My dad surveys the patch of land he groomed for our garbage garden.
Just when I thought I might have to scale back my restaurant food waste vermicomposting project – due to the accumulation of excess waste, with no place to put it – my dad came to the rescue, suggesting that we start up some composting projects on his property. He has a fair amount of available garden space and a lot more privacy than I do, so it should be a great opportunity to really test out some different methods.
Our first project will simply involve converting his old vegetable garden into a ‘garbage garden‘. My hope is that with enough food waste and ‘bedding’ materials, this system will make an excellent winter home for lots of composting worms, and will become the ultimate grow bed for whatever we decide to plant in it next spring!
Putting my dad to work digging trenches, while I barked commands from behind the camera (haha)
In an effort to really take advantage of the space, I decided to start with a series of shallow composting trenches. There will likely be 6 or 7 of these, covered with a thin layer of soil. Next we will start piling up materials directly over top of the soil. It is going to be really important to add LOTS of bulky absorbent ‘browns’, such as cardboard. Aside from soaking up and holding lots of moisture, this will help to maintain aerobic conditions in the bed. I will also be adding lots of straw, and brown leaves (once available in the fall) to cover up the waste materials and create more good habitat for the composting worms (and other helpful critters).
Should be really interesting to see how this pans out! So far so good. It’s been great taking a bit of a break from adding new materials to my own trenches and beds – it’s allowed the worms to play ‘catch up’, and has helped me avoid seriously offending any of my neighbours.
[tags]composting, compost, garbage, gardening, food waste, lasagna gardening, lasagna composting, worm bed, composting worms, compost worms, red worms, red wigglers[/tags]
Written by Compost Guy on July 30th, 2008 with 7 comments.
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I recently wrote (on the Red Worm Composting blog) about the ‘vermicomposting trench‘ systems I’ve been using to compost restaurant food waste, and to provide my vegetable gardens with water and nutrition all summer long.
One of these trenches was added to a raised bed garden I created this year. In an unexpected turn of good fortune, my wife decided that our backyard sandbox (aka ‘neighbourhood cat litter box’) was no longer needed, and granted me permission to do whatever I wanted with it.
Of course, among the first things to pop into my mind was some sort of worm bed to help me expand my herd of Red Wigglers. Given the extreme visibility of my backyard however, I decided it might be better to use it for some sort of raised bed garden – complete, with its very own worm bed installed in the middle (a reasonable compromise, I’d say).
While some might assume that the sand would need to be completely removed in order to make a good raised bed, it’s important to remember that I’m not a ‘good’ gardener (haha). Seriously though, given the fact that the soil in my yard is a pretty heavy clay, I thought it might not be a bad idea to use the sand to my advantage – simply mixing it with some of the soil I’ve been removing from my trench systems.
One important step along the way was to remove the thick landscape cloth that had been installed along the bottom of the sandbox when it was first built (by a previous owner). It was a bit of a pain – but on the plus side it provided me with the opportunity to loosen up the compacted soil down below.
After the landscape cloth was removed, the next step was of course the digging of the trench, which involved a lot of physical labour (something I’ve grown quite accustomed to this summer)! I didn’t end up measuring the final depth of the trench, but I suspect that it was somewhere between 2 and 3 feet. Deeper trenches will obviously hold more waste materials, but the deeper you go, the slower your waste near the bottom will decompose due to the lack of oxygen.
If you are going to use composting worms in your trench (definitely recommended, but not required), you might want to monitor the temperature (with a compost thermometer) in the trench for a little while after adding all the materials when you first set it up. There is a pretty good chance it will generate a fair bit of heat initially. I’ve added worms to all my trenches, but I’ve noticed that they seem to be congregated along the edges of this one, rather than interspersed throughout the materials – likely due to the larger volume of material (per unit length) that it holds, and thus the greater amount of heat generated.
Once the trench was excavated, the first thing I did was add a lot of ‘brown’ material. I lined the bottom with a layer of straw, then added a considerable amount of corrugated and ‘egg tray’ cardboard. This will help to soak up excess moisture dripping down from the decomposing waste materials and will help to balance the C:N over time as well. Speaking of which, since I am trying to build really active worm beds, and since I don’t want there to be any smell from the rotting wastes, I’ve chosen to add more brown materials than I would if simply trying to create a hot composting heap. Over time I suspect the C:N will decrease since most of the materials I’m adding on an ongoing basis are ‘greens’, but this won’t be nearly as much of a concern once much of the bed has become more stabilized and more worm-friendly.
I next dumped in my first batch of restaurant food waste. Some of the materials I’ve been receiving in abundance include: lettuce, broccoli stems, turnip peelings, egg shells, celery waste, apple cores and peels, and cabbage waste.
Over top of the organic waste I added a nice thick layer of straw. In general, my approach with these trenches has been quite similar to “lasagna composting” (aka “lasagna gardening”), whereby alternating layers of browns and greens are added. Some suggest that this is not really an effective composting technique, but I personally think it can work very well if composting worms are being added – since they will naturally help to mix everything up (ie no turning required).
This is a shot of the bed after I added quite a bit of coarse (worm-filled) vermicompost from my large outdoor worm bin. I spread the material around as much as I did partly to help the worms get distributed throughout the bed, but also to help reduce the chance of people smelling the rotting waste below. Compost has been used as an effective biofilter (the complex structure of humus has many binding sites that can trap odour molecules), so I figured it was worth a shot!
I should mention that for the sake of saving space (downloading time etc) I’ve left out some shots of other alternating brown/green layers added during the set up. The final layer was yet another thick layer of straw (although I’ve certainly added some more upper layers since then).
Here is a shot of the garden once the trench was totally finished and plants had been added (for a more recent shot, you can simply refer back to the one at the start of the post).
I’ve heard that potatoes prefer a loose, sandy soil, and I know from experience that they are relatively easy to grow, so I thought they would be a good choice. I transferred a number of plants from another bed (where they had popped up from last year’s leftover tubers), and also put in some sprouting chunks cut from some potatoes that had been sitting in my basement for quite some time. I made sure to add some vermicompost with each plant and sprout-chunk (for lack of a better term – haha) to help stimulate root production and overall growth.
By normal standards this would have been considered a pretty late planting for potatoes I suspect (early July). I did get some wilting of the transplanted plants during the heat of the day for the first little while (totally understandable), but I was impressed with how quickly the plants took to their new bed, and the sprouts started growing into small plants.
The other plants I decided to add were pumpkins. Again, I’m pretty late with these, but I can’t wait to see how they will respond with access to the big compost trench. They are actually giant pumpkins so I am hoping to produce some big ones for the fall. Aside from being a great crop for demonstration purposes (helping me educate people about my project etc), I’m also hoping to be able to make at least one or two nice Jack o’ Lanterns by the time Halloween rolls around. Once they get going I think they will do very well. The watermelons shown in my garbage gardening article really seem to be taking off, so I’m definitely optimistic.
For those of you who don’t have access to a large organic wastestream, it might not make much sense to install as extensive trench system as I have done in my yard, but do keep in mind that there are plenty of different materials you can add, aside from food waste. Grass clippings and green yard waste (weeds etc), fall leaves, cardboard and manure are all great choices. I’ve actually been adding all my grass clippings to my trenches this year (they are normally mulched back into the lawn). Aside from providing addition nitrogen (and other nutrients) they also help to provide structure for the worms.
In my opinion, it is best to treat your trench as a ‘continuous’ composting system vs a ‘batch’ system (for a comparison of these, see: ‘Continuous vs Batch Composting‘), but completely filling your system in the spring or fall, then simply letting it sit is certainly an option as well. Just keep in mind that the level of materials in the trench will continue to sink as the wastes are broken down and the water released, so you might end up with a noticeable depression.
As you can probably tell, I’m really excited about my new sandbox garden. Rest assured, I’ll be providing plenty more updates before the end of the season!
[tags]compost, composting, raised bed, raised garden, lasagna gardening, lasagna composting, worm composting, vermicomposting, vermicompost, worm compost, vegetable garden, pumpkin, potatoes, sustainable gardening, eco gardening[/tags]
Written by Compost Guy on July 25th, 2008 with 11 comments.
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..but my herd of composting worms are helping me look pretty good this year!
I’ve had an interest in ‘growing things’ for quite a few years, but to be totally honest I’ve never actually dedicated myself to the task of becoming a real gardener. In a sense, one of the things I actually love about gardening is the fact that you don’t really need to be a green thumb in order to make something happen. If you put some plants in the ground and give them some water, they will generally grow. This is why I strongly encourage everyone to give it a try – regardless of your skill level!
Still, when I see what serious gardeners are able to create, I can’t help but be a little envious. The problem likely stems from the fact that I’ve always preferred to do things my own way (not necessarily “by the books”), so I’ve never focused on learning all the proper techniques or the special requirements for different plants – I just ‘wing it’ for the most part!
Here are just a handful of things I do wrong, year after year:
1) My veggies always go in late
2) I never give any thought to the fact that some types of plants don’t grow well when planted close to one another.
3) I do little to nothing about pests and disease
4) I don’t do anything different for plants that are acid/alkaline loving
5) I often don’t provide enough spacing between plants (without using any ‘square foot gardening’ techniques to compensate)
6) Most years, I let weeds run wild – undoubtedly sucking up valuable nutrients and water that could have otherwise been used by my plants.
My gardening efforts have always produced fair to good results – and to some people who aren’t gardeners themselves, it might seem like I know what I’m doing. But when it comes down to it, I really don’t. Having a care-free attitude, while perhaps making my gardening efforts more relaxing and enjoyable, certainly won’t help me win any gardening awards!
This year has been a little different. I’m still doing a lot of things the wrong way, and lazily at that – but I’ve been more active in the garden, and more importantly, I finally unleashed my secret weapon – vermicompost!
It’s funny, I’ve been composting with worms for close to 10 years, yet I’ve hardly ever used vermicompost in my gardens. I guess this is partially due to the fact that I just haven’t produced enough of the stuff to really be able to put it to use outside, but there’s also my overall vermicomposting laziness to take into consideration!
This year, I finally decided to make an compost access door for my big outdoor worm bin. The bin was built two years ago, and has processed a lot of organic waste during this time – yet I’ve never removed any vermicompost from it. In a sense I am glad I waited – with the launch of my new composting business, it’s probably not a bad idea for me to have a decent looking garden, right?
The beauty of vermicompost (especially the material that is almost entirely worm castings) is that a little goes a long way. While many refer to it as an organic “fertilizer” (I myself am guilty of this), it is not really the N-P-K values that make vermicompost so special – in fact, from that perspective it actually looks pretty pathetic in comparison to a regular inorganic fertilizer.
Extensive research at The Ohio State University has demonstrated time and time again that there is something extra in vermicompost that helps to boost plant growth and overall health, above and beyond that provided by nutrients. They’ve demonstrated this by comparing the growth of plants that have ALL been provided with their full nutritional requirements (via quality inorganic fertilizer). Some of the plants are grown with vermicompost as well, while others are not. Not only have researchers found that vermicompost provides significant growth promoting effects above and beyond those provided by the fertilizer, but they also found that it can have a significant impact when it makes up as little as 5% or less of the potting mix.
Interestingly enough, plants grown in pure vermicompost (still with the required nutrients provided) didn’t do as well as many of the other treatments!
Is is important to mention that there are countless different types of vermicompost, and an endless range of maturity levels – like ‘regular’ composts, vermicomposts are not all necessarily created equal. Although the terms ‘vermicompost’ and ‘worm castings’ tend to be used synonymously, it is quite difficult to create 100% pure worm castings, which is technically the material that passes out the rear end of the worm (i.e. ‘worm poop’). Most vermicompost contains varying levels of castings, along with lots of other humified organic materials, and other materials not fully decomposed. Screening worm compost will obviously help to refine the mix, but it is still a stretch to claim that every last particle of waste material has been through the digestive system of a worm.
But I digress…
With all that being said, I don’t mean to imply that vermicompost can’t be used as the sole source of nutrition for plants. This year I have been doing exactly that, as well as incorporating various in situ vermicomposting systems into my gardens. The results have been outstanding! My tomato plants are already bigger than the maximum size they reached last year, and look like they will bear and abundance of fruit (I fed my plants with regular inorganic fertilizer last year). My honeysuckle looks more like the plant from ‘Little Shop of Horrors” (“feeeeeed me some worm poop, Seymour!”) than a climbing vine.
The list goes on…
I can only imagine how well everything would be doing if I was using proper gardening techniques and/or some slow-release inorganic fertilizers! Surprisingly enough, all of this is making me want to be a better gardener. I think it would be fun to see what is possible.
Time to hit the books, I guess!
[tags]worm composting, worm castings, vermicompost, vermicomposting, compost, organic gardening, gardening, garden, vegetable gardening, tomatoes, fertilizer[/tags]
Written by Compost Guy on July 21st, 2008 with 2 comments.
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Down below this jungle of tomato and snap pea plants lies layers of organic waste and lots of composting worms busily converting the materials into rich vermicompost.
As I mentioned a while back (and written about recently on Red Worm Composting), I’m involved in a pretty sizable restaurant food waste composting project this year. In a nutshell, I am receiving hundreds of pounds (per week) of fruit and vegetable waste from a very popular local restaurant and have been composting these materials on my property.
Given the quantity of wastes, I’ve had to get a little creative with my methods, and I’ve certainly discovered some methods that really work well, and others that…well…don’t work quite so well!
Most of my efforts have focused on various forms of vermicomposting. I have been adding lots of food scraps to my traditional worm bin systems, but I’ve also been creating a variety of large-scale outdoor systems to help me to deal with all the waste.
One simple technique that seems to be working quite well for me is what I refer to as ‘Garbage Gardening’ (although this name could actually be applied to much of what I’m doing in my backyard this year). Basically, you dump a bunch of waste directly on the soil, you then add a decent amount of good (composting) worm habitat, lots of worms, and some sort of carbon-rich mulch over top. The worms convert the waste materials into worm castings which in turn fertilizes the plants in a slow-release manner.
In some ways I kinda stumbled upon this technique accidentally. After doing a fair bit of ‘pit composting’ (aka – digging holes and burying the waste – haha) I was desperately looking for more places to get rid of food scraps. Initially I decided to take over two flower beds and convert them to worm beds, but after seeing how quickly watermelon seeds sprouted up out of the composting mass, it suddenly dawned on me that these beds could be used for more than just worm composting!
People often ask if composting worms can be added directly to garden soil to help boost fertility (the idea being that they will produce castings and fertilize the plants). Although I am continually trying to instill the idea that ‘composting worms are not the same as soil worms’, and I recommend that Red Worms be added to a worm bin not a garden, in actuality they CAN be added to your garden (or landscape in general), provided you create a nice habitat for them.
The humble beginnings of a ‘garbage garden’ – I’ve simply dumped a bunch of compostable waste materials on the soil surface
If you simply dump some waste on or in your soil and add a few composting worms, there is a decent chance some of them will want to stick around and feed on the organic matter. A better approach however would be to add a lot of prime worm ‘habitat’.
Over top of the wastes I added a substantial amount of well-aged manure, absolutely chock full of Red Worms.
This ‘habitat’ can either be a large quantity of materials (and worms) from an established vermicomposting system, and/or a nice mix of bedding/food that has been aged for a period of time (as I recommend when setting up a normal worm bin).
This way the worms have a nice place to call home – they don’t need to live directly in the waste materials or in the soil, neither of which is an ideal habitat for them (at least not in the case of food waste).
For this particular garbage garden I decided to add a layer of coconut coir to give it a more decorative mulched appearance. I ended up adding straw over top of this layer.
Some people may obviously be worried about the aesthetics of this approach – after all, who wants to have rotting banana peels and apple cores lying around on their flower beds? This is where your ‘carbon-rich bedding’ material of choice will come in handy. I initially decided to add coconut coir as a mulch over top of my first two garbage gardens. I was actually quite impressed with the look – from a distance it just looked like I had applied a layer of decorative mulch. The problem I had with this material however was that it was difficult to add new waste materials without it ending up looking a little rough. I ended up opting for straw once I got a hold of a supply of it. While it doesn’t look quite as nice, it is much easier to work with (easy to cover up the wastes).
Young watermelon plants that grew up out of the composting waste materials.
Aside from planting seeds and seedlings directly in the composting mass, you can also use this technique in garden beds where plants are already established. Although I haven’t tried it yet, I think this would be a great technique for mulching/fertizing shrubs and trees – the added advantage of these larger plants is that they would help to shelter the worm bed below from both heat and cold.
Adding new food waste simply involves pulling back the layer of straw and creating a shallow depression, dumping in the wastes, then covering it back up.
As far as how much material to add – that’s really up to you. Obviously, you don’t want to dump a cubic yard of food waste on top of your garden and hope for the best. This will work best when you add small pockets of food materials on an ongoing basis. Once it looks likes materials are rapidly breaking down you can add more. Given the amount of air flow, and the larger size (compared to a small indoor worm bin for example), you definitely don’t need to worry too much about overfeeding – but if you live in an area where there are a lot of backyard nuisance animals like racoons/bears etc you should definitely test this out on a small scale first, and be sure to bury your wastes fairly well.
Another method that I’ve been testing out quite a bit is what I refer to as a ‘vermicomposting trench’. I’ve been blown away by how well this technique has been working for me, and I’ll be sure to write more about it fairly soon.
[tags]garbage, organic waste, food waste, vermicomposting, worm composting, worm bed, composting, gardening, red worms, red wigglers, composting worms[/tags]
Written by Compost Guy on July 16th, 2008 with 8 comments.
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