Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

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Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

Post by Anianna » Fri May 16, 2014 12:59 pm

My son recently used his birthday money to purchase a Worm Factory vermicomposter. If you are not familiar, vermiculture is raising worms and vermicomposting is using worms specifically for the purpose of breaking down organic matter for compost. There are several commercial vermicomposters on the market including the Worm Factory, Can of Worms, and VermiHut. I find these vermicomposters to be a bit expensive for what they are and you can make a simple, far less costly version yourself with some instructions found below.

We are very much enjoying these worms and what they are doing for us. Here is the information you need to vermicompost:


Why Compost?

Composting reduces household waste and provides a source of nutrients for gardening and soil amendments.

Why Should You Vermicompost as Opposed to Other Methods?

According to Nature’s Footprint (the company that produces the Worm Factory):
  • Worms create a compost material that is far superior than any compost that is produced without their assistance
  • The compost material that is created by worms is smaller than 2 microns
  • Vermicompost added to soil creates a material that has better water retention, aeration, drainage and stability
  • Vermicompost contains more antibiotic properties against pathogens than regular compost and higher amounts of natural plant growth hormones
  • Worms have the ability to reduce all bacteria that is pathogenic to animals and people
Additionally:
  • I find it easier than typical composting (no turning, etc)
  • It takes up very little space to produce really awesome compost
  • A worm composter can be kept in the house
    • Doesn’t Stink - The worms eat the food before it gets rotty and stinky and their shit don’t stink. Literally. I was hesitant to have this thing in my house, but I haven’t had a problem with it in here. Ours sits in our dining room and is not at all offensive.
      Convenience - Since it is in the house, composting is convenient and the residents of our household (note: children) are more likely to actually compost with it in here rather than sneak perfectly good food scraps into the garbage can to avoid taking it to the outdoor compost, especially in poor weather.
      Controlled Environment – Having the vermicomposter inside is also good for the worms as they are not fond of extreme temperatures.

Getting Started

Types of Composting Worms
Not all worms work well in a vermicomposter and the type of worm you use matters. The red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) are ideal for many reasons:
1) They prefer to live in the top few inches of soil as opposed to other worms that like to move down into the soil. This means that you can add trays for them to move up into giving you access to the castings without having to dig your worms out by hand.
2) They don’t like light which allows you to ensure they stay in their nice dark bin. Other types of worms are not so bothered by light and will want to explore outside of your bin.
3) They reproduce quickly.
4) They eat half their weight in food every day. One pound of worms will eat half a pound of food every day.

Fishing worms
If you are interested in raising fishing worms in your worm bins, a great dual-purpose worm is the European Nightcrawler (Eisenia hortensis) aka Belgian Nightcrawler. They reproduce slower, but will stay in your bins if you take the same care with them as red wigglers and they make a great fishing worm.

How Many Worms?
Most households will want to start with 1 lb of worms. If you are a large family of 6 or more or produce a lot of food waste, start with 2 lbs of worms. If you start with fewer worms, your system will take longer to establish and you may experience some rotty stinky food if there aren’t enough worms to eat what you are feeding them. If you start with more worms, you will just waste money buying them and you may have difficulties with unhappy worms looking for food outside of the bin and with dead worms. 1 lb of worms is roughly equivalent to 800-1000 worms.

Buying Worms
If you are lucky, you can find worms locally from nurseries or garden centers. You can sometimes find red wigglers at bait shops, but be careful to only buy "red wigglers" with the correct scientific name as you can call any species a red wiggler and sometimes people call other species red wigglers. Your bin will not function as well if you get the wrong kind of worms and since red wigglers are not necessarily considered a great bait worm, the "red worms" and "red wigglers" at a bait shop are often not the right species.

There is a website that lists several places to buy proper worms for composting: http://www.findworms.com/
However, the site is a little buggy. You can browse the list of suppliers by clicking "browse all" near the bottom of the page under the "Featured Worm Farms" heading. You are welcome to try to use the search function, but I find that it does not work. Perhaps they will have fixed it by now.

Alternatively, you can do what we did and order these worms from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm from Amazon.com. Our worms arrived quickly - healthy in moist bedding inside a drawstring bag inside a box. Uncle Jim also has a website where you can buy worms and commercial vermicomposters.

Tools
Spray bottle - for misting when things get dry
Garden cultivator (we use this one)
Scraper (you can use a spatula or a small, flexible cutting mat like these if you don’t buy a commercial model that comes with a scraper)

Bedding (browns)
Bedding, basically, is the “browns” you add to your compost. This can include stuff like paper, cardboard, and dry fallen leaves. Half of what goes into each tray of your worm bin should be these “browns” while the other half is "greens" otherwise known as food. You should also add some garden soil to your bins as garden soil provides healthy bacteria that will help your worms process their food.

Commercial bins will often come with or recommend coir and pumice for bedding. Coir is the ground husks of coconuts. It is a renewable resource that retains moisture well and can create a nice, moist, not-too-wet environment for your new worms. Pumice is porous volcanic rock that provides aeration and drainage. Neither of these is absolutely necessary for your vermicomposter, but do create an ideal starting environment. Starting with these is nice, but there is no need to use these items for each tray. Both are also good for your garden or planting containers, too.

Food (greens)
Worms don’t like meat or dairy products. You may find they also don’t like very spicy or very salty leftovers. Some information indicates they also do not like citrus.

Worms do like vegetable waste, teabags, coffee grounds, fruit waste, grains, breads, pasta, dead or pruned plant matter, and eggshells.


Building Your Own Vermicomposter

Things to Know
  • You will get liquid called leachate. Most if not all commercial vermicomposters have a catchment for this, but you will have to account for it if you build your own. If you don’t, you will have soggy, unhappy worms.
  • You do not have to stack trays/bins. The stacking method keeps worms moving from old castings to fresh food. This helps to separate them from the castings you want to harvest so you don’t have to spend hours digging your worms out of your harvest by hand.
Single Bin Vermicomposter
This link has some general vermiculture information and some basic information regarding how to build this simple, one bin vermicomposter:

Image


Stacking Vermicompotser
This link has instructions to build this “Cheap and Easy Worm Bin”:

Image

For what I would call a “luxury” vermixomposter, use three or four bins instead of two. Use four cups as a stand just like in the “Cheap and Easy Worm Bin” instructions, but add a spigot to this bottom bin and four more cups inside. This bottom bin acts as a catchment for the liquid (leachate) and the spigot makes it easy to harvest. The other two or three bins are worm trays. The bottom worm tray sits on the cups in the leachate bin.


Using the Vermicomposter

Using the Stacking System

The basic idea is to fill the bottom tray, then add a tray. If you are using shallow trays like on most commercial vermicomposters, fill it to about 1” below the top before adding another tray. If you are using large bins in a homemade vermicomposter, fill them a little over halfway before adding a new bin.

Here is how the system works with four worm trays/bins:

Step 1: Starting out
Tray 1 – Place a layer of damp newspaper on the bottom of the tray/bin. Add moist bedding, some garden soil (if possible), worms, and food. Keep covered with a light over the bin for two days. On the third day, check the worms. If they are moving about the food you put in the bin, you can now add food and bedding until full. Keep covered. You no longer need the light shining on the bin. If the worms are not moving about in the food, give them another two days and check them again.

Step 2: Processing
Remove cover and add Tray 2 on top of Tray 1. Tray 1 is now a processing tray. DO NOT add food to Tray 1 anymore. Tray 2 is now the feed tray. Add bedding and food (about equal amounts of both) along with a bit of garden soil to Tray 2 until filled, keeping it covered.

Step 3: Processing
Remove cover and add Tray 3 on top of Tray 2. Tray 1 and Tray 2 are now a processing trays. DO NOT add food to Tray 1 or Tray 2 anymore. Tray 3 is now the feed tray. Add bedding and food (about equal amounts of both) along with a bit of garden soil to Tray 3 until filled, keeping it covered.

Step 4: Processing
Remove cover and add Tray 4 on top of Tray 3. Tray 1, Tray 2, and Tray 3 are now a processing trays. DO NOT add food to Tray 1, Tray 2, or Tray 3 anymore. Tray 4 is now the feed tray. Add bedding and food (about equal amounts of both) along with a bit of garden soil to Tray 4 until filled, keeping it covered.

At this point, you have a stack of trays that are in process and worms will be moving about through all of the trays, though the bulk of the population will be moving upwards.

Step 5: Harvesting
Remove cover. Move Tray 1 to the top of the stack. Tray 2 will now be the bottom of the stack of trays. Use your garden cultivator and/or scraper to gently loosen the material in Tray 1 and remove it from the sides towards the center in a mound. Leave the cover off in a well-lit area or shine a lot on the top of Tray 1. This will encourage any worms that are in the tray to move down into the feed tray. In about 30 minutes, begin removing the compost from Tray 1 until you encounter worms. Repeat loosening material and waiting with light on the tray until the worms have all moved out of the tray and you have harvested all of the compost from the tray. The tray is now available to be added as the next feeding tray once Tray 4 is full.

Keep the trays rotating so that the top one is the only one you add food to and the bottom one is the one you harvest from. Harvest from the bottom one as the top one is filling up so that you will have another tray to add when the top one gets full.

If you are using a large homemade bin system, I would recommend using no more than four bins or the stack could become unwieldy. The smaller commercial systems are designed to be able to stack many trays high.

Troubleshooting

Finding other critters in your bins – Other critters are not uncommon in the worm bin. Here is a guide to what you are likely to find and what, if anything, you should do about it.

Worms are forming a ball – Worms ball up when they are stressed. Some things that cause stress include temperature extremes (too hot or too cold), the environment is too wet or too dry, or food they find icky. The bedding should feel about like a wrung sponge; it should not be drippy wet, but should feel damp. As for food, worms do not like meat or dairy and they are not fond of spicy or salty foods in general. Also, feeding them garden or farm materials that have been chemically treated may upset them.

Worms are escaping! – Stress can cause worms to escape their bin. Check “worms are forming a ball” above to identify what may be the cause of their stress. To keep them in the bin, you can take the lid off and shine a light on the bin. They don’t like light and will burrow down to get away from it, keeping them in the bin. Make sure the bedding doesn’t dry out too much with the lid off and try to identify what it is that is upsetting the worms to fix the issue.

ANTS! – Unless you already have an ant problem, your bin should not attract ants. However, if you have an ant problem (like we do) you can put a tray under your bin or a dish under each leg. You can try putting water in the tray or dishes, but some ants can traverse water. If yours can, use a bit of oil instead. We use peanut oil because it comes in huge jugs for frying and we use a lot of it in our honey processing shed to keep ants out of the various honey processing areas. You can use olive oil, vegetable oil, etc.


Using/Storing Your Compost and Leachate

Compost
You can put your fresh compost directly into your garden or plant pots. If you have no garden or potted plants (you probably do if you are on ZS), give it to your friends and neighbors or maybe sell it at a farmer's market (check your local regulations). I typically find this stuff going for about $1.75/lb as I write this.

To store it, do not put it in an airtight container. According to Nature's Footprint (the maker of the Worm Factory), "placing actively decomposing organic materials in an airtight container encourages anaerobic organisms to take over, and form plant toxic by-products which can cause a foul smell". Let the material dry a little so that it is damp but not wet. Store in a container that is not airtight and cover with a moist layer of newspaper. This allows the organic material to stabilize in an aerobic environment and gives it a shelf-life of about three years.

Leachate
Leachate is basically waste produced by the system. Since a system contains both "good" and "bad" bacteria, you should not use Leachate on edible plants. You can use it on flowers, but you should dilute it ten parts water to one part leachate and aerate (with a pump, by stirring vigorously, or by pouring repeatedly from one container to another). If it smells, discard it where it will not harm plants.

Worm Tea
Leachate is sometimes confused with "worm tea" which is beneficial to plants. Worm tea is formed by brewing vermicompost in clean, chemical free aerated water to encourage the growth of beneficial microbes that are great for gardens, including edible ones. Adding molasses to the water stimulates "good" microbial growth. This worm tea can be used like a medicine sprayed on sick plants, overwhelming the "bad" microbes with "good" ones to help the plant get better. It boosts the plant's immune system to help it resist parasites like aphids and nematodes. While vermicompost is great for growth, it is best for food at the roots as it breaks down over time while the worm tea is great for spraying on plants to give them a boost with good microbes.
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Re: Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

Post by Anianna » Fri May 16, 2014 1:28 pm

The spice is the worm and the worm is the spice.
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Re: Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

Post by buck85 » Fri May 16, 2014 2:35 pm

Very interesting !! new hobby.
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Re: Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

Post by Murphman » Fri May 16, 2014 3:19 pm

Anianna wrote:The spice is the worm and the worm is the spice.

LOL, perfect, and what a GREAT post.

I loved my vermicomposter in Pa. All the red wigglers died from the heat in Florida after I had to move the bin outside after a pretty nasty fruit fly infestation. The second batch I did here also died from heat, so I cleaned it out and put the bin in the storage shed. Maybe I will take it up again someday, but so far, I haven't found a worm that will last outside in Florida (9b) even in the shade.

I can honestly say that my tomato starts using 50% worm poo and 50% peat moss grew faster, were heartier and more disease resitant than starts I bought at the big box.
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Re: Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

Post by Anianna » Fri May 16, 2014 5:15 pm

Our starting cost was approximately $140 for bin, worms, and cultivator, but my son bought a five tray tower rather than the standard 3 tray tower (we're a relatively large family, so I figured we would end up with five trays in rotation). The Worm Factory was the biggest expense at just under $100. You can get those big tote bins at Walmart for something like $6 each, so you can definitely build a vermicomposter yourself way cheaper than you can buy one, even if you get fancy and build one with a spigot.
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Re: Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

Post by Tater Raider » Sat May 17, 2014 10:33 pm

Thoughts on vermiculture as a food source for chickens?

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Re: Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

Post by Ad'lan » Sun May 18, 2014 3:07 am

Tater Raider wrote:Thoughts on vermiculture as a food source for chickens?
You'd need a lot of plant waste to grow enough worms fast enough as an only source of food, but as a source of additional protein, it can be a good use of excess worms.


My knowledge of Vermiculture is only from making a Worm farm with sand and compost to see the trails they left and a few lectures I've attended at various agricultural events. I do recall them not liking citrus, and I think maybe they also don't like Alliums (Garlic, Onions Ect.) but I could be misremembering.
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Re: Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

Post by Anianna » Sun May 18, 2014 6:49 am

The population of the worm farm is self-limiting: there does not exist "excess" worms. You can remove worms to feed the chickens a treat and the worms will temporarily reproduce in greater numbers to balance the loss. My thoughts were to harvest the worms that remain in the harvesting tray rather than encourage them down, but this is still just an occasional treat rather than an actual food source. I don't think in would be practical to try to raise them as a food source for voracious chickens.

Meal worms, on the other hand, can be raised pretty easily in a fish tank or storage tote of similar or larger size and make an excellent supplemental food source for chickens. I have a link here somewhere about how to do that. I will post it as soon as I get a chance.

ETA: http://www.backyardchickens.com/a/how-t ... -mealworms
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Re: Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

Post by Murphman » Mon May 19, 2014 8:18 am

Tater Raider wrote:Thoughts on vermiculture as a food source for chickens?

Look into Black Soldier fly larva as an alternative (and the meal worms Anianna brought up). Insects reproduce at a much faster rate.
Last edited by Murphman on Thu May 22, 2014 7:47 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

Post by Anianna » Thu May 22, 2014 7:41 am

I purchased four 10 gallon storage totes for $4.97 per tote and two packs of four Mainstays brand food storage cups for $1.84 per pack. I will be building another vermicomposter for a grand total of $23.56 - a huge savings over the ~$100 my kiddo spent for his commercial model. You can usually find the Mainstays food storage cups at Walmart near the canning jars or with the Rubbermaid/Ziplok/Glad food storage bowls. At some point, I may buy a spigot for the bottom bin, but for now, I'll just pour it out when it get excess liquid in it. My son's commercial Worm Factory has not yet produced significant enough liquid to warrant a spigot, but we shall see as the worms continue to work their magic. I suspect the amount of liquid produced may have a relation to the moisture levels of the bedding itself. My theory is that if you don't keep the bedding overly damp, the system might not produce an excess of liquid.
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Re: Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

Post by Murphman » Thu May 22, 2014 7:56 am

I always made sure that I was overly moist. The vermi-tea is the best liquid fertilizer I have ever used. I diluted about 5 to 1 and used as a foliar spray after straining with cheese cloth. It cleared up powdery mildew, early blight and blossom-end rot. The blossom end rot I can explain from the egg shells I always added, but the other two has no scietific bearing other than my own personal viewing.

I miss that stuff. :(
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Re: Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

Post by Anianna » Thu May 22, 2014 5:10 pm

So here is the vermicomposter I built:

Parts:
3 x 8 gallon totes (I used one for a catch tray and two for worm trays - you can add more worm trays but this is a good starting size)
4 x small cups (I used Mainstays food storage cups, which come in a pack of 6)

Tools used:
Drill with 1/4" bit
Leatherman Squirt PS4 multitool (the pliers and file)
Ruler (not really necessary, you can eyeball it - the worms don't really care how perfectly the holes are spaced)


Steps
1. I measured and drew a grid that would give me 20 cross points:
Image


2. Drill holes at the cross points and in the center of each drawn square/rectangle. I stacked two bins together and drilled both at the same time.
Image


This is the result of drilling in plastic. There's lots of hard little plastic bits that need to be removed.
Image


3. Clean up the holes. I used pliers to pull off larger pieces of drilled plastic and a file to clean up the edges of the holes. The file on my Leatherman Squirt is the perfect size for this.
Image


Here is the work in progress (holes on the left have had some work compared to the ones on the right that still need a lot of work):
Image


4. Put the cups in the catch bin and set one of the drilled totes on the cups.
Image


Here you can see the homemade worm condo next to the commercial Worm Factory. They are very similar.

Image



Cost comparison:
1 pack of cups x $1.84 = $1.84
3 totes x $4.97 = $14.91
Homemade vermicomposter cost = $16.75

The five-tray Worm Factory my son bought = $99.95

The standard 3-tray Worm Factory = $79.95

You could make this homemade vermicomposter and buy yourself a Leatherman Squirt PS4 for $29.05 and still save money over buying the commercial model.



Notes:
The instructions I linked in my original post for the multi-tote homemade composter directed you to drill ventilation holes in the upper portion of the bins. I did not because while air flow is important, the worms don't like light. Having holes in the upper portion of the totes could alter the worms' behavior and leave unprocessed stuff in your bins. I think those upper ventilation holes are a waste of energy. We shall see how well this functions without them.

I didn't have the lid on the homemade model when I took the picture. The Worm Factory has a lid that fits inside the tray. You simply lay it on top of the bedding (ours has some tinfoil on top of the lid to keep the cat out of it). The newer Worm Factory 360 model has an actual lid. Once worms are in, I will lay the lid on top of the homemade composter to keep the worms happily in the dark and keep their environment moist.

I know I said I bought four totes in that last post, but my kids needed one for something. Also, I didn't realize the cups came in a six pack rather than a four pack and, since I didn't put legs on the catch tray, I really only needed the one pack.
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Re: Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

Post by Anianna » Thu May 29, 2014 10:58 am

We have wormsign.



Today, the red wigglers I ordered arrived. They came from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm (you can order them from Amazon or on their website) and this is what I found after opening the box:

Image



As you can see, the worms come in some bedding:

Image



I added the contents of the bag to the composter tray that already contained food and bedding,

Image



moved bedding and food over them,

Image



and then covered it all with a damp newspaper.

Image



And spice mining is now in full swing.

Image
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Re: Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

Post by Halfapint » Thu May 29, 2014 9:27 pm

This is a fantastic post! I've been thinking of making one myself but just havent gotten around to it. I'll have to do it now.



And spice mining is now in full swing.
:clap: :clap: :clap: :clap: :clap:

The Spice must flow!
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Re: Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

Post by Anianna » Fri May 30, 2014 8:24 am

ESCAPE FROM WORMCATRAZ

The worms tried to escape, so this happened:
Image



As I lay my head on my pillow last night, I realized that I had forgotten to shine a light at my Worm Manor. See, red wigglers like to explore in the dark, or perhaps they just felt the need to escape after being kidnapped, thrown into a sack, and then summarily dropped into a box. Regardless of their motive, it's a good idea to shine a light on a newly populated vermicomposter for a couple of days. Here's what happens if you don't:

Image

Image

Image



I found two intrepid explorers already drying out on the floor, but I rescued them before I could snap pictures. The lid had been on, by the way, so don't think your worms will stay in the box just because you put a lid on it. You must use light to train these guys to stay in the bedding.

I sprayed down the covering newspaper really well to keep the contents of the bin from drying out while open under the light.
Image

It was merely damp by the time I got up.

I'll do this again tonight and then simply check them for the next few nights. It shouldn't take them long to realize what luxury they are living in and stay buried. :crazy:
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slannesh
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Posts: 554
Joined: Sun May 01, 2011 10:35 pm
Location: Prince George, British Columbia

Re: Vermicomposting - The Instructional Guide

Post by slannesh » Thu Jun 19, 2014 5:44 pm

Started my own worm bin a while ago, need to expand it a bit and take better care of them. On the plus side, if you keep the temps under control they tolerate a surprising amount of neglect. Still have worms in my bin and they go weeks between feeds on occasion.
I'm not afraid of the dark, I'm afraid of what's *IN* the dark
~Anonymous

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