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WORM TUB USER MANUAL
WHAT IS VERMICOMPOSTING?
Vermicomposting involves "recycling" vegetable-based waste with the aid of captive red wiggler earthworms (Eisenia fetida). The worms break down waste more rapidly than traditional outdoor compost heaps and bins and, in the process, create highly prized "castings" (AKA worm manure) that can be applied directly to soil as a nutrient-rich soil amendment. By vermicomposting you are able to reduce the volume of waste you send to the landfill AND put the waste you save to good use in your own gardens. Vermicompost is often touted as the organic gardener's answer to inorganic fertilizers. "There is a very good reason why organic farmers add manure and compost to soil rather than commercial fertilizers," writes James B. Nardi in Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners. "Compost and manure come with a good supply of nutrients and water within reach of plant roots but also gives soil a spongy, crumbly texture that makes it particularly hospitable to creatures of the soil community. What imparts fertility to a soil is the humus that is generated as a communal effort by the community of soil creatures" (2007, p. xx). Why use worms to compost? Because they do it faster and better than most other composting methods and create a richer compost as a result. "Earthworms are excellent composters. They can compost organic material faster than any composting system. Some earthworm species will eat half their body weight in food per day" (Nancarrow & Taylor, 1998, p. 5). Worm compost is special because it is a mixture of composted material broken down by beneficial bacteria and worm castings. This material contains the nitrogen, organic matter, and other nutrients essential to healthy soil. Many studies continue to prove the effectiveness of vermicompost. For example, in a 2010 study conducted by scientists at the Department of Botanical and Environmental Sciences at Guru Nanak Dev University in Punjab, India, it was shown that applying vermicompost in small amounts to tomatoes "can effectively enhance germination, growth, yield, and quality of tomatoes by improving various physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil" (Joshi & Vig, 2010, p. 122). Mary Appelhof writes in her bestselling book Worms Eat My Garbage that planting media with as little as five percent worm castings "produced plants with as good or better seed germination, plant growth, and earlier flowering" (1997, p. 116). What follows in this manual are detailed care instructions for your worms and the small ecosystem within which they live. PLEASE READ THIS MANUAL THOROUGHLY BEFORE ADDING WASTE TO YOUR WORM TUB. If you have additional questions after reading this manual, feel free to contact Gardens, Not Garbage at email@example.com.
ABOUT YOUR WORM TUB
Your Gardens, Not Garbage Worm Tub is modeled after the DIY plastic bins that worm enthusiasts have been making for decades in order to raise worms in their homes. Inside your Worm Tub is a layer of pea
gravel for moisture drainage and air circulation. The gravel is covered with burlap "screening" to prevent worms from falling into the gravel. Atop the screening are compost, worms, and "bedding" made from carbon-rich compostable materials, e.g. shredded newspaper, peat moss, or coir (shredded coconut fiber). Your Worm Tub is low maintenance and easy to use. Simply add coffee grounds, egg shells, vegetable scraps, used paper towels, and other items, cover thoroughly with compost, worms, and bedding, and let the stuff rot! Castings are ready for "harvesting" in a matter of a month or two.
WORM TUB BASICS
Vermicompost bins can be kept outdoors in a shady spot when the temperatures are above 50 degrees and indoors the rest of the year. Kitchen scraps can be added once a week in small piles and buried under bedding. We recommend that you use the double bedding approach: first bed under a finely ground material like peat moss, manure, or coir; then bury under a layer of shredded newspaper (at least two inches thick). This deters pests like flies and gnats from laying eggs on your food waste. A well-maintained Worm Tub should be cleared of finished compost and castings every three to six months, as a high volume of castings can be toxic to worms. For general instructions, warnings, and a list of compostable items, see the "Vermicomposter Quick Guide." Please note that you do not need to feed your worms on a daily or even weekly basis. The Worm Tub can be as high or as low maintenance as you like. It's not a problem if you have to leave town for a week or two. However, it is recommended that you check on the worms at least once a week and add fresh kitchen scraps regularly, if possible.
What's inside my Worm Tub?
A Worm Tub is a small ecosystem involving a balance of organic and inorganic materials and living organisms. Your worms will be their healthiest and compost fastest when this little environment is carefully managed. Management doesn't require too much work, but it's not 100 percent worry-free. A healthy Worm Tub is managed at least once a week. Just as houseplants need soil that is neither too wet nor too dry, your Worm Tub's moisture level will also need monitoring. Check to make sure your Worm Tub's contents are damp to the touch. 2
Add water by misting or gently sprinkling, rather than pouring. Worm Tubs that are too wet attract flies and other pests; Worm Tubs that are too dry are unhealthy or even deadly for worms. Use de-chlorinated water to avoid harming beneficial microorganisms that work with worms to compost your food scraps. Expect to occasionally see a millipede, mite, springtail, or sowbug in your Worm Tub; these creatures are normal guests in a vermicomposting system and shouldn't harm your worms. Where are the worms? Many folks are surprised to discover how small and hard to find red wigglers are. GNG Worm Tubs start with worms of all life stages, from cocoon (egg case) to "banded breeder" (adult). These worms hide deep within the Worm Tub, far away from light. Sometimes they cluster around a particularly savory bit of food waste. Worms breed rapidly when properly maintained. “Dr. Roy Hartenstein has calculated that eight individuals could produce about 1500 offspring within six months time” (Appelhof, 1997, p. 49).
KEEPING A BALANCED WORM TUB
Plastic containers are excellent at retaining moisture. Therefore, if you are adding moist food waste on a regular basis (e.g. coffee grounds, fruit rinds, etc.) you shouldn't need to add water to your Worm Tub. Check the moisture level by carefully moving aside top bedding. If the Worm Tub is too dry, spritz or sprinkle with a small amount of water onto the compost. Replace bedding, then check daily until the moisture level looks right. You might want to purchase a moisture meter, available at your local garden center, to ensure that the moisture level deep within in your Worm Tub is balanced. For a few dollars you can purchase a similar meter to test soil PH. If you think your Worm Tub is too acidic (which is likely if you bed with peat moss, which has a lower PH than coir and newspaper bedding), add a handful of garden lime every few months.
HARVESTING WORM "CASTINGS"
Upon purchasing your Worm Tub, it will contain a small amount of finished compost. So if you want to dig in and pull out a spoonful of compost when you add new kitchen waste and then feed that compost to your houseplants, you can do so anytime. However, every three to six months you're going to want to "harvest" your finished vermicompost. This benefits you, as you will be able to retrieve a bucketful of rich compost for your gardens, and it also benefits your worms, who cannot thrive in a home that is full of their own waste. That said, harvesting vermicompost is easier said than done. Why? Because it can be tricky to separate worms from compost. Worms evade light. Hence, a few methods for casting removal involve bright light. You might consider purchasing a clamping desk light or very bright flashlight to use when harvesting castings. Please exercise care when digging through your Worm Tub with a spade. Contrary to popular opinion, worms do not multiply when cut into pieces (though they do sometimes regenerate when accidentally cut). We suggest you use a sturdy rubber spatula when digging into your Worm Tub, as this is a very gentle way to move compost without harming your worms. Here are a few different methods for harvesting compost and castings: Using your hands, scoop small shovelfuls of compost and castings into a bowl or bucket. Pick out worms you find as you go. Using bright light, remove top layer of bedding and place in a large bucket. Shine light on compost. Worms will quickly crawl downward and away from the light. Carefully scoop small shovelfuls from the
very top layer of dirt. Pick out wayward worms and lemon-shaped, yellow "cocoons" (worm egg capsules). Using a sieve, scoop worms and compost into a sieve and sift into a bucket, dumping worms back into the Worm Tub when finished. (You may want to dump all vermicompost and worms out and let the pile air for a few hours; this will make the compost easier to sift. If it is too moist, it tends to clog the holes in a sieve). Using a white shower curtain or other large, non-porous fabric, scoop all compost and worms onto plastic. Shine bright light on dirt (or spread out plastic on driveway or lawn in summer in direct sunlight). Against white plastic and in bright light, worms will be highly visible and easy to pick out, separating from castings and compost. Using elbow grease, carry bucket to your outdoor gardens in the spring. Scoop out half of Worm Tub contents into vegetable and/or flower gardens, allowing some worms to go free. This is beneficial to your gardens, and don't worry – your remaining worms will breed and re-stock your Worm Tub in a short period of time. However, it is important to note that composting worms cannot survive in a garden. Unlike other earthworms, they do not eat dirt. They need decomposing matter to survive. Therefore, if you plan to raise composting worms in your vegetable garden, it needs to be top dressed with manure, dead leaves, or shredded hardwood mulch. This will not only keep your plants moist and protect them from weeds but will provide a food source for your worms.
VERMICARE TIP: Make your worms happy by feeding them melon rinds and apple cores. Worms love fruit! They also enjoy moldy bread.
A well-cared for Worm Tub should be worry free; however, once in a while minor problems arise that require solutions. Below is a list of common vermicompost system problems and some suggested remedies. Water leaking from air holes: You may be adding too much liquid to your Worm Tub. The texture of your compost should be damp -- NOT wet. It should resemble a freshly dug outdoor garden in the spring. Tub odor: This could be caused by a few different things, but generally relates to too little oxygen and too much moisture. Perhaps you've added something on the "no" list to the Worm Tub, such as old tangerines, or rotten meat, or onions. Make sure you are careful to balance moisture levels and add only items from the "yes" list to your Worm Tub. Fruit flies and fungus gnats: By far, flies and gnats can be the biggest nuisance faced by vermicompost enthusiasts. There are many methods one might attempt in getting rid of a gnat or fly infestation (try searching Google and you'll find several) but the best method is prevention. Deter gnats and flies by keeping your Worm Tub as clean and well-managed as possible. Only add "yes" foods to the Worm Tub and BURY THEM COMPLETELY with compost, castings, worms, and bedding. Gnats and flies do not burrow, so the deeper and more concealed the fresh kitchen scraps, the better. If you have an unmanageable infestation, vacuum up the flies, fill the Worm Tub with an extra thick layer of carbon-
rich, dry bedding, and let it "rest" by not adding new waste until all signs of flies are gone. It's best to have a back-up vermicompost system or traditional compost bin in this case so you can continue composting while you let the infested bin rest. When you no longer see flies in the Worm Tub after a few weeks, resume adding content, but make sure you keep it buried under ample bedding. See the "Fly Control Tips" section of this manual for more information about preventing and controlling flies and gnats. Dried worms on the floor: Your worms are escaping the Worm Tub. In the absence of light, worms may travel. Make sure you keep your Tub tightly shut, especially at night. If this continues to be a problem, try turning on a low-wattage light bulb near the Worm Tub at night. This will deter your worms from leaving their home. Mold: If mold grows in the Worm Tub, simply mix it into the compost. Mold is an essential component of a healthy vermicompost ecosystem; in fact, it is part of a worm's diet. Overflowing Worm Tub: You are filling your Tub too fast. Worms need time to break down the waste you place in your Worm Tub. If you find you're filling the Tub faster than they can eat, try chopping your kitchen scraps into smaller pieces so they break down faster, purchase a second Worm Tub and alternate between the two, or use a traditional outdoor compost bin as a back-up. Dead worms: It is difficult to kill worms, but they will die in less than ideal conditions. Extreme cold or heat or extreme moisture or dryness are conditions that may kill your worms. Try to duplicate their natural living conditions by keeping moisture level balanced and placing your Worm Tub in a cool, dark place. What other questions do you have? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
COMMON WORM TUB CRITTERS
Many creatures other than worms inhabit a vermicompost bin. If you see a strange multi-legged creature when you open your Worm Tub, don't panic; most worm bin inhabitants fungivores and detritivores, meaning they eat the same decomposing waste on which your worms feast. Rarely are they a threat to you, your home, your pets, or your houseplants. "The organisms that thrived in your worm box are not likely to be the kind that also attack living plants" (Appelhof, 1997, p. 117). Many of the additional creatures in your Worm Tub (e.g. microscopic bacteria, springtails, some mites, and millipedes) help break down food waste right alongside your worms. These critters aren't worrisome when in small numbers, but sometimes, especially when a Worm Tub's environment is imbalanced, certain worm bin inhabitants get out of control. For example, white mites or fungus gnats may get out of control when a bin is too moist and acidic. You are probably adding too much food too fast. One solution is to let the top of your Worm Tub dry out a bit. Cease adding new food until your worms have had a chance to digest what you’ve placed in the bin (see "Fly Control Tips" below for details on preventing and controlling pests of the order Diptera). So what's that bug in your Worm Tub? To quickly identify any worm bin “guests,” you have a few options. Purchase a copy of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders or a similar arthropod identification book. Go to http://www.insectidentification.org/ and use their search features to ID your creature. You might also try the University of Wisconsin’s Insect ID site at http://www.entomology.wisc.edu/insectid/worm.php . Or go to Google and type in a few of the
creature’s characteristics in the search box (e.g. "pest long body red-brown legs") and then click on “image” in the upper left-hand corner. You will find several pages of photos of a number of creatures; among them may be a photo of the pest in your Tub (in this case, a centipede). This is a quick and very effective way to find pictures of similar creatures and is very helpful in identification. If you are concerned about a pest problem, please contact us and we will help you troubleshoot.
FLY CONTROL TIPS
Fruit flies, fungus gnats, and other species of the order Diptera (True Flies) are sometimes unwanted guests inside vermicompost systems. While they are not dangerous, they can be a nuisance. To avoid outbreaks, carefully manage your Worm Tub by taking the following measures: Upon purchasing or making major changes to your Worm Tub, allow the worms time to adjust for a week or so by letting the bin rest. Avoid overfeeding during this time. Bed worms generously with carbon-rich materials like shredded newspaper or coir. Always have an ample supply of bedding on hand near your Worm Tub. Don't overfeed your worms. Put a few pounds of food in and see how long it takes the worms to digest the scraps. Then add more when the food starts to disappear. "Dig in" the food scraps. Rotate the dig location (keep track of where you place the food by making a grid with four or six slots on a piece of scratch paper). Dig down gently and carefully with a hand rake or rubber spatula. Put the food in the hole, then cover and then add ample bedding on top. Try covering first with a slightly moistened layer of coir and then with shredded newspaper. Never leave rotting fruit on the top layer of the Worm Tub, uncovered. Don't over moisten Worm Tub or add too much additional water. Plastic bins retain moisture very well, so you shouldn't need to add water if you are adding very moist food scraps. (If your food scraps are on the dry side, try misting the scraps and bedding). If an outbreak occurs: Vacuum up excess flies. Place fruit fly traps near your Worm Tub. Traps can be purchased from local garden stores or can be made at home: fill a bowl with apple cider vinegar. Add a drop of dish soap and gently stir. Place near problem area to trap the flies. Try a yellow paper trap: make your own by purchasing bright yellow card stock and painting it with a sticky substance like STP oil or tanglefoot. The flies will be attracted to the yellow paper and will get stuck. Stick fly tape on the outside of your Worm Tub.
If nighttime low temperature is above 50 degrees, move your Worm Tub outside to a shady spot (do not leave in direct sunlight). Dry out and rest the Worm Tub; if you want to continue composting while your bin rests, purchase a second vermicompost bin or alternate with an outdoor compost pile. NOTE: Avoid using pesticides inside your worm bin. If you choose to use a pesticide to treat a fly outbreak, be sure that any pesticide you use – organic or conventional, biological or chemical – is 100% safe for your worms.
A WORD ABOUT "HOT" COMPOSTING
Hot composting occurs when waste is broken down with the aid of "thermophilic" bacteria, which causes food to compost faster. While hot composting is an excellent way to turn vegetable waste into a useful soil amendment, it is less desirable when it occurs within a worm bin. “In outdoor systems, compost invertebrates survive the thermophilic stage by moving to the periphery of the pile or becoming dormant,” (Trautmann, 1996, para. 5). When a small, contained vermicompost system heats up, worms and other beneficial invertebrates often have no periphery to which to escape. This can be deadly to your worms. To prevent hot composting from occurring inside your Worm Tub, take the following measures: “Age” your scraps. Purchase or make a covered compost collection container; keep food scraps in the container for about week and add food as needed. Worms feed on the bacteria and fungi on partly composted food, so it's best not to put brand new waste into a worm bin. You want to "age" it just a little. Follow the waste rotation system. Instead of spreading thin layers of waste across the top of your Worm Tub when you add new material and then covering with bedding, draw a diagram of your Tub and divide into four squares. Add food once a week to one “square” and bury the pile; then the following week add food to another square. Use the rotation method to allow newly added waste to "heat" in one pocket at a time, giving your worms room to move if the food gets too hot. (Avoid placing piles directly against inside walls of the Worm Tub, as this will clog air holes and may attract tiny flies through the holes). Avoid overly mixing materials in your Worm Tub. Avoid the temptation to till or check on the worms too much. Don’t upset the contents of the Tub until it’s time to harvest. Harvest compost every three to six months.
HAPPY WORM TUB, HAPPY HOME, HAPPY EARTH
Though your Worm Tub will require careful maintenance, you'll find that vermicomposting is an overall easy and painless process. A Worm Tub can sit quietly and work undisturbed for weeks, even months, and requires only a weekly addition of food and bedding, which takes minutes. Though the amount of information you can potentially learn about worms from books, internet resources, and even videos is seemingly limitless, you don't need special knowledge beyond reading this short manual to maintain a healthy Worm Tub. As earthworm pioneer Thomas J. Barrett wrote, "There is no mystery about earthworm culture and no highly technical knowledge is necessary. Any man, woman, or child can comprehend it and engage in it" (1956, p. 36).
For an amount of work that equals about ten to twenty hours a year you can find satisfaction in returning important resources to the earth, where they can remain in the cycle of life and make the earth stronger and more beautiful, rather than more polluted and depleted of resources.
Appelhof, M. (1997). Worms Eat My Garbage (Second Edition). Kalamazoo, MI: Flowerfield Enterprises, LLC. Barrett, T. J. (1956). Earthworms, their intensive propagation and use in biological soil-building. Sun Valley, CA: Earthmaster Publications. Joshi, R. & Vig, A. P. (2010). Effect of Vermicompost on Growth, Yield and Quality of Tomato (Lycopersicum esculentum L). African Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences 2 (3-4): 117123. Retrieved from http://www.idosi.org/ajbas/ajbas2(3-4)10/10.pdf Nancarrow, L. & Taylor, J. H. (1998). The Worm Book. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. Nardi, J. (2007). Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Trautmann, N. (1996). Compost Physics. Cornell Composting Science & Engineering. Retrieved from http://compost.css.cornell.edu/physics.html.
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© 2011 Gardens, not garbage!
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