DIY Vermicomposting from someone with experience

Discussion in 'Organic Lawn Care' started by ICT Bill, Oct 27, 2008.

  1. ICT Bill

    ICT Bill LawnSite Platinum Member
    Messages: 4,115

    Kirk Leonard posts somewhere else, some will recognize the post. I thought it would generate some lively talk about vermicomposting and your own expereniences, he obviously has been doing this a while.

    While this US election is proceeding and I'm getting tired of it, I started this as part of the prior message, which led me to another thought -- a combination of limited volume, less-than-optimum bin compost, and vermicompost made in smaller batches for teas, using the bin compost as a bulking and diversity agent with the vermicompost.

    The litter worms Doc E mentioned are formally eisenia foetida (pink or light red) or eisenia andrei (pink or light red with darker striping), and they live in organic matter or manure piles on the ground. Many people sell them
    for vermicomposting, and they are often sold for fish bait ("red wigglers" or "tiger worms") because they are easy to grow, but if you can find a cow pie with worms in it, that's what you're looking for, guaranteed, and
    free:)! If you're near woods, a farm or a park, the pile of materials Doc suggested can also work. It's likely eisenia are nearby. Adults vary in size from 3-6 inches, generally. If they're huge and not pink or light red,
    they're probably not eisenia.

    So here's a super home-made vermicomposting system, invented right here from years of experience:

    This should best be done inside somewhere - a garage, outbuilding, garden shed, basement, converted pantry, whatever, or very sheltered outdoors -- eisenia like the same temps we do, and they will produce best with a
    consistent temp 65-70dF. They also like darkness and good air access but they don't like wind. Exposure to the sun will kill them in minutes. They, like most worms, run from light. Some kind of insulating, shading and ventilating cover, a fabric or dense screen is a good idea.

    Make 3 wooden (not cedar or redwood, use pine or fir, aged or kiln-dried best) box, 6"-8" high X 14" - 18" wide squares (or more if you've got room and enough feed, or a big tea need). Nail 1/4" hardware cloth (without zinc
    best, but...) to cover each bottom. Top is open. Set the first box into a shallow water-catch pan of some kind (to contain any drainage, help keep things clean) on top of short standoffs (to keep the boxes out of water or
    any muck). The standoffs should be separate - a 2 X 2 same-size box frame with perimeter holes for ventilation, maybe. You'll see why in a moment.

    Start box one with a solid layer of newspaper on the bottom, couple sheets thick, then layer some shredded paper or cardboard, some of that rich mulch, some shredded food (no dairy or meat) or garden waste, mixed up, three inches deep. Moisture should be 70% -- you should get a few good drops of water when you squeeze it and it shouldn't stay completely clumped. Add a batch of worms. A pint of fishing worms is probably 50 worms, a good amount. A quart from a worm seller is likely 200 or so, plenty. 1200 eisenia is about a pound of worms, but you don't want to start with a pound. It's best to start with less, let them get used to your conditions.

    Shredded papers and cardboard can be used to adjust moisture as you progress, and sometimes they might appreciate a spray of water in the feed. Always feels good to me to give them a good night spritz.

    Worms are sensitive to major changes in their feed (ever heard of "worm run"?:) and you need to give them time and consistent food to grow the population. If you feed them well and get to the fourth box, there will be a
    couple thousand in the system. From a 100 worm start, with care and good conditions, this will happen in a few months.

    Feed them good food -- chopped-up kitchen wastes, shredded garden wastes,rich mulch, shredded kraft paper or newspaper or cardboard (no high color, glossy stuff, glues, or staples, of course;). Small amounts of healthy
    animal wastes blended in are ok, too. Dead insects are wonderful (provided they haven't been poisoned, I suppose). All things organic are good, but worms don't like acidic things like citrus peels or much fruit, though ripe banana peels are ok. Chopped tomatoes and chiles are ok, too, but their seeds will pass through and sprout. Most seeds will. Worms aren't fools, they know where the next meal comes from.

    Chopping or shredding into smaller particles helps them work better, with more surface area for the bugs they eat to grow. They will go slow with solid broccoli stems, for sure, for instance. It will likely show up as a
    lump in the top box. They also like a little bit of rock dust, or crustacean flours, sprinkled in on occasion. Kinda like fiber for people, but adding mineral and chitin content to the vermicompost. Ground up eggshells can add
    calcium content, and help worms form the calcium carbonate they both thrive on and produce.

    I'm not sure why Doc says no legumes. Chopped up, mixed with other, drier materials, they should be ok.

    A 50-50 combination of the rich bin mulch with ~10-20% chunky stuff for porosity, and mixed food wastes, worm-worked for several months makes the best vermicompost I've ever seen, and fresh is best.

    So you've started your first box with 100 worms and you see nothing happening, checking daily. You want to keep them working their way up (it took a long time to teach them to eat upwards:) through the boxes.

    How do you tell when they want more food? Look in the box at night, with a flashlight. When you see worms on the surface, they want food. If you overfeed them, they won't come up and give you this signal, they'll just
    stay down there and you won't know how much they need to grow and work regularly. Doc suggests a half-inch, I think an inch is ok. They may eventually want more. On a large scale, I've fed as much as two inches a day with a fully developed population, four to six inches every two or three days.

    When the population is well-established, you can feed them more and less frequently, 2 times a week maybe, but you have to watch. Checking daily, easy to do, will let you know what they need relative to their numbers and how you want to manage the system. Daily feedings of an inch or more may be best when they are established, or twice as much every other day, or three times as much every three days. I think there is a limit to this, though, and attention should be given more than once a week or the population will decline.

    Feed the first box to the top. Set the second box on it and feed it to the top. Set on the third box and feed it to the top. Remove and empty the bottom box, set it on top. It should by this time provide good vermicompost
    to use in a blend with some of that rich mulch and chunky stuff for teas. It can also be part of a super plant starting media, used as 20% of a mix.

    More and larger boxes support a longer vermicompost retention time. A rack for them would make this easier. I'll leave that to you, but keeping with wood, router-slotted sides and lath strips on vented sheets of plywood could be made to work. Important thing is to minimize the gap between the boxes.

    Why wood, not plastic? Wood will degrade over time, but plastic creates a constant moisture problem. Every time a dew point is crossed, it sweats and too much moisture happens, and if you don't pass a lot of dew points, it's likely to be too dry. Wood moderates and maintains moisture, and lets the system breath, helps keep moisture in check.

    Worm lore (based on experience, too:):

    I mentioned worm run -- when they all disappear. This can happen because of a too-big change in food, the usual cause when just starting, or big temperature changes, if something toxic has been introduced, if it gets too wet, or if there are predators nearby. Rodents sense and seek worms, and they must be protected from them. Worms likewise sense the predators and run, hmm?

    If you buy a quart of eisenia from a worm seller, get a half-gallon of their food to mix with your starting foods. If you collect a pie, take the whole pie and one more. If you use the organic pile method, take the whole pile,
    start them with the same foods.

    A percentage (10%?) of worms are pioneers, genetically programmed to find the next place to live, so they will go everywhere on your property, less so in your house, but this is not worm run and isn't harmful. Just don't be
    surprised by it. When the population peaks, you may want to establish some worm barriers, though they can jump, too:)! I've actually seen that. 7" roof flashing, upright on the perimeter of the catch pan will work. Most will be in the pan and should probably be let go outdoors in a garden bed somewhere. Some of them will be so determined that they will escape, though. Indoors, they seem to like rugs.

    The bottom, harvest box will have some worms in it, maybe 3% of the population, so don't be surprised by that, either. They make it through tea-making, too. Gotta be groggy, just let them loose or put them back in the current feed box. I figure what they are programmed to to do is keep the finished vermicompost healthy, but if there are more than a few in the harvest box, it's not finished. You need another box and more time.

    If you get flies, back off on feeding a few days, shoo away the flies, make sure your moisture is good, give them a thin layer of food and cover the feed with a sheet of newspaper with pin holes (worms still want the air) in
    it to keep them from coming back. Many other critters may be in a worm box and be fine, but if they fly, it's not a good sign. Continue feeding on top of the pin-holed newspaper after a couple days.

    Not lore, fact: They don't like light and they don't like to be handled. Our body temp is deadly for them. Hold them for 10 or so minutes and they will die. The wiggling is because they are experiencing deadly temps. Let the
    kids hold them, but only briefly.

    I met Doc E when she was skeptical about vermicompost and would like to think I had a little to do with her now suggesting it's a good method to achieve high quality compost, and I thank her for spurring this post.

    Good vermicompost, much higher in microbial content than good compost -- worms are like microbial amplifiers, one in, six out -- and it's much easier to make. A challenge in vermicomposting is fungal content. It is often
    bacterial dominant. Shredded kraft paper or cardboard and untreated burlap in their food can help, but maybe what Ron is doing with coffee (high N, not surprised at temps) and leaf compost as a blend stock might make a super tea? Worms are ok with some coffee grounds in their food, too, btw.

    Hope this is useful, perhaps enjoyable.

    Last edited: Oct 27, 2008

    DUSTYCEDAR LawnSite Fanatic
    from PA
    Messages: 5,134

    a light bulb over the bin will keep them in

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