Matching Your Waste Stream to Your Composting Method

Image source: Philip Cohen, Wikipedia.

Image source: Philip Cohen, Wikipedia.

This past weekend I taught a composting class at a local Waldorf school to a group of adults. When I asked the students to describe their living situations, I realized I needed to take a detour from the main activity of the day, building a large biodynamic compost pile, into a discussion of worm composting.

Why? A few of the attendees lived in apartments or had very small yards. The type of composting your household does will be determined in part from how you manage your waste stream and what you intend to do with the compost. If you live in an apartment and just have a few house plants, a worm bin is going to be your best option.

Even if you have a yard and a vegetable garden you may still need to maintain a few different types of compost methods. We have three kinds of composting methods at our house, determined by the types of waste streams our household generates:

Worm bin
Our worm bin is for the trickle of food waste that comes out of the kitchen on a daily basis. This consists of vegetable trimmings, tea bags and coffee grounds.

Advantages: Can be done indoors in an apartment. Produces a compost that is higher in nutrients than a conventional compost pile.

Disadvantages: Certain foods can’t be added like citrus and onions.

Conventional compost pile
If you have a vegetable garden and want to grow organically, you’ll need to generate a large amount of compost. This is a great way to deal with yard trimmings, grass, manure, and food waste.

Advantages: makes the kind of high quality compost needed in large quantities for a vegetable garden.

Disadvantages: a lot of work, can’t be added too once the pile is built, may require car trips to gather materials.

“Disposal” compost pile
There’s also stuff that can’t go in the worm bin. And once you build a big pile it’s best not to keep adding to it. For this reason we have a kind of “disposal” pile. It’s a compost bin that gets the materials that can’t go into the other two.

Advantages: reduces the biomass of all the stuff that can’t go either in the worm bin or the big compost pile.

Disadvantages: produces a low quality compost.

Alternatives
The labor involved in building a big compost pile for a conventional vegetable garden speaks to the advantages of what I think of as alternative permaculture food crops. In our climate that’s things like prickly pear cactus, pomegranates, certain types of grapes, olives and California natives (many of which are edible or medicinal).  These useful plants don’t need compost. They pull up nutrients from the ground and, if you let the leaves fall in place, do their own composting.

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?