If anyone asked me to come up with ONE method/development that has had the greatest positive impact on my vermicomposting journey, without even missing a beat I would say (perhaps even yell – haha) “vermicomposting trenches”!
The funny irony is that it all started with a scary “problem” – a very serious predicament I got myself into in the spring of 2008 due to unbounded optimism, over-confidence in my worm composting prowess…and well, just plain stupidity.
But before we get to that I think it’s important to establish a baseline by looking at…
2005-2007 – My Yard Before Trenches
When my wife and I moved to our small-town-suburban home in late spring of 2005 the “land” was terrible. The soil was rock-hard clay, the only plants that seemed to be thriving were nasty weeds – and the “privacy” was the absolute pits. Likely the only redeeming quality was the fact that it was (and still is, last time I checked – lol) a corner lot, so by ‘burbs standards, there was a decent amount of space.
The image below was taken in fall of 2007 – about 8 months before everything changed! We were anxiously awaiting the imminent arrival of our baby (girl), and my in-laws from up north were there to offer support (along with other members of the family).
The appearance of the “grass” says it all. It seemed like it had basically given up trying by that point – lol. It was in a losing battle against an ever-expanding fleet of spiny thistle-like weeds, which were so bad that our little niece and nephew couldn’t even walk barefoot in the yard.
As for gardening – by the time the picture was taken, I had made some attempts to start veggie “gardens” (you can see the bed running along the side fence), but the results were pretty dismal to say the least.
Note the sandbox my nephew is playing in back in the corner of the yard. That plays a fairly significant role in this story (hint: I gave up on fending off neighborhood cats – determined to treat it as the Club Med of litter boxes – and turned it into a garden).
[Something interesting I just remembered about these first few years is that the lower area of the yard near the shed used to flood in the spring – there was almost always standing water until warmer, sunny spring weather arrived and the grass entered its active growth stage.]
2008 – Humble Beginnings with Mind-Blowing Results
No need to share my full vermicomposting trench “origin story” here, since I’ve written about it multiple times already (eg “Restaurant Food Waste Vermicomposting“, “Vermicomposting Trenches Revisited“). The long and the short of it is that in spring of 2008 I approached one of the most popular restaurants in our region and asked if I could take ALL of their compostable food wastes (100’s of lb per week – sometimes more).
What could possibly go wrong?!
Needless to say, before long I was up to my neck in nasty-smelling, horribly-rotten kitchen wastes (after basically running out of viable space for burial holes on my property)…and in a major panic about the possibility of some sort of environmental protection agency pulling up one day and carting me off to jail for ‘crimes against suburbia’.
My last-ditch (no pun intended) idea was to just dig a huge trench trench, dump everything into it, then figure out my next move (which I fully expected would be apologetically informing the restaurant that I couldn’t take their wastes anymore).
Luckily, I ditched the basic trench idea in favor of attempting to actually set up a viable worm composting system – and well, the rest is history!
2008 was yet another year of trying to grow some veggies, and I figured setting up my first trench in front of a bed of tomatoes might make for an interesting experiment. Later in the season I expanded the trench so it would extend all the way down my veggie garden (NOTE: If at all possible, I recommend establishing your trench before you start planting so as to avoid disturbing the roots etc…but as you’ll see, things worked out OK anyway).
Growth of the plants in that bed ended up being like nothing I had ever witnessed before (and my dad had some pretty amazing gardens during my childhood), let alone accomplished myself.
As I started to see the positive results – and knowing a bit more trench space wouldn’t hurt – I also decided to expand my efforts into the sandbox (mentioned earlier).
First thing I had to do was uncover and yank out the fabric liner.
As you might expect – it being a sandbox and all (lol) – the “soil” wasn’t exactly ready for veggie growing. But the excavation of the trench itself uncovered plenty of rich clay soil (plus I think I move some over from elsewhere) so I ended up with a decent mix by the time I was ready to plant.
I kept my planting fairly simple – growing a handful pumpkin and potato plants – and overall, I was very pleased with the results (especially since it was my first attempt at growing pumpkins).
The success of my little “pumpkin patch” that year resulted in a nice candidate for my daughter’s second Halloween.
She really got into the whole Jack ‘O’ Lantern carving experience. lol
And of course, me being me, the left-overs certainly didn’t go to waste!
All pumpkins were chopped up and recycled back into the trenches.
Although the restaurant waste project could be considered a “failure” – since I ended up having to stop taking wastes from them by the time the cool weather of fall rolled around – stumbling onto this new (for me anyway) trench approach completely changed my perspective on outdoor vermicomposting (and of course gardening).
It’s safe to say I was super fired up about the possibilities that lay ahead in the 2009 season!
2009 – Gaining Momentum
No longer having access to 100’s lbs of food waste didn’t lead me to scale back my efforts in spring/summer of 2009. In fact, I decided to expand my main trench (make it wider) and to add a brand new trench that would connect to it.
I also decided to take over more of the yard by creating a handful of new garden beds, including a wide berm at the back for growing sunflowers – my first attempt at a living privacy fence (will chat more about sunflowers in the 2010 section).
Tomatoes and zucchinis did very well in the trench beds the year before, so I decided to try them again (and ended up having another amazing year).
Instead of pumpkins in the sandbox garden, I decided to grow corn (with pole beans in between). There’s just something about corn plants that make you feel like a “real” farmer I tell ya!
I did have a pumpkin plant, but it was over next to the main trench. Well, that’s where it started anyway! By the tail end of the summer it had reached “Jurassic” proportions and had spread over into the corn garden.
Apart from my own supply of kitchen wastes, I used a lot of aged manure, occasional batches of veggie wastes from our regional food bank, and a fair amount of coffee grounds (a local worm farming friend gave a huge box of dry grounds) to “feed” my trenches in 2009.
2010 – Year of the Sunflower
As touched on in the last section, I tried my hand at growing a “living privacy fence” of sunflowers at the back of my yard in 2009. The results – while not quite as impressive as I had hoped – inspired me enough to try taking things to the next level in 2010.
I once again planted my back berm garden with an array of different sunflower varieties, but my BIG project involved ripping up the strip of lawn sitting between my (side) fence and the sidewalk, and planting a much larger variety of sunflowers called “Kong”.
The results were incredible, and it’s safe to say that if I didn’t already have a serious gardening reputation in the neighborhood by the start of 2010, it was firmly established by the end of that growing season. People literally altered their daily walking routes just so they could pass by the property for a look at the sunflowers.
The Kong plants definitely lived up to their name, growing to a height of 9 or 10 feet tall and producing leaves far bigger than I’ve ever seen on any other sunflower varieties. I definitely didn’t have any privacy concerns that year!
It was becoming very clear by 2010 that the trenches (now mostly windrows) were having a cumulative positive effect on the overall fertility of my backyard – not just on the plants growing next to them. Everything just seemed to be bursting with life.
The “problem”, however, was that I was starting to get a wee bit too big for my britches by that point. My ambition was starting to outstrip my available time, and I assumed I could do no wrong as long as I got composting worms involved in my gardening efforts. One of the repercussions of my bad gardening habits was that I eventually ended up not being able to grow tomatoes (my favorite crop) anymore without them becoming badly infested with blight.
[The long and the short of it was that I was growing far too many tomato plants, too close together, and I was vermicomposting all the diseased plants…pretty dumb!]
The growing seasons of 2011 through 2014 were still very successful by typical gardening standards…
…and it was also during this period that I discovered the amazing potential of vermicomposting trenches for producing large quantities of high quality compost (thanks to my first trench excavation in 2011).
2015 – Extreme Ambition…Gone Wrong?
In the spring of 2015 I learned about (and became fascinated with) the “straw bale gardening” concept. As is usually the case (with gardening methods), I quickly started thinking about how composting worms could be used to potentially boost the results even further.
And…well, before I could manage to rein in my enthusiasm I ended up buying myself huge heap of hay bales and started laying plans for the ‘ultimate’ hale bale, trench/pit vermi-gardening systems.
The main trench was easily the biggest I had attempted to dig up to that point (or since, for that matter). In hindsight, it would have made a lot more sense for it to have been narrower and shallower, since I would have had a much easier time actually filling it and keeping it filled.
I ended up with so much excavated soil that I decided to convert even more of the lawn into garden (never a bad thing – lol), where I tested out some “normal” bale gardening rows as well.
As alluded to, one of my biggest challenges that year was actually keeping the trench full (not sure it ever actually was).
Overall, I would call it a “success” – even just based on the experience I gained – but (thankfully) I finally realized, once and for all, that it was time to get back to much simpler gardening approaches, or risk burning myself out completely.
Seems funny to say, but I don’t have a clear recollection of what all I did with my gardens/trenches in 2016 (lol), but I do know it was much more low-key than in previous seasons (likely used the trenches mainly for raising composting worms, and didn’t go too crazy with my crop-growing efforts).
Momentum definitely picked up in 2017, but in a way that didn’t leave me feeling stressed and burned out. Some “pleasant surprises” included a tall row of corn along the fence (after emptying an ancient jar of popping corn into an old trench running along there), and an absolutely massive volunteer pumpkin plant that grew out of what had previously been the big hay bale trench. Icing on the cake was the discovery that it produced white pumpkins!
[NOTE: The photo at the very beginning of this blog post was also taken during the 2017 season]
2018 – A Low-Key Year with some HUGE Developments!
As I have written elsewhere, this has been a really “weird” year. I originally planned to basically take the season off from my “real world” vermicomposting business – and to keep my gardening efforts to a bare minimum – so I could focus primarily on creating new courses and other information resources.
Long story short…things didn’t work out as planned. But thank goodness they didn’t!
I ended up connecting with the owner of riding stable, only 10 minutes away, who is more than happy to have me take as much of their aged horse manure as I want. This inspired me to excavate the old hay bale trench and (more recently) the railway tie pit.
The amount of rich compost I excavated from the trench bed alone was incredible, and it was used to build up many other nearby garden beds
One of the things I absolutely love about big trenches is that they can offer a great way to “get rid of” huge amounts of unsightly yard waste. This newly-excavated trench was no exception! The first layer of material I added was a bunch of old dead corn stalks, grass clippings, weeds and woody refuse that had been heaped up over the railway tie bed.
It was certainly a lot less of an eyesore once that stuff had been removed – and as you can see in the next image, there was lots of beautiful, rich compost down below, just waiting to be harvested!
The fibrous/woody stuff was a good choice for the start of my false bottom layer since it is was very bulky and will break down quite slowly. If it ever does get excessively wet at the bottom of the trench, this layer will help to prop up the main worm habitat zone.
Next, I added a LOT of paper waste and cardboard – materials I always love adding to any false bottom zone I create (in fact, these are often the only materials I use). They are both bulky and absorbent, so this should help with moisture retention while still providing some air spaces.
From then on, it was just a matter of continuing to add layers of aged, bedded horse manure (underneath a cover layer of straw) gradually over time. This is primarily intended as a worm bed so I decided to keep things simple (since Red Worms do so well in this material) – but there have also been occasional deposits of weeds and food waste.
As far as 2018 gardening goes…
I hardly planted anything this year (basically just a few cucumbers, a small bed of potatoes, along with the handful of plants added to the vermicomposting planter), but once again I ended up with a volunteer pumpkin plant that really took off.
The really BIG (literally) surprise, however, came when I discovered that this single plant was producing not ONE…not TWO…but THREE jumbo pumpkins, all of them far bigger already than any single pumpkin I’ve grown previously in an entire season!
The image below (taken last week) shows the size of one in comparison to a soccer ball. It’s safe to say that I can’t wait to see how big they all are by the time Halloween rolls around!
Another “huge” development this season came about when I connected with the owner of large (100 acre) country property about 15 minutes away (oddly enough, just around the corner from my new manure source). Although I was there for some unrelated property/gardening work, we quickly realized that we have a shared interest in vermicomposting!
One thing led to the next, and we’ve ended up hatching some large-scale vermicomposting plans for the property, including…
A New Large-scale “Walking Windrow”/Trench Vermicomposting Project!
The property owner has a keen interest in producing a large amount of vermicompost, so I suggested a “walking windrow”. For those of you not familiar with the concept, the idea is basically that you start up a heap or short windrow (with lots of composting worms in it) and then add new food materials to only one side of the bed. Over time you end up with an extended windrow. Most of the worms will be concentrated fairly close to the leading edge – where the richest food supply will always been found – and after a while you should be able to start harvesting material from the tail end.
Adding a trench underneath the windrow provides the worms with even greater protection from weather extremes, and even a rich (future) supply of compost.
I found a great site for the new bed near the front of the property, next to where the original farm house once sat (it was demolished and much larger house was built further back on the property some years ago). Although badly overgrown with huge burdock and thistle plants, this stretch of ground is in a small gully between mounded up ridges of soil. This, combined with the wide array of nearby trees and shrubs, should provide some excellent shelter from cold winds during colder months of the year.
Step #1 in the process involved cutting down most of the big weeds growing in the gully and roughing out the basic shape of the bed.
Next, I excavated a pit that will serve as the foundation for my starter heap. I mixed wood chips (there are several large heaps of them on the property) with aged manure in the bottom of the pit then laid quite a few sheets of corrugated cardboard over top. Worm-rich material was heaped up on this cardboard platform and then covered with straw and a thick tangle of wild morning glory vines I found growing nearby.
Rather humble beginnings for what should eventually be a pretty massive bed, but the key is that the ball is now rolling, and the initial starter worm habitat zone is becoming well-established.
In the weeks ahead I will be mounding up a lot more material on this one end (especially once temps start to drop a bit) and will be extending and preparing the trench – in a similar manner to what I did in the starter pit – before getting the “walking” process started.
Depending on the size of the bed, and how active I am able to keep it once the snow starts to fly, I may even attempt to extend this into a winter vermicomposting project. We shall see how things go!
UPDATE Jan 2019 – You can learn more about this project here: The Walking Windrow (Follow-Along) Project, and yes it has indeed become a winter vermicomposting project as I type this!
Apart from the new large-scale trench project (and various new trenches and pits I’m working with at home), what could be more fitting for this 10th anniversary year than for me to create a brand new course focused on this topic? I’m hoping to get this course launched sometime in February, 2019 (March at the latest). It can currently be pre-ordered at a very steep discount when you join The Walking Windrow (Follow-Along) Project.
As always, please make sure you are signed up for the Red Worm Composting e-mail list, since that is where I will be sharing important news and updates (and pointing you in the direction of even more worm composting content).
And, share your comments/questions below!
Another excellent article about trench vermicomposting! I hope to one day have enough redwigglers to be able to reproduce your results.
“A picture is worth a thousand words.” Judging from the looks of your yard in the beginning and the lush greenery it shows today, I don’t think anyone could even think about debating the benefits of vermicompost.
Imagine the fun you could have with a backhoe
Great article, thanks Bentley. What are the owner’s plans for the expected large quantities of vermicompost?
Thank you for sharing. Great to see the progress over the years. It is an inspiration for me to give this a try. Since I doing like to dig what is the shallowest depth I can dig.
Reading this felt like I opened a time capsule. Good read as always
It was really interesting to read through all this history. I’ve also been watching your videos on YouTube. I have learned some tips to ensure the safety and health of a worm colony. So, I’m ready to get worms.
Your children are growing up with wonderful memories of how “Daddy always had a garden”. The impact will be felt for generations.
Fun to read about the development of your garden over the years. And wow, have you put a lot of work into that.
Don’t know the availability of wood waste where you are, but if you’re digging a trench and have almost any kind of wood waste, up to and including pretty sizeable logs, toss them in there to try and fill things up.
My (limited) experience with this is that buried wood that gets damp will stay damp and break down far quicker than you would expect. Obviously won’t make sense to use wood that has a better use, but I find branches, logs, cut down trees and others add up pretty quick. Plus there are almost always neighbours around with wood they want to get rid of (and might just burn it in a pile if they don’t find a way to do so). Leaves can also go in there in very large quantities.
Obviously makes sense to put wood at the bottom of a trench. If there are a lot of branches and loose bits, the settling will be more noticeable over time as stuff falls down and settles. But has added advantage that the lower areas will be a lot more oxygenated than would generally be the case in a trench.
The idea of a vermicompost trench is very intriguing. I live in the suburban area of a major city in Canada where esophagus, skunks, bears, and the likes, can be an issue of food wasted are left outdoors. I haven’t seen much mentions on this potential issue. I don’t have access to hay or animal manure. Would topping the trench off with grass clippings & perhaps some soil be enough to discourage critters from digging into these trenches?
Very sorry for the delay approving comments and responding, everyone!
DAVID – thanks for the feedback, and I’ve appreciated having you following along all these years! Hopefully you do still have one or two systems going anyway! 😉
JOHN – these worms are truly amazing! As for backhoes…what’s funny is the country property owner crossed paths with me while I was working hard on the big trench there one day, and he said “I should rent a backhoe”. Sounded like a cool idea to me – especially given how rocky that soil is – but I didn’t bother pushing it! Haha. I actually really love digging trenches – weird but true.
COLIN – that is the “million dollar question”! Haha. Definitely loads of places we could put the finished material (gardens, new orchard etc etc), but this guy is also very entrepreneurial…so we’ll see (wink wink).
SYLVIA – I have my recommended depths (2-3 feet) that I like to encourage, BUT the fact of the matter is that ANY depth should help. I guess I would say aim for at least 1 foot if you can. Where you are located can have a major impact of course.
JOHN W – thank you, sir! Yet another long-time follower I’m so glad to have staying in touch!
PATTY – yeah, I really do hope it has a positive impact on them. I feel it is especially important to expose young people to this sort of stuff in this age of distraction (and turmoil).
ARMOURED – you are singing to the choir – haha. I am a big fan of the “hugelkultur” concept, and very often put woody wastes down in the bottom of my trenches. With the new walking windrow trench things are a bit more refined – but I still have a very thick layer of wood chips down in the bottom.
YUKI – yeah, where you are located can have a major influence on the potential for animal invasion. I think grass clippings could help – but some form of “living material”, like well aged manure, compost, decomposed leaf litter etc would be the best approach for masking odors. What you add to the trench is also a very important consideration. If I lived on the edge of the wilderness (bear country) I’d be pretty careful about what types of food wastes ended up in the system!
Amazing story to read through, and very inspirational! You know what you should do, you should apply to give a TED talk about vermiculture. You have the years behind you, the practical experience, photos and proof, and an internet business and following to support your legitimacy. Come up with some big-world-impact statement in there, and boom you’re off.
I say this because I recently listened to a podcast called “TED Radio Hour,” 2 episodes entitled “Circular” and “The Food We Eat.” When combined with your info, there is such a wealth of information to be harnessed practically, I loved it. If you get a spare couple hours here and there, please give them a listen I think you’ll find it speaks to your heart (as it did mine).
Your entrepreneurial endeavors also pique my curiosity, and I’m certainly interested in that approach myself in the upcoming months, mixed with other ideas I’ve been brewing after listening to that podcast.
Your post here has given me some great ideas, I’m insanely impressed, but also given me a WHOLE LOT OF WORK TO DO damn you Hahaha.
One concept from the “Food We Eat” podcast was called “Incredible Edible” based on a town in Northern England called Todmorden where they plant foodscape all over the town, and it’s open and available for anyone to pick and eat. I’ve considered doing something similar recently, converting my front yard to a huge garden plot (my grass looks horrible) and allowing neighbors to come pick food at will. I’ll just ask that they donate their compostable scraps, I’ll make a trench and/or windrow like you’ve mentioned, and keep the cycle rolling. That will serve as a pilot for my grander idea, which if I pursue, I definitely want to open a specific line of communication with you!
How do your neighbors interact with your gardens, if at all?
Absolutely inspiring stuff Bentley, so incredible. My last question is about the quality of the soil. When researching optimal soil conditions, most research and experienced long-term gardener blogs and posts talk about that soil is primarily to hold the plant up and to allow for root propagation. The plants eat the nutrients and drink the water, but don’t eat the soil itself. Apparently permeable extremely-well draining soil is the most optimal. (Here’s a great link that is the 12th iteration of this forum post refined over 10 years: https://www.houzz.com/discussions/2842847/container-soils-water-movement-and-retention-xxii). So my question to you is: Do you utilize the vermicompost as the sole planting medium, or do you amend a better draining material with the vermicompost as fertilizer/organic living material?
Thanks again for sharing all your hard work and experience and incredible knowledge gained – truly you are the premier pioneer in vermiculture I’ve found on the entire web, and I’m thankful to learn from you.
Thanks for the kind words (and podcast referrals). Assuming you haven’t already (I can be slow haha), feel free to drop me an email so we can discuss further.
I too am very interested in foodscaping – I think there needs to be a LOT more of that sort of thing. Sadly, it is almost the opposite – stories of people getting fined etc for having edible gardens in their front yards. Utterly ridiculous!
Not quite sure I understand the last question. There have been seasons where I have used slow-release natural/organic fertilizers to help boost the growth of certain plants (eg tomatoes), but not for some time now. The stuff that get’s produced in the trenches seems to meet the needs of the plants just fine. I definitely think of soil as more than just something to hold plants in place – the organic matter and biology is also hugely important. Traditional inorganic farming practices tend to be all about the fertilizers, with very little concern for the organic matter and life of the soil. You often end up with lifeless stuff that doesn’t hold water well (hence lots of fertilizer run off into surrounding water bodies, groundwater etc) and is much more prone to getting washed/blown away. Not a long term sustainable approach!