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I Have to Crap and So Do My Worms: How to Optimize Your Feeding Habits for the Best Vermi-“Poop”

I am willing to bet that anyone who has a worm bin has had (at least) one time where they said, crap that was a bad choice.  Am I wrong here?  I have made many of these mistakes if I am being completely honest with you.  My whole theory and methodology is to experiment and learn through personal experience and this has had me on the wrong side of fate on more than one occasion.  Live and learn, right?

I have overfed my bins, put frozen food into the bin without thawing (yikes) it first and I have added food that was too water rich without adding adequate bedding. That is just naming a few!  These mistakes created quite a few “nightmarish” situations for me.  Think mass exodus, smelly bin, bugs, and flooding out of the bottom of my Worm Factory (stackable tray system).  It is okay though!  With a few principle practices you can nearly eliminate the guess-work on how to feed the worm bin.

Why is This Important?

When feeding your worms, you want to ensure that they will be healthy and able to compost in the most efficient manner.  This will give you the best worm crap that the world has ever seen! That “black gold” is what we all look forward to when we start composting.  That flaky, dark, and nutrient-dense goodness for our gardens.  To get the perfect compost, you need to know how to feed and manage the bin so that you don’t end up with a stinky bin, wet bin or even a sour bin which kill off your worms.  Happy worms make the best vermicompost, mine told me so.  So, let’s break the process down into some key practices that will make life easy and hassle-free!

The 5 Most Important Feeding “Rules” to Get the Most out of Your Worms

I am sure that there are more than 5 methods and practices to make feeding the worm bin as fool-proof as possible but I chose the practices that I personally have tried, experimented with and implemented in my own indoor systems.  I hope that through sharing these with you, perhaps you will see an improvement in your own composting experience and maybe even learn something new along the way.

1. Try the Pocket Feeding Method

Think of your bin as a grid.

I learned early on from a very successful and well-known vermicomposting “guru” (Brian Donaldson) that feeding your bin in sections can be the best way to ensure that you do not overfeed, it allows for areas of the bin to be an “escape route” or “safe haven” if the bin gets too hot, sour or unfavorable to the worms.  This is my interpretation of the process, but be sure to check out Brian’s (The Worm Man) YouTube channel HERE for his explanation of how it all works.

The concept of pocket feeding makes life super easy.  It takes the guesswork out of how much or how often to feed your bins.  The idea is to break your bin or system into sections.  I usually break mine into four, but for larger systems, six might be even better.  Do what works for you!

Take for example a square bin.  Split that into four sections.  You feed one section at a time in a clockwise fashion with a relatively small amount of food (always better to err on the side of underfeeding).  You start in one corner and rotate each week.  The idea is that when you get back to square one (see what I did there?)  no existing food from that first feeding will be left, therefore you know it is okay to start the cycle over again.

By splitting your bins into pockets or sections, you always rotate feeding areas and can easily learn how long it takes your worms to consume a given amount of food.  This allows you to adjust feedings appropriately without the risk of putting too much food waste into the bin at any given time.  I don’t follow this method precisely to Brian’s description but I do feed in sections and monitor my feedings accordingly.

2.  Increase the Surface Area of Your Food Waste Before Feeding the Bin

This sounds fancy and confusing at first, but I assure you it is quite easy.  Microbes begin the breakdown process of food waste well before the worms move in and the more surface area available to them, the faster they can get to work.  Imagine placing a whole banana in the bin.  This will take longer to break down because the microbes have to break through the skin and get to the flesh beneath before the worms can do much of anything with the banana itself.

Imagine the same banana cut into small pieces.  By cutting the banana up, not only is the sweet and fleshy goodness available to the microbes right away, but the amount of surface area they can get to work on is vastly greater because the banana has been processed into smaller pieces.

I have been running experiments on and off testing blended food versus whole food in a worm bin.  Let me tell you, it is immediately apparent that the blended food gets eaten much more quickly.  You can check out my most recent experiment on this topic on my “to blend or not to blend” experiment.  Video one of this playlist can be watched HERE.

3. Use “Grit” to Help the Worms Process Food More Efficiently

Okay, so this isn’t tried and true as far as I know however it is important to have grit regardless.  Worms have a gizzard, much like a chicken.  Even humans need “grit” for proper digestion.  For us humans, grit=fiber.  For worms, grit can be sand, crushed eggshell, or even oyster shell.  This grit allows the food/microbes consumed by the worms to pass through their digestive tract.  The grit helps grind up the food in a sense.  This helps to avoid a potential disaster known as protein poisoning or string-of-pearls disease that kills the worms.

Protein poisoning is usually the result of overfeeding but it is suggested that grit plays a role as well.  If the worms are happily eating away but have no grit to break down the food they struggle to digest it.  This results in the fermentation process in the worms gut which creates a massive amount of gas that the worms can’t excrete.  The result is a worm that looks like it has been cinched off in pieces, much like a pearl necklace.  This can kill a whole bin very quickly, so adding grit makes sense.  Due to this malady, you will hear most vermicomposters are adamant that you should never overfeed (err on the side of caution) and add plenty of bedding and some grit with every feeding.

4. Freeze Your Scraps Before Adding Them to the Bin

This is a practice that isn’t entirely necessary, but serves a few purposes and I have found it to be quite helpful in my own venture.  As I collect my scraps, I put them in large freezer bags and when they are full, I let them freeze for a good day or two before adding them to the bin.

Why the added step?  Let me explain.  When you freeze vegetable and fruit scraps, it breaks open the cell wall of the food and once thawed, it is much more readily available to the worms and microbes within your bin.  Root vegetables are a prime example.  Try putting a potato in the worm bin and see how long it takes to begin decomposing.  It is more likely to sprout and try to grow than it is to decompose.  When you freeze it first, it softens and allows the microbes to get at it more quickly and it won’t go sprouting on you.

I have found that cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower are also nearly impossible to break down (it takes AGES) unless frozen first.  Not in a rush?  No problem, throw it in without freezing.  If you want to speed up the process, pop your scraps in the freezer first so that you don’t go grey waiting for the food to break down.

Another benefit of freezing is the reduction of bugs in the worm bin.  I recently added a pineapple slice to an experimental bin I am running on “forbidden worm bin foods”.  I didn’t freeze the pineapple first because I wanted to get the full effect it would have on my bin.  Checking in on it over the last two weeks I have tons of beetles (itty-bitty ones, but icky nonetheless) and fruit fly larvae.

No one wants to deal with flies or bugs, at least not in large numbers.  Once fruit flies move in, it can be a real pain in the backside to remedy.  Freezing food helps to kill off any fruit fly eggs that may be in the skin of our food waste, thus limiting the chance of an annoying outbreak!

5. Mix Up Your Food Options For the Worms to “Sweeten the Deal”

Okay, so this isn’t 100% necessary either, but it certainly helps.  If you want truly super-charged poop, don’t you want it to be as balanced as possible with multiple available nutrients for the garden?  I find that my worms prefer sweet and water-rich foods more than anything else.  I like to add fruit with almost every feeding because the microbes (and thus the worms as well) go nuts for sweet stuff.  Favorites of my worms include watermelon, cucumber, berries, bananas and oranges… yes, I recognize that citrus is considered a bad food that could acidify your bin or kill the worms, but I have found that in moderation there is absolutely nothing wrong with adding it to the worm diet and they actually enjoy it a lot.  More to come on the “Forbidden Foods” experiment.  Once it is complete, I will share the verdict on some highly controversial worm bin foods.

When feeding my worm bins I always take a look at what foods I have available and try to add a little something to satisfy their sweet-tooth and entice the ecosystem to get to work very quickly.  Keep in mind, if you don’t have anything sweet, that is totally fine however with a well-balanced diet, the castings will be richer and more potent in a wide array of nutrients.

The Takeaway

Implementing all of these methods may not be realistic for everyone.  You may be short on freezer space, you may be limited to certain foods based on your own diet or you may find that chopping the food up fine to create a larger surface area is a bit too time-consuming.  I get it!  This is simply a list of methods that I have tried that have helped my systems work quicker, better and with less problems than some other “standard” feeding methods.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of not overfeeding.  Keep in mind if you try the chopping/blended method that it is easier to overfeed, so err on the side of caution and add lots of bedding and plenty of grit with every feeding for a good carbon/nitrogen (bedding to food) ratio.  If you try just one or two of these methods, I would love to hear what your experience is.  Happy composting and be sure to optimize that poop!  You will have your worms flying through the waste in no time.

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Another Way To Look at Trash and Waste: Vermicompost That Crap!

Have you ever looked at the United States food waste statistics?  It’s sickening.

When reviewing the *USDA statistics, you will find that 30-40% of our food supply ends up as garbage.  Without widespread recycling or composting programs, a lot of that food ends up in our landfills.  This is a problem that all of us should care about.  I am happy that more and more people are becoming aware of this problem and playing their part in trying to combat it.

The average American wastes over 600 pounds of food per year.  Before you say, “no, not me!” consider all the food you leave on your plate at a restaurant, the amount of chips and salsa, bread, or crackers you leave on the table at restaurant establishments.  Think about that produce that rots on your counter, the leftover food that doesn’t get eaten or that whole bag of spinach that somehow gets lost behind the condiments in the refrigerator.

I have found since starting vermcomposting that my home itself (a household of 2) easily generates 2 pounds of scraps a week and that isn’t even including waste we generate when we eat out OR the the non-compostable items (at least indoors) such as meat or dairy.

It has been eye-opening.  I realize how JUST a small home composting system can in fact make a huge impact.  I am collecting food waste from three friends in addition to my own waste at a rate of 4-8 pounds per week.  That’s up to 416 pounds of waste a year that I am personally keeping out of the landfill.

Did you know that the United States ships a lot of our garbage waste overseas because of the limited space our landfills have left?  This is completely unacceptable.

Let’s look at this from another perspective.  Have you ever been to a Farmer’s Market?  A ballgame?  A buffet?  What do you think happens to all that uneaten or unpurchased food?  It spoils and in many cases is thrown away.

Walking out of a baseball game earlier this week, my friends and I were commenting on how all of the homeless people begging for money outside of the ballpark could benefit greatly from some of the food that will be thrown out after the game.  We can naively think that all of these establishments donate to food kitchens, but lets be real… most of that food will hit a dumpster tonight and those homeless individuals will go to their park benches or tents hungry.

Another conversation I had not that long ago was with a friend who works in a grocery store.  I inquired as to whether or not I could take some produce that was past its prime off of their hands to compost.  Do you know what he said?  Policy doesn’t permit it.  Liability issues demand that they throw it all away.

How can we fix any of this?  I wish I had the power to sway company policies all on my own but I know that isn’t realistic.  So, to all the companies who donate to food kitchens or have waste programs: I commend you!  To those that don’t… I encourage as many people as possible to write to their local grocers and encourage them to reconsider their policies.

After learning all of these things, I have found a side of myself that I didn’t realize I had.  I never considered myself a tree-hugger or environmentalist but I assure you I am reformed in my mindset and priorities.  I no longer have any guilt about produce that turns… I know that it is going to good use.  I now have organically grown vegetables indoors AND out.  I am helping to reduce my carbon footprint.  I am helping HEAL the environment by rebuilding the soil structure on my modest property.  Composting is the coolest thing that I have ever started.  Hands down.

Did you know that a portion of carbon emissions are actually produced by the process of treating our garbage waste?  How?  Well, it takes trucks to haul, it takes water to process, it takes space to store.  Methane gasses are released in this process further harming the environment.

Consider this… if each one of us could get five people to start composting, even a pound a week, that would be 1,825 pounds of waste WE personally helped to save from hitting the garbage.  If I can convince five of you to do that, over 9,000 pounds of waste will stay out of the landfill.  Consider that when you think that small composting projects don’t make an impact.

What’s the benefit of vermicomposting in this equation?

Vermicomposting speeds up the composting process exponentially.  Let’s be honest, how many of us keep up with the lawn-waste compost pile?  To work ideally, you have to keep a very calculated carbon: nitrogen (bedding to food) ratio in order for it to work the way we hope.  The beauty of indoor (or outdoor) vermicomposting is that the worms help the process work much faster.  I create several gallons of compost each month with ease and NO downtime during the winter months.  No measuring my carbon:nitrogen ratios, just listening to my worms based on the health of their bins and it’s pretty darn easy at that.

If I fed my 10 gallon bins aggressively, I could easily handle a pound of food per week.  Due to the multitude of systems that I run, I tend to run fairly conservative on how much I feed, but I know my systems could handle more in most cases.

I challenge each of you to run even a single 10 gallon tote and see how much waste you can keep from hitting the garbage.  I bet once you get started you will be just as addicted as me and be searching out additional food sources to compost before long!  Let’s be a part of the solution.  Let’s lead the revolution… let’s be the change that our environment needs so much!  I hope that my children one day will be able to enjoy a healthy planet, so I will continue to do my part as long as possible!

Some small changes make a huge impact:

1. Save all of your scraps and compost them in whatever method you have available.  Worm composting (vermicomposting), the outdoor compost pile, bokashi, etc.

2. Drink tap water- use a Brita filter or something similar, but avoid buying plastic water bottles on a regular basis.

3. Recycle whatever items possible.  Be it newspapers, plastic bottles, metal cans, or food… do what you can!  No amount is too small.  Reuse glass containers.  Be creative!

4. Buy worms!  My worms are the greatest investment I ever made.  Better yet, find someone local who will sell you sone worms or even give you some to start out… this eliminates the need to utilize the mail system.

5. Bypass the straws, plastic silverware, paper plates and styrofoam. Try buying bamboo silverware to take to work instead of the plastics, use reusable metal or glass tumblers.  Use your own plates, glasses and reusable straws.

6. Grow your own food.  Part of the methane and greenhouse gas emissions are created by the trucks, planes, trains, boats, etc. that transport our food.  Have some space on the side of the house?  A balcony that gets sun?  Try your hand at gardening and bypass the middle-man and know where your food is coming from!

With just a few small changes and creative ways to utilize your waste, you too can be a part of reducing the stress on the environment while repairing the soil and creating the best organic fertilizer on the planet!

 

*Statistics from the USDA that are discussed in this post can be found at: https://www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/faqs.htm