Monday, October 12, 2009

Better Worms and Gardens - Part I - Vermicomposting

Article and photos by E. J. Brunton. Previously published in the Napanee Guide and on line at Helium

A reliable source informed me that newspaper not only makes good reading but it makes good eating too. My source is one of the thousands of red wiggler worms inhabiting a couple of plastic bins in my laundry room. This tiny spokesman told me they preferred the pithy editorials and juicy articles contained in our local newspaper not only for their taste but for their comfort as a bedding material.

I thought back to my initiation into worm ranching and remembered that they would sometimes "run away" if I substituted other paper sources. This may have been due to several factors: the inferiority of the publications, the subject matter (once it was an article on baiting fishing hooks) or my own lack of expertise in the fine art of creating a proper habitat.

The habits of red wigglers may not appeal to all of us. I mean who wants a guest that eats your bedding? But during their almost three year sojourn with me I find they can eat half their weight in kitchen waste and newspaper each day and turn it into the most glorious of fertilizers - worm compost.

Red wigglers make wonderful little companions - in some cases superior to family members or pets. They don't turn up their noses at leftovers. You don't have to wash the sheets and there are no extra dishes. You don't have to walk them or buy them clothes. They don't keep you up with wild partying all night long. In fact they prefer coffee grounds and tea leaves to left over wine or drugs.

Are you still here? That must mean that you have some interest in composting with worms or at the very least are not repulsed by a squirm (a ball of worms.)

But worms do have some simple needs: darkness, dampness, warmth, air and food. The trick lies in getting the balance just right. There are many ways to accomplish this; some are very expensive and largely unnecessary.

The following works for me:

  • Find a container at least 12 inches deep with a lid. I use plastic storage bins but you could use wood
  • Drill holes in container and lid for air circulation
  • Tear or shred newspaper into thin strips
  • Soak strips in water and squeeze out till just damp
  • Mix damp strips with sterilized potting soil and place in container to a depth of at least 8 inches
  • Locate the container in an area that where there is a steady heat source between 12 and 21 C (55 to 70 F)
  • Find a source for red wiggler worms (eisenia fetida are most common), NOT ordinary garden worms
  • Your source for worms could be a friend, neighbor or the Internet
  • Bring them directly home, without taking a detour to have a cold beer with friends
  • Dig a little pocket at one side, put some of the kitchen refuse you have been saving into the hole, add some powdered egg shell that you whizzed up in your coffee grinder
  • Spritz with water and BURY at least two inches deep
  • Add worms
  • Replace the lid to keep it dark and damp
  • Feed the worms your kitchen refuse once a week

Several words about this refuse: The smaller the pieces the quicker the composting so chop into small piece. the addition of powdered egg shells aids in maintaining a less acid environment. These can be ground up in your coffee grinder and a tablespoon or so sprinkled over the weekly meal.

Now worms will eat just about anything, given time, but for your own convenience, there are things that you should NOT put in your worm bin: meat, bones, eggs, dairy products, oily or fatty things, smelly vegetables like broccoli, onion or garlic, very hot or very cold things, and -duh - chemicals.

Things that DO belong in the worm bin include: white paper products such as used napkins, paper towels, rice or cereal that the kids didn't like, vegetable and fruit peelings and cuttings, coffee grounds and filters and tea bags. I keep a small plastic bucket under the kitchen counter where I collect these until I am ready to feed the worms. It is not recommended that you just throw the garbage in on top of the worm bin as it can get smelly and also allow fruit flies to hatch and hover annoyingly.

Another no-no is overfeeding as the heat generated from fermentation can make the worms want to leave home. You will know within a week whether you have fed your worms too much or too little. If all is going well, most of the food will be gone and there will be no unpleasant odor.

At feeding time I also check on bedding, temperature and moisture and adjust as needed. You don't need fancy monitors - just practice to know if it is right.

As regards harvesting your worm castings (digested refuse excreted by the worms and known as vermicompost) there are labor intensive ways to trick the worms into leaving the pile of compost that you covet (like building conical piles and shining strong lights on them to get the worms to move downward) but I don't indulge in subterfuge.

I take the direct approach by checking first near a food source. The majority will be gathered here but others will be scattered throughout as will the egg casings (small spherical shiny brown things) that hold your future as a worm rancher.

Get yourself a large container and, if you are squeamish, put on a pair of rubber gloves. You are going to gently separate the worms from their castings/bedding. Shake the castings (worm doo doo) over the empty container. If any worms or egg casings fall in, return them to the original container. Top up the bedding with more damp newspaper and potting soil when you are finished.

Unlike other fertilizers, worm castings can be put directly on house plants or outside on your vegetables and flowers without fear of burning them. They are best used fresh. You can dry them for future use by spreading them on a tray but they will not be as effective as when damp and alive with bacteria.

You can add a lump of them to some water for a liquid fertilizer called worm tea but again this is not as effective as using the unadulterated product.

This stuff is worth its weight in gold. Just think! You and the worms accomplished all of this with things that otherwise would have just added to the land fill problem - some newspaper, some egg shells and some garbage. Could anything be sweeter?
Coming Soon Better Worms and Gardens - Part II - The Living Cities


Peeoknee said...

Wow, these sound like the all around perfect companion. Another great article/writing by Jane. I could sit here all day and read and learn. That's the idea. And plus you have my attention. I here this is great farming. I would like to try this and will just need to figure when. Thanks

down to earth said...

Once you get the hang of it it is easy. I was so pleased to be able to find a good home for my buddies with Nathan...see part II.

Julia said...

Awesome, I compost all my peels, egg shells and coffee grinds and tea leaves, I didn't know that wriggles didn't like onions, garlic and broccoli. I'll be looking into worm composting soon.
I have a Master Composter certificate from our City in June 2000. They also showed us how to worm compost and somehow life got so busy and I didn't perused that interest.

Thanks for the information.

down to earth said...

Thanks for your comment Julia. I think that it is not so much that they don't like onions etc but that it does make the process smellier than other items might. They are great for outside composting but not so great in a house. I have outside composting areas as well but with the wigglers I can avoid having to bundle up and traipse through snow to get to them.

I guess I am preaching to the converted I don't have any formal training, just a thirst for knowledge and interest in so many things combined with a love of all creatures great and small.