veggie scraps, worm composting, part 1

i wanted to reduce the amount of organic materials we were throwing away. our soil here is clay and can use any help it can get when it comes to organic materials.
it seemed a natural fit with my interests from when i was much younger in the critters around me and the plants i enjoy growing and eating to see what would happen if...
i started out with the goal of getting enough worms to keep up with the production of kitchen veggie scraps. it turned out to also be a good way to get rid of a lot of the paper and cardboard scraps.
compared to many people who have purchased special bins and composting worms i started out fairly low budget. also i wanted to do things a little different.
the first bin was going to be thrown away, the buckets used were recycled from a fast-food store or old construction materials buckets. the worms cost me a few $. the thread, cheesecloth and elastic i used to make covers for the buckets ran about $7. round it all to an even $20 max.
i could have used all recycled materials (old shirts and elastic from waistbands) and got the worms for free by digging and scrounging around the compost heap. if i'd gone that route i'd be out the $2 for thread. still, $20 is not bad for many hours of entertainment and the whole winter of having an excuse to get my hands in the dirt. :)
for normal people doing bin composting they end up getting a species of worms that does well in an all organic material environment. often called red-wrigglers they do well in a bin that has holes in the sides and drainage out the bottom for the juice from decay and digestion that happens when veggie scraps meet worm.
it has to be kept above freezing. and there is worm tea draining off. also the added air holes needed to keep the bins from going anaerobic increases the smell you would get. not that it is horrible, but even if it is noticeable to some people that would be a problem. this means the bins get kept in a semi- heated garage or the basement or outside on the back porch if the climate isn't too cold or hot.
our garage isn't heated, we have no basement, plus it freezes pretty well here in the winter. i couldn't get by with bins outside (the raccoons would love me) so i needed a way to keep the critters happy, keep the smells down and still have a system of veggie decay and worm digestion going on all within a few feet of where i am most of the time.
part 2.
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...continued from part 2...
the basic method i'm using now is to start a new bucket with a layer of shredded paper on the bottom (or if we've had mellon or something squishy and runny i wrap that in newspaper and put that in the bottom). on top of that i'll layer some dirt mixed with agricultural lime (if it looks like i'll be adding high acid things like tomatoes or pineapple scraps to the bin). on top of that i'll put a layer of veggie scraps and mix some dirt and shredded paper on that, then more scraps and dirt layers.
depending upon the size of the bucket i'll go either to a third or half full before i stop the layers of scraps. on top of these layers i'll put six or more inches of dirt and worms from my overflow/working bin. this way they can go up (if the fumes from decomposition get to be too much) or down, but still have familiar dirt to start out in.
after a few weeks the bucket will compact, runny stuff will ferment and squish together, the paper will get soggy and compact too. so if you start with a full bucket you'll end up with a bucket with the top third open again. sometimes i've taken the top layer of loose stuff off (carefully so as to not injure the worms) and added a few more layers so that i have a full bucket going and then add it back. the top layer of loose stuff helps keep gaps from opening up along the edges to the bottom. that's asking for fruit fly or other small fly population explosions.
some books/articles i've read say that fungus is a bad thing. so far i can't say i agree. fungus helps break stuff down. the worms seem to be ok and move around, eat, make egg casings, etc. besides, it's almost impossible to keep fungi away. the smell at times is so much like a mushroom that i hope to see them coming up, but as of yet i've only gotten small ones that wither away quickly.
drying veggies before putting them in the dirt helps keep the moisture levels from getting too soggy (worms tolerate really soggy soils ok, they just don't like to be drowned completely). i spread out chopped veggies on newspapers for a few days to dry before using. raw potato peels take longer, but i recommend drying them too because otherwise they take a long time to decompose or start sprouting. they might start growing fungus when drying, but so far i've not seen any evidence that the worms have trouble with them.
for runny fruits and squishy things like the insides of mellons or squash i wrap it up in newspaper and then let that dry some or use the wrapped up paper on the bottom of a new bucket.
melon peels, lettuce cores, etc. i slice up into smaller pieces. easier to layer and mix or when turning out is easier to break apart.
i don't recommend putting raw onions in the mix at all. i suppose they would be ok if they were dehydrated and then mixed in gradually so that they weren't in a clump, but i'm saved from that here (Ma uses them all winter to protect plants from the bunnies).
dried onion peels are ok. they don't seem to be a problem. i think because they take a while to decay.
worms seem to love any cooked veggie, squash skin, sweet potato skin, potato skin or banana peels. when i make soy milk i sometimes have more leftover soybean mush that i won't eat right away, so some of that they get to munch on. it's quickly gone.
i don't use much citrus here, but i've seen elsewhere that it's not recommended to put a lot of citrus in the mix. can't say anything from direct experience. perhaps the following would also work for them but i can't say...
other acidic things like pineapple cores or peels. i add a little agricultural lime to the soil i'm putting down at the bottom (no lime sprinkled directly on worms as that would probably hurt!).
... part 4 continues...
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...continued from part 3...
other fun/noteworthy things...
the two buckets of clay i dug up right before winter turned out to be really useful as some of the buckets weren't ready when i needed more room so i had to start new buckets.
the downside? clay is really nasty when you add organic matter to it and it gets really wet.
i did two new buckets at once after Ma pulled a marathon cooking session and also made a lot of fruit salads and stuff involving apple peels, melons, etc. i didn't have any extra sand and not enough newspaper and old castings to break up the clay.
within a few weeks of putting those buckets together they were gurgling up a storm and i was worried that the worms i put in them were dead and gone from all the fermentation and them being too wet.
i ended up dumping a bucket out after a month to see what was up. and of course it was a slimy smelly mess that came out all at once in one big pile of goo.
horrible smell, missed the bin with a big part of it, that wet mineral clay smell along with the smell of decay and a bucket gone anaerobic was the worst. but no worse than a nasty stinky diaper so, no big deal to me. just made sure to wipe the floor good when i was done (and the edges of the bucket too).
broke the pile of goo up into chunks and put them on the bottom of new buckets and made sure to put more organic stuff around them, but it will be a while before those chunks get broken up by the worms and mixed with other things. exposed to the air it mellows out after a few days too. i've done that with the second bucket.
the surprising thing to me was that the night crawlers and worms seemed to have their burrows right down into that muck without too much trouble and they were fine with it. as long as they weren't swimming in liquid they were ok.
i've had a few escapees, four to be exact. two just the other night and the other two quite some time ago before i had sewed the elastic bands and cheesecloth covers. i suspect it is the supermoon. like everyone is blaming for the earthquake/tsunami. ha.
some people leave a dim light on to keep the worms in their bins. i am not wanting to run a light so have to rely upon barrier to keep them down.
the first few weeks after starting a bucket they won't usually even show up at night on the surface. then they start making trails around the edge (making gaps that can cause fly troubles) and i'm sure mating is a part of what they are doing after they get well fed. i always see plenty of egg casings so i know that they are doing what needs to be done and i always find tiny ones when i start a new bucket. good signs that i can't be doing much wrong at this point.
moisture levels in a closed bucket can be harder to gauge. if a bucket gets really soggy i dig a hole and roll up a newspaper and stick it down in there. that helps wick the moisture upwards and after a while the newpaper degrades or i turn the whole bucket and use the newspaper on the bottom. pretty much i've learned that even if it looks dry on top it can be too wet at the bottom. the worms are ok fairly wet, but the anaerobic bacteria can be smelly so i try to not get too too wet (especially if there's a lot of clay in the bucket too). as a last resort, turning a soggy bucket is a smelly mess, but it can be a fun smelly mess. and the stink mellows in a few days when exposed to the air. i've taken smelly chunks and mixed them with other buckets in a larger bin and then left them to be used again in a future bucket.
the flies are the worst of it and they are only here because i don't have small meshed covers (something other than cheesecloth). a while ago i almost had them eliminated, but had to go away for a few days and couldn't do the daily check/squish fly routine. came back to population surge, almost back to previous levels (one or two a day). luckily they seem to like congregating on the east window so i just pull the covers off and check the buckets and squish what i can get before they fly out. once i have the buckets all checked then i get them from the window too. they stay in this room so far only a few wander further (these are not fruit flies as those are slower to reproduce and larger so don't get through the cheesecloth so easily). but they don't bite or land on me and Ma hasn't seen more than one or two even during this surge. strange that they don't go towards the light in the other room as they do sometimes get on the computer screen (and i squish 'em there too).
hm, any other things i can think of? besides don't use clay and water in large quantities together and use a bigger container to dump out buckets in as it's very hard to dump one bucket into another bucket without missing and getting casting/crumbs all over. or you get a big clump all at once and it's a mess (like when the ice suddenly lets go in a cup you're drinking from and you end up with splashes all over the place).
sometimes the worms crawl up the sides of the buckets and bin. usually after they've been in place a while. some are obviously mating, but many just climb around and leave behind castings here or there (but not all the time). i'm not sure if they are prospecting, airing out, or trying to get away from that annoying younger sibling. since so few have actually escaped the pressure cannot be too great. but when a bucket gets a lot of surface activity and has been set up for a few months then i consider it "ready" to be dumped out and started all over again. currently i have three buckets ready to be dumped out and a few others that i can layer stuff on top since they've settled enough. so finally keeping up with production. :)
tipping a bucket that has night-crawlers in it and taking off the top layer of loose stuff you sometimes will have the night-crawlers hanging out or falling out. quite a sight.
also scratching the edge of the bucket with your fingernail will get nightcrawlers up to the surface and out of their burrows. either they think it is something digging for them so they run or they think it's food or mating i have no idea, but they can move quite quickly and sometimes have startled me. if they aren't out of the burrow i gently tap them so they retreat as i'd rather they didn't get injured if i'm putting down a new layer of scraps or bean mush.
a big metal serving spoon is quite handy to have and a quart yogurt container for moving scoups of dirt. i also keep a squeeze bottle of water handy to rinse off strange items or rocks that i come across and a used toothbrush if i really want to look at a fossil.
i've found all sorts of things in the dirt: wire, glass, plastics. i don't think i'll ever get commercial compost again, or if i do i will be very careful. way too much questionable stuff in it that made me worry about dog/cat/human poo being in there too. bags of composted cow manure were much better and had no "surprises".
drying things out is the most recent and best method of evening out volume. drying reduces volume by 5 to 10 times and once dry i can use scraps whenever i need them and not worry about it otherwise. no fungus or fly troubles as long as i stick to drying veggie scraps (and keep the fruit scraps wrapped and buried).
probably have processed a few hundred pounds of scraps so far, most of it water to evaporation. i will probably have a few pounds of castings, juvenile worms and egg casings to use for one lucky garden come active growing season. i won't put this out until i'm sure the soil is warm enough and the plants ready to soak up the nutrients.
around 40 pounds of shredded paper are in the mix but some of that takes a bit longer to be digested. cardboard is quick (a month or so), then newspaper, then card stock and shiny print.
worms will suck the colors off paper, i think it's the salts/minerals. so far none of the worms glow in the dark or wear a purple mohawk so i'm not worried.
nice thing, can check the moisture levels, squirt a little water if it looks too dry, turn down the heat, unplug the hot water heater and leave for a few weeks at a time without worrying that they'll be ok.
time used on days when i have other obligations/plans and don't want to mess around, 5-10 minutes, part of my morning hamstring stretch. time used on days when i have to double check and squish flies, 20 minutes. time spent on days when i want to observe, turn a bucket or shred paper and top off layers 30+ minutes. chopping and drying usually only takes a few minutes when needed. regular month time spent about 15 hrs. all of it enjoyable.
worst trouble, getting things too wet and having too much clay in the mix. fly control.
great fun. having a night-crawler come out of the burrow when putting out some new chow. taking the flashlight at night and seeing what's up. reading about soil science, critters, bacteria and fungi. blabbing to people about it (haha!).
have fun, i sure am! :)
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...continued from part 1...
using a mix of species and using dirt was a good answer. the dirt introduces different species of bacteria and fungi to help decay along. several inches of dirt filters the smell out and soaks up the juices. shredded paper is also helpful too in keeping moisture levels more uniform.
i started out late May 2010 with one rather square storage bin, added dirt and worms and whatever veggie scraps that would be ok, but since it was summer i didn't put the large amounts of tomato peels or beets in the mix. just small amounts of things like lettuce pieces or chopped up celery cores or potato peels or squash skins or ...
this was to see how it would go and to see if things would smell too much or if the worms wouldn't actually survive, or if there would be too many fruit flies.
i kept the bin covered with layers of cheesecloth loosely draped over. later i made some covers using elastic and cheesecloth. they've not been perfect, but they are ok.
that first bin worked ok, eventually as the summer wore on i ran out of room in the bin and didn't want to disturb the soil in it too deeply just yet. we had extra buckets around (they always come in handy) so i used them as i needed them.
in the late fall i took the bin and buckets, turned them over and did a rough worm census to see how the different species were doing. the night-crawlers were all alive, fat and active. this even though they were living at a depth much less than they might be in the wild and they'd been through a period of time where the temperature was well above 80F. i did make sure that the soil was kept moist and on the floor. it wasn't kept in direct sunlight so i'm sure that all helped. still not optimal conditions for a deep dweller. the smaller worms, i'd lost a few (from 30 down to 26), but there were a few hundred smaller babies.
in four-five months things were doing ok, no major smells other than those i'd created by turning up stuff in the process of burying more or if i turned a bucket out completely. that could be smelly, but even if it stunk badly here, Ma said whenever i asked her if she could smell it and she said that she couldn't smell it.
so basically it passed my initial tests and goals. i had a system that could process veggie, fruit scraps, paper and not stink so much that i'd be forced to put them outside.
the next stage and another part of the tinkering i wanted to do was to see what would happen if i tried to recondition clay soil so right before the ground froze for the winter i made sure i had a few buckets of clay to work with.
my worm population was still not very many, but by the end of summer and into the fall i could finally get some additional species from around the yard. we'd finally had some rain and i was able to get some from the compost pile and from under some boards and down in the dirt from some plant roots.
... part 3...
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