When most people think of vermicomposting they tend to think of it as more of a continuous, active process.
This is all fine and good – and could even be considered one of the advantages of this approach – but I think more needs to be said about the power and potential of “batch” vermi-systems.
It a nutshell, the idea is that you add everything to the system right away – or at least early on – and then basically leave it alone, letting the worms and other organisms work their magic over time.
One example I have written about is Mark Payne’s “vernmenting” method, which even seems to offer the added advantage of letting you process some materials that wouldn’t be well suited for a typical worm bin.
I really love Mark’s approach with sealed (but still ventilated) buckets, but I personally prefer something a bit closer to a typical worm bin set-up.
The good news is that there isn’t just ONE “right” way to set up bins like this. The possibilities are endless, in fact. Even the bins within a group I set up at the same time can vary a fair bit.
There are still some key recommendations to keep in mind – and I will come back to these a bit further along. First, let’s look at how I recently set up a group of 15 “set-it-and-forget-it” bins in about an hour and a half.
I’ll start by sharing my “secret” bin of choice – 5 gal HDX bins (from Home Depot). They are super cheap, sturdy/durable, and they stack like a dream. Even better, they actually have channels in the lids so drilling holes in these means there will still be air flow even with other bins stacked on top (which is not to say that some ventilation in the sides isn’t a good idea as well).
I use these bins for setting up batches of Red Worm cultures (“Worm Mix”) and love them!
As shown in the image above, the first thing I did was lay my empty bins out in a row on the floor to assist with my “assemby line” set up process. If you plan to set up quite a few of these bins over time, I highly recommend using a batch set-up process similar to this as well. It can save you a LOT of time/effort, versus setting up one or two at a time.
Regular readers might be able to predict what I did next!
That’s right, I started by creating a false bottom. Bulky shredded corrugated cardboard tends to be my go-to material for this zone, but other bulky paper wastes like “scrunched” paper or hand-ripped newsprint can work as well. These help to provide some separation from the bottom of the bin, while also serving as a great long-term food source for the worms (becoming richer over time as liquids percolate down from above).
We had an extended period of (unusually) beautiful, mild weather early in November – so this gave me an opportunity do one last lawn mow, with lots of fall leaves on the ground! This lovely mulched mix was the next material added to the bins.
I don’t currently have good access to horse manure (likely my favorite for systems like this), or even large amounts of kitchen waste, so nutritional supplementation becomes more important.
I really like dry poultry feeds (such as “chick starter”). They are very inexpensive, and when used more as a supplement than as a food (my recommendation) a bag can last for quite a long time.
I next sprinkled in a small amount of this feed.
The mulched leaves/clippings mix could be considered a sort of “living material“, since it would introduce some beneficial microbes to the system. Nevertheless, since I had plenty of richer material on hand I figured I would add some down in the bottom zone to help kickstart breakdown activity down there.
Another bedding material I happened to have was used kleenex. Some may find the idea a little off-putting, but there is really no reason for this waste to end up in the landfill (or flushed down the toilet).
Once it was added, I bulked up this carbon layer a bit more with some additional paper-based bedding…
…and another layer of the mulched leaves/clippings.
With these long-term systems I always like having some water-rich wastes, bulky fresh(er) ones in particular, since they can serve as a slow-release supply of moisture and nutrition that gets doled out over time. Frozen-then-thawed kitchen scraps are great as well (and I use them quite frequently) but will tend to breakdown quite a bit more quickly.
For this particular set of bins I had a pretty limited quantity of scraps (especially considering it was 15 of them! lol) – but I did try to at least get some scraps in each bin.
Hard to tell, but I then added another sprinkle of the poultry feed as well.
One of the tricks with passive systems is getting the moisture levels just right. If you are adding a lot fairly dry material (as was the case for this batch), I recommend adding about ~ 500-750 ml of water for a bin this size. There will likely still be pooling initially, but gradually over time things should balance out nicely.
I added some of the water at this point, and the rest near the end of the set-up process.
Next it was another layer of bedding…
…and another layer of my mulched mix.
There are various options for adding worms to a system like this. The approach I most highly recommend involves adding worms + habitat material from another system.
In my case, it can often be material from systems that have been sitting for quite some time. Looking at the picture below, many might assume it’s just a tub of finished castings.
And it’s true, I probably could have used a “light harvesting” approach to separate out a fair amount of really nice stuff from the worms. But, it would have added a lot of extra time to my work, and the microbe-rich material is more valuable to me as a system starter – especially with gardening season now finished.
This mix was a bit more sparse in worms than I might typically use to start these sorts of bins, but this didn’t bother me in the least. For one thing, I knew there were actually a lot more worms in there than I could see. For another, I knew these bins would be sitting for at least 2 to 3 months.
Part of the “magic” of these types of hands-free systems is that we are setting the stage for a more natural colonization process – something composting worms are extremely well adapted for. In a sense, the goal is to mimic what might happen in a habitat like an old outdoor manure heap or compost pile, .
It doesn’t take a lot of worms, or even cocoons to lead to a population explosion! You just need the right resources/conditions…and time.
[NOTE: If you are working with bulk worms, I would recommend setting up at least 4-8 bins (assuming 5 gal size range) with a single pound.]
Nothing fancy about how the wormy material was added – but do note that it wasn’t mixed in, so as to give the worms their own habitat zone. This is another great reason to include habitat material with the worms – just in case they don’t feel “ready” to explore.
The last layer of material for the bin was more of the mulch mix. I often use a cover bedding like shredded newsprint – but I like the idea of having something with a bit more food value (and I happened to have plenty of it on-hand).
I should mention that my second watering happened sometime around this stage as well.
I decided to leave this group of bins down in my dad’s basement (where they were set up). It is quite cool down there so I’m really interested to see how things proceed.
“Worst case scenario”, they should be in great shape by early next spring – a time when I know I will be thrilled to have them available!
Note how nicely the bins stack!
That being said, if you aren’t overly cramped for space, and feel like giving the bins a bit more air flow, stagered stacking can work just fine as well! Here is another set I currently have on the go.
Again, I want to emphasize that there is no ONE specific “right” way to set up these bins but there are still some things to keep in mind…
>> I recommend alternating (relatively thin) layers with bulky bedding as your main material, along with some living material and some food.
>> Even if you don’t have living materials, try to include some natural materials like mulched leaves or straw if available (i.e natural “browns” not “greens”).
>> Food works well in mid to lower regions – this helps to avoid flies and creates a rich zone for the worms down where it will likely remain nice and moist.
>> The “ultimate” food/habitat material would be something like aged, bedded horse manure, but you need to be a bit careful if you have limited experience. One simple “rule of thumb” – when working with manure that smells like manure, I recommend adding it up near the top of the system.
>> With fairly dry materials, 500-750 ml of water should be ok for a 5 gal bin – less if adding a fair amount of fruit/veggie wastes and/or using other moist/wet starting materials.
>> Just generally, moisture levels will be something you may want to keep an eye on if you are fairly new to this – dry conditions can greatly slow down the process.
>> It is important to note that this approach assumes some form of climate control – putting bins like these outdoors is a whole ‘nuther can o’ worms altogether. The “big idea” here is that these are perfect little low-maintenance bins that aren’t going to create indoor hassles. One or two in a back closet could serve as excellent “Insurance Bins“.
>> If you want to ramp things up a bit – while still keeping them pretty hands-free – just add more food materials during the first half of the “brewing” process (maybe 4-6 weeks) – and then leave them completely alone for the second half.
What you do with these systems 1, 2, 4…even 6 months down the road is up to you. That’s right, once again there are no strict rules here! One of the fantastic benefits of a system with a lot of paper-based bedding materials (and modest starting # of worms) is that it can continue chugging along for ages.
They are perfect starter cultures for other (bigger) systems – and could even be sold as such if you happen to be entrepreneurial (something I explore in the “Suburban Worm Farmer” course – now part of CG Ultimate). They are great for starting up outdoor “vermigardening”/composting projects like vermicomposting trenches in the spring or fall. Also great for sharing with others, to help “spread the worm”!
I don’t typically use them for castings production, but there’s no reason you can’t – a lot of the original material you added should be nicely processed within a few months. Everything that isn’t can simply be screened out and use as a living material.
As for this batch o’ bins, I will keep everyone posted on the how the “brewing” process goes over the next few months.
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