DIY Urban Vermiculture Composting
What Is Compost?
Composting is part of the natural process of decomposition, that naturally occurs in nature. A compost bin functions as a digester that breaks down organic matter, allowing nutrients to be assimilated back into the earth for continual benefit. The final product that is produced is known as humus – often referred to as black gold for its ability to regenerate the soil, act as a natural fertilizer, aerate soil, prevent erosion etc. Humus contains carbon, nitrogen, in addition to, beneficial bacteria and millions of microorganisms. It is not static but rather completely alive. It is an excellent component to even out soil variations, absorb water and support plant and animal life while assisting in the production of soil – a critical element in our evolution.
Most solid waste in municipal settings is in large part food scraps. By composting of our food scraps, we drastically reduce our waste, which in turn, lightens the load on our landfills. Currently, our landfills are being exhausted at unprecedented rates. Landfills throughout our the country have closed, due to maximum capacity, forcing cities to truck or rail our garbage across state and international borders. Compost adds a rich nutrient to gardens, plant life and trees. Many city dwellers that may not have a garden to deposit their goods in, will donate them to neighborhood trees. When compost is placed on the earth, it helps to regenerate the soil of an immediate area, regenerating the soil structure and water absorption capacity. When gardens benefit from rich humus, the food will naturally thrive and produce healthy and nutritious food for you. There is no need to purchase synthetic chemical fertilizers that are contaminants your home, your health and the earth. Artificial fertilizers by pass the natural process with synthetic chemicals promoting the growth of weeds, disease and pests – while contaminating our health, and the air and water quality of a region. Balance For a compost pile to decompose properly, a sweet balance or proper alkalinity, must be maintained. There are two elements that are necessary in a compost pile – brown and green material. Brown consists of what is high Carbon (woody, dried leaves, sawdust, brown, paper, egg cartons). Green consists of high Nitrogen (fresh produce, grass, food scraps, grass clippings or garden prunings, tea bags, coffee grinds, etc). The balance should be maintained at a ratio of about 30:1 (Carbon to Nitrogen). It’s not as complex as it sounds, this variation is usually found in the range of food people eat.
Does It Smell?
No. Contrary to popular belief compost, when maintained under proper conditions, it does not smell. Finished compost will have the look, feel and odor of rich soil – depending on the conditions it may take from 6 – 12 weeks. Optimal conditions inside the bin are to be hot, but the heat will be generated naturally – it should not be left in direct sun. It can be stored in a patio, garage, basement, shed, or utility closet. There should not be an infestation of fruit flies either. There will microorganisms growing and even some mold may appear – these elements should break down.
What Not to Add: You do not want to add: dairy, cheese, milk-related products, meats, bones, chicken, whole eggs, fat, weeds with mature seeds, pet feces, pressure/chemical treated wood. Animal feces carries pathogens and should not be added to your bin. You can create one specifically for your dog, but do not use it on your garden. Do not add food that is too moldy. Only add organic matter and do not add non-organic garbage, plastic, metal or glass. Best to remove stickers, rubber bands and tags that are placed on food.
What You Will Need:
• Plastic Bin with tight lid.
• Order worms online or retrieve a bag of existing compost with worms from a friend.
• Newspaper – acts as the bedding and the carbon source, which will provide energy. The microbial oxidation of carbon produces heat.
• Drill – 1/4” drill bit.
• Fresh food scraps.
♦ If you want to harvest the worm tea, you will need:
• 2 bricks.
• A pan the relative size to the surface area to the bottom of the bin.
Rule of Thumb:
To determine bin size you need two square feet of surface area per person, or one square foot of surface area per pound of food waste per week.
• Source a plastic bin.
• 18 gallon bin accommodates 1 – 3 people.
• The bin can be as small as 1 gallon pale for one person. I made one for my sister that lives in NYC and she had a thriving compost bin. I made of a one gallon plastic pale and I used the same instructions for this one, but applied it on a smaller scale.
• A 32 gallon is perfect for a family for 4 + people. Try to find plastic bins at thrift stores or any used locations – I found mine in my dumpster!
The bin will provide the home of the worms by creating the optimum conditions to break down organic matter into rich humus or compost.
• Drill 1/4” holes all around the top and sides of bin. This will help to aerate the bin.
• Space holes about 3 – 4” on top and on the sides.
• Space holes on sides 3” apart in 3 rows – The holes are necessary to aerate the bin and allows the worms to breathe and allow oxygen to contribute to the decomposition process. Oxygen is an important part of the process, as it for oxidizes the carbon in the decomposition process.
• Drill 3 holes on each side of 1” lip of bottom of bin.
• Compost juice (aka castings) will be excreted from here.
• Place bin on grass and allow castings to enter soil.
• To harvest castings, raise with bricks over a pan or tray. It is highly recommended to collect this nutrient rich addictive.
• Collect the castings and dilute with water 1:20. Castings are the excrement of the worms and is a natural fertilizer, soil enhancer and plant food. The worms will not come out – they prefer to be where the food is.
• Find newspaper in your recycling bin or use any other carbon rich material ie: saw dust or brown paper bags. Newspaper is the most abundant material in an urban setting and an easy material to source. For this demo, I will be using newspaper as the source of carbon, should you decide to use something else, just replace it when newspaper is being called for. Straw is not recommended – length of time to break down is too long.
• Shred newspaper length-wise to 1” strips.
• This creates bedding for the worms inside.
• Acquire enough newspaper to fill the bin (the bedding will give the worms the brown or carbon component needed). The worms will also eat the bedding, you will need to add newspaper accordingly. As you notice it go down, add additional shredded newspaper.
• Place half of the shredded newspaper in the bin and soak newspaper to get all angels wet.
• Ring newspaper like a wet sponge. Remove excess water, this will help create the optimum condition for proper moisture levels – like a wet sponge.
• Fluff compressed moistened newspaper.
• You will begin using only one side and this will help in keeping the worms in one area.
• Using one side will facilitate during harvesting. The worms will adjust and procreate according to the size of the bin – within due time. It is important to purchase the proper amount of worms to facilitate this process.
1 lb has 1500 worms is good enough for 1 – 2 people. The worms will adjust to the amount of food being fed and will self regulate.
• Add food scraps to same side of bin.
• Do not add any meat, dairy, fat, oil, bones, feces. You can add organic material such as tea bags, hair, non-glossy paper
• Place only organic food scraps for compost used in gardens. Heavy metals found in pesticides and herbicides and possible GMO contaminated residue can stay within the decomposition cycle and be returned to your crops. This is your opportunity to truly know what goes into your food and your food supply.
• Do not add big pits, excess citrus or weeds. Weeds that are seeding can continue to spread if compost does not get hot enough to kill seeds. It must reach 130 degrees to be assured of this – best to keep it if you are not sure.
• Add the second layer of dry bedding over bin – covering the entire bin. This layer adds coverage and protection to the worms.
• Continue to replace this layer as it gets eaten.
• Place lid tight.
• When adding food scraps remove newspaper, add food scraps and once again add newspaper and cover with lid again.
• Newspaper should be fluffy and not compact and there should always be a layer covering the food and the worms.
How to Maintain:
You will need to turn the compost heap every couple of weeks, mixing all the ingredients on one side. This will assure that enough oxygen reaches all areas. Depending on the size of the bin, the amount of food and the overall condition of the compost heap, will depend on the amount of times you will need to turn it.
Start monitoring the conditions of your worms, moisture levels and overall appearance. You want to be able to gauge an issue, should one arise by simply looking at it – i.e. too wet or too dry. You will have a complete eco system, and it will self regulate as long as food is being provided and moisture levels are maintained. Keep in mind if you are only working with one side of the bin to try to keep contents ! ! on that same side.
How to Harvest:
Depending on the weather and conditions, your pile may take from 6 – 12 weeks. Once you begin to notice most of the pile become a rich dark humus, you may be ready to harvest. Crush egg shell and cut up your waste to give it more surface area – this will help in the breaking down process.
A simple way to harvest is empty the contents on a tarp and sift through it. The worms will crawl away from any light and into the protected space of an available pile. Another simple way is to scoop 1/3 of the humus and use generously. Don’t be concerned to take worms with you – that may be inevitable.
For those that chose to use one side of the bin, start adding new bedding and fresh food to the side that has been left alone. After a couple of days, all the worms will have migrated to the other side. At this point you will remove all the contents from the composted side and use.
If you are harvesting the worm castings as well, you will start to notice it in the tray, once it is ready. Collect what is there and dilute it 20:1 with water and use on your plants or garden.
• Is there enough bedding?
• Is there a material that should not be there?
• Is food exposed?
• How is circulation?
• Is it too wet/dry?
• Is there an imbalance with the amount of food added?
Check moisture levels:
If it is too wet: Add additional shredded newspaper – stop feeding worms. Wait till a balance has been reached before continuing.
If it is too dry: It may have become anaerobic – lacking oxygen. Add more food (produce) and consider adding some water.
Worms are Dying
• Is there enough bedding?
• Is there enough food?
• Is it too hot?
• Check moisture levels.
If it is too wet: Add additional shredded newspaper – stop feeding.
If it is too dry: Add more food (produce) and consider adding some water.
An easy way to collect your food scraps in your kitchen is by keeping them in a bowl or in a jar. Keeping it too air tight will cause mold. Make sure to not keep it out of the sun. Feed your worms regularly, this will assure them getting the freshest food and minimize smell and fruit flies. Storing it in the fridge is great option in hot and humid places; freezing is not recommended.
For more information on The Living Seed Company, check out our website.