Small Scale Vermicomposting You Can Do Anywhere
Guest Garden Expert, Rob Herring
Highlights from Rob’s presentation: 2020 Superfood Garden Summit
32 million tons of food are thrown out every year just in the US.
97% of the food waste ends up in landfills.
Waste rots releasing greenhouse gases like methane into the air.
Composting this food waste would turn this waste into new soil that holds water, carbon and vital nutrients, reduce the waste in landfills and eliminate the use of chemical synthetic fertilizers.
Rob is new to vermicomposting and is here to share his top tips, from his learning curve, for making it through the first stages of vermicomposting when you’re just getting started.
Vermicomposting is the process of using worms to break down food.
→ Regular composting can take anywhere from three months to two years. In vermicomposting, you can see compost breakdown within 8-12 weeks.
→ Composting is really difficult when you live in a small space or urban environment. But urban environments contain the most people so that means lots of food waste. Creating ways for urban dwellers to be able to compost their food waste is vital for the health and regeneration of our planet. Vermicomposting makes composting accessible for those who live in urban environments or small spaces.
→ Food is #3 on the list of climate change contributors. This is without calculating the methane released by landfills (methane is 84 times more powerful in heating up the atmosphere than CO2), because there is no tool to help us measure the amount emitting from landfills. If we were able to include the emissions, food waste would by far be by far the #1 contributing factor to our environmental issues.
→ Current calculations estimate that about 40% of our food is wasted. That’s 40% of the total mass, but it’s also 40% of the total water used to grow that food, 40% of all the pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, synthetic fertilizers, human labor, carbon, distribution costs, etc… so it’s 40% of the food and all of the energy and resources that went into growing that food wasted, for no reason.
This is PROFOUND. It not only highlights the problem, but illuminates the opportunities we have that we can all participate in… It means that solutions are accessible to everyone.
Benefit of Vermicomposting Recap
1. Reduces food waste in landfills and the resources it takes to ship the waste to the landfill by 40%.
2. Reduce chemicals sprayed and waste of resources that go into making and distributing food by 40%.
3. Planet Regeneration: Increase the water holding capacity, sequestered carbon, and minerals and nutrients in soil.
4. Preserves topsoil to reduce run off, leaching, and extreme temperature swings.
5. Faster breakdown of food waste to compost (versus using traditional composting).
Tip 1: Creating a Successful Environment
• Regardless of which bin or method you use, you’re going to want to create the conditions for moms to be happy. That starts with their bedding.
• Coconut Coir: A substrate that can feel very similar to the soil if using the correct brand.
• Shredded newspaper, pumice stones, minerals, etc. There are many different types of materials you can use for worm bedding.
• The number one most important thing to remember is to keep the moisture level at the optimum level for your worms.
• So much about feeding/overfeeding, the carbon to nitrogen to carbon/ brown to greens, the dead to more alive materials has a lot to do with maintaining optimum moisture-rich levels.
• The bedding you provide for your worms is not a bedding in the traditional way we think of bedding for animals. Instead, it’s simply a slower breakdown type of food for the worms. It’s the carbon bedding you’re starting with.
Tip 2: Not Heated
• You want to keep your worm compost bin in normal human temperature ranges 55°F to no more than 90°F (12-32°C). This makes the indoor climate control that most humans live in perfect for worms as well. When it gets too hot, it will start losing moisture through evaporation and the worms will be uncomfortable.
Tip 3: Spreading out Your Organic Matter
• Cutting up and dispersing the organic matter over the worm bin is better than clumping it all together or giving them large chunks.
Tip 4: Outdoors Vermicomposting
• If you’re vermicomposting outdoors, make sure you are protecting it from the elements and that your bin is never in direct sunlight.
Tip 5: Size Your Worm Bin to Fit Directly in Your Kitchen
• By finding a place to tuck your worm bin into somewhere in your kitchen, you’re making it easy to access from where you generate food waste to begin with. Slide it under a ventilated cabinet, tuck it in a corner or under the table. If you build your bin right, people can walk right by and never know there are creepy crawlies right in your kitchen.
Tip 6: Activate Your Compost
• It helps to think about composting like a large digestive process. It’s the breakdown of materials in order for those materials to be used (in this case for plants). For any healthy digestion to occur, there needs to be healthy bacteria (like probiotics in our digestive tract). So you need to inoculate your compost bin to provide healthy bacteria for the worms.
• This may be in the form of a handful of compost or maybe you use a handful of healthy soil. Even putting a small amount of food scraps a few days before your worms arrive can help attract the beneficial bacteria to the bin to give your worms the right head start. Some people start this a few weeks before the worms arrive, I waited three days. There’s no exact science to the timing.
Tip 7: The Worms
• Red Wigglers are the worms you’ll want to use for vermicomposting. There is another worm called the European Night Crawler that isn’t technically a night crawler that some people use. I don’t know enough about them and there may be others but the red wiggler is what most people use in vermicomposting.
• When you get your worms, you just put them in the bin and let them get accustomed to their new environment.
Tip 8: Water
• Have a spray bottle on hand so you’re not having to constantly run back and forth to the kitchen sink, figuring out how to get water in the container and disperse it. Have the spray bottle on hand next to the bin.
• I use reverse osmosis water because it takes all the harsh chemicals out. Use the cleanest water you have.
• Just spritz the worm bin as your worm bin needs. It’s not an exact science. You’re going to need to observe and learn when the moisture level is optimal as you go.
• Some people use the squeeze test: Take a handful of soil, squeeze it in your hand, you should have one drop of water come out. Just be careful not to squeeze a worm!
• Keep in mind your food scraps are about 80-90% moisture. And you want to maintain a 70% moisture level in your worm bin. So you might want to add some browns as you go.
Tip 9: Light
• Have a light shining on the worm bin. Worms avoid light so the light helps keep them in their home where it’s moist and safe for them. The light isn’t for heat, it’s just for light.
• Don’t worry, you aren’t going to find worms all over the house or in your bed. Sometimes, they will find their way out of the bin if they are uncomfortable. They can’t get far because it’s too dry outside the bin.
Tip 10: Food
• Chop up your food scraps into really small pieces. Just like we chew our food into smaller pieces to make digestion easier, our worm bin will produce better if we chop up the scraps. This increases the surface area available to the worms, providing easier access to food. This is especially helpful in the beginning while we are building the healthy microbes in the bin.
• Some people even blend their food scraps in the beginning.
• Start with a cup of food and see how it goes. Everyone has a different recommendation of how much food to feed the bins. But every bin is going to be a little different. The best way to determine the food amount is to check the bin every day to see if the food is starting to break down and if they might be ready for more or if they need a little more time.
• If the bin stinks, there is probably too much food and that’s when you’ll start to attract fruit flies and other insects. I’ve only seen one or two flies in the several months I’ve been keeping my bin because I started with less and slowly increased the food amount to the optimum level.
• It really is slow and steady wins the race. Worms will optimize and adjust their population based on their food supply and living area. So they will reproduce as needed. Once the system gets going you can add more and more food to encourage reproduction. Then over time, you can add larger chunks of food and add more, etc. But start small and slow.
• Keep an airtight Tupperware container of extra food in the fridge or freezer as a backup in case your worms need food when you don’t have scraps available… maybe you cooked less that week, etc.
Tip 11: Bedding Tips
• Along with your spray bottle, you’ll want to have your carbon (bedding) nearby. I keep a bag of shredded newspaper next to my worm bin. You don’t want to be scrambling looking around for cardboard, paper, etc. trying to find bedding when you need it. This way, it’s ready to go.
• If you want to do indoor vermicomposting I highly recommend getting a paper shredder. All your junk mail and all the stuff that would otherwise be trash or go in the recycle bin can now be used for your bedding.
• Don’t just use paper all the time, have variety, but it is a good go to to have next to your bin.
• Moisten the carbon before you add it to the bin.
• Add carbon when you need it. Some people say to add carbon every time you add food. Some people don’t. Again, get to know your system.
• Familiarize yourself with what the bin looks like at any given point and how the worms are responding, then adjust as you need. If there is a ton of paper in the bin not breaking up? Is it too dry? Maybe it’s too hot or maybe you might have too much carbon.
Tip 12: On The Move
• Worms are going to move up over time. So maybe you use the stackable bins, like the Worm Factory, etc. They want to live in the top two inches of soil. As they move up, you’ll know that the bottom layers are ready for harvesting. This normally happens in about 12 weeks or so, but don’t rush. If you give it extra time, there will be less and less worms in the bottom layers because they want to move up where the food is.
• Composting worms are not going to be ideal for your garden, so by not rushing to harvest the bottom layers, you’re helping ensure they won’t be in the soil where you grow your food.
• Not rushing also makes harvesting a lot easier and less time consuming.
Worm castings have been shown to increase plant yields and resistance to pests and diseases by increasing your soil’s water retention, aeration, structure, and microbial activity. Studies are showing that soils with worm castings also attract more beneficials and pollinators, which makes sense seeing as how the healthier the plant, the higher quality of pollen and nectar it will produce.
Some people are weirded out by worms. If you are, you gotta get over it. It can be a little weird at first, but once you collaborate with them, you realize how truly magnificent they are. Worms literally create earth and play such a vital role in our ecosystem! Once you realize this, you’ll become a total vermi-nerd!
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