Photos and description of my worm composter

rickd(9-10)November 25, 2009

Hello everyone. I'm posting this to help anyone who is thinking of setting up a worm composter and to share my experiences as someone who's been vermicomposting for about a year now.

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My composter is an OSCR Jr.-type flow through vermicomposter. You can find construction plans for this type of system here:

http://www.klickitatcounty.org/SolidWaste/default.asp?fCategoryIDSelected=965105457

I keep the composter in the garage next to my garbage and recycling cans for convenience and to protect it from raccoons, squirrels, and any other animals that might be attracted to it. It takes up about as much space as an extra garbage can or tote. The system consists of four plastic boxes, or bins, each about 17"Wx13"Hx12"D. The top three boxes contain compost and have holes drilled in and around the bottom so the worms can travel from box to box. The bottom box collects excess moisture, or leachate, that drains through the compost as the high-moisture content materials decompose. The top box has a lid with a section cut out of the center to allow air flow (see the OSCR plans).

Many of the problems that people have with worm bins can be minimized with a flow through system like the OSCR Jr. You don't have to worry about heat build-up from microbial decomposition because the worms can escape to a cooler bin. Worms can also escape away from overly acidic or otherwise unpalatable foods, like pineapple and citrus, until microbes decompose these materials into a more digestible form for the worms. Excess moisture is gernerally not a problem because liquid drips through to the bottom bin, which you can empty periodically.

I have a plastic canister that I keep under the kitchen sink for collecting organic waste (see photo). A couple times a week, I bury the contents of the canister in the top worm bin and cover it with shredded paper. The shredded paper prevents fruit flies and other insects from breeding on the exposed garbage, facilitates the decomposition of nitrogen-rich waste, and acts as bedding material for the worms. After a few weeks, when the top bin contains about 30-50% undecomposed waste, I move the top bin into #2 position and put bin #2 on top. Bin #1 and #2 get traded back and forth until a significant portion of worm castings (worm poop) builds up in each bin.

Meanwhile, bin #3 contains fairly mature compost that only needs a couple more months of "cooking" before it's ready to harvest. When the bottom bin is ready to harvest, I sift the contents through a 1/4" mesh wire screen to separate worms and any undecomposed waste from the castings. The worms and undecomposed waste go back into the bin (which now moves into #1 or #2 position). Then I spread the contents of bins #1 and #2 on a plastic sheet and separate the chunks of castings from the undecomposed waste. I consolidate the castings and the most-decomposed waste into one bin (which will be the new bin #3). I divide the remaining material between the other two bins, which will be the new bins #1 and #2.

I find harvesting the castings to be the most tedious part of the process and I may eventually resort to simply dumping the entire contents of bin #3 into my garden when it has aged enough that it's mostly composed of castings. Any remaining undecomposed material will eventually break down in the soil, and I can repopulate the bin with worms from the other two bins.

One precaution: In this type of system, the boxes have to periodically be lifted and moved as part of normal maintenance. My bins can weigh up to 40 lbs. each when they're full. A system based on smaller boxes might be easier to manage, and of course, how full they get depends on how much material you're adding each week and how frequently you remove castings.

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rickd(9-10)

Here are the photos:

    Bookmark   November 25, 2009 at 6:35PM
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steamyb(7)

Excellent Post! Great explanations and photos!

    Bookmark   November 25, 2009 at 7:46PM
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plumiebear(z9? CA)

Very nice summary! I especially like the photos with captions. It makes it very easy for a complete novice to visualize and copy what you did.

I'm relatively new to modern vermicomposting, so please excuse this comment if it's a little too picky. I've seen your system usually described as a "stackable" and sometimes as a "stackable flow through" system. It's distinctly different from the "flow through" system described in the link below. That system addresses some of the harvesting issues that are tedious.

Thanks again for the excellent "how-to". I'd vote for it to be "stickied" if they did that here.

Andrew in Berkeley

Here is a link that might be useful: splitsec002's Flow Through

    Bookmark   November 25, 2009 at 8:22PM
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rickd(9-10)

Thanks for your comments. Sorry if I misused some of the terms.

When I was trying to decide if I should try vermicomposting, I wasn't sure how much trouble it would be, if it would fit in with my lifestyle, or if I would find it worthwhile. These are some of the reasons I'm staying with it:

1. I don't have space for a traditional compost heap in my yard. I had one where I used to live and I probably wouldn't use a worm composter if I could still compost that way, but where I live now, my yard is too small and exposed for a traditional compost pile.

2. Kitchen waste is the heaviest type of waste we discard since it has a very high water content. It doesn't make sense to me to have huge, diesel-powered garbage trucks transporting this heavy garbage, which is mostly water, when I can easily convert it into compost in my garage. By removing kitchen waste and a large amount of paper from our waste stream, we discard less than 5 lbs. of actual garbage (not incl. recyclables) each week.

2. It's fun - biology in action. Anyone who's into gardening will enjoy worm composting. Some vermicomposters seem to think of their worms as pets, but I try to downplay this aspect (although I find myself "managing" the composter way more than is necessary, just so I can watch what's going on).

3. It's easy and convenient. Once you get it set up, it's not much different than when we all had to add recycling cans to our garbage systems. The only difference is that, instead of removing recyclables from your waste stream, you're removing organics. There are no offensive smells (as long as you don't go picking through the compost) and no insect or pest problems. (Ex: see my comment in the original post about the weight of the bins.)

4. It fits well with a healthy lifestyle. I know I'm eating a healthy diet when I'm filling up my canister with fruit and vegetable trimmings every week. The kinds of foods that worms eat - fresh fruits and vegetables - are the same kinds of foods that make you healthy. If you're living on pizza and burgers and restaurant food, you won't have much to feed your worms.

5. Worm castings are great for your garden.

    Bookmark   November 25, 2009 at 9:54PM
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steamyb(7)

WORD!
You are now the new poster child for Wormers Anonymous. This honorary title allows you to set up a soap box (next to your worm box) and tell any and all the virtues of worminess! We (I speak for all of those who will not post a reply) appreciate you putting into words that which we have known, but were unable to articulate.
If any reading this are sitting on the fence concerning worming or not, this post should be reread and thoughtfully considered.

    Bookmark   November 26, 2009 at 7:47AM
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belindach(9A)

Very nice. Thank you.

    Bookmark   November 26, 2009 at 2:19PM
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stampinhappy

Beautiful summary. Love the photos and the descriptions of the food particles. :) Thank-you for taking the time to post this information.

    Bookmark   November 27, 2009 at 8:58PM
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tracydr(9b)

How large did you drill the holes between the bins? How many holes are there on the bottom of each bin?

    Bookmark   November 28, 2009 at 10:28AM
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rickd(9-10)

tracydr - I roughly followed these plans when I built the composter:

http://www.klickitatcounty.org/solidwaste/FilesHtml/Organics/OscrJunior.pdf.

So I used a 1/4" drill bit and made holes all over the bottom and an inch or two up the sides of each bin that holds compost (all but the leachate bin). The holes are in rows that are about 1/2" apart vertically, and there's about 1-1/2" between holes horizontally.

The worms definitely use the holes to get from bin to bin. I've seen them crawling through the holes when I unstack the bins.

    Bookmark   November 28, 2009 at 11:44AM
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tracydr(9b)

I need to make a new worm farm for my worms and think I will use your plans for mine. I made a temporary home for mine and they are already outgrowing.
Now, just have to get to the store and buy those bins. Ugh!

    Bookmark   November 30, 2009 at 6:10PM
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rickd(9-10)

tracydr - good luck. I had to increase the size of my system twice before I got to the right size for the amount of kitchen waste we generate.

It's quite amazing the amount of stuff that disappears into a worm bin. I wish I had a photo of the mountain of kitchen waste that goes into the making of, e.g., 20 liters of worm castings. I came to view my composter as some kind of dehydrator. I would put piles of stuff into it, and most of what came out was liquid (leachate) plus a small handful of castings. It's as if you're burning the waste down to ash, but you're doing it biologically. Pretty cool.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2009 at 9:43PM
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gardeniadyl(9aFL)

I it! I like it! Now I know how I will add to my bin. I had a similar idea but now Iknow what it will look like
Thanks

    Bookmark   December 9, 2009 at 2:24PM
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rickd(9-10)

What I'm composting this week:

skins of winter squash, brussels sprout stalks, trimmings from fresh spinach, coffee grounds, old Milkman powder (wasn't sure about this one - may stink up the garage), radish greens, banana peels, grapefruit peel, onion and leek trimmings.

I've noticed that things are composting much more slowly with the cold weather and less leachate is flowing through to the bottom bin.

    Bookmark   December 23, 2009 at 9:22PM
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sbryce_gw

Milk powder is OK if you sprinkle in small amounts at a time. I don't know what happens if you add a lot at once. I had some Nido powder I decided not to eat, and it went to the worms.

    Bookmark   December 23, 2009 at 9:59PM
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joe.jr317

I'm such a moron sometimes. I looked at the first photo and thought, "Why is there a big pipe going through that top bin?"

Just had to share that DUH moment.

    Bookmark   December 27, 2009 at 3:09PM
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marauder01

Nicely done rick, great post.

How'd you post the photos (I'd love to add one or two from time to time as well)

Did you just paste the URL from flickr or is there another trick?

Cheers and good job.

    Bookmark   December 27, 2009 at 5:24PM
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rickd(9-10)

marauder01 - This what I did:

I created an account on Flickr and uploaded my photos.

When you're viewing your photos on Flickr, click the button above the photo called All Sizes.

Scroll down to the bottom of the page and copy the HTML where it says "To link to this photo on other websites, copy and paste this HTML into your webpage."

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If you search the Gw Forums for "how to post photo", you'll come up with other instructions, like this one:

http://faq.gardenweb.com/faq/lists/orchids/2004100023030734.html

There's also a test forum where you can try your script before you post it on a real forum. Check the forum instructions for a link to the test forum.

    Bookmark   December 27, 2009 at 10:52PM
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susanfromhawaii

I was just looking at an old thread and instead of photos, it said 'photobucket account inactive.' No pix. Just thought I'd let you know.

    Bookmark   December 28, 2009 at 12:02AM
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marauder01

Thanks rickd, I'll have a play.

Cheers

    Bookmark   December 28, 2009 at 5:12PM
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azmarcus

Outstanding description. Thanks. Question: What about worm composting in an area like Arizona, near Phoenix? Too hot in summer? Any way to keep the worms from cooking in 110 degree weather?

    Bookmark   September 3, 2010 at 10:48PM
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plumiebear(z9? CA)

Keep the bin in full shade. Even 30 min. of AZ sun will turn your bin into a steam cooker. Fill up the bin with damp bedding. Stick a cheap meat thermometer in the bedding so you can monitor bin temps. They should be much cooler than ambient air temp. Make large and plentiful vent holes. Cover holes with window screen. If you can keep the bin indoors, leave the lid off and cover with cloth or burlap. Leave a night light above the bin for a few weeks to discourage wandering worms.

Andrew

    Bookmark   September 6, 2010 at 4:54AM
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mendopete

Add 4 (or more) layers of damp burlap over the top of your bin. Keep it damp with a mister hose. If this is shaded, your worms will have an "evaporative cooler" and be very happy!

    Bookmark   September 6, 2010 at 9:42PM
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hummersteve

I really like rickd presentation and photos. Im an absolute newbie here and looking for advice. I first thought I would use the 5gal bucket system but then got the idea the worms [red wigglers] like to stay only in the top 3" of soil so it seemed so much would go to waste. So I switched my ideas to the more flatter tub system found these at rural king. 24"x18 x 7" got two one for leacheate or however you spell it. In the bottom I have cut up cardboard an wet peat plus shredded paper , coffee grounds and a thick layer shredded paper on top, holes in the bottom of bin for drainage plus airation holes all around and in the lid. When I added a little food today I noticed some warmth coming from underneath. Is this a good thing or something that may cause me a problem.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2013 at 12:28PM
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