Adventures In Vermiculture (Worm Composting!)

Vermiculture.  It’s a big word.  What we are really talking about here is also known as worm composting.  You probably have heard of it but do you may not know what is involved?  Once you find out, it may be your next little gardening project.  Why don’t we learn what makes worm composting so incredible and how to get started in Vermiculture!

I started my worm composting bin last spring after obtaining some worms from a gardening acquaintance of mine.  I started with a small bin, maybe a 10 gallon tub.  The slimy details can be devoured at Getting Started With Worm Composting.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that this small bin was not going to accommodate my little worm farm.  As usual, my gardening projects have that ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ aspect going for them!  Before starting any slightly hair-brained sceam like this, consider whether you are up to seeing it through.  Worm composting is not for the faint of heart and you certainly need a stomach for it.  That being said, it’s not even that gross.  If you currently deal with a backyard compost pile, you can likely handle a worm bin.

Red wiggler worms.

Materials For Making Your Bin

A great thing about creating a worm composting bin is that it’s simple and inexpensive.  You will need: two 18-20 gallon bins or totes with one cover, shredded paper or newspaper, compost items and some garden soil.  When it comes to containers, many different things can be used.  Just search ‘worm compost bins’ and you will find tons of ideas.  Some have used an old cooler or even a broken chest freezer with great success.  The plan I have used is for someone who wants a typical home sized bin that can be managed with minimal work.

A baby red wiggler.

The last key ingredient would be the worms.  You will need to obtain some red wiggler worms or Eisenia fetida.  Regular garden worms do eat waste but not as rapidly as red wigglers.  Earthworms generally require deeper soil for survival.  It is fine to get worms from someone you know but be advised that their bin may have unwanted pests.  It is possible to find clusters of red wiggler worms in your garden.  Capture them if you like.  Just make sure that they are the type that you want.  If you buy online, purchase from a reputable seller such as Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.  This will obviously add cost to your project.

The fine castings from worms.

Worm Food

You are probably asking yourself what you can put in your bin.  Vermiculture is much like regular composting.  Save your kitchen scraps, egg shells and stale bread or pasta.  I tend to use the bread items sparingly.  Animal manure, leaves, newspaper and toilet paper rolls can be used.  All things in moderation.  Avoid using meat, dairy or fatty foods.

Worm castings on all compost items!

Do not over feed your worm bin.  I give my red wigglers one feeding per week.  You will eventually get an idea of how much you should feed them and how often.  I wouldn’t assume that your worm bin will replace your normal outdoor compost heap.  Only a large scale bin can really accommodate a large quantity of waste.

Assembling the Bin

Drill a few drainage holes in the bottom of one tote.  Also drill holes in cover and in the top sides for ventilation.  In the un-drilled tote, place two bricks or similar sized pieces of wood in bottom of bin.  Place drilled tote on top of wood or bricks.  This allows drainage to collect in bottom bin and helps with moisture control.

Drill air holes in the sides and cover.

Next, start layering your materials.  Build it like you might put a new compost bin together.  Layers of ‘brown’ and ‘green’ ingredients.  Add some kitchen scraps, then some paper, then some soil or compost.  After you have added all materials, nestle your worms into their new abode!  They should burrow into the yummy food quickly.  Layer some cardboard on top and this will keep your worms nice and cozy.

Larger bin for the new worm composted.
Worm feeding time! Kitchen scraps, newspaper and toilet paper rolls!

Worm Bin Care

Worried that you are going to spend every day tending worms?  Think again!  Normal maintenance should just involve one or two checks week.  The worms do not like bright like so keep the cover on as much as possible.  After each feeding, cover with fresh shredded paper.  The compost items should be covered.  Check moisture levels weekly.  Paper products should be damp but not wringing wet.  Bad smells could indicate that something is off in your bin.  The compost  bin can become quite heavy.  Get help with moving or use a dollie.

Worm castings on all compost items!

Where should you place your worm bin?  A cool shed, garage or on a shady side of a building are all good places.  Worms do not like warm temperatures.  To keep your red wigglers from getting to ‘aggressive’ keep them below 80 degrees F.  Ideal temps are between 60-80 degrees.  The bin should not be allowed to freeze in winter.  All these guys really do is eat, poop and make babies so you will want to keep them as happy as possible!

Harvesting Castings

Worm poop.  In more pleasant terms they are called worm castings.  Lovely sounding, don’t you think?  When see a quantity of casting accumulate, maybe after 3-4 months, it may be time to harvest.

Remove worms from castings.

Spread an adequate piece of plastic on the ground or a table.  You can then dump some or all of the contents out.  Begin to separate the worms from the ‘black gold’.  It is a learning experience.  Worms will shy away from the light so they will tend to gather together.  It’s really not hard to sift through them.  If a few worms get added to your garden, that’s okay too.   A fine mesh could also be used to sift the castings.  The castings are ready to use on your garden or to make worm tea.  Put your bin back together, layering more ingrediants and snap down the cover.

Placing something heavy on top can keep the worms from escaping.

I like to place a heavy object on the cover.  Some worms may unknowingly slip through the crack around the cover and then die in their escape.

Progress

So far, our worm bin has been working out really well.  Of course there is a learning curve, as with most things.  At times, I have felt like I’m one step ahead of what needs to be done.  I do think it has been a positive experience.  I harvested castings in the fall and got quite a bit for that initial small bin.  One major step was that when cold weather hit, I didn’t anticipate our garage being so cold.  Temperatures dipped down below freezing much of the winter.  What is a girl to do when her vermiculture project is about to turn into a giant worm-cicle?  Well, I had to bring them in the house.  The coolest place for them was in my tub upstairs.  At first, I was a bit terrified about having them so close to my actual living space but things have been fine.  My husband does assure me that this is not normal but hey, normal is overrated!

A healthy batch of worms!

There are some terrific resources out there for anyone interested in worm composting.  Henry Owen has a great web site called Worm Composting HQ.  He offers a blog, a fantastic website and free eBooks.  Another informative blog is by The Worm Monger.  Both provide comic relief and indispensable information for the budding vermaculturist.

The tiniest of worms.

This has been a wordy blog post but there really is no way around it.  I also apologize for these unappetizing photos!  Worm composting is easy but there is a lot to know.  Just like getting chickens or a rabbit.  I’m sure there are many other techniques out there and way more information.  This has just been my experience.  Thanks for stopping by Everlongardener this week!  Don’t forget to subscribe for free in the sidebar for more wormy content and gardening articles!

Hilary|Everlongardener

 

 

 

 

Build Your Soil This Fall

Fall is an excellent time to build up your garden soil.  As you clear the garden for next year, a few additions to the soil can make all the difference in the garden beds.  Whether vegetable or ornamental, soil health is the foundation of a successful and productive garden.

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What Does Your Soil Need?  

We live in an instant gratification society.  We want fast veggies and endless flowers.  But try to think of your garden as a long term project.  Every year you build upon the next.  Adding to the soil to make a better growing environment for our produce.  As things decompose, add more.

Any self-respecting garden book usually starts with a chapter on soil.  Trying to use quick-fix chemical solutions to plant problems is just a band aid.  Why not start with working on soil quality first?  I’m reading a book by Charles Dowding right now called How To Create A New Vegetable Garden.  This book provides a whole new concept in starting a garden.  His advise is to feed the soil not the plants.  Not a new idea but few do this.

My favorite gardening book, The Garden Primer, has a wonderful opening chapter on soil.  The concepts are so logical, copying nature.  Decomposing matter feeds the soil as it breaks down giving nutrients a place to be useful for the tender new plants.  New additions of soil amendments introduce new biological organisms.  This brings balance to the garden soil unlike artificial remedies.

The result of great garden soil!
The result of great garden soil!

If you have poor soil quality, you may want to consider doing a soil test through your local Cooperative Extension Office.  This can cost around $40 and may be a bit cheaper during the colder months.  Most garden centers sell soil test kits for a few dollars.  I got our soil tested a number of years ago.  The results showed that I needed to add organic matter.  Not too hard to fix!

Rich garden soil.
Rich garden soil.

Have you seen the jar test?  It’s a method of adding your soil to a jar of water then allowing the layers of different soil types to form.  A thorough explanation can be found at Preparednessmama.com.  I love the idea of analyzing your soil just by looking at it in a jar!

Fall top dressing of your garden beds can be very beneficial.  A few inches of compost or aged manure can do wonders.  Soil improvement can help retain moisture in the garden also.  If you are in the habit of cutting and cleaning up your beds in fall, follow this with a layer of good stuff.  You can get some delivered or purchase some in bags.  In the spring, your garden will be all ready for you!

When it comes to bagged compost, not all products are that great.  Some often even have very little to add to the garden.  Bagged manure can be somewhat sterile and there is no guarantee of what is  actually inside.  Often, it’s a case of ‘you get what you pay for’!

Commercial bagged compost.
Commercial bagged compost.

Building Soil On A Budget

You may want better soil but have very little money to invest in your garden.  You could start by improving one area at a time.  Do you live near a farm?  Some farmers give aged manure away although this could introduce new weeds.  Make sure whatever you pick is well aged and don’t forget to ask about their farming practices.  Just because something is free doesn’t mean it’s good for your garden.  Hay fed to livestock that was treated with herbicides can potentially produce a dangerous mix for your garden.

Ingredients for compost or a worm bin.
Ingredients for compost or a worm bin.

Mulching

There is way more to mulching in the garden than bark mulch.  When it comes to vegetable gardening, the choice of mulch can do wonders for the soil.  Some people use pine needles, hay, compost, grass clippings or autumn leaves.  Whatever you choose, make sure you do some research first so that you know the pros and cons.  Many of these items are either inexpensive or free.

This compost pile needs turning!
This compost pile needs turning!

Start A Compost Bin

Not composting yet?  There is no simpler way to deal with kitchen and garden waste than by building a basic compost bin.  One big pile can work or you could try a more elaborate three bin system for larger quantities of plant matter.

In fall, turn pile over and sift what is in the bottom.  Last year we sifted my pile and got six wheel barrow loads of homemade compost!  A reward for all those trips out to the pile.

Winter rye seeds.
Winter rye seeds.

Cover Crops or Green Manures

One other fall friendly soil building technique is growing a cover crop.  These may include alfalfa, winter rye, hairy vetch and buckwheat.  The roots of these quick growing plants work the soil and leave behind beneficial nutrients.  They can also be helpful in eliminating soil erosion, holding the soil against fall rains.

Sowing winter rye.
Sowing winter rye.

There are annual and perennial green manures.  Perennial types may be harder to deal with.  A fall cover crop can be easily worked into a yearly crop rotation.  If you have an empty bed in fall, plant out your cover crop and let it grow through the fall.  Be sure to mow or cut plants before they go to seed.  In the spring, the debris can be turned into the garden before planting.  These kind of soil building cover crops practically do the work for you!

The makings of great worm compost!
The makings of great worm compost!

Worm Composting

Ever thought of starting a worm compost bin?  I did this past spring and I have been collecting the manure ‘tea’ from the bottom of the bin.  Soon, I will harvest the castings for use in my greenhouse.  It is a fast way to deal with kitchen compost items.  For a simple bin design go to Getting Started With Worm Composting.  Just check and feed your worms weekly.

These are just a few ideas for building your soil this fall.  I hope that some of them will be helpful to you and your garden!

In parting this week, I leave you with a few garden photos. There are so many pictures that I take that never get shared.  Just having a little fun with light and morning dew!

'Limelight' hydrangea turning color!
‘Limelight’ hydrangea turning color!
Nasturtium leaves.
Nasturtium leaves.
Hydrangea with dew in the morning.
Hydrangea with dew in the morning.
Greens growing in the fall garden.
Greens growing in the fall garden.

As always, thanks for checking out this weeks blog.  Want to keep up to date with Everlongardener?  Subscribe for free in sidebar for weekly blog posts and catch my daily garden photos on Instagram @everlongardener!

Hilary|Everlongardener

Getting Started With Worm Composting

I have been fascinated by the idea of using worms to speed up my composting efforts for years.  I must be crazy to do this, I couldn’t even keep that last batch of Sea Monkey’s alive!  Of course, the thought of keeping worms may not be everyone’s cup of manure tea, but you might change your mind when you learn about the advantages of Vermiculture (a.k.a. composting with worms).  How long does your compost pile take to break down?  Two to three years?  With a worm bin you can potentially start seeing results in a few months!

Red wiggles worms!
Red wiggles worms!

How A Worm Bin Works 

We all know that worms take care of so much of our waste outside.  I’ve always said that worms were at the top of the food chain although that may not be exactly scientifically accurate!  But let’s just contemplate harnessing that power in a smaller, controlled environment.  With the right balance of ingredients and moisture, you can make a contained compost making machine.

What Kind Of Worms

With worm castings being some of the best stuff for your garden, generating your own for garden amendments can be invaluable.  The preferred worm for the job here is the red wiggler or Eisenia fetida.  The earthworms generally found in your garden are not suitable for use in a bin.  They require much deeper soil to survive.  Sometimes home gardeners may find a cluster of red wigglers in their gardens but I had never seen any on my property.  I got some worms from a local high school.  I discussed this briefly in my post A Unique Seed Saving Project .  There are many online sources for live red wigglers.  A reputable seller will guarantee live delivery.  Bait shops may even have some for sale.

What Can I Add To My Bin?

Red Wigglers are ravenous eaters!  Save your kitchen veggie scraps, egg shells, stale bread items and pasta.  Animal manure, leaves, newspaper and toilet paper rolls can be added.  Avoid putting in any meat or fatty food items.

Stale bread items and pasta.
Stale bread items and pasta.
Veggie scraps, fruit peels and eggs shells for the worm bin.
Veggie scraps, fruit peels and eggs shells for the worm bin.

Building The Worm Bin

Once you start looking for information on Vermiculture,  you will soon find that there are tons of ideas out there.  I just got my wigglers a few weeks ago so my bin is very basic.  Just a container with holes in the top.  But I will be changing it soon.  I’m letting the worms settle in a bit.

Gather items for worm bin assembly.
Gather items for worm bin assembly.

First, obtain two 8-10 gallon tubs.  Assemble your bedding ingredients.  You will need moist shredded newspaper, cardboard, fresh vegetable scraps, stale bread, dry leaves and some garden soil to start.  Using a drill, put holes in the bottom of the tote and along the top edge.

Shredded newspapers.
Shredded newspapers.

Start to layer in the items and add your worms.

Layers of kitchen scraps.
Layers of kitchen scraps.

Then cover the worms with more leaves and newspaper.  The bedding should be damp but not wringing wet.

Adding the red wiggles to your bin.
Adding the red wiggles to your bin.

Cover the bedding in a layer of newspaper, put a layer of cardboard over it and place cover on bin.  In the second bin, place two bricks or other similar objects in the bottom.  Place the worm bin inside second bin.  You now have built a simple worm composting bin.

Cardboard on top of bedding.
Cardboard on top of bedding.

Harvesting Black Gold

Getting the worm castings out of the bin is the next step.  The worms will do their work for a few months.  The worm poop can usually be found on the bottom of the bin.  Put down a sheet of plastic and take out the composted material.  Worms go away from light so a flashlight may help.  Gently sift through to separate worms from the castings.  Carefully place worms back in the bin and replenish the bedding.

A few healthy red wiggles composting worms.
A few healthy red wiggles composting worms.

With the right conditions, you could potentially expect to double your worm population every 3-4 months.  I found a great site called http://www.wormcompostinghq.com where I found all I ever wanted to know about Vermicomposting.  This guy even has a free e-book called 30 Worm Composting Questions Answered.  This book delves into the fascinating world of worm reproduction and even worm bin troubleshooting!  I’m starting to sound like a real garden nerd here!  Well, I’ll just have to see how it goes.

The worm castings can be applied directly to the garden.  Any drips from the bin can be used as form of worm bin tea, a fabulous fertilizer for plants.

There are so many other things to share about composting with worms.  I thought that for this post I would just discuss the basics.  Feel free to subscribe in sidebar to keep up with all of my gardening adventures!  Thanks for coming along!

Hilary~Everlongardener