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DIY Urban Vermiculture Composting

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.

Why Compost?

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.

                         Step 1

• 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.

             Step 2

• 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.

                          Step 3

• 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.

              Step 4

• 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.

    Step 5

• Purchase worms, specifically red wigglers (Eisenia foetida or Eisenia andrei) or acquire a bag from a friend.

• 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.

   Step 6

• 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.

   Step 7

• 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.

What If:

Bin Smells

Check Conditions:

• 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

Check conditions:

• 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.


Seed School in Marin 2011 featuring Bill McDorman

Permaculture in Mayan communities: “just what I learned from my grandmother”

Rabinal, Guatemala: a report back from the Achi Maya ‘Qachuu Aloom’- Mother Earth project

by Juliana Birnbaum Fox, Sustainable [R]evolution project correspondant, with photos by Louis Fox

High in the mountains just 33 miles– but a 5 hour drive– north of  Guatemala City, the small town of Rabinal is dusty in the dry season.  Most people would assume that all of Guatemala was colonized by the Spanish.  The Achi Maya of Rabinal, however, managed to successfully resist the conquistadors until Guatemala achieved independence.  The Achi lived self-sufficiently in the region for centuries, yet the pressures of economic globalization and the violent political throes of the Guatemalan nation-state have forced change and assimilation.

The amaranth plant was sacred to the Maya for its life-sustaining properties, used in ceremony and a major part of the diet.  During the Spanish conquest, amaranth was banned and fields of it burned– those caught growing it could be punished by losing their hand, or even by death.  As a result, the grain nearly became extinct, excepting remote areas.  Among the Achi Maya, the cultivation of amaranth for cereal and flour was virtually lost over the past century as lifestyles “modernized” and more food was bought from the store.   In the early 1980s, Rabinal was targeted by the Guatemalan military in their policy of genocide against the indigenous Maya population.  The community endured some of the worst massacres of the civil war, leaving behind a shattered population without access to basic resources such as clean drinking water and medical care.

A local association called Qachuu Aloom (Mother Earth) has successfully brought organic amaranth cultivation back to the Achi, through a program of building alliances, seed saving, and a network of social entrepreneurs.  The project offers courses in permaculture, a seed library, and microloans to local initiatives.  Families “borrow” seeds and cultivate them with assistance from more experienced growers.  They can then keep some of the food they grow for their families, return the “borrowed” seeds, and sell the association the rest, which are packaged for market and help to fund the group’s programs.

The women’s circle within Qachuu Aloom was inspired by a community from the Chimaltenango region of Guatemala.  The women from a town called San José Poaquil had found a strong variety of amaranth growing in the garden of an elder woman, planted it, saved the seeds, and created a collective that became very successful selling amaranth all over the country. They were invited to come to Rabinal and teach the local women of Qachuu Aloom.

“I think we were so successful with that program because the women came and shared their stories—often stories of the violence that many of them experienced.  They all cried together, and also shared their success,” said Sarah Montgomery, co-founder of Qachuu Aloom.  Coming out of the war, when people were targeted and even murdered for organizing, there was a lot of fear and mistrust in the community that greatly affected the project.  “At the beginning, the women would hardly talk, and now some of them are out there speaking in front of large groups, presenting about our association. What made it work was that we were organizing with leaders who were from the community and trusted.”

The Garden’s Edge, a New Mexico, USA-based organization run by Montgomery and other social and environmental activists, has helped to fund the Guatemalan association, arrange cultural exchanges between Pueblo and Maya leaders, and establish permaculture projects.  Montgomery founded Qachuu Aloom with Cristobal Osorio Sanchez, a local farmer who lost members of his family in a the notorious Rio Negro massacres.  The violence claimed up to 5000 lives over a period of two years in relation to protests over a hydroelectric dam project.  A total of 38 communities were forcibly relocated close to Rabinal, and Cristobal, given a plot of degraded land, initiated a three year agricultural experiment.  He used organic compost to restore the soil of half the plot, while applying chemical fertilizers to the other half.

From his personal experience, Cristobal concluded that organic corn cultivation was actually more productive, as well as being gentler on the planet.

“We used to work the land using chemicals, but thank god we were brought information about the negative health and environmental effects of using them,” said Juana Raxcaco, an organizer with the project.  “We started this practice of seed saving, packaging and selling, and have seen great results.  We used to buy very expensive chemicals and our production was so expensive that we didn’t even make any money.  Now we are cultivating without having to buy anything, as we get seeds from the association, and we are making a profit from selling them back and are also growing healthy foods for our families, without contamination.  In this small village the movement has been growing and we now have 15 families with gardens—we started with two. We also have a women’s group where we continue learning.  We consume what we grow, and also save the seeds for ourselves and to sell.” 

“It’s a quiet revolution,” Montgomery observed.  “People are defending their own seeds from aid organizations wanting to bring in GMO seeds.  It’s about changing people’s minds.”

Program director Edson Xiloj came from Chichecastenango, another part of Guatemala, of the K’iche’ Maya.  He studied conventional agriculture at university before coming to Qachuu Aloom as an intern and realizing that he wanted to work with permaculture.

“Permaculture is about living in harmony with nature, not managing it,” Xiloj observed. “So it was a big change from my studies—most of the people I studied with are working for large agriculture corporations.  The principles of permaculture are like the principles of the pueblo.  Young people from traditional cultures sometimes think it doesn’t work anymore, but now the economic crisis is pushing people to look for alternatives in the way they are producing food.  Even more conventional development organizations are looking for alternatives.  Permaculture is not just agriculture, but a way of living—people are changing out of necessity.”

Qachuu Aloom is also a force for healthy, local eating, swimming against the stream of fast-food franchises pouring into the region.  At group lunches, traditional foods are usually served in an effort to re-value indigenous foods and re-educate people about their preparation.  When Xiloj asked his grandmother why people used to live so long, she told him it was from eating the indigenous “weeds”—like amaranth.

“Our grandparents planted what they needed most often right beside the house, using the “zone” system that permaculture formalized,” Xiloj said.

“We often hear people say, when they learn permaculture techniques, this is just what I learned from my grandmother,” Montgomery added.

Southern California Permaculture Convergence

The 2nd annual Southern California Permaculture Convergence is happening only one month away on April 29-May 1 in Malibu.
Dozens of permaculture speakers: Penny Livingston-Stark, Mark Lakeman, Larry Santoyo, Brock Doleman, Warren Brush, James Stark, Benjamin Fahrer, Darren Butler, Joan Stevens and so many more!  I have had the honor and privilege of studying under with Penny, Larry, Brock and of course James and this is a stellar line up of the most cutting edge permaculture teachers – what an exciting event!
There will be presentations on Mushroom Cultivation, Transition Towns, Time Banking, Raising goats, Intro to Permaculture and so much more.

A Kids corner going on all day Saturday with some amazing activities happening there. Mini Cob House construction, seed balls and rocket stoves, nature games and more. The kids will have a blast!!

Music from amazing local musicians, free giveaways, organic meals.  There is so much going on and yet ticket prices are just $125 for camping or $150 for bunkhouse (ask for special kids discount codes).

We're dedicated to the preservation of the genetic diversity in our food chain through the distribution and growing of open-pollinated seeds and educating about the life affirming art of seed saving.


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