Winter Worm Composting – 12-08-08

Alfalfa Hay Gets Added to the Winter Worm Bed
My dad buries our remote temperature sensor in the heap


Yesterday, my dad and I were able to dedicate an hour or so to our winter worm bed. Not nearly as much time as I would have liked, but a LOT better than nothing. Since writing my last winter composting post I decided that our bed needed to be reduced in size so we could make it a little more snug and reduce the number of straw bales needed to build the walls. Aside from that, the smaller bed will be much easier to access (without the need to climb right in). As you can see above, we still do not have enough bales, but I’m happy with our progress nevertheless. The heap as it is now should be able to generate warmth much more readily than it could with the materials spread out so much.

Concentrating Materials For the Worm Bed
Raking materials over to one side for our smaller bed


Moving half the bed over was not an easy task, and actually remains incomplete since I ran out of time. Those of you who have followed the Compost Guy site may recall the “Jumbo Garbage Garden” that my dad and I set up in the summer – back when I was trying to deal with large quantities of restaurant food waste. We started by creating trenches in the soil, then adding lots of cardboard and food waste before filling them back in with dirt. Over top of our multiple trenches we added a considerable amount of brush (with lots of woody materials) – this would essentially act as a ‘false bottom’, helping to draw air in from below the composting mass. Over the brush we layered cardboard, food waste and straw – this was intended to be the worm zone.

Since then, we’ve added plenty more food waste, straw, aged manure and leaves on top – plenty of good stuff to get our worm bed going. What’s really interesting is that as we moved materials over from the one side we discovered that the zones with the highest concentrations of worms were actually the trenches down below the soil. I wouldn’t have thought the oxygen concentration would be high enough down there, but Red Worms never cease to surprise me!

This year, rather than making my dad take trips out to the heap with a compost thermometer, we thought we would try a different approach. Last Christmas he gave me a remote thermometer device – generally intended to monitor outdoor temps and humidity from the comfort of your home. We are hoping it might work well as a remote compost thermometer as well. We sealed it up in a plastic bag with some dry cardboard and buried it in the heap. So far the results haven’t been all that exciting, and we are now wondering if the unit is going to work for us at all.
Remote Digital Temperature Monitor

Compost Thermometer

When in doubt, it never hurts to break out the trusty long-shaft compost thermometer to take readings manually. When we did so recently we saw temps in the range of 5-10 degrees C (41-50 F) – certainly not as warm as I’d like, but really not too shabby given the fact that the materials hadn’t yet been piled up and we are well into freezing winter weather now. I suspect that once the bed is enclosed with straw bales, and more organic matter is added it should warm up quite nicely. I am hoping to add a large quantity of fresh manure to the heap to help kickstart the warming trend. I have also been stock-piling food scraps at home for the purpose of adding them to this bed at some point as well.

Yesterday, before putting the tarp over top we added a layer of alfalfa straw on top of the heap – this should help to add some insulation, while gradually becoming a valuable food source for the worms.

Partially Finished Winter Worm Bed With Tarp Over Top

I am hoping to finish up our winter worm bed in the near future – although I’m not sure when we’ll be able to get a hold of 10 more bales of straw. In the meantime, I suspect that the worms will be totally fine now that their habitat has been piled up and partially insulated.

Anyway – I’ll definitely keep you posted!


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Winter Composting Extravaganza 2.0

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Comments

    • Patricia
    • December 9, 2008

    Bentley, I guess I didn’t realize how intense winterizing can be. We don’t get your kind of weather here so I just throw a tarp to keep out too much rain. Interesting article.

    • Dwayne Clark
    • December 11, 2008

    HOly outdoor worm bin!! Man that is a huge one!! Looks like you are getting some cool weather up there!
    Dwayne

  1. I just kept thinking…boy, your dad is Cool! (No pun intended).

    • Bentley
    • December 11, 2008

    Patricia – yeah, our weather certainly makes things interesting! We are actually kinda spoiled in comparison to some parts of the country, believe it or not!

    Dwayne – what’s funny is that this bed is only going to be about half (or less) the size of our originally planned system! As for the weather – yeah this year Old Man Winter came to stay quite early on (in recent years, the snow has come and gone a number of times before the end of December), so it will be good to get this system finished soon, before the REAL winter weather arrives!

    Jerry – My dad is definitely one of a kind. He’s a 70 years young semi-retired university professor (should be totally retired, but loves teaching too much) who has become obsessed with helping me with the worm biz any way he can. He picks worms, hauls manure and straw in his station wagon, and comes over to help me look after my 1 yr old daughter when she is home with me!
    Based on sweat equity ALONE, I consider him a full partner in the business (yet he refuses any and all monetary offers, and even feels like he’s imposing when I invited him over for dinner – lol).
    😯

    • Justin
    • December 13, 2008

    What is the temp. on your compost pile? I have 2 large compost piles (about a 40′ circumference on each) and temp. ranges from 50’s up to 160 depending on where you measure in the pile. Would the worms survive in this during the winter? They could find a happy temperature I’m sure some where in the pile, but just not sure if they would make it in an active hot compost. I would love to start some vermiposting along with everything else I do.

    • Bentley
    • December 15, 2008

    Hi Justin – my temps are actually very cool at the moment. I need to get my bed warmed up, and may in fact need to do so artificially to get things going.
    Not sure I would want any zones at 160, but 50-120 would be great, and the worms could easily stay in zones that are to their liking (areas with temps in the range of 65-80 more than likely).
    I suspect that even with your hot internal temps, if there is plenty of cooler real estate in the heap they would be fine.
    🙂

    • Christine
    • December 15, 2008

    Bentley,

    I assume you put the temp gage in a zip lock plastic bag before you burried in in the pile? Or maybe those things are totally weather proof and being burried in dirt and exposed to a lot of moisture doesn’t ruin them?

    • Bentley
    • December 16, 2008

    Hey Christine,
    We sealed the temp gauge inside a plastic bag with dry shredded cardboard in it (to help keep it dry inside). I just get the impression that it’s not a very good system. Even out in the air it didn’t seem to work incredibly well.
    Oh well – back to my trusty long-stemmed thermometer!
    🙂

    • Satya
    • December 18, 2008

    Hi!
    I had ordered a vermicomposting bin a while ago and have started composting. I do it on my patio. I don’t know what to do, but I have been having numerous worms fall out of the bin for the last few weeks. Why could that be? How can i solve it?
    Many thanks!
    Satya.

    • Bentley
    • December 18, 2008

    Hehe – I’ve never heard someone say that worms are “falling” out of their bin, Satya – but there’s a first time for everything, right?
    😉

    Seriously though, obviously worms are supposed to stay inside your vermicomposting system. If they are trying to escape in large numbers then something is wrong inside. Unfortunately I need more info about your system in order to provide any sort of advice. What sort of food have you fed them? How did you set up the bin? What type of bin is it? Do you have bedding materials? What kind of worms and how many do you have?

    Just a few questions that come to mind.

    • anders
    • February 9, 2009

    HI

    I am doing pretty well with my wormbin, or should I say the redworms do a good job. but every winter here in Seattle, the workings of the redworms get slower almost to a stop. I have a bin outside the house, for bedding I use wood shavings for food kitchen scraps, we are vegetarians. I sometimes water the wormbin.

    • Bentley
    • February 10, 2009

    Hi Anders,
    There are two critical factors when it comes to keeping a worm bin (or anything for that matter) warm in the winter – 1) Heat and 2) Insulation.
    The large volume of my system helps to generate (thanks to microbial activity) and hold heat, while the straw bales and snow helps to hold in that heat.

    Small systems can be kept warm artificially. I will actually be writing a post about that very soon.

    B

    • satya
    • February 21, 2009

    hi bentley,thanks for responding. My worm bin bedding is made of coir. They are fed raw vegetarian food scraps which I usually put into a blender which I was told would be easier to digest. A few months ago the bedding seemed very dry so I had put in a little water-maybe that’s the problem. Thanks!satya.

    • harry rapenske
    • January 1, 2013

    I am just starting a small 2 five gal container worm farm. i live in lower ny state. we go away in feb-march for about 5 weeks. we do not have a reliable attendant source. how can i provide for the farm to make sure it survives to time away?

    • Bentley
    • January 3, 2013

    Assuming these systems are exposed to outdoor (or near outdoor) temps, that could be a bit of a challenge, Harry. Those are pretty small bins.
    You’d almost certainly need some sort of artificial heat source like seedling mats or de-icing cables etc – but something you’re not going to have to worry about starting a fire with.
    It terms of just keeping the worms alive, bottles of water with bird bath warmers submerged in them could work. They don’t heat up all that much, but your water mass would stay above the freezing mark and would help to ensure that the contents of each bin would as well.

    • lea
    • December 10, 2013

    Hi i just read this article – winter worm composting. I have been looking into large scale composting like the picture you have shown with the straw bales but maybe on a bigger scale. Just wondering if you have any useful info you could give me on starting out? We are opposite we have hot climates!

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