Thursday, April 22, 2010

Vermicomposting and Cocoons

The bins are active and although they are screwing like mad, I was unable to snap any worm porn at this moment. There are tons and tons of cocoons and I need to harvest very soon before the hatching starts. There are anywhere from 1 to 4 baby earthworms per cocoon. Major pain in the ass to harvest when they do hatch out. I usually end up screening the material as best as I can, putting it into a sterlite container for 2 months, and then pull out the juvenile worms.

In the meantime, the worms are rolling off cocoons every few days. Several of the darker ones above most likely will hatch out any day now. I was going to screen a bin or 2 today, but the weather had alternate plans. Tornado warnings, sheets of hail, rain and lightening kinda put the damper on those plans.

The cocoons when they are freshly rolled off a worm are white and have the consistency of .. well... a booger. They turn yellow and get more firm with age.

I need to sort my bins ASAP, otherwise the current inhabitants will start feeling crowded and try to make a mass exodus out of the bin. That happened one year when I had moved the bins to the porch. I was planning on screening the next day, but overnight they bolted. I didn't have the lids secured on as I was letting the bins air out. So I woke up to probably a thousand plus worms all over the porch and some of the happiest, fattest robins on the planet. They tried so hard to clean up every last one that they couldn't fly. They didn't even want to hop away. After a few hours and recovering from food coma, they spent the day in the hops encased aspen (which they then covered in enough bird poo to make it look really gross.)

It's not that I have some sort of love for worms, I have the bins because the vermicompost is wonderful stuff. I originally started the bins to add to my other assortment of cultured live foods for my fish. I would hand feed the neighbor's oscars the adult worms. The oscars would slurp the worms out of your hands. They got more than a little crazy about the live food offerings, and eventually any time they saw your hands they would attack your fingers. It didn't hurt, but boy did it scare the bejeezus outta me more than a few times. Those fish can have quite the personality.

Some people have the stackable tray vermicomposting systems. To each their own. It is all pretty basic, you really only run into trouble when you over think things. Worms have very primitive "brains". There is no personality, no higher thought. If they are bolting out of the bin it is because there is a problem with the environment, not because you have a invertebrate revolution.

I vermicompost (VC) in rubbermaid bins. The big ones. Some have holes for ventilation, some haven't. I start a bin by tossing in a few handfuls of bedding (shredded news paper, straw, dried grass clippings, etc.) I toss in a few scoops of dirt from the garden and several scoops of VC along with the wiggly workers. I might toss in food right away.. veggie scraps, root balls from weeds, weeds, coffee grounds, tea bags (not the plastic ones and staples removed), etc. Then more bedding on top. Mist with a sprayer that has rainwater or unchlorinated water so that it is damp, but not soggy. Pop the top on and put the bin in a cool location. The key is to make sure the contents do not heat up (hot composting), they need grit to digest food, they need moisture as they breathe through their skin, darkness (15 minutes in the sun is enough to give them a lethal sunburn), they prefer mild temperatures, oxygen and food.

I fill a bin or two in the fall with leaves, iris trimmings, root ball of pulled up tomatoes and squash as well as those plants entirely and stuffed a bin pretty full. Added the grit and VC... covered it and moved it into the garage where it sat all winter. I put in about 2 or 3 pounds of bedrun worms (bedrun means mixed stages of maturity, from juvenile to breeding age), and as many cocoons as I fished out of other bins that were being harvested for VC. It is ready to be harvested now. The population has definately doubled at the very least. I have pulled from that bin 3 times already to make starter cultures for friends.

I would check that bin maybe once a month. The other bins I alternate feeding the kitchen scraps. I toss the scraps in a plastic coffee can and keep it in the freezer. If there are any fruit flies, the freeze will wipe them out. When the can is full, I thaw it and dump it into the bins. If the food is particularly wet, I will toss in newspaper shreds to absorb the liquid. If the bin contents get too wet, I pop off the lid and cover it with cheap gauze and bungee cord it in place. That way the moisture evaporates, but the bin does not get invaded by ants, gnats or the like.

The quality of the casts depends on what the worms are fed. If you offer a variety, you are going to have good quality casts.

About 20% to 25% VC mixed into the soil of container plants and you are good to go. Slow release fertilizer, high in beneficial microbes and natural plant hormones. You can top dress around plants.. you can't every burn plants with VC.

VC tea.. just a few scoops into a watering can of rainwater and then gently stir it around. You can use it as a foliar drench, it is a mild fertilizer.. and it is great stuff if you are transplanting.

It is pretty balanced, so while you are able to fertilize your plants, you don't have to worry about accidently over fertilizing, or too much nitrogen issues (where fruiting plants, like tomatoes, if they get too much nitrogen then they produce a lot of leaves but fail to flower or set fruit.)

There is no 1 ultimate soil amendment. Variety is always best. This just happens to be my favorite amendment as I know what it is made of, that it is a quality compost, and I can make it at home year round for next to nothing.

If you have poultry... the worms are actually a good calcium source.

Just don't get ripped off when you get the worms. I got mine from my compost heap. Check around well if you are going to purchase any. Not all Eisenia Foetida are actually EF's as less than 1% of all the people selling worms can even kinda identify species. They are in actuality usually guessing, or going off what someone else told them what they thought they were. If you find mature worms (they have the band around them which is what actually rolls off to be a cocoon) that are under 4 inches, pigmented and hanging around in a cold compost heap... they will work for a VC bin just fine. Just collect enough of them and a bit of the compost they were found in to start your bin.


  1. Hi Anne, this is GREAT info! I was laughing my head off about the gluttonous robins, hilarious!

    I've tried a worm bin twice and each time, I've made a stinking, rotting mess full of flies...yuck! I didn't make drainage holes in the bottom of the bin! Someday soon, I'll try VC again. I really want to be successful so I can make homegrown food for my future hens and perhaps even tilapia (for eating).

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. I used a Dremel to make the holes for air flow using a really small bit and on the sides about 2 to 3 inches down from the lid. They aren't exactly smart enough to figure out to exit through those holes as their urge is to travel further upwards to get out.

    If it is stinky, most likely there is too much food for them to handle. A super easy way to start is to actually put some straw down, mist it a little.. and then toss in root balls (with the bit of dirt that didn't shake free) from crops that have finished. If you have containers with spent potting soil, toss that in too and then top with damp straw. Flies won't be as attracted to that, the worms get settled in, the potting soil gets revamped pretty quickly, the roots have a lot of microbes so that gives them enough to feed on for quite awhile, and the straw keeps it lofty for air circulation/ holds moisture/ keeps flies a little further away. Then just drop small bits of food scraps in under the straw to keep track of how fast they eat it.

    Some compost with black soldier flies, well the maggots from them anyways. They are like super processors. Able to handle meat, oil, dairy... all they need are little capes and spandex. BSF are rarely involved with flystrike, they do keep other fly populations down, they are waaay faster than worms (but they do produce less "compost" and do not offer the same microbial benefits).. in a BSF system the maggots migrate up a ramp to then try to pupate... but if you have poultry in snacking range it is doubtful many survive that. They are also high in protein and calcium.

    If I had poultry, and the room, I would consider them too as a food source. Although I am ok with earthworms.. maggots and grubs kinda give me the heebie jeebies.

    Yay tilapia! Water features are great! Just think... you probably could work watercress in as a crop too!

  3. I had soldier flies in my compost once, they were really gross looking and I freaked out. They were loving the inside of a rotten tomato, the tom was writhing, ugh! I almost killed them all but I went and searched online for what they were and found out their benefits. I was keeping them and they were happily munching away, then my mom dumped a ton of new compost on top and they suffocated. They don't like being buried, found out the hard way...sigh.