Is my situation right for vermicomposting?

seattlegardengirl(7b)August 21, 2010

Hi all,

(I originally posted this in the Compost forum, and then someone pointed out that there is a separate vermicomposting forum!)

I have set up a small compost bin on my apartment balcony for the first time, and am wondering if my situation is suitable for adding worms, or if it would be better to leave them out for now. My container is a plastic cooler with a lid that I've recycled (it looks like one of these: I am not sure if this is large enough to add worms to (roughly 2 feet long and a 1.5 feet in the other two directions). Also, I've read there should be drainage and air holes; are these two things essential considering the bin is not completely air-tight even with the lid on?

Also, I live in Seattle, and I am wondering if worms can survive in my container in the winter here. My P-Patch started a worm bin last year, and they said some of the worms did survive, but some died as well. This year they discontinued the worm bin (the woman who was running it moved). My container is more insulated than the commercial one they were using.

This may be a silly question, but are Red Wigglers the only type of worm that should be used? Or could worms I find in the garden survive and help the compost decompose, too?

Finally, if I do add worms, what is the proper way to remove them when the compost is ready to be used? Should I filter them out somehow, or do most people actually just plant them in the garden with the soil?

Thanks to anyone who can advise me on these questions!

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Hi there seattlegardengirl,

I think this would make a near perfect worm bin given the space you have.

I have experimented with drainage/ no drainage and have found that you can run it quite successfully with no air or drain holes if you manage the moisture well. By this I mean adding paper / cardboard DRY to help soak up moisture, and every now and again, sit one end of the box up on blocks and move the bedding material all to the high end for a couple of days, allowing a puddle to form at the low end. Soak this up with a sponge and pour onto garden plants. Level out the material when done, adding more dry cardboard and you're set for another 1-2 months. This disturbing of the bedding also aerates it pretty well. worms do seem to prefer a very damp environment, but not swimming.

I'm in Australia, so I'm not sure of the Seattle weather, but I reackon a cooler box like that, maybe with and old blanket or two over it should do pretty well.

Red's are not the only type of composting worm around, but seem to be the easiest to source and are fast to breed and resiliant to differnt conditions. Normal garden worm (or Earth worm) won't do well in a composting worm bin. It's worth looking for reds (or EF's). If you could get 50 or 100 via freecycle or craigs list, that's all you need to start if you are patient. They will grow into about 2 pounds in six months.

Below is a link to a great site for info (Nice job Bentley). I use his "Turbo Light" method (about half way down the page). It only takes a short (ish) time to concentrate the herd to a small area for tranfer to the next bin, or harvest the spoil. I find it works well. If you want, you can then leave what you collect for a month or two to let the cocoons hatch, and do a second turbo sort to collect the new juveniles.

Good luck!

Here is a link that might be useful: Turbo Light Harvesting

    Bookmark   August 21, 2010 at 6:29PM
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My worms are happy in my south Puget Sound garage, but my sister has maintained an outdoor bin in Snohomish for 10 or so years with no troubles (and very little maintenance!). For her "harvest," she heaves half of the bin out into the garden, adds bedding and begins again. Me? I prefer to sort and keep the worms in the bin, so mine is a slower process....Make piles onto newspaper, wait a bit, take a bunch of castings off the top/sides and into the garden (while the worms go deeper into the pile), then repeat and repeat until there is essentially a neat pile of worms left- and they return to the bin.

I have given over 10 pounds of worms away on Craigslist in the past few months. If you posted under "wanted" or "farm/garden" you might get some takers... or even on the forums (Northwest Gardening or here). Good Luck!

    Bookmark   August 21, 2010 at 7:15PM
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Thanks to both of you for your input! That sounds very encouraging, and I think I am going to look into getting some worms and trying it out.

    Bookmark   August 21, 2010 at 7:18PM
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plumiebear(z9? CA)

seattlegardengirl, I agree your cooler bin is suitable as-is. I'd just add that the dry bedding can simply be piled on top. It soaks up moisture gradually. Paper egg cartons are great - very absorbent and easy to shred by hand. You could also isolate a small section (2-3") of the bin with a cardboard "wall" and put coir behind that wall. Wedge a thin piece of wood under the opposite end of the bin so that leachate flows towards the coir. If it starts to look soggy, take some out to dry and replace with dry coir...or egg cartons if you have enough.

You want to be extra careful not to overfeed a closed bin with minimal ventilation. Some decomposing produce can put out "stuff" that freak the worms out. I don't know if its a liquid or gas, but I've seen it happen a couple of times with observational bins that had no vent holes.

Aside from the blankets marauder suggested, you could also add bread crumbs or grain to heat up the food stock a little during winter. Pick up a cheap probe thermometer so you can keep track of the compost temps. If your bin is 3/4 full by winter, that's a good volume of material that will insulate the worms from those harsh Seattle winters.

The worms in your garden fall into 2 broad categories: soil dwelling worms that build and need burrows to survive and composting worms that live in decomposing matter (leaf litter, compost piles, etc.). I'm not sure how long the burrowing worms will survive in your cooler bin. I'm pretty sure they won't reproduce, but that's just a guess. If you know anyone with horses, ask to dig around their oldest manure pile. You'll very likely find reds there.

Good luck...and let us know how it goes.


    Bookmark   August 22, 2010 at 12:35AM
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I can't think of a situation that's not right for vermicomposting. I live alone in a 20th floor studio and have a small indoor flow through bin. It really really doesn't smell if you take care of it. Closed bottom works, but holes in the bottom with a catchment tray is more forgiving of problems. Before I started my upright flow through bin, I used to keep the bins under the bed and no one ever knew. The more surface area you have (esp with a closed bin), the better), so start with what you've got and if you get hooked, try something new.

Remember, it takes 2-4 months to notice much increase in the number of worms you've got, so you'll need a lot of patience before deciding it's not working. Keep asking any questions you have. There might be some other Seattle vermicomposters out there that could help. The most common newbie mistake is overfeeding the bin. Lots of bedding and try to suppress the urge to feed the bin to often in the beginning. They eat the bedding too and can live on it alone for a long time.

Finally, the worms eat the bacteria that eat the food and the bacteria need oxygen to multiply. Be sure the lid isn't airtight. If you're using something with a closed bottom, you might want to 'fluff' the contents occasionally (weekly?).

    Bookmark   August 27, 2010 at 5:39AM
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