Worms in Compost by Karen Kerney

Worms in Compost by Karen Kerney

Every year millions of tons of organic refuse finds its way to landfills, incinerators, municipal sewer systems and septic systems via trash pickup or garbage disposals. The environmental Protection Agency estimates that on average, each American generates 4.3 pounds of trash each day. On a yearly basis, this is equivalent to burying 82,000 football fields 6 feet deep in compacted garbage. Approximately 47% of this amount is organic in nature. The environmental and financial implications of this are huge. The best way to mitigate the resultant environmental problems might well lie in dealing with it before it enters the waste stream.

Most people are familiar with the process of composting whereby the natural breakdown (decomposition) of organic materials results in a dark soil-like material which has great value as a soil amendment. Composting is a natural occurrence in nature that humans over years have recognized as a process that can be utilized in a managed way to dispose of refuse. One step beyond this and a complement to it is the utilization of worms to compost organic matter. This is known as vermicomposting, vermi being the Latin term for things relating to worms.

The advantages of vermicomposting are several. Regular composting is a thermophilic process, relying on heat generated by the decomposition process to work effectively. This requires a deep pile and varied composition of material. The optimum pile temperature for composting to occur ranges from 90° F to 150° F. Pile temperature below this range will result in little or no composting taking place.

Vermicomposting, on the other hand, is a mesophilic process, taking place at ambient temperatures. The optimum temperature for the vermicomposting pro-cess is from 55° F to 80° F. The composting process involves the worms eating and excreting the organic matter. There is no need to turn or layer a pile in order to achieve the proper temperature as may be the case with regular composting.

Regular composting must take place in an outdoor location and the recommended pile size is a minimum of 1 cubic yard. Vermicomposting can be carried on in a bin which may be as small as 1 square foot of surface area by 6” deep. These temperature and space factors allow for the indoor use of worms. Ver-micomposting can easily be done in cold climates and urban settings. Many urban dwellers are happily feeding their kitchen scraps to their composting worms. Not all worms, however, are suitable for use in a compost bin.

Several thousand species of earthworms have been identified by researchers. These many species have been grouped into three categories. The categories are anecic, endogeic, and epigeic worms.

Anecic worms are large worms, that live deep in the soil. They may tunnel down as deep as ten feet, establishing permanent burrows. They come to the surface of the soil in order to pull organic matter into their tunnels, storing it inside tunnels until they are ready to consume it as food. The most familiar worm in this category is the nightcrawler. When the anecic worm is taken from this environment, it will not grow or reproduce.

Endogeic worms rarely come to the soil surface. They build horizontal burrows and feed on mineral particles and decayed organic matter. These worms are often found around the roots of plants where they feed on soil rich with decaying matter and bacteria and fungi.

Our Worm Bins in the Hoophouse

Our Worm Bins in the Hoophouse

Epigeic worms live in decaying organic matter on the surface of the soil, not in soil. This is the category of worm that can be utilized in vermicomposting. Because it is a surface dwelling worm, it is possible to replicate its environment in a bin. The earthworm most commonly used in bin systems is the red worm, whose Latin name is eisenia fetida. This worm is found throughout the world. It is the preferred worm for composting systems because of its toler-ance for handling and changes in environment. These worms are raised on earthworm farms located throughout the country and can readily be obtained via internet sales or a visit to a local farm. A vermicomposting system utilizing red worms is feasible on an individual level or on a large scale municipal or insti-tutional scale. This article will deal mainly with how an individual or family can get started in vermicomposting.

Several factors should be taken into consideration when undertaking a vermicomposting venture. The temperature range for the red worm is roughly 35° F to 88° F. The worms are most productive between 65° F to 80° F. Temperatures at the extremes will stress the worms. Below 50°, the worms will slow down and become less productive. Above 90° F, the worms may well be too hot to survive in a closed bin. The preferred location, therefore, would be an area in the middle of the temperature range.

The worms also have a need to live in an aerobic environment; in other words, they need to live in a bin that has a good flow of oxygen. It is also important that moisture drains readily out of the system to prevent it from becoming anaerobic, or deprived of oxygen. The ideal moisture level in the system would be in the 60 to 70% range. This is roughly equivalent to a damp sponge which gives off a few drops of water when squeezed. Once you have decided on the proper location for your system, it is time to either make or buy a bin.

A worm bin can be made from many materials. Scrap lumber or an old plastic tote can be used. There are many bins available commercially that are designed in a specific fashion for worm composting, some of which facilitate the worms separating from the finished compost as the process evolves. In general, a homemade worm bin should be longer and wider that it is deep. Holes should be drilled on the sides and cover of the bin to insure adequate oxygen supply. Holes must be drilled in the bottom of the bin to allow for drainage; ¼” holes at 15 holes per square foot. The bin should be elevated so that moisture that percolates through the system can be collected. This can also be used as a liquid fertilizer for house plants or gardens. An advantage of some commercial bins is that features designed to optimize aeration and drainage are built into the system. Once you have your bin constructed and a location picked out, it is time to obtain your red worms and prepare the bin.
There are some basic steps to take to insure that your vermicomposting venture is a successful one. When building a bin out of wood, make sure not to use pressure treated lumber. The materials used in the process of pressure treating are harmful to worms. Plastic totes being used to build bins should be washed and exposed to sunlight before worms are placed in the bin. The optimum temperature for the worms is between 65° F and 80° F. A location that provides this would be ideal. Avoid feeding the worms anything that is greasy, fatty or overly salty. Make sure that the bin has adequate aeration and drainage. Realize that you are dealing with an ecosystem not a machine.

As mentioned earlier, there are many worm farms with a presence in the internet or you may be able to locate a worm farm in your area. Many nurseries and garden centers may have a connection with a worm farm.. County extension agents are another resource and may know of a worm farm. Worms are custom-arily sold by the pound. When starting out, it is probably a good idea to begin with 1 or 2 pounds of worms, keeping in mind that given proper conditions, the worm population will grow over time. The general rule of thumb is red worms will eat half their weight in decomposing material everyday. It is a matter of personal choice as to how many worms you want to start your system.

The bin will need to be prepared for the arrival of the worms. Initially, the bin is lined with a layer of bedding. This is where the worms will live. The food waste is buried in the bedding. Shredded newspaper is a convenient and widely used bedding material. Avoid glossy, colored paper, as it has a metallic content which produces toxins harmful to the worms. The shredded newspaper should be fluffed up to a depth of six inches and moistened to the consistency of a damp sponge. Some commercially made bins come with a block of cocoanut fiber which can be soaked in a pail of water. This will absorb eight times its weight in moisture and can be spread out in the bin as bedding. Once the worms are at home in the bedding, it is time to start feeding them.

Worms like a vegetarian spread. Fruit and vegetable scraps and peels are good food for them. Any number of organic items that would usually be discarded can be fed to them: coffee grounds and filter papers, tea bags, crushed egg shells, pasta and rice, bread and cereal, house plant clippings and dead flowers, shredded paper, paper towels and napkins. The worms do not start to eat until the waste starts to decompose. Some people chop up the waste or even puree it to speed up the decomposition process so that the worms can get at the food more quickly. The worms are actually eating both the waste and the aerobic microorganisms that cause the decomposition. They have no teeth and thus cannot eat until the food is broken down.

As the worms settle in to their new environment in the bin and become acclimated the population will begin to grow. The rate at which the worm population increases is the variable that determines how much waste can be composted. Given the proper temperature, aeration, food and space the worms will multiply rapidly. A mature red worm can produce two to three cocoons per week. Each cocoon will average three hatchlings, which will become mature worms in two to three months. When mature, they will begin to produce cocoons. When the population of the bin exceeds 1.5 pounds of worms per square foot of surface area, the worms will slow their reproduction because of space constraints. It is not unusual to start a bin with 1 pound of worms and a year later to have 3 to 5 pounds of worms in the bin.

Mature worms are characterized by a swollen ring about 1/2 of the way down their body. This is called the clitellum. The clitellum produces mucus needed for cocoon production. Worms are hermaphrodites having both male and female sexual organs. The worms need a partner, however, to reproduce. Two worms of approximately the same size will come together at the clitellum and exchange sperm. Mucus then hardens and each worm will slough off a cocoon after being joined together for up to three hours. The cocoons look like grape seeds and turn from light to dark as the time to hatch approaches. Red worms can produce many such cocoons during the course of a year.

Once the bin has been established and the worm population has begun to grow, it will be observed that the consumption of organic waste by the worms has increased. After 3 to 4 months, it will be observed that there is a layer of fine dark material building up on the bottom of the bin. This is the vermicompost or as some call it, the worm castings. This material constitutes the second benefit of feeding your garbage to worms. The first benefit is achieved by taking the organic material out of the waste stream. The second benefit is the production of a wonderful soil amendment for gardens and house plants. This mate-rial is highly valued by those who wish to garden organically and reduce reliance on chemical fertilizers. Some people may not participate in gardening or growing plants. There is a good chance they may know someone who does. A gift of vermicompost is sure to be well received.

Harvesting the vermicompost can be done in different ways, depending upon the size and type of bin being used. A commercially made bin with a system of stacking trays makes it quite a simple process. The worms start eating on the bottom level. When the tray is full of vermicompost , another tray is stacked on top of it. These trays have hundreds of holes in them that the worms can crawl through. As food is added to the new tray, the worms begin to crawl up-ward through the holes following the food and leaving behind the finished vermicompost. This process is repeated with a third tray. By the time this tray is full, the worms will have left the bottom tray following their food upward. The vermicompost can now be emptied out of this tray. The empty tray is then placed on top and the process continues.

Harvesting the vermicompost from a single layer bin can be somewhat more labor intensive.

One method for separating the worms and compost in a single layer system is to put the food on one side of the bin. Over time, as the worms exhaust the nu-trients on the unfed side, they will migrate to the side being supplied with food. It is then possible to take the compost and remaining worms and make a py-ramidal pile on a flat service. Over this pile place a strong light. Because the worms do not like light, they will move to the middle and bottom of the pile. The worms that have congregated at the bottom can be scooped up and put back in the bin.

A more mechanical means of harvesting would involve building two 2×4 frames. Build one frame 2’wide by 3’ long. Build another frame 2’ wide and 2’ long. Attach ¼” hardware cloth to the bottom of the 2’ x 2’ frame. Place the 2’ x 3’ frame on top of a tarp laid on a flat surface. Place the 2’ x 2’ frame with the hardware cloth on the bottom side on top of the larger frame. Fill the smaller frame with the compost and worms. Slide it back and forth over the bottom frame. The vermicompost will fall through the hardware cloth and the worms will remain on top. Place the worms back in the bin and collect the vermicompost from the trap.

The vermicompost is a most valuable commodity for anyone who is an indoor or outdoor gardener. Used as a soil amendment in place of chemical fertilizer quite amazing results can be achieved in terms of plant growth. The vermicompost is a superior product when compared to regular compost. Testing has shown it to be significantly higher in phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, potassium and nitrogen. It also has superior moisture retention properties. Passing through the worm’s digestive system, the organic matter acquires enzymes not found in regular thermophilic compost.

Vermicompost is a wonderful medium for starting seedlings in the spring. A mixture of 20% vermicompost to 80% potting soil will produce strong and healthy seedlings at a very high germination rate. Seeds planted in rows in a vegetable garden will benefit greatly from vermicompost sprinkled in the bottom of the seed row. Vermicompost placed in the bottom of the hole when transplanting plants will help the plant achieve strong root growth.

Once your worm bin is in operation and you have begun to harvest vermicompost, you have completed the circle of sustainability. The worms have turned your garbage into a product that can be used to grow plants and enrich the soil.

Awareness of the implications our behavior has for the quality of our environment is growing all the time. While it is important for government and business to strive to improve the environment, it is equally important for individuals to take positive action in this area. The decision to handle your garbage in a sus-tainable way can only be made by you. Once you have made this decision, there is an army of red worms waiting to be your partner.

Getting Started With Worm Bin Composting

If you do not have access to an outdoor compost pile, and even if you do, composting food scraps in a worm bin (vermicomposting) is a great way to convert a waste product into a desirable resource. In addition, keeping food scraps out of a landfill, many of which are nearing their maximum capacity, also helps lessen one of the main sources of methane, a generous contributor to global warming. Using worm castings, whether from a bin or outdoor pile, substantially aug-ments the population of beneficial soil dwelling organisms which boost soil vitality, plant immunity, and when used in the proper proportions, can increase growth rate and yield.

Of the several thousand species of earthworms, not all will thrive in a compost bin. Earthworms are either surface dwelling, top-soil-dwelling or deep soil dwelling. Surface dwelling worms specialize in decomposing organic matter, and thus are most likely to thrive in a bin. The most commonly available species to use in temperate regions is the Red Wiggler (Eisenia foetida). These worms adapt well to large numbers in enclosed spaces. They are also voracious feeders, consuming one half to as much as their full body weight per day. They reproduce quickly so you can amass a thriving population quite rapidly. In favorable conditions, red worms will double their population in two to three months.

There are several things to consider in order to get your worm bin started and to assure a successful experience:

• Size, type, and location of the bin
• Amount of worms you will need
• Bedding material
• Care and feeding
• Other residents of the bin
• Harvesting the castings
• Using the castings

Choosing a Bin

An example of a “tiered” bin

An example of a “tiered” bin

There are numerous types of manufactured composting bins to choose from, or you could make your own. Some bins, such as the “Worm Factory” or “Can-O-Worms”, use stackable tiers for composting. With tiered bins, the oldest, most mature compost is at the lowest level. Advantages to the tiered bins are that the compost is self-harvesting because as the scraps are consumed, the worms tend to migrate up through perforations in the floor of each tier in search of the freshest food source. Tiered bins typically have a drain to draw off excess liquid (leachate). Disadvantages to tiered bins are that the full tiers can be heavy and if you are a person for whom managing heavy things is difficult, maneuvering them can be awkward. It has been my experience with such bins that not all the worms have made it safely through the perforations when you separate them, and are wrenched apart when you lift the tiers, which seems unfair.

Converted tote bins are an inexpensive and popular option available in all sizes. There are a number of easily adaptable methods for using totes for Do-It-Yourself worm bins. Tote style bins may also be available through your community recycling program. To be successful with tote bins, you will need to find a way to manage the leachate, which tends to accumulate at the bottom of the bin creating unpleasant conditions for you and the worms. Also, you will need to allow for adequate venting so the worms can breathe, and to assure aerobic conditions.

Tote Bins

Some things to consider before using tote bins. Worms avoid light, so clear plastic bins are not as effective as opaque bins. Dark colored bins, if left in the sun, will heat up quicker than you think and will roast your worms. There is some controversy about the toxicity of different types of plastics due to their residuals. Polyethylene bins are comparatively benign, but be sure to wash off any dust that may have accumulated on the bin during manufacturing. If possible, select a bin that is certified Food Grade, or has been labeled #2, #4, or #5 plastic.

Bins can also be easily assembled from wood or fabric. If you make your own from wood, be sure not to use painted or pressure treated wood. There are many DIY bin making links.

I make my bins with a reservoir at the bottom of the bin. Landscape fabric over a perforated false floor separates the composting area from the leachate, which drains through the fabric. Sealing the fabric to the walls of the bin with waterproof tape prevents the worms from getting into the liquid below and drowning. A spigot easily drains the excess liquid, which prevents the bin from getting too soggy, and also allows air to get in to the lower level to help maintain aerobic conditions.

Leachate vs Compost Tea

Liquid is released into the worm bin as food scraps decompose. Moisture is necessary for the composting process, but too much can became stagnant and smelly if allowed to collect in the bottom of a plastic bin causing your popularity rating with your friends and neighbors, not to mention the worms, to become strained. It is helpful to use a worm bin that helps you manage the liquid. Methods include properly placed holes in the bin, a turkey baster to decant the liquid, selecting a wooden or fabric bin, or through a collection reservoir and spigot.

Leachate is not the same as castings tea. It is important to differentiate between the two. While the leachate contains beneficial nutrients and organisms, it also may contain anaerobic bacteria which poses some risk. Castings tea, on the other hand, is brewed from the worm castings using oxygenated water and a food source, generally molasses, to generate a beneficial aerobic micro-organism bloom. The bloom is vital for up to 48 hours in solution so it must be used within that time or it will be of dwindling benefit.


Once you have your bin, you will need to introduce the bedding. This is the material the worms crawl around in. The bedding should as much as possible re-semble the worm’s dark and moist natural habitat. It should also be of a texture that allows you to easily bury your food scraps. It’s useful to have a supply of bedding on hand to periodically add to the top of the pile to cover the maturing castings and to provide additional habitat for the worms as they work the top layer of the bin. Adding bedding as the castings mature also acts as a fly barrier and provides fresh material in which to bury your contributions.

The most popular and abundantly available material to use for bedding is finely shredded newsprint or cardboard. Other materials to use are coconut fiber (coir), shredded or partially decomposed leaves, aged manures mixed with shredded or composted leaves, hay or old straw. I use a mixture of leaf mulch, aged manure, coffee grounds or coffee chaff (the skin of the bean after roasting). You can purchase coir in bricks from garden or hydroponic supply outlets, or you can recycle it from old unpainted coir flower pots.
Not adding sufficient additional bedding material after the worm bin is started is a common oversight for new bin keepers. If after a while you begin to see a buildup of dense muddy looking castings at the bottom of the bin and the pile is not getting taller, you are not adding enough bedding material. While the worms may survive in the densely packed castings, they much prefer the looser oxygen rich bedding to move around in. Feel free to loosen and mix in the older material with the new bedding to introduce the resident organism population to the new material.

Note: If you use horse manure in your bedding, be sure it is at least 6 months old in order for any deworming medication residue to expire.

To start your bin, you will need five to six inches of moistened bedding material in which to introduce the worms. It’s advisable to have your bin and bedding material in place and ready to go before obtaining the worms. Once you’ve introduced the worms to the bedding you will need to give them some time to move in. Unless you are harvesting your own worms and using familiar bedding, worms will require some time to get used to their new conditions. You may discover that the worms do not want to enter the new bedding at first. If this is so, it is likely that the temperature, pH, or moisture level is dissimilar to the bedding they were used to. If the worms resist burrowing into the bedding, leave a light on over the bin for a day or so to encourage them to burrow. They prefer dark-ness, so will adjust to the new conditions rapidly.

Bedding with Paper Products

I am a purist when it comes to bedding, therefore I have elected not to use newsprint or most other paper products in favor of more natural materials. While newsprint and other paper products have become the popular standard, and are commonly considered safe by many worm composters, I continue to have con-cerns about the toxic compounds that may be present, and that may bioaccumulate in the bin or be transferred to your garden. Many but not all newspapers use soy based inks. Please keep in mind that the term is soy-based. The soy products used in the printing industry are genetically modified. Substances are used to control flow rate and dry time. Soy ink is expensive. Some percentage of less expensive petroleum products may be added to the ink recipe at the printer’s dis-cretion to manage cost. Inks are considered stable, but only when dry. Worm bins are moist. Nowadays, colored inks typically use vegetable-based dyes, but some dyes still contain heavy metals to create vivid colors, especially on glossy paper. Not all paper is the same. Newsprint, which is predominantly recycled fiber, is vastly different than virgin glossy paper. While paper products will arguably work well for bedding material in your bin, I suggest it will serve a higher and better purpose for paper to be recycled on behalf of trees, rather than eaten by protozoa.


It is also important to add some fine grit material, especially if you are using newsprint. Worms grind food in their gizzard so require the grit to “chew”. Sprin-kle a cup of very fine and well rinsed sand on the pile. One source of grit that seems to work well for me is dried and finely ground up eggshells. I grind them almost to a powder in the blender. Add more grit after each castings removal. Worms adjust their bin population according to the carrying capacity. If you observe the population dwindling but you know there is plenty of food, one reason could simply be not enough grit to access the food.

Once the worms have established their habitat, you may occasionally notice larger than usual numbers of them on the walls of the bin. This is especially so with plastic bins which tend to develop a film of condensation on the walls, and on which the worms can navigate. If this happens and they are trying to leave the bin as well, then it is a sign that the bin is too wet, too hot, too anaerobic, or the pH is not suitable. Please adjust accordingly. If there is too much food that is rotting before it can be consumed causing anaerobic, aka stinky, conditions, discontinue feeding for a week or even longer. Feel free to put on your de-signer rubber gloves and expunge the stinky stuff. All that said, sometimes a few worms just seem to socialize in the corners and crevices of the bin and, um, “go on dates”. If they are not trying to leave the bin, and you would prefer that they please go back to work, then leave the lid off in a well lit room or keep a light on for a day or so and they will go back down. If they are not trying to leave the bin, leaving them alone is the preferred option.

Care and Feeding

As mentioned earlier, worms are sensitive to light and moisture. They are also sensitive to temperature, pH, and salinity. The optimum temperature range for the worms to be the most productive is between 50°F and 80°F. A comfortable pH range is between 6.0 and 7.0. They will also acclimate to higher or lower temperatures and adapt to gradual changes in pH over time. But they will perish if allowed to freeze, and escape or perish if too hot. Worms breathe through the moisture layer on their skin, but can drown if it is too wet. It is important not to let the bin become too dry or too wet. Visualize a well wrung out sponge. If you can squeeze liquid out of your bin material, it is too wet.

Worms prefer to be left alone. They do not see, but sense movement – I’m guessing because of changing light patterns. If you show up they think you are a predator and will avoid you. Don’t take it personally. Regardless of your intention, it is agitating if you handle them. Please keep in mind also when handling them that their skin is hypersensitive. Your body temperature is typically 40 – 60 degrees warmer than theirs. I’m not sure what that feels like to them, but 40 – 60 degrees warmer to us is scalding. If you want to look and touch, one suggestion is to place a bit of moist material from the bin on your hand first and put the worm on the material. At the risk of seeming overprotective, I prefer to place my worms down rather than dropping them into the bin. While worms are pretty rugged critters, dropping them even from a few inches, is comparatively much like dropping you from a roof top or even higher. In my mind, being kind to them is just another way to be responsible stewards of our livestock.

To have a successful bin experience, I recommend being selective about what you feed the worms, especially at first. In an open compost pile – with or without worms – one has the luxury of capacity. In a worm bin, space is limited, and discretion is called for in what you serve the worms. Worms will only be able to eat what fits in their mouths, so large solid items such as carrots, or broccoli stalks must first be broken down into smaller bits by the other organisms in the bin or be chopped or ground to expose more surface area for the organisms. The organisms reside on the surfaces of the food particles so the more surface area the more available the food is to decompose.

I prioritize feeding raw fruit and veggie scraps. For the most part, worms will avoid things that are too spicy, such as onions, hot peppers or garlic, or too acidic, such as citrus peels or pineapple. Food that will decompose quickly such as melon rinds, leafy greens, and soft fruits and veggies are consumed rapidly with the help of the bin’s resident microorganisms.

Old tea bags and coffee grounds are welcome. To prevent clumping, mix the grounds into the surface of the pile. While some tea bags fully decompose, nowa-days many tea bags use plasticizers in the fabric so do not readily break down. It’s helpful if you tear the bags open to allow access to the contents.

If you factor that worms consume half their weight per day on average and you know how many pounds of worms you have in your bin, then you can figure out how much food to feed them per day or week. Keep in mind that the food is not eaten in one sitting, but consumed on a continuum as it is decomposed by the other critters at the table, so do not expect the banana peel to disappear in one afternoon.

At the risk of seeming anthropocentric, the worms appear to enjoy things they can nestle into such as the core of corncobs once the center has been eaten away. Nested avocado skins also provide a safe haven for a cluster of worms, as do the inside of mango pits if they have not sprouted. Place a corncob or two just beneath the surface. The cob will eventually be hollowed and filled with castings. I’ve noticed that the worms tend to deposit cocoons in these protected spots. I’ve heard that corncobs are difficult to compost. The worms disagree. Cobs in a worm bin will decompose and also provide a safe spot for the worms in the meantime. The cobs also attract numerous other bin inhabitants as well, so if you are in the mood to do some science, have a look for some of the other visible decomposer species in the bin – both red and white mites, springtails, and pot worms are common. And if you have a healthy fungi population, you may even see a mushroom pop up.

Worms and Rabbits

One unique method of providing food for your worms is to locate the bin beneath a rabbit cage. Rabbit droppings are an ideal source of food for the worms and come fresh from the source. The pellets fall through the screen mesh floor and continuously feed the bins. It’s useful to add carbon bedding material from time to time to balance off the nitrogen rich droppings, and to keep the material from becoming too densely packed.

Baked goods tend to generate mold, which can be problematic, so I discourage them. Sliced bread does serve a purpose in the bin however. If you happen to get an overabundance of mites, you can lay a piece of bread on the surface of the bin for several hours. This serves as bait for the mites that accumulate on the bread. You can remove the bread, and set a new piece. The mites will be gratefully received by most insect-eating aquarium fish, or you could release them into the wild where they can help decompose other things. Excess mites indicate too much moisture in the bin. Leave the lid off for a few days and things will dry up.


Overfeeding and excess moisture also tend to attract fruit flies and fungus gnats. They are attracted to the wet conditions and rotting food smells. Be sure to bury your contributions an inch or two beneath the bedding to discourage flies. Freezing your contributions overnight will kill any eggs that may have been deposited on the food while in transit, at the market, or in your kitchen. If you develop an unwanted fly population, you can make vinegar traps, hang yellow sticky traps or introduce predator species to the bin that prey on the fly larva, but that will not harm the worms. You can buy BTI granules at most garden sup-ply stores. Check out: http://everydayroots.com/how-to-get-rid-of-fruit-flies

Before and After – Separation by light avoidance. The worms burrow towards the center of the pile when exposed to light. Scrape the castings away until you see worms, then leave the worms to burrow deeper. By alternating these two steps, you can separate the worms quite effectively.

Before and After – Separation by light avoidance. The worms burrow towards the center of the pile when exposed to light. Scrape the castings away until you see worms, then leave the worms to burrow deeper. By alternating these two steps, you can separate the worms quite effectively.

Other Residents in the Bin

It’s important to know who else is in the bin with your worms, but first, I must reveal a secret. It’s also important to know that the worms are not really eating your apple cores. All the other macro and microorganisms are. The worms are eating the microorganisms, of which there are billions in a thriving worm bin. Worms feed by opening their most-mouth-like part (prostomium) which is a cross between a muscular upper lip and a shovel, and ingest what happens to be in their path. Bits of apple core get in, but only after they’ve been broken down by the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes, which also get in. Mites, spring-tails, and pot worms are visible to the eye, and too large to be ingested by the worms.

You may also have millipedes, or centipedes. It’s useful to know the difference between the two. Millipedes are slow moving and contribute to decomposition. Centipedes dart about quickly and will eat worms. If you see a centipede, it’s a good idea to capture it and release it into the outdoors. They can bite, so be careful.

If your bin manages to become anaerobic you may discover black soldier fly larva (BSFL), or much less frequently, black soldier flies themselves hovering around. BSFLs are big cuddly grubs. At first sighting, they can be a bit startling, but as voraciously productive decomposers they are your friends. BSFL will ingest proteins and fats as well a vegetable scraps. There are some who are managing their bins for BSFL and have forsaken worms. BSFL are high in protein and your backyard chickens will adore them.

Harvesting The Castings

When the bin is full it is time to harvest the castings. It is helpful to let the bin rest for a week or two, or longer if needed, without feeding to allow as many remaining food particles as possible to be consumed. If you have one, a second bin allows you to continue composting while the full bin is resting, and also provides a place to reinstate the worms that have been separated. A second bin also can become a supply of already mature and familiar bedding.

There are several methods of separating the worms. The one that I find most productive for the small scale is the light-avoidance method. Worms will avoid light whenever possible. If you loosely pile up the bin contents into one or more shallow cones or rows, any exposed worms will immediately begin to go back down into the pile. If you then let the pile settle for a half hour or so, the worms will have moved sufficiently away from the surface allowing you to scrape away the top layer of castings until you begin to see worms again. By alternating settling and scraping, and keeping an eagle eye out for the cocoons, you will eventually have removed all the castings and be left with a teeming mass of worms and pile of cocoons to restart your next bin. Rubber gloves are optional but recommended at your discretion. I use them only if a bin has anaerobic pockets.

Here’s what you will need:

• A flat smooth surface. I use a 3’x3’ piece of untreated ½ inch plywood for small batches, or an old hollow core door on a couple of sawhorses for larger batch-es.

• Four appropriately-sized containers. One for the worms and cocoons, one for the castings, one for periodically rinsing your hands, and one for non-compostable objects such as pebbles, pits, etc. Soaking these castings-covered cast offs in a container of water will provide a potent nectar that is great for watering your plants.

• A sheet of plastic will protect your kitchen table, but I find it a little more tedious to round up the individual worms that cling to the plastic. It’s helpful to have a dedicated lifting tool with no sharp edges to slip under the individuals. A tooth pick like object seems to work just fine.
You do not need to remove every last bit of castings. In fact, it’s helpful to mix some of your old castings into the fresh bedding in the new bin. The worms are used to the old habitat and the adjustment to a new bin will not be so abrupt. The topmost strata in the bin contains the majority of the worms and remaining food particles. It will be a head start if you can remove this layer to help start your next bin.

Depending on your use for them, it is not necessary to screen the castings. When needed, however, I screen castings through 2ft x 2ft screens. The first pass is through quarter-inch hardware cloth, and a second pass through eighth-inch hardware cloth. Both screens are framed on edge with 1×3. The quarter inch screen helps break up the clumps and remove cast-offs. It also gives you another chance to find a few remaining worms and scan for cocoons. If you screen with the screen side up, and slide the frame along the table surface rather than lift and shake, the siftings will be contained neatly within the screen frame. The 1/8-inch screen further breaks down the clumps, helps isolate cocoons and any remaining worms and cast-offs. The end result of screening is a consistently sized debris-free castings pellet that is easy to handle, measure, and store.

Migration is another method of separating that typically is more successful in larger commercial bins or row composting set-ups. But, for smaller bins, divide the bin in half, remove one half of the bin contents and set it aside in a separate bin. Move the remaining amount to one side of the bin. Fill the now empty side with fresh bedding and appealing food. Do the same thing with the amount you removed. The time varies, but eventually the worms in the older half will migrate to the newer half. This method requires less of your time than light avoidance, but is not as thorough because it is difficult to account for dawdlers, cocoons, and all the babies, which continue to hatch on the old side of the pile, and which you are obliged to patiently wait for, while they find their way. I have never had great success with this process and would be happy to hear if someone has.
If you have space for a bin that is sufficiently long enough to compost along it’s length, begin by adding bedding and food at one end, and adding new food in sequence along the bin length. As the original castings mature, the worms and everybody else will migrate successively along the row to the freshest and most appealing part of the buffet. The theory being that by the time you’re feeding at the far end, the first end will be sufficiently processed enough so that young and old alike will have departed to greener pastures, leaving the original end of the bin ready for harvesting. There are many variables about volume and size of bins, but depending on your eating habits, a bin 18 inches deep by 24 inches wide by 6 to 8 feet long should be roughly adequate for a 4 – 6 person household. Feeding is done in thin diagonally sloped wedges along the length of the bin, burying and covering the contributions as needed.

If you’ve discovered that worm composting is your thing, and you want to have a larger colony of bins, then you may want to consider a motorized screened tumbler. Feed the worms and castings into one end and the tumbler does the separating for you. There are also how-to’s for DIY hand and pedal powered tum-bler separators on line if that’s your thing. Tumbler separators do not separate cocoons however. At 2 – 8 worms per cocoon, that seems like a waste, and not good husbandry. Here are a few links on commercial and handmade separators:
• http://www.jetcompost.com/harvesters/
• http://whatcom.wsu.edu/ag/compost/pdfs/LowCostWormCastingHarvester.pdf
• https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czKkxTYwVW8

Regardless of how you separate them, store the castings in breathable fabric bags or a plastic container with a loose lid. Keep in mind that paper or cardboard containers may be eaten over time by the inhabitants. The organisms will remain vital while there is still moisture and oxygen present, but go dormant as the castings dry out. The sooner you use your castings, the more vital they will be, as some organisms will perish over time. The nutrients will remain stable for longer periods depending on storage conditions.

Cocoon being deposited. Note how the “head” of the worm has narrowed and the muscles behind the cocoon are pushing it forward and off the worm.

Cocoon being deposited. Note how the “head” of the worm has narrowed and the muscles behind the cocoon are pushing it forward and off the worm.


Worm cocoons are the underpinnings of a successful bin. As your bin matures and the worms have comfortably established themselves, they will begin to de-posit cocoons. The more cocoons you see, the more you know your worms feel secure in the habitat you’ve created for them. Once deposited, the cocoons gen-erally take 2 – 6 weeks to incubate and hatch, depending on conditions in the bin. Cocoons can lie dormant for up to two years if suitable conditions for surviv-al are not present. While you are encouraged not to let your indoor worm bin freeze, in outdoor compost or in the natural world the cocoons will successfully overwinter and quickly replenish their habitat in the spring, replacing any worms that may have perished from the cold.

Using the Castings

You can use the castings for top dressing or for mixing with water for your house or garden plants. Proportions vary according to species, but generally a 15 – 20 percent ratio of castings to soil mix is adequate. Up to 50 percent with water. Castings also impart an increased level of immunity to your plants. To boost immunity, soak your seeds in castings tea, castings steeped in water, or start your seeds in a moist castings/soil mix. Your plants will be happy to receive peri-odic waterings with castings nectar or be the recipient of a top dressing from time to time. Think multi-vitamin with probiotics.

If you enjoy worm composting on a small scale and want to expand, there is always a need for worms and castings. Be wary of get-rich-quick offerings, howev-er. Many elementary schools have worm bins in their classrooms or school garden, and would be happy to receive your extra worms. An established worm bin makes an excellent gift for any urban farmer. Also, the Worm Ladies of Charlestown, Rhode Island, are always willing to purchase your extra worms and castings. In fact, the Worm Ladies are in the process of forming a cooperative of small-scale worm growers to help meet the growing demand for worms and castings in the northeast. If you want to find out more about the Rhody Worm Coop, here’s the link. http://wormladies.com.

Newly deposited cocoons are greenish-yellow and look like tiny lemons about the size of BBs. As they mature they become more and more reddish. Worm-colored cocoons are about to hatch. Consider yourself fortunate if you happen to observe a cocoon being deposited or hatching.

Newly deposited cocoons are greenish-yellow and look like tiny lemons about the size of BBs. As they mature they become more and more reddish. Worm-colored cocoons are about to hatch. Consider yourself fortunate if you happen to observe a cocoon being deposited or hatching.

Every worm keeper has a trusted method, yet there is no one perfect way to compost with worms. There is no end to tales of success or woe from vermicom-posters far and wide, although I have repeatedly observed that if you do your best to mimic the conditions that worms would choose in the natural world, you will have success. Keeping in mind that worms and microorganisms have been decomposing organic matter for much longer than humans have been keeping them in bins, observation and experience are the best teachers. Pay attention to what the worms and the bin ecosystem are telling you. The microbial popula-tion in the bin is a hugely diverse and fascinating web of life with much yet to be learned about how it might benefit the soil, plants, and humanity. I continue to learn from new and experienced worm keepers alike, and I continue to be captivated by the process. It’s also a tremendously good feeling to know we are contributing to the health of our life-sustaining soil.

For further reading: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/06/healthy-soil-microbes-healthy-people/276710/

• Composting with worms converts a waste product into a usable resource and is good for soil, plants, and the environment.
• Red Wiggler worms are efficient decomposers and thrive in worm bins. They are able to double their population in 2 – 3 months.
• Select a bin that’s the right size and format for your needs and location. Red worms will eat more or less half their weight per day.
• Decide on what type of bedding you will use for worm habitat and have a supply available.
• Be sure the bin is protected from freezing and overheating.
• The bin should be moist but not soggy.
• Feed raw vegan scraps, the smaller the better. Tea leaves, coffee grounds. Do not clump or over-feed.
• Avoid feeding hot spicy foods such as onions or garlic. Avoid citrus, meat, dairy products, oil, fat and bread.
• The easiest separation method for small scale castings production is the light avoidance method. Pile castings on a flat surface. Worms will hide inside the pile from light. Remove worm-free top layers of castings once worms have burrowed inside.
• Other separation methods include half-bin, long-bin, or wind-row migration.
• Store separated castings in plastic breathable containers. Keep the lid loose.
• Castings and castings tea improve soil vitality and boost plant immunity.
• Mix castings 15-20% with water or a soil mix for best results when using them as fertilizer. Periodically water or top-dress your plants.
• Pay attention to your worm bin habitat and the habitat of worms in their natural world: biomimicry.
• Most of all, have fun!

Ben has been making worm bins and
composting food scraps with worms since 1995,
and with composting toilets since 1985. He also does worm composting workshops and offers worm bin rescue and tech-support services. He lives, and has a woodworking and tinker shop in
Leverett, Massachusetts.

The Amazing Red Wiggler Worm

Red wiggler worms

Red wiggler worms

I raise angora rabbits for their wool. I am a fiber artist and I shear the wool, spin it, knit it and weave it into wearable art. In the summer of 1992 I bought worms at a bait shop to put under my rabbit cages to eat the rabbit manure and eliminate “flies.” One Problem: I bought the wrong kind of worms; these worms migrated in the fall. I then did more reading and found out that I needed to use a special worm–red wiggler composting worms, Eisenia fetida. I ordered red wigglers on the internet from Arkansas–$15.00 for 1000 worms. I ordered 3000 and I didn’t need to order more worms until 2009 when I went into business with a friend as The Worm Ladies of Charlestown, Inc. The red wigglers multiplied and solved the problem of too many “flies.” As a result, I discovered the “magic” of worm castings (poop). My gardens and my potted plants were the best due to this soil enhancer. I now have a much broader perspective of the soil food web. I continue this sustainable environment of rabbits, their manure, the worms, and their castings and my plants.

Vermicomposting is a process that relies on earthworms and microorganisms to help stabilize active organic materials and convert them to a valuable soil amendment and source of plant nutrients.

For me, vermicomposting is much easier than composting. Temperatures differ—composting is done thermophilically; vermicomposting is done mesophilically. Different bacteria predominate with each of the composting processes and each process handles weed seeds differently. Thermophilic composting can be 140 degrees F, it kills low temp bacteria and encourages high temperature bacteria, it may kill weed seeds, and needs to be turned periodically to heat up. Moisture helps but is not required. Mesophilic vermcomposting needs lower temperatures, 40-80 degrees F the ideal—lower temperatures are needed to keep the worms alive. Worms require moisture; they breathe through their skin. You can use a thermophilic stage first.

The advantages of using worms in your compost are that there is no unpleasant odor when using the red wigglers because it is an aerobic process. Vermicomposting dramatically speeds up the decomposition process so the end product is available sooner. Red wiggler worms can compost as much as 35% of waste created in the home and garden. You save money by making your own soil enhancer that is organic, no matter what you feed the worms. Vermicomposting can be done under your kitchen sink, in your garage or basement, or in your yard. It is convenient, interesting, easy, and fun!

Unlike most other earthworms, red wigglers are surface feeders with the ability to consume up to half their body weight in decayed matter each day so household and agricultural waste are an ideal food for the red wigglers who turn it into worm castings – Nature’s perfect food. This species of worm does not migrate so it can be easily kept in captivity if we provide a home, air, moisture and food. The worms do all the work!

Worms are hermaphrodites (both male and female). Each worm can produce up to 2-3 cocoons or capsules per week which hatch out every 3 – 4 weeks producing tiny baby worms called threads. The baby worms that survive will mature to reproductive age in 1-2 months. Under healthy conditions there can be a rapid increase in population available to eat more garbage or to share with a friend. One mature worm will produce 1200 to 1500 offspring a year. Under ideal conditions with plenty of food and room in a well established bin, one pound of worms can double in three to four months.


What are so amazing about worm castings?

Worm castings, a fine particulate matter produced by the worms, increase diversity in the soil. The castings contain a highly active biological mixture of bacteria, enzymes, remnants of plant matter and animal manure. They are rich in water-soluble plant nutrients and contain 50% more humus than what is normally found in topsoil. They also contain a high concentration of nitrates, phosphorous, magnesium, potassium, and minerals such as manganese, copper, zinc, cobalt, borax, iron, carbon, and nitrogen—all in natural proportions.

The beneficial nutrients found in castings are absorbed easily and immediately by plants (unlike chemical fertilizers and manure); they will never burn plants. Worm castings can be sifted for use in starting seeds. Mix with coir or peat moss and vermiculite or perlite. Do not use more than 20-40% castings in the mix. The castings are perfect for use on vegetables or flowers. Incorporate 1 part of castings to 10 parts of soil.

This past summer I attended the Vermicomposting Conference at North Carolina State University. Dr. Norman Arancon, from the University of Hawaii-Hilo, presented twice on the benefits of vermicompost on plant growth. He listed the known benefits of vermicompost.

  • Increases microbial populations
  • Increases microbial diversity
  • Aids in decomposition of organic matter
  • provides slow nutrient release
  • Aids in pest suppression
  • Aids in pathogen suppression. Vermicompost won’t kill or eradicate pathogens. They are still present, but will remain non-virulent if kept in check by other micro-organisms. If the pathogen does attack, the plants will be able to better resist it.
  • Aids in disease suppression
  • Regulates plant growth. If VC tests positive for hormones, fruits are bigger and will flower several weeks earlier.

Dr. Arancon is a huge proponent of aerated compost teas (ACT) vs non-aerated teas (NCT). While both types of teas are created by steeping a “tea bag” of vermicompost in water, aerated teas are made by introducing the use of a bubbler, which over the course of several hours oxygenates the solution, activating a rocking microbial party within.

Compared to NCTs, ACTs are:

  • More alkaline
  • Higher in conductivity and salt as the aeration physically releases salts and minerals into the liquid solution
  • Higher in nitrogen in plant-available nitrate form
  • Much higher in microbial activity in comparison to both NCT and thermophilic compost tea.
  • Higher in microbial biomass
  • Better for plant growth at all stages

The catch is that ACT has a very short shelf life in comparison to vermicompost, losing nearly all of its microbial activity within a few days without use. Dr. Arancon says that cold storage is shown to extend its stored benefit past 150 days, but that microbial activity crashes after 21 days. The liquid tea is an efficient way to transfer its biological and chemical properties to the plants as you have the option to use it as a foliar spray to provide its benefits directly

According to Dr. Arancon, a little bit of aerated worm compost tea at just 1% concentration provides the greatest benefit for seed germination. You could make 100 gallons of some awesome seed sprouting juice with one gallon of vermicompost.”

I have done well with my castings without really knowing it. I have used the vermicompost on my plants and have made the aerated tea and I see the difference in plant growth. I know the rabbit manure helps to create better castings; the rabbits eat bagged rabbit feed as well as comfrey and kale.

Now that I am getting more serious about the castings and the tea, I need to be very consistent in what I am feeding the worms so that testing under a microscope will be consistent. I know where and how my castings are created. To purchase castings from a source other than your own, you should have them tested and know what the worms are fed. To sell castings on any scale, you must have a process and a product that is reliable, repeatable and verifiable. The castings should be in breathable bags.

New Opportunities Ahead

Rhode Island has passed legislation that requires a limited number of food producers to divert the waste from the Central Landfill. The legislation is for restaurants, colleges and universities, and food wholesalers and distributors that produce 104 tons of organic material annually. But it is only if there is a composting or anaerobic digestion facility within 15 miles. Earth Care Farm in Charlestown is currently the only commercial-scale composting site in Rhode Island that takes food scraps.

The Worm Ladies of Charlestown, Inc. along with other worm growers have created a Rhody Worms Cooperative. This Cooperative will establish large-scale and mid-scale vermicomposting facilities throughout the state, with a goal of having these facilities fill the gap of the 15 mile restriction. Food producers could create their own mid-scale worm farm at their facility, creating a cost effective solution. Additional large-scale worm farms can be established in the state to receive food scraps. The potential for the worm farms is the sale of worms as well as the worm castings, using the worm castings to grow more food. For individuals, families, schools and small cafeterias, we would continue to help them set up worm bins for the elimination of food scraps and the decrease of the use of chemical fertilizers. It is the most cost effective means for eliminating food scraps and more.

Our mission is to encourage everyone to take care of their own garbage: first, by producing less garbage; second by composting and recycling what each one of us does produce; third by using worms we quickly and easily return some of what we have used to the earth.

Join us! It’s fun and very rewarding.


Creating the Worms’ Perfect Single’s Bar

Any young ones in the crowd please close your ears. Cardboard is the perfect singles bar for worms. Worms want to be above ground to have sex, to reproduce, but being above the soil makes them easy prey for birds. So cardboard laid on the ground makes the most perfect environment while protecting them. It’s dark, it’s moist, and promotes a free buffet, and there is a good chance Marvin Gaye is playing sexual healing in the background. With every group that visits our farm and education center I share this and it usually gets their attention. I go on to say, “If you remember one thing from this tour, cardboard is the perfect worm food and worm castings are perfect plant food—a beautiful symbiotic relationship.”

Some of you reading this might be experienced small-scale organic farmers questioning techniques that look a lot like conventional agriculture with excessive use of machinery. Others might be new to, or seeking to enter farming with, a connected, sacred relationship to the soil. On the first farm I owned in the 1980s we used tractors. It was “organic” but the pace and lifestyle was not sustainable. On my second farm where we remain today, I wanted to farm where nature led the way over machinery. With proper planning and thinking ahead I have been able to create a no-till system that is successful without machinery and lets nature do more of the work.

photo courtesy Ricky Baruc No till using a silage cover. The central bed has just had the silage cover removed -- note the dead biomass. In the bed on the left compost has been layered on top of the biomass and it is ready to plant with garlic. To the right the silage cover is still in place.

photo courtesy Ricky Baruc
No till using a silage cover. The central bed has just had the silage cover removed — note the dead biomass. In the bed on the left compost has been layered on top of the biomass and it is ready to plant with garlic. To the right the silage cover is still in place.

Worms are one of my greatest passions; they are one aspect of farming that keeps me excited after 30 years. Worms have been my greatest allies in transforming forested, acidic land marginal for growing vegetables into balanced and rich agricultural soil. The best soil in our region—a fertile valley- was flooded in the late 1930s to create the Quabbin Reservoir. So worms have been key to our success in building rich soil. I tell groups that visit our farm that building soil on land that is not considered agricultural is critical. River bottomland, once so sought after, is now getting 100-year floods three years in a row. The chances are high of GMO drift when growing in an established farm community, and the price of good farmland when you are competing with housing lots and Home Depots is usually out of the question. In addition, urban land and lots are often places where soil needs to be microbe-cleansed and fertility built, and the practices I describe are applicable in these settings as well. Seeds of Solidarity’s motto is Grow Food Everywhere, and if we are to truly feed ourselves and communities we can’t just depend on existing farmland but must create community-based gardens and small farms in as many settings as possible. No-till growing practices that create and enhance a living soil rich with worms, microbes, and mycorrizal fungi are key to a much needed, sacred relationship with the soil that feeds us.

Here are some worm facts that excite me, excerpted from The Farmers Earthworm Handbook by David Ernst: Twenty-five earthworms per square foot equals one ton of worms per acre. One ton of worms equal 100 tons of castings, or 2/3 inch of castings on the soil surface, per acre, per year. Earthworm castings contain five to ten times the amount of soluble plant nutrients as the original soil. This action alone may increase soil test results for calcium, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Alchemy! As the worms tunnel through the soil, their mucus leaves sugars that bacteria feed on, and the carbon that they bring down increase the fungi.

With no real soil, we had to be very creative to start and grow a farm out in the woods of Orange, Massachusetts. Worms, microbes, and fungi were to be my best allies and I knew that tilling was not the way to enhance these populations. After 20 years on our land in Orange I’ve come up with two primary techniques, my most important tools in the no-till toolbox to grow food for market, build soils and a huge worm population.

I am a worm farmer, not in the traditional sense of raising worms in bins and tanks, but throughout all of our growing beds. My philosophy is to keep adding organic matter above the soil, and not tilling the soil. I will share with you the two techniques that allow me to do no-till and farm with worms simultaneously.

My favorite is the cardboard method. Cardboard is my way to open up new land, my weed control, moisture control, and worm food that results in nutrient rich castings—my primary fertilizer. I’m talking large sheets from furniture or appliance stores. One full load in my F350 pick up truck will cover an area 35 by 100 feet that I then cover with mulch hay. I’ve used cardboard in many ways, at all times of the year, under beds, as mulch, dibbling through it. I call it the no-till self-sustaining cardboard method. In the areas where I have been using cardboard for at least five years, the growing beds have become established and rich, so that I have been able to cut out compost, seeing that the cardboard and subsequent worm activity is enough to feed the plants. This has been working wonderfully on crops such as garlic, corn, brassicas and winter squash. This is huge in regards to the cost of acquiring compost or other fertilizers as well as labor!

My greatest joy is showing people around the farm at all the areas where cardboard has been laid and the look of amazement when folks see the amount of worms and the layer of castings under the cardboard. They are also blownaway to see that in most of our soils I can now stick my arm in up to my forearm with ease. A common question that people ask is whether cardboard is safe and when using corrugated cardboard with soy inks and hide glue (high in protein which also attracts the worms) it is safe and promotes soil life. To learn more about the specifics of our cardboard techniques check out http://seedsofsolidarity.org/growing-food/ where you will find our video and resources including results from our SARE research on using cardboard as mulch.

My second tool in the no-till toolbox is what many growers in Europe call occultation- the use of darkness. Most everything I plant with transplants gets cardboard on the bed. But if I want bare ground to sow cover crops or scatter sow seed for salad greens such as in our hoophouses without having to remove the cardboard I use silage covers. Silage covers come in sheets as large as 40 x 100. These are much thicker and more durable than regular black plastic and last many years. I use silage cover both in the field and hoophouses. Outside, after I’ve harvest my garlic, I can cover the expanse with one 40 x 100 ft sheet, putting it right over any weeds that were in the beds or since grown. Weeds germinate in the warm, moist conditions generated by the tarp, but are then killed by the absence of light. Two months later, all the weeds have become a layer of broken down biomass that I can transplant right into without needing to till or remake raised beds which is an enormous labor saver. As most know, every time one tills weed seeds that have never seen the light of day come to the surface. So with each tilling we are supporting a new crop of weed seeds in growing. A beauty of silage covers is that the previous crop becomes a carpet of biomass that will create a barrier for many of the weeds still in the bed, and as long as I add clean compost above the biomass into which I plant, I have minimal weed issues.

A view of Ricky’s farm showing the crop diversity, fields grown using cardboard mulch and worm hotels, and hoophouses.

A view of Ricky’s farm showing the crop diversity, fields grown using
cardboard mulch and worm hotels, and hoophouses.

My experiences parallel those of Jean Martin Fortier, author of The Market Gardener, who proposes that soil-covering tarps are as effective at fighting weeds as a short cover crop in a typical vegetable rotation, but they can be set up in one go. I too have found that they work immediately and quickly, and are the perfect fit for intensive market gardening. I also use the silage covers in our four, 30 x 96 foot hoophouses where we do greens production. The heat of the hoophouse really speeds up the breakdown. To achieve no-till previously, when a bed of greens such as lettuce, arugula or spinach was done I would hoe, then need to rake all of that biomass out of the hoophouse. The last couple of seasons I cut some silage cover the width of the beds and let it sit on the bed on top of the spent crop for 2-3 weeks. All the green matter becomes brown and I cover this biomass with a 1/2-inch layer of compost and begin the sowing process.
A commonly asked question about silage covers is how they affect the worm population, especially when used in the heat of a hoophouse during the summer months. This past season I really got to test this, as I had wondered the same. One day I looked under all of the dead biomass of the previous greens crop, after two weeks under a silage cover. The biomass was moist and the soil below it cool, creating a perfect environment for worms to do what they love: eat, reproduce and poop, with a wonderful new layer of castings produced. These two techniques- the cardboard method and the use of silage covers for occultation– allow all of our land and greenhouses to be undisturbed and allow the worms, microbes and fungi to continue to thrive unimpeded.

Here are some other fun findings about worms and the no-till method I use:
• Earthworms become dormant as soil dries, but with soil covered with cardboard and/or silage covers on top of biomass, they stay very active.
• Earthworms are fully able to live in soil that is actually frozen- but they don’t develop this resistance until late December. The cardboard and silage covers moderate the soils and keep them warmer especially as biomass breaks down underneath. This I believe is critical to enhance year-round worm farming out in the field. If you are tilling when the worms are emerging from their cocoon they don’t have the body weight to survive while they hunt for food and build burrows.

I do what I call “worm-till” — putting biomass on the soil and using worms to digest and incorporate it — to farm worms, but just as important as the worms are the microbes and mycorrizal fungi. Dr. Chris Picone wrote Natural Systems of Soil Fertility: The Webs Beneath our Feet during his tenure years ago at the Land Institute. In their journal, The Land Report, he describes that:
• Tillage crushes soil aggregates and breaks apart the webs of microbial fungus hyphae and reduces fungus abundance.
• Tillage selects the fungus species that don’t aggregate soil particles well.
• By reducing fungus abundance and selecting for ineffective species, tillage undermines the biological repair mechanisms required to restore soil structure.
• Tillage promotes dependence on fertilizers. Reducing abundance of microbial fungi, tillage undermines the biological mechanisms for nutrient uptake. Microbial fungi can increase the yield in an area of land by 30% or more.
• Tillage reduces soil fungus communities by 27%. After only a few years without tilling, soil with perennial plants can have a fungus community that is as diverse as a native prairie.

For those out there who would like to use your hands more and machinery less or not at all, decrease labor inputs due to many less weeds, reduce exported fertilizer inputs, and eliminate release of CO2 from tilling, these techniques may be for you. As farmers it is critical to keep ourselves healthy for the long haul, and leave land better than it was when we started working it. After farming for 30 years, the practices I’ve developed, arrived at, continue to explore, and love to share nourish me as a human being by creating an honoring relationship with the soil, one that enhances life.

Ricky Baruc will be offering a workshop on ‘No-till Farming for Life’ in April 2016 at his Massachusetts farm, Seeds of Solidarity.
Please visit seedsofsolidarity.org
to receive the date and register.

Gardening with Worms

Joe, standing by his compost screening operation, speaks about the importance of worms in compost and soil fertility.

Joe, standing by his compost screening operation, speaks about the
importance of worms in compost and soil fertility.

Many gardeners might be reluctant to garden in Penfield, NY. Just a few miles from the Canadian border halfway across Lake Erie, this suburb of Rochester, NY, features small house lots, neighbors who pride themselves on their meticulous lawns, and hungry deer and other wildlife with no natural predators and plenty of nearby shelter in parks and golf courses.

Yet here urban homesteader Joe Gersitz has chosen to make his stand. Driving up Hotchkiss Circle to his house there is no chance you will go wrong. Instead of the pristine landscaped yards which surround him, Joe has chosen production agriculture on his shaded front and back lawns. The fruits of his efforts are lit-erally to be seen everywhere – piles of produce surrounded by stacked hoops, stands and trellises which have been taken out of use by the time of my October visit, soil covered by cardboard and cover crops, massive compost bins, rain barrels at every gutter, plastic bins and trays, watering cans, solar dryers, dug ponds, partially dismantled small greenhouses, buckets and makeshift devices of every sort.

“I grew the squash vertically this year,” he grins “in front where I have the cover crops now. In the circle were tomatoes and where the taller cover crops are was squash, melons, and cucumbers. I’m going to the store now to get some tomatoes for our lunch!”

He takes a few steps and selects some ripe tomatoes from among those soaking up sun in a plastic bin resting on an aluminum ladder placed over two inverted 5 gallon buckets.

At the beginning of the Second World War, when he was 11, Gersitz started a victory garden and, he says, “I’ve been gardening ever since!”

When he was a little older and deciding what to do with his life he said it would have been to go to a monastery or be a farmer. So in his thirties he took vows and joined the Jesuit order, teaching at the order’s schools. He had been trained to teach math and physics, but hoped to study and teach theology. It turned out, his superiors said, that there was more demand for foreign languages. So he became certified in French, Spanish, German and Latin.

photo by Jack Kittredge The result of Gersitz’s squash operation is stacked here (he is particularly proud of his designer “shillelagh squash”). Note the cover crops, drip irrigation system, soil covered with corrugated cardboard “worm hotels”.

photo by Jack Kittredge
The result of Gersitz’s squash operation is stacked here (he is particularly proud of his designer “shillelagh squash”). Note the cover crops, drip irrigation system, soil covered with corrugated cardboard “worm hotels”.

“When you teach languages,” he observes, “you can do all sorts of interesting things based on the culture of the language. When I was teaching French in Brighton once in third grade, we made wine! It depends on the principal, of course.”

The order’s teachers lived on the campus where they taught and not much land was available for Joe’s gardening passion. But that changed when he met a woman he wanted to marry. Released from his vows, Gersitz married, left the campus and bought the house in Penfield. Since then, he has become an expert in making much of his small space!

“I’ve been living here 42 years,” he says. “I have about 2000 square feet in growing areas if you count the front and back yards. From that we get enough vege-tables for us and enough to give away to friends and to our Food Shelf.” (The ‘Food Shelf’ is what Joe calls the local food pantry because it has so little food that it doesn’t qualify for designation as a pantry, having only one fillable shelf!)

“You can see the cause of my shade,” he continues, “the neighboring trees to the south. Twenty five years ago I started growing in the back, to the south, but the neighboring trees got taller and I don’t have much sun there now. So 6 years ago I decided I had to have more sun and started to build beds up here in front. I get close to 2 months of all day sun here in front before the house begins to shade it.”

For many years Joe worked at the local food pantry where they had lots of vegetables and fruits that had gone by. So he brought them home and started big compost piles. That got me him trouble with the neighbors for awhile, he says, but now they walk their dogs by and stop and talk.
Many of his neighbors mow their lawns a lot, seemingly trying to attain a manicured golf course look. Gersitz jokes that his lawn is part of a golf course too, just that he’s in charge of the rough!

“One of my neighbors helped me build my hoop house,” he recalls. “But others don’t understand this at all. I have a theory that the one across the street who is mowing right now, his lawn gets cut every time he needs to get out of the house and away from his wife. Sometimes it is two and three times a week!”

One of the biggest deterrents for home gardeners, Joe feels, the reason countless people stop, is the presence of predators – deer, woodchucks, rabbits, raccoons, but mostly deer.

“I have trouble.” He sighs. “I found excrement on the lawn once, and signs that they have eaten the tops of my tomato plants a few times. I see paw prints. I have to do all sorts of things to keep them out. They live in my neighbor’s trees. There are just little pockets that support them. There are waterways nearby, where they can drink, that used to support mills in the 1800s.”

Gersitz has kept them out with a wide combination of deterrents. He used rebar to construct a 7-foot tall deer fence. He sets out buckets of his own urine. He knows where each animal comes from, and what they like to eat (rabbits like peppers but not eggplants), so sets up fences appropriately.

Joe shows the screened worm casting compost that can be applied to his garden.

Joe shows the screened worm casting compost that can be applied to his garden.

As a proper homesteader, Joe likes to raise animals as well as plants. But doing that in a suburban environment is difficult.

“About 7 years ago,” he recalls, “not knowing that chickens are livestock — which is forbidden in Penfield — I had chickens. But I got complaining letters about the roosters’ noise and once they wandered around for a half hour. So I had to get rid of them. In the City of Rochester, however, you can have chickens. And a woman who lived in Brighton, a classy suburb of Rochester, had chickens because she needed them for her health. But she moved to Penfield and they gave her a hard time. It was a violation of town zoning regulations!”

Gersitz also practices the homestead art of food preservation. Not only does he can and freeze, he has built a solar dehydrator.

“Drying doesn’t take any storage space,” he points out, “and it doesn’t take electricity like to run a freezer. It was from plans I got in Mother Earth News. It sits out there in the driveway all summer and I haven’t lost anything. It has no fan, no power — it’s driven by nature. It will go up to about 140 degrees, that’s the top temperature it will reach. You can regulate that by adjusting the angle to the sun or opening a little ventilation window.”

He had solar panels installed on his roof this April and now sells power every month.

“I only use half of the power I generate,” he beams. “The other half goes onto the grid. The panels will produce as many as 20 kilowatt hours a day, and Marion and I use about 7 of them. The average American uses 30 kilowatt hours a day!

He paid $11,000 out of pocket for the panels, after New York state paid about $2700. He is also eligible for a 30% federal tax credit and a 20% state tax credit. But his and his wife’s income is from the state retirement fund, he says, and that is not taxable anyway.

“Two years ago,” he continues about he homesteading efforts, “I dug a pond to hold extra water for when we have a drought. I have an electric pool pump to get it out. I can put an exterior filter on it to keep particles out. You can even get canvas tanks that hold 750 gallons to store water until you need it.”

About 8 or 9 years ago Joe got interested in worms making compost for his garden. He thought he would do the gentleman’s thing with a little plastic bin. But he didn’t have much luck.

“The idea for a household bin,” he explains, “is to let worms digest your scraps, leaves, any organic matter that can be made small enough for them to eat. Ide-ally if you are doing this inside you will have a screen over it to keep out flies and other insects. You gradually try to move all your worms to one end by put-ting new feed there and attracting the worms to that. Then you make a pyramid of the castings and every day scrape off more of this top surface because the worms don’t like light and will go toward the bottom. After awhile you move the worms again and repeat the process with the new castings.

Here Gersitz pours leachate from the sump bucket into a pail to transfer to one of his rain barrels for dilution.

Here Gersitz pours leachate from the sump bucket into a pail to transfer to one of his rain barrels for dilution.

“I tend to ignore things at times, however,” he continues. “At the end of the season I hadn’t managed my worm bins much but I had a nice compost pile and I said ‘Let’s see if the worms will be happy over the winter in the compost pile.’ It was 8 feet long and 4 or 5 feet high. I figured that if it gets cold they’ll find a warmer place by going down farther. So I dumped my bin there. It still had a few worms in it. Well, in the Springtime I got the most beautiful product! That sold me on it. It was just amazing! Worms were throughout the whole pile.”

Of course these were the small, composting red wrigglers Gersitz had gotten with the bins – the kind he called ‘manure worms’ as a kid in Buffalo. Earthworms and night crawlers – the big worms – seem to want to be in the soil. But the composting ones like the top couple of inches. In the woods they would be in the decaying leaves and top soil layers that have decaying organic matter. If they have enough material to eat they will stay warm by burrowing down when it gets cold.

“Like you and me,” Joe stresses, “if they are uncomfortable they will try to ease it and go down below, deeper in the pile, where it is warmer. You can’t put them in a hot compost pile, but a lot of compost is just right for them. They like a moist environment like a semi-wrung out sponge. My pile was mostly leaves, tons of leaves. I have some neighbors who I’ve trained to bring them to me, but most of them I would pick up in the neighborhood, then shred them. That’s the best thing for worms, that shredding. They can attack the leavers better then.”

Joe’s worms reproduced very quickly. If you put some with some feed under any kind of cover, he says, when you come back in a few days there will be 30 or 40 worms under it.

“I tell people you don’t have to go out and buy them,” Gersitz insists. “If you build it, they will come! And they do, people tell me later.”

Gersitz interest in worms was stimulated by reading Mary Applehof’s book “Worms Eat My Garbage” and a lot of magazines – Mother Earth, Organic Garden-ing – where worms come up every so often. He also went to a workshop at the NOFA Summer Conference a few years ago on worms.
He built a bin at first just based on his reading and listening – where to put holes and so forth. He also got a kit one time and used that, but gave it to a grand-nephew. He still has a worm bin system that he bought.

“These are bins,” he points out, showing it to me “and there is a gridwork in the bottom. You put your bedding there – torn newspaper or whatever and worms and garbage – I put in coffee grounds. You put a little water in the top to make sure it is moist. It drips from one bin to the other. But a raccoon got into it 2 nights ago and knocked it over.”

Red wiggler worms have attacked and infiltrated one of the bags of coffee grounds he brought home from Starbucks but hasn’t had a chance to put in an empty bin yet.

Red wiggler worms have attacked and infiltrated one of the bags of coffee grounds he brought home from Starbucks but hasn’t had a chance to put in an empty bin yet.

But Joe stopped working with bins and trays eventually. He still has some tray-based systems that he lends out to schools to see if the kids want to tend them. In NY state the first grade curriculum includes a spring unit on worms. So he goes and gives talks to the kids. But for his own home he didn’t care about keeping everything neat and clean since it was outdoors, and he had huge compost piles that needed the worms.

“What I’ll do with this smelly stuff that I put in here all summer,” he says talking about the material in the worm bins, “is put it into one of my big compost piles, and it will be devoured by the worms. You don’t have to have that many bins. Partly my system is explained by laziness and not managing properly. You should start with at most two bins filled, and you harvest the bottom one and add an extra one on top. The worms work their way up to the fresher garbage. It’s all ground up vegetable waste. But I didn’t grind it up well enough. Ideally you should puree it. If I don’t, it just takes longer.”

“When I start weeding,” he explains in his own defense, “I’ll come over here with many wheelbarrow loads of weeds in one mornings work. That is green stuff. This is mostly leaves at the moment, but has a lot that was green in it. That is a lot of material. Now I have three compost piles for worms. I don’t have a worm bin, I have a worm factory – about 27 cubic yards.

“Then I’ll inoculate this full compost pile with worms this fall,” he continues, “so they are working through it this winter. This other one the worms are still working in and I’m getting leachate from. I’ll clear this out this fall and start a new pile here. That third one was empty but I’ve been filling it with garbage. Worms can make these piles reduce down from 4 feet to 1 foot tall over 4 to 6 months. Over a summer that can happen.”

To inoculate a pile Gerstiz just takes a few scoops from an old pile and adds them to the new one. The worms do the rest.

“Not a lot of management in this,” he says. “I’m sitting out in the sun and drinking my lemonade! Some people may be put off by the ugliness of my compost bins, and I don’t really treat them very well. But they work! This has all been processed by the worms. They’re finding every little bit of nutrition in there. I’ll be harvesting this and incorporating it in the soil this fall, and they’ll get working then in the fresh garbage.”

When the president of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, sent out an edict to his managers that they should give away free coffee grounds, of course Joe was quick to get some!

“I tried with the local manager, though,” he says, “and he wouldn’t give me the pure coffee grounds. All he had access to was a mixture with other garbage and trash and said I would have to sort it out by putting it through a screener.”

But he took them and figured the worms could do the sorting. They did, but it slowed them down. Apparently the Starbucks coffee cups, which appear to be paper, actually have a very thin plastic lining that worms don’t like. But they did like the coffee grounds!

“I think they like the coffee because of the caffeine,” Gersitz surmises. “But it also steps up reproduction, I think. Now I’m thinking of putting in 80% coffee grounds and 20% kitchen waste.”

Anyone who has observed worms much knows that they do not like to be exposed to air or light very long.

“They love to be underneath something that protects them,” Joe says, “from rain and predators, I guess. That is why you see so much corrugated cardboard here. They will live in it. I use it in all my paths here and in the garden. The corrugation makes these perfect narrow tunnels where the worms meet their spouses! The cardboard is worm apartments! They just love them. The cardboard gets eaten up eventually and I add more.”

For several years Gersitz used the castings from the worms directly in his garden. But he found an easier way to do even that.

“I don’t deal much during the year with their excrement,” he explains. “The more convenient thing is to collect the leachate. I dug out the bottom of two of my bins, sloped it, put a pool lining plastic in there. That hole I dug and lined is at the lowest part of the pile — like a swimming pool with a deep end. The green pool-liner is one foot deep at the level, and here it is two feet deep. I dug it that way, and the land pitches that way. I collect four or five gallons in a tank and use that for the garden. If it is dry I add water to the pile, otherwise the rain is enough. It has to be moist.”

Joe dilutes the leachate 20 to 1 with water, or sometimes 10 to 1 or even less if he knows it is going to rain. He put it on the crops with a sprinkling can.

“I have rain barrels at all four corners of the house,” he says, “so I have rainwater to use for diluting. Otherwise I’d have to use town water, which is treated. Of course, in dry times I can fill a barrel with tap water and let it sit a few days and the chlorine evaporates out of it. That delay also warms the water up, which helps the plants. Our tap water usually comes in between 50 and 60 degrees. They don’t like cold water.”

The leachate is always dark and has a little smell when it is warm from the sun, but not much. That is his only fertilizer.

“Here is my gold,” he says, pouring out the leachate. “I am told it has about 8 times the nutrition of the compost itself. Whenever it rains my buckets will fill up every other day. And if it doesn’t I’ll still get a couple of quarts out every other day.”

Gerwitz doesn’t really know what worm castings are rich in but figures that, like manure, they probably are high in nitrogen. This is partially borne out by the fact that if you put too much on tomato plants they will grow to 8 or 10 feet tall, giving you too much foliage and not enough fruit.

One of his secrets using worms is crushed egg shells. Joe says it gives them calcium as well as giving them something in their gizzard to grind food. He collects egg shells from places like churches that do pancake breakfasts. Then he brings the shells home and adds them to the compost bins for the worms to digest and add to their castings.

Gersitz says the quality and size of his produce has changed a lot since he started using worm fertilizer.
“This is my second planting of celery root,” he says, “ and the Swiss chard has been so rich, half again as high as normal. I really believe in the importance of soil.

“According to the Buddha,” he continues, “a human being must be the author of his health or of his sickness. Well, as far as I’m concerned, healthy soil means healthy plants means healthy people!”

Worms at the Devine Gardens

In the beginning

The tomato plant on the left was grown using man made fertilizer in potting soil. The tomato plant on the right was grown using vermicompost in potting soil. Both types were planted and trasplanted to bigger pots at the same time. Notice the difference in the root balls at the end of the season. The root ball on the right was almost twice as big and the root system was much denser with many more of the tiny lateral roots and mycorrhizal fungal filaments.

The tomato plant on the left was grown using man made fertilizer in potting soil.
The tomato plant on the right was grown
using vermicompost in potting soil.
Both types were planted and trasplanted to bigger pots at the same time. Notice the difference in the root balls at the end of the season. The root ball on the right was almost twice as big and the root system was much denser with many more of the tiny lateral roots and mycorrhizal fungal filaments.

Growing up I watched and helped my Mother tend her plants. She got a lot of pleasure from working with them and seeing them grow. She loved her flowers, vegetables and planted many, many trees and shrubs. She was just happy if her plants were productive; they never were expected to be outstanding. I don’t re-member her using any type of chemical; she was content to let nature bring her what it may.

When I started gardening I wanted my plants to be all that they could be (like the Army slogan). Advertisements and nice packaging also influenced my deci-sion to use chemicals. They made it seem like it was normal and even required to use their products. I remember I wanted the biggest, most beautiful roses I could grow. So I would spray them with some awful smelling white powdery substance. When the kids were little I was convinced I should fertilize my lawn. One time I was spreading dry lawn fertilizer with a push broadcaster as the kids ran around behind me. Thankfully, a neighbor walking by informed me not to let them run through those chemicals barefoot. I think I was barefoot too. Another time I applied fertilizer to my perennial flowers in late June. When I re-turned from vacation the plants looked awful because there had been no rain and the salts in the fertilizer had dehydrated the plants.

There I was, a garden hobbyist and, as you can see, I was really clueless about harmful chemicals and soil health. It wasn’t that I used them all the time; I just did it on a whim here and there. Then one day I had to look up something in my gardening books and realized that my gardening books were over 15 years old and filled with advice on using chemicals to control every problem associated with plants, there were no natural solutions. So I took out a subscription to Or-ganic Gardening magazine and for Christmas received Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. My conversion to natural gardening had begun. A few years later we bought the farm and gardening and my life would never be the same.

Six years ago friends of ours were selling their farm because they were moving out of the area. The farm was 70 acres in total; 20 in woods and the rest were fields left to overgrow for 20 years. They rented out the 1947 dairy barn to a friend who kept cows, pigs and pastured about 10 acres. The dairy barn was in fair shape. There was no home on the property because the original farmer had divided the land into 2 parcels.

There was also a 10 year old pole barn which our friends had built for their vermicompost business. They had 3 young boys and were not able to devote enough time to develop the business. The pole barn was in excellent shape. In the middle of the barn was a long windrow of vermicompost with some worms still hanging on to dear life. I was curious about the vermicompost.

Deciding to buy the farm was a huge decision. My husband Mike and I were happy. Our four children were graduated, starting their own lives, moving out and back in as life threw them curves. I had gardens galore including a gorgeous, perennial flower garden around the house, a perennial garden including rhubarb, asparagus, raspberries and strawberries and another 40’ x 60’ vegetable garden. We had a 3-acre yard that included many trees and a small fruit orchard of peach, plum, apple, pear and blueberry bushes that was just starting to produce. Mike enjoyed taking care of the 3-acre lawn.

But we had always thought how nice it would be to have a farm with enough land for animals and a wooded area to walk through and enjoy. I knew that my part time job would be ending in the next year or two. With the kids growing up we were less busy and Mike wanted more work to keep him busy. Still I was scared to commit because I didn’t want the new farm to consume our lives. After a lot of praying I realized that if the farm was going to consume us it didn’t have to be a bad thing. We decided to take the farm that wasn’t being used to its full potential and turn it into a productive place that our family could enjoy and would grow nutritious food.

Since we bought our farm in November I wasn’t able to garden with the vermicompost right from the start. Instead, that winter I spent my free time research-ing vermicompost. It was exciting to read about all of the good things that vermicompost was reported to help with. I compared starting seeds with it in the mix and without. Sure enough, the mixture with the vermicompost had more seeds germinate and the seedlings grew quicker and bigger. I was convinced and started my business, Devine Gardens LLC, so that I could sell the best vermicompost I could produce and to eventually sell other farm products.

Getting the business up and running

Oh boy, so now I started a business! I had taken some business courses years ago at the local community college. I had also worked as an office assistant during the time my children were growing up so I had some knowledge of running a business. I took a three day business start up class through the local Small Busi-ness Development Center. From there I dove in. My first attempt at selling was at my local farmer’s market using a card table. I sold vermicompost in feed sacks to get a feel for the market. I also sold my garden’s vegetables. I was very nervous but it was a lot of fun and the people were very friendly.

I went on to develop a mascot/logo, website, brochures, business cards, banners, packaging and so forth. I slogged through it spending more hours than I want to admit and used my family and friends for their input and advice. It would have been easier to hire a marketing professional but I didn’t have the money and now my business really looks like me, who I am and what I represent.

The business is named in memory of my Mother and Father, Bill and Alice Devine. I cherish the values they lived by including integrity, honesty and love of family. My Dad was a full blooded Irishman so it was natural that the Devine Gardens’ mascot would be Irish too. That is how O’Smiley McWiggler came to his prominence in the business.

While selling at a local garden center’s event, I met the director of WISE Women’s Business Center. Through WISE I have received coaching, attended busi-ness workshops, networked and taken a 6 session sales course. To improve my communication skills I joined Toastmasters. I never have liked talking to a crowd and because of my nervousness I wasn’t effective. Toastmasters has done wonders for me being able to relate my thoughts in a logical, meaningful way. I’m presently enrolled in Annie’s Project, a 6 session program that strengthens women’s roles in farm enterprises.

Learning about vermicompost and how it relates to soil health has been fun and interesting. Besides researching vermicompost on the internet, I attended two Vermiculture Conferences which are put on yearly through North Carolina State University. I also attended the US Compost Council’s 40 Hour Training Course so that I could learn the finer points of making high quality compost. I have attended other compost workshops put on by NERC and Cornell Waste Management. Through those workshops I’ve met other people who have been so important to the growth of my knowledge and business.

Studying good books has been invaluable. My favorites are Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis, Building Soils for Better Crops by Fred Magdoff & Harold Van Es, Vermiculture Technology edited by Clive Edwards, Norman Arancon & Rhonda Sherman, The Farm as Ecosystem by Jerry Brunetti and Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof. I also regularly read Acres Magazine and The Natural Farmer.

Experiences with vermicompost

Because their roots are more developed, plants grown in vermicompost will be able to get more nutrients out of the soil, more drought resistant and have a bet-ter network to “talk” with other plants.

My cantaloupe plants were being eaten alive by striped cucumber beetles. So I made vermicompost tea and sprayed the plants twice a week for two weeks. I couldn’t believe how well it worked; the cucumber beetles were no longer eating the plants. All the plants lived and grew. Later that season, there were cu-cumber beetles inside the blooms of the cantaloupe plants. They were not harming the blooms and I wonder if they were actually helping to pollinate. I was so happy that I was able to control bad bugs without harmful chemicals.

Vermicompost scratched into the soil around perennials that are lackluster will give the plants a boost. For example: I had an azalea plant that was almost dead. It was not growing, had barely any leaves and had two dull flowers. In the fall I worked vermicompost into the soil around its base. The next season the plant was doing better but by the second season the plant was thriving. It was twice as big as originally, was full of green, lush leaves and vibrant blooms that lasted for what seemed like at least a month.

Garlic grows wonderfully with the help of vermicompost yielding healthy large heads with many of the bulbs weighing 6 ounces. The largest head I’ve weighed was 7 ounces and measured 4 inches across.

Though I haven’t been able to eliminate downy mildew and late blight using vermicompost tea I have been able to control it so that the plants remain produc-tive. One summer I found late blight on my tomato plants on Labor Day weekend. By spraying tea on the plants I continued to harvest tomatoes until the first frost, September 29th.

On our 30th anniversary Mike gave me a 60 gallon tow behind sprayer. When building the garden I made a drive through path so it would be easy to apply tea. I spray the tea on any plant and fruit tree that may need it. Using tea is a cost efficient, easy way to get the benefits of vermicompost. Because you’re not using harmful chemicals, it’s safe. Unless you drive over a mud wasp nest, which I did, and they do get very angry and attack.

Growing with vermicompost lets me harvest big, delicious fruits and vegetables. I’ve grown carrots that weighed a pound and were just as sweet as if they were little guys. Only vermicompost and compost are used on the farm because I want to be able to tell customers exactly what it will and won’t do. If I used addi-tional amendments I wouldn’t be sure.

Producing vermicompost

The windrows used to produce vermicompost when we bought the farm were hard to manage and took up a lot of floor space. After tinkering with a couple of different ideas I decided to go with raised beds that we built ourselves. Mike did the welding and my son assembled the wooden parts. People can buy or build raised beds that have mechanized scraper systems on the bottom. Our beds do not have mechanized scrapers because that would be one more thing to break and have to repair.

Even though the worms do a good job at reducing weed seeds and pathogens it wasn’t good enough. I used my knowledge from the 40 Hour Compost Opera-tor’s Training Course to make my own aerated static bay compost system. That was a complete failure and quite a mess. A year and a half later I asked O2 Compost to design a system for my operation. The compost bays were finished in November 2012. It was so exciting until I tried to make compost. Instead of listening when people say “I don’t think that’s going to work” I have to try it for myself. For example: a manure spreader will not be able to thoroughly mix cow manure with the bedding. But it will be a lot of work when the chain on the manure spreader breaks and you have to empty the spreader with a pitch fork.

We had to buy an old TMR feed mixer to thoroughly mix the feedstock. To run the mixer we had to buy a big enough horse-power tractor. It also took a few different attempts to find the best carbon source to add to the manure/bedding to obtain the right C:N ratio and bulk density. The carbon had to be free from contaminants so that eliminated free yard waste from municipalities. It also had to be free of persistent herbicides. Finally, I decided to use a mulch/sawdust that we purchase from a local lumber mill. That is added to the cow and pig manure and bedding from our farm.

Because of the improvements mentioned above Devine Gardens vermicompost is approved for unrestricted use in certified organic production through NOFA-NY. It does not need to be certified organic because compost/vermicompost is not eaten by animals or people. To become approved several things have to be done. First, because the feedstock contains manure it has to be precomposted for at least 3 days at a temperature of at least 131 degrees F (for static aerat-ed bays. For windrows it must be at least 15 days and turned a minimum of 5 times). The initial C:N of the feedstock must be between 25:1 and 40:1. The worms have to be watered and fed thin layers of food regularly to maintain aerobic conditions and appropriate moisture levels. The duration of vermicompost-ing has to be long enough that the worms have totally worked through the feedstock. Also, the feedstock can’t contain contaminants.

For quality control Devine Gardens vermicompost is tested yearly. Penn State University tests for physical and chemical attributes and Earthfort for biological. As the years have gone by, the tests have shown steady improvements. Now, the yearly test results are similar to the year before because the feedstock and the method stays the same.

During the worm’s production season I’m busy feeding and watering the worms, harvesting their product, screening and packing. From December to April the worms are dormant. For my operation It would be really hard to feed them because their food freezes and the water has to be shut off to the pole barn so the pipes don’t freeze and break. To tuck them in for winter I give them a nice thick layer of food, water them, cover them with sheets of foam insulation and set their heat cables to 32 degrees. That way they don’t freeze and die, but are inactive. I check on them daily during the winter in case an electric breaker switches off or a heat cable stops working.

Marketing and selling vermicompost

Devine Gardens vermicompost is sold screened in one quart, four quart and 16 quart containers at approximately 10 stores within 50 miles of my farm which is located east of Syracuse in central New York. To promote sales I go to those stores and give away samples and talk with their customers. I also sell and promote at farmer markets and garden shows/festivals in the area. Some sales are through my website online. Bulk screened and unscreened product is sold at the farm.

A lot of people have not heard of vermicompost. When they become enlightened about what it is and how it will help their plants they are interested. Speaking appearances and workshops are great opportunities to tell people about vermicompost and how it helps improve soil health. When people hear that adding ver-micompost to soil is like eating yogurt because you’re supplying good microbes, they can really identify with it. I know from my own experience that there are a lot of people who just don’t ever think about soil health and why it’s important. When they understand what those harmful chemicals are doing and that they don’t have to use them they feel empowered.

Some advertising has been done but it is so expensive and it’s hard to tell if it’s working. Anyway, I like talking with people in person. One unexpected benefit is all of the gardening tips I learn from fellow gardeners.

I also sell worms but I don’t like to ship them because I have had worms die during shipping. Usually we arrange a place that’s convenient for both of us to meet. Sometimes Mike will deliver worms for me if he will be in the customer’s area. I don’t sell worm bins because people can make them out of plastic tubs. If I found a really good worm bin that was reasonably priced I would recommend it and maybe sell it.

The growth of the business has chugged along sometimes slower than I would like, sometimes too fast and sometimes seeming to almost stop. Lately I’m sensing that it is starting to hum, a very slow, steady, reliable hum. That is good because it’s important that the growth of Devine Gardens is well thought out.

The compost bays are designed to produce between 400 and 600 yards a year; that amount is based on the output of the farm’s animals. The worms reduce what they eat by half so I have the capacity to produce 300 yards of unscreened vermicompost a year at most. To produce that much I would need to build a lot more buildings to house the additional worm beds. That does not make financial sense. I would rather fill the need for organic approved compost in our area which I will be able to start selling in larger quantities as the years go by.

This year customers also trialed a compost/vermicompost mix that they were very happy with so that will be another area in which to grow sales.

One of my goals is to help more farmers use vermicompost. It would be so helpful to organic and natural growers who have fewer options to fight off pests and diseases. I’m guessing the seemingly high cost prohibits their use. To cut down on costs I sell screened and unscreened in bulk from a yard all the way down to a few square feet. Making vermicompost tea also is cost effective.

I haven’t mentioned my husband a lot in the day to day running of the business because Mike works full time in the trucking industry. He is in charge of equipment, land and buildings. He helps me with anything I need muscle for. He is also my consultant. I run almost every decision past him to make sure it makes sense.

Our farm

The farm is a collective effort that is such a sweet deal. The farmer, Bob, who was here when we bought the farm, is still here. His cows and pigs provide the manure and bedding for the worm’s feedstock. He owns and operates the hay equipment. He hays our fields and a couple of neighbors’ fields. Mike and our boys, when available, unload and stack the hay. We purchase his hay at a fair price and he has extra hands helping him. He has much more knowledge and ex-perience than we do so we go to him for advice. There is also a man who keeps some of his beehives at our farm. We have all the extra pollinators and some honey and he has totally chemical free fields for his bees.

After buying the farm we discovered that the dairy barn was in worse shape than we thought. We paid to have the rotted corners and all the other rotted wood replaced and new windows put in. The next summer we rented a lift and painted the barn and transformed the landlocked mud hole behind the barn into a useable area with a driveway.

In 2012 we had a house built, sold our old house and moved to the farm. We love living in the country where it’s so peaceful and pretty. That summer we real-ized that the pasture fence had some real problems – Bob’s cows got out, often. I had people, including the state police and sheriff, call and come to the house to let me know the cows were on Route 20. Getting a call or having a policeman come to your door at midnight is so scary that you’re relieved it’s just a loose cow. I know from personal experience that I don’t enjoy running down Route 20 trying to coax a cow away from dangerous traffic. The bull liked to go through the fence onto our new mud lawn and drop cow patties. The worst thing about that was the new puppies thought it was wonderful to eat.

That winter we took down the barbed wire fencing and posts. We hired a local company to install about 6 acres of high tensile fencing near the dairy barn. We watched and took notes and pictures as they built the fence so that we could learn how. The next summer we installed an 8 acre pasture behind our house. This summer we borrowed a post pounder from Soil and Water and pounded in the posts to enclose the rest of the land except the woods. Next year we hope to fin-ish the fence. Then we will be able to rotational graze or hay the pastures as needed.

Last fall we bought 4 Dexter cattle — one was a bred Dexter/Jersey cross, one was a 6 month old Dexter heifer and the other 2 were 6 month old steers. On March 14th the bred cow had her first calf, a beautiful, healthy heifer that we named Clover. This fall we are buying 4 more heifers, then we are going to let the herd grow themselves. Right now a bull is not in the picture. To allow for artificial insemination this summer we built a corral with chute and headgate. I’m hoping to be able to milk one of the cows in the future. We have plans to build another lean to closer to the house with a milking area. The cows are more fun to work with than the worms. Worms do not have much personality. They don’t like to be petted either.

We are trying our hand at raising chickens. I wanted to let them free range but there is a red fox living around here that loves chicken. Over the winter I’ll be deciding whether to keep them in movable electric netting or just build a fenced in area for them. For this winter they are safe and sound in the front room of the dairy barn. It’s nice to have fresh eggs and we look forward to raising meat chickens.

Our hope for the future is that we will make enough profit off of the different enterprises from the farm that Mike and I can eventually both work on the farm. The planning, effort and hard work that go into attaining that goal are fun for us. My gardens this year looked more like weed beds but that doesn’t matter be-cause I want to get vermicompost into the hands of natural gardeners and help them. It’s a fantastic feeling to know that you’re in the right place making a product that you believe in.

Making Black Gold at Black Dirt Farm

Tom poses on the ramp by the bin. At the left hens wait for access, on the right is the tractor Tom uses to move material from the bin every month to compost piles (one of which you can see just beyond the tractor exhaust pipe).

Tom poses on the ramp by the bin. At the left hens wait for access, on the right is the tractor. Tom uses to move material from the bin every month to compost piles (one of which you can see just beyond the tractor exhaust pipe).

For anyone unfamiliar with New England ways, in the early days when towns were being surveyed and chartered sometimes the folks marking the edge of one town used a slightly different line than the folks surveying the edge of the adjacent town. The difference, often a long narrow slice, was an unincorporated, townless area called a “gore”. Such an area was the 12.5 square mile “Goshen Gore” in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

Finally incorporated in 1867 and named Stannard in honor of Vermont General George Stannard, who became the “Hero of Gettysburg” when his troops were credited with breaking the back of Pickett’s Charge, the town also features Stannard Mountain which rises to over 2600 feet.

On the west slope of the mountain, on a shoulder at an elevation of about 1400 feet, sits Black Dirt Farm – owned by Tom Gilbert and his wife Molly, with their two kids. Molly is from Leyden, Massachusetts, and Tom grew up in Brooklyn, New York – not farm country!

“But I spent a summer when I was 14,” he explains, “working for my uncle on a farm in Leoti, Kansas growing 4000 acres of wheat. That was a big cultural experience for me. I liked the honesty and simplicity of the culture. The big tractors and farm airplane hangars were also kind of exciting and I thought it was cool that my uncle had three hired guys but grew 4000 acres of crops! Also, my folks had a Vermont getaway where I spent my summers. I ended up farming for the Duttons in the Brattleboro area for three years before I went to college — a big, diverse family operation. The diversity piece attracted me.”

Tom went to Evergreen State College in Washington and took about 30 percent of his credits on community scale composting systems. He met Molly there, where she was studying health and wellness. She then took a couple of years of acupuncture school, and is now a mental health therapist with a practice in Hardwick.

Tom has worked in composting for the last 17 or 18 years. For a while he worked for Karl Hammer at Vermont Compost, feeding food scraps to chickens, making compost, and selling eggs and compost products. Then he started a non-profit composting facility with the goal of developing decentralized systems for realizing the value of compostable materials communities already possess.

“I spent 13 years running the High Fields Center for Composting,” he relates. “I don’t have any academic training for this. Most of what I know I just learned by doing it. I started out picking up food waste in the back of a Chevy S10 pickup truck. I had to replace my weak springs every couple of months! Then we went to a 24-foot box truck with a lift gate. We had twice as many containers as we needed, and we took them out empty and swapped them for full ones at grocery stores and restaurants and institutions.

“We had a program,” he continues, “called ‘Close the Loop’ and our mission was to build out these highly decentralized community-scale programs. They would have a farmer who was composting, somebody doing the hauling, trying to create a market for everybody. We worked with all sorts of partners, and had programs all over the state. In Brooklyn or San Francisco you can pick up a lot of material in one city block. But agriculture is often in rural areas and this was our solution to the fact that rural areas are very hard to haul in, economically. So having a scaled down system makes sense.”

Gilbert activates the lever which opens the gate on the tipped trailer and allows food scraps to dump into the bin. The board wall in the foreground can be removed to give the tractor and loader access to the bin.

Gilbert activates the lever which opens the gate on the tipped trailer
and allows food scraps to dump into the bin. The board wall in the foreground
can be removed to give the tractor and loader access to the bin.

One of Tom’s innovations was to take a critical look at the infrastructure and investments made to start up traditional composting companies. He has found ways to replace large specialized dump trucks with small trucks with motorized hoists and dump trailers.

“If you have a specialized truck for this purpose in the city,” he states, “it will cost you $150,000. This whole trailer here we can fabricate for between $20,000 and $25,000. If you buy yourself a used farm truck for another $20,000 you can get into this for $40,000, instead of $150,000.

At its high point High Fields was selling about a thousand yards of compost a year. It was a $700,000 per year organization with 11 employees, relatively stable but growing.

“But,” Tom says, ‘I didn’t set out to be a composter. I’d rather be a homesteader.”

So he resigned and 4 years ago they found 240 acres in Stannard to settle on. It was a diary farm until 1964 when the milk laws changed and the owners decid-ed not to upgrade. After that it was in hay for various dairy farms. When Tom and Molly bought it they were helped by a land trust which had protected the land. Tom worked off the farm the first two years and has been working full time for himself on the farm for two years.

One thing which is important to Gilbert is not to specialize in any one operation or scale it up to overshadow other things he is doing. Since there are usually economies when you scale up, making an adequate income is often harder when you stay small and generalized. To address that, Tom has a plan.

“Our business model,” he says, “is to have a chain of enterprises, each feeding into the next, and each creating a small profit. This way we can maintain our scale and not have to scale one up so that it dominates the others. For both resiliency and personal reasons our goal is to integrate the various operations such that we realize value from each action on the farm that would otherwise not be valued in the market, while at the same time reducing our input costs.”

Picking up food scraps from restaurants and institutions, for instance, is a service for which Tom charges. He then sells many of those scraps to a farmer to feed livestock, and brings the rest to his farm. Those scraps he then feeds to chickens who not only produce eggs, but add manure to the scraps and start it along the path to becoming compost. That compost then can be sold bulk to local growers, or used as feedstock for processing by worms into castings that can be sold. The heat and carbon dioxide given off when making compost, as well as the compost itself, can be used in hoophouses in the winter to grow crops for sale.

The layers have been let into the bin to pick through the food scraps.

The layers have been let into the bin to pick through the food scraps.

Tom is only two years into this plan so different parts of the operation are in different stages, economically.

“We make a profit on the hauling of food scraps,” he says. “Some of that we are using to get other pieces up. The egg piece covers itself at 30 dozen a week, but doesn’t generate net cash income. We sell them at the farm for $4.50, or the co-op charges $4.75 and we get $3.75. But that yields me all the compost the hens have made. If you would be buying compost at $50 a yard for your greenhouse, that starts adding up. We also sell maybe 100 yards a year bulk to neigh-bors and we bag and sell the worm castings.

“We also raise 150 meat birds at $6.00 per pound, 15 turkeys at $5.00, and hay,” he continues, “and log with our horses for custom cut timbers or lumber sold direct to customer at $1.00 per board foot, or for on-farm use. Our birds and horses are rotationally-grazed, with the meat birds following the horses through the pasture. We are setting up to board a small number of horses to use our hay on farm, and therefore retain nutrients and add manure to our system.”

Right now Black Dirt Farm broiler sales fall under the $5000 organic threshold, but they are fed organic grain and Tom plans to certify them when sales in-crease.

“We have a couple of enterprises,” he laughs, “which are our ‘girl scout cookies’. They make this place work financially and provide a secure income — compost pickup, worm castings, and logging in the winter.

“The trouble with logging with horses,” he continues, “is that normally you are competing with people with huge skidders who can pull out ten times what you can in a day. But if we can go direct to the consumer then we can find a small market where people value logging with horses. We want to just cut off of our land. We have 175 acres of woods. We think we can develop a market among timber framers to sell through them to their customers. We think there is a market that will pay more to know where their lumber comes from.”

On Tuesdays Gilbert’s food scrap collection equipment is on the road picking up material. He does about 22 tons a week and of that he delivers about 15 tons to another farm and bring 7 back to Black Dirt Farm. He is working with a couple of other farms right now to deliver to them as well.

The “candy cane” device on the side of the trailer dumps food scrap cans effortlessly.

The “candy cane” device on the side of the trailer dumps food scrap cans effortlessly.

“Most of what we collect, tonnage wise,” he says, “is from 50 or so larger commercial and institutional producers of food, 50% from grocery stores and then hospitals are big and we get stuff from a maple syrup processor – the diatomaceous earth that they use for filtering which is caked with sugar and minerals. They all pay us a fee to pick it up. But we do have 14 to 16 drop off points where residents can drop off their materials. There is one here, on the farm. Resi-dents just stop in the driveway and tip their container in. We also pick up from a recycling center nearby where a hundred families drop their food scraps off. The food scraps brought back to the farm are blended with other materials into a compost mix that we feed our laying hens on.”

The equipment Tom uses is what he developed at High Fields – a truck mounted with a generator, a pressure washer, and a large supply of wash water. The trailer has dump hydraulics also run by the generator, a mechanized garbage can “candy cane” that lifts and dumps the can, and a deck to stand on while run-ning the washer and the hydraulics.

“This is all custom,” explains Gilbert. “You can’t go out and buy this. You can buy the trailer as a 10 yard dump trailer. But we put on the candy cane tipper, the shelf on the back for carrying empties (we also supply sawdust to people for covering their container scraps inside so they don’t stink), the platform for standing on while cleaning out, the water tank and the pressure washer and pump. Once we dump a can we spray it out, that wastewater goes into the load, and we put the can back clean. That way we don’t have to carry around clean cans to exchange, which is a common practice. The water makes for a pretty moist load, though. ”
Tom spent about ten years working on Vermont legislation that passed about three years ago. It is called the Universal Recycling Act and deals with all sorts of materials besides organics. It mandates the recycling of organic material over a seven-year period – phasing in generators from the largest to the smallest. The law has some provisions to encourage recycling. If you are within 25 miles of a composting or recycling facility, for instance, and if you produce over a certain tonnage in waste, then you have to use that facility. The further away the base of operations is the bigger the business, basically. Gilbert says he could grow the hauling side of his business by five times right now as he is the only player in the area.

“Before the Vermont law was in place,” he recalls, “we were finding a way to fight for elbow room in the market. But then we had to price the service the same as trash, because landfilling was a competitive option, and there was zero profit. Most of that hauling was done by municipalities because they didn’t need a profit. But after the law was passed we could get a better price and make a living.

“For the last six or seven years,” he continues, “Vermont has been struggling to achieve regulatory clarity around handling organic materials. They are stuck in a model of having these definitions between solid waste and agriculture that leave a pretty big band of grey right in the middle. The facility I used to run was a composting facility because we didn’t have livestock involved. We had the same nutrient load as I do now. But now we have livestock involved here. So this is a farm operation. But we also deliver food scraps to other operators while we are on the pick-up route. So if they are not feeding these food scraps to livestock they have to be certified as composters.”

The farmer that Tom brings the 15 tons of food scraps to is not feeding it, just making compost. So he has to be a regulated composter. Of course he also farms, milking 60 dairy cows. But he uses that organic material to make compost, which is not agricultural, so he is regulated as a composter. Right now if you sell any compost you make, according to the state, you are regulated as a composter.

photo courtesy Tom Gilbert The worm bin at Black Dirt Farm is being moved to a new building.

photo courtesy Tom Gilbert
The worm bin at Black Dirt Farm is being moved to a new building.

Also, depending on where you are, regulations change. If your town has local zoning in Vermont, there is an opportunity for the town to determine whether your operation is a farm or not if some material is sold. If your town doesn’t have local zoning, then the state applies its zoning regulations. Stannard is a town of 176 people, but it has zoning bylaws, which enable Gilbert to sell some compost and stay a farm!

In feeding food scraps to his chickens, Tom wants to achieve the final compost recipe in the bin while the chickens are eating.

“The thing about composting,” he stresses, “is the microbial growth. We want to get it actively composting while the hens are still eating it. The food scraps have to be blended with other materials to support the biological diversity. To support fungal growth you need more carbohydrates, especially the lignins.”

His recipe requires food scraps, wood chips, hay, horse bedding — which is basically wood chips with horse manure and urine, and sawdust. The sawdust comes in mixed with the food scraps. Gilbert delivers sawdust to the food scrap generators to add to the containers for odor control. For every container there are about 4 inches of sawdust, about a 9 to 1 ratio. The sawdust comes from wood working operations around Stannard. He collects 2 to 4 cubic yards of sawdust a week, getting it free but they do have to pick it up. He used to deliver the sawdust free but thinks now he will need to start charging for it. The wood chips he either buys from a sawmill or gets from municipalities. Their crews can unload town dump trucks right at the farm. The hay and horse bedding come from Black Dirt Farms other operations.

At the end of the daily food scrap route Tom’s truck and trailer come home to the farm and back onto a homemade ramp. Then the driver will tip the load into a bin that Gilbert has prepared with layers of active compost, wood chips, and hay. The chickens forage on this for about a month, receiving a succession of four different weekly batches. The stuff further to the back of the bin has been in it the whole four weeks, so it is in a different microbial phase than the stuff most recently dumped, which is all fresh food scraps.

The hens are excluded from the bin until after the dump, when they are turned in to the bin by opening a gate. A second gate swings open to allow the trailer to dump, and a third allows the tractor to enter to remove the material after a month and to prepare for each new load with a bed of compost, wood chips and hay.

You might think the chickens would prefer fresh food scraps to that which is composting. But you would be wrong!

“The hens actually like the active material in the back of the bin,” reveals Tom. “They like a diversity in their diet, not just the material but the ages of it, too. They spend a ton of time foraging in locations where you don’t see any visible food material. This is mostly microbial and they are not getting maggots. But they are ekeing out whatever is there. An apple is nutritious, but it is mostly water. What we want to do is grow bacteria all over that apple.”

The system Gilbert uses now is all a prototype, not his long term system. They are at 170 hens right now, and the idea is to scale it up to about 2000 hens. He is constantly making changes.

“This bin will have a roof in a few days,” he promises. “We have enough water coming in with the scraps and wash water. We don’t need precipitation in there as well, especially in the winter. The hens don’t like to go out when the snow is deep. Up here we are zone 3, so in January and February things pretty much stop. To make this system work the hens have to work hard then for their diets. We can make it easier with a roof on the bin. The roof will be between the housing and the composting bin too, so they basically won’t have to go outside.

“This system doesn’t really retain the material as long as I would like,” he continues, “so they aren’t getting the full benefit of that fermentation process. It is so dense that the chickens can only forage the surface of that back material, not turn it over. So eventually we will have four bins side by side and be able to work this stuff during the natural fermentation stage. That will let them forage that a lot more.”

Once the food scraps are mixed and fed on by the chickens for a month they are removed and piled to bring them up to the thermophilic seed and pathogen killing temperatures and meet the organic standards. The material is then windrowed so that Tom can sell it as bulk compost or use it himself.

A small amount of the compost, however, once it cools is routed to the worm bins. These are large metal containers to which new batches of compost are added on the surface. The worms come up through the material, digesting it and leaving castings. Once a week a small motor will pull a blade across the bottom and cut off the bottom half inch of castings. Gilbert feeds an inch each week on the top and cuts off a half inch from the bottom.

Tom feels vermicomposting can disable pathogens in ways that are not yet generally recognized.

“Worms have an amazing ability to reduce the pathogen load,” he says, “but that is not recognized by the feds at this point. The slime on a worm, when it comes in contact with E. coli or salmonella or other pathogens, transforms that material by breaking down the pathogen and reinoculating it with beneficial organisms. The worm’s gut works the same way. If you put a worm in a petri dish without any food but inoculate it with salmonella, pretty soon there won’t be any salmonella left. But from a regulatory point of view you can’t be sure that worm has touched every pathogen in the bin so you can’t say the material is pathogen-free.”

Because health regulators don’t recognize the value of this ability Gilbert still has to meet a composting time/temperature requirement just like a chef. He has to get the pile to 131˚ F for sixteen days straight. One regulator that they have to comply with is NOFA –VT itself, which certifies the whole farm except for the eggs, whose feed can’t be certified. Even the worm castings are certified for use on organic farms.

Tom produces about 25 yards of worm castings a year. As one of his operation’s ‘Girl Scout Cookies’ which makes a reliable income, he plans to expand pro-duction of the castings. But he doesn’t make tea from them because it has a shelf life. Bottled compost tea has aerobic organisms in it that need air to live. Water is a reasonable delivery method, he feels, but the microbes won’t survive in water longer than about 3 days.

He is very proud of the worm compost he makes.

“Our homemade mix with the castings,” he says, “when compared it to the commercial ones, typically give at least three days faster germination. It encourages cell division, cell elongation and root elongation. In terms of organic nutrients, generally castings have a high nitrogen content and a lot of soluble nitrogen. So that is a good thing for organic growers. That is a hard thing to achieve organically.

“But probably the hormones and enzymes in the castings,” he continues, “are the most intriguing part of them. The Plant Growth Promoting Hormones are very relevant from a container media point of view. I think eventually we will be able to grow out specific organisms that prevent specific plant diseases, rather than just use the buckshot approach we have now. Trichoderma is a fungus that kills Rhizoctonia, for instance. It grows on hardwood bark, so we could grow it. But we don’t yet know at what concentrations you need that in your compost.“

One of the nice things about worms is that you can use them to make compost without fossil fuels for turning equipment. If you go to Mexico or Ecuador or Cuba, where people don’t have easy access to power and equipment, it is a good strategy to use worms.

“In Central and South America,” Gilbert adds, “where vermiculture is a pretty big thing, and you typically have more human labor than you do capital for equipment, they don’t turn and cause the material to heat up and kill seeds. The labor used to weed because of those seeds is not as much of a significant cost there as here.”

Right now Tom is trying to get to a point where he uses the compost he makes to grow produce and sell it, plus eggs, back to the same groups he picks up food scraps from, but he’s not there yet.

“We are putting the greenhouse up now,” he explains. “That will help in the short term until we stabilize everything. We’ll just focus on cucumbers and to-matoes right away. But our goal is to build out a whole gang of greenhouses. If we could serve the April-May market with tomatoes we’d be thrilled. We don’t really want to be coming into a flooded market in July.”

The greenhouse he is building will be heated with heat from the composting process, and topped off with wood heat on colder nights.

“Like grain going into your hens,” he says, “which is 70% of the cost, for greenhouse production it is heat which is the limiting factor. The idea with the greenhouse is that on the north end we will build a compost bin with a recessed floor and air channels in the floor. We will be able to pull air through the pile with a fan and draw it through a bin of wood chips. The wood chips will scrub out the ammonia from the compost but not absorb the carbon dioxide. Then ducts will deliver the carbon dioxide and warm air to the plants. Right now the plan is to build a small hoophouse within the north end of the greenhouse.

“When I was at High Fields,” he continues, “we were trying to work out the details of engineering how big the bins have to be to heat how much of a green-house. There are so many variables, but we should be able to handle 25 to 30 yards of food waste there.”

Gilbert’s years of experience handling food waste have given him a well developed consciousness of the amount of this material which is available.

What a wealth of community resources we are all sitting on,” he sighs. “What an irony that we send most of that carbon into the atmosphere to make the idea of life on earth more difficult! We’re sitting on enough food scraps in Vermont – a small community of 640,000 people – that if we were to capture it instead of throwing it in the landfill we could grow about 20,000 acres of mixed vegetables organically. That would feed about 450,000 residents. So the contribution of this material to the food sovereignty of any community is pretty significant!”

Before he went to college, Tom says, he thought he’d go into wilderness education. But he’d always been involved in social activism, too. When he went to Evergreen he realized that farming is one of many doors that lead to social change.

Worm Farming for the Community a Group Effort to Reduce Food Waste and ‘Close The Loop’

Kaylin and Food Know How community composting program cargo cycle volunteer

Kaylin and Food Know How community composting program cargo cycle volunteer

The benefits both worm castings and compost add to the vitality of our soils is well documented, as is the effectiveness of these methods in processing food waste and reducing landfill. More and more composting practices are being adopted by homeowners, businesses and even written into policy by local govern-ment, but implementing effective programs and engaging a whole community continues to be a challenge. How do you change people’s perceptions and be-haviors around waste? And how do we increase our ability to grow food in ever expanding urban environments? These are the two interconnected challenges that resulted in the “Food Know How” program, a community composting and food waste reduction initiative I helped coordinate during my two years living in Melbourne, Australia. The initiative was developed by a local non profit, Cultivating Community and the City of Yarra council, among other partners. The program aspired to engage 500 residents, 32 businesses and 3 offices in various composting activities that would ultimately provide compost and worm castings to the community. The idea was to ‘close the loop’, using an extremely abundant local resource (food waste) to give fertility to the soil and increase urban res-idents’ ability to provide their own food.

The program was designed to test different composting strategies including food waste collection, large scale composting, worm farming and residential com-posting at home. I came on board as the cafes coordinator to work with local cafes and restaurants and eventually developed a bicycle based food waste collec-tion.

All the compost and worm castings produced were given away for free to local public housing community gardens, some of which housed smaller compost ‘hubs’ where the food was recycled. In many instances the cafes would be within sight of the hub where their food waste was composted or worm-composted and then used to grow vegetables by lower income gardeners.

The program was funded by local and state government grants and run largely on volunteer support, with a few key part time employees. All compost systems, including our worm farms, were fed with food waste delivered from local cafes by cargo bicycle along with waste carbon sources such as non toxic sawdust, coffee chaff and autumn street leaves. The bikes were custom built to carry ‘mini’ 60 liter trash bins and volunteers committed to at least 2 hours per week to collect food scraps and cycle them to a composting site. As the program gained popularity we developed into a full service for 30 cafes with bicycle collections running 7 days per week and diverting over a ton of food waste each week from landfill.

Each café that joined the program was given a bin and also training on what was appropriate to throw in the compost bin and how to get staff settled in to the program. The initial program was a free service. As with any behavior-change program some participants were eager early adopters, very engaged and responded well to feedback while others took longer to comply with the rules and fully participate.

Food Know How Hub at Public Housing Community Garden

Food Know How Hub at Public Housing Community Garden

We developed a total of 6 composting ‘hubs’, including an open compost windrow, which was turned with a small bobcat, and a worm farm with an initial stock of about 400,000 worms. Forty 240 liter Council trash bins were repurposed as worm farms and retrofitted with a false floor, ventilation outlets and a drainage outlet. Trash bins were selected for building the worm ‘hub’ as a cost effective rodent-proof system that utilized local recycled materials and enabled flexibility for future relocation or reconfiguration. The bins were set in three rows in a shady corner of a large community garden. The area was surface mulched with wood chips that acted as a biofilter to absorb and process leachate from the bins. Somewhat regrettably, in hindsight, we allowed most of the liq-uid worm juice, or leachate, to drain directly into the ground. Fortunately the area was later used as garden beds and had excellent soil! The bins were a con-tinuous system, fed from the top and harvested through an outlet near the bottom. We initially stocked each bin with worms from a local supplier and used a bedding mix of coconut coir fiber and compost to get the worms settled into their new homes. The bins were initially stocked with approximately 4000 (1kg) compost worms, however this was increased to 10,000 (2.5 kg) to accelerate processing power after initially low feeding rates were observed.

The worm farm was our most interesting ‘hub,’ providing some of our greatest learning opportunities. Initially the challenge was balancing the ‘quality’ and quantity of food waste we were receiving from the cafes via the bicycle collection system. Our compost windrow was large enough that we could throw mostly anything into it, including bread, cooked foods, citrus and coffee grounds without really throwing anything out of balance. Meat products were the only items strictly restricted from all compost systems. We had some difficulty, however, adapting the collection system specifically for worms. We couldn’t always pre-dict the quantity and types of food waste we would receive on any given day from the cafes. Some foods, such as coffee grounds and orange peels, we had par-ticular problems with. When other more palatable foods were available the worms would leave all citrus, cooked foods and grains, which would mold and rot, causing issues with odor and flies. We found it difficult to get participating businesses to give a variety of high quality ‘worm food’, ideally a mix of only fruit and vegetable scraps. Often we had bins completely full of stale bread, which was inappropriate as a feedstock for the worms and would have to be re-collected and sent to our composting site. In an attempt to rectify this I did extensive training with certain cafes designated as ‘worm cafes’. As the program grew, how-ever, it became apparent having too many ‘don’ts’ for the collection bucket became very confusing for the cafe staff and resulted in lower compliance and re-duced food waste collection rates. Eventually whole loaves of bread were the only item besides meat products banned from the collection, which was simple for the cafés to comply with and solved a large portion of our problems.

As a solution for dealing with undesirable feed and overflow we used a combination of a commercial Bokashi composting bin and thermophilic composting on site with the worm farm. Bokashi is a method of breaking down food to prepare it for composting, or burying in the soil. It involves inoculating the bin with anaerobic bacteria in the form of a grain, which essentially ‘pickles’ the food. Liquid is released through the bottom of the bin (which could be diluted and used as a fertilizer) and the food material stays in a stable condition until composted, buried or fed to the worms. We found worms would even eat some undesirable foods once they had been through the Bokashi process. These alternate systems were generally used for items such as excessive coffee grounds (which upset the pH of the worm farms when added in large quantities), grains, citrus and onions which the worms tended to leave behind.

The compost on site also acted as an essential overflow. One of the key problems was balancing the flow of food to the worms, giving them enough to eat but not so much that the food would spoil before they reached it, making it unappetizing to the worms and also causing issues with odor and flies. Before the op-tion of compost overflow was available the worm hub volunteers had to either overfeed the worms or leave the collected food waste sitting for days in the bin, neither a good option (or one appreciated by our neighbors!). We found in-vessel composting units such as the 400 liter Aerobin were best to prevent pests such as rats and birds getting in the compost, which was a big concern of the council and surrounding neighbors.

Of all our compost hubs the worms produced the highest quality product, but also required the most effort and care. To keep the worms in good health volun-teers would feed, water and aerate each bin by turning lightly with a corkscrew compost turner. Food waste was shoveled into the bins four times per week, and covered with bedding and a hessian bag to prevent vinegar flies and encourage feeding. The opening of the bins being 3-4 feet above ground caused problems here as the food waste was often heavy and difficult to maneuver on a shovel, this turned out to be a major design flaw of the system. Volunteers also added carbon, kept moisture content between 70 and 90%, pH between 6.5 and 7.5 and checked for pests, flies, smells and excess food. We had a lot of interest from volunteers to work with the worms and learn the art of worm farming for their own household gardens or perhaps to take it on a larger scale for a community garden or school garden. We relied heavily on this volunteer interest, especially during the summer months when the bins would have to be misted with cool water on a regular basis. We also provided worms to local school gardens and gave tours of the site to groups that were interested in starting worm operations.

As the program was essentially a pilot to test different community composting systems we compared each system and looked at the pros and cons of each. Looking at the entire program worm farming had several benefits, but also caused some challenges. The system has relatively low upfront costs and provided several valuable products including compost worms and worm castings. The worm farm was a definitive second, however, in terms of usefulness as a café food waste collection hub. Because of the variable quantities and types of foods coming from the cafes the larger compost windrow was much more efficient han-dling this particular feedstock. The worm farm would have functioned better with a more predictable and standardized feed. The worm farm also was slow to get running to capacity. Eventually the 40 worm farms were processing about 475 kg of food waste weekly, however it took more than six months to reach this level, while the compost windrow was running at capacity within the first few weeks. The worms were an excellent tool for engaging the local community in the program including students, local gardening group and the general public. Gardeners receiving the worm castings were ecstatic and generally preferred the castings to regular compost. The compost tended to be more variable in moisture content and pH while the worm castings provided a generally homogenous high quality product that could be added directly to the soil without additional preparation or resting.

Given the chance to run the program again I would have designed a tandem system using both worms and a composting windrow. Given the space, I would advise an operation with a compost windrow that handled all the ‘in-take’ for all the food waste. The worm farm would then be a ground level protected wind-row with drainage and cover that was fed the partially composted materials. Alternately I would recommend the use of the Hungry bin worm farm, a continu-ous bin system we had success with at other locations. A tandem system allowing for pre-composting would address several of our major problems, including food flow to the worms, homogeneity of the feed and reduction of food rotting or being rejected by the worms while providing a consistent high quality output of castings.

The Food Know How program was a great success, and an excellent learning opportunity. We engaged over 30 businesses in the cafes program and reduced their overall food waste sent to landfill by about 60%. Our waste audits over time showed the cafes increased recovery rates with ongoing engagement and edu-cation and eventually changed their behaviors around food waste. Although funding for the program ended in 2014 the goal is to turn the food waste collection into a social enterprise that would charge the cafes a fee for collection and eventually compensate the volunteer cyclers for their time with wages. After two years I decided to return to my home state and am now a founding member of the newly established Rhody Worms Cooperative, working towards making small and medium scale worm farming a viable business opportunity in Rhode Island.

Earthworms for Medicine and the Environment

In Chinese traditions the Earthworm is a respected remedy that continues to be employed to this day. Powdered, liquefied or made into an ash (depending on the prescription), the remedy is sourced from two species of worm: Pheretima aspergillum, (family Megascolecidae) and Allolobophora caliginosa trapezoides (family Lumbricidae). Clinically, worm remedies are considered useful for feverish disorders (malaria, typhoid, childhood fevers). They possess anticonvulsant and analgesic properties useful for treating seizures, rheumatic pain and the after-effects of stroke (hemiplegia). Earthworm has been a specific for disorders classified as ‘true heat’ conditions, and its use is contraindicated when these characteristics are not present. Experimentally, Di Long has demonstrated sedative and hypotensive properties. It has been used clinically for the treatment of essential hypertension – with a good rate of success (90%). Its vasodilatory activity was attributed to an effect on the central nervous system (Bensky & Gamble 1986; Yeung 1985).

Its traditional use is supported by studies showing the Earthworm has diuretic, antispasmodic, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties (Cooper & Bal-amurugan 2010). In India, Earthworms have been equally valued as an antiulcer, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory remedy. Investigations of an ‘earthworm paste’ made from Lampito mauritii demonstrated activity comparable to the anti-ulcer drug ranitidine in animal studies (Prakash & Rangansthan 2007). Other investigations of anti-inflammatory, febrifugal, liver-protective (hepatoprotective) and liver-restorative properties of earthworm paste (sourced from Lampito mauritii and Perionyx excavatus) are equally significant. Earthworms are rich in phenolic compounds, which doubtless contribute to their pharmacological properties (Cooper & Balamurugan 2010; Balamurugan 2008, 2009, 2007; Prakash 2008; Ismail 1992).

27burrow-of-a-common-earthwormThe earthworm Lumbricus rubellus contains a rather interesting proteolytic enzyme complex named lumbrokinase. Even in the 1880s Charles Darwin had ob-served the Earthworm’s remarkable digestive capacity, which he compared to the pancreatic secretions in humans: “The digestive fluid of worms is of the same nature as the pancreatic secretions of the higher animals; and this conclusion agrees perfectly with the kinds of food which worms consume. Pancreatic juice emulsifies fat, and we have just seen how greedily worms devour fat: it dissolves fibrin, and worms eat raw meat; it converts starch into grape-sugar with won-derful rapidity, and we shall presently show that the digestive fluid of worms acts on starch.”

Lumbrokinase has experimental anti-thrombotic properties and has been investigated clinically for the treatment of angina pectoris (Kasim 2009; Ge 2005; Zhao 2005; Kim 1998; Hahn 1997; Mihara 1991). This means that lumbrokinase can decrease fibrinogen in the blood, thereby reducing blood viscosity and platelet aggregation – which reduces the tendency of the blood to clot. The body’s coagulation system is very finely tuned and, interestingly, lumbrokinase does not appear to upset the balance, rather it acts to restore normal coagulation parameters (Cooper & Balamurugan 2010). Its use did not have the side-effects (no-tably bleeding) that have been associated with other drugs such as streptokinase and urokinase (Cooper 2004b). There are also suggestions that some fibrinolytic (fibrin-dissolving and clot-preventative) molecules have useful antimicrobial potential. This is of interest because an antimicrobial peptide, lumbricin I, from Earthworm extracts has demonstrated a broad spectrum of activity against fungi, gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria (Cho 1998).

Certainly, the research tends to support many of the traditional recommendations for the use of Di Long in conditions such as stroke, limb numbness and hemiplegia. It appears that Earthworm enzymes may have medicinal qualities that could be utilized in the treatment of a greater range of ischaemic problems (loss of blood supply) including cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and eye disorders, pulmonary infarction and hearing loss – as well as some forms of cancer. Ex-tracts of the earthworm Eisenia fetida have shown anti-tumor activity in various cancer cell lines and animal studies. Earthworm components (particularly lombricine and eisenin I) have experimental cancer inhibitory and retardant activities. There are numerous other conditions associated with blood clotting (hy-percoaguability) that tend to suggest the therapeutic value of this remedy could be substantially more extensive (Cooper & Balamurugan 2010; Yan 2010; Cheng 2008; Ji 2008; Sun 2006; Zhao 2005; Cooper 2004a, 2004b; Hrzenjak 1998; Ryu 1994). Even so, a lot of work remains to be done to determine the true value of the humble Earthworm.

Despite the fact that there have been numerous advances in understanding this small, crawling denizen of the earth, even today many do not truly appreciate the role the Earthworm has played in producing and maintaining the planet’s basic organic structure. Soils are hard to develop – for every couple of centimeters of soil, 1000 years of climatic weathering and organic decomposition have passed. Earthworms make a huge difference to soil quality, opening avenues for the access and distribution of nutrients and oxygen. Truly, the work of a worm is never done.

Ecotoxicology is a new aspect of earthworm biology which studies them as indicators of soil quality and, consequently, for the detection of toxic residues. Pes-ticides and herbicides affect earthworms directly, quickly influencing their ability to reproduce and survive. The number and viability of egg cocoons is a sensi-tive measure of the quality of life underground. Even the membrane of the worm blood cell can be used as a sensitive indicator of chemical stress. Earthworm burrowing habits can promote the clean-up of contaminated land sites, by allowing beneficial compounds to detoxify the soil. With over 3000 species of earth-worm, some have unique adaptive skills – such as the large blue earthworms of the northern Queensland tropics, or the Giant Gippsland Earthworm that grows up to 4 meters long.

Red Beauties

In Mrs. Prunier’s class of fifth graders, magic is happening. On her desk is what we like to call a “black gold” factory. The employees in this factory aren’t hu-mans; they’re worms, Red Wiggler worms.

Black gold is another name for compost. Compost is gold, for the plants. These “employees” have a very important job, making compost. In order for the pro-cess to be successful, the fifth grade is checking on them and feeding them daily in their comfortable worm bin also known as the luxury apartment.

Fifth grade students show their worm composting results!

Fifth grade students show their worm composting results!

Our worms love living in their luxury apartments. Once their old level fills up with gold we have to put some food in the next level so that they move up to the next level and make more compost. If you don’t move them up they can get stuck in all the castings (compost). The bin has 5 levels. As soon as all the worms move up we clean out the compost so we can use the bin again and the compost for your plants. The floor of each level have grids so the worms can climb through the holes.

You might find the worms in thick clumps in your bin. Not to worry, this is normal living conditions for Red Wiggler worms. You may find the compost starting to build up around the bin. Sometimes, if the worms are failing to move upwards, it may mean that they waited too long to move and now there is too much compost. This problem can be fixed as easily as moving them yourself, but be careful! Worms are very sensitive to human skin. The oil on our skin is toxic to them if held too long.

Our Red Wiggler worms are not particularly picky about their food. They don’t necessarily eat, they grind and decompose. They don’t have teeth, eyes or noses either. They have gizzards to grind the food we give them. We give them apple cores, cucumbers, banana peels, lettuce and newspaper that they turn into our black gold. Once we have enough compost we make Compost Tea which is a 1:6 ratio, one cup of compost to 6 cups of water. Now the magic continues when we water our plants and watch them grow! With our information, we hope you will start your own black gold factory!