Curtis Windsor’s Trench Vermicomposting Project

I first “met” Curtis Windsor via his involvement in the new (as I type this) VermiGardening Facebook group.

Not long ago I came across a post he had put up about a pretty serious vermicomposting trench project he had launched.

Based on the description and the images shared, I was totally intrigued and I approached Curtis about the possibility of us putting something together for the blog. Thankfully, he was very enthusiastic about the idea, so here we are. 🙂

Below you will find a Q&A session Curtis and I had (in bits and pieces) via email, along with some images he passed along (speaking of which – I love that t-shirt! lol.


I always like to start with a bit of background information. Can you tell me a little about yourself and how you ended up interested in vermicomposting?


I will start off by apologizing if I ramble on, I can get pretty passionate about this subject. I have been working in the screen printing/embroidery industry for 22 years and counting. Three years ago my wife and I started a small home based t-shirt biz on the side designing shirts that reflect our interests, ( I got her to do a couple worm shirts, lol). I started getting serious about gardening and recycling about 13 years ago. When I saw an advertisement for the Worm Cafe in a Mother Earth News magazine I decided to give it a try.

It took both things I loved doing and put them together. Against my wife’s better judgement I got the bin with 2 lbs of worms for my birthday. That was 2 years ago (as of April 11 – I’m 41 years old and still playing with worms). I am now up to seven bins all from the original worms. I am hoping to start a small vermicompost business soon and I recently finalized my registration with the state of Kansas to be a composting site under 1/2 acre.

At work I have become the guy who takes all the waste, from water bottles and office paper to cardboard and food scraps. It’s fun being the worm guy!


Sounds great, and I like to think the world needs more passionate, rambling 40+ worm guys! 😉 We’ll come back to your fleet of bins later on, but your mention of registering with the state to be a composting site under 1/2 acre caught my attention. A lot of people wonder about worm composting “regulations” (when starting a business venture), so I am glad you brought this up. Can you tell us a bit more about this?


On the composting registration I took advice out of Rhonda Sherman’s book “The Worm Farmer’s Handbook” (which I got as a Christmas present) about typing my state name with “compost regulations” into Google which put me in contact with my state environmental specialist in composting. He didn’t have a lot of knowledge on vermicomposting (except for recommending Rhonda Sherman’s book (ironic) which I told him I had read twice already. lol

I had to register as composting yard waste, source separated food waste and paper/cardboard. Yard waste had a separate regulation that was not included in source separated composting. In our emails I mentioned the trench plans and he told me that sounded innovative and invited me to attend my state’s composting and recycling conference next year. Awesome! He also told me if I grow larger than 1/2 acre a permit would be required, the registration I received was free of charge.


Great – thanks for sharing that! Something really interesting from your FB post was the mention of working with a local supermarket. Can you tell us more about this arrangement?


When I decided I wanted to increase my vermicompost output to do a possible business plan I knew my family of 4 and a few coworker’s food scraps would not get me to where I wanted to be. My wife and I had recently watched a documentary on food waste from grocery stores and restaurants and it made me think of our local small town grocery store. During my next visit I asked the checkout kid if he knew what they did with the bad produce. He called up the manager who then introduced me to the produce manager. He told me he would definitely work with me just please let him know if I decided to stop so they didn’t have food rotting in the back, which other people apparently have done to him.

During the very first visit he told me they had just put scraps in a trash bag and to feel free to pick out what I wanted. How could I resist? Ever since then he puts the waste in produce boxes and calls me whenever they have some for me to pick up, from 1 to 3 boxes. It ranges from everyday to every couple of days for a pickup. He is happy not having to carry out a heavy bag to the dumpster. Win-Win


I LOVE this – and it actually sounds like a fairly manageable amount, which can really help to make a project like this more long-term-sustainable! Re: the wastes – what all (if anything) do you do to get them ready for vermicomposting?


When I get the food home I go through it removing the plastic wrap, produce stickers and containers, recycling whatever I can. I’ll take a 5 gallon bucket and put in a layer of my shredded office paper, to cushion the bottom from breaking from the chopping tool, and then throw in the food. I chop it up as much as I can without getting to crazy and top it with another layer of shredded paper to cover smell in case it has to set in my garage for a few days before I can get it outside. For the waste that goes to the worm bins I chop it up in a food processor, freeze, then put it in a 5 gallon bucket with holes in the bottom to thaw.


This bucket sets in another bucket, with a slight gap between the two for air, to drain as much liquid as I can before putting it into the bins. To keep the food from falling through the 3/4 inch holes I line the bottom with window screen and shredded cardboard. I top the food off with more shredded cardboard and another screen to keep out flies. This will set a week, dumping off the liquid in the collection bucket as needed.


Can you tell us what led you to using outdoor trenches?


I soon realized that the worm bins would not be able to handle all of the waste I was getting but didn’t want to risk losing the agreement with the store. I decided to bury the excess into the holes that I had recently dug for my fruit trees to be planted in this year. I would dump a few buckets in and top with leaves and let it set. If you can picture this, my yard on a major road in town with neighbors on either side and behind me with nothing but a chain link fence to separate, there is no hiding multiple compost bins or trash bags of leaves. In the past I would bury our own scraps in the garden and plant there the next season and that worked great. As I am learning now not to disturb the soil structure, I didn’t want to continue that in my no-till garden beds.

I had seen your posts on the vermitrench and saw a potential for that in my setup. I also recently watched your presentation on the Food Summit with Marjory Wildcraft. The fact that you were in same position I found myself in with all this extra food to process and worrying about creating a foul smell for the neighbors got me thinking this (trench approach) could work for me. I was also getting tired of digging holes everywhere.

As I was digging the trench I was finding large nightcrawlers in the soil and the tunnels they left behind the diameter of a pencil. That made me think that there was the possibility of air, water, and roots to travel through these between the trench and my growing beds which hopefully I will find reduces my watering during dry spells since the trench should also act as a swale.


Really interesting – and funny how closely your experience paralleled my own. You raised a great point I haven’t actually thought about – this idea of nightcrawler tunnels providing a sort of bridge between the trench and your gardens etc (and also potentially helping to get oxygen down to the lower reaches of the trench).

I’ve always loved the idea of putting a sort of boardwalk path over top of vermi-trenches (although I have yet to do this myself), so I was excited to see this is what you’ve done. What inspired this – and what supplies did you use to create the boardwalk?


The pathway was about the only place I could locate the trench so that the garden beds could access it. The boardwalk idea came about because I still needed to get through the garden but didn’t want to straddle the trench and to be able to get my wheelbarrow down the row. I have access to pallets from work which I have used to build household furniture, desk, coffee table, planting bench, etc.- and figured it would just made it cost effective and quick.

In the future I may have to upgrade to a composite decking board because of rot.




Apart from the supermarket wastes, what are some other materials you have been working with?


I collect leaves in the fall on my property, from my neighbors and coworkers for mulch and a carbon source. I can’t have trash bags everywhere so i decided to build a hand baler out of pallets (of course) to keep the leaves until I needed them. I am currently using the bales as a way to contain the new raised beds I am making with the extra soil from the garden, shredded paper and the root vegetable waste.


Very interesting, Curtis – I would like to learn more about this “hand baler”. Reminds me of something Joel Karsten talks about in his straw bale gardening information.


I got the plans online. It was originally for making hay bales so I had to modify it to be able to put a third baling line on the side along with the other 2 to keep it from falling apart. I have to put some sort of paper, newsprint, paper sack, etc., on the ends to hold it together and be able to remove it from the unit. I got up to 3 – 30 gal. bags of leaves per bale. After loading, you swing the pressure foot in and push down on the lever to smash it down.



That is super cool! I bet it would work great for weeds and grasses (etc) as well! OK – circling back to the topic of the supermarket wastes…do you have a sense for an approximate quantity you have collected (by mid April)?


As of right now I have collected over 2,200 lbs from the grocery store since February 9 of this year. Roughly 10% of that goes to the freezer for the worm bins. The trench and walking windrow bed just started taking food 3 weeks ago. So far they have gotten around 300 lbs of food waste not including leaves, cardboard and shredded paper. My state registration requires I weigh everything I compost not just food waste so those numbers are just now getting recorded.


Wow – that’s fantastic! As for the “walking windrow”, it sounds as though we may need to have a “Part II” for this interview! 😉

One last question – not trench related – but I was intrigued by your fleet of Urban Worm Bags as well! How many do you have going at the moment? Do you have a sense for how much waste they are receiving?


I have 4 Urban Worm Bags. One was started the beginning of October 2018, another was started the beginning of March 2019 and the last two started 2 weeks after that. I refuse to buy more worms so I start with a couple handfuls from the other bins. The oldest UWB takes about 5 lbs of shredded food waste per week and the other 3 take about 1-2 pounds per week until they grow in numbers.


I would like to take the opportunity to send a big THANKS to Curtis for his willingness to participate in this interview. I just love what he is doing – and can’t wait to see how things develop in the months ahead (and I am very serious about wanting to do a follow-up interview at some point!)

If anyone has questions – don’t hesitate to post them below!
😎

UPDATE: Like Curtis’ T-Shirt? Here is a link to his wife’s Etsy shop: Rustic Sunflower Apparel



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Comments

    • Heidi Weitz
    • April 19, 2019

    Thank you for the very informative article! I started vermicomposting 2 years ago and am ready to transition from basement bins to the garden. I’ve been researching ways to add worms to garden beds or compost areas, and both of your trench articles came just at the right time. Thank you for sharing some brilliant ideas and recommendations. I can’t wait to add a trench boardwalk to my own garden now! And thank you for letting us know about possible composting regulations, as well. A follow-up interview is a must! I hope you don’t mind a few quick questions. The article is on vermicomposting trenches. Will worms be added to the trench or is it mainly for composting vegetation? Do you think we need to worry about rodents digging underground into the trench? If adding worms, how do we protect them from freezing or heavy rains? Lastly, how the heck do we get one of your tee-shirts?

    • Kür?at Bülbül
    • April 19, 2019

    Congratulations. Very good and inspiring job. I most probably will do a similar system .

    • Bentley
    • April 19, 2019

    Hi Heidi – thanks for your comment. It reminded me that I completely forgot to ask Curtis about a hugely important topic – worms in his trench! lol
    I’ve sent him an e-mail to ask about this.
    As for rodents and other critters – if you are using a lot of food scraps, and not doing much to optimize them, yes you can attract animals. I recommend chopping up really well (like Curtis is doing) – but also mixing with “living materials” like aged horse manure, leaf compost (even just old leaves) – and making sure they end up well buried.
    As for freezing – trenches can keep worms alive in many colder locations (I myself am in zone 5) – the key is to make it fairly deep and to use lots of cover bedding (or maybe even a structure of some sort over top). Keeping them alive is far easier than active. As for rain – certain cover bedding materials can really help, as can tarps, or even a small portable greenhouse of some sort.

    • Curtis Windsor
    • April 21, 2019

    Thrilled to see positive comments. Heidi, to answer some of your questions, I have not added any worms. There are a lot of soil dwellers already. It was hard to dig the trench without hitting quite a few. Over the winter I put a thin layer of food scraps under the leaf mulch on the planting beds. I am now finding red wigglers under that mulch probably as a side effect to applying my own vermicompost to the beds last year with a few cocoons mixed in. I am sure they will make their way to the trench when they are ready. Our shirts can be found at: rusticsunflowerapprl.etsy.com and we ship to the US and Canada. Feel free to ask any other questions, I just love talking worms and compost!

    • Bentley
    • April 29, 2019

    Curtis – Thanks for chiming in! I will be interested to see how the population of worms develops in the months ahead.

    Steve – that is really interesting – thanks for sharing!
    😎

  1. Hey Bentley

    I may have missed it but what are the dimensions of the trench and how long do you think it will be viable for as a “composting” depository.

    I am assuming Curtis will be moving the finished product to a growing zone or what is the way the material from the trench utilized.

    • Bentley
    • May 2, 2019

    Hey Russel,
    Hopefully Curtis will be able to pop by at some point with the info about the dimensions.

    I won’t answer for him about his plans for utilizing the good stuff produced in the trench, but will say that what I usually do is just plant crops right beside the trench, so they can directly benefit. That said, I do like excavating trenches eventually (usually 2 or 3 seasons later, but it could be done sooner than that), and using the rich compost on my gardens as well.

    • Curtis Windsor
    • May 3, 2019

    Hey Russell,
    The dimensions are roughly 23 feet long x 1 foot wide x 1.5 feet deep. I was limited to that by the dimensions of the garden and needing a little solid ground on the sides of the path to rest the boards on.

    I am going to let it sit through the summer growing season like Bently mentioned and allow the plants to take up what they can and see what worms populate it. My plans are to excavate the trench in the fall to see how far along the compost is. My state registration requires that I report how much compost I create for the year so I will try to account for as much as I can. It will then go directly to the growing beds.

    • Heidi Weitz
    • May 3, 2019

    Hi guys! So much great information here. Curtis, when you mention excavating the trench at the end of the season, will you bring the worms indoors or just collect the compost and continue?

  2. Thanks for the reply guys, From what I am getting from the conversation is that trenching is a way of moving a large mass of waste underground for better containment in an urban type of environment more so than a better way of composting or worm breeding ….. is this so?
    Thanks for the link Steve Bichlmeier interesting read in regards to food waste.

    • Curtis Windsor
    • May 3, 2019

    Hello Heidi. On excavating the trench I plan on collecting the finished compost and returning any unfinished compost along with the worms back to the trench so I can fill it over the winter months. I am very interested to find out how far along the compost will be by fall.

    Russell, yes for me the trench is a way to reduce a large quantity of waste out of sight of the neighbors but also a way to compost on site where the garden and soil can directly benefit from the nutrients and increased soil activity as it breaks down.

    • Bentley
    • May 4, 2019

    Hey Russell,
    The “out of sight” (and lower risk of bad odors) aspect of trenches is certainly nice, but the benefits extend well beyond that. Down below ground level it will be easier for the plants to directly access moisture and nutrients released (and less likely they will be lost). And trenches/pits offer a great deal of protection for the worms – keeping things cooler/wetter during hot dry weather, warmer/drier during cold wet weather etc, so they can actually be excellent for worm farming – and a better option than above-ground outdoor systems in a lot of cases. With the worms able to stay more active they can be better for composting (during challenging times) as well.

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