{ Posts Tagged ‘composting’ }

Lessons on worm composting

While visiting with my friend Elisabeth and her family, we helped make taco salad for supper. I chopped up some peppers, habitually making a little pile of the trimmings for the compost pile. I asked her where she was keeping her compost bucket and she answered, a little guiltily, that she didn’t compost in the winter: too much trouble.

I was surprised, as she and her husband are probably the thriftiest, low-impact kind of people I know, but I understood completely. Who wants to trudge outside through the snow? And really, who can call that frozen pile thawing to sogginess in spring a pleasure?

Coming home, I realized I should have told her about the worm composting I was trying out. Or, was supposed to be trying out but in reality was repeatedly forgetting about and then trying to repair the neglect. And then I remembered that I had promised you, dear reader, an update on my progress! Well, here you are. Here’s what I’ve learned.

I have two worm composters: a Worm Factory and a Worm Inn. My second Worm Factory went to my sister Jenni. In retrospect, I probably could have kept it to keep up with the volume of kitchen waste around here (assuming I could find a place for it). As it is, I am still taking some larger loads outside to my regular bin, especially during harvest and canning. But Jenni finds the Factory to be a good size for her household of 2.

My set up. Worm Inn above, Worm Factory on table, blue bin full of bedding, bucket of finished compost behind.

When I say I need to “repair the neglect,” there really is more guilt in my heart than travesty in the bin. My worms don’t mind being fed once a week, though I try to give them little bits, more often, rather than lots at once.  It definitely makes a difference if you chop up stuff into smaller pieces. This improves breakdown in regular composting, but it’s doubly true for the worms. They say you can feed worms anything as long as there’s no grease, but I’ve found a couple of exceptions in practice and reading: they don’t seem to eat seeds. I’ve had several sprout on me, including cantulope and pumpkin, and my otherwise finished compost is littered with them.  They leave tougher stuff like stems from squash alone, and they don’t like raw potatoes. Go figure. And no matter what you feed them, always bury it with some bedding to discourage flies and mould.

Speaking of, the “ick” factor is much lower than I thought it would be. There is no smell (unless I over feed and under bed), and the worms keep to themselves. I had some fruit fly trouble once, but a trap placed nearby took care of them within two days. My biggest mess factor: bits of shredded paper or coconut fiber always on the floor. It seems impossible for me to get a handful into either bin without scattering a bit.

I did break down and bring both units into my back entry for the winter. Once the temperature started to drop, they just weren’t eating in the garage.

As far as the bins themselves, I think I prefer the Worm Inn for design and ease of use. It’s easy to add material to the top, and harvesting is as simple as opening the bottom and draining it until you see bits of unfinished food or some worms. I also love the space-saving hanging design, and it holds way more than you would imagine. The major drawback for me is how good the airflow is, meaning, I actually have to remember to check the moisture level. Dry worms=dead worms.

This is the big plus for the Worm Factory. Moisture loss is not a problem; however, too much moisture can be. I leave the drainage spigot open with a bucket under it all the time to try to help the airflow, and I definitely use more bedding compared to the Inn to try to absorb the moisture. I have to be sure not to add too much food at once or it goes slimy before the worms get to it. (I should mention the Factory I have is an older model, and the newer ones look like they are designed for better aeration.) Also, the trays are pretty heavy when full of damp material, and the finished compost always seems to still have worms in it, so you have to sift them out or help them migrate by placing the tray in bright light.

Dig around a little and you’ll find many other composter designs, including ones you can make yourself. But the basics are the same: Keep them aerated, keep them damp, keep them bedded and keep them fed. Is it more work than traditional composting? Maybe, but I don’t have to trudge through the snow, and I’ve got fresh compost all winter long. Whatdayathink, Liz?

 

Worms, worms, everywhere

So here’s my story.

Mid-summer, my brother-in-law Jared sent me a rather cryptic message to “watch the mailbox”. What with postal strikes and summer adventures, it was soon mostly forgotten.

At the beginning of August, my friend Teri also sent me a message, inquiring whether I had ever tried worm composting, and would I like to take some equipment off her hands?

I’m a big believer in composting, and have two healthy piles going in my yard, though I’d never gotten into vermicomposting — having little red wiggler worms help the work along — but I told Teri I’d take some stuff off her hands, if only to help her in her downsizing. I could try it out and always pass it on to someone else if I wasn’t into it, right? If nothing else, it was blog fodder…

The next day she showed up on my doorstep with two Worm Factories, one full, one empty, a big bin of coconut fiber (for bedding), and a binder of information on vermiculture and vermicomposting.

Original Worm Factory - 4 Tray

This is the one Teri gave me; click for the latest model.

“You put your food scraps in the top bin, here,” she said lifting the lid and exposing a melange of vegetable bits, newspaper, and itty-bitty red worms. “The worms migrate up and eat it. Then you harvest the bottom bin of compost and rotate it to the top. That’s basically it!” She seemed a little too excited to ditch this stuff and run. Hmmm… what was I getting into?

I was eager to try something new, not so eager at the thought of worms in the kitchen, Teri’s recommended location for the bin. And I knew Chris would not be into that at all. The timing also sucked: we were leaving on our three week camping trip in three days. Apparently they could eat half a pound of scraps a day: could I load them up before I left? Would they survive? Where would they survive? I debated ditching all the worms into my regular bin and re-purposing all that gorgeous coconut fiber elsewhere in the garden (it’s amazing stuff for soil additive, mulch, growing medium…), but felt I owed it to Teri to at least give it a go. Plus, those worms go for 50 to 75 bucks a pound.

So I cleaned up a little corner of the garage where the temperature should remain fairly even through the summer (winter will be a different story) and got the full bin all set up, thinking I’d tackle the empty one on my return.

That weekend, Jenni and Jared came for a visit, and I showed Jenni my newly acquired castoffs (get it?). Sudden inspiration: Jenni could take the empty Factory, and some of my worms for a starter! Yay! But Jenni got this funny look on her face… remember the cryptic mailbox notice? You guessed it. Jared, in one of his characteristic bouts of generosity, had ordered me a Worm Inn, which was, at that very moment, in the dawdling hands of Canada Post.

WORM INN

The Worm Inn. Hanging contraption not included. I've still got to figure that out.

So, in not so much as a week, I’d gone from zero to three vermicomposting bins. How… interesting.

I filled the bin with as much worm food as I dared, covered it up and left the spigot open so it wouldn’t get to slimy, crossed my fingers, and went on holiday.

We were back two days before I remembered to check on the poor little wigglers– but they were alive. Still some food scraps showing, and not moldy either. Hmmm. Maybe I can do this. The Worm Inn has arrived, and I’ve got Teri’s binder (which turns out to be a full-on manual from the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada). Looks like my kids aren’t the only ones in for learning some new things this fall. I’ll keep you posted.

One of my wigglers working on some beet greens.

Feeding my soil

In the past, without really understanding what my soil needed for my plants to thrive, I would spread a few bags of top soil on my gardens in spring and call it a day. But I’ve been reading about pH levels and the importance of composting and mulch that I don't know where to begin. So I turned to Anne Marie to seek advice on how a budding gardener should prepare her soil.

Here is Anne Marie's advice:

  • For most plants, pH is less of a concern than the type of soil present. Most plants are fine with soil that is slightly alkaline all the way to slightly acidic. It is only when soils are very acidic or very alkaline that some plants will struggle if they're growing in a type of soil that is not suited for them.
  • For example, acid-soil loving rhododendrons growing in very alkaline (limestone based) soils. Most plants are tolerant of a relatively wide range of soil pH values.
  • Test your soil for its pH level if you are curious. Horticultural lime or garden sulphur are the most often recommended products applied to alter the soil acidity level.
  • PH aside, compost is excellent to add to the soil. Make sure it is from a reliable source.
  • Three to five centimetres of compost added each spring is a great soil enrichment program.
  • Then place a layer mulch on top of the compost.
  • An undyed organic mulch is great if only a small layer of compost can be added or if compost is only added every other year. The organic mulch (shredded pine bark, pine needles, cedar mulch, etc.) will break down over time and become part of the soil. Therefore it should be topped up every year.
  • My advice is to leave the existing soil alone and work on adding compost to it each year, with the addition of a mulch topping. This is a much easier task to build a “raised bed” than dealing with clay, for example, and fighting the battle to change the soil composition.

So with this helpful advice, my next step is to apply a layer of compost to my beds.