Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Low Maintenance Vermicomposting in the Garden

The experiment

It has been a year since I started composting with worms and I have found it to be very low maintenance... until I want to harvest the vermicompost. I have found that it can take a few hours to pick out the worms in a large bin and move them to a new bin. The best idea that I have found so far to do this is the Turbo Light Harvesting method, but this can still take quite some time. (There are several good videos on YouTube which explains how to do this effectively)

I decided to experiment this summer with an idea that has been kicking around for a while to get the vermicompost into the garden without having to pick out the worms, without just throwing the worms out in the garden. I wanted to try making a couple of small outdoor worm bins that I could bury in the garden. The hope was that even though my garden soil has a lot of clay, as long as there was enough light soil around the bin, the worms would crawl in and out of the bucket and spread their vermicompost naturally with only my adding food scraps occasionally. From what I understand, red wigglers will naturally stay in the upper few inches of soil and compost where they have a food source, unlike the common soil earthworms that will go down several feet and travel longer distances. I didn't think that the worms would travel very far because of the heavy soil nearby.

To make these bins, I took two clean 5 gallon buckets and drilled 3/4 inch holes in the bottom and sides. In order to keep the bins from getting excess water from the garden sprinklers and rain, I kept the original lids on the buckets and only made a few small holes in the lid using a screwdriver to let air escape. I added damp shredded newspaper and cardboard, several handfuls of worms and vermicompost from my overflowing worm bin, and some food scraps. In general, it is best to let a new worm bin age before adding worms, but since I was adding a good portion of the existing bin contents, I took my chances.

In the garden, I dug two holes deep enough to bury the buckets with just the lid exposed. The holes were wide enough to hold the buckets and have about an inch gap all the way around. I added loose soil and compost into this gap.

Three months later...

Now that our summer garden season is over, I wanted to see how these bins turned out. One was at the very edge of the garden and didn't get wet from the sprinkler. The bedding was very dry and most of the newspaper and cardboard was still intact, even though the food scraps were gone. I found few living worms in this bin, so I added enough water to this bin to make sure that any remaining worms wouldn't dry out any more. There didn't seem to be any difference in the nearby garden plants because of this bin. (Apparently I should have been more careful about adding more water and food, especially in the heat of the summer)

The second bucket which was about 10 feet away from the first bucket seemed to be doing quite well. I noticed that during the summer when the garden got flooded, this bucket was completely full of water, but the worms seemed to have survived and most of the bedding was replaced with worm castings. Even though I gave both bins practically no attention during the summer except for the occasional addition of food scraps, one did well and the other dried out. Even so, the one that was doing well didn't seem to contribute much benefit to the surrounding garden plants. I suspect that it is possible for this to work, but this technique probably requires very fluffy soil surrounding the bins. A healthy population of regular garden worms would probably also help to spread the castings from the bins out to the surrounding soil.

Next time?

I would consider doing an in-garden worm bin again, but I would want to make sure that the soil is very light (not the heavy clay that I have). I would also need to check on the bin to add food or water about once a week, especially during the hottest periods of the summer. Even if the nearby plants don't immediately benefit from the vermicompost, I can reach in the buckets and occasionally sprinkle the top inch of castings on the nearby soil. The worms will avoid the direct sun, making it fairly safe to use a little vermicompost every now and then.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Getting kids excited about worms

After setting up my own red worm composting bins this past summer, it was natural for my youngest kids to be interested in what I was doing. For my preschooler, I involved him in choosing the kitchen scraps that were most appropriate for the worm bins. He also helped tear cardboard and newspaper into small-sized pieces for bedding. Every so often, he enjoys seeing their progress and occasionally insists on holding them.

My first-grader was also excited to be involved, but I perceived that she was ready for a little more responsibility of her own. We took a couple large-sized cottage cheese containers, poked a number of small holes in one for drainage and in the lid, and sat it into the second container (to catch excess moisture). She helped shred newspaper and tear bits of cardboard for bedding, wet it, and then she chose twenty worms from the larger bin to start with. I added a small scoop of partially decomposed bedding to the freshly shredded paper to give the worms a jump start. (I could see a number of worm cocoons in this bedding, so I knew that it would help her numbers) This was going to be an experiment to see not only how well the worms would do in a container this size, but also to see how well she would do in being responsible for a pet. (She has been wanting a hamster, but this was a more manageable start for her)

Over a period of two months, she gave her worms little bits of food that we had set aside for the compost bin, and made sure that the bedding hadn't dried out too much. About once a week I had to remind her to feed her worms. She did pretty well for the first month, but after that her interest started dwindling. After two months, her interest was near its end so I asked her to count her worms to see how she had done. She counted over 90 worms as she sorted through the bedding, an amazing increase in only two months! (Now I'm wondering how much of that increase came from the cocoons, but no matter the case, it was a good learning experience for her.) Despite the excitement of seeing so many worms, she was ready to add her worms back to the family worm bin. Perhaps this was the best approach in the long term... to offer a young child that isn't quite ready for long-term commitment, an opportunity to safely try out a new skill and still feel like she has contributed to the family. Now some of the family worms will always feel like they belong to her, and that's a good thing!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Vermicompost - A Living Soil Amendment

I found a site with video from Cornell University about their experiments using vermicomposting techniques and why they work to improve the quality of soil and the plants grown in that soil. This site also describes their various experiments using vermicompost.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Letting chickens feed themselves

The old fashioned way to raise chickens was to let them forage for food out in the yard, supplemented with a little extra grain that is thrown out. So why do I spend $15 a bag on chicken pellets that I have to feed them every day? All of the current experts say that that is what you have to do to have a productive flock, but until I read this blog article by Robert Plamondon, I didn't know why: Why Chicken Feed?

In summary, yes,  you can let hens fend for themselves if there is enough to forage, but they will likely be starving and won't be laying consistently. Supplementing foraging chickens with a balanced feed will yield high production with highly nutritious eggs and meat, much better than what is available from the standard supermarket fare.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A new vermicomposting bin

Well progress can really be slow, but I think that as long as you can keep up on the day to day stuff and occasionally make some progress on the extra stuff, you will eventually get somewhere. I wanted to document my progress with my vermicomposting project. The garden has done reasonably well in a few aspects but it is still abysmal in others. (Half the corn didn't even come up, and what did is less than a foot high.)

Red Wigglers

Back in June, I found that a local farmers market had a organic farmer selling garden seedlings and red wiggler composting worms. Since my budget has dictated that I start out small, I decided against ordering a large amount of worms from an online vendor. There are a lot of different ideas for worm bins with different pros and cons, I think it is actually better to start with enough worms to see some real progress but not so many that you can't deal with them all. I chose to purchase one pound, which is approximately 1000 red wiggler worms, and costed about $30. With the shredded cardboard bedding, the worms came in two large yogurt containers.

Unique worm bin based on experienced vermicomposters

My primary inspiration for the bin came from multiple plans for bins at I didn't want to spend a lot of time and money building a wooden bin without understanding what the worms would need over time in my local climate, not to mention that a large wood bin would be very heavy. I decided to choose a plastic bin with handles and a lid that could be easily removed.

My other inspiration came from the commercial vermicomposting bins that are somewhat shallow and can stack up to six bins high. They have small holes at the bottom of each bin so that the worms can migrate upwards and the excess water can drain downwards. They have small vents in the sides for increased air circulation. Even though many bins will stack, it would be important that the bins would have some space between them even when stacked so that the material in the bin would not be compressed, crushing the contents of the lower bins. I would also be important to add enough compostable material that the upper bins would touch the top of the vermicompost in the bin directly below it, otherwise the worms would not be able to migrate upwards.

I decided to purchase two long, shallow, plastic bins at initially, the type that slides under beds for storing sweaters and other seasonal clothing. I would have preferred one that wasn't quite so long, but all of the other bins that I found to be this shallow were much too small, the size of a shoebox. I would have also preferred bins that were not clear because worms will avoid the light. (I found a dark shelf in my garage, so hopefully this won't be an issue. I added strips of cardboard around the sides to also help with the light problem.) The bottom bin I left as-is to allow it to collect any water that would drain out of the upper bins. It would also catch any worms that decided to escape from the upper one. The upper bin I started using a awl to poke holes through the plastic but I found that a drill with small bit was more effective. I drilled dozens of holes in the bottom, a single row of holes in the sides towards the top, and a number of holes in the lid for ventilation. 

For worm bedding I used a layer of well composted material from my outdoor compost bin (about four months old), shredded newspaper that I sent through a paper shredder, and finally some slightly composted kitchen waste that was starting to break down in a different compost bin (about a week or two). I made sure that each layer was moist before adding the worms to it. I finally added some damp cardboard that I tore with my hands. Over the next few weeks I found that the thicker cardboard was better than the newspaper for retaining moisture and acting as a mulch for everything below it. The worms wouldn't come all the way to the top unless it was damp. I also found that after a few days there was a lot of water that had condensed in the top bin. I initially left off the lid just a crack to eliminate the moisture but then I drilled in quite a few more holes in the lid to allow for better air flow. Every other week I would take soft vegetable or fruit trimmings and bury them in the worm bedding. I also added a sprinkling of water around the edges that tended to dry out quicker.

Initial Results

By the end of July, the compost, newspaper, and cardboard had all been nearly broken down, with a large amount of worm castings and new worms mixed throughout. The two small containers of worms had spread throughout the bin with a large amount of cocoons and juvenile worms as well. I'm curious the exact propagation amount, but I'm not prepared to sift through the entire bin to count. I knew that I would need to start another bin soon as a new home for the expanding worms.

By mid August, I purchased a third plastic bin that would fit inside the others. I prepared it like I did the second bin with the exception of the lid. Since the bins would fit inside each other, I didn't need to use the lid for the new bin at all. Instead I can just use the old lid that is already full of holes for air flow.

Next Experiment

Purposefully, I didn't put any of the red wigglers into the new top bin by hand. I'm hoping that my plan works and the worms will migrate through the holes into the upper bin. Of course there are a number of things that could go wrong: drilled holes too small, upper bin environment not acceptable, air gaps between top of compost and bottom of bin doesn't allow worms to reach holes in upper bin, and I'm sure that there could be others. If all goes well, I can check in a few weeks to find worms in the upper bin. I'm going to leave it there for about a month before I try to remove the worm castings from the lower one because I would rather that the cocoons would hatch and the juvenile worms would be able to migrate upwards, instead of being mixed in with the outdoor soil and lost as a resource for my vermicomposting experiments. I'm sure that I won't get them all, but I'm hoping that this approach will be more successful than the other techniques that I have read about by sorting through the bin by hand.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A week with a garden tractor and backhoe

With as much earth moving as we had to do, we decided to just rent some equipment to help us get the job done and to save our backs from all the shoveling and moving with the wheel barrow. (In comparing prices, three days of rental are the same as the weekly rate, so for us it made sense to get it for the whole week.) Once we knew that we were going to have it available, we ordered manure for the garden and gravel for a new french drain that we needed to help prevent the flooding that we have had in our basement.

The majority of our time on the tractor was spent grading the area next to our garage, house and shed that faces an uphill slope. We needed a better slope away from the house and to either side so that any significant rain or melting snow would flow around the house instead of pooling up next to the house and seeping into the basement. A neighbor who has a lot of experience with home construction suggested that there should be at least a 2% grade away from the house for at least 10 feet.

Once the basic grade was set, we used the backhoe attachment to dig a trench at the lowest part of this grade to make any water flow even better. Unfortunately we ran into a lot of rock that the backhoe couldn't handle so the trench wasn't as deep as we would have hoped. At the highest place in the back it is only six inches deep, while in other places it is about four feet deep. This trench was sloped so that when we put in gravel and a perforated drain pipe, the water would flow into the gravel, fill the pipe and flow downhill and around the house. Again, it is important to make sure that there are not low sections where the water will be trapped and pool up. As a precaution, I wrapped the pipe with a fabric sleeve which is designed to keep silt from getting into the pipe and clogging it up.

What I didn't anticipate with this work was to hit a water line going to some secondary water tanks while we were digging the trench. This accident bent up the 1 1/4" line to the point of needing to replace a short section of pipe. The backhoe also detached the pipe from the valve about four feet away and six feet underground. Luckily our trench was about two feet away from this buried valve and nearly as deep. This had to be excavated by hand so the nearby trench made it a lot easier to dig it out without damaging the good water line. It took a couple of trips to an industrial plumbing store and about $500 in parts, but I was able to remove the faulty valve, get the parts to branch the line into the existing trench, add in a garden hydrant (faucet), and reconnect the line going to the storage tanks. This new water source will certainly be helpful for the garden. It isn't right next to the garden, but a lot closer that the exterior house faucets that we have had to use for the past two years. I plan to eventually install a couple more small faucets right next to the garden areas so that we don't have to drag hose and sprinklers around so much. Another faucet next to the chickens would certainly help there as well.

After all this critical work with grading and trenching, we wanted to improve the garden soil while we have the equipment. So we brought in a dump truck load of well composted and screened steer manure. It took quite a few trips with the scoop on the garden tractor from the driveway to the back yard where the garden is, but it was a lot easier than doing it with a shovel and wheel barrow. There is now two to three inches of this good manure over the primary garden and a scant amount over a second garden that we want to develop. We ran out of money to buy enough to cover this second garden well, but we have a plan for this. Because we were already having this gravel and manure being delivered, they threw in a load of partially composted steer manure at no additional cost. This benefits the farmer who doesn't have to store and process this manure, and after we pile it up near the garden that we can eventually use it, the pile should be able to compost over the summer and be ready to spread by hand either this Fall or next Spring.

Talking with neighbors about our big grading and gardening project, we discovered someone with a big rototiller that was happy to loan us for a few hours. If the weather cooperates, this will let us till in that newly spread manure. After a few years of adding organic material and tilling it in, that should break down the hard concrete-like layer of clay soil that forms here. No-till methods allow you to pile up compost knowing that the roots of the vegetables can reach down to get all the nutrients that they need while maintaining the natural health of the soil bacteria and earthworms that often are killed by tilling. (At least that it the goal!)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter!

Easter is a wonderful time to be with family, to ponder on new life, renewal, and new growth. With the nice Spring weather in areas warmer than we live, there are strawberries growing and being harvested. We have only a few strawberry plants and they didn't produce very well last year, so we are left to purchase them from someone else's bounty. After seeing this strawberry pie made on television, I couldn't help but make two of them for Easter dinner with the family. We used a frozen pie crust, so it wasn't as good as it could have been, but it was sure tasty!

I found that the recipe was quite accurate with one exception: the cooking time to cook the frozen berries was actually closer to an hour. It may have been because we were making two pies at once or because our berries may have had more water or juice in them that needed to cook down.Over all, a very good pie that I would probably make again as long as I had enough time to cook the berries. (Next time, I'll enlist the aid of one of my able-bodied teenagers to stir the pot while it is cooking.)With luck, we'll have more strawberry plants of our own to harvest enough berries for more pies!