Is vermicomposting the way to go for home gardens and small urban farms?
Composting requires quite a lot of work to get it right (Turn the pile, watching the temperature etc.)
and can take up quite a bit of space.
I am not comparing composting to vermicompost all I am saying is that for a smaller area it might be the way to go.
Vermicomposting once set up, kind of works on its own but has to be done correctly –
Wrong Way - Throw all your food scrapes in the bin, where it basically just rots as the worms are completely overwhelmed and most probably will die. If they do survive the end product normally is not what we are striving for.
What are we striving for? - A fungal dominated compost.
Right Way – Control the amount of the so-called foods going into the bin – don’t overwhelm the worms at the start. Once the system is up and running, it simple, keep feeding and harvesting.
Breakdown of what the worm food is made up of –
35% foodscapes – nitrogen
60% carbon type material (Dry leaves, fine wood chips, cardboard etc.)
5% compost or soil from an area where microbes are already present such as under a tree or shrub. This does not have to be on your property.
You can also add amendments that may be needed by your soil – Minerals, biochar etc.
Keep moist but not wet.
I prefer the flow through type system. Where you feed the bin from the top and the completed solids and liquid are harvested at the bottom. This can be scaled up to any size depending on your needs.
The end product, the vermicast – worm castings then can be mixed up to make a tea for a foliar spray or a soil drench. I also use as an inoculant for my seeds and mix in when planting out the seedlings.
Just my opinion - What are your thoughts on the subject?
In a very real way, worms and other soil life are the only animals some people will interact with on a small urban scale. This is changing, albeit slowly, with limited pilot projects springing up even here in Toronto for things like backyard chickens. Still, in my opinion, worms, and in a larger sense, soil life farming is the most solid base for any scale venture.
For situations where my space is not connected with the soil, I would also use a top-feeding system, probably with a few different sizes of screen between sections, allowing the wigglers to move up and down the column, with an exclusionary (for adults, anyway) bottom screen above a drawer for finished worm castings, sloped towards a drain.
I think, especially in the event I had some backyard hens, that I would incorporate black soldier fly larvae into a topmost bin, with a feeder tube leading to the chickens' coop, or to a live storage trap for later feeding. While they don't like to be in the same soil, it appears that red worms like the enzymes left behind by black soldier fly larvae. This would solve the problem of food rotting away, and would likely facilitate the worms' feeding and digestion, accelerating the process and likely increasing the healthy stocking rate within the same space.
I also think that, in a space with size limitations, especially with the practical consideration in mind that, of all the other small-scale animals available, the chicken will likely be the first choice for most who will keep urban livestock, other organic matter upcycling techniques might be considered.
There are at least two more insect options here, creating a high-protein foodsource from foodscraps, those being mealworms and crickets. The idea here is essentially to create a setup where scrap organics are fed to either mealworms, crickets, or black soldier fly larvae and then worms, creating worm castings and frozen whole insects suitable for grinding into meal for human entomophagy (not my personal favourite) or for feeding fish and chickens.
I think the best use of resources in an urban environment for a backyard farmer is to set up an insect-based organic scrap conversion system, preferably soil-linked, and then mine the urban waste resources, preferably making arrangements with local grocers and coffee shops/houses, and microbreweries for their spent grains, if you can get them, rather than dumpster-diving, with the end stage for all waste before the garden being vermiculture.
In what I have just laid out are the kernels for several waste-stream-based revenue streams for urban backyard farmers, and the work involved would be no more, really, than what a backyard hen keeper might go through for their chooks.
I have to agree that vermiculture is an integral component in any soil farming endeavour, but I think that, in terms of delivery, oxygenated compost extracts tailored to the specific crops being grown might be a tool integral to the priming of soil for vibrant vermicultural health. Worm castings would definitely play a large role in my extract recipe, but I would probably also add fresh rabbit droppings (I have a rabbit) for the bacterial content, mushroom slurry, and tailor the rest of the recipe to aim for a balanced bacterial/fungal balance in the soil, barring some specific need for a skew one way or the other.
I think an intensive, multi-layered system on a backyard scale would ideally feature chickens, to take direct advantage of the BSFL stage before the worm bins. They would fertilise as they went, providing more food for the worms in the soil.
Lastly, worm castings are a great component of soil, but I think that for the soil to truly be improved, you need to have living root systems running through it, with a complete soil food web.
I think the best way to go for home gardens and small urban farms is a comprehensive, inclusive system that uses as many of the tools and techniques mentioned above, and likely dozens I haven't mentioned, suited to individual circumstance, but generally upcycling urban food waste to animal and human food, and to food for soil life to make more soil life.
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-Robert A. Heinlein
It has been my experience that worm bins work great, but everyone I know using them seem to keep it to kitchen food wastes, why I don't know but that is how most everyone I know use their worms.
I do have two friends (one in the States and one in Australia) that are commercial worm growers, these are the people that taught me all about worms so I use their methods over the kitchen scraps method.
Dead leaves make up my "base" in the bins (mine are rectangular with a center divider (wood boxes about 4 sq. ft. per side, floor space). I keep the worms on one side until I am ready for them to move so I can harvest the castings.
I have found that if you need to deal with grass clippings, worms are not the best choice of methods, grasses give off far to much moisture and they heat up quickly which can be a disaster.
I do both composting and worm bins (wife will not let me delve into BSF) and I have done a few experiments and analysis in the process of making choices.
One of my biggest problems now is that we have chickens and hogs, which get all the kitchen/ garden wastes that might go to the worms, this created a new study and I finally found an answer for my situation.
When you are using a worm bin the last thing you want is a fungal dominate setup, fungi are indeed part of what a worm eats but not the red wigglers, they are designed for bacteria as their food, earthworms on the other hand are set up to eat both bacteria and fungi.
Now the problem with trying to use earthworms in a worm bin, for me, is that the earthworms like to live deeper than the red wigglers, so I have to have a deeper bin if I want to try using them.
Oh, I noticed you didn't mention the minerals that you get from your food scraps, they are probably far more important than the nitrogen to your plants.
Great post overall, I applaud you for finding your best fit solution.
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I'm a huge fan of vermicomposting. Last year, I built myself a 2' x 2' x 2' continuous flow through worm bin and it's been near perfect for disposing of my kitchen waste. Since I don't have any animals and there's only two of us, it's always been difficult for me to maintain thermophilic compost piles. The kitchen scraps come in too continuous of a flow and in too small of a volume to ever really get a pile hot without me saving up scraps in the freezer or something silly.
But worm bins have worked perfect for me. Whenever the scraps bin in the kitchen is full, I go to the garage and dump it on top of the CFT with an equal volume of shredded cardboard (I use a paper shredder I got a thrift store) and a sprinkling of crushed egg shells (ground with an old coffee grinder). The end result is a perfect consistency compost ready for seed starting, making container soil, or fertilizing our indoor plants. I hope this year to start experimenting with compost teas with my vermicompost and improving my soil in the ground.
The big wins for vermicomposting over other composting methods for me are:
- Easy to start small, there is no minimum amount of material needed
- Designed to take a continuous flow of waste, perfect for kitchen scraps
- Works great with cardboard, something I often find myself in abundance of
- With the right bin, almost no maintenance (the most I do is add a little wqter every month or so)
I think as you scale up, and especially if you find yourself with large quantities of manure, I suspect vermicomposting starts to become a bit more work than thermophilic composting unless you can find a use for the worms themselves (selling them, feed for other animals, etc). But for small scale, I think it's the ideal composting setup.