From their website:
After many years of selling earthworms, we have decided to stop selling them. We promoted vermicomposting as a way for people to compost if they did not have room for a backyard compost pile or a collection service was not available. We are happy to see that collection services are now available to everyone. We think the easiest, most effective way to reach zero-waste is to have your compostables collected and composted by a professional company.
More on the decision of the Boulder Compost folks to stop selling earthworms.
I am of two minds about this.
On the one hand, scale often leads to efficiency, and composting is no different than other businesses in that. And I sympathize with Eric; separating worms for sale is tedious even with the appropriate equipment.
On the other hand, worm composting is one of the ways to re-connect yourself to biological processes that folks in the USA (especially in cities) have become more and more removed from. (Gardening is another.) And I would argue that having trucks cart compostables around is less sustainable than small, on-your-patio worm composting.
Best of luck to Boulder Compost as they pursue a different path.
February 21st, 2009
I am always looking for feedstock for my worms. While it’s great to feed them all of my food scraps, I also enjoy taking the others’ “trash” out of the wastestream. This is especially true if the waste I’m removing is good for my worms. As a case in point, coffee grounds are a great feedstock: “coffee grounds are excellent, as they are high in N, not greasy or smelly, and are attractive to worms” (link to pdf).
If you don’t drink that much coffee, these grounds typically free from coffee shops. I don’t typically haunt coffee houses, but I’ve walked in and asked at four different shops now, and gotten a positive response. How I got the grounds varied. In one Starbucks, I found a bucket with bags of grounds all wrapped up nice.
Starbucks coffee grounds
Starbucks coffee grounds bags
Another Starbucks just gave me a garbage bag full of grounds. I went to a independent coffee shop in the morning. I left a five gallon bucket with my name an number on it and was able to pick up 4.5 gallons of coffee grounds later that day.
The worms haven’t had any trouble with the grounds. As a matter of fact, the grounds disappeared into the worm bedding fairly quickly.
If you’re looking for something else to feed your worms, and have easy access to a coffee shop, consider asking them for their used grounds.
February 17th, 2009
As I mentioned before, there is an upcoming one day conference in Illinois. It looks like it will be one day long and will cover basics of composting as well. Very reasonably priced ($15-$60, depending on when you register and what activities you take part in), if you’re in driving distance. Conference content includes:
Keynote Speaker, Dan Holcombe, President and Founder of the Oregon Soil Corporation, with over 20 years of composting experience of small to large scale projects.
and a “Build Your Own Bin” program. More details.
I think these mini conferences are great. Does anyone know of one of these in Colorado?
Speaking of conferences, I also looked into the US Composting Council conference (in Houston during late January this year), after I read a great interview by the folks over at Redworm Composting. It seems more in line with other professional conferences I’ve attended, at least in terms of conference registration fees. However, I didn’t see much about vermicomposting (one entry, “Technical and Financial Viability of Compost and Vermicompost from Swine Manure”, in the program).
December 24th, 2008
I had the good fortune to interview Dan Matsch, who works at Eco-Cycle here in Boulder. They sell compost tea made from worm castings, and he and I had a great conversation ranging in topic from the benefits of compost tea to his experiences in home worm keeping to where Eco-Cycle gets feedstock for the worms. The entire interview is below.
Dan Moore: What is your position at Eco-Cycle?
Dan Matsch: Manager, Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials (CHaRM) and Compost Dept.
Moore: How long have you been involved with vermiculture?
Matsch: ~20 years personally and professionally.
Moore: Do you care to elaborate on your 20 years of experience–that’s a long time!
Matsch: Prior to my career at Eco-Cycle I was an organic vegetable farmer for 13 years and always had a variety of vermicomposting projects going, mostly using the castings as part of a potting mix for my greenhouse transplants. And I’ve kept worms for my kitchen scraps at home for many years.
Moore: Are there any special challenges to vermicomposting in the Colorado area, as opposed to other parts of the country? Or is it all pretty much the same?
Matsch: Worms like 70 degrees F, high humidity within their living media and darkness. That doesn’t exactly describe Colorado’s climate, but the worms are native to a large part of North America including Colorado. They can fend for themselves in their native environment, but if you constrain them to a box and expect them to eat and reproduce at a certain level year-round, you have to monitor their habitat very closely. That’s why I always recommend to backyard composters that they use or build a bottomless worm bin that sits on top of – or better yet, is built into the ground. If the worms can escape adverse conditions by burrowing down, their survival and your success as a vermicomposter increases greatly.
Moore: Do you have any advice for small scale worm keepers?
Matsch: Keep them in the ground [as mentioned above].
Moore: Do you still keep worms at home?
Matsch: Yes, we have a 4’x8’ concrete block lined worm bed built into the ground in our back yard that produces about a cubic yard of castings every spring.
Moore: What has been your greatest success?
Matsch: Our Eco-Cycle high-tech compost tea worm farm is very fun, but I think the greatest reward is creating a closed-loop nutrient cycle at home because it’s so tangible. All our organic waste from kitchen scraps to yard waste go to the worms (the yard waste gets ground up first in a shredder). The worms and all the associated organisms break it down into castings, and that becomes the fertilizer for our gardens, which grow most of our food.
Moore: What kind of worms are used to create the compost tea?
Matsch: Eisenia Fetida.
Moore: How many worms?
Matsch: Our capacity is for about 150 lbs.
Moore: Is Eco-Cycle’s compost tea operation profitable?
Matsch: It’s within the realm of Eco-Cycle’s model of ‘cost + 10%’; however, we are doing it to raise awareness that food waste is a liability in the landfill, while a valuable soil amendment when composted or used to make high-value soil amendments like compost tea.
Moore: Where is [the tea] sold?
Matsch: Boulder Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, Eco-Cycle CHaRM on Wednesdays, April through September.
Moore: What kind of equipment is used to house the worms?
Matsch: We have a ‘flow-through worm digester’ that harvests castings from the bottom of their space, and we have a fiberglass worm farm that was originally manufactured by one of those ‘get rich quick growing worms’ scams that actually works quite well.
Another View of the Eco-Cycle Worm Digester
Eco-Cycle Worm Digester
Eco-Cycle Worm Incubator
Moore: What kind of processing is needed to create the tea?
Matsch: Castings from the digester are ready to go with a turn of the harvest wheel; castings from the fiberglass farm must be hand-harvested, then screened, then formed into a cone in bright light to drive remaining worms to the bottom and slowly harvest castings from the sides. The brewing itself is much like brewing a pot of tea, except the water temperature is 70 degrees and the process is 24 hours. A better analogy of what is really happening, though, is a Petri dish: favorable conditions are made for the beneficial soil microbes, already in abundance in worm castings, to reproduce millions of times over in the water culture. So you are literally pouring microbes onto your soil when applying the tea.
Moore: How much tea is produced weekly?
Matsch: Currently we can brew 125 gallons twice a week, though we may expand by next season.
Moore: What are the benefits to the tea?
Matsch: The tea builds the population of beneficial soil microbes once applied. This improves a plant’s ability to uptake nutrients, since nutrients are exchanged by microbes at a plant’s root hairs. So with more microbes in the soil, more nutrients are exchanged with the root hairs.
Moore: Are you aware of any scientific studies testing the benefits?
Matsch: As with most organic soil amendments, funds for studies through land grant universities are very limited. The previous statement about the benefits is simple logic but has been confirmed at a basic level by Dr. Clive Edwards and his colleagues at Ohio State University. Beyond that, most studies I’ve read focus on whether tea can function effectively against various common plant diseases. Steve Scheuerell and Walter Mahaffee of Oregon State University conducted a literature review in 2002 called, “Compost Tea: Principles and Prospects for Plant Disease Control” which is widely quoted. They have since published several other reports.
As with compost, though, I think it’s difficult to understand what is happening with compost tea through the scientific method of reduction. Tea is not a fungicide. It works in several ways to outcompete leaf-borne disease organisms for food or space on the leaf surface, and it works to bolster a plant immune system. Like studies done on holistic medicine, applying scientific technique to the study of a specific disease creates many variables and therefore variable results. It’s like the old story about 10 different people getting drastically different results examining parts of an elephant in the dark.
Our own greenhouse trials have focused on how compost tea affects seedling plant growth. Control and test are always comparable until some kind of stress is introduced. Then it is quite clear that the test plants have a stronger immune system that powers through the stress with less – if any – check in growth.
Moore: What happens to the vermicompost after tea is made?
Matsch: It is still inoculated with soil microbes, so we let excess moisture evaporate for a week or so, aerate it, and mix it with worm food the next time we feed.
Moore: I’m curious about that, as it seems you’d just accumulate more and more vermicompost/castings, and eventually you’d need to clean out the digester and worm farm. Eventually, you end up with a mass of castings, don’t you? What happens to that?
Matsch: The baskets that hold the castings in the brewer are about 1/3 full after the tea is brewed, so a majority of the castings dissolve into the tea. Eventually we will produce a surplus of castings as the worm population maximizes, but both our worm farms get harvested pretty heavily during tea season and the boxes don’t have a lot in them by fall.
Moore: How much waste goes into the process?
Matsch: Theoretically the worms should be able to process half their weight daily. In reality, they are eating about 250 lbs per week.
Moore: What type of waste is it?
Matsch: Half food waste, half crushed dried leaves by volume. For the most part, it is organic vegetable kitchen scrap, but we give the worms a mixed diet. They have had a lot of apples this fall from a program in Boulder that picks up fallen apples from people’s yards to try to mitigate their attractiveness to bears.
Moore: How is waste collected, and from where?
Matsch: I either cherry pick from some of our Zero Waste Services restaurant or grocery store customers, or from material brought to our food waste drop-off at the CHaRM. We have some people bringing clean vegetative food waste specifically for the worms now…they may need their own collection dumpster soon!
Moore: What is the long term sustainability of people driving to drop food off for the ecocycle worm composters? Where does home vermicomposting fit into this picture (if at all)?
Matsch: Backyard composting is by far the most efficient way to handle organic waste – meaning kitchen and yard waste – and I strongly believe that worm composting is the best fit for the vast majority of people who want to backyard compost. Curbside collection of organics for commercial composting is the second-most efficient. The City of Boulder is slowly rolling that out for their residents, it’s an option for unincorporated county residents, and Eco-Cycle has collections for our commercial customers. But that doesn’t cover everybody, and not everybody can backyard compost. So a variety of solutions is necessary to keep organics out of the landfill.
December 21st, 2008
The answer is ‘yes, but.’ I’ve put a variety of meat in my bin a number of times. The type of meats I’ve put in include raw fat I’ve cut from pork chops, uncooked off ribs, cooked chicken skin, gristle and bones, and an entire set of turkey bones from Thanksgiving (after I’d made soup from them, of course).
There are a number of items to consider when putting meat in your worm bin.
- Is your bin secure from animals (fox/rats/raccoons/bears) that might be attracted to rotting meat?
- Do you have enough volume in your bin that the meat can rest undisturbed for weeks?
- Will bones in vermicompost be OK?
- Are you willing to take some risk of pathogen transmission if you place vermicompost or castings on food crops?
If the answer to all of the above is ‘yes’, then you can definitely bury meat in your bin. I like to dig it in at least twice as deep as I bury vegetable wastes. This way I’m less likely to encounter it when adding other waste. If I’m digging in my bin and start to smell something foul, I just cover it with some bedding and try someplace else. I’m not sure about the pathogen transmission (I probably should submit some castings to a microbiology lab for more information). If I was using this vermicompost for a lot of food production, I would also be concerned about possible pathogen transmission (I do use my vermicompost directly on food plants, but not all that often).
I asked the question of the_worm_bin and got back much the same information as I’d discovered through trial and error. One response cautioned against putting meat in an indoor bin due to the smell, and another cautioned against putting too much meat (or any uncooked meat). I did some searching on protein poisoning (which applies in general to too much protein, whether or not that protein comes from meat) and found this information:
This “disease” is actually the result of too much protein in the bedding. This happens when the worms are overfed. Protein builds up in the bedding and produces acids and gases as it decays (Gaddie, op. cit.). According to Ruth Myers (1969): “when you see a worm with a swollen clitellum or see one crawling aimlessly around on top of the bedding, you can just bet on sour crop and act accordingly, but fast”. Her recommended solution is a “massive dose of one of the mycins, such as farmers give to chicken or cattle”. Farmers wishing to avoid these or similar antibiotics should work to prevent sour crop by not overfeeding and by monitoring and adjusting pH on a regular basis. Keeping the pH at neutral or above will preclude the need for these measures.
To sum up, meat can be added to worm bins, but it is not a no brainer like most vegetable waste is. You need to consider how much meat you’ve added and what protections the worms have from outside predators, as well as smells and bones in vermicompost.
November 22nd, 2008
Updated: Here’s the website announcement of this workshop.
Transition Boulder County is having a vermiculture workshop next week. From emails (I couldn’t find an announcment on the web):
- Cost: $25 (includes worms)
- Where: 4500 19th Street in the Boulder Meadows Community Room.
- When: Nov 13th, 7-9 pm.
- RSVP: Call 303-494-1521, or email email@example.com.
Winter is coming and your hot compost pile will soon be slowing down. Hit the ground running by participating in this hands-on workshop, building your own worm bin from scratch. Learn the many benefits of indoor composting with worms.
At the end of the evening, you will have everything you need (including a supply of worms) to begin composting your kitchen scraps and turning them into rich, loamy amendment for your spring garden and potted plants.
Please register early, as class size is limited! Registration $25. Call 303-494-1521, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
November 8th, 2008
Worm Digest is an online collection of useful and not so useful articles about earthworms. The useful articles include one about a Worm Guy in WA and a young persons’ guide to vermicomposting. There are less useful articles (from a worm perspective) like Soil Improvement with Organic Materials. I’m guessing that the owners of Worm Digest grab any articles that relate to worms and post it, though it does seem to have been a while since an update (the last update I saw was Mar 2008). Also, note that the user interface is slightly confusing–all the content above the fold is taken up with navigation, including newest and most popular article listings.
However, the Worm Digest forums are useful and active, with a number of postings covering issues from what junk mail plastic does to worm castings to whether pond water is a useful addition to worm tea (the verdict is still out).
November 2nd, 2008
One of the great resources I’ve found on the internet for wormkeeping is a Yahoo! Groups mailing list. I looked around, and it was clear that the_worm_bin was the most active (95 messages in September 2008) and had the most members of any mailing list I could find (920). the_worm_bin also has a searchable archive of almost 10,000 messages (available to everyone).
There are also links and useful files, but I think the real value is in the conversations going on. Some recent subjects of discussion include “air travel with worms”, “harvesting methods” and “bin sizes”. I recently asked whether it was alright to put meat in a worm bin and received a number of responses. (The answer, in case you’re wondering is, ‘yes, as long as you make sure the scraps are covered, watch out for wild animals, and don’t overload the bin’.)
Membership is free, but must be approved by a moderator. So, if you are having a worm emergency, you’ll have to wait to post until the moderator approves you.
I joined the group recently and found it to be relatively low traffic and high in information. One of the great things about being a wormkeeper is that it is so easy to experiment, and this group makes it easy to share that, and benefit from other’s experience. (If you join and have a question to ask, please make sure you ask that question the smart way.)
October 14th, 2008
A worm bin for a residence is typically a small bin (typically wood or plastic–there are a lot of plans out there to be had). After all, 1 pound of worms eat 1/2 pound of garbage a day, so you don’t need a lot of room. Also, having a small bin makes it easier to have the worms inside; this is necessary if you ever get cold weather.
I tried living with a 2 foot by 2 foot wood bin, but found that an open bottom compost bin is a better fit for my lifestyle. Here are pictures of my worm ‘bin’:
- No need to bring worms inside when it gets cold. They can migrate to the ground and find warmth. This past winter, temperatures were as low as 1 degree (F) (found via the wunderground weather history site) and my worms survived.
- Lots of worms–I’m able to give out quarts of worms/vermicompost mixture to friends.
- Easy to maintain–I’ve never needed to replace the bedding, I just add more on top and take compost from the bottom.
- Large volume will hide smelly wastes (meats, dairy, etc) deep in the pile, and also can accept tremendous amounts of food waste.
- Harder to get to, especially in the winter. It’s only 10 feet from my door, but it is still outside.
- Animals have easier access–I haven’t had trouble, but I might in a rural area with raccoons, etc.
- Have to find and store more bedding material–this last year I’ve worked through 90 gallons of leaves, 60 gallons of yard waste, and 30 gallons of mulch.
- Need to have access to ground–this wouldn’t work so well on a balcony.
- Not maximizing production of quality worms–my worms aren’t easy to harvest.
I use a post hole digger that I picked up at a garage sale to dig a hole in the bedding when I have anything to put in it.
September 5th, 2008
I remember strolling through a used bookstore and picking up a copy of ‘Worms Eat My Garbage’, by Mary Appelhoff, about 3 years ago. I think that sparked my interest in keeping worms. From there, I built a 2×2 worm box with a friend (who had power tools, thank goodness), and I have been keeping worms in one form or another ever since.
I think worms appeal to me because they were more interesting than a mere compost pile (as well as more mobile, a consideration for a renter), but very low commitment. Also, removing organic matter from landfills is an easy way to help the environment.
After building that worm box, I ordered worms from Mary’s company–1 pound was plenty. I tried to find them locally, but the suggestions in her book (sports stores, gardening centers) didn’t have any redworms.
The worms arrived in a small cardboard box via the mail one day. I dumped them into the box with some shredded paper for bedding. I was living in a basement apartment and had plenty of room. I placed food scraps in the box and never noticed it smelling. This continued for about a year, and then I moved to a garden level condo that was a bit less roomy. I kept the box in the condo until both my girlfriend and a friend who visited commented on the odor. As I remember it, the place did smell a bit citrusy (I was on an orange kick at the time).
So, I moved the box outside. This worked fine until winter. The box was uninsulated (just covered with a black plastic sheet), but as long as the temps didn’t get too low, the worms seemed fine (they heated up in the sun, and hid in the bedding. They did slow down eating quite a bit. Then we got a cold snap–a string of 0 degree days–the bedding froze solid (and all the worms died died, needless to say).
I proceeded to throw my organic matter in the garbage the rest of the winter. I’d forgotten what a hassle it was, dealing with the smell of the garbage and having to take it out regularly. So, when spring came, I ordered more worms from Mary’s company, and fed them all summer and fall. When winter rolled around again, I was afraid of them freezing again. I also didn’t want them smelling in my mouse, so I just dumped the contents of the entire worm bin into my compost bin. (It’s not a rotating bin, it’s connected to the ground.)
This turned out to be the right solution for me. I have a fenced in yard in the city, so I’m not worried about racoons or bears. I also put chicken wire underneath my compost bin to prevent animals from burrowing up into it (apparently moles like worms). My worms retreat into warm parts of the pile when it’s cold, and produce great compost. I never replace the bedding, I just open up the bottom of the compost bin and shovel out compost and put more bedding on top.
I’ve never heard complaints about the smell (I do make sure there’s plenty of leaves or other carbon sources) and I don’t have to flip it. It is a bit of a hassle in the winter but 1-2 trips a week out to the compost bin beats living with stinky trash. The compost bin method gives the worms plenty of room to multiply and I’ve actually been able to give a quart or two of worms out to other people.
August 16th, 2008