Friday, May 15, 2009

Vermiculture

Worm Smoothie

Into the remainder of your morning's fruit smoothie add to the blender:
1-banana peel
green tops from strawberries
those moldy blueberry and strawberry's

Add:
2-apple cores from yesterday's lunch
morning coffee grounds
several used tea bags (remove string and staples)
bad spot from last night's potato
culled lettuce from last night's salad
slimy celery tops from the crisper
moldy half cucumber
carrot peelings
egg shells from last weekend's breakfast

Add water to liquefy to consistency of sludge. Serve

...to your worms.


Instead of buying plant food, we've hired worms to eat our garbage. In return for the occasional contents of the kitchen bucket, our worms work day and night to produce pails full of rich, organic worm castings and friable compost each year. We have a small worm farm we bought on the internet which is composed of 5 stackable trays on top of a catchment basin with spigot in the bottom unit to catch that yummy worm tea our flowering plants drink all summer long. These trays take advantage of worms' natural instinct to migrate upward in search of food (through grid openings in the bottom of each tray) . Once they've finished all the food in the bottom tray, the wrigglers move up to the next tray in search of more eats. We then harvest the castings from the bottom tray, rescue the stragglers, and put that tray on top of the stack, ready to receive our fresh garbage. The new tray is charged with shredded newspaper--printed with soy inks anymore, but avoid slick color sections--a small spade full of soil, a handful of fresh worm castings or compost, and then wet until damp. Add a layer of leaf litter on top and you're set to start burying your kitchen waste.

You can also construct your own worm bins from stackable plastic trays from the store (like Rubbermaid), just drill lots of holes for the worms to wriggle through in the bottom of all but the bottom tray. Be sure to cover your worm condo to prevent a rain from drowning your worms as well as to discourage marauding Robins, who will turn your worm bin into a worm buffet in a heartbeat. Ensure ventilation with tiny holes high in the side of each tray. Plans for larger bins, constructed from plywood, some large enough to be patio benches, can be found on the Internet.

Does it smell? Not if you do it right. I had our bin in my home office all winter long to keep them from freezing and never noticed an odor. A bad odor indicates poor living conditions inside the worm bin, usually too wet, where anaerobic bacteria have taken over. Anaerobic conditions will kill your worms.

What do you do in winter? A small 25-watt light bulb under your bins, moved into the garage or basement & covered with an old quilt, will keep your worms toasty and eating your garbage all winter long. Worms do best above 59 degrees, but remember the bins generate a good deal of heat because of aerobic decomposition, so they can stay warm down to 45 degrees or so outside. Also, their home should be shaded during the summer. Mine are in a fence corner behind a stand of Camilla, in the shade of the Wild Cherry tree.

Where do you get composting worms? The best producing worms for composting are Eisenia fetida, but Eisnia andrei and Lumbricus rubellus are good, too. Searching the Internet for "compost worms buy" will turn up several dealers who will ship you a pound or two of good composting worms. Many people get their starter worms from fishing shops, but many times these worms, often Eudrilus eugeniae or Nightcrawlers, are not top composting worms, but acceptable if you think you may want to sell excess worms to fishermen.What should I do first? If you put your worms into "fresh" garbage, they will die. So set up your bin at least two weeks before you introduce your worms to your new home. In truth, worms do not eat the garbage. Instead, they eat the bacteria and fungus that break down the food. This is the reason you add a bit of soil and compost as well as bedding material after you've harvested a tray of worm castings, to introduce the real worm food: bacteria and fungi. Bacteria and fungi are also the reason you should have a rotation of multiple trays: one major processing tray--the one on the bottom--with the trays on top in different stages of "cooking" the food.

What should I not feed? Generally, you should not feed your worms meat scraps, fat, dairy products, or very much citrus fruit. Mostly because these will attract raccoons, not to mention your own dogs. Too much citrus will change the pH level of the tray and often hatch out fruit flies.

How Much Do I Feed? It is easy to overfeed your worms. We started off with about 1 lb of kitchen waste per week in a 2-lb starter herd of worms. We have increased this as the worms reproduce--when they're happy, they reproduce fast. The ratio should be about 2-lbs of worm to 1 lb of garbage. We can now feed about a pound a day.

What if I go on vacation? Bulk up your spare trays and forget it. Worms will work and rework trays looking for food for many weeks. They can survive 30 or 45-days without any care at all. If we are gone for more than a couple of weeks, we hire a neighbor girl to make an occasional worm smoothie.

Any warnings? Only two.

  1. You can do more damage by over feeding than by starving your worms.
  • Lots of fat, wiggly, worms and eggs (look like yellow pearls) is a good sign.
  • Sparse & skinny worms with few baby worms means feed more.
  • A wet smell mess means too wet and too much food.

2. Worm castings and worm tea are somewhat "hot" fertilizers. We cut our castings and tea with tempered compost or potting soil, 1/4 to 1/2, depending on how tender the plants are.
Resources? There is a lot of information on the Internet. I particularly like the WormBin group on Yahoo groups, which is great for beginners. Also the small book, Worms Eat My Garbage, by Mary Appelhof, is an indispensable guide.

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