worm bins in the basement but are concerned about the
temperatures they need to stay active.

I am so excited about all that I have learned on your site; thank you
for being so education-minded!

Hi Michelle,

I do indeed agree! Using Red Worms (or other composting worm species) to process wastes in a composting toilet is a great idea, and something a surprising number of people have done successfully. You definitely don’t need to provide them with food waste though – believe it or not, human waste is probably closer to the “ideal” food for these wigglers. That said, there’s no reason you couldn’t still toss the food scraps in the same system!

Your mention of “worm bins” actually leads me to believe you might be thinking about removing the waste from the composting toilet and adding it as “food” to a completely separate system (or multiple systems). In all honesty, this really isn’t necessary – you should actually be able to establish a thriving population of worms IN the composting toilet itself.

There are a couple of very important issues to consider though: 1) ammonia/salts (assuming this is not a urine-diverting toilet) and 2) pathogens. I recommend adding LOTS of bedding types of materials such as shredded cardboard on a regular basis. This will help to soak up excess liquid, keep things oxygenated, and just generally provide the worms with a much more substantial safe habitat zone. As for pathogens, while there has been considerable research demonstrating the effectiveness of vermicomposting as a means of destroying pathogens, I still recommend taking a cautious approach with any material removed from the system. You may want to further process it via hot composting before using it – and you may want to avoid using it as fertilizer for food crops (even with additional measures being taken).

It’s been shown that Red Worms hatching into a new environment are much better adapted for life in that environment than adult worms introduced from elsewhere. As such, you MAY want to start up a “regular” worm bin (assuming you don’t already have one) and then just transfer cocoons from it to your composting toilet. Adding a fair amount of habitat zone material (from your worm bin) – containing worms, cocoons etc – away from the main waste drop-off zone (lol) in your toilet holding tank could also prove to be a good stocking strategy. Whatever you do, don’t just toss in a pound of worms and hope for the best!
(Ever heard the expression “throwing your money down the toilet”?)

Regarding your temperature question – if your basement temps dip down below 50 F (10 C) you’ll likely see a pretty substantial slow down in waste processing speed. I would think that the composting toilet tank would stay warmer than the surrounding environment however – these tend to be fairly large, and the combination of nitrogen-rich wastes mixed with lots of c-rich bedding materials should result in lots of microbial activity (results in heat release).

Hope this helps a bit!

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Particle Size Experiment-10-03-11

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last particle size experiment update. Not long after writing my last post (see previous posts listed below) I purchased a 10 lb bag of carrots and prepped them for use. I opted to create only “disks” and “ribbons” – producing roughly twice as much of the latter – since I figured it would be pretty easy to grind up the ribbons further (for the fine particle treatment), using a blender, just before adding them. I chose to stick with my freezing approach for storing all my chopped/peeled material. While I agree (with someone who commented on the last post) that the best comparison would have involved using fresh materials – since freezing effectively starts the structural breakdown process, thus helping the microbes and worms – it’s a LOT easier (and less time consuming) when I can do most of the prep work all at once.

After leaving the disks and ribbons in the freezer for a number of days I decided to do another feeding. This time I opted for 500g of carrot (as you may recall it was 350g that was added when I first set up) since I wanted to make sure there would be PLENTY of food in these bins. Adding the disks and ribbons to their respective bins was very easy (after letting the materials thaw out over night) – but blending up ribbons to create fine particles turned out to be a bit more of a pain than I had anticipated. I ended up having to add quite a bit more water in order to get the blender working properly – and of course, this meant I was left with more of a slurry than a ground-up carrot pulp.

Since a lot of nutrients were in the liquid, I knew I couldn’t just strain the material – so, I ended up having to add approx the same amount of water to the other two treatment bins (just to make sure the moisture content wasn’t drastically different from one bin to the next). In order compensate for all that extra water, I ended up adding a substantial quantity of absorbent bedding material to each bin as well.

In hindsight, I made a pretty silly (classic “newbie”) mistake when I first set up the bins – I didn’t bother to add any air holes. I figured with 50 tiny worms and not all that much food material there wouldn’t likely be any serious lack of oxygenation, or need to worry about ammonia release etc. Initially, I was right – prior to my second food addition, everything seemed to be doing just fine in each of the bins with no worms trying to escape or appearing in any other way distressed. Of course, when adding the additional 500g (more than a pound) of carrots AND all that water to these tiny bins I should have clued in to the fact that the oxygen demand was going to increase, but for whatever reason I still didn’t do anything about it.

I think you know where I’m heading with this! LoL

Ok – so it didn’t end up being nearly as bad as it could have been, but let’s just say the next time I opened up the fine particle bin, the reality of the situation became glaringly obvious. My little wiggly friends were all over the lid and sides of the bin, and some of them even fell outside the bin as I opened it. CLEARLY they weren’t all that happy with the environment down below! Not too surprisingly, the ribbon bin wasn’t nearly as bad (I think there might have been one or two worms roaming up around the sides), and I didn’t see ANY worms when I opened up the disk bin. This seems to be our first indication of the fact that increasing surface area of wastes substantially results in a rapid increase in microbial activity (which in turn depletes oxygen much more quickly, among other potential side-effects).

After putting all the worms back into the fine particle bin, I added quite a few holes in the lid and sides of all the bins – then closely monitored the situation for the rest of the day. The increased aeration seemed to do the trick – and no more worms have been found roaming since! One other adjustment I needed to make involved adding some more bedding material to the disk bin. I noticed that a lot of water was pooling down in the bottom, whereas it seemed to be more evenly distributed in the other bins. Technically, more bedding has now been added to the disk treatment bin, but my feeling is that the development of swampy conditions in that bin (as compared to the other two) would have more of an impact on that treatment than the addition of more habitat material – so I don’t think it’s going to keep me up at night! lol

It has been interesting to see how things are progressing in each of the bins over time – starting to provide me with some perspective regarding the difference between an “optimized” system and your typical, run-of-the-mill home worm bin. In the disk bin I am definitely seeing other critters establish themselves more successfully – white mites being a prime example. Larger chunks of food material seem to become serious breeding/feeding grounds for other organisms – likely because there is a lot of food value and because the worms aren’t able to process them nearly as quickly. I have seen mites in the other bins, but they don’t seem nearly as concentrated in any particular area.

Now that the carrots are decomposing quite readily in all three treatments, it’s probably going to be fairly important not to disturb the composting zone too much. In doing so, I’m just going to end up increasing the exposed surface area of wastes in the disk and ribbon treatments – which would obviously end up defeating the purpose of the experiment. In some ways this is a bit of a pain, since it would be nice to see how the maturation and breeding of the worms is progressing in each treatment – but I’m sure I can get away with doing a bit more of a thorough examination the next time I add food (since they will have processed much of the carrot material by then).

Anyway – that’s all for now. I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted!

Previous Posts in the Series
Does Particle Size Make a Difference?
Particle Size Experiment-09-16-11

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Neil’s VB24 Journal – Day 9-15

Below you will find Neil’s second VB24 Journal installment. If you missed his first one you can find it here: Neil’s VB24 Journal – Day 1-8

Days 9-15 – Friday, September 9th through Thursday, September 15

A Low-Maintenance Week with Two Unexpected Occurrences

Because my last journal entry was lengthy, I’m going to try to keep this one short. This should be an easy task given that these past six days continued to demonstrate how low-maintenance the VB24 can be. Other than feeding the worms on Day 12, I did not perform any maintenance other than occasionally spraying the system with some water.

~The Weekly Feeding~
Since the worms had an adverse reaction after their feeding on Day 5 (I counted about 50 worms on the sides of the VB24 the next morning), I decided to take certain measures when feeding them on Day 12 to ensure that the habitat was more suitable to them after this feeding.
On the evening of Day 12, I fed the worms a mix of food that consisted of banana peels, coffee grounds, carrots, cardboard and miscellaneous organic waste from the kitchen. This food mix, which filled no more than ¼ of a 5 gallon bucket, was smaller than the amount of food I added on Day 5.
I also added much more bedding than I did on Day 5 by covering the newly-added food with a thick layer of shredded newspaper (see below).

After adding the bedding, I used a garden fork to mix it with the food. Then, I sprayed the system with some water. Lastly, to ensure there was enough ventilation after this feeding, I propped the lid open slightly over night (see below).

Unlike the morning of Day 6, I only noticed 4 worms crawling on the walls the morning after this feeding. Any number of variables could have contributed to this: less food, more bedding, increased ventilation, the cooler evening temperatures and/or the worms having an additional week to adjust to the system.

~Unexpected Occurrences~
There were two unexpected occurrences this week. First, one wily worm (pictured below) managed to work his way around all the cardboard and newspaper at the bottom of the bin and escape through the false bottom.

Despite his valiant effort, he was caught slipping through the bars of the false bottom, and I returned him to the bin just before he had a chance to enjoy a taste of freedom. (In reality, I did him a favor by returning him to the bin. Nowhere in my yard is there an environment as suitable for a composting worm; and, in all likelihood, he would probably have dried out and died right there on the garage floor.)

The second unexpected occurrence was the emergence of plant life in my VB24. I suspect that the soil that I originally added to the bin contained some seeds (along with the critters that also caught a ride into my bin). I was surprised that the weed pictured below had managed to grow in this dark environment. This is just another reason why you shouldn’t add soil to your worm bin.

~One last note about the watermelon~
On Day 5 I wrote about my first experiment which would study how worms reacted to watermelon rind that was cut up in different sizes. The watermelon rinds ended up being mixed being mixed in with the other food/bedding in such a way that it was difficult to monitor the worm’s progress on eating it. Next week I plan on conducting a worm-watermelon experiment in a more controlled manner.

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