Alpine Lady

Honoring the natural world through prose, poetry, music, sounds, photographs and musings.


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Addendum to The Alchemical Magic of Vermiculture

Our herbal medicine wheel in Sandpoint, ID, liberally  side dressed with worm compost.

Our herbal medicine wheel in Sandpoint, ID, liberally side dressed through the seasons with worm compost.

The season of melons is upon us and for me the perfect time of year to begin reviving the vermiculture or worm bin. I’ve removed the last batch of breeding worms for a friend and want to take out the rich compost made since the last refurbishment which was a year ago.

I’ve left enough worms to re-establish a breeding community and will have lots of vegetable matter this summer for them to feed on. Depending how active they digest the materials I toss them, I may do this again come late summer but I’m reluctant to do it late in the fall season since this is an outdoor bin. I want a healthy population to hunker together if the winter turns cold . If it were not plastic and a ground bin instead, I could probably do it one more time and insulate the bin well. One plastic bin could not utilize all the vegetable scraps we make in our household, so I find other people to utilize it in their composts but the bin does provide me with enough compost to enrich our container gardens.

To capture the most worms to set aside, I layer in juicy materials and let it rest for a few days. This draws the worms to the fresh matter which I then take out and set aside. The next step is to thoroughly mix the remaining composted soil and if possible, sift it in to another container through a mesh screen. For small amounts a small French fry shaker basket is ideal. (Oh, how I wish I still had mine!) For a larger amount, a screen made of hardware cloth over a wheelbarrow works great. The courser material left after the screening will get tossed back into the compost to go through the digestion process again.

This is not a vermiculture bin as it was in Alaska, but shows  how the hardware cloth was used to sift the raw compost.

This is not a vermiculture bin as it was in Alaska, but shows how the hardware cloth was used to sift the raw compost.

This year it looks like they gave me seven gallons of unsifted compost, certainly enough to do the container gardens of herbs and lettuce greens I have growing.

This is about seven gallons of unsifted worm compost. A good harvest from a bin.

This is about seven gallons of unsifted worm compost. A good harvest from a bin. This is a year’s worth but bear in mind, I have also harvested about six batches of worms mixed in with additional compost so all together, well over ten gallons.

The plastic bin rests on two overturned flower pots which suspends it below the bottom bin that traps any moisture flowing through. Some call is compost tea but I just consider it nutrient-filled water and use it on my plants as well, diluting it half and half with water first.

Nutrient-filled worm water.

Nutrient-filled worm water.

I’ll empty out the plastic bin, wash it, and poke out any holes that have become clogged. Then it’s a matter of layering in coarse materials in the bottom to provide ventilation above the plastic bottom. If I’ve recently done any weeding of good weeds with dirt still attached to the plant, I like to add that next followed by the coarse materials I’ve sifted, a layer of soil, and the worms that I’ve set aside. On top of them, I’ll place some juicy fresh scraps so they have something to work on right away such as melon rinds, spoiled lettuce, etc., cover all with a layer of dirt, my funky brown paper which is even more deteriorated. I’ll not pile on too much compostables at once until they can work on getting  their population growing. I don’t let the pile get too anaerobic or hot. Feed them just enough so they can eat through the plant matter before adding more.

The worms love watermelon rinds!

The worms love watermelon rinds!

In no time, I’ll have a happy vermi-culture crawling through and digesting my compostables, alchemically turning them into black gold. A win, win situation on all counts!

Sifted worm compost ready to lend its magic to transplanting broccoli plants.

Sifted worm compost ready to lend its magic to transplanting broccoli plants.

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The Alchemical Magic of Vermiculture

Worm-composted herbal and floral gardens.

Worm-composted herbal and floral gardens.

To most people who use worms to breakdown household kitchen scraps and especially to experienced vermiculturalists, a seething mass of healthy red, squirming compost worms delights the eyes. It means our efforts to utilize  compostable vegetative waste has been successful, and there’s a rich treasure of soil to help raise healthy plants. To me it’s akin to alchemical magic, transforming waste into black gold.

Ideal for the gardener who has a small to medium-sized garden and no real access to bountiful plant waste to make a  regular compost heap, the worm compost provides even an apartment dweller with rich soil for containers and flower boxes. Worm composting is simple to set up although I find its maintenance requires more attention to assure minimum odors if done indoors. If done outdoors, it is still a good habit to keep odors under control so as not to attract raccoons and rats. There is a plethora of videos, books, and websites that show and explain their construction so I won’t be going over that. This article is to share my journey and what has worked for me.

I grew up on a rural farmstead in north Idaho in the 50’s and 60’s. My family raised a variety of animals over time, adding their manures in the fall and spring to enrich and enliven the garden and orchard soils. Most of our household scraps were tossed to the chickens who dutifully did their duty of turning them into manure which we added to the garden. There was also a compost pile surrounded by railroad ties stuck off to the side into which stalks, weeds, etc. were piled and occasionally turned. No thought at the time was given to the leaching of creosote out of the bin but only that the ties wouldn’t deteriorate. The material in this pile served as a source for earthworms as bait for fishing expeditions and when there was enough broken down to have produced soil, it was tossed around the trees in the orchard, under the raspberry bushes, or under the shrubs in the flower gardens.

When Michael and I moved to Alaska, I was told you couldn’t compost so being the person who likes to take on a gardening dare, I found you could if you used a shredder first and turned the pile often and sifted it before applying to the gardens. I also ordered worms from the “Outside” and added them to our greenhouse beds each year. The worms froze during the severe freezes of winter except for a few worms I found one spring. We had a garden down below at the old, ramshackle homestead for a couple of summers which was hand watered from a nearby pond, before building our own place by hand with new gardens and greenhouse along with house, sauna, dog lot, etc. above the road. Quite the endeavor!

Compost and hand watering made for a magnificent garden at the old place.

Compost and hand watering made for a magnificent garden at the old place.

Our food compostables were fed to a flock of chickens we raised each summer which had to be penned up because of the foxes, weasels, owls, wolves, bears, coyotes, etc., that would have done them in. We butchered each fall and the feathers, offal along with additional kitchen wastes were shredded, too. Of course, the bins were outside, well secured, turned often, and kept meticulously clean so as not to attract critters, especially the bears. With the long days of summer and with water hauled from the lake or gravel pit or collected during rainfalls, our gardens and greenhouse which incorporated drip irrigation were spectacular, if you don’t mind my saying so.

Compost, hand watering and love.

Compost, hand watering , drip irrigation, and love paid off.  We raised cucumbers, tomatoes, herbs, and flowers in our new greenhouse.

Moving back “Stateside,” I found living in town to require a different approach although we tried building regular layered composts which needed to heat up in order to kill the disease organisms and weed seeds. Eventually, worms started to invade from the bottom up as it cooled down and in order to save time and energy to pursue our gardening and herbal chores instead, we incorporated composting worms or red wrigglers with a large starter mass from a friend who owned a restaurant and was using worms to break down his compostables including copious amounts of coffee grounds.

We went through several incarnations of compost bins which Michael made including one in which a panel at the bottom of the bin allowed us to access the rich soil that eventually accumulated.

Glorious vermiculture gold!

Glorious vermiculture gold!

Over time we settled on stackable bins where we could add vegetative parts including household scraps, leaves, weeds, coffee grounds, etc., and the worms could do their duty. After the materials gained a certain height, they were turned and piled into another set of stackable bins, back and forth until they were almost totally broken down. I found the worms were most productive by this method if carefully turned and thus exposed to the new territorial food sources. To separate the worms at the end, I’d put in a rich wad of fresh kitchen wastes at the top and a good amount of worms migrated to begin “eating”  through the scraps. This was then taken out and stored until I sifted the finished compost and then the whole process was started again.

The Alchemy of Vermiculture

The Alchemy of Vermiculture

First we’d pile a layer of rough weed stalks, then some of the composted soil full of healthy organisms which I collected and set aside before sifting, the wad of worms and new scraps, etc., allowing the worms to work their way upwards as the wastes get tossed in and periodically turned.

Our gardens also received copious amounts of birch leaves collected in the fall which went through a leaf shredder and then turned into the beds by hand. Additional fish emulsion and some manures were added, as well, to enrich the soil but always side-dressed with compost.

Sifted compost ready to put into the garden and flower beds.

Sifted compost ready to put into the garden and flower beds.

Worm-composted basil and Italian parsley.

Worm compost side-dressed basil and Italian Parsley.

Our medicine wheel herbal and floral garden.

Our medicine wheel herbal and floral garden.

In Hawaii, I simply took my kitchen scraps across the street and threw them into the jungle where they magically disappeared overnight and seemed to keep the vermin away from our side.

The jungle across the street where I gifted my Hawaiian compostables.

The jungle across the street where I gifted my Hawaiian compostables.

Moving to Sequim, WA, because I didn’t want to waste the scraps from our lovely organic produce we are able to procure, I started a small wormery in a plastic storage bin which we had many of with our recent move from Hawaii. Michael drilled holes in the sides for ventilation because worms are living creatures who require food, air and space to grow.

Plastic bin worm compost operation. Excess moisture drips down into collection bin.

Plastic bin worm compost operation. Excess moisture drips down into collection bin.

The bin was stacked on top of two, upside down flower pots in another bin to collect the occasional moisture that dripped through due to the plastic nature of the bin and all the moist food the worms ate through. The bin has a secure top because we have a family of raccoons living close by and although they never have bothered it, there’s no reason not to think one night they might investigate.

I got a few starter worms from friends and it wasn’t long before I had a plethora of wrigglers which I started giving away to a friend who has an orchard, gardens, and much larger compost pile. I couldn’t use all the compost my worms produced for our container gardens so decided to harvest the worms often and she uses all the worms I breed to help breakdown their ever-growing garden wastes. She also takes my excess kitchen scraps and adds them to her pile.

For me it is a delight to open the bin and investigate what’s happening in the worms’ world. Having raised and lived with so many generations, I swear they know me and I get these messages of when to come visit, what to add, and when to add it. Sometimes they want something sweet such as fruit, other times I add protein-based fat such as beef fat off the bone broths. I especially find this request coming at a time when it turns cold. The sweeter contents are tossed in when the worms are actively breeding and producing eggs. All is covered with brown paper before topping with a secure lid to keep out raccoons.

Getting the bin ready for a fall rest after having harvested the latest crop of compost worms for a friend.

Getting the bin ready for a fall rest after having harvested the latest crop of compost worms for a friend.

So I do  hope you find worm composting to be an effective way to turn your kitchen scraps into gold and enjoy the process involved with their bountiful gifting efforts.

Solomon sea grown in a container is side-dressed with worm compost and worm compost tea.

Solomon seal grown in a container is side-dressed with worm compost and worm compost tea.