Monday, August 2, 2010

My history with worms

Earlier this spring I finally built a worm bin for our household. I was itching to build a worm bin for a long while. I had a worm bin from 2003 to 2005 while living in Bellingham, but haven't been in a position to have one in Portland until now.

We don't give our worms names, but they are valued members of our household nonetheless. The worms digest the bulk of our kitchen scraps, as well as a fair amount of our yard waste and grass clippings.

Our worm friends are amazing little creatures. They process food scraps and yard waste quickly to produce fertilizer that we use to amend our garden soil. This helps us save money that would have been spent on compost and enables us to keep food scraps out of the land fill. In this way, vermiculture is an important component of permaculture: "a system of cultivation intended to maintain permanent agriculture or horticulture by relying on renewable resources and a self-sustaining ecosystem." [link]

More info and some images below . . .

One of my favorite things about the worm bin is that when everything is going well in the worm universe the compost materials smell like fresh, healthy, earth. Before I built the bin, however, we were using one of these:

These kinds of composters are terrible, in my experience. First, they're made of plastic that has got to be leaching some kind of carcinogenic petroleum by-products, particularly during the hot summer months. Second, the black plastic becomes brittle and cracks in relatively little time. Third, it's hard to keep the compost properly aerated because it's difficult to stir the materials inside, and, contrary to what advocates claim, the bin's side slots do not do an adequate job of aeration by themselves; before I made our compost bin, the festering material in the black plastic bin was an astoundingly foul, gelatinous mass of putrescence through which squirmed hundreds of large maggots. Fourth, I find it offensive to have a large glob of processed petroleum product in the midst of a back yard otherwise filled with pretty flowers, tasty vegetables, yummy herbs, frolicking kitties, wary birds, scavenging squirrels, and gallivanting children.

I got involved in vermiculture with a minimal amount of research. I learned from some folks I knew in Bellingham the fundamentals that I've since applied with great success:
    1) Don't let the worm's neighborhood get too dry, too wet, too hot, or too cold.
    2) Provide a balance of materials for the worms to eat and live in. This balance includes "green" and "brown" materials.
    3) Don't feed the worms meat or cheese products, nor give them excessive amounts of cooking oil.
    4) Feed and aerate the pile regularly.

That's about it.

In preparing to write this post, I did a little bit of Internet research to determine other vermicomposting guidelines. WikiHow, for example, has a good overview of vermiculture, "How to Make Your Own Worm Compost System." Here are some differences between what I've found on the Internet and what I do:
    ** Bin Materials: I have built a wooden bin out of scrap 2x6 boards (untreated & unpainted, of course). The bin is about 3' high by 3' wide by 5' long. Many vermicomposting sites show plastic bins, but I'm not convinced that any kinds of plastic should come into contact with food- or food-related products. I realize that it's functionally impossible to live a modern urban life without having some amount of one's food being sold and/or stored in plastic containers, but I choose to limit my exposure to plastics as much as possible.
    I line the bottom of the bin with about 3-4" of pea gravel to discourage the worms from escaping. When I stir the pile, I'm careful to not disturb the gravel.
    ** Bin Size & Placement: My bin is a bit large so that I can have two distinct areas inside. One one side is the active composting pile, to which we add materials regularly. Once this pile gets big enough, I will then start another active pile in the other half of the bin. The worms will migrate to the active side within a few weeks and then we'll be able to harvest the compost without removing large amounts of worms.
    I placed the bin in the far SW corner of our yard, both because it is the most out-of-the-way area and because it isn't in direct sunlight.
    ** Composting Ingredients: I almost never provide my worms newspaper or scrap paper, even though many sites suggest this practice. This is because I don't want to add unknown chemicals and bleaching agents into the compost. To provide my worms some good fibrous materials, I use straw instead.
    Also, I don't worry about the amount of citrus matter that I feed the worms, nor do I blend the food scraps before I put them in the bin. I do chop some larger food scraps into smaller pieces -- for example, I've had apples and onions go completely rotten, so I've either smashed them with the pitchfork or cut them in the kitchen before I added them. The reason I don't worry about the amount of citrus nor puree my materials is that worms have been doing a marvelous job of digesting plant matter for millions of years, and in my experience thus far they've had no problems digesting the goodies that I give them. I'm not sure, but this stipulation could apply more to people using smaller, plastic, bins. Also, I have found that with my worm bin here in Portland I have at least two resident mice who enjoy the larger chunks of food that we provide them, so I imagine that rodent control is one reason why people might want to puree their scraps.
    I don't purposely feed the worms meat or cheese, but I also don't fret when the occasional scrap finds its way into the bin.
    ** Maintenance: I water the worms every few days during the summer. I keep a plywood lid over the bin in summer so the worms don't dry out and in winter so the worms don't get flooded out.

Here are some images of our worm community:

Worm bin in SW corner of property.

Looking inside the bin. A layer of garden scraps cover the worms. The lid is a thin sheet of plywood, on top of which is an old metal grate to provide weight that keeps the lid down during wind storms. We just slide the plywood back to open the bin.

Here is the dark, healthy, and pleasantly aromatic universe of the worm community.

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