Simple Vermicomposting

All organic gardens start with compost. That’s why, in our last post, we started saving materials to make compost in a 5 gallon bucket. In this post, we’ll take a few more simple steps in the compost-making process.

There are many different ways of making compost ranging from easy to elaborate. I am going to explain a few simple options in this series. But, regardless of which methods you ultimately end up using, I recommend that all new gardeners start by making vermicompost!

Vermicomposting makes great humus which is magical stuff that helps everything in your garden grow better. Plus it also makes “plant perfect” fertilizer that you can start using almost immediately.

What is Vermicompost?

worm-castings.png

Vermicompost is made primarily by red wriggler worms. Red wrigglers are very small worms that can eat half their body weight, each day, of all those fresh materials you’ve been saving in your 5 gallon bucket.

In reality, you’ll get a lot of ebb and flow in compost production depending on what you’ve got in your bucket. Still, with very minimal work, you can accumulate quite a bit of the highest quality, least work compost possible using these amazing worms.

Also, if you plan to keep other livestock later, your ability to take care of these worms is both good practice and an excellent test of your readiness for more complex life forms (e.g. chickens).

How Do You Care For Worms?

To take care of your worms, you’ll need to provide them proper shelter and bedding, nutritious food and sufficient water, occasionally clean their living area, and make adjustments in their care as required for their continued good health. (Incidentally, that’s also what you need to do for all other livestock.)

– Shelter and Bedding

For your first round of worms, their shelter will be a plastic container.  Their bedding will be compost or top soil.

– Food and Water

Their food will be the materials you have been saving in your 5-gallon bucket, plus some loose brown matter that I’ll tell you about in a minute. Generally the food materials from your bucket will have sufficient water to hydrate your worms. Although, you may occasionally need to moisten your feed materials if they start to dry out.

Like us, worms don’t want to open the metaphorical fridge and find that the only thing to eat is ketchup. So, make sure to feed them before they run out of food. That way they can pick and choose what to eat and don’t end up living on nothing but onions and coffee grounds for a month.

Similar to making compost, some people say you shouldn’t give worms certain things. Well, smells and insects can be a problem in indoor worm bins.  So I recommend you do one of two things.

  1. Use the “limited list” compost approach to collecting in your bucket.  This excludes things like meat, dairy, and cooked foods.
  2. If you prefer to compost everything indoors, then you’ll need to ferment your compost materials before you feed them to your worms.  This is done by a very simple process called bokashi. (I will tell you more about that in our next post).

People also say you should chop things up small — not give whole egg shells or wash them first, avoid citrus, limit onions — etc. etc. etc. Personally, I ignore all those special rules. Whatever the worms don’t eat, goes into the garden with the worm castings. There, other life forms end up eating them eventually.

– Cleaning

As far as cleaning goes, I recommend that you make at least two worm bins. When one bucket fills up you can scrape the majority of the worms from the top of your full bucket and transfer them to a new bucket.  Then all you need to do is spread the compost from your first bucket on your garden.  Once your second bucket is full, repeat the same process.

You will also need to empty the liquid, called leachate,  that drains from your worm bin into your second container, regularly. Dilute this liquid to a ratio of 10 parts water to 1 part leachate. Use it to water the roots of your more mature plants. (Don’t use this on seedlings, sometimes it can be too strong.)

– Care

Worm care is very simple. Still, I can’t tell you how many people have managed to kill their worms. One lady left them shut up in her greenhouse on a hot day.  A man put them in his garage which was well below freezing, so his worms froze to death. Most people just fail to feed them and those poor, trapped worms die of starvation.

Worms like the same basic climate conditions as we do for best performance. Well, except that they live in a plastic box – which amplifies conditions like sunlight, heat, and cold. Basically, though, if you keep them at the house temperatures you feel comfortable in, out of direct sunlight, and away from vents that will cause them to become too dry, they’ll be happy.

Feed them before they get hungry. Transfer them to a new bin before they run out of space. And remember to treat them like they are living beings, doing amazing work for you, then you’ll do just fine!

Now, that you are primed on the basic needs of worms, here’s what you need to do to start using them at home.

1. Prepare Your Browns

You’ve already started gathering your worm food in your 5 gallon buckets. But now, it’s time to start saving up some separate “browns” to go help create a hospitable environment for worms. Used computer paper, newspaper, junk mail with the plastic windows torn out, paper towels, cardboard, paper egg cartons, tissues boxes, toilet paper rolls, etc. are all good options. Crushed, but not composted, fall leaves are also a good option when the season is right.

Shred your paper items if you can. But if you don’t have access to a shredder, you can also do this manually. If you watch any TV or movies, tearing large paper-based materials into small pieces by hand while you watch is relaxing and redeeming. (Personally, I don’t feel guilty about my TV time if I am also doing some homesteading “work” while I watch).

2. Make Your Worm Bin

Extra large cat litter boxes or 5 gallon sized food grade buckets make great worm bins. Ideally you’ll want two containers of the same size that you can nest together.

If you don’t have any containers from your own purchases, ask friends and family to collect these for you. Or check with your favorite restaurants to see if they can save you their large food grade buckets.

– Make Drainage Holes For The Worm Compost Leachate

Drill a few holes in the bottom of one container for drainage. Put some weight on the bucket using your foot to keep it steady. Then hold the drill with two hands to drill the holes.  (Keep your foot away from the drill, though for safety).

Drill a Few Holes

Note: Those cat litter pails have ridged bottoms. Make sure you drill the part that is flush with the bottom — not the inverted ridges — because liquid needs to flow to the low point in the container. This is where your worm compost tea will drain out thanks to gravity.

Look! This is so easy, you can even get your cat involved!

– Make a Vent for Fresh Air

If your container has a lid, you can use a sharp utility knife to make an air vent.  Cut out a small section. Cover it with a few coffee filters, folded to size, and held in place with duct tape. Paper towels also work if you are not a coffee drinker.

 

Note: Some people worry that the worms might eat through the coffee filters. I have never had it happen. I suspect that’s because there are better food options in the body of the bucket. But, if you are worried about this, you can use a piece of metal screen like you use for your screen door or over windows to keep flies out instead.

– No Lid? No Problem

If you only managed to scavenge containers but no lids, then just cover the whole top with a towel and secure it with a rope or bungee cord. You will be getting in and out of this bucket from time to time. So make sure you secure your towel using something you can untie easily.

No lid no problem

Again, if you are concerned about worms escaping by eating the towel, then use some screen cut to size instead of a towel.

– Add Your Compost Leachate Catcher

Nest your bucket with holes inside your other container that doesn’t have holes.

Nested Worm Bin

With the cat litter boxes, you can even lean the drilled side forward a bit to help the liquid drain faster.  This doesn’t work with round buckets, but it will still drain fine (just a bit more slowly).

3. Prepare Worm Habitat

Fill the Bin

There are all sorts of formulas out there for what to put in your worm bins. Personally,  after years of raising worms in bins, in beds, and direct in the garden, I have decided that nature knows best.

I add 3 inches of top soil or finished compost to the bottom of my worm bin since this is what the worms live in when they free range. This also helps maintain the moisture in the bin in while acting as a bio-filter for the liquid that drains out the bottom.

Moisten your compost or soil so that it is like a full — but not soppy — sponge.

Side Note For Garden Preparation

You are going to need to get some already-made compost for your garden very soon. So, go ahead and start buying a couple of bags a week in preparation for starting your beds. If you grab a few bags each time you do your normal shopping, it’s not such a hit to your budget or so much heavy lifting for your back! Then you can use some of this in your worm bin too.

You’ll need about 3 cubic feet of well-aged compost for every 10 square feet of garden space you’ve earned based on your estimated compost making ability.  Normally bagged compost is about 1 cubic foot per bag. Double check the label to be sure, though. (Organic compost can sometimes be in smaller bags to make the price seem more similar to the non-organic variety).

4. Move Your Worms into their New Home

You can buy worms online from specialized suppliers. They sell them by the pound or piece count.  A pound of worms is about 1000 worms, and that’s about what you need to get started. Some suppliers only ship in good weather for worm safety. Others charge a lot for shipping because they use foam coolers and insulation to ship year round.

You can often get a batch of worms from other gardeners (if you ask nicely and maybe barter a bit). Bait and tackle shops often carry red wrigglers for fishermen to use as well.

If you have seen red wrigglers in your soil, then you can also just put a couple inches of your compost materials on your soil and wait until the worms crawl up to eat it.  Then you can pick out worms and put them in your bin.  You’ll need to repeat this a few times to get a sufficient population for your bin. But, it saves you up to $40 on the price of worms.

Once you have your worms, spread them out on top of the compost in your new worm bin.  Introduce yourself.  Let them know you’ll be taking care of them. And wish them well in their new home!

Need to Buy Worms?

If you do need to buy worms, by clicking on the image below to place your order, I’ll get a percentage of your your purchase (at no additional cost to you). This is how I support this website. 

This product contains about 1200 red wriggler worms and costs a little less than $40, including shipping. The worms are also guaranteed to arrive alive. Note: If you can get worms for free, or more affordably elsewhere, I encourage you to do that!

 5. Feed Your New Livestock

Now, add about 3 inches of loose compost materials from your 5 gallon bucket to this new worm bin to get them started. Do not pack this in. You don’t want those worms to suffocate or get crushed!

Cover the fresh materials with about 2 inches of the loose brown matter from step 1 above. The brown stuff will cut down on smells and irritating gnat flies.

If you haven’t collected enough browns yet, then you can also sprinkle just enough of your bagged compost to cover the fresh materials.

6. Get to Know Your Worms

Red Wrigglers

Like any new livestock, you’ll want to spend a lot of time with your worms at first to get to know as much as you can about them. Move aside your browns every day or two and see how much your worms have eaten. Check to see if your materials are still moist. Pay attention to how much black, gummy goodness (a.k.a. worm poop) your power eaters have made.

Each time you visit your worms, add in more fresh food and browns, as needed, to replace what’s missing. Also, give your worms a banana peel now and then. That’s their favorite food!

Actually it’s the potassium in the peels that they are attracted. Potassium can be hard to come by in other forms of organic matter. When you add a banana peel or two to each batch of vermicompost, you also increase the potassium content that will be in the vermicompost and leachate that you feed to your plants.

Conclusion

When you have accomplished the above, you can add “vermicompost manager” to your homesteading resume. You have not only started to make your own compost for the garden. but you have also added your first kind of  livestock to your homestead line-up!

These simple steps, have led to huge progress. This one skill can feed your garden and your family for years to come. And, if you take great care of your worms, they will live long and propagate so you never have to buy them again.

Continue your simple homesteading journey with our next post.

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Recognizing Resources

The world is a mess. The climate is beyond repair and all we can do now is wait for disaster after disaster to destroy us. All of our institutions are so completely fragile that the next big event might mean the end of our entire way of life.

If you really believed that, would you be spending your time reading this website on how to homestead?

The Practical Optimist

OK, you might be worried. And yes, there are things to worry about. But if you are interested in becoming a homesteader, then you must be an inherently optimistic person.

You are probably also a practical person. You know that big changes are coming in your lifetime. And you’d rather have a bit of control over the outcome.

Being willing to believe that potentially difficult changes are coming and taking practical steps to improve your chances by homesteading are completely compatible beliefs. However, thinking the world is ending and nothing can be done about it, then trying to homestead anyways is pretty much the definition of crazy.

This point is important because I don’t want you to waste your time on something you don’t believe in. If you really believe the worst, if that intro paragraph rings absolutely true, then please stockpile, focus on your survival skills, and get your shelter in order.

But if you really are a homesteader at heart, own the fact that you are also an optimist. It will make this process a whole lot easier because optimism is actually a necessary skill in homesteading.

Think about it.

Early homesteaders literally set out to live in places that were absolutely inhospitable to human life. They were starting new lives on tracts of land that were wild, desolate, isolated, unpredictable, and unquestionably dangerous. Many homesteaders had few skills to speak of and even fewer possessions.

The Glass Is More Than Half Full

It is really important to get your head around this idea of optimism being necessary because successful homesteading requires that you see possibilities other people don’t see.

As the old saying goes, the pessimist sees the glass as half-empty, the optimist as half-full, and the realist sees half a glass of water. Personally, as an optimist, I see a whole lot more than a half-full glass of water.

I see a glass that can be used to sprout seeds on my counter, water plants, cover outdoor seedlings like a cloche in bad weather, a storage vessel, a rain collection device, a measuring cup, and so much more.

Homesteading requires you to see an abundance of resources where other people see problems or perfunctory things.

Practice Optimism

Even though I know, with certainty, that any true homesteader is an optimistic person by nature, not all of us have been practicing this skill regularly. In fact, we might be a bit wishy-washy on the optimism front.

We might have gotten into the habit of letting other people diminish our creativity or convince us to be conventional. We may have just gotten lazy and started seeing resources as only having narrow utility.

Optimism is still in you. It’s still a fundamental part of the person you are. It’s just a bit rusty.  So, before you start making plans about all the stuff you want or need, do me this favor.

Take some time to practice homesteading optimism.

Look around at the things you already own or have free access to. Then, start to see the myriad of ways you can use those resources to advance your homesteading dreams.

Don’t look online to try to find all the ways other people have used a mason jar for example. It’s important that you come up with your own ideas so you can awaken this sleeping skill.

Instead, hold that glass of possibility in your hand and try to imagine all the ways you might use it on your homestead. Then write all those ideas down.

Resource Abundance

There is another side to this idea of homesteading optimism. As I said before, there are real reasons to worry about the future. Particularly on the resource front. This is a finite planet and it is in peril in some ways.

Making ecologically sound choices in our homesteading practices is one way we can avoid being contributors to our global problems. So many of the skills we modern homesteaders aspire to evolved out of the necessities of the times they lived in.

Basket weaving began because containers were needed and pliable young willow swatches were abundant. Earthen shelters were built in the desert because wood was scarce and dry earth was abundant. Log cabins were standard in forested areas because wood was plentiful.

Rather than starting with a long list of specific wants for your homestead, how about starting with recognition of the resources that are abundant in your area and on your property.

Sometimes the things that are “abundant” seem repugnant at first blush. For example, to the grass grower, fields of dandelions and clover are like a curse on the land. To an optimistic homesteader looking at the available resources and making a plan for how to use them – those lawn weeds become wine, tea, coffee substitute, salads, and honey bee food.

A neglected cow pasture reclaimed by brush and kudzu might look like a mess to a cattle farming. To a homesteader though, that is a perfect place to put some goats out to pasture.

Look around your area with a homesteader’s optimism. Note what’s abundant (and sometimes irritating) and imagine how that excess can be put to good use on your homestead.

Start to make lists of all the ready resources you already have. In fact, use your weather observation notebook for this too. Go front to back on weather notes and back to front on resource notes until you meet in the middle with a full-notebook.

You may have already figured this out, but resource recognition has a lot in common with natural observation. You are starting to look closely at things that have been ignored and overlooked to develop your homesteading skills.

Tomorrow, continue your simple homesteading journey with Garden Dreams and Compost Calculations.