Composting with worms, or vermicomposting, is one of the easiest and most rewarding ways to compost kitchen scraps. The end product of the composting process is sometimes referred to as Black Gold because it is one of the most nutrient rich sources of fertilizer available. The best thing about composting with worms is that it is easy, fun, and cheap and can be done indoors — even in an apartment.
Vermicomposting uses manure worms (not earthworms) to break down decomposing food scraps. The most commonly used manure worms are called red wrigglers and can be bought by the pound online — look on kijiji.
These worms are smaller than the earthworms we are used to seeing when we dig in our gardens.. In the wild they live in forests and work at decomposing the decaying materials on the forest floor. They can also be found — as their name suggests — in steaming piles of manure.
Red wrigglers, the manure worms commercially used for vermicomposting, originate in California so they are not cold‐hardy. This means, in regions that get a cold winter, they are best suited for indoor bins and are ideal for people who do not have access to a backyard for composting. Vermicomposting is also great for folks who want to supplement their outdoor composting in order to quickly create amazing fertilizer for their gardens and plants.
Here’s how composting with worms works: Red wrigglers can eat half their body weight of food scraps each day. They eat the food and quickly pass it through their body. The result — worm poop or vermicompost — is the amazing black gold that is filled with beneficial bacteria and nutrients.
Composting with Worms
Starting a worm bin
Red wrigglers don’t live deep in soil like earthworms. They live in decaying materials at the surface so they can easily live in small human‐created composters. You can make a simple worm composting bin out of two plastic storage containers. Drill holes in the sides and bottom of one storage container and put it inside the other one. Drill holes in the lid.
When you first receive a package of worms, they will come with some vermicompost and their egg cases. You will need to add some bedding - I use damp shredded newsprint and some grit (sand or ground up eggshells). When you first set up a vermicompost bin, wait a few days before you start feeding the worms kitchen scraps. Start with a small amount — about two cups. Remember to always bury the food under the bedding.
A pound of worms can contain up to 1000 worms. The worms will regulate their population depending on the amount of room they have and the amount of food they are being given.
Under ideal situations, a pound of worms can eat up to ½ pound of food scraps every few days. The best way to determine if your worms are being over or underfed is to feed them food — remembering to bury it under the bedding ‐ and check in a few days later. When it looks like the worms are breaking it down, add more. If there are still a lot of intact food scraps, wait a few more day before feeding them. You will have to replace the bedding periodically. Simply rip some newspaper into strips, soak them in water and wring them out. Fluff them up and put them on top of the worms.
Amazing facts about worms!
1. All worms are intersex. They have both male and female parts and can freely reproduce with each other
2. Worms do not have teeth but have powerful muscles in their mouth that take in the food and move it down their digestive tract.
3. Worms lay (release?) an egg case out of which about 5 baby worms emerge. Looking for egg cases in your worms bin is an easy way to determine how healthy and happy your worms are. They look kind of like dill seeds.
4. Worms do not have eyes but they move, find food, and find each other through their skin, which is sensitive to both touch and light.
5. Some people claim that composting worms can live up to three years!
Feeding your worms
Harvesting the worm poop
When your worms are healthy and happy they will produce lots of castings. How do you separate the worms and their castings to put this amazing fertilizer onto your garden/plants? You can take a handful and pick out the worms and egg cases but this is a time consuming endeavour.
Here’s an easy way to harvest the castings: take the lid off the bin and put all the bedding and food to one side. Make sure the bin is in a place with bright sunlight or turn on the lights. Most of the worms will eventually crawl over to the side of the bin with the bedding and food. Most will migrate to the bottom of the bin to escape the light. This makes it much easier to get worm‐free castings (I still pick out any extra worms and egg cases).
You can put the castings directly on your garden or houseplants. You can also make a nutrient‐rich worm tea for even more impact.
How to make worm compost tea
1. Fill a 5 L bucket with warm water
2. Mix in 1/3 cup of molasses and stir well
3. Put a cup of castings into a nylon and tie it closed
4. Put the “tea bag” in the water
5. Take an aquarium pump and attach to an air stone (you can buy both at pet stores). Put the stone into the bucket and let bubble continuously for 48 hours. This is crucial as it helps the good bacteria to grow.
6. Dump the tea on your garden and plants for a bacteria and nutrient rich feeding or put in a spray bottle and spray on foliage.
I am a permaculture educator, feminist and anti-racist activist in London, ON, Canada. I am currently a PhD candidate in Geography at Western University, where I study the relationship between people and bees in cities. My M.A. in Anthropology, also at Western University, focused on gentrification and belonging in a community garden in Toronto. I live in a suburban permaculture sanctuary with my family, two dogs, three cats, two bunnies, and thousands of gorgeous, busy bees. I maintain the blog Permaculture for the People.
Want to know more?
I am so excited to be teaching urban permaculture as part of the first online Permaculture Design Certificate taught exclusively by women. If you would like to know more or would like to have me as your permaculture design reviewer, please check out my blog and get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
#vermicomposting #compostingwithworms #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #permaculture
with Lichen June
Excerpted from our double certificate design course.
Plants are active participants in the vibrant and diverse community of soil life. There are more than 50 million genera of bacteria in the soil, and more than 50 million genera of fungi. Humans haven't named more than a small percentage, and we know very little about those which we have named. Thus, the vast majority of life in the soil, along with their relationships and functions, are unnamed and unknown.
By some accounts, humans have destroyed 50-80% of earth's topsoil. I find this so troubling, I almost don't know what to write next. However, this is a very clear case of, “the problem is the solution.” There is so much land devoid of life, so many layers and niches just waiting to be filled with diversity, life cycles, and carbon. Soil is an incredible and established reservoir that is ready to hold carbon, if only we nurture it back to life.
One method for improving the health of your soil is adding compost. Your food is only as healthy as the soil that it was grown in, so you'll want to give your soil biota something good to eat. In this mini class I will show you how to create your own compost.
How to Create Your Own Compost
This recipe is a variation of the, 18 day Berkley method, and can teach you the basics. As you gain more experience, you can change the recipe. The greater variety of matter you put into your compost, the richer your soils become. You'll need 25-30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Some examples:
Sawdust is 500 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen.
Fish is 7 to 1.
Urine 1 to 1.
Chicken manure 12 to 1.
Rabbit manure 8 to 1.
Horse manure 20 to 1.
Green weeds 25 to 1.
If you can increase surface area by chopping or shredding, it will speed up decomposition. You will need a lot of materials. Don't go over 4 feet high or it will squeeze the air out. You can use a gravity fall pile, or a piece of wire fence. You'll need a long handled pitch fork with 3-5 prongs, a rake, and a cover to maintain moisture.
You need 1/3 of your materials to be manure, 1/3 high carbon material, or browns, and 1/3 fresh greens. Pitch them all together and mix them up. Then water the hill until it starts to leak water. If you have food scraps, those can be incorporated into the layers and covered. Make sure to avoid: meat, bones, grease, and dairy products. Avoid materials that have come into contact with: Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, antibiotic medications, and anything that will take your pH to one extreme or another.
Once you’re more familiar with this recipe, you can put an activator in the middle when you start the pile. These could include: Dead animal, fish, chopped comfrey, yarrow, nettle, or old compost. You have to be certain that you know your recipe, so your pile will cook and not go putrid. Some people urinate on their compost piles to increase the nitrogen. Some add menstrual blood as an activator.
Other common activators, by % of Nitrogen:
Alfalfa meal 2.4%.
Blood meal 15%.
Bone meal 4%.
Chicken manure (dry) 8%.
Coffee grounds 2.1%.
Rabbit manure (fresh) 2.4%.
Rabbit manure (dry) 12%.
Once you have built your pile, you will want to cover it if you are expecting rain. Place branches on top of the pile to hold the cover off the surface, allowing air to pass through. You can also build the pile inside to heat a greenhouse. If conditions are very hot, place your pile in the shade.
If you want to look at your compost activity under a microscope, put a handful of compost in a jar with water and shake for 10 minutes. Then get a pipette and drop one drop on a slide, under a cover sheet, to view under the microscope. Take five minutes to look at this and you will see thousands of organisms every second.
Carbon is more of a fungal food. Nitrogen is more of a bacterial food. Non-woody plants and pasture prefer bacteria rich soil. Trees prefer fungal/carbon rich soil. Flour, paper, cardboard are all fungal food. If you want more fungi in your compost, you can add something like oat flour on every turn.
You can test the temperature of your pile with a good quality compost thermometer. If the pile is hotter on the inside than the outside, then your pile is too dry. If your pile is hotter on the outside than the inside, then your pile is too wet. Compost kept between 131 – 140 degrees for 15 days will kill pathogens, parasites and weed seeds.
If you want to speed up the compost turning process, you can turn your pile every day for 10 to 12 days and get it done faster, but it will be more work. Make sure you put the outer layer in the center when turning your pile, and the inner layer on the surface.
How to Create Your Own Compost: A step-by-step guide to fast composting:
Day one: Create the pile.
Day four: turn it over, ideally putting the outer layers in the middle and the center on the surface, as you move and rebuild the pile. Replace branches and cover.
Day six: turn.
Day eight: Turn every two days.
How do you know if the moisture in your pile is adequate? Squeeze a handful of the matter from the compost pile. If one drop falls, it is perfect. More water than that, and the pile is too wet. No drops, and it is too dry.
The pile should also be very warm. If you put a glove on and push your arm into the pile up to your elbow, it shouldn't be so hot that you say, “Ow”.
Turn the pile on day ten, day twelve, day fourteen, day sixteen and by day eighteen it should be done. When it is just warm, dark brown, fine with only a few chunks, and an earthy smell, not putrid, then it is done.
How do you fix problems with your compost recipe? If you get to day 6 or 8 and your compost is not hot enough, ask yourself:
If the pile is too wet, you've got to put a hole in the center with your pitchfork handle and place a chimney in the middle to let it steam off. If it is too dry, just water it.
If you have too much nitrogen it will loose volume fast and smell very bad. Carbon is your sponge and carbon will slow it down.
If your compost goes a little anaerobic in places for lack of air, it will present a white moldy looking powder. That is the first indicator that you've gone over the line in temperature or moisture and need to make an adjustment.
You want 10 compost heaps to an acre if you want to kick off an organic crop garden system.
Your soil will hold more water at the end of this process.
When you get skilled at turning your pile, you can do it in 20 minutes. That's 3 hours of work total for this 18 day recipe. One compost heap this size, spread around a garden, will grow vegetables for one year, for one person.
How to create slow compost
Turning a pile every two days is not for everyone. If you are too busy, you can turn your pile once every 7-10 days. At that rate your compost will be finished in 1-3 months.
If you need to go more slowly, that's okay. You can always assess what your compost needs are when you turn it, and add accordingly.
Alternately, you can make an add as you go pile. This requires even less effort, as there is no need to separate your kitchen waste, yard debris, and clippings. Unfortunately, it decomposes at a slower rate of 3-8 months. It is prone to odor problems because the lack of turning allows it to go anaerobic. It doesn't heat up well, which means it does not kill weed seeds and pathogens. It will be less nutrient dense. It might attract pests if uncovered.
If you mix your sieved compost with sharp river sand from the inside bends of creeks or rivers, you can make your own potting mix. The smaller the seed the more sand you want in the mix, for example, carrot seeds, etc. With large seeds you can use 50/50 compost and sand.
You can also extend your compost by making compost tea.
One way that you can measure the success of your compost is to use a refractometer.
The refractometer measures refracted light through plant fluid. Inside is a gauge, and in that gauge is a blue line. It is used to measure the starch and sugars in fruit. If the starch goes up, the plant is probably feeding and happily using your compost. This shows an increase in the nutrient density in food. Caution: If you use this to measure the nutrient density of food from the supermarket, you won't find it easy to spend money on commercially grown produce ever again.
Now that you’ve seen different methods of how to create your own compost all that’s left is to choose the method that is right for you and to do it! However, if you want to be energy efficient, make your compost near where you are going to use it! Have fun!
This miniclass is excerpted from the Soil Basics module of our double-certificate design course, taught by Lichen June.
Lichen June is a writer, speaker, educator and stuntwoman. Raised on a dairy goat farm by a naturalist mother and gardening father, Lichen was given a profound sense of ethics and relationship with the natural world. As an activist Lichen has been producing educational events and doing publicity on environmental issues for over 20 years. Teaching communication and ethics since 2008, and permaculture since 2013, Lichen studied permaculture with Geoff Lawton and Toby Hemenway, and received her certificate from PRI Australia. Lichen is the Executive Director of the NW Permaculture Institute, and co-founder of Elephant Head Educational Designs, creators of regenerative learning materials.
Further reading on this topic:
Darwish, Leila. Earth Repair: a Grassroots Guide to Healing Toxic and Damaged Landscapes. New Society Publishers, 2013.
Hosking, Rebecca. Building Soil with Regenerative Agriculture. Permaculture.co.uk: Permaculture People/Permaculture Magazine, 2015.
#howtocreateyourowncompost #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #foodnotlawns
with Mandy Merklein
Excerpted from our double certificate design course.
We love food. Let's make sure it doesn't get wasted! In this mini class we’ll look at how gardening cuts down on waste and ways to eliminate waste while gardening.
By growing your own food, you can cut down immensely on many forms of waste. This is true throughout the whole cycle from seed to plate and back into the garden. What waste can be avoided by simply growing tea herbs and sprouts on a windowsill or in the garden?
Here are just a few ways gardening reduces waste:
Here are some more ways to reduce waste in your food system:
Take a look at your garden set up and think about ways you could be closing the loop to create no waste. Create a repurposing project such as using toilet paper rolls to grow your starters. Make a worm bin or compost for organic waste, i.e. food scraps etc. Invite friends/family to help. Document. Extend the idea of repurposing and not wasting into other areas of your life.
This miniclass is excerpted from the Waste, There's No Such Thing As Waste module of our double-certificate design course, taught by Mandy Merklein.
Mandy Merklein studied permaculture for her thesis in environmental studies at Wells College. She has worked as a field biologist and environmental consultant in the Rocky Mountains, Alaska, Pacific Northwest, South Pacific, South America and Europe. She currently lives in Mallorca, Spain. Mandy received her PDC from Darren Doherty, and her teaching certification from Rosemary Morrow. She is a founding and active member of Permacultura Mediterranea (PermaMed.org), Youth in Permaculture, Gaia Youth, Community and Ecology Resources LLC, and Escola Kumar, a permaculture education demonstration site, where she lives, practices, and shares permaculture with her family, friends and students.
Further reading on this topic:
Harland, Maddy. Fertile Edges. Permanent Publications- 2017. Harland is co-founder and editor of Permaculture International magazine. This book covers a wide range of topics including regenerative culture, earth restoration and social permaculture.
Shiva, Vanadana. Seed Sovereignty, Food Security. Women in the Vanguard of the Fight against GMOs and Corporate Agriculture: North Atlantic Books. 2016. An anthology of women writers on protecting seed biodiversity and food.
#waste #compost #repurpose #sharetheharvest #permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #zerowastepermaculturegarden
This resource is brought to you by
Food Not Lawns,
Permaculture Women's Guild, and Heather Jo Flores.
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