Winter Composting Extravaganza 2.0

Moving Worms to Their New Winter Home
This week my dad helped me move worms from my big outdoor worm bin to their new winter home.

As anyone who has followed my blogging for some time will likely know, each winter for the last couple of years I have done a “Winter (Worm) Composting Extravaganza”. This is basically just a goofy name for my attempt to keep a large outdoor worm bin active all winter long. To read more about the fun I’ve had with this ongoing project, be sure to check out my ‘Winter Composting‘ page (at Links to all my blog posts and a video I made can be found near the bottom of that page.

Both attempts at keeping my worm bin active through the dead of winter were fairly successful (last year’s system was significantly better than my first attempt, however), but I still opted to call it quits in February (burying the bin in a huge pile of snow), to make sure I didn’t end up killing my worm population.

Until fairly recently, my plan for this year was to once again set up the insulation wall on my bin and see if I could finally keep the system 100% active until spring. I subsequently decided to take an alternative approach with the 2008/09 Extravaganza, and instead set up a MUCH larger system in my father’s yard – where my goal will be to create and maintain a fully-functional (ie warm) worm bed that will stay active all winter long. I had already planned to build some sort of large-scale winter bed at my Dad’s anyway, and it just seemed to make sense to completely focus on that system, rather than trying to keep my backyard bin up and running as well.

The ‘worm bed’ we are using is actually the system I once referred to as my ‘Jumbo Garbage Garden‘ (also on the site). It was a bed that received a LOT of restaurant food waste, cardboard, and straw this past summer – along with a reasonable quantity of worms (mostly in the form of cocoons or juveniles in previously harvested material). As such, we certainly had a head-start in terms of making this into a good winter bed.

This fall we have also been dumping loads of aged manure (containing worms) into the pile as well. A while back I mentioned a pile of manure at a friend’s horse barn that has a good population of Red Worms. For a while there we were sure the pile was going to be taken and spread on the fields (as it usually is each fall), so we were really keen to transfer as much of the material over to my dad’s bed as possible. We later learned that the pile was going to be safe until Spring, so we’ve become much more relaxed about our transfer plan (since this horse barn is located quite some distance away). Nevertheless, we DID manage to add a fair amount of the aged manure, and a LOT more adult worms.

A layer of leaves over our winter worm bed

In recent weeks my dad added some fall leaves and more straw to create more thermal mass. Yesterday, we transferred most of the material from my outdoor worm bin (containing loads and loads of worms, I might add) to the new bed, along with even more leaves I raked from my property. Unfortunately, winter swept in out of nowhere quite recently, and we ended up with a thick layer of snow over the bed. Our plan has always been to add a huge tarp over top to keep the snow off the actual composting mass, and help to keep more of the heat in. My dad bought a fantastic (and huge) tarp recently, which has a somewhat reflective surface on the bottom and a black surface on the top.

Before adding the contents of my worm bin (and leaves) to the bed yesterday, we scraped off as much of the snow as we could. Once everything was laid down, we put the new tarp over top.

Big Black Tarp

If you happen to be less than impressed with our efforts thus far – have no fear! The best is definitely yet to come! We will be building a wall around the bed using straw bales, and we’ll also be adding manure (fairly fresh) and more bedding. We also have a bale of alfalfa hay which we will be adding as a food source (and additional insulation material) at some point as well.

With the quantity of material we have in the bed, and the tarp laid down over top, we should be totally fine until we are able to get our wall built. Aside from the microbial warmth generated down below, the sun shining down on the tarp should really help to warm up the pile.

Anyway, as per usual, I’ll have PLENTY of ‘Extravaganza’ updates along the way, so do stay tuned!

[tags]worm bed, worm bin, worm composting, winter composting, compost heap, compost pile, red worms, manure, hot composting, straw[/tags]

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  1. Hi Bentley,

    I’m really interested in seeing the results of this experiment. I’m wondering if the worms will cook under the thick tarp, due to a moist
    environment with very little (If any) air flow.

    Keep us posted.

    • Bob Packard
    • November 22, 2008

    Hi Bentley,

    You all work harder to keep your worms warm than we do to keep them cool in the summer. I think it’s pretty cold here today. 58F. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of that white stuff. Snow? But better you than me. Bob

    • Bentley
    • November 24, 2008

    Hi Jerry – you must be from California or something (wink, wink)!
    It get’s mighty cold up here during the winter, so the last thing I’ll be worried about is cooking the worms. Aside from that, this bed will actually encourage air flow. When we first set it up, we added a bunch of bulky brush on top of the soil. The main composting mass sits on top of this layer, so this should really help (air flow from below, plus a cooler zone that worms can move to if things go thermophilic above). Aside from that, while the bales of straw are certainly great insulators, there will definitely be some air spaces here and there.

    Bob – yeah, it’s a challenge, but it’s a lot more interesting than calling it quits during the winter months (as most people do up here)! Should be fun.

    • Elsa
    • November 9, 2009

    Hi Bentley,

    Our community garden has about 5000 to 10000 red wigglers to keep warm this winter and plan to use your “extravaganza” desing. We have straw bales, last years compost, the current worm bed medium and lost of horse manure and brew waste. My question is, when I dig the trench in our largely inorganic soil and pile pile up all the materials, wont the regular earthworms (night crawlers) get in there? and, is this a problem? The worms I have are a variety of red wigglers. Thanks,Elsa

    • erin bailey
    • July 5, 2012

    Hi Bentley,
    I am wondering what you do with your outdoor worms if your were not building this big thing at your dad’s. Also, I live in zone 4b, It can get 30 below zero farenheit, and the frost goes 4 feet deep. If I had ourdoor worm trench in my garden, what would I do when winter comes?

    • Bentley
    • July 6, 2012

    Hi Erin,
    The “big thing at [my] dad’s” is old news (lol). If you visit the “Winter Composting” category on the blog you will see that I’ve switched to a winter windrow in my own yard.

    Looks as though you are in a somewhat colder zone than I am (although I am surprised that 4b would have a 4 foot frost zone!). I still think you could keep them alive with a deep trench and a LOT of material heaped over top. These worms are pretty cold-hardy.

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