I was invited to visit the Maine State Prison to see their large scale vermiculture project. The inmates, with the help of VTI Mendes and the support of the warden and Captain Fries, have established a vermicompsting system. They purchased a large (I'd estimate 6'x8') raised bed system that harvests vermicompost by scraping (cutting) from below. It is housed in a daylight basement in one of the buildings and accepts select food waste from the prison kitchen. Everyone involved should be commended for their work (the worms were reproducing without any smell or fruit flies). The project is being carefully monitored and maintained and the dozen or so inmates I met have a very good understanding of vermiculture (they had obviously done some reading!) and asked great questions. They have been working on the system for a little over a year and it is ready to harvest vermicompost. They plan to use some of their vermicompost in their own greenhouse and gardens, but hope to also sell some at the Maine State Prison store. After seeing their work, I suspect they will have an excellent product.
From the blog archive; originally published on February 20, 2010
For the past few years I have had a barter offer on my web site. I've had some great barters that I'd like to share. I have bartered worms for:
Knit yard socks
Bay rum aftershave
These have been wonderful barters, and I am grateful to receive these items in exchange.
The list is not intended to state everything I will barter for. In fact , I am surprised now how many things are on it! If you want worms and have something to barter, let me know.
Postscript: In the past eight years the list has grown to include edibles, a truckload of manure, a signed book, and more. Please note that not all offers are accepted, but many are.
From the blog archive; originally published on January 23, 2010
A grower in Taiwan contacted me to share a business model he uses. It was interesting, so I am sharing it.
Coordinate with local companies who have compostable trash, develop a group of friends to make vermicompost from the trash, sell vermicompost at the Farmer's Market.
Because businesses pay a lot in trash removal, this can be reduced if you find other people to take their trash and make worm compost to sell. You get the business to pay you to have members of your group members to take away the compostable trash ($1/kg). You sell your worms to your group and coordinate having them pickup the food waste. Then you pay the growers weekly to provide you with a fixed (2-5 kilograms) amount of vermicompost per month ($2/kg) and to pickup the trash (compost food removal at $0.25/kg).
You can sell the vermicompost for about $5/kg at a farmer's market in the city or online. Remember you also make money on the first sale of your worms to your growers and coordinating payment with the businesses.
Your growers will benefit because they only pay an initial start up fee and coordinate picking up food and delivering vermicompost to you. They get a monthly check from you for picking up waste and processing vermicompost.
If you can do this in a city (so you wouldn't spend a lot of money on gas), the whole group could make some decent money. Plus, if you coordinate food waste pickup at restaurants, you'll probably become a friend of the owner (because you save them money) and get some meals for free, too!
It takes some time to set this up, but it works!
Thanks Chen for sharing this. I would add that you could also make vermicompost tea and sell to local landscapers.
One of the issues that prevents people from composting (indoors and outdoors) is smelly compost in the collection container in the kitchen. I think this is more likely to be a problem for smaller families (we fill our container too fast for it to get very smelly before we have to empty it!) and probably more likely to be a warm season issue.
If you find this is an issue, I have a solution— biochar. At the Common Ground Fair this year, Todd from Char-Cola (www.char-cola.com) came to my booth to ask whether I had used biochar in my compost collection container. I told him that I had not, he offered me a 1 quart sample to try. I did some reading to ensure that using biochar in my worm bins would harm my worms. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t.
Time for a vermicomposting experiment! A few weeks after the fair, I tried about a quarter cup of biochar on top of our compost collection container and then let it sit covered in the basement to get ripe and simulate what some families might experience. I was surprised that it didn’t smell too bad (rotting potato peels and onion pieces can smell pretty bad). I added the food waste with the biochar to a corner of my bin and marked the corner. Whenever adding something new to your worm bin always add in the corners. Over the next month, I observed that bin as I added food waste to that bin with biochar. During a vermicomposting experiment, I monitor that bin and check the corners. If the worms don’t like what was added they will move away. Adding the biochar to the food didn’t cause the worms to move away and when I peeked in that corner the smell was not too bad. I then monitored that bin for 2 months and everything is fine. I have not tried biochar in my outdoor composting bin, but I cannot imagine that there would be any problems.
I would recommend biochar for those families who have concerns about keeping a compost collection container in their kitchen.
From the blog archive; originally published on November 9, 2009
You may think you have mostly worms in your bin, but you’d be wrong. In fact, your bin is a very complex and diverse ecosystem. You have hundreds of species of organisms working in harmony to turn your food waste into beautiful compost. Your red worms are only a very small population of the other micro- and macro- organisms that inhabit your bin.
Sometimes new users write me with concerns when they notice some populations that bloom in number. Often they fear these organisms will flee the bin and harm houseplants or become a pest in their home. No need to worry. These organisms are happy in your bin where they have food and darkness. They are decomposers, so they do not harm houseplants.
What is really interesting is that these species have slightly different environmental preferences and food requirements. This means that depending on the conditions in your bin and what you are feeding, you may have some population blooms of these other species. For example, if you place a lot of sugary fruit in your bin, you will see mites bloom followed by an increase in the number of springtails. When their food supply weans they will die off.
Bacteria are by far the most numerous organisms in the vermicompost system. They break down organic matter to make it available to earthworms and other organisms in the bin. Remember, your worms don’t eat the food you put in, but the rot that is on the food. Bacteria are essential to your worm bin, just as they are in outdoor soil.
Mold & Fungi
In addition to the bacteria, mold and fungi are busy decomposing the organic matter in your worm bin. They are also an additional food source to other organisms in the system, including earthworms. Because they can grow big enough to be seen, these can be a sign that you have more food than the system can quickly manage and the feeding rate should be decreased. Mold and fungi pose no threat to the garden or the animals living in the worm bin, but overgrowth of these can cause irritation to humans with mold allergies. To keep them under control, feed in small amounts and when you see an overgrowth of these hold back on feeding.
Mites (reddish brown specks about as large as a typed period) are commonly found on the surface of the bin (if your bin is light colored, you can often see them on the sides near the soil). Mite populations will bloom when you have wet, sugary foods (fruit) in your bin.
Springtail are an insect (white or tan) that can be seen fairly easily on the surface of the soil. They are beneficial in the system and have no interest in living plant tissue. Some texts claim that more than 80% of the organic matter on earth passes through the gut of a springtail or sow bug on its journey to becoming topsoil. They are most noticeable after a bloom in the mite population or in nearly finished compost.
Sometimes mistaken for young red worms, these are very small white worms. They too are beneficial organisms that feed on decaying organic matter. Potworms are more common when your worm bin is on the acidic side, but they do not necessarily mean that you have a problem. You will see them after adding a lot of citrus.
Tips for keeping your bin running smoothly
Remember: the food waste you add to you worm bin today isn’t eaten by the worms until the other actors in your bin have done their job. Bury your food (adding the amount appropriate to the number of worms in your bin) to bring these organisms in contact with your food to get the process started and next time you have a moment, take a close look at your ecosystem. You may be surprised at the complexity of the system you are maintaining.
As always, your senses should be your guide to vermicomposting. What do you see, smell and feel in your bin?
Originally published on November 9, 2009
From the blog archive; originally published on October 6, 2009
Really that is determined by what works for you in the space you have.
You can buy manufactured bins online or in progressive stores, but I suggest you save your money and make one yourself!
When I respond to this question, I offer the following suggestions and considerations:
Red wigglers don’t typically dig more than 8” deep into a worm bin, so a really deep bin does not work as well as a shallower bin. You want to have the worms all the way at the bottom of the bin to keep conditions aerobic.
Really large bins (30 or 50 gallon size) can be used for worm bins, but they are VERY heavy when full of worms and vermicompost. If you’re planning to move your bin (e.g., take it outside to harvest using the sun), consider a series of smaller bins. If you're not going to move it, these large bins can certainly work.
Small bins can also work. Some people have shoebox size bins they keep under the kitchen sink. This can work, however, you must closely monitor conditions in your bin and be careful what you feed them. In a small bin the worms have nowhere to escape if the conditions become unhealthy. A friend had a wonderful bin until a bunch of limes were added in a layer to the bin after a Cinco de Mayo party. Soil pH dropped and all the worms died. This is also why I recommend you feed in the corners when you are starting.
I find the standard 18-gallon plastic storage totes work well for me. They are reasonably sized to allow the worms to flee from any bad things you may add, they are not too when full, they don’t take up too much space in the room, and they can be stacked. Click here for instructions to build your own bin.
The size and style of your worm bin is not important. If it works for you then it is best. The most important thing is that you get started with a worm bin.
Originally published on October 6, 2009
If you're reading my blog, then you probably know that worm compost tea is great for your plants. I want to make a distinction though: worm compost tea vs. worm bin drainage.
In my mind, worm compost tea is distinctly different from the liquid that drains from some bin designs (what I call worm bin drainage).
Worm compost tea is made by separating the vermicompost from the worms and steeping the worm compost in water to make a tea. My website has complete instructions for brewing up your own worm tea: 1# of vermicompost in a 5 gallon bucket of water.
I don't mean to say that the drainage from a worm bin would be bad for plants. From what I have read it is great fertilizer; however, I'd be concerned about putting it on edible veggies because you do not know what is in it. I have also found a variety of different reports on how to use it ranging from straight (undiluted) to diluted to the color of straw. If I were to use this on salad and other greens I probably diluting it to straw color and bubbling air through it for 12-24 hours using an aquarium bubbler.
If anyone has experience using worm bin drainage, I'd love to hear how you prepare it for use.
Originally published on October 8, 2009
I thoroughly enjoy meeting other vermicomposters (new and old). While I do mail worms, I prefer to meet people who are buying from me. This saves them money and allows me to spend a few minutes educating so they get off to a good start.
When I started WormMainea, I assumed those who visiting my site and contacting me would be a narrow portion of the population, Essentially, people a lot like me: frugal, eco-minded people looking to experiment with a different way of composting that allows you to compost inside in the winter.
Well I got it completely wrong! I meet all sorts of interesting people ranging from back-to-earth retiring hippies who want to vermicompost again to apartment-dwelling professionals who want to reduce their waste, from former Everest climbers to college students, from monks to manufacturers of skate-chic clothes, and everything in between, including some frugal, eco-minded composters like me.
I am continually amazed by how many people are interested in vermicomposting and the cross section of the population that contacts me. I enjoy talking with them about how they found me and how they became interested in vermicomposting.
Originally published on October 3, 2009
I really enjoy teaching vermicomposting to school children. Their excitement is wonderful, and some of the questions catch me by surprise.
Another observation by teachers has also caught me by surprise: several teachers, especially younger grades, have reported back that after my vermicomposting demonstration and the arrival of the worm bin there has been a change in the snack diet of the classroom .
Children want to participate in feeding the worms. However, only some food can be placed in the worm bin (e.g., remnants of fruits and vegetables and NOT processed sugary or salty foods), so children who want to feed the worms must bring in fruits and veggies.
Who would have thought vermicomposting would make children eat better?!
Originally published on September 28, 2009
The answer is: you don't!
Aside from the gut wrenching fear of recovering an item that has fallen in there with your hand, garbage disposals are very wasteful.
A worm bin and outdoor compost pile make this common household appliance unnecessary. Everything that goes in the disposal can go in your worm bin or your outdoor compost pile.
Some people call their disposal the "pig". Likely, because the disposal takes the place of the family pet pig that would eat the food waste. Vermicomposting is much slower than feeding a pig, but worms are far more manageable for keeping indoors.
Did you know: disposals use about 500,000 gallons of water per day in the United States (both in your sink and during sewage treatment).
Food in the garbage disposal goes to water treatment facilities, and from there into the environment where it's at least three times more likely to disrupt ecosystems (via algal blooms) than it would if it went to a landfill. (Not that it's so great there either...)
Food scraps make up at least 10% of space in our landfills and off-gas methane, a greenhouse gas.
Through composting a typical household can keep 500 lb of biodegradable kitchen and garden waste out of landfills every year! That is per home!!
Do you feel empowered? I do. Feed your soil, not the sewer or landfill.
Originally published on May 3, 2009
I realize that some of you who purchased in the fall processed last weekend when temps in Maine were spring-like. My garden is still under about 2 feet of snow. Many contacted me to ask: what do I do with 15+ gallons of worm castings in March?
Worm castings can be stored in a container like a worm bin. Keep them moist and let the castings breathe (remember that the castings are alive!). You don't want to let the casting dry out if you're going to make great tea (active organisms plus nutrients). Most recipes for tea call for about a pound of castings in 5 gallons of water (dilute to 10 gallons to use).
Castings stored this way will keep for several months-- just in time for real spring! In the interim, use what you have to make tea for your houseplants or soil amendments for seed starters. Just remember that your vermicompost may be full of viable seeds!
Tip of the hat to Bruce Deuley for his valuable contributions to the procedure. You can get the brewed vermicompost tea directions here.
Originally published on March 14, 2009
When you first begin vermicomposting (with a pound of worms), it may seem as though the worms will never eat the food waste you produce. Then, as the worms multiply, you develop a nice balance and the worms keep pace with your input.When you have as many worms as I do (18 bins with 4-15 pounds), my family of cannot produce enough to keep them all fed and multiplying. So, I utilize the waste from my local organic grocer (Lois’ Natural Marketplace in Scarborough). Mary and Chris (the chefs at Lois’ deli) kindly set aside coffee grounds and food scraps when I request it.
I am writing about this not to tell you how to feed a few hundred pounds of worms, but to encourage a grass roots movement. Think of this as an alternative recycling opportunity where everyone wins.
That’s right, society benefits. By having less waste go to the dump (or in this case the trash-to-steam incinerator), society benefits because less food waste equals less weight equals less fuel used to truck it around. Also, I learned from Chris of EcoMaine (the company who runs the incinerator) that organics such as food waste are a poor source of energy in the trash-to-steam process. They would rather not collect food waste.
I know I haven’t made a big difference but my little contribution fits the “think globally, act locally” concept.
In the course of a year, I probably keep a thousand pounds of food and yard waste out of the waste stream (both from my home and collections from Lois’). Scale that up a few-fold, and by outdoor composting in the summer and vermicomposting in the winter, we can all make a difference.
This makes me think: can we all reach out to grocers or restaurants in our community to see if they would be willing to set aside food waste for pickup during the spring, summer, and autumn for addition to our outdoor compost piles? Can we bring a 5-gallon bucket with us when we shop to pick up some waste veggies? Can we encourage our fellow gardeners, others in community gardens or garden clubs to do the same?
Originally published on March 1, 2009
Getting started is a simple process:
The key to getting started and keeping your worm bin trouble free is to follow four simple rules:
1. always bury the food under the worms and the bedding,
2. only feed in corners (alternating every week),
3. keep at least 3 inches of shredded newspaper on top (the newspaper should not be wet, moist like a wrung our sponge is OK. If it is dry, that is OK) and
4. don't over feed them.
Rule 1: burying food prevents fruit flies from finding the food in your bin.
Rule 2: feeding in corners prevents overfeeding because you can observe how much food is left from previous feedings. Corner feeding also allows worms to flee if something is wrong with the food (pH, temperature, etc.).
Rule 3: a nice think layer of bedding keeps your bin from getting too wet and also helps prevent fruit flies.
Rule 4: overfeeding is a source of problems (moisture, smell, fruit flies, etc.). Feeding too little is preferable to feeding too much. Start slowly and ramp up over time.
If you have not already started, I would encourage you to download instructions to build your own bin and get started now.
It is not too late to begin.
Originally published on November 19, 2008
Shredding newspaper has become my second hobby (next to vermicomposting). To provide bedding for my herd, I shred a lot of newspaper.
I like newspaper because it is free and plentiful. The papers come to my home and yesterday's paper is always available.
Office paper works equally well (for an office bin, your shredded office paper would work great). You want long strips, so a standard shredder works (but not a cross-cut shredder). Long, thin strips are better because cross-cut paper tends to mat when wet and you want your bedding to be airy.
Most non-glossy printed material can also be used since most high-quality laser toner and ink-jet inks are non-toxic. If you are going to use a lot of lot of a single source in your worm bin, check with the manufacturer to be certain. The Portland Press Herald uses non-toxic ink.
There is a technique to shred newsprint. I prefer to hold it by the folded edge (1-2 sections at a time) and shred into 1/8-1/4 inch strips. It shreds really easily and it makes a nice swooshing sound. For a long time Bert thought I was sweeping every morning!
Another advantage of newspaper is that shredding it is relaxing. It sounds strange, but I shred A LOT of newspaper, and I have come to enjoy this quotidian task. It is a morning activity I appreciate after I feed my herd. I shred yesterday's paper in the cellar and listen to NPR while I sip my coffee. It is a few minutes of meditation before I start my day.
Originally published on September 27, 2008
In response to Natalie Jeremijenko's charge "...how do we translate the tremendous amount of anxiety and interest in addressing major environmental issues into something concrete that people can do whose effect is measurable and significant?"
I present the following list of things we can do to help the environment:
1. Reduce/reuse/recycle wherever you can: many garden centers will accept plastic pots returned after purchase.
2. Conserve ground water: build a rain garden to reduce runoff, collect rain from gutters for dry days, and water in the morning.
3. Put out native bee boxes: encourage local pollinators. See the Kate's Bee Boxes page.
4. Share your wealth: grow food for neighbors, and encourage them to grow their own and buy locally.
5. Use Best Management Practices & Integrated Pest Management for pesticides and insecticides you may use in your yard. Yes, you'll have to do some research on what you're using, but it will make the application more effective.
6. Grow natives: native plants require less work and are more hardy since they're already adapted.
7. Go renewable: consider renewable resources for mulch, potting mix, etc. What is plentiful in your area and how can it be used?
8. Start a worm bin. If you already have a bin, start a bin for a friend. Worm bins make great gifts!
9. Educate your family, friends, and neighbors: tell them about your successes with the above. You'll be surprised how many will adapt your ideas.
Originally published on September 24, 2008
This time of year, fruit flies can be a real problem in the worm bin (not that they're bad for composting), but they are annoying to have in your home. The good news is you can get rid of them pretty quickly by following these suggestions.
Let's start first with prevention:
Dealing with an infestation **First know that fruit flies have a life cycle and there is an end to the problem.** The quickest way I’ve found to deal with fruit flies is as follows:
If you follow these steps you will be free of fruit flies in a few weeks. The most important things you can do are bury your food and kill/remove the adult fruit flies.
Originally published on September 4, 2008
Vermicomposting and beyond! Check out what I've been up to on my blog.