Wednesday, January 7, 2009

First New Year's Goal Progress: Worm Bin Composting

I surprised myself over the weekend by tackling - and almost completing - one of my New Year's goals. Most of December I was in a very mañana mood, fighting off a hellacious chest cold and feeling the urge to hibernate. But I got a small burst of motivation, and so I ran with it.

I read up on the advice for starting a worm bin system on this page. After that it was just a matter of following the steps. Given the winter weather, I decided that starting the worm bin in my basement would be a good choice. My husband and I aren't exactly arm wrestling for the privilege of taking the compost out the bin lately. We have plenty of space in the basement though, and I figured we can always move the bins outside in the summer if we want to.

The first step in building our worm bin system was to acquire two matching bins made from a dark opaque material, with a capacity of 5-10 gallons each. My husband picked up a perfect set for $10 at Kmart while running other errands. I then got the power tools out and started drilling holes. The ventilation holes all along the top rim of each bin need to be numerous but very small (drilled with a 1/16" bit) so as to discourage any insects from making the bins their homes. The drainage holes in the bottom of the bin need to be bigger though. I used a 1/4" bit for those holes.

Next I needed some bedding for the little crawlies. I shredded a pile of black-and-white newspaper and gathered up a few of the leaves that still linger about outside along the fence. (In the first picture above, most of the dried leaves are in the lower bin, where they'll be stored.) I also poked around our very meager compost pile for a little bit of the most rotted material. There wasn't much there. Most of the material we would have composted over the last year went to supplement the feed for our hens. And we also tasked the girls with working the semi-mature material from compost bin into the cleared garlic bed during the late summer and early fall. Hens are right composting machines, I tell ya. So it was meager pickin's for the worms out at the compost bin. This is the gardener's dilemma. There's never enough compost to go around.

Anyway, having collected material to make a nice home for some worms, I needed the worms. And this was the sticking point. In summer time, I would simply go dig for the worms and collect them myself. I thought of going to a bait shop, but it turned out the last bait shop in town closed six months ago. So I resolved to at least try to find some worms in my own garden. Although there are several sections of the garden that I heavily mulched in the fall, and I waited for a warmish day after the temperature overnight remained (just) above freezing, I had no luck finding any worms. They're all tucked way down low in the soil I suppose. Short of luring them to the surface with a heating pad, or a freak heat wave I don't think I'll get any worms out of my garden for a few months at least.

At this point I'm working my local sustainable farming and gardening network, hoping that someone has a wormbox ready to be harvested or thinned. But I'm not having any luck so far. My frugal streak makes me very balky when I contemplate paying good money ($30+!) plus shipping to mail order a pound of red worms. There's a bait shop about a 20-minute drive away, but of course it's hard to justify a driving excursion for just one reason. There may be a second reason to head over to that town at the end of this month, so I may do that later on.

To get to this point with the vermiculture project, I've invested $10 and about an hour and a half of work, which includes drilling the holes, shredding newspaper, gathering the dried leaves, trying to find some worms, and cleaning up drilled out bits of plastic. Not bad at all for a very useful home and garden DIY project, and an attempt to cross one of my New Year's Goals off my to do list.

So for now I have a beautiful worm box composter set up, and no worms. It's frustrating, but I'm trying to take my own advice and practice patience here. I suppose the worst that could happen is that I continue to dump our kitchen scraps into the outdoor compost bin, and I wait until spring to harvest worms when I begin planting. Until I locate a source of worms, I'll leave you with a list of worm box composting benefits. If there are any drawbacks, I've yet to figure out what they might be.

Benefits of Worm Box Composting:

Reduced waste stream. We don't pay for trash service by volume (though we should), so we don't save money that way by composting. But at least we're contributing less to landfills.

Very inexpensive. A one-time expense of $10 to set up a system that can be used indefinitely with no further monetary inputs is a bargain.

Gardening Super Ingredient. We'll get concentrated worm castings for "free." There is no soil amendment more highly prized than worm castings. Only fully rotted compost comes anywhere near worm castings for available nutrient content. This will improve the quality of the food we grow to feed ourselves.

More worms. By "raising" worms in a protected and ideal environment, we'll be able to increase our earthworm populations. They won't be eaten by birds or other predators, or end up dead on the pavement after a rainstorm. As the population in our box grows, I'll thin it by returning some worms to the garden.

Time and effort savings. A trip down to the basement is faster than a trip out to where our compost bin sits in the back yard. In winter time, this is a big deal. And in the spirit of tiny tips, I recognize that opening the door less often saves us a tiny amount of heating expense.


Anonymous said...

I'll be watching this with interest. We've talked about a worm bin, but let it go when we added hens.


libbyandellie said...

Might I offer a suggestion or two for other would-be home vermicomposters that might come across your pics? I wouldn't recommend putting so many small holes in a 'perfect' line like you have. You'll be picking this thing up, dragging, dumping, and moving it so I'm concerned w/ the integrity of the lid after a few months/years. More specifically if you have to pick it up, it could break. I think just spreading your holes out a bit more should do the trick. I have one rubbermaid, two styrofoam, and four cat litter bins and they can get heavy. I also have heavy duty prototype that we'll be selling in the near future. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Hi. I've had a vermicomposter, but have now switched to bokashi. We don't have a basement and I found that when keeping the worms outside, the entire process took way too long in our Dutch climate.

Anyway, my point for writing this comment is that I've read that garden worms are not the same as compost worms (and they do look different, so I guess it's true). So you'll most likely kill your compost worms if you put them in your garden (except if you put them in your regular compost bin). They just don't like too much soil and need a layer of compost or manure to thrive. Conversely, regular garden worms need the soil and don't thrive in compost bins.

Happy composting!


Kate said...

Ali, I will definitely post again about this project. I just got a nibble on a possible barter for some "proper" composting worms. I may have my worms by the end of the month or early February at the latest!

Libbyandellie, thanks for your concern. The bins I'm using have handles built in well below the ventilation holes. So I don't think they'll cause problems. But I agree that if there were no built in handles it might become an issue. Thanks for the thought and the good wishes.

Jandra, please elaborate on the bokashi. I've never even heard of that. I did wonder about the difference between garden worms and "proper" compost worms. But I was willing to give garden worms a go for two reasons. Firstly because they manifestly do break down soils and thrive in my area, and are available for free most of the year. And secondly because I have a healthy skepticism for anyone selling something that tells me their product is special, necessary, and much, much better than something available to me for little to no cost. Perhaps there really is a big difference between garden worms and compost worms. Until I hear it from someone with no vested interests though, I'm keeping an open mind.

Renee said...

Proper composting worms are red wigglers because they can take the heat of an active compost... If I was looking for them in the winter, I'd look in the middle of a big hot compost or manure pile.

Carl said...

Can a worm farm like this handle sewage?

Liquid sewage can be used directly in the garden; dilute and apply as high-phosphate fertiliser, or keep it undiluted for a few days and apply as ammonia-based weedkiller. Either use is better than flushing it.

Solids, however - I know that worm-based toilets exist, but could this setup handle it?

Kim from Milwaukee said...

Like Renee said, if you can find a farmer in your area that has some rotted manure, you'll find composting worms in that guaranteed. Just bring a shovelful home, put it in your composter, and you'll be set. Miraculously you'll have the perfect worms for your bins.

Kate said...

Carl, I don't think composting worms can handle too-wet environments. They can drown in liquid.

Kim, that's an excellent tip, and one I recently heard from another source as well. Thanks for passing it along.