About a year ago, I watched a fascinating time lapse video of the assembly of one of the most attractive continuous flow vermicomposting systems I have ever seen. Some guy named Dan Lonowski of Michigan SoilWorks and Gavin Newton of Detroit-area worm castings producer WormCycle were putting together a 16-ft CFT for use in Gavin’s […]
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It seems to happen again and again and again.
Armed with a bin, some bedding, and a shiny new arsenal of composting worms, eager new vermicomposters, our fellow foot soldiers in the War on Waste try to win the war literally overnight.
And they often fail miserably.
Who can blame them? Our intrepid brothers-in-worms have not learned the crucial lesson a vermi-boot camp worth its salt would teach you; that overfeeding is the most common cause of problems in the worm bin.
The grossly over-optimistic rule of thumb that worms can eat 50-100% of their weight in organic waste each day is leading new vermicomposters to certain failure. So it’s high time we explore some common problems in worm bins and reverse engineer how overfeeding can cause each one of them.
Before we begin, it’s worth noting that overfeeding will not necessarily lead to ALL problems below.
But when the first step to solving the problems below is normally to STOP FEEDING, it should serve as a wakeup call that overfeeding is probably the start of most of our problems in the first place.
Some of us start vermicomposting to divert our household or farm waste away from the waste stream, and that is a benefit by itself. But what about the end product? If you’re reading this, you’re probably already aware that vermicompost, which includes the worm castings plus undigested organic matter plus a plethora of soil-enhancing goodies, is […]
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In Part I of this interview about soil biology with Heather Rinaldi and Nina Folch, we learned some pretty crucial stuff about what constitutes excellent soil, how to recognize when it’s good, and what to do about it when it’s not. But the one thing we didn’t even mention were earthworms or even vermicompost! So […]
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I kind of always thought of soil as just “dirt”, the stuff under the grass, the brown substance plants just magically grow out of. And it wasn’t until embarrassingly recently that I learned of the level of complexity that ecosystem that exists, or at least should exist under the surface in order for our plants to grow healthy and strong.
I became familiar with Dr. Elaine Ingham’s work (and her rabid following on SoilFoodWeb.com) soon after I began my worm journey here and was taken aback by the entire body of knowledge surrounding soil biology and the interplay of microbes, humus, soil, critters and other goodies that comprise lively soil.
The vermicomposting and vermiculture world can be an echo chamber at times, so it’s important to get out and learn about the larger ecosystem of which earthworms are only a part.
I am the farthest thing from a reliable source on soil biology, so I’m going to rely on the expertise of my friends and fellow Worm Farming Alliance members, Heather Rinaldi of the Texas Worm Ranch and Nina Folch-Torres of Microbes in My Soil to help edumacate me – and possibly you as well – on this fascinating topic. Heather owns the Texas Worm Ranch, a mid-scale, but high-end-quality vermicomposting operation near Dallas, TX while Nina owns a soil testing service and online store at Microbes in My Soil in Santa Fe, NM.
A few weeks back, I asked my e-mail list that I affectionately (and maybe indulgently?) call “Urban Worm Nation” how they’re all doing their vermicomposting. I am constantly amazed at how people used old refrigerators, discarded industrial equipment, and good old ingenuity to come up with some really effective ways to start a worm farm for next to no money at all.
Now in full disclosure, I have a new worm bin in the works that I will be announcing in a few weeks and I’m REALLY excited about it. But after the initial launch where I’ll be offering it for around 30% off, it’s going to be in the $100-$110 price range. And I fully understand that this could be beyond the price point many of you are comfortable with.
I got the following question from Dawn F, a fellow worm composter from New York City. She writes:
“Can you spend some time on how to harvest worm castings? I bought a small trommel screen and I gotta tell ya, it took half a day. Even the Worm Inn requires sifting.”
Man, this is kind of a tough one because there’s always a trade off.
If you want to harvest lively worm castings without breaking your back, then you either need to be handy, pay someone to be handy on your behalf, or purchase potentially expensive equipment to do your harvesting more efficiently.
I stress the word “lively” because if you’re shooting for the moon and want worm castings with a granularity and consistency somewhere between coffee grounds and cocaine, then the equation gets even more difficult and you risk ending up with an end product that will have a much smaller population of beneficial microorganisms.
Worm towers or worm tubes are an intriguing idea for turning food waste to worm castings. Unlike worm composting, which requires the worms, bedding, and food to be placed in some enclosure only to require you to harvest the castings, the worm tower is a “permaculture” innovation designed to allow you to recycle food waste and create worm castings without ever leaving your garden.
Most variations involve a PVC pipe buried about 12-18 inches, with holes drilled in the below-grade portion, allowing worms to go and come as they wish, much like an Amsterdam hostel, minus the patchouli smell.
At first blush, it is a fascinating concept and probably attractive to gardeners like my wife, who don’t care to handle worms. Just toss in your food waste, the theory goes, and watch the garden take off.
If you’ve read this blog long enough, most of you know that I don’t claim to have Jedi-level knowledge of vermiculture, vermicompost, or soil biology (or how to please women or dance in ways that don’t make other people really uncomfortable).
So it’s with great honor and a huge dose of humility to announce that Rhonda Sherman looked past my relative inexperience in the field and has extended an opportunity for me to present at the 2017 NCSU Vermiculture Conference on October 27-28 in Raleigh-Durham, NC!
I hope the conference can survive this turn of events!
(If you don’t believe me, check out the list of speakers!)
Note: If you’re interested in going to the conference and don’t care about business topics, just skip to the bottom!
Starting a new home worm bin is easy and only requires a bin, bedding, some food, and yes, the worms. Anyone can learn how to do it.
But as I learned a few years ago, starting a successful, thriving home bin from scratch where worms won’t try to escape the first night is another matter.
While the following directions are necessary, they are not sufficient to ensure you make a hospitable environment for your worms to eat, poop, and reproduce.
Vermicomposting, especially at the beginner level, is not mechanical. It requires paying close attention to conditions and using a little trial and error to see what works for you because differences in feedstock, ambient humidity, temperature, and breathability of your bin is going to affect all of the other conditions.
According to legend, Abraham Lincoln once said:
A particularly devastating problem in a worm bin is protein poisoning, also called “string of pearls” or sour crop, evidenced by a serious deformation of the earthworms as their intestines rupture, inevitably killing the worm itself. So let’s check out what causes protein poisoning, what we can do to prevent it, and what we should do if we encounter it.
While opinions vary on what is exactly happening with protein poisoning, one of the most succinct hypotheses of it comes from Trent Holmes, a member of a very informative Facebook Group dedicated to vermicomposting and vermiculture.
The question of how much to feed your composting worms can vex the beginning vermicomposter, and if you’re in an area like I am that features both hot and cold weather, then that amount can vary wildly.
So if I were you, I would get out of the mindset of trying to looking for a one-size-fits-all number.
For example, if you’re under the assumption that worms eat 50% of their own weight each day and you mindlessly feed your 10lbs of worms 5lbs of food waste each day, you might find that you’re grossly overfeeding them.
You may also find that you’ll soon have zero lbs of worms to feed because they’ve escaped the hot, stinky mess, you’ve made of their home. You might also inflict protein poisoning and/or kill them by overfeeding them, especially in a small, closed system.