Monday, July 14, 2014

Wormy Composting

At the beginning of this summer I was bequeathed with red wigglers, aka vermiculture worms for composting inside the house.  Armed with the almighty internet and a passion for research, as well as a little pain reduced time, and I built a box for keeping them. The premise is fairly simple, one box to live in, one to make a new home when necessary and one to catch any drips. I did try to cheap out a little and just use two levels, but that makes transferring the worms difficult. It can still be done, using one of the lids to the totes as a drip catcher, but I found that set up to be less stable using the materials I had available at the time. I chose the most simple way possible, but when I think on it, I am sure that there are other configurations that could be more efficient in terms of materials.

This is what you need:

2 plastic totes.

Mine are of the medium sized variety. They should not be too deep, you want enough space for the scraps and then some bedding on top of that and I like having some extra head space in case these normally homebody worms get freaked out and try moving up, as they did when I first put them in their new home.
It is important that the totes do not nestle inside each other tightly. Since the ones I had available did nest tightly, I put a couple of rocks between the two, just under the handles, to give it a bit more space.

2 drill bits (and a drill!)

I do not have the exact sizes, and that isn't terribly important. The large holes were under 3/8th inch, but larger than 1/8th inch, and the small one was under 1/8th of an inch. The large holes are to allow the worms to migrate when harvesting the lovely composty material. They start out really small and skinny, but I had no idea how fat they could get, so I err'd on the side of a bit big. The small bit is just to pop in some air holes. I doubt they are small enough to keep the worms from crawling out if they really wanted too, but they are non migratory by nature, so my hope is that the narrow holes will dissuade any adventuring type worms.

Strips of damp newspaper. Just soak the strips and wring very dry.

Food scraps, a couple days old and chopped up ideally, but it is not necessary. Just do not feed them any animal products except some crushed eggshells (with the membrane removed, which is a pain, so my eggs shells go straight into the garden usually) and do not put citrus fruit scraps in there as too much acid messes with them.

Now for the fun.

Take one lid and drill some small holes in the top like so:

Around the top portion of two of the totes, drill some small holes too. These are for ventilation. I have a fear of opening the darned thing and having something terrible come out, like very strong odors or worse, decomposing worms.

These will be your worm nests. The worms live in one, and after a few months it will be filled with a compacted mix of bedding and worm poop! When that happens, they need another, clean nest, to live in. This is where the bottom holes come in. As well as allowing any liquid to drain, these holes make is easier for the worms to move downward when the time comes. I tried to just use the one nest, but when I went to sort through to remove the worms I realized that I was going to lose a lot of them because they look just like their surroundings at that point. So, I made two of the above totes and drilled these holes in the bottom:

So, now you have two totes with small air holes near the top and a few larger holes on the bottom as well as a lid with some small holes drilled in. The third tote needs no holes, but if your bins fit tightly you may want to put something there to keep a space between the totes so that the water can come out if there should be any. I have not seen any liquid dripping from mine yet, but they say it does happen. I am still on a learning curve, but I have had them for over six months and they are still alive and kicking, so to speak.

I just used some empty toilet paper rolls to lift the bins up a bit. They don't last long, but there is a continuous supply until I find four items of equal height to replace them. I don't use canned goods often, so I rarely have more than a couple around. That, and I do not want to deal with the rust. I am that lazy.

Now, put them all together, the one tote with no holes on the bottom to catch anything that may come out. So far I have only had a very little bit of what looks like worm poop (castings, which technically all the compost will be)

You are scratching your head and thinking "Why are there only two bins? Why did I put holes in a third?" The reason is, this was my first attempt and I have not had a chance to photograph the other and am too lazy at this moment to go take one. Hey, it is hot out there. Not good for the chronic pain, believe you me. The third tote just goes on top.  If you wish, you can just make the two totes with holes and use the lid that you did not put holes in as a catcher underneath. I am not so brave as I did not know how much liquid would come out and I was not convinced that the worms would not escape.

In the very top container, put your scraps. On top of the scraps, loosely layer the damp newspaper shreds (I used the ads and flyers as I do not get a physical newspaper anymore, and neither do my neighbors so I could not scavenge them from recycling bins). Put your worms on top of that, and here is a major trick, keep the top cover off and put the whole thing under a light. The worms instinctively move down, away from the light. I did not do it that way at first and even two weeks later, most of the worms were still near the top. You would think the need to eat would encourage them downward, but I am thinking that without noses they don't know it is there.
Mix a little dirt or used up coffee grounds in with the scraps as the worms need a bit of grit to digest properly.

After a few hours, check to see if the worms are no longer on top of the bedding and put on the cover with the holes in it. The rule of thumb is a one to one ratio of scraps to worms. One pound of worms (about a thousand red wrigglers) can eat a pound of food in a week. Mine are quite a bit lazier than that, so start with less and work your way up. If the nest material looks dry when you check, spray some water. They don't need a lot, as there is a lot in the food, but the damp is supposed to be good, as long as it isn't sopping.

In three months or so, you are going to have to change the bins. To do this, lightly loosen the castings in the occupied bin. In the unoccupied one, create a new home, just as you did at the beginning. then, set the old home on top of the new, making sure that there is space between the bottom of the totes. If they are not moving, which honestly, I am not sure how they survived long enough to get this far as mine are super lazy, just set them under a lamp again, coming in occasionally to remove castings and stir up any remaining to get the worms to move down to their new home.

That is it. I have thought many times that my neglect had killed them. When you have chronic pain, sometimes that takes priority, and my flare last a week or more sometimes, leaving me with a lot of backlogged work that must be prioritized to get done before the next flare which is not predictable. Despite this, my worms are thriving. I even found them mating in a big old squirmy worm ball.
These worms do not have a male/female system, but they do need each other to reproduce.

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