large scale outdoor composting and education

goudanandaJuly 19, 2010

Hello, this is my second post to the forums and I'd like to thank all of you for providing an active forum to gain information on vermicomposting.

I started close to two years ago with 10 worms and a 10 gallon bin. Much like most of you, I'm completely and totally addicted now. I just gave two talks locally related to what I'm doing and have become the local worm guy much to my chagrin.

Initially I didn't think worms would work outside in our climate. Austin can be arid and with temps easily in the 100F range for several months in the summer I presumed it just too warm. I fed an outdoor pile of curing compost about 10 worms in September as the temps were dropping and by March the pile was visibly shrinking. I figured out it'd work through the winter.

Then the next test was summer. It's mid July and I declare it a success. My acre property is heavily shaded and a windrow underneath a tree, kept saturated with water and with plenty of mass lets a worm dive down and stay just fine. The temps aren't optimal, but it's working. I find eggs when I dig through my piles and slowly but surely they're working through the material.

By winter I should have at least three windrows going on site. They are 12'x5' and usually 2' high. I compost the prep table scraps from a single local restaurant, shredded paper and all the leaves I can get my hands on. I should in the future be able to find new restaurants and select scraps to feed directly into the piles.

At this point I'm selling small amounts of worms to people and doing my best to educate the public on the benefits of composting worms. I've decided to do all of this as cheaply and low tech as possible. I build a large pile, let it cook and when it cools...the worms will finish it off for me. My only issue will be harvest which may take a little longer than I like but producing yards of compost will be well worth it.

This might not be news to any of you but it's been nearly revelatory for me. The experience of starting a small farm has been gradual and lots of fun. I've had naysayers tell me raising worms outside is impossible here and I'm here to say that that's completely not the case. The climate isn't ideal but with some shade, moisture and mass, worms will thrive.

Thanks for all of the info you've shared with me over time. I pass all of this along freely and encouraged those interested to read the forums here.



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All that from 10 worms is a remarkable achievement - well done!

    Bookmark   July 19, 2010 at 4:42AM
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gouda..... I have an outdoor worm pit, also. Not enough room for windrows. Started with just a few worms found in some horse manure ... and they multiply like crazy! Present bin is roughly 6'x6' covered with carpet scraps and cardboard, and fed combo of manure & kitchen scraps. The surface is alive with worms. Our temps aren't as hot as yours, but we've been over 100 the last week and my worms get shade and a daily sprinkle with the hose.

I agree with your comments about how helpful this forum is. Starting from knowing NOTHING, to having a large sucessful 'herd' ... ':)'

    Bookmark   July 19, 2010 at 11:28AM
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lostmarbles18(8 southern Az)

Wow that is fantastic. I to have a windrow of horse manure and have found that with mine if I keep it watered they are fine.
I live in SE Arizona and mine is in full sun with no shade. The mass of the pile has so many temperature zones from dry and hot near the top, to almost anaerobic near the bottom they can find a place to there liking. What I do is add the daily droppings to the end of the pile were it can hot compost and as soon as it cools enough they are all over it. Just save a step of moving it twice.

    Bookmark   July 19, 2010 at 7:54PM
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Thanks for the informative post. Great to hear your success in the hot climate. Most of my worms are in outdoor compost bins lined with several layers of burlap (coffee-bean sacks). The compost is horse manure based and pre-loaded with native redworms and cocoons. I am blessed with a very mild coastal climate and the worms thrive! I use 2 harvest methods. The best way I use is a small "trommel"style homenade tumble-sifter. Two people can remove about 50 gallons of castings in a short time and return the balance to the worms. Another good method is to lay wet burlap on a new pile and dump VC on it, wait 2 weeks for the worms to move out, and use the rest in the garden. Good luck to you! Pete

    Bookmark   July 19, 2010 at 8:48PM
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August did most of my colony in. The heat just became too much with a heat index of 110F for a few days. I'd check my windrows and I'd find max maybe 2 worms.

As the heat has dropped to reasonable levels in the past few days and we've had torrential rains I decided to check the windrows again. I'd say maybe a lb. of worms have survived and I've no doubt that they'll reproduce and consume everything in sight in short order.

In the future I may grab some large bins and harvest some worms for a few months in summer to keep the colony larger and spare them some the worst heat. Sparing them the heat of late July and August will help keep the population numbers higher and the rest can do their best outside.

Just wanted to update everyone on my continuing experiment.

    Bookmark   September 10, 2010 at 2:29AM
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Would it be cost-effective to buy some blocks or bags of ice to top the windrows, when things start to heat up?
People seem to use a similar technique with bin farms ... on a larger scale, seems logical might work in larger windrows.

Would it be possible to layer brush or somthing else to make more shade over the windrows?

And, though off topic of heat .... have you had any 'critter' problems with your windrow worm farm? I recently discovered rats under the covers over my pit. [EEEK!]I've put poisoned bait out.

Also I'm wondering when you sell some worms, what kind of container do you use to hand them over? I've been saving coffee cans, but have not used yet. The 3 sets of worms I've given away to friends/family were given in a large double-wall cardboard box. I'm thinking of letting some boys from church sell worms from my herd. I'm 73 and pretty weather beaten, as they say, so don't want people coming to my house to buy worms. .... anyway, know what you mean about becoming enthused about vermiculture.

    Bookmark   September 10, 2010 at 5:44PM
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Borderbarb..I've thought about how I would sell worms if I decided it was worth the effort. For small numbers I would go to Sam's Club and look for restaurant styrofoam bowls with tops. I don't know if they sell them anymore but back when I had my pet store I could buy all kinds of containers.

    Bookmark   September 10, 2010 at 6:16PM
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I'm not sure using ice would be worthwhile. It would be cost prohibitive and alot of work. Part of what I like about worm composting is that the worms do the work. Now that I think of it freezing 3 liter bottles and inserting them into the pile might make some difference. I'd have to do so at the appropriate time of day for a month or so but I don't see why it wouldn't work. If I kept enough it'd give the worms space to climb close to the bottles to keep the temps cooler the way they like. I may try this next summer, I can't see a drawback and the work would be minimal.

I've tried keeping the windrows wet which does make a large difference but when we've no rain for a month at a time even watering them makes it difficult for the bed to hold enough moisture to really keep it cool via evaporation. Only thing I can think of in regards to water is to put misters out that would mist during the hottest part of the afternoon day. The water costs could be kept to a minimum (I use rainwater on my garden anyway) and the hottest portion of the day is the issue.

Only other thing I can think of is digging a pit/trench but that's alot of work and equipment needed. My solution of harvesting and reseeding the windrow in fall should work fine as well. Doing both the frozen bottles and the harvest method could give me a backup in case it goes awry.

Keeping the windrows covered isn't the issue I don't believe. I could find burlap sacks but I don't really think it'd make that much difference as concerns the heat. The ambient temperature is just too high and with a compost pile that's cooled, the temps just get too warm for my wormy friends. I think the bottles hold the best solution that's low maintenance and work. If that does work out it means that for 6 weeks or so in summer I do some extra work then the rest of the year the worms do the work for me.


    Bookmark   September 11, 2010 at 2:49AM
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eaglesgarden(6b - se PA)

I think you are grossly underestimating what direct sunlight can do. Keeping the windrow under some sort of shade, especially during the hottest portion of the day will have a drastic difference in the temp of the pile. If you can find a cheap and easily placed cover to put over the windrow, the results would be quite noticeable.

A really easy and cheap way to do it would be to construct a sort of hoop house over the top with some rebar, PVC pipes and burlap. You wouldn't require much strength and getting the grey schedule 40 is UV resistant, so it should last quite a few years.

Adding the frozen bottles would certainly help, but you would have to add quite a few bottles to give the same effect as simply keeping the sun off it!

    Bookmark   September 11, 2010 at 2:06PM
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plumiebear(z9? CA)

Robert, in your initial post you wrote: "My acre property is heavily shaded and a windrow underneath a tree, kept saturated with water and with plenty of mass lets a worm dive down and stay just fine."

Were the subsequent windrows also under trees? My instinct is to agree with EG that direct sun, especially in the dry heat you have, would have a significant impact on the windrow temps. However, Rick (Salado Farms) wrote: "I live in SE Arizona and mine is in full sun with no shade. The mass of the pile has so many temperature zones from dry and hot near the top, to almost anaerobic near the bottom they can find a place to there liking."

Perhaps his windrows are wetter and therefore cooler? If your windrows are still 12' x 5', it's going to take a lot of ice to cool those. I would think putting the windrows in natural shade and then keeping them adequately moist would be the best option in the long run.

Good luck and keep us posted. It's always interesting to read about large-scale systems.


    Bookmark   September 11, 2010 at 3:43PM
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The windrow gets little direct sun. I'd say max maybe 2 hours in the afternoon if that. With trees the sun is dappled and if needed I can always move the windrows around to take advantage of the greatest high temp afternoon shade. I'll keep the additional shade in mind. If I used a tarp to block afternoon sun that might make some difference but burlap bags on the windrow would not.

I would agree with Rick concerning the rest of the year and my experience with a windrow but the only factor I can see that changed for me was mid August heat. All the windrows are in large part under trees and get full shade. The idea about the ice isn't even to cool the entire windrow, I know I can't provide enough to keep it that cool. While those bottles are thawing though it'll cool enough around them to allow the worms to squeeze into some a/c during the hottest part of the day.

It seems like more shade, water saturation, possible ice bottles are my best options. I'm really a novice, just trying to figure this out. It allows me to make compost for free out of garbage that others would put in a landfill. I love using the worms energy to generate it instead of turning piles manually and the product seems to be higher quality.

I've noticed worms in my windrow still, just greatly diminished numbers. The ones that have survived will quickly multiply based on my past experience. There may be more in the piles than I realize just based on the fact that they could be near the bottom where temps are the coolest. I've not torn through the entire thing, just dug around in spots to check.

Thanks for the advice, I'll think about the shade more for next summer and also check around for misting systems that'll allow me to keep the windrows moist in summer when it dries here.

Thanks again for all the feedback and I'll keep you posted. Feel free to ask more questions if something isn't clear.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2010 at 9:36PM
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Hi Robert,

I'm also in Austin and have experienced the same weather you have, as well as my Dad.

My bins are inside and kept at indoor temps. all the time. Now my father's extremely poorly cared for tower system was doing great until the 100 deg. temps. hit. His tower was in dappled shaded with a very worn tarp like thing over top of a chicken pen. I tried to give him a little basic education, but he's not up for it. He's 78 y/o and he received the tower as a gift and he's basically clueless how to care for it, yet he will not let me have it. I could write an entire book about that man, but back to my original topic, the heat, combined with last weeks 12 inches of rain in 1 day much have wrecked havoc on your worms. I'm sure you'll rebound.

As per my prior post tonight, I did sell 2 1/2 lbs. of worms today. This was my first time selling. I know there is a campagain going on about getting people started for free, but, I needed them money and these people are getting a great deal. 2-1/2 lbs. worms for $35.00. I bought my starter pound for $35.00.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2010 at 10:32PM
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Just one more item .... my sons are in construction and provide me with carpet scraps and large pieces of cardboard. The worms love that carpeting! And it holds the moisture from the daily watering.

BTW ... like you, I started small and simply can't believe how the herd has grown!

Re: using vermicomposting to educate folks ... have you contacted local schools? How about 4-H clubs? I think a worm farm would be perfect project for kids.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2010 at 10:58PM
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Do not under-estimate the effects of direct sun, especially in a hot climate. Your windrow is dark, and therefore will rapidly absorb heat. Shade with mulch (I use rice straw 10' thick), compost, tree limbs and carpet (thanks Barb!). Use anything to kill all sun. Mist it when it is hot (soaker hose). Provide lots of mass.
Worms are amazingly resilient an will dive to the cooler temps down below. I have several times overheated my herd with very little effects EXCEPT a major cocoon bloom a few weeks after the pile cools. Good luck! Pete

    Bookmark   September 11, 2010 at 11:53PM
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Also in Austin with outdoor worms--though nowhere near your scale! My primary wormery is a vertical stack of trays, with the top housing a potted plant in a soil-based mix.

In very hot spells, the worms climb down to the bottom tray or UP to the plant layer. I use olla pots in my planters, unglazed clay or terra cotta bottles that are buried next to plant roots; the purpose is to conserve water, but they're apparently pretty good at cooling worm beds, too. You might look into the terra cotta pipes they use for irrigation, or some similar material that could be buried in the middle of your rows. Cooling the middle will help the worms more than adjusting the temps at the top.


    Bookmark   September 12, 2010 at 10:27AM
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All sounds like good info. I'm thinking that moving the windrow will help over time. The small amount of afternoon sun that it receives might be the factor pushing the heat envelope. I'll continue to think about how to mist the windrow as that will be easy enough and efficient in times where the water is lacking. I have enough that survived to rebuild the colony so I'm unconcerned. I remember how much they populated during winter so there's no concern there.

A misting system and more shade sounds easy enough and low maintenance. Again, I like when the worms do the work. They've more energy than I do.

As far as eduction I fell into what I'm doing. I just read these forums and kept working on what I was doing until people kept asking for information and education. I've given a talk at our local organic gardening society and sell small quantities of worms to people in our community garden to get their farms started.

Over time I may make a youtube video, work with other worm farmers in various ways and continue giving talks locally. Kids would work well, just have to build it over time. Our community garden is interested in working with schools in the future but first things first. Nothing helps you learn like failure in my opinion. Knowledge comes from experience. Thanks for sharing your info with me.


    Bookmark   September 12, 2010 at 4:26PM
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Bluelake, Don't think that just because I suggested helping newbies for free (or very little cost) by sending them a few cocoons that I would not charge somebody for a couple pounds of worms. More power to you!!!

I was just looking for a way to help those who wanted to get started and had the patience to start low and develop on a shoestring.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2010 at 4:51PM
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My herd is returning to normal. I think maybe a lb. survived and they're slowly becoming more visible as the weather is cooling. I'm still keeping the pile moist, feeding them regularly but I don't see cocoons just yet. I suppose towards the end of Oct the temps will drop enough that the windrow will be full of eggs.

My hot compost pile will be cool enough by then to feed into the worm windrow and keep going. If I can I plan on getting over my fears of picloram and grazeon and finding a few truck loads of horse manure to add to a pile and let them eat through it over the winter. For spring I'd prefer not to buy any compost and make it all myself and this would be the easiest way to do so.

I'll update this thread if there is anything to update but if even a small amount of the worms can survive an Austin August we're doing well. Winter isn't the issue, the heat of summer is.

Thanks for all of the feedback.

    Bookmark   September 29, 2010 at 1:22AM
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My piles are returning to normal though I'm still noticing they're a little dry. I've been using a hose to water them down every other day or so and I think this is helping. Looking back I don't think it's just heat that's the issue but loss of moisture. The beds get too dry and the heat is too much. The evaporation cools the pile during the summer so I'll have to set up some misters or just run a hose periodically to keep the beds moist.

I'm finding eggs again and slowly feeding. By the end of winter I hope to have a large amount of compost for the garden.

Thanks for all the input.


    Bookmark   November 7, 2010 at 11:07PM
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