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Vermicomposting: What not to do

I planted my vegetable garden two weeks ago. I’ve already concluded a few things. First, I probably should have turned the soil deeper down than a few inches, since I imagine my root vegetables aren’t going to be too happy if they ever get around to growing. Second, don’t let overzealous computer nerds bent on automating everything decide how often to “irrigate” your garden. Even drip irrigation can be too much of a good thing (especially if the soil’s probably all compacted below four inches and thus doesn’t really drain properly). Third, if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s probably a good idea to start your veggies indoors since that way you lower your risk of not knowing whether you’re pulling weeds or veggie sprouts when your waterlogged garden begins to sprout in all sorts of places (between rows and over every square inch) it’s not supposed to. Fourth, treated wood is toxic and you probably shouldn’t grow food next to it. Anyhow… a good learning experience. My cucumbers seem to be sprouting, and the others are going to have to tough it out amongst the weeds, until they’re big enough to distinguish themselves. (What a disaster!)

But, onto the subject of this post as it’s titled. Vermicomposting. I’ve been doing this for almost two years now. I’ve turned out a couple of bins’ worth of compost. At first I had trouble with mites, and I figure now it’s because the bin was too wet. The mites went away, although I don’t remember consciously doing too much different. Last summer I had problems with indoor temperature. The bin was hotter than even the apartment, because decomposition in a closed in space produces heat (stick your hand into a pile of long sitting, rotting vegetation for proof of this). My worms started trying (and succeeding) to squeeze out every crack and hole in the bin. Some skittered across the carpet, but I quickly realized the problem because I knew that their temperature tolerances didn’t run into the 30 Celsius range, and it was 27 or so in the apartment (pretty much the upper limit of what red wiggler worms can stand), so it had to be hotter in the bin. I actually took the lid off just as some were getting out. I initially made quite a bit of an error in my haste to cool off the bin and prevent the creepy crawlies from running amok in my apartment. I put ice directly on the pile, reasoning energy would be taken up evaporating it and its melt-water, preventing the bin from overheating. Too bad there wasn’t enough heat to evaporate the melt water proportionately to how much I was putting in in the form of ice. My bin ended up with a ton of water I had to drain out of it, and a foul, foul smell. I was quite disgusted with myself and pretty sure I’d end up with an uncompostable, unlivable environment for the worms. I was surprised the worms had merely risen to the top of the pile and kept eating away. But things turned out okay. I stopped feeding the bin when it got too full and started a new one. I kept adding dry paper to the old one to sop up water over time and hopefully counter the foul smell and make the environment more manageable for the worms. Nearly a year later the top few inches had composted to black, wet compost, and was dug into a friends’ flowerbed (She wasn’t concerned about stray pepper or apple seeds or the worms, although I was a little concerned about these non-native worms being tossed outside. But hey, everybody else is doing it, so the cat’s pretty much out of the bag on that one. I know, it’s not like me to just give up like that, but basically I guess, deep down, non-native worms don’t seem much to worry about in the face of bigger problems). Unfortunately, as I scooped out the top few inches of compost, the smell got worse and worse, and at the bottom I found quite a bit of uncomposted, no doubt compacted, stinky and apparently anaerobic wannabe vermicompost.

The lesson here is obviously do not add so much water that you’ve messed up your bin. It is also that it’s probably a good idea to keep your bin from getting so full that it leads to compacting so that the bottom material cannot be easily moved through by the worms and microfriends that break it up. (I ended up keeping the bin cool by freezing 1.5 liter water bottles over night and putting them next to the bin during the day, and it seemed to work out.) However, I just turned the remaining bottom stink (for lack of a better word) and found a few seemingly evolved worms mucking around in it, even though it was difficult for me to pry the lot of it out of the corners of the bin. I added and mixed in a bit of dry newspaper for good measure, and I’ll check on it over time again to see how it’s going. There’s probably as much compost there again as I already scooped out, even though it was compressed into a much smaller, smellier space for months.

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