Maintaining a Worm Bin

worm bin 1

This image might represent a new low in aesthetics from the Root Simple Photo Department. And that’s saying something.

I freshened up our big worm bin today and I thought I’d report on what I did because I get a lot of questions about worm bin maintenance.

First, I want to say this is just how I go about it. Other people will have different methods and habits. Worms are forgiving and reasonably adaptable, so you have a whole lot of leeway in keeping a bin. As long as you don’t let the worms dehydrate, drown, bake, or utterly starve, you’re going to be okay.

Our worm bin is pretty big (5 feet long), and made of pine boards.  It bears an unfortunate resemblance to a coffin, but it works wonderfully. I used plastic storage totes for my worm bins before we built this, and while those worked fine, I really like my big bin for two main reasons. The first is the size. It can take whatever I throw at it. It takes all my kitchen scraps, except for the really choice stuff that goes to the chickens. The second selling point is that the wood breathes, and that seems to make the worms happy.

Maintaining the Bin

The Conceptual Divide

I divide my bin into two areas, left and right. There’s no physical barrier between the sides, just a conceptual distinction. Usually one side is working and the other side is resting. This division is easy to make in a long, skinny bin like mine, but can be managed in a smaller bin as well.

Basically, once you’ve got a worm bin going, there will come a time when you’ll need to harvest some of the castings. Those castings are valuable in the garden, and the worms don’t want to live in their own waste. You’ll know its getting close to harvest time when you see pockets of scraps here and there, but mostly the texture of the contents looks like soil or coffee grounds. Or maybe fudge, if it’s more wet and compact. Fudge is a less than ideal environment for worms.

In the picture at the top you’ll see my most recent working side. There’s a lot going on in there still, some big food pockets, wood shavings everywhere, but the texture is becoming too black and dense overall. Compost worms like a little air, a little “wiggle room” and a diversity of habitat. It was past time to change this working side to a resting side.

Resting comes before harvest. This is where dividing the bin in two comes into play. Resting means no more feeding, so that the worms will finish up whatever bits of food are left around. But of course you can’t starve out your worms, so you only rest half of the bin at a time.  To do this, you put your food scraps on one side only. The worms on the resting side will finish up whatever food pockets remain and then migrate over to the active side for the fresh grub.

This doesn’t happen quickly. I’ve never made note of how long migration takes–it will vary, depending on many factors. I just poke around in the resting side whenever I happen to think about it. If I don’t see anything recognizable beyond non-digestibles, like avocado pits, fruit stones and egg shell shards, and I know it’s ready for harvest.

There will also be a few worms left, no matter how long you wait. More on them later. If your bin is outdoors, other insects like sow bugs might be in there too, but are harmless.

This is the process in a nutshell:

When your bin is looking mostly done, ie full of castings, rest one side of it. This means you feed only on the opposite side. When all the recognizable scraps are gone from the resting side, you harvest the castings. Then you can put fresh bedding in the empty space, and start encouraging the worms to move to that side.  Soon, you will be able to rest the opposite side of the bin, and eventually harvest it. And so it goes, back and forth.

Continue reading…

The tale of the worm bin celery

parsley flower

This is related to my recent post about our flowering radish. It’s a tale of botanic dumpster diving and another reason why you should let your food plants go to flower when you can.

Last year I threw the crown (which is to say, the bottom) of a celery plant in my worm bin. I probably should have chopped it up for the worms’ sake, but I didn’t. Later, sometime in the fall,  I rediscovered the celery crown. Instead of rotting in the bin, it had sprouted leaves and looked surprisingly vigorous. So I pulled it out and popped it into an empty space in one of our raised beds.

I didn’t have much hope. Celery doesn’t like our climate much, and I consider it one of those plants which is easier to buy than to grow.

To my surprise, the plant did quite well, though it did have a feral quality to it, despite its mild domestic origins. It didn’t grow fat, moist stalks which can be used to scoop up peanut butter. It grew stringy, dark green stalks which tasted powerfully of celery. It made excellent stock, and chopped into fine pieces, it was good in soup, too. Since I don’t eat much raw celery, this suited me fine.

All winter long I used this plant as the basis of my cold-weather cooking–chopped onions, carrots and celery in the bottom of every pot. It was a real treat not to have to buy celery for such a long time, and to have that flavor available whenever I wanted it. I should add that the leaves were just as flavorful as the stalks

As a side note, I’ve heard of a breed of celery made to work precisely this way, called cutting celery, but I’ve never grown it intentionally. The celery in this post looks very much like my homegrown “cutting celery.” Perhaps commercial celery wants to revert to this?

Months later, the hot weather arrived, the celery started to bolt (that is, send up flower stalks). When a plant bolts, it puts all its energy into flowering. At that point, its not much use to us as food. I was sad to lose my bottomless celery supply, but I was excited about the flowers.

Pollinating insects love celery blossoms. Actually, they adore the whole family of plants to which celery belongs, called Apiaceae or Umbelliferae (which I tend to call Umbrella Fae, which is wrong, but right in my head). This family includes carrots, celery, dill, coriander, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, etc. If you can let any of this family bloom in your garden, do.

The parsley flowers grew almost as tall as me, and they were surrounded by clouds of tiny insects every day –shy, tiny little pollinators that I can’t name.

I love to let things go to flower and seed in the garden, because it is a way of giving back to the rest of nature. Flowers for the insects, seeds for birds. And by giving back, you help balance your garden. We’ve had significantly less issues with destructive insects since we learned to let our garden go a little wild.

Sadly, this celery never got to seed, because it collapsed under its own weight one day. Its thick, hollow stalks folded and the head of the plant fell to the patio.  I had hoped to save a little seed and try to grow a plant the next year from scratch. But now I’m thinking I’m going to throw a whole crown of celery in the worm bin this fall, and hope this happens all over again.

collapsed parsley plant

What’s in Worm Leachate?

worms

Garden Professor Jeff Gillman analyzed worm leachate (the liquids the flow our of your worm bin) from a home vemicompost setup. It’s pretty strong stuff! Gillman concludes,

this could be a great liquid fertilizer if it were used properly.  I’d recommend diluting it somewhere between 1:1 and 1:5 worm juice : water before applying it, and I’d only apply it once every week or two.  If you want to use it, try it on something that you’re not too concerned about first, just to make sure that it doesn’t do anything too terrible (It shouldn’t, but I believe in caution).

To see a full analysis, read his post here.

The Fine Art of Worm Grunting


For your Monday viewing pleasure we have two videos showing worm grunting in Florida.

Worm grunting is a technique used to lure worms out of the soil to collect as fishing bait. Basically, you take a stick (called a “stob”), pound it into the ground and rub a metal rod (known as a “rooping iron”) against the top of the stob. The deep vibrations are said to mimic the sound of burrowing moles, the natural predator of worms. When they sense the vibrations, the panicked worms crawl to the surface of the soil. (The high population of earthworms in the area profiled, upwards of 1 million per acre, makes grunting a sustainable practice.)

In England, grunting is called “worm charming”. And yes, there are competitions–in Sopchoppy, Florida, Shelburne, Ontario, and South Devon, England.

Kelly adds: Attn: geeks! After viewing, shall we discuss whether Dune author Frank Herbert knew about grunting…er…thumping? Were the Shai-Hulud fleeing even more terrifying SandVoles?

My Big Fat Worm Bin

These worms are fat and happy

Some of you may remember that Earth Goddess Nancy Klehm taught a vermicomposting class at our house in October. Some of you reading this may have even attended!

That day, Nancy and the class foraged and gathered materials to fill a bin and worked together to chop, moisten and prep the materials. The materials included our own kitchen scraps, farmers market trimmings, cardboard and newspaper gathered from neighborhood recycling bins, chunks of our infamous prickly pear cactus, a “nitrogen contribution” from one of the more intrepid class members, some well aged humanure compost and some of the aged cat compost from our kitty litter compost barrel. (More on that later.) We didn’t have our final worm bin built at that time, so the materials were layered like a lasagne in a 50 gallon drum. When introduced the worms from our sad little kitchen bin into this pile of goodness, the worms thought they had landed in nirvana.

Since then, Erik has built a giant wooden bin for us following Nancy’s plans. It’s a simple thing, very like a toy chest. Nancy’s plans called for it to be 4 feet long, but Erik built the chest 5 feet long because he was working with 10 foot boards (less waste that way, you see). The result is a long pine box that looks disturbingly like a coffin! But that’s okay. Really, what better than a pine box full of worms staring us in the face to remind us all that we have to seize the day? 

Why do we have a coffin on our back porch, you ask?
The inside view, proving it is not a coffin. We’re going to decorate this somehow–which might help, or it might just look like we have a decorated coffin on our back porch. Right now the process is stalled because we are bickering over which pretentious Latin motto to paint on the side.

I transferred all the contents into the coffin box. What was interesting about Nancy’s mix is that it is much more like an active compost pile than the traditional newspaper shreds + scraps that make up a typical worm bin. The materials had heated up while sitting. Heat isn’t good for worms–they like to occupy cool compost piles–but I figured in a box of that size they could find cool pockets and edges to hang out in until it cooled off.  And that’s exactly what they did. There weren’t so many of them to begin with, and they were happy to hang out on the top layer until the rest cooled.

Since then, a wormy miracle has taken place. First, given the space and resources, they’ve started breeding like crazy. That’s to be expected. More interestingly, they’ve grown. The worms are getting super big and fat. I figure they’re like goldfish, adapting to fit their space. I think they really like the diversity of materials they’re living with, both in terms of habitat and nutrients.

The surface of the bin as of today. You’ll see it looks a lot like a compost pile, as opposed to a bunch of newspaper.

For my part, I love, love, love having a huge worm bin because it can easily absorb all of our kitchen waste. I can take my entire one gallon scrap pail, dig a hole in the bin, and dump it all in. When we had the small worm bin–which was made of a plastic storage bin–I could only add a cup or two of scraps at a time. This made the bin more of a hobby than a convenience. What’s extra cool is that those huge scrap loads vanish really fast in the new bin, whereas scraps tended to linger in the small bin.

Here’s a morbid question for you all: Whenever I add new scraps and see the old ones broken down so quickly, I recall something about an old cemetery in France, I believe, which was known for breaking down bodies extra fast, due to the composition of the soil. Mr. Google isn’t helping me recover this lost information, but I believe the cemetery was nicknamed “the man eater” or the “bone eater” or something like that. Does anyone with similarly Gothic tendencies happen to know what I’m talking about?

On outdoor worms:

Outdoor worm bins do have to be protected from worm predators–lots of critters like to eat worms, even dogs–either by weighing down the lid or latching it somehow. For now, we’re just keeping a big chunk of broken concrete on top. (Uhh…do I hear banjo music?)

Extreme temperature fluctuations are a problem outdoors. Worms like the temperatures we humans prefer, essentially. If it’s broiling out and they can’t find cool ground, they’ll die. When their bin freezes, they’ll die. Freezing is not an issue for us, but Nancy, being from Chicago, is an authority on cold. She says what happens with outdoor bins there is that when the deep freeze comes, the adult worms will die off, but the eggs will overwinter, and the bin will rebuild itself in the spring. Obviously, if you want your worm bin to function year-round in a cold climate it will have to be kept in a basement or a mudroom or somewhere where the temperatures are a little more moderate.

On the flip side, the mass of a big bin helps insulate the worms from the heat. They can dive deep, or hang out on the shady side of the bin. But it helps quite a bit if you can give the worms some shade during the summer, either by moving the bin under a tree or setting up some kind of screen to block the worst of the sun. 

Managing the waste stream:

Diverting all kitchen waste to the worm bin works well with our waste stream because of late, Erik has preferred to build his compost piles all at once–usually when we clear out our garden when the seasons change. The piecemeal additions of food scraps interferes with the timing of his compost harvest. See, if you build a pile all at once, you get finished compost much more quickly than if you add material a bit at a time. This is not to say that “bit at a time” piles are bad, they’re just slower. Now we have the best of both worlds.

Regarding the cat poop compost:

This should probably be a whole other post. But the short version is that I’ve been composting our cat litter in its own separate pile. This works pretty well, but with two indoor cats (aka pooping machines) the bin fills up fast. When we built the worm bin, Nancy had us harvest some of the older, more finished kitty litter compost from the bottom of the cat pile to mix into the worm pile as a base material, and I will continue to do this whenever our cat bin overfloweth. The ability to transfer some of the mature material to the worm bin will function as sort of a pressure release valve on our cat pile, allowing the whole system to work better.

Is this safe? I’m not going to say it is. I’m not going to recommend that any of you do this. When it comes to composting pet or human poo, we believe good composting technique, worms and time make all things well. But obviously if this is done badly, it could be quite dangerous. If you’re interested in extreme composting, as always, I recommend you visit Joe Jenkins’ site–he’s the author of The Humaure Handbook.

So from Erik, me and the worms: A huge and hearty thank you to Nancy and to all the class attendees who helped us make this wonderful bin!

4 Vermicomposting Tips

Ecological landscape designer Darren Butler has been teaching a series of classes at the Root Simple compound this month (I think there may be a few open slots in his Intermediate Organic Gardening class if you’re interested. Click here for details). Darren dropped a few vermicomposting tips during the beginning class that we thought we’d share:

1) Worms don’t like empty space in their bin. They dislike voids. They appreciate it very much if you bury their entire working area under a very thick layer of light dry carbon material, like shredded newspaper or chopped straw. Yes, it’s standard practice to put a layer of cover material over the scraps–but the difference here is that Darren recommends that the cover layer should fill all the empty space in the bin, from the worm level to the lid.

To be clear, you never want the bin’s working material (worms, scraps, etc.) to get super deep. That’s just asking for problems, because the deeper that material, the more likely the bottom is going to turn nasty and anaerobic. What we’re talking about here is filling the empty air space with dry matter–sort of like an insulation layer.

2) Harvesting worm castings (separating the worms from the castings) is always a bit of a challenge. Well, not challenging as in hard, but challenging as in requiring patience. Our method has been to mound the castings into a pyramid outside on a sunny day. The worms instinctively work their way down to the base of the pyramid to avoid the light. Once they do, we take off the top and sides of the pyramid and transfer that to a bucket. That material will be mostly worm free. Then we reform the pyramid and do it all over again.

This method is fine, but Darren’s method is a little faster. It works on the same principle–the photosensitivity of worms–but instead of making pyramids he lays out softball sized mounds of castings. The worms will cluster at the bottom of the balls, allowing you to harvest off the tops and sides. This works faster than our pyramid method because the worms don’t have as far to move. You can harvest faster, and get it done all at once instead of forming and reforming the pyramid.

Of course when you’re doing either method you should remember the worms are very vulnerable when they’re out of their bin like this, vulnerable to heat and sun–you don’t want to forget about them!–and also to predators like chickens, birds and even dogs.

3) Some of you have worm bins with spigots for collecting “worm tea” aka leachate. Did you know it goes bad within 24 hours of production? If you use it, use it right away. Never use undiluted leachate on plants–it can harm them. To use it on plants, dilute it with 4 parts water, put it in a spray bottle, and spray on foliage. They’ll uptake the nutrients through their leaves. Alternatively, you can use it as a soil drench (for watering) when diluted with 16 parts water. In its straight form it can be used as an insecticide.

4) Darren’s favorite way of using worm castings is new to us and quite interesting. Castings are fertilizer, but more than that. They can help bring life to your soil. He takes golf ball sized plugs of fresh castings and buries them here and there in his garden beds (or pots). Used this way, they are little beneficial microbe arks that will help invigorate the life of your soil. A little bit goes a long way. You are, in effect, inoculating your soil with microbial life.

New to worm composting, or just vermi-curious? The classic book on the subject is Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System by Mary Appelhof.
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Vermicomposting Class

If you live in or around LA, we encourage you to take this unique class that we’re hosting in the Silver Lake area. While it’s pretty easy to get basic information on starting a worm bin, it’s rare to be able to dig deeper, especially with a teacher as knowledgeable as Nancy Klehm.

GET YOUR LOOP ON!
A workshop on extreme vermicomposting for the city dweller.

October 23, 2011
9am – 1pm

This class is suitable for both beginning vermicomposters and experienced ones with interest in integrating their worm bin with their larger household systems.


As cities struggle with basic recycling programs, and citizens learn how to grow tomatoes for the first time on their decks in soil from stripped from farmland and purchased at a store, there are some who are curious about having a more intimate connection to their waste and unveiling its worth.

In this workshop we will go “beyond the bin” and build a large, outdoor vermicomposting system designed to handle both kitchen and yard waste. The basics of worm farming will be covered, but emphasis will be placed on integrating the worm bin into the wider ecosystem of yard and house, such as:

* How to combine vermicomposting and thermacomposting in stepped systems
* How to integrate vermicomposting with a dry toilet or pet waste composting system
* How to best use your castings in the garden
* Tips for the apartment dweller
* What to do with all those extra worms…

And more!

Nancy Klehm is a long-time urban forager and grower, ecological system designer, artist and intrepid soil builder. She spent over five years designing and running a closed-loop vermicomposting project in Chicago that used 100’s of thousands of worms to digest 10’s of thousands of pounds of food and paper waste to create healthy soil. She started The Ground Rules, a community soil building center in North Philadelphia and developed and ran a two year collective human waste recovery project Humble Pile Chicago. She is the on-going bio-instigator of soil systems at C.L.U.I.’s South Base in Wendover, UT.

www.spontaneousvegetation.net
www.socialecologies.net

Build a Worm Tower

Host: Leonnie Shanahan. More info: www.ecofilms.com.au

Mrs. Homegrown here:

One of our commenters on the compost debate, Nick H., offered up a link to a great video about worm towers, so we thought we’d share. A worm tower is a wide (at least 50cm dia.) pipe sunk halfway into the ground, with access holes on the lower half to allow the worms to come and go. Food and bedding is dropped in the top, which is kept capped.

We happen to have worm & compost expert Nancy Klehm staying with us this weekend, and she explained to us that this particular technology makes a lot of sense for hot, dry climates (note the video comes from Australia), because it’s sunken and it allows the worms to distribute themselves in the cool soil during the day. Conversely, I can imagine this wouldn’t be such a great thing in rainy climates as it could easily flood.

Nancy told us the worm holes clog up, so you do have to remove the pipe for cleaning fairly regularly, and perhaps take that opportunity to reposition it. I imagine that’s when the casting harvest would occur, and harvest promises to be a pretty messy process. 

The video speaks of using PVC pipe for the tower. PVC is cheap and easy to work with, but it’s pretty well established that it leaches toxins as it degrades, so you might want to seek out pipe in other materials. As an aside, we used to use PVC pipe in our self-irrigating pots, still still have PVC in some of them, but are phasing it out in favor of metal or bamboo pipe. Yet we still have PVC lines as part of our irrigation system. This is something you have to weigh and decide for yourself. 

Once Erik dragged home a section of ceramic sewer pipe he found in the street. It lingered in our yard for years, and was finally returned to the street. Now we’re singing the pack rat’s lament (See! See what happens when you throw things away!), because it would have been perfect for this.

On first glance I’d characterize this system as a novel idea, one which is worm-friendly, and best suited to hot, dry climates. It looks convenient to set up and use, but probably not the best system to use if you’re primarily interested in the castings.

If we can find another length of sewer pipe we’ll try it out and report back.

So I had this dream

Here I am, with the soon-to-be-forgotten worms and a fantastic class of Waldorf kids

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So last night I had this dream that I was sitting at a kitchen table with someone (don’t know who it was) and I noticed something that looked like a dried out worm coiled on the edge of one of the dishes. I pointed it out to this other person, and she reached out and crushed it with her fingertip. It crumbled to pieces on the tabletop. I laughed and said, “I sure hope that’s not one of my worms!” She laughed, too, and mischievously blew the crumbs in my direction.

And thus does one’s subconscious work. I woke with a start, remembering that, after showing off my worms to class of visiting school kids, I’d left the bin out on the back porch for a night, and day, and half of another night. Usually the worms live in the kitchen. I jumped out of bed and brought them back in.

The problem with worms is that they’re so darn quiet.

The worms are fine. They’re tough, and our weather is mild. But I was a little worried about them  because they are house-worms, acclimated to room temperature, and I’d left them out in the open, on concrete, and in a shallow bin.

See, worms can take care of themselves just fine if given the room and resources they need to cool themselves down, warm themselves up, and regulate their moisture. However, when they’re in a shallow little bin, they just don’t have much latitude for adjustment. It’s our responsibility as worm keepers to regulate their environment.

Luckily for us and our forgotten worms, even though it was unseasonably warm yesterday,  the sun is low on the horizon, so our back porch wasn’t baking in the western sun, like it does most of the year. Otherwise, the worms, being unable to hide deep in the soil, might have steam cooked in the bin during that long, forgotten day. 

Of course, worms can be kept outdoors in all but the most extreme temperatures, but their bins need to be sited correctly–kept in nice shady spots, protected from the rain, and elevated from cold-conducting cement surfaces. (Maybe some of you folks who live in snow country could chime in on what you do with your worms when it’s freezing out?)


Wonderful Worms

 I’ve been composting with worms for many years now and I am continually impressed by how good they are at what they do- eat our garbage. 

For those who want to start a worm bin of their own you can either buy a bin or make your own. I must say the black, stacking bins made from recycled plastic work very well. They are well designed to allow for a lot of waste in a small footprint and provide good drainage, which is absolutely key for worms. I’ve also made my own bin and I’ll write about that in a separate post. Target has also come out with a fancy worm bin they call the MIO(I’m not sure how to make the link work so you’ll just have to look it up) . I’m incredibly jealous because I wanted to be the first to come out with a snazzy, hip worm compost bin. The Target bin is cute but unlike other prefab bins it is not made from recycled plastic. I still kind of want one. 
Mr. Homegrown has encouraged me to share my failures because apparently readers of this blog love to hear about projects gone awry. I’ve only had one problem with worms but it was a doozy. I had been composting with worms for several years without a glitch when I got overly enthusiastic and threw everything off. There is a local juice bar that doesn’t compost. All that lovely, ground up juicing waste just ends up in the trash. So I decided to take home a big bag- maybe twenty pounds of ground up carrots, wheatgrass, apples, kale and whatever for the worms. I spread it out as a layer in one of the bins. Several days later I noticed flies. I opened the bin and there were all of these hideous larvae crawling around. Now I love worms, but larvae are just gross. They were some kind of fly larvae. I screamed and jumped up and down shrieking for about 5 minutes. I closed the bin and decided to wait. Composting is all about balance. I knew I had thrown off the equilibrium of my worm composting system. After about five days of just letting the bin do its thing I started by slowly adding just my morning coffee grounds. I put down a thick layer of shredded newspaper to keep any more flies from getting in. After about two weeks I had restored the balance, the larvae were gone and the worms and I have lived happily ever after.

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