Category Archives: Permaculture techniques

Worms at work.

Worm Composting

Looking to turn trash into treasure; set up a worm bin. Worm composting is a great way to recycle kitchen scraps, yard waste, paper, cardboard, cotton fabrics, and manure turning it into biological rich compost. If you live in an apartment or small urban lot it is especially valuable. Worm bins can be kept on a porch, balcony, or even inside the house. Worm composting creates three products: Worm castings, worm tea, and fishing worms. Making your own is cheap and easy.

We found this old tub in the woods.
We found this old tub in the woods.

Worm castings – Worms eat the bacteria and particles of the organic material put in the bed. As the material passes through its body, beneficial bacterial from the worms gut are added. After digestion, a worm casting is excreted from the worm’s body. Worm castings have an earthy smell and have been shown to make plant resist disease, grow faster, and produce more food.

Worm tea – While worm tea can be made by simply adding a handful of worm castings in a watering jug filled with rain water, I prefer a different approach. I put a handful of worm compost in a fine mesh bag and hang in a 5 gallon bucket full of rain water and a couple tablespoons of molasses. I then use an aquarium aerator to add oxygen to the water at a high rate. The bacteria in the worm compost will multiply in the water with high oxygen and sugar content. I let the tea brew for 24 hrs, after which, I foliar spray on plant within 24 hrs of being brewed. If you use tap water instead of rain water, let it sit uncovered for 24 hrs prior to starting to let the chlorine in the water gas off. Worm tea can also be made by catching the liquid that drains out of the bottom of the worm bin, using the same technique.

Fishing worms – There are thousands of different types of worms in the world. Only a few types of worms are suitable for a worm bin. Red Worms (Eisenia fetida) are commonly used for worm composting. Other common names are panfish worm, trout worm, tiger worm, and red wiggler. They are vigorous eaters and multiple rapidly. Red worms live longer under water allowing them to wiggle on the hook for up to ½ an hour. Night Crawlers can also be used in a worm bin but will not compost material as fast.

This tub of worm breaks down 4 inches of rabbit manure a week.
This tub of worm breaks down 4 inches of rabbit manure a week.

Worm compost bins can be purchased commercially or made from Rubbermaid bins, 5 gallon buckets, old sinks, or tubs. I have used a commercial bin, The Worm Factory Tower, which works great but it is expensive. The good thing about it is they catch the liquid as it drains out, have adequate ventilation and are designed with flow through systems that allow you to harvest castings without separating the worms from them.

For a thrifty worm farmer, 5 gallon buckets can be used to create a similar setup. Just drill ¼ inch holes in the bottom of every bucket stacked. Do not drill holes in the bottom bucket, as you will want the liquid to have a place to collect after draining. Sinks and tubs are used to create systems where a container can be placed under the bin to catch the liquid run off. The down side is you must manually sort the worms from the compost unless you make a tumbler to do it for you. An easy way to separate worms from vermicompost is to dump the bin out on a tarp. The worms will move away from the light and into the compost. This allows you to remove the top few inches of castings every 10 minutes or so as they continue to migrate towards the center.

Our catchment under tub for worm liquid.
Our catchment under tub for worm liquid.

Setting up a worm composting bin – Start by giving the worms a habitat to live in. Bedding can be peat moss, coconut coir, or shredded newspaper. We chose to use coconut coir because it is a byproduct of the coconut industry, where as peat moss is usually taken from natural eco systems. Shredded newspaper is hard to keep from matting down, creating an anaerobic environment that is hostile to the beneficial bacteria. Make sure whatever you choose, is moist but not soaking wet. If bedding is allowed to dry, the worms will dry out and die. Adding a handful of soil to the bedding material, will add bacteria to the worm bin and give the worms some grit to eat. They use the soil in their body to help them breakdown organic matter. Now is the time to add the worms. Most people start by adding 1 pound of worms but you can add more if you want your bed to handle more waste sooner. The biggest mistake people make is adding material to fast for the worms to eat.

After the worm compost bin is set up, begin adding waste in one corner of the bin at a time. Put the waste under the surface of the bedding, not on top. Make sure the previous material is almost gone before adding more.

What not to put in worm bin

Meat, fish, Dairy, Citrus, Dog or Cat Feces, Twigs or Braches, or any yard waste that has been treated with chemicals.

What to put in your worm bin

Raw vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grinds and filters, tea bags (remove staple), egg shells, rabbit manure, leaves, grass clippings, cover crops, hay.

Worms at work.
Worms at work.

The smaller the material the faster they eat it. Worms love pulp from making juice (except citrus).

We have found worm composting to be a low cost low input way to create a great soil amendment for our plants.

 

Dig a “Woody Bed”…your plants will thank you

A great way to increase production in the garden without taking up any more space is digging a “woody bed”. Woody beds are based on the technique of hugelkultur; wood stacked up a several feet high and covered with dirt and mulch. Notable permaculturists, Sepp Holtzer and Paul Wheaton have had a lot of success using hugelkultur. For those of us with a more limited space, the design can be scaled down. By adding the wood under the ground and not piled on top. You get the benefits of hugelkultur without the tall mound of dirt in your yard.

After adding leaves, rabbit manure, compost, and mulch. The bed was ready to plant in.
After adding leaves, rabbit manure, compost, and mulch. The bed was ready to plant in.

We decide to create two woody beds in our annual garden this year. We started with a plot cleared by chickens in the winter. After laying out the dimensions of the bed, the topsoil was removed and placed on a tarp. Beds were laid out on contour to catch the water as it flows down the gentle slope. A two foot deep trench was dug the length of the bed, taking care to keep the depth level. The wood we placed in the trench was logs from a fallen oak. As the dirt was added back in, we added water to help the dirt settle and fill in all the free space. The topsoil was added back on, creating a nice mound of loose soil. The final step was to add compost and mulch in the form of rabbit manure. A seasonal cover crop of crimson clover was planted to prevent weeds and increase fertility. We planted our warm weather vegetables into the bed this spring. The green beans, cucumbers, squash and tomatoes grew vigorously. Our second bed, which not purposefully planted, was covered with volunteer pumpkin and spaghetti squash vines. I guess the chickens planted those for us as they ate the kitchen scraps.

Top soil on one side and clay on the other.
Top soil on one side and clay on the other.
Filled the trench with a tree that blew down during Hurricane Issac.
Filled the trench with a tree that blew down during Hurricane Issac.
  • Holding moisture – Anyone who has sat on a log in the woods knows that rotting wood is full of moisture. The shade from the trees and contact with the ground turn the log into a sponge. Putting that sponge in the ground creates a reservoir of water under the crops reducing the need for irrigation.
  • Creating air pockets –Not walking on your grow beds is the most important way to avoid compacted soil. However, there are other ways to reduce soil compaction. Just the act of digging the trench to put in the wood will loosen the soil. Adding the wood creates soil life, which keeps the soil loose as it feeds on organic material. Finally, as the wood breaks down it creates pockets in the soil for air and water.
  • Creating organic material – There is no substitute for adding compost, mulch, manure, and green manure on top of the bed. Only so much can be added on top of the soil. Adding wood underneath the bed is an option that adds more organic material in the bed.
  • Adding nutrients to the soil – Forests are built on fallen forests. The nutrients from the wood will be recycled in the soil as the soil organisms break them down.
  • Providing food for fungi – Fungal hyphae in the garden bed forms a symbiotic relationship with the plants. The fungal hyphae transport nutrient and water that the plants cannot reach in exchange for sugars that the plants make.
Fungi in the bed is a good sign
Fungi in the bed is a good sign

I encourage anyone putting in a raised bed to take the extra steps to make it a woody bed. The benefits are many and your plants will thrive.

The plants loves it
The plants loves it