Friday, June 7, 2013

Vermicomposting

Have you ever said to yourself "self, composting your kitchen scraps in the yard is boring, what you need is a bin in your kitchen full of worms." I have these conversations with myself all the time. In normal fashion, I learn as much as I can about a topic and forget most of it before I actually follow through with it. So it goes with this project. I have known about Vermicomposting for years and have always wanted to do it. A friend of mine gave me a kick in the pants when he asked if I wanted to go in on an order of worms with him. It is good to surround yourself with people who think it is quite normal to mail order thousands of worms.

A little history lesson on Vermiculture:

It was punishable by death to remove earthworms from Egypt under Cleopatra's rule. Aristotle called earthworms the "intestines of the Earth." Up until the end of the 19th century most people believed if you had earthworms in your garden, they would eat the roots of your plants. This belief was, for the most part, put to rest by Charles Darwin's 1881 book called "The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms with Observations on Their Habits". Here is a link to the full text available free online if you have an interest:

http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F1357&viewtype=text&pageseq=1


Fast forward to the middle of the 20th century and we meet Mary Arlene Appelhof (1936-2005), a biologist and environmentalist born in Detroit Michigan. The story goes; in the 1970's Mary wanted to continue composting throughout the very cold winters of Michigan. She started experimenting with indoor worm bins and the modern Vermiculture movement was formed. Here is a link to the website she built for further information:

http://www.wormwoman.com/acatalog/index.html

She wrote some of the first books on home Vermiculture. You can find links to her books on her website.








 
So on to the Main topic. Making a worm bin is fast and easy, not to mention cheap. Here is what you need to make my system:

* Two 18 gallon plastic totes with lids.
* Lots of newspaper, egg cartons or other scrap paper products.
* Drill with a 1/4 inch bit and a 1/16 inch bit.
* One pound of worms (Eisenia fetida).
* Kitchen scraps

Step one:

With the 1/16 inch bit, drill two rows of holes in the top section of the tote about an inch apart each way. You want to do this to both bins. I will explain later why you need two.







  

Step Two:

With the 1/4 inch bit drill drainage holes on the bottom of the tote making sure to have some on the lowest part of the bin. The holes on the bottom of the tote will be used by the worms to transfer between bins when you are ready to harvest. So now you should have two identical bins with holes drilled in the top sides and on the bottom.







 

Step three:

Shred a ton of newspaper into one inch strips or smaller. I did this by hand but if you have a shredder, by all means use it. You can use any newspaper that is not coated or glossy. This looks like a lot of newspaper but you will see what happens when you get it wet.

 






This is the same bin after I wet the newspaper. You will need more than you think. You are shooting for filling up the bin about a 1/3 of the way with bedding.










I ran out of newspaper and had nowhere near the amount of bedding I needed. I remembered my grandmother use to keep worms for fishing and all she used for bedding was cut up egg cartons. I have hundreds of egg cartons saved for my future chickens. I sacrificed a small stack for the worms.









I still didn't have enough material and I was tired of ripping up egg cartons, so I used some shredded paper I got from the friend who ordered the worms. Thanks Mike!









At every stage I wet the mix down with water.You want to be careful not to over water the mix. It should be damp to the touch but not saturated. Start small and add more and more water until you get to a point were you can squeeze a handful of the mix and get a few drops of water out of it. If you get a steady stream or a ton of drips it is too wet. Add more material to absorb the extra water if needed. You want the moisture content to be around 80%.









We ordered our worms from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm.

http://unclejimswormfarm.com/

I bought one pound of Red Wigglers. It is very important to get the right worms. You cannot go out to the garden and dig up worms for your bin. You need to get very specific species. The most common worms for Vermicomposting are Red Wrigglers (Eisenia fetida). They are also called tiger worm, redworm, brandling worm, trout worm, panfish worm, and the red californian earth worm. There are other species you can use but, these are the most commonly available. "Fetida" means Fetid or foul-smelling referring to the fact that if the worms are handled roughly they emit an unpleasant odor.

The bowl on the right is a mix of compost / manure and a handful of soil from one of my raised beds. The other bowl is a little peat moss and sand. You do not need to add the peat and sand but I had it and I don't think it will hurt anything. The worms come packaged in peat and I figured the baby worms would like some small grained sand to munch on. The important thing is to add a handful of soil from the garden. This inoculates your worm bin with all the soil microbes you need to break down organic material.










Time to put the worms in their new home. You don't want to spread them around or try to bury them. Just gently dump them into the middle of the container and leave them alone. You want to leave the lid off for a while in a well lit room. The worms do not like light and they will bury themselves to get away from it. I left mine in the light for a couple hours.











Now you need to feed them. I have read you want to start out slow with a new bin. After they consume this I will put double to triple this amount in every time. You want to let the worms consume what you have already put in before you add more. Adding to much food at a time can lead to the moisture levels getting out of control.

Your worms will eat pretty much any vegetable scraps you have in the kitchen. There are a few things to avoid and some things you should never put in your bin.

Here is a list of what not to put in your bin, this list is not exhaustive:

* Fats
* Meats
* Poultry
* Seafood
* Dairy
* Oily foods like peanut butter
* Citrus
* Acidic foods like pineapple
* Onions and garlic
* Spicy foods like jalapenos
* Bones
* Processed foods
* Sauces
* Glossy paper
* Salty foods








Here is a list of what you want to put in your bin, this list is not exhaustive:

* Vegetable scraps including stems and peels
* Fruits
* Crushed egg shells
* Coffee grounds and the filter
* Tea bags, remove staple first
* Beans, pasta, rice
* Banana peels
* Watermelon rind
* Pumpkin
* Newspaper and junk mail
* Dryer lint, hair
* Grains, cereal, bread (I am going to get on my Paleo high-horse and say this is the only acceptable use of bread)









You want to bury the food scraps you put in the bin at least an inch if not two. This will keep the smell down and the fruit flies at bay. You want to mark the place you feed them and try not to feed them in the same spot. I used a geode we had left over from Dara's jewelry making project to mark the spot where I fed them. I also marked the spot where I started feeding them with a cartoon worm named Werner Wormzog, so I know which way to move the feeding. This will also let me know when I have made it all the way around the bin.










Place your bin in a cool dark area. Under the sink, a pantry, closet or utility room work very well. You want the temperature to stay between 59-77 degrees F.

You can use the top of one of your totes as a liquid catcher. Just turn it upside down and put your bin on it. You will want to raise it a little off the lid to allow the liquid to drain. You can use almost anything, tuna cans, small plastic cups or wood like I did. I have many large plastic bins laying around so I opted to use one to collect the drainage.


The liquid that comes out of the bottom of the bin is called "leachate". In a properly functioning bin you should not have any liquid coming out of the bottom. Some times it takes a while to fine tune your system. If you do have leachate collecting under your bin you should discard it as it is undigested liquid with possible unknown pathogens and phytotoxic componds in it. Please do not mistake this for "worm tea". A few sources online say this liquid is "worm tea", it most definitely is not. That being said, making worm tea is pretty easy.

Here is how you make it:

Fill a 5 gallon bucket with 4 gallons of rain water. If you cannot collect rain water for some reason, let a bucket of tap water sit over night to get rid of the chlorine or, you can place an aerator in the bucket for a few hours to remove the chlorine. Make sure your local public water company doesn't use Chloramine in the water instead of Chlorine. Chloramine will not off gas the way Chlorine does. You should go out of your way to use rain water anyway. You want to aerate the bucket of water for a couple hours before you mix anything in. Put 1 cup of worm castings (I describe what that is below) for each gallon of water in the bucket and mix in. You can put the worm castings in an old cotton sock or use cheese cloth if you like. Add 1 tablespoon of sulfur free molasses per gallon and mix the solution well. Place an aerator in the bucket with the output on the bottom of the bucket. You should use an aquarium air stone for this. Let the mix bubble for 48 hours in a shaded place between 60-80 degrees F. You can use the worm tea in a watering can directly or run the worm tea through some cheese cloth (If you didn't contain it earlier) to use it in a sprayer. Your plants will love the completely organic fertilizer you have made yourself. You will want to use your worm tea within 24 hours to get all of the benefits it has to offer.








The ultimate goal here is to make "worm castings". Worm castings are whats left in the bin when the worms have processed all the bedding and scraps you have fed them. This will take about 6 months or so. Once you have made it all the way around your bin and most of the material has turned a dark brown you are ready to harvest your bin. Simply prepare your other bin with bedding material like you did for the first one and put some food scraps in. Now take the lid off of the bin with the worms in it and put the newly prepared bin directly on top of the surface of the worm castings. The worms in the old bin will smell the new food and migrate up through the 1/4 inch holes drilled in the bottom of the second bin. This can take some time so wait at least a few weeks before you move the top bin. Once you move the new bin off the old bin, you should have nothing but precious worm castings left over. There may be a few worms hanging around in the old bin just put them in the new bin or go fishing. Worm castings are a great source of nutrients for your garden. A bag of them can be very expensive at the store.

You can make your own worm castings as well as have a conversation starter in your kitchen for a minimal amount of work and money.

Hope this inspires some of you to take the leap and start farming worms!





14 comments:

  1. Some good looking targets in the background of that first pic...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dara was like "did you frame that picture so your best targets were in the pic?" No comment, but damn that is some good shooting.

    ReplyDelete
  3. all very interesting! on a side note don't use dryer lint because of the harsh chemicals its infused with

    ReplyDelete
  4. Dryer lint is mostly cotton. I am sure a little polyester gets in there but I don't know what harsh chemicals would be in it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Yeah, I didn't write the comment above. Patrick was logged in as me. I would mostly agree. We use good, natural soaps (our dish soap even states that you can eat it) and a lot of our clothes are cotton. Our dryer sheets, while they say "natural" are also a major brand and might warrant some investigation. As for the polyester and other synthetic fiber... we might want to see if these worms can handle eating petro products. Thank you for you comment, Zachery. If we find anything we'll post back.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Vermicomposting is a profitable business for people who are interested to do it. It is gaining some popularity here in Philippines where fertilizer is becoming more and more expensive so people are looking for cheaper but effective alternative and vermicompost is the best organic fertilizer.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I started our Vermiculture bin for just that reason. I want to make my own high quality organic fertilizer. I can't wait to harvest my first bin.

    ReplyDelete
  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  9. So what about if u have very little kitchen scrap to feed the do they do ok on 99% paperscraps I have a lot of that. (Junk mail newsletters and weekly paper) and do the worm ever come out the bottom holes ?
    Best articale I have read on Vericulture I have read yet.Made it seem like someting I can realy do . Thank You

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks, I tried to pull all the info I have learned into one post for other people. Your worms will need kitchen scraps. You really do not need that many. We still compost most of our kitchen waste outdoors. I just save to tasty stuff like fruit scraps and carrot ends for the worms in a ziplock bag. When it is time to feed them I pull it out of the fridge and use it. You only need a pile the size of your fist once every two weeks. So if you cook at home at all you should be able to get enough for your worms. Hope this helps.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Almost forgot. I have not had any worms crawl out of the holes in the bottom. Sometimes a few worms will climb the walls and hang out on the bottom of the lid. I have had some fall off when I open the bin. But if you are worried about them getting all over the place then the answer is no in my experience. If you get your bin to wet I have heard they will try to escape, you just need to make sure you dont put to much food in.

    ReplyDelete
  12. For the tea-if there IS chloramine in your water, and for some reason you don't want to/can't use rainwater, you can pick up some de-chlorinator at the aquarium store while you're getting the air stone. It works on both chlorine and chloramine.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I didn't know such a product existed. From my home brewing knowledge I know Chloramine does not off gas. I figured you would just have to buy gallons of water if your city used it. I will look into it. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Are you looking for soil conditioner powder in india. We provide soil conditioner powder in bangalore, karnataka. VIEW MORE :- soil conditioner powder

    ReplyDelete