Top dressing gardens and lawns in the spring with vermicompost

The early spring in BC is inspiring gardeners to start their gardens now. Vermicompost makes an excellent spring top dressing. No need to till it under or water it in — Mother Nature does that for you. Our recommendations for using worm castings as top dressing:

  • a layer one inch deep around individual plants, or
  • 1/2 inch deep across a vegetable garden plot
  • 1/4 inch deep on a lawn

Later in the season, when there is less rain, mix your vermicompost with non-chlorinated water and give your garden a second application of vermicompost in the form of “compost tea”.

Winter care of compost bins

Depending on your climate, you may be able to keep a bin of red wiggler compost worms outdoors during the winter. My larger bins are kept outdoors here in Surrey, BC since we have mild coastal winters. However anything under 3 feet deep gets either insulated or moved into the shed. Even with insulation, outdoor bins will slow down in the winter as the worms become less active.

One of the advantages of worm composting is that you can keep a system indoors so that you can compost year-round. In many areas of Canada, a worm compost bin must be moved indoors in winter so it doesn’t freeze solid.

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Use of worm casting tea in dry weather

Vermicompost tea for Vancouver, BC Canada gardening

Making a quick batch of worm compost tea

Give plants in your garden and containers an extra boost in dry weather by mixing up some worm tea when you water. Vermicompost tea, made of worm castings and water, contains the nitrogen, phosporus, potassium (NPK), micronutrients and microorganisms that plants and soil need to thrive.

The easiest way to make worm compost tea is to mix a spadeful of worm castings into a watering can. More sophisticated methods for people wanting to cover a large area include using a container to mix worm castings and non-chlorinated water with molasses or animal feed. Aerating this mixture by stirring or with an aquarium air pump for a few days encourages the beneficial aerobic microbes to multiply. The idea is that if you infuse the worm castings with air and a food source, you increase its potency. This can then be strained, diluted further and applied with a sprayer.

Experimenting with different methods of making worm compost tea is part of the fun. (Nice to know that the castings-into-the-watering-can method works well for those of us gardening on a small scale.)

For tips on how to harvest your worm castings for use in making compost tea, click here.

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Featured Product: Worm Factory 360

Worm Factory ComposterWe’ve experimented with the Worm Factory 360 and find it a good option for those wanting to have a worm composting system indoors.  We found that this system is suitable for a 1-2 person household.  You can purchase extra trays for the Worm Factory but we find that stacking more than 4-5 trays squishes the habitat too much. So if you’re cooking for a family and have a lot of food scraps, you’d want 2 of these systems or else a larger outdoor worm composting bin.

Worm Factory 360 available in Vancouver, Surrey and BC

The composter will house a thriving population of worms to break down kitchen scraps. The worms start out in the bottom tray and move up through the system as you add fresh food scraps in a new tray on top. An excellent instructional manual with lots of tips and information is included.

 

Here’s a link to the Worm Factory 360 on Amazon.com

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Getting Worms

If you are new to worm composting, the main question you must have is where to get some of these special worms. The short simple answer is that you can order them from us. The longer answer begins with “they are everywhere.” But, the reason “everywhere” doesn’t include your compost bin is likely that enough time has not past to allow the right worm to find its new home and enough time hasn’t past to allow a small population of worms to grow in numbers to adequately process all the food you want to provide. What worm suppliers like us do is allow you to take a short cut to having a fully functioning worm composter. That being said, there are other ways to get started raising worms:

First, try your local craigslist. There are people who are happy to share the gospel of worm composting and pass on their extra worms for a decent price. You’ve hit the jackpot if you find someone who wants you to take away composted horse manure — it is usually full of red wiggler worms.

Also, if you have a friend that worm composts, they should be happy to give you some compost from their system and this compost will almost certainly have worms and cocoons in it. Introduce this compost to your bin and in a few months you will be on your way to a suitable population of worms. If you have a good friend, they may be willing to divide out a substantial number of worms from their own supply so that your bin can become operational sooner. But, remember that if you take worms from a friend’s system that is in balance with their needs, then you’ll be reducing their ability to compost their own food scraps for some time. As a general rule, you can assume that the worm population will double in 3 to 6 months if conditions support population growth. So, taking half their worms may effect their system for a few months.

Do you have access to an outdoor compost pile? Poking around the surface debris should turn up a few worms. The 10 to 15 cm red worms that inhabit surface vegetable waste are likely to be red wigglers or their composting kin. If you don’t see worms now and can come back later without arousing suspicion, try leaving some fresh food scraps to rot and lure the worms out. I’d use banana peels, melon rinds, cucumbers or the like — anything that decomposes quickly. Come back in a week and the worms should have found your food. Introduce what you find to your worm bin and repeat as necessary.

Another fine source of worms, which was touched on when we mentioned Craigslist, is the pasture. Surely, if you can find farm animal waste that has been piled and allowed to age, there will be worms working away at decomposing the manure. If you don’t mind manure, you may be able to find large quantities of worms this way.

One suggestion that I have heard for acquiring red wigglers, that I believe to be bad advice, is to go to a fishing bait store. While some bait stores may actually sell red wigglers, more often they’ll be selling night crawlers or dew worms. These worms live a different life style than red wigglers and will not perform as well in the compost bin. Also, bait is sold by a count of individual worms. Meaning you may be buying 2 dozen worms for a few dollars, but the pound or so that you need for composing would cost you hundreds of dollars. It is just way cheaper to buy them by the pound.

To summarize, a worm supplier will get your system up and composting quickly with the right amount of working worms saving you some time, but there are alternate ways to get started.

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Other sources of composting worms

Good news: worm composting is becoming increasingly popular! The bad news is that we can’t always keep red wiggler worms in stock. Other suppliers in the Lower Mainland BC include:

Wormworx
http://wormworx.ca/worm-products/worms/

Urban Worm Wonders
http://urbanwormwonders.com/index.html

All Things Organic
https://www.allthingsorganic.com

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Using dry leaves in a worm compost bin

Autumn leaves can be used with or in place of newspaper or cardboard bedding in your worm composting bin. They will be the carbon-rich brown component of the bin to balance out your green kitchen scraps.

If you’re just starting a bin, you can fill it with leaves, a handful of garden soil, red wiggler worms, and a pailful of kitchen scraps. When you add more kitchen scraps this fall, bury them in the leaves. The microbes in the leaves and soil will kickstart the composting process. The worms will take over and do the rest. If you look, you’ll see signs that the red wigglers have been reproducing and laying cocoons in the layers of leaves.

I like to wait for a dry day to rake. Then I store the dry leaves in a bin for use all winter.

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Worm composting in the classroom

Worm compost bins in the classroom are popular because not only are they fun, they compliment science curriculum and social responsibility goals.  Allowing students to dispose of their lunch scraps into a worm compost bin is a great goal. Here are a few tips:

  • Start new systems fairly early in the school year or else obtain a system that has already been established.
  • Lunch foods that can go in are fruits, veggies, bread crusts, rice, and noodles. Avoid meat, dairy, sauces, grease, or salty foods.
  • Remember that a pound of red wiggler worms can eat about 1/2 pound of organics per day in an established bin.
  • Having small groups of students take turns adding their lunch scraps works out best at first. As the worms multiply, more food can be added.
  • Check the moisture level weekly. The bedding should be moist but not wet.
  • Red wigglers will be fine if left over school vacations — just follow our vacation care tips first!

There are complete instructions for how to start a worm composting system here.

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Fertilize garden vegetables through the homestretch with worm compost

Vegetables that will continue producing this next few months benefit from continued fertilization. This includes squash, leafy vegetables and your fall or overwintering crops. Use worm compost as a side dressing or mix it with water to make compost tea. This is an excellent way to give your vegetables nutrition through fall.

Read more about the benefits of fertilizing with worm compost.

Purchase worm compost

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Summer is prime time for worm composting in Canada

Red wiggler worms thrive in warm temperatures and moist conditions! They reproduce most quickly and break down food scraps before you know it during summer. Keep your compost bin in the shade — it can quickly get too hot if exposed to too much sun. It is a good idea to check the moisture of bedding when you add food to the bin, or at least weekly.

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Sidedress your vegetables with worm compost

Cucumber in Surrey, BCGive your plants a quick shot of nutrients by adding worm compost to your beds during the growing season. Worm compost won’t burn plants like other fertilizers. I put a handfull of worm compost around the base of each plant.

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Ideal amount of worm compost to mix into garden soil is 20 percent

With the planting season beginning, it is a good time to empty worm castings out of your composter and add them to your garden. When adding your finished worm compost into your garden soil, a good rule of thumb is to mix 20 percent worm compost to 80 percent standard soil mix to promote plant growth.

There is information on the studies done on the benefits of composting with red wiggler worms on our Research Page.

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Tomato seed germination and planting experiment using vermicompost

This past fall I heard a talk about improved germination of seeds when they’re soaked in an extract or “tea” made of worm castings (notes on the talk are here). I tried my own experiment which I posted recently. The results, while in favor of the castings-soaked seeds, were inconclusive. So now I and am now trying again with tomato seeds that I’m sprouting indoors for spring. Here’s how it has gone so far:

Worm compost tea germination experiment in Vancouver

Forty cherry tomato seeds were divided into two groups. One group of 20 is soaking in dechlorinated water. The other 20 are soaking in an extract of worm castings and dechlorinated water. They were left to soak for 3 hours.


The seeds were planted in peat moss -- two per cell. They'll be at room temperature -- about 68 degrees F. At this temperature they should germinate in about 8 days.

The seeds were planted in peat moss — two per cell. They are at room temperature — about 68 degrees F. At this temperature they should germinate in a week or so.

Planting experiment with worm compost tea

Update: February 9, 2014. By now, all of the tomato seeds that are going to sprout have done so. These seeds sprouted so well that the results are inconclusive. The germination rates were about even with 18/20 seeds soaked in water sprouted and 17/20 seeds soaked in vermicompost tea sprouted. The next step will be to use vermicompost when I pot up these plants and see if it improves growth.

vermicompost tea, Miracle Grow and worm castings from red wigglers experiment

Update: March 5, 2014. To continue the experiment, we are potting up the strongest of the seedlings in Miracle Grow Potting Mix. The seedlings started in vermicompost tea will also have worm castings added to the potting soil.


Worm compost planting experiment

The largest 5 plants of each group were potted up at the beginning of March. The 5 non-vermicompost seedlings on the left were planted into 100% Miracle Grow Potting Soil. The 5 from seeds that were soaked in vermicompost tea on the right are planted in 20% worm castings and 80% Miracle Grow Potting Soil.

Worm Compost planting experiment comparison

Color: The five on the left planted in 100 percent Miracle Grow Potting Mix have some yellowing in the leaves. The 5 on the left planted in 20 percent vermicompost and 80 percent Miracle Grow Potting Mix have darker green leaves. The next step will be to pot these up again and place them outdoors when weather in the Vancouver area permits.

Vermicompost planting experiment


Update: March 26, 2014. After 3 weeks side by side under daytime grow lights there has been lots of growth. The 5 plants on the left were potted in 100 percent Miracle Grow Potting Mix. The 5 on the right were in potted in 80 percent Miracle Grow Potting Mix and 20 percent vermicompost.
Size: The plants in 100 percent Miracle Grow Potting Mix have some larger leaves. The plants in 20 percent vermicompost and 80 percent Miracle Grow are taller.

April 10: The seedlings were getting to tall for their starter pots.  Observation: The plants are roughly the same size at this point. The seedlings in vermicompost are still greener.

April 10: The plants in vermicompost are on the left now. I’ve moved them for repotting since the seedlings were getting to tall for their starter pots. Observation: The plants are roughly the same size at this point. The seedlings in vermicompost are still greener.

April 10: The tomato plants have been potted up into the same Miracle Grow Potting Mix as they started in. The plants on the left are in 20 percent vermicompost.

April 10: The tomato plants have been potted up into the same Miracle Grow Potting Mix as they started in. The plants on the left are still in 20 percent vermicompost.

In mid April, the tomato seedlings were moved outdoors into a cold frame with a glass top and door (not shown here.)

In mid April, the tomato seedlings have been moved outdoors into a cold frame with a glass top and door (not shown here.)They are intermixed, but have labels showing their soil composition.

Potted up again in early May - the strongest 4 of each were potted up for the rest of the season. The plants on the left are in vermicompost, on the right are in Miracle Grow Potting Soil.

Potted up again in early May – the strongest 4 of each were potted up for the rest of the season. The plants on the left are in vermicompost, on the right are in Miracle Grow Potting Soil.

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Other bugs that may come to live in a compost bin

There are many other insects and bugs that coexist with red wiggler worms in a compost bin. Most are harmless, a few should be removed.

 Sow bugs (gray isopods), springtails (tiny white collembola), mites, earwigs, beetles, and other species of worms all help in the composting process and will not harm your worms.

However there are some pests which should be removed or kept in check:

  • Centipedes will eat worms and should be removed with tweezers.
  • Slugs will not harm the worms but will lay eggs that can get on your plants — they can be removed by hand.
  • Flies can be a nuisance and can be managed by covering the food scraps with newspaper or bedding.
  • If ants are an annoyance, you can discourage them by adding more moisture to the bedding.

The main thing to remember is that worms cannot survive in a sterile environment. There are many organisms that are part of a natural composting process.

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Climate-smart agricultural techniques using red wiggler worms: article

Interesting article about agricultural practices using vermiculture in Columbia: http://www.trust.org/item/20140120142510-zo6pf/

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