Worm towers or worm tubes are an intriguing idea for turning food waste to worm castings. Unlike worm composting, which requires the worms, bedding, and food to be placed in some enclosure only to require you to harvest the castings, the worm tower is a “permaculture” innovation designed to allow you to recycle food waste and create worm castings without ever leaving your garden. Most variations involve a PVC pipe buried about 12-18 inches, with holes drilled in the below-grade portion, allowing worms to go and come as they wish, much like an Amsterdam hostel, minus the patchouli smell. At first blush, it is a fascinating concept and probably attractive to gardeners like my wife, who don’t care to handle worms. Just toss in your food waste, the theory goes, and watch the garden take off.
The hardest of hardcore worm freaks might love sifting through academic studies, detailing the relative N-P-K of various soils, composts, and growing mediums. If you want to do this, knock yourself out. But Mary Ann Smith, a new addition to Bentley Christie’s Redworm Composting Facebook Group (Bentley runs a very popular and helpful vermicomposting blog), posted just about the most concise case for using vermicompost in your garden that you’ll find. Using a peat moss/vermiculite germination mix, Mary Ann had four test groups using 0% (control), 5%, 10%, and 20% vermicompost-to-germinating mix ratios. The results after 16 days couldn’t be clearer. Each step higher in relative vermicompost strength correlates with more robust growth.
It’s easy to look for new angles to prove why worm poop rocks. But the simplest demonstrations are still the best. Way to go Mary Ann!
Sweet! After suffering some delays and cost overruns, the Charlotte Airport is about to add a million new jobs – for worms that is. I will be looking forward to seeing how this project goes.
My worms are probably addicted to caffeine by now. Since my wife and I brew one, if not two, pots of high octane java each day, it is easily the most common of our household’s food waste that we feed them. Add these grounds to the ones I already collect from the two Starbucks in my neighborhood, and I’m pretty sure my worms would get seriously grumpy if I stopped, what with all the withdrawal headaches and what not.
In moderation, coffee grounds are considered a superb food for earthworms. The good levels of nitrogen coupled with the grit that allow better digestion of other foods make them ideal. They are also convenient to use since the grounds are in a consumable form, i.e., no processing, chopping, or cutting required.
But some home worm composters report mixed results when feeding their worms coffee grounds, not witnessing the expected swarming to the scoops of Arabica deposited in the bins. Worse yet the worms may find the coffee repellant, and a full scale worm jailbreak ensues. If you’ve had no success with getting your worms used to a daily espresso, try sticking to the following guidelines.
1) Limit Feedings to 25-50% of Worm Weight
While composting worms can eat 50-100% of their weight daily, I would recommend not feeding them any more than 25-50% of their weight in coffee grounds. The high nitrogen content makes for good worm food, but it makes for an excellent conventional composting ingredient, not exactly the characteristic you’re looking for when feeding worms as the thermophyllic (smarty-pants word for “hot”) stage of composting coffee grounds will repel or even kill your worms if they have nowhere to go.
2) Pre-Compost Your Grounds
While limiting your feedings will limit the heat produced by the grounds, so will pre-composting them. While this allows for the heat to come and go, it allows for something far more important: microbial growth. Remember, worms don’t really eat food. They eat the microbes growing on decomposing food. So those fresh coffee grounds you’re so eager to feed your wigglers? Any microbial activity has been washed away by the scalding water you just poured over them. Your environmental factors may be different than mine, but I try to let my coffee grounds sit for 3 days before including them in any food.
3) Test for Low pH Frequently
Coffee is acidic. Starbucks, Peet’s, and other more expensive coffees can strip lacquer off of your furniture. Too much of a good thing can drive your pH to such an acidic level that your worms will seek friendlier climes. Avoid combining coffee with other acidic food waste – like citrus – and test your soil for low pH when coffee is a regular part of your worms’ diet, especially if you find them trying to escape. Low pH can be corrected with a light sprinkling of lime followed by a watering or a generous application of crushed eggshells. Also, a regular turning of your worm bed will eventually help increase pH buffering. Cheap soil testers can be found on Amazon for about 6 bucks. It’s not going to give you extremely accurate results, but it’s going to tell you if you’re way of out whack.
If you have a worm composting operation that requires more coffee grounds than you make in a day, your local coffee shop will be more than willing to give you their spent grounds for free, often rebagging them and setting them out for customers to take, no questions asked. However, if they don’t, the simplest way is to ask for their trash. That’s right. The trash. Unless this is a coffee shop that serves large amounts of food, the trash at a coffee shop will be primarily coffee grounds, mixed with filters (which you can also feed your worms), or the odd cup and other sundry items which can easily be separated from the usable material.
If you have any experiences to share, please post in the comments below!
Wormz Organics, a business started just this past February has gone under, its shady owner leaving behind a trail of angry farmers and a pile of unsold worm castings, yet again reminding everyone why the earthworm industry has a reputation used car dealers would cringe at.
At least 115 people signed up to be associate growers, said an AG from Statesville who did not want his name revealed. For a $4,950 start-up fee, participants got 60 pounds of worms, 100 bins, bedding and food for a year and technical support, he said. They would farm the worms at their homes, and Wormz Organic would then buy the organic soil produced by the worms.
Jennifer Langford is listed as the “registered agent” of the company, according to state documents. She said in a Facebook post obtained by The Independent Tribune that Lawhorne told her the company had contracts with Fortune 500 companies to buy the worm castings from the AGs.”
“To this day the only castings that have been sold were sold to locals at farmers markets,” she told the AGs in the Facebook post. “He solely was running this company into the ground by not doing his end of selling the castings . . . .
Peachy . . . .
A possible challenge for a beginning vermicomposter to get a handle on is keeping the moisture levels in the bin at a reasonable level. Thankfully, composting worms are very tolerant of a wide range of dampness, between 50-90%. But “wet it and forget it” is decidedly not a winning plan. A sopping wet worm bin can cause a slowdown in worm activity and reproduction and worse yet, stinky, anaerobic conditions which may spoil your entire bin. The following tips assume you have an indoor plastic bin (the most common, but wettest bin set up) and should help you keep clear of turning your bin into your own personal Swampland (or Sahara) in a box.
1. Measure Moisture in Several Places
Compared with commercial systems, home vermicompost containers are not uniform in their content. Home bins will feature shredded cardboard and paper, peat moss, coffee grounds, corn cobs, apple cores, banana peels and whatever food waste that household is producing at the time. I’ve even seen a fellow worm nut toss old t-shirts in his worm beds, presumably for insulation.
If you use some sort of a probe to measure moisture, this presents the challenge of inconsistent readings. Sinking the probe into an area full of watermelon chunks is sure to give you a higher-than-expected result. Likewise, insufficiently watered peat moss may wrongly give you the impression that it’s time to water the bin. Take the average of numerous readings to get a more accurate result.
2. Be Aware of the Moisture Content of the Food
BREAKING: Watermelons have a lot of water! While you’re picking yourself off the floor, let me take the time to admit I’m often guilty of feeding my worms according to the “a little here and a little there” without much regard to what exactly I’m feeding them. Vermicomposting is not cosmic stuff, and a consistently-fed indoor bin is likely to maintain appropriate moisture levels with very little effort on your part. But it’s always advisable to (research water content of various organic foods) to consider your worm food choices and how they might affect worm bin moisture.
3. Pay Attention to the Weather
This is a no-brainier for outside bins exposed to the elements, but for indoor systems, ambient humidity still plays a large part in maintaining proper water levels. (Ask me how I killed a bin of worms in a very dry winter recently). If you’re like me, and your spouse or roommates demand you keep your buddies out of sight, you’ll probably store your bin in the basement if you have one which, during periods of rainfall, will be pretty damp. This is a good thing! But if you have a dehumidifier working around the clock, keep an eye on how the desired humidity levels are affecting your worm bin.
4. Harvest Castings and Add Bedding
By now you’re aware of the value of vermicast or worm castings. The nutrient level and availability of those nutrients far surpasses that of conventional compost. A lesser known characteristic, however, is how well worm poop retains water, able to hold 2 to 3 times it’s own weight in moisture. This is wonderful in your garden or flower pots, not so much in a worm bin. It is very easy in a plastic bin to find moisture levels that can turn your bin from a healthy, pleasant smelling aerobic environment into a malodorous nightmare for your house and your worms.
You may also choose to add more bedding (peat moss, shredded paper, coco coir) instead of – or in addition to – your worm castings harvest.
5. Use Dry Cardboard or Newsprint to Regulate Moisture
If you open the top of your worm bin and find condensation on the bottom side of the lid, you may be at or approaching the top end of your humidity level. Since I don’t care to leave the bin uncovered, I will often layer newsprint or some dry cardboard on top of the bedding, which wicks some of the moisture out of my bedding. It’s an inexact technique, but it may help buffer your moisture levels.
Maintaining appropriate moisture is not that difficult. But letting it get out of control can spell doom for your worms. A little vigilance alongside following these guidelines should steer you clear of calamity. If you have anything to add, let me know in the comments!
Like any field that is biological in nature, yet enjoyed by academics and laypersons alike, literature about vermicomposting is split into two distinct categories for two distinct audiences. Clinical studies are written by and for academia and industry experts. The content is intimidating and numbers-heavy, often including information the worm-raising layperson might find irrelevant. Topical articles like blog posts avoid gettin g deep in the weeds and stick to useful tips for the small vermicomposter. But while some helpful techniques are a product of trial and error, most useful knowledge on vermiculture and vermicomposting spawned from original research. Hobbyists and smaller-scale vermicomposters like us shouldn’t discount it.
Instead, we should seek it out where it has application to our own uses. One such study I found was conducted by two researchers, Swati Pattnaik and M. Vikram Reddy, at Pondicherry University in India. They conducted a 60-day study observing the vermicomposting effectiveness of 3 species of earthworms: Red Wiggler (Eisenia fetida), African Nightcrawler (Eudrilus eugenaie), and Indian Blue (Perionyx excavatus). The growth and reproduction of all species and the nutrient levels of their vermicast were observed in both precomposted floral waste and vegetable waste. The nutrient content of the base compost was used a control for the study.
A Summary of the Results:
- The vermicompost produced by all species was significantly more nutrient rich and microbially active than the compost alone.
- The Indian Blues exhibited the greatest growth in A) individual worm size and B) worm population. Red Wigglers and African Nightcrawlers came in 2nd and 3rd, respectively.
- All species grew in length and weight better in floral waste than in vegetable waste, but the nutrient status of the vermicompost was higher in vegetable waste than in floral waste.
- In a perfect world, given their rich cast and propensity to reproduce like rabbits, the Indian Blue or Perionyx excavatus is a better composting worm than the good ole’ Red Wiggler. But this statement is as useful as saying a Ferrari is a better car than a Honda Civic, when the Civic’s price tag, cost of maintenance, and ability to function in a wide range of climate conditions makes it a better choice for more people, me included. The Indian Blue is intolerant of conditions colder than 50 degrees F and will be known to engage in mass jailbreaks from their bedding when conditions aren’t just right. By contrast, the Red Wiggler is far more likely to stay put and tolerate our mistakes. Advantage: Red Wiggler.
- The best food for vermicast production isn‘t necessarily the best for reproduction, a statement that remains true if you substitute “moisture” for “food.” As simple as raising worms can seem, our results may be disappointing when we apply a single formula to each situation.
I hope to do more Reader’s Digest summaries of original research in the future, but in the meantime, I’d recommend perusing the bibliographies and citations at the end of scholarly articles. Find a citation that seems interesting to you and check it out! It won’t be a “6 Ways to Get Your Wigglers to Mate” sort of article, but you may find some nuggets of information not found elsewhere that can help you turn the corner from a frustrated newbie to your community’s expert on vermicomposting. You can also point to articles like this one to convince your friends who swear by conventional composting.
Do you have an original, scholarly piece of research you refer back to from time to time and would like to see added to the Urban Worm Company’s Research Page? If so, leave a message in the comments and e-mail me at email@example.com to receive 10% off your first order!
I hope this site will be many things: informative, entertaining, and helpful in your vermicomposting and vermiculture efforts. I also hope the site is easy to use. If there is one gripe I have among 90% of the worm farming or worm compost websites, it is that they are difficult to use and understand, which makes one wonder if the site’s owner is more interested in letting you know how much he knows, rather than presenting his info for public consumption.
If Urban Worm Company is an easy-to-find, and easy-to-use resource for your earthworm farming needs, then it will be a success. While words like lumbricus terrestris or eisenia fetida sound great a t cocktail parties, most people looking for worm composting solutions aren’t looking for a lesson in Latin or what phyla earthworms belong to. Theysimply want accessible information on how to purchase, feed, house, and care for their worms.
If you’re interested in recycling your food waste into the richest natural fertilizer available, why not try a pound of red wigglers? Enjoy our ready source of support via e-mail and this blog.
Let’s get started!