By Chelsie Anderson
Sorting my vermiculture worms just now, a few thoughts ran through my head. My first thought? I love that I can compost year round in Calgary by using the indoor worms, especially since my outdoor compost piles are frozen solid and piling higher by the minute, it seems.
My second thought was that I’ve learnt so much about vermiculture over the years, mostly as a result of making mistakes. Some of which have been pretty major. My intention is not to scare anyone off from vermiculture. In fact my goal is to do just the opposite, to show you that all learning comes through trial and error, that this is part of the game of life, and that learning is fun! Today I can possibly accelerate your own learning curve through divulging two of my latest vermiculture mistakes.
Mistake #1: Moisture in the bins. Worms need to be kept moist, but not too moist. I always suggest maintaining a bin that feels like a wrung out cloth. With the plastic bins I have, I find the worms stay quite damp, since most of the kitchen scraps I add are full of natural moisture, and nothing evaporates due to the plastic. My mantra has become: add more bedding and less kitchen scraps for a more desirable outcome. Bedding is the dry stuff you add to a worm bin; peat moss, straw, leaves, cardboard, egg cartons and newspapers. I have been adding these dry parts extensively, and this has helped to dry out my bins, making the moisture levels more ideal.
So then I went and told a teacher not to add any moisture to her Grade 4 worm bin. When I returned 6 weeks later to collect the bin, she was feeling shameful and thought her worms had died. Upon closer inspection I found them in the very bottom tray all huddled together. The top two levels of her bin were dry like dust. I re-moistened the bin using melted snow, and now the worm population has come back to life and grown again, seemingly with no major harm done.
Mistake#2: Bedding. I became disgruntled with adding human made bedding products as I noticed one day after throwing in a whole newspaper that this freaked my worms out and they started running away. I decided that newspaper was too full of chemicals and dyes for worms, so ever since then I have suggested using “natural” bedding materials such as leaves. By adding leaves to a worm bin, slugs are sometimes imported, but they are easy to spot and pick out and have never caused major troubles, so I still recommend the leaves. Straw and peat moss are other alternatives. I wouldn’t suggest buying peat moss, as it is non-renewable, but if you already have it in your flower pots, then re-use it by adding it to your worm bin. Come spring the worm castings can be added back into your flower pot as a natural fertilizer. Perfect!
While this idea may have seemed logical enough, upon trial and error, I found it was full of error! Here’s where I went wrong: I started taking the contents of my client’s pots home with me, since they wanted their pots emptied and I couldn’t stand the thought of dumping the potting mix in the garbage. I added the contents to my worm bins and was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I never add chemicals to plants/soils, since I use organic practices, but my 83 year old client Sheila just wants her petunias to look the best, so she chemically fertilizes them on her own accord weekly. I added her end-of-season petunias, soil and all, to my worm bin and was amazed by what happened. The petunias seemed to come back to life and bloomed better than I’d seen them bloom all summer, even in the darkness of my basement. I didn’t fully understand the power of chemical fertilizers until I saw what happened next, however.
About two weeks later when I went to “harvest” some worms to bring to a classroom presentation I struggled to find any in the bin. I was used to having gobs of worms that were easy to scoop out by the handful, but suddenly they had become scarce. I realized it must have been due to the chemical fertilizers I had added to my bins by default. It has taken all winter for my bins and worm populations to recover from this shock. Today as I was harvesting some castings from the lowest level of my bin, I think I managed to remove the last of the contaminated materials much to my relief.
Chemicals are soil sterilizers I have been told, but I didn’t understand the power of chemicals until I witnessed it for myself over the course of this winter. A good reminder for many reasons. A good lesson, yet a tragic display of death.
For more information on vermiculture and how to have your own indoor compost bins register for Grow Food Calgary at growfoodcalgary.com today!