April 2012

Bentley’s “Ultimate” Backyard Worm Bin

Things have settled down a little on various fronts, so I’ve found myself with a bit more time to “play” (i.e. time to start fun projects that I can write about here). The first thing I’ve been working on is a continuation of last year’s “Cardboard ā€˜nā€™ Coffee Vermicomposting” project. As some of you may recall, last July I basically just tossed stacks of cardboard drink trays into my big wooden backyard bin – along with other materials, including a large quantity of coffee grounds – in an effort to see how long it might take Red Worms (and other critters) to process the cardboard. OK, I also just generally needed some place to put all those stacks of trays! lol.

As is often the case with my fun projects, I basically forgot about the bin and moved on to other things – at least until later in the fall, when I needed a spot to dump a surplus supply of coffee grounds (I was continuing to pick them up from a local coffee shop, but my winter bed was well stocked by that point).

See a pattern emerging here?

As things started warming up this spring, I finally started treating the bin more like a vermicomposting system than a garbage can (lol), adding deposits of food waste along with more coffee grounds, and the level of material seemed to drop a fair bit. That’s not to say it was remotely close to an optimized worm bin though – as per usual (when working with lots of coffee grounds) everything overheated and I ended up with lots of grayish, dried-out grounds, and barely a worm in sight!

A short time ago I decided that enough was enough – it was time to finally get the bin working properly! Thus began the creation of “Bentley’s ‘ultimate’ backyard worm bin”!

In spite of the difficulties I was encountering with the coffee grounds, I knew the contents of the bin would actually provide me with a great starting place for creating a top notch worm bed. I figured all I’d need to do – at least initially – was to mix in LOTS and LOTS of shredded cardboard/paper, and to add LOTS of water. No “food” of any kind – just bedding and water.

I must say the strategy has actually worked out quite well so far! The contents have continued to heat up, but not quite as much as before, and when I turn everything over it actually looks (and smells) quite good.

Today, I decided to take things one step further by lining the inner walls of the bin with sheets of cardboard. Normally it’s just slats of wood sitting between the contents and the outer environment, so everything stays pretty dry around the outer perimeter of the composting zone – especially when there are lots of coffee grounds. With the inner cardboard walls, the bin should still be able to “breathe”, yet retain a lot more moisture (another advantage of mixing in so much shredded cardboard as well).

Once my inner wall was in place, I felt inspired to mix in even more shredded cardboard (and water down yet again).

My original plan was to continue mixing in bedding until the bin was essentially full. I’m starting to think this might end up taking longer than expected, though! As the system becomes more and more optimized it seems to be composting more and more effectively – so the level of materials has continued to go down.

Nevertheless, I’m already having a LOT of fun with the project (feels like the “good ol’ days” – haha), and can’t wait to see how the system turns out. It seems as though the worms are already starting to move into the bin again, so I don’t think it will be too long before the bin is crawling with them.

Will keep everyone posted on my progress!

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Worms for Soil Improvement

Here is a question from Rory:

I’ve really enjoyed your website. My wife and I are new to Nashville,
TN and the soil is very hard and claylike and I’m looking for
something that I can have throughout my yard not just in composting
bins or in composting areas. Something that won’t hurt my grass. It
sounds like I need some combination of red worms and soil worms. What
would you recommend for me who wants to improve soil conditions
throughout the entire yard. Something I can sprinkle around the yard
and forget about.

Hi Rory,
Unfortunately, there really isn’t any type of worm (composting worm OR soil worm) you can simply “sprinkle around the yard and forget about”. This is one of those situations that reminds me of the “chicken vs the egg” debate – lol – i.e. which comes first, the worms, or soil that’s been richly amended with organic matter for a period of time? In all honesty, if you just drop worms in your yard, more than likely all you will do is fertilize the grass with dead worms – or perhaps feed some local birds that might then fertilize your grass somewhat with their droppings!

You really need to start with the organic amendments first – or at least at the same time.

When I first moved to my present location our soil was absolutely awful – really hard clay that was very difficult to work with. Initially – before getting serious about outdoor vermicomposting – I mixed in some really rich top soil to help improve the gardens. Of course, things REALLY improved once I installed my vermicomposting trenches – and just generally when I got more serious about “vermi-gardening”.

Assuming you are not interested in setting up actual in situ vermicomposting systems around your yard, my recommendation is to focus on getting as much organic matter into your soil as you possible can. If you don’t want to rip up your lawn (to work on the soil below) try top-dressing heavily with a rich compost, and use a mulching mower (without the bag of course).

If you have gardens, it will be even easier since you can add a lot more material (compost, aged manure etc) all at once and really mix it in.

Taking these steps should not only improve the quality of your soil greatly, but it should also improve the ecology of your soil – likely resulting in many more soil worms moving into the area and helping you to continue improving the soil (just make sure you keep adding that organic matter).

Hope this helps, and doesn’t make you feel like I’m picking on you! Believe me, there are lots of other people with very similar questions.

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How to Get Rid of Worm Bin Mites?

Question from Judy:

I love my worm farm & really want to build something larger but I’m
having problems with mites. Can you please tell me how I can get rid
of mites without hurting my worms? Thanks!

Hi Judy,
I’ve written about this topic at various other times, but it’s something SO MANY vermicomposters (especially new ones) want to learn about that it’s never a bad idea to revisit every so often.

First and foremost, I always try hard to emphasize that: A) vermicomposting is a process that involves a diverse ecosystem of different organisms – it’s NOT just worms vs your food waste. It is important (in my humble opinion) to develop a certain level of respect for ALL organisms you encounter in your worm bins – which leads me to…B) if you focus more on the conditions that may be creating a favorable environment for certain critters rather than on the critters themselves (assuming they are “bad”, a “problem” etc), you are far more likely to successfully create an optimized vermicomposting system.

For example, if you add a large quantity of starchy materials all at once and you end up with sour/anaerobic conditions and a serious outbreak of pot worms, removing heaps and heaps of the pot worms isn’t going to solve your problem.

In the case of mites, they tend to thrive in wet (often low air-flow) conditions when lots of food waste is present. This often coincides with acidic conditions, but I’m not sure that it’s the low pH, specifically, that appeals to them (similar to the worms, I think they are pretty tolerant of a wide pH range). Unfortunately, these exact conditions are very common in a typical enclosed, plastic worm bin – especially when being managed by a new vermicomposter.

In my experience, you find FAR fewer mites in open (very well-aerated) vermicomposting systems – as well as systems that receive smaller quantities of well-optimized waste materials. So, you might (yuk, yuk) want to leave the lid off your bin for periods of time each day (assuming you don’t want to keep an entirely open system), reduce the amount of food waste you are adding, and spend more time preparing the wastes for optimal worm feeding (freeze, chop, blend, age, mix with “living materials” etc).

All that being said, if you DO actually want to get rid of mites in the meantime (before you create a more balanced system), you may want to refer to these other posts:

Getting Rid of Worm Bin Mites
Controlling Mites in a Worm Bin

Hope this helps!

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Worm Inn Journal-04-20-12

It’s been more than two months since my last “Worm Inn Journal” update – sorry about that!

While the system has certainly been neglected, I should mention that I have added decent quantities of food waste at least two or three times. What’s interesting, though, is that there was absolutely no evidence of this when I looked in this morning. Down below the upper bedding zone all I seemed to be finding was worms and worm castings!

In my last update (see link above) I wrote about adding some really funky food wastes that had been frozen-then-thawed twice, and then left to sit (for too long). Well, as it turns out, that material ended up stinking quite a bit. The lesson here is that even when you optimize (chop up, mix with bedding etc) anaerobic wastes and provide excellent air flow, it’s still going to take some time before things become aerobic, and the smell dissipates.

Unless of course you happen to have some “living materials” on hand, that is!

Those of you who have been following my “Worm Briefs” newsletter series may be familiar with the concept of “living materials” – for those of you who are not, the basic idea is that this is any type of material that has a rich/diverse population of aerobic decomposer microbes associated with it, and quite likely a material that is at least partially stabilized (humified). As you might imagine, a prime example would be any form of microbially-active compost, but other examples would include really well-aged manure, fall leaf mulch (or other decomposed leaf litter in general), even well-aged grass clippings and thatch (should be gray/brownish not green). All of these materials should have an earthy smell.

Getting back to my stinky food waste situation…

Once my wife started noticing the smell of the wastes in the Worm Inn, I knew my mellow approach wasn’t going cut it – so I decided to accelerate the process by mixing in some coarse vermicompost (i.e. bulky, partially vermicomposted worm habitat and castings – similar to the stuff pictured above) I happened to have on hand. I was fairly confident that it would help to reduce the odors – after all, various types of compost and mulch are used as odor biofilters – but I couldn’t believe just how fast and effective this solution this ended up being. Apart from eliminating the odors almost immediately, it had the unexpected side effect of helping the wastes to break down much more quickly as well. I was shocked to find that the wastes had all but disappeared within a few days.

Just as freezing wastes has now become a standard practice of mine, it’s safe to say that I’ll be regularly mixing in “living materials” from now on as well.

This morning I added a ~ 3 lb clump of frozen carrot strips on top of the bedding layer in my Inn, dumped some vermi-habitat material over top, and covered everything with a new layer of bedding.

Once the carrots have thawed, I will more than likely spend some time mixing everything up a bit so that the microbe-rich habitat material ends of well-incorporated with the wastes. Assuming I can keep up with a regular feeding routine, it will be really interesting to see just how much waste this system can reasonably process (i.e. I don’t plan to go to the extremes of my “Worm Inn Overfeeding Challenge“) when “living materials” are used as well.

OK – this post is getting pretty lengthy, but I DID want to also mention that I attempted to harvest some vermicompost from the Inn this morning. The system has been active since the fall, so I know there is plenty of processed material down at the bottom (and in fact, as mentioned earlier, most of the material in the Inn seems to be fairly well processed). What I DIDN’T take into consideration, however, is the fact that I haven’t been adding nearly enough food for the worms!


One of the things that seems to concern people about the Worm Inn is the potential for “everything to fall out” when the bottom is opened up. While this is certainly possible if you open it up right after starting the system (although there will be a bottleneck effect that kicks in pretty quickly I suspect), assuming you let the system do its thing for at least a couple of months, this is absolutely not something you need to worry about. As you can see in the image below, I opened mine up completely and nothing fell out – not even the shredded cardboard false bottom I added when I set up the Inn.

When I started scraping material from bottom, it didn’t take long before there were worms falling down as well. In hindsight, it makes total sense since there is no food keeping them up near the top, and the highest moisture levels are likely now found closer to the bottom.

The material itself looks and smells great – but obviously I don’t want to end up with loads of worms in it. As such, I will try harvesting again in a few weeks after a few more heavy feeding sessions.

Will keep everyone posted!

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Springtail Experiment-4-17-12

Well, I’m happy to report that I finally got around to getting things rolling with my springtail experiment. That is to say that I finally added the worms! I actually started adding some springtails to the springtail bin last week, but other than that I’ve basically just been letting the two bins sit and age.

I came up with a pretty effective way to collect lots of springtails – all I did was add a wet cloth on top of the composting zone in one of my active worm bins. After a few days, I simply removed the cloth and shook it over top of the open springtail bin. Although you can’t tell based on the photo below, it was like a rain shower of springtails dropping down – I couldn’t get over how many there were! I can only imagine what would have happened if I had soaked the cloth in apple juice or something like that!

I’m confident that I now have LOADS of springtails in that bin, so I think we’re good to in that department! As for worms, I decided to add 20 juveniles to each bin. The idea here is to compare the overall success of the worms in the two treatments, so I obviously don’t want to add worms that might already be fertilized.

It wasn’t too hard adding the worms to the springtail treatment, but as you might imagine, it was a bit more of a chore to prepare them for the (hopefully) no-springtail treatment. I decided to put them in a small container of clean water briefly so as to wash off any debris (and of course springtails) that might be on them. This seemed to work quite well, but we’ll see if springtails manage to become established via some other means (perhaps the worms could have some of their eggs/juveniles in their digestive tract?). Worst case scenario, I hope to at least be able to compare a bin with loads of springtails to one that has very few.

That’s basically it for now. I’ll provide another update in a week or two, once the worms have had time to really settle in!

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5000 Facebook Fans!!

Well, it certainly didn’t take long for us to hit the 5000 Facebook fan mark after I posted my contest update yesterday! I guess the post itself served as a bit of a nudge for those who hadn’t yet “liked” our fanpage!

Whatever the case may be, we now have an official date – April 12th, 2012 – and of course, some official winners as well!

Firstly, I’d like to send a BIG “congratulations” to Chris Brewster, whose Nostradamus-like “April 15th, 2012” prediction effectively blew the competition away! The next closest guess was March 20th, 2012.

Here is the full run-down:

1st – Chris Brewster – April 15th, 2012
2nd – Anna Kranz – March 20th, 2012
3rd – Larry Duke – March 15th, 2012
4th – Henry Hwang – May 25th, 2012

Honorable mentions
Carl Allwood – May 30, 2012
Leigh B. – February 22, 2012
Jean Kruse – February 16th, 2012

If there was a prize for getting the most guesses close to the actual date, Larry Duke definitely would have won it! Aside from his 3rd place guess of March 15th, he also guessed January 5th, February 14th, and May 12th, 2012! Way to go, Larry!

Thanks to all those of you who participated! For all those of you who didn’t – the good news is that we’ll be having more contests this year (and this time you won’t have to wait years for the gripping conclusion! haha), so stay tuned!

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Vermicomposting Soap Nuts?

soap nuts

Late last week I received an email from RWC reader, Luci B., asking if it would be safe to add used “soap nuts” to a worm bin (since it is suggested that they be composted when used up). It would have been an interesting question no matter what, but I was especially glad to receive Luci’s email since it served as a reminder of the fact that my wife and I had been meaning to try out these “nuts” (to wash laundry) for quite some time!

We were originally introduced to soap nuts (actually a fruit from the soapberry tree, Sapindus mukorrosi) via a TV program up here in Canada called “Dragon’s Den” (I believe the U.S. counterpart – which even features a couple of the same people – is called “Shark Tank”). The entrepreneurs pitching their soap nut business did a great job, and ended up securing funding from one of the Dragons (Brett Wilson). At the time, my wife and I were thoroughly intrigued with the idea of using this all-natural alternative to laundry detergent, but we ended up basically forgetting about the whole thing.

soap nuts

This time around I decided to move a little more quickly (lol), placing an order for a bag of soap nuts a short time after receiving Luci’s email (and her subsequent recommendation for who to buy them from). As you might guess, this is a bit more about testing out the soap nuts for washing our clothes than it is about seeing if they can be processed in a worm bin (after all, even the entire bag of soap nuts won’t add up to much in the way of waste materials) – but I thought it might be a fun RWC project nevertheless!

One of the great things about soap nuts is that they can apparently be re-used a number of times, so a bag of them can end up being equivalent of many bottles of detergent. Of course this also means I’ll likely only end up with small quantities of the spent “nuts” every so often. This probably isn’t such a bad thing, though, since the saponin – the sudsy compound that makes them useful as a washing agent – might not be all that worm-friendly.

Anyway – I’ll likely start putting some soap nuts to use over the next few days (regardless of how well they work – anything that inspires me to do laundry will make my wife happy! LOL), and should have some ready to be added to one of my worm bins by next week.

I’ll keep everyone posted!

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