Vermicompost 6: The Burrow Presents…

How To Breed, Raise, and Maintain A 100-Pound Stock of Worms in a Single Room

(Due to the length of what is to follow, this article is being developed, and presented in a number of installments. Rest stops provided courtesy of… “The Worm Guy!” All gardeners extremely welcome. The photos above are a quick look at the inside of the new worm bin that I have just started working with in the past couple weeks with which I hope to once again carry this entire experiment through to completion {not a great idea for anyone who just wants to make some great soil for their garden or houseplants, since this particular experiment will take me upwards of two or three years to complete. For my houseplants, I have a second bin which I will be using in the normal manner as described in my regular articles found elsewhere on these pages.} The first three images are with the various layers of bedding material somewhat tumbled around just to give you an idea of some of the materials that I’m actually using, and the fourth picture is what the bin should look like once it’s organized. In this bin there is some straw, cardboard, newsprint, leaves, and of course assorted foodstuffs mainly consisting at this point of lettuces, peppers, rice, coffee grounds, some pastas, and some other assorted fruit and vegetables. In other words, a pretty healthy organic diet. I began the bin with a starter population of 1/2 pound of bed-run red worms. Their specific type are eisenia foetida, and the term “bed-run” simply refers to the fact that they are an assortment of all ages and stages of development. So, with that out of the way, let us proceed from where we left off last week. )

Part Two

 

Well, now that I got that off my chest…(See part one for clarification.)

My original intention when I set up this bin-system was to let the worms use the cardboard as both their bedding material and food supply. I had read a couple of books that made passing remarks about the suitability of cardboard as feed for worms, and one particular article that claimed worms raised strictly in cardboard grew faster, larger, and healthier than their counterparts raised in virtually any other manner. The author went on to say that composted cardboard was also the finest planting medium in existence.  Considering the amount of cellulose contained in paper products, and the animal by-products used to glue the layers of cardboard together, I had no doubt that he was at least right about the feed value. Added to the fact that cardboard and paper make up roughly 35% of the Canadian waste stream, this idea was looking better and better.

NOTE: It should be remembered here that I originally wrote most of this series of articles (with the exception of the updated material) while I was in University back in the 1990’s, so the percentages and figures that you see here are representative of those years, and of course, some of those figures will have changed somewhat. I have gotten interested enough in recent days, however, with the entire subject of Organic Waste Reduction once again, that I am seriously thinking about oiling my rusty old brain and contributing once again to this field that  I was once quite active in. In connection with that, perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to refresh the figures that have become outdated in these articles. For now, I just ask that you remember the time-lag here.

Of the above-mentioned amount of paper and cardboard, Saskatchewan, who has a really decent reputation for devotion to recycling, is still letting over 90% slide through to the landfill. (The recycling industry is simply too young to handle these kinds of totals, as shown by the figures I received from Environment Canada for 1994, showing that only 8.5% of the available waste cardboard was being recycled.) It is interesting to note, when you add in the remainder of what the worms are capable of eating (yard and food wastes just for starters), the total percentage of the Canadian waste stream that could be recycled into a soil additive (rather than being hidden under the soil in an unusable form), reaches an amazing 72 percent! I figured I might not be able to make much of a difference to the overall total, but maybe that guy was right who said Niagara Falls was only a big collection of single drops of water. (If it seems to you that I’m digressing again, I’m not. I might a little later, but this stuff right here really is crucial to the story I’m telling.)

As I said earlier, the first stage of this procedure took over a year to reach completion, and the main contributing factor had to do with the fact that I had absolutely no idea how difficult it would be to try and harvest eleven cubic feet of 1-inch cardboard squares. (As you may recall, this was in the basement of my house. A very cluttered basement at that.) For the first nine or ten months, it was really no problem, since I merely divided the first bed into two, and then split those two into three approximately four months later. That’s when things got interesting.

If you really want to witness a modern-day miracle, try looking at a large container of apparently first-rate soil, where only scrap cardboard had been, just a little over a year earlier. Sixteen months after I started, I was looking at not just one, but two containers of this nature. My musty old basement now smelled like a walk in the vegetable garden, which more than made up for an earlier mistake of mine which almost brought my vermicomposting efforts to a screeching halt. My ex-wife was obviously a remarkably understanding lady, or that marriage would have ended a few years earlier than it did. (And now I am going to digress, because this is the type of story which I’m sure many other vermiculturists will appreciate, and if you’ve never had a similar experience happen to you {and you’re reading this article}, then it can at least serve as a warning of what not to do.)

It happened like this…

By the time I got around to stretching my worms (bad pun) into the third bin, I had all but run out of those great little cardboard squares. There were no fresh ones left at all, and the first two beds appeared to be converted pretty much completely into castings. Being the curious type of guy that I am, I decided it was time to try a different approach (at least until I found a paper shredder.) Moving material (used) from each of the first two beds into the third, worms and all, I was able to fill two-thirds of the last bed to an adequate depth, leaving one third empty. I decided to use this portion as a feed trench, and selected compost as a feed material.

Since I was going to require at least 20-30 pounds of compost to fill this rather large area, and considering it was winter at the time, I decided to make the compost indoors. The idea did not seem as silly as it sounds now, since I had read at least 10 composting manuals which all agreed that the smallest size of a compost heap which would successfully heat was somewhere in the range of three square feet. I also knew from first-hand experience that odor would not be a problem as long as I let the compost have lots of air to prevent invasion by anaerobic bacteria. As it turned out, I was more than successful on the first attempt (though the second batch was something I’ll probably never forget.)

As I said, the first attempt was a great success. Using food scraps provided by myself and several of my neighbors, dry grass and leaves which I had bagged up in the fall, old newspaper, and the contents of a vacuum-cleaner bag or two, I was able to fill the trench with very little effort at all. The worms wasted no time invading the mixture, and if I had remembered that old saying of my father’s about not fixing things that work, everything would have been fine. The problem arose from the fact that the worms liked it so much, I decided to set up a similar situation in the other two bins as well. Requiring a lot more of the material to accomplish this task, and over-reacting to the fact that I had detected a slight heat coming from the original trench (I should have accepted that it did not appear to be annoying the worms in the least), I set about building a medium-sized container in which to mix the next batch of compost.

Basically, for that container, I found a set of directions for building a worm bin in one of the books I was reading, and modified it slightly to correct a couple of mistakes in the original design. It was capable of holding a 6-pound population of worms when it was finished, and with just a little extra work, if a person had any talent whatsoever as a carpenter, the unit could easily be turned into a nifty little piece of furniture. A good friend of mine build my wife and I a lovely leather-covered, padded bench that many of my guests used to love sitting on when they were visiting that probably would have given a few of them fits if they had known what it contained.

After building the new container, I gathered the raw materials together, and set about brewing a new batch of compost, roughly three times as large as the first. To this batch, however, I also added about one third of a fifty-pound bag of some no-name dry dog-food. (My Rottie had previously convinced me that the only way she wanted anything to do with this stuff, was if she ever got a job paving someone’s driveway.) Once all the ingredients had been added, I went upstairs, got cleaned up, and took my wife out for the evening (it was her birthday.) The evening turned out to be really fun, and I never gave a thought to my latest project the whole time. That was to change approximately one tenth of a second after I opened the door upon our arrival at home.

To say there was an aroma in the house would be a lot like saying Charles Manson had a slight attitude problem. The words overpowering, awesome, incredible, and oh-my-God all come to mind, as do terrible, frightening, and horrific. The words my wife came up with weren’t quite as pleasant, and they didn’t stop until I had managed to rectify the situation roughly 2 hours later. When I finally summoned the courage to go down to the basement, I was greeted by the sight of billowing clouds of steam pouring out all the openings in my newest container. (Remember I mentioned I was the curious type? Well, before I actually did anything about solving this problem, I stuck a meat thermometer into the center of the material, and got a reading of 166 degrees Fahrenheit.) My two-hour solution consisted of transferring the steaming compost into large plastic bags (several of them), dragging the now-empty container up the stairs and out onto the back porch, then dumping the contents of the bags back into the container. Even though it was 10 or 15 degrees below zero out there, the material in the box took several hours to cool off, and at least two days to freeze solid. Needless to say, my wife was no more impressed than she was the day several of my worms decided to bail out of one of the hanging plants (which I had forgotten to water), and managed to land on her head. But that’s another story for another day. To be continued next week. Until then…

Vermicompost 6: The Burrow Presents…

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