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Vermicomposting - worldpicts

Vermicomposting - worldpicts

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Cooperative Extension Service
College of Agriculture andHome Economics
Guide H-164
George W. Dickerson, Extension Horticulture Specialist
This publication is scheduled to be updated and reissued 3/04.
For more information on composting, see Backyard Composting (nmsu) Extension Guide H-110). Request this publication by calling (505) 646-3228.You can download this and other publications from our World Wide Web site at http://www.cahe.nmsu.edu. Click on Resources, then Gardeners.
Yard and food waste make up a major componentof solid waste in most municipalities throughout theUnited States. Although much of this organic wastecan be recycled in the backyard using traditional aero-bic backyard composting techniques, these techniquesare not appropriate for apartment dwellers and are of-ten inconvenient, particularly during bad weather inthe winter.
Vermicomposting, or composting with earthworms,is an excellent technique for recycling food waste inthe apartment as well as composting yard wastes inthe backyard. Worm bins located near a hot waterheater in the garage during the winter will save manya trip through the snow to the backyard compost bin.Letting worms recycle your food waste also savesyour back, because you don’t have to turn over thecompost to keep it aerated.
The most common types of earthworms used forvermicomposting are brandling worms (
 Eisenia foetida
) and redworms or red wigglers (
). Often found in aged manure piles, they gen-erally have alternating red and buff-colored stripes.They are not to be confused with the common gardenor field earthworm (
 Allolobophora caliginosa
andother species).Although the garden earthworm occasionally feedson the bottom of a compost pile, they prefer ordinarysoil. An acre of land can have as many as 500,000earthworms, which can recycle as much as 5 tons of soil or more per year.Redworms and brandling worms, however, preferthe compost or manure environment. Passing throughthe gut of the earthworm, recycled organic wastes areexcreted as castings, or worm manure, an organic ma-terial rich in nutrients that looks like fine-texturedsoil.
Vermicompost contains not only worm castings,but also bedding materials and organic wastes at vari-ous stages of decomposition. It also contains worms atvarious stages of development and other microorgan-isms associated with the composting processing.Earthworm castings in the home garden often con-tain 5 to 11 times more nitrogen, phosphorous, andpotassium as the surrounding soil. Secretions in theintestinal tracts of earthworms, along with soil pass-ing through the earthworms, make nutrients moreconcentrated and available for plant uptake, includingmicronutrients.Redworms in vermicompost act in a similar fash-ion, breaking down food wastes and other organicresidues into nutrient-rich compost. Nutrients invermicompost are often much higher than traditionalgarden compost (see table 1).
Table 1. Chemical characteristics of garden compostand vermicompost, 1994.
Parameter*Garden compost
pH7.806.80EC (mmhos/cm)**3.6011.70Total Kjeldahl nitrogen(%)***0.801.94Nitrate nitrogen (ppm)****156.50902.20Phosphorous (%)0.350.47Potassium (%)0.480.70Calcium (%)2.274.40Sodium (%)< .010.02Magnesium (%)0.570.46Iron (ppm)11690.007563.00Zinc (ppm)128.00278.00Manganese (ppm)414.00475.00Copper (ppm)17.0027.00Boron (ppm)25.0034.00Aluminum (ppm)7380.007012.00
Albuquerque sample
Tijeras sample*Units-
=parts per million
=millimhos per centimeter** EC = electrical conductivity is a measure (millimhos per centimeter) of therelative salinity of soil or the amount of soluble salts it contains.*** Kjeldahl nitrogen = is a measure of the total percentage of nitrogen in thesample including that in the organic matter.**** Nitrate nitrogen = that nitrogen in the sample that is immediately availablefor plant uptake by the roots.
Guide H-164 Page 2
Finished vermicompost should have a rich, earthlysmell if properly processed by worms. Vermicompostcan be used in potting soil mixes for house plants andas a top dressing for lawns. Screened vermicompostcombined with potting soil mixes make an excellentmedium for starting young seedlings. Vermicompostalso makes an excellent mulch and soil conditionerfor the home garden.
The earthworm has a long, rounded body with apointed head and slightly flattened posterior. Ringsthat surround the moist, soft body allow the earth-worm to twist and turn, especially since it has nobackbone. With no true legs, bristles (setae) on thebody move back and forth, allowing the earthwormto crawl.The earthworm breathes through its skin. Food isingested through the mouth into a stomach (crop).Later the food passes through the gizzard, where it isground up by ingested stones. After passing throughthe intestine for digestion, whats left is eliminated.Earthworms are hermaphrodites, which means theyhave both male and female sex organs, but they re-quire another earthworm to mate. The wide band (cli-tellum) that surrounds a mature breeding earthwormsecretes mucus (albumin) after mating. Sperm fromanother worm is stored in sacs. As the mucus slidesover the worm, it encases the sperm and eggs inside.After slipping free from the worm, both ends seal,forming a lemon-shape cocoon approximately 1/8inch long. Two or more baby worms will hatch fromone end of the cocoon in approximately 3 weeks.Baby worms are whitish to almost transparent and are1/2 to 1 inch long. Redworms take 4 to 6 weeks to be-come sexually mature.
Bins can be made of wood or plastic, or from re-cycled containers like old bathtubs, barrels, or trunks.They also can be located inside or outside, dependingon your preferences and circumstances.As red wigglers tend to be surface feeders, binsshould be no more than 8 to 12 inches deep. Beddingand food wastes tend to pack down in deeper bins,forcing air out. Resulting anaerobic conditions cancause foul odors and death of the worms.The length and width of the bin will depend onwhether it is to be stationary or portable. It also de-pends on the amount of food waste your family pro-duces each week. A good rule of thumb is to provideone square foot of surface area per pound of waste inyour bin.Wooden bins have the advantage that they’re moreabsorbent and provide better insulation. Do not useredwood or other highly aromatic woods that may killthe worms. Plastic tends to keep the compost toomoist. Plastic, however, tends to be less messy andeasier to maintain. Be sure containers are well cleanedand have never stored pesticides or other chemicals.Drilling air/drainage holes (1/4- to 1/2-inch diam-eter) in the bottom and sides of the bin will ensuregood water drainage and air circulation. Place thebin on bricks or wooden blocks in a tray to catch ex-cess water that drains from the bin. The resultingcompost tea can be used as a liquid fertilizer aroundthe home landscape.Each bin should have a cover to conserve moistureand exclude light. Worms prefer darkness. Bins canbe covered with a straw mulch or moist burlap to en-sure darkness while providing good air ventilation.Outside bins may require a lid to exclude scavengersand other unwanted pests.Outdoor bins should be insulated from the cold toprotect the worms. One option is to dig a rectangularhole 12 inches deep and line the sides with woodenplanks. The bottomless box can then be filled withappropriate bedding material, food wastes, andworms. Food wastes can be continually added asthey accumulate. The pile should be kept damp anddark for optimum worm activity. During the winter,soil can be piled against the edges of the bin andstraw placed on top to protect the worms from coldweather. Do not add food waste to outdoor bins dur-ing the winter because this could expose the wormsto freezing weather.
Bedding for bins can be made from shredded news-papers (non-glossy), computer paper, or cardboard;shredded leaves, straw, hay, or dead plants; sawdust;peat moss; or compost or aged (or composted) ma-nure. Peat moss should be soaked for 24 hours in wa-ter, then lightly wrung out to ensure it is sufficientlymoist. Grass clippings should be allowed to age be-fore use because they may decompose too quickly,causing the compost to heat up. Bedding materialshigh in cellulose are best because they help aerate thebin so the worms can breathe. Varying the beddingmaterial provides a richer source of nutrients. Somesoil or sand can be added to help provide grit for theworms digestive systems. Allow the bedding materialto set for several days to make sure it doesn’t heat up(and allow to cool before adding worms).
Guide H-164 Page 3
The bedding material should be thoroughly moist-ened (about the consistency of a damp sponge) beforeadding the worms. Fill the bin three-quarters full of moist bedding, lifting it gently afterwards to create airspace for the worms to breathe and to control odors.
Under optimum conditions, redworms can eat theirown weight in food scraps and bedding in one day.On the average, however, it takes approximately 2pounds of earthworms (approximately 2,000 breeders)to recycle a pound of food waste in 24 hours. Thesame quantity of worms requires about 4 cubic feet of bin to process the food waste and bedding(1 cubicfoot of worm bin/500 worms).Composting worms can be purchased from dealerslisted in the ad sections of many garden magazines.Some dealers sell worms as pit-run worms, whichconsist of worms of all ages and sizes. Add wormsto the top of the moist bedding when they arrive.The worms will disappear into the bedding within afew minutes.
Earthworms eat all kinds of food and yard wastes,including coffee grounds, tea bags, vegetable and fruitwaste, pulverized egg shells, grass clippings, manure,and sewage sludge. Avoid bones, dairy products, andmeats that may attract pests, and garlic, onions, andspicy foods. Limited amounts of citrus can be added,but too much can make the compost too acidic. Thecompost should be kept at a pH of 6.5 if possible,with upper and lower limits at 7.0 and 6.0, respec-tively. Overly acidic compost can be corrected byadding crushed eggshells.Avoid adding chemicals (including insecticides),metals, plastics, glass, soaps, pet manures, and olean-ders or other poisonous plants, or plants sprayed withinsecticides to the worm bin.Food wastes should be added to the bin by pull-ing back the bedding material and burying it. Besure to cover it well to avoid attracting flies andother pests. Successive loads of waste should beburied at different locations in the bin to keep thefood wastes from accumulating. Grinding or blend-ing the food waste in a food processor speeds thecomposting time considerably.
Redworms can survive a wide range of tempera-tures (40-80
F), but they reproduce and processfood waste at an optimum bedding temperaturerange of 55-77
F. The worms should never be al-lowed to freeze. Bins kept outside may have to beinsulated with straw in the winter to keep theworms from freezing. Portable bins can be kept bya hot water heater in the garage during the winter tokeep them warm.The bin contents should be kept moist but notsoaked. Do not allow rainfall to run off a roof into thebin. This could cause the worms to drown. A strawcovering may be needed in exposed sites to keep thebin from drying out during hot summer weather.
Food scraps can be continually added to the bin forup to 2 to 3 months, or until you notice the beddingmaterial disappear. When the bedding disappears, har-vest the worms and finished compost, then refill thebins with new bedding material.Overloading the bin with food wastes can result infoul odors. If you notice these odors, stop adding thewaste until the worms have a chance to catch up.Overly moist food waste and bedding also causeodors. To relieve this problem, fluff up the bedding toadd air and check the drainage holes. As a generalrule of thumb, keep the bedding material moist, butnever soggy. Make sure the food waste is buried prop-erly in the bedding. Exposed food wastes can attractfruit flies, house flies, and other pests. Keeping thebin covered with straw or moist burlap also detersthese pests.Garden centipedes can be a problem in the wormbin, especially outside. These predators should be de-stroyed. Overly wet beds also can attract the earth-worm mite, which may cause the worms to stop eating.
There are three basic ways to separate the wormsfrom the finished compost. One way involves movingthe finished compost and worms over to one side of the bin and adding new bedding material and foodwaste to the other side. Worms in the finished com-post should move over to the new bedding with thefresh food waste. The finished compost can then beremoved.

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