Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Worms and Great Writing

You're right, no matter how many times you read that title, it still won't make sense. Those two concepts, "worms" and "great writing", just spar with each other. And that, dear reader, is exactly the problem I've been having. Reading other Spring Flingers' blogs has given me serious performance anxiety; but after months of stalling, it's time to talk about vermiculture - the proper term for worm composting. Guess I'll stick to what I know and leave the great writing for the pros.

The best primer on this subject is probably "Worms Eat My Garbage" by the late Mary Appelhof. She started writing in the 70's about her experiences with vermiculture, and the company she founded is a dependable source of worms, worm bin supplies, and information. No doubt, even a slight interest in vermiculture has led you to the internet and that site. Her book is widely available at bookstores and organic gardening centers, as well as online. It's a great place to start if you're considering keeping a vermiculture bin.

Started with a few worms given to me by a friend, my bin exists primarily to teach me about the subject. Let your reason for having a bin help determine the size container you choose. Obviously, if you're serious about using vermiculture to handle all of your kitchen scraps, it will need to start on a larger scale. Take the plunge and order a pound of worms to start. It took nearly a year for my small handful of worms to multiply to the point that they even needed the 5 gallons of space I initially gave them. The scraps I offered seemed to sit for weeks and I'd about decided the worms had all died. But once they took off, they really took off. Now, I'm about to move them into a 40 gallon bin. So, here's what the past year in worms has looked like.

As soon as I got them home, I went to work preparing the bin. They need air, darkness, food, and moisture (but not too much water.) If you order your worms, you'll have time to get the bin ready before they arrive. But mine were a bit of an impulse, so I had to work fast.

First, I drilled small air holes in the lid and all around the top third of the container. I hoped the holes would be big enough to provide air circulation but small enough to prevent escape. Some people cover the holes with fine screen, but that hasn't proved necessary. Either the holes were the right size, or my worms are nice and fat.

The first time you prepare bedding for your worms, you can shred newspaper to create a 8 to 10 inch layer. Lightly cover the paper with a thin layer of sand or garden soil, mix in with the paper, then use a spray bottle to dampen the bedding. You want it barely damp, but not wet. Put your worms in the bin and give them some time to burrow down - about 30 minutes. Sprinkle the bedding with chopped up food scraps and place a piece of cardboard loosely on the surface. The cardboard seems to encourage the worms back up to the surface to eat the scraps (and the cardboard.) Replace the lid on the container and give your worms at least a week to settle in before you start peeking in on them constantly to see if they've multiplied yet.

The picture at right shows an active bin where the worms are processing newspaper, food scraps, and eggshells. They've also eaten the cardboard cover.

Worms eventually eat about half their weight in scraps each day, but you do have to work up to that amount. (Being a former chef, I had to fight my impulse to feed them constantly.) When there is very little of the original bedding visible, and the bin contents are brown and "earthy" looking, you know your bin is working. Feed small amounts until you see evidence of your worms breaking down the scraps. Many people rotate placement of scraps in their bins so the scraps remain undisturbed until broken down by the worms. I mentally divide my small bin into eighths and rotate through the sections. Scraps should be chopped or shredded, and eggshells crushed. Tea leaves and coffee grounds, shredded paper towels and coffee filters, grains, and vegetable scraps are just some of the things your worms will consume. If it seems too wet, you can add more dry material such as shredded newspaper, crushed leaves, or dry soil. Avoid meat, dairy, and large amounts of fat. If you're already composting outside, most of the same guidelines apply. However, unlike outside composting, some of the problems you may encounter are overfeeding, too much moisture, and temperature. Vermiculture bins should be stored in temperatures above 40 degrees and less than 85 degrees F. In Texas, this generally means in a sheltered area out of direct sun.

Look closely - in the picture above you'll see where the air holes were drilled in the top portion of the bin.

It's a little odd to talk about what the worms "like", but mine seem to thrive when I add an occasional layer of moistened coir. It comes in dried bricks which must be soaked and broken apart and is available where hydroponic gardening supplies are sold.
If the surface layer of the bin is covered with food scraps, I'll often completely cover the entire surface with shredded newspaper or moistened and shredded coir. Also, as I mentioned before, they really seem to be more actively eating and reproducing when the surface is lightly covered with a piece of cardboard as well as putting the lid on the bin.

This is the finished product - compost ready to put in the garden and even more worms ready to go back to work in the bin. Various methods are used to separate out the worms. Although they will often clump together near the bottom of the bin, I generally put on a pair of gloves and gently spread the bin contents out on several layers of newspaper. When I've separated as many worms as possible, I put them back into the bin and the process starts all over again.

It's hard to imagine, but there's really very little ick factor to vermiculture. It's a good option for apartment dwellers, offices with kitchens, and other places that generate food scraps but don't have the option of an outdoor compost pile. Properly maintained, they don't stink or attract flies and other unwanted pests. Gather your courage and give it a try.
(Lori asked the questions you probably have at this point - check out the comments.)


Pam/Digging said...

The first time I read about vermiculture (I think it was on Amy Stewart's blog, Dirt. She wrote "The Earth Moved" about earthworms) I thought it bizarre. Now I'm getting used to the idea. I don't know that I'll start my own worm bin any time soon, but it's an intriguing idea nonetheless. Thanks for showing us how it's done.

And I don't know why you have stage fright about writing posts. Yours are always interesting.

Lori said...

Good to hear from you, VBDB! And this time of year, it's particularly nice to read a gardening topic that doesn't involve being outside, since that way lies despair.

You know, the vermiculture sounds fascinating, but the idea of a big bin of worms under the kitchen sink does take some getting used to, and I'm wondering whether a vermiculture bin might be a bit of overkill for a house of people who don't really cook. How many cups of scraps would you say you feed the worms every week? And what if you have to travel for a few weeks? Can you feed the worms extra and leave them alone, or do you have to get a "worm sitter"?

In other gardening news, over at Zanthan Gardens everyone's comparing their Austin water bills. How're you guys doing now that you have the big cistern? Is there still water in there from the spring, or has this summer taken its toll?

Personally, I'm kicking myself for having landscaped my front yard so late in the spring, and now I'm out there faithfully handwatering the many, many things that were planted out in 4" pots in May when I really should have known better. I am so very, very sick of it. The pond I was working on the last time I saw you is still only half-dug. Fall can't come soon enough to Austin for me!

vbdb said...

And once again I'm reminded of the amazing support and generous spirit we have in our blogging community. Thank you both for staying with me through the dry spell.

Lori, I'm with you about the heat. Even with the rainwater tank for back up, I've been reluctant to water because it means standing outside! I would encourage you to finish that pond, though, because it really does seem cooler near the splashing water.

Instead of "a big bin of worms", try to think of a worm bin inside your home more like the container you gather scraps in to carry out to the big pile (we have both types of composting at our house.) Ours sits just inside the back door and doesn't generate unpleasant smells or visitors. On my way out the door to the outside bin, I'll just feed part of the scraps to the worms. Did you even notice it when you came over?

The amount of scraps depends on the number of worms, so initially it's a little hard to gauge how much to feed. Start with a small bin like I did - they're available for about $5. This would especially make sense if you don't cook much at home. If you're making salads, cooking the occasional egg, and eating fruit with your breakfast cereal, you're probably making enough scraps for a small bin. And composting of any kind changes the way you think of what goes in the trash bin.

If you find vermiculture is something you want to keep doing, you can always get a larger bin. In the beginning it's better to underfeed a bit until you see the worms working through what you've given them.

Vacations don't require special worm sitters. It may even benefit the worms to have a little privacy. At first, curiosity led me to open the box a several times a day to see what the worms were doing, so they probably needed a rest. Feed them as usual before you leave and don't worry.

Diana said...

vbdb -- Glad to see you're back to blogging and writing about something fascinating to boot! I'm like Pam, I've read Amy Stewart and found her worm adventure so interesting. I'm not sure I'm ready for it, and I'd be like you, wanting to fee 'em and spying on them all the time. Such a cool project - keep us posted. And I'm sure your watering is more pleasant when you're standing near your amazing pond.

Annie in Austin said...

My worms will just have to rough it in the garden under the mulch, VBDB, although you do plead most eloquently and scientifically on their behalf!

I can see why the worm bin needs to be inside, since our thermometers have read 89 degrees at midnight! But there is no 'inside the door' at my house - cabinets fill the wall on both sides...indeed there's no floor space in the area that's not being used.

So the poor little wigglers will have to burrow down in the vegetable garden - there's some sheet composting going on out there and they won't starve ;-]

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

(I was also glad to see a new post. You always have something interesting to say!)

Bonnie said...

I am totally fascinated. I may need to hire you for a personal tutorial. I'm making my case to John to let me have a worm bin. My top question is where do I get the worms?

vbdb said...

Get worms from a friend the next time their bin has a "division", or get worms and supplies from WormWoman dot com.

Bob said...

I was wondering what kind of worms you have. When I was young my family fished a lot and I mean a LOT. We had three old non working ice boxes laying on their backs for worm beds and raised worms for fish bait. One had red wigglers, one had eel worms and one had the big milk worms. Ours seemed to like coffee groud a lot as well as the other house hold food scraps. We would put our extras in the fall in the garden beds.

vbdb said...

Bob - My worms came from a fellow Master Gardener who had purchased them from Flowerfield Enterprises at WormWoman dot com. On their site they're called redworms (Eisenia Fetida); but, just like common names of plants, I'm sure there's several different common names for worm varieties. I'm intrigued by the idea of using old "ice boxes" as worm beds! I'm curious where you originally found three different types of worms to start and what temperature range they were exposed to.

A friend of mine near Dallas used raised beds for a commercial worm farm, but his (red) worms looked bigger than the ones I have.

mss @ Zanthan Gardens said...

Somehow I missed this post while I was away in England last August. So I'm happy to stumble across it this morning. This is one of those projects I mean to get to but never do. So it's great to have you provide not only encouragement but some meaningful specific instruction. There is no advice like the advice of someone who actually practices what they preach.

As for writing--remember that the whole purpose of blogs is to write what we know and are passionate about. We don't have to please anyone but ourselves. There may be a few sad bloggers with a competitive streak. But most of us are just happy to share in each other's experiences. Your writing is not only instructive but interesting.

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