Straw Bale Gardening with Easy Worm Mix?

April 10, 2015

I recently learned about a VERY cool gardening method called “Straw Bale Gardening” (yeah, I`ve clearly been living under a rock! This method has become very popular!). Joel Karsten (featured in the video above) seems to be one of the leaders in the field, and his Straw Bale Gardening website is excellent!

The reason I am SO excited about this approach is that it offers a “perfect” opportunity to combine vermicomposting with gardening! As I’ve discovered countless times, Red Worms absolutely love wet bales of straw and hay – especially once they have started to decompose.

I have written previously about Gardening With Composting Worms – and am a huge proponent of “vermigardening” – but I haven’t been this excited about a new method in a long time!

Needless to say, I’ll be testing out straw/hay bale gardening this season (have already been scouting out local sources of bales).

Easy Worm Mix offers the ultimate way to inoculate your bales with Red Worms, BUT let me offer you some words of caution if you are thinking about giving this a try.

  • DON’T use any sort of inorganic fertilizer on your bales (as described in video) if you plan to inoculate them with worms. Salts (including fertilizer salts) are very harmful for worms. Using some liquified manure, blood meal, or some other natural “fertilizer” will be the way to go.
  • Make sure you let the bales “cook” and age in general, before attempting to add the worms! Temperatures inside the bales can get very hot early on, and if you are adding a rich nitrogen source, there could potentially be a fair amount of ammonia released (which is also very toxic for worms). Ideally, wait until core is down to 30 C or below – and make sure you’ve given the bale a good soak as well (just in case there are salts in the manure etc).

    I will definitely be writing more about my adventures in straw/hay bale gardening once I get things rolling, so do stay tuned!
    😎

    Gardening with Composting Worms

    June 13, 2013

    One topic a lot of people seem interested in is that of using earthworms to add fertility to lawns and gardens. Unfortunately, many assume that you can simply dump a bunch of composting worms (or even soil worms for that matter) on the lawn or in the garden and they will miraculously transform lifeless soil into an oasis of nutrient-rich, loamy goodness! What’s perhaps even more frustrating is the fact that there are disreputable worm sellers out there – knowing full well that this is not a viable approach – who are more than willing to sell their worms for exactly these applications (thus helping to spread this misinformation even further).

    Well, the good news is that not all hope is lost! There are in fact ways to create worm-rich soils and even integrate composting worms into a typical backyard growing environment. If I might borrow a famous line from the movie, “Field of Dreams”…

    If you build it, they will come (or in the case of composting worms – ‘…they will STAY’)!

    So what is it that needs to be “built” exactly?? Some sort of rich, earthworm habitat.

    If you provide the worms with what they need to survive – or better yet, THRIVE – they will be more than happy to help you create beautiful, rich organic soil!

    In the case of soil worms, assuming you live in a region where there are some native species, this should simply be a matter of adding lots of lots of organic matter to your soil. Materials like composted/aged manure, fall leaves, grass clippings, even cardboard can all help. I’m not going to claim that the worms are going to appear overnight (although in some regions it may in fact happen pretty quickly), or that the soil is going to be transformed in a matter of days, weeks, even months – but if you work at it, and you don’t mind being patient, you could likely see some major improvements during a single growing season. Even more so over the course of several years.


    IMPORTANT NOTE: If you don’t have native soil worms in your region, it is NOT recommended that you add any purchased from bait dealers etc. It has been shown that various soil species, such as Canadian Nightcrawlers (Lumbricus terrestris), and semi-soil species like Lumbricus rubellus can have a negative impact on forest ecosystems in regions where they are not already well-established. The good news is that there is no evidence that composting species (Eisenia fetida/andrei or Eisenia hortensis) pose any threat. Some researchers (including one I personally communicated with) believe this has to do with a lack of cold tolerance in these worms. My own opinion (supported by another earthworm researcher I contacted) is that this is actually due to the fact that these worms are specialized for life in very rich organic materials – such as that found in manure and compost heaps. They are NOT leaf-litter-processing worms.


    If you don’t want to wait quite so long for a positive impact and/or you’re in a location that may be sensitive to invasion from soil species, you MAY want to consider various ways you can integrate composting worms into your outdoor growing environment. Here are some approaches I have tested (or are in the process of testing) that seem to offer a lot of promise.


    Vermicomposting Trenches & Pits

    Back in the spring of 2008 I (naively) decided to start accepting compostable food wastes from a very popular local restaurant. This amounted to 100’s of pounds of material I needed to pick up (and bring home) each week.

    It’s safe to say that my optimistic-enthusiasm was writing cheques my backyard couldn’t cash!
    😆

    Long-story-short, after filling up all my outdoor systems, and digging holes all over my property so I could bury the wastes, I started to realize I was in a bit of trouble! The overloaded composters, and various other “temporary” storage bins were starting to stink REALLY badly! In an act of desperation I decided to dig a giant trench alongside one of my gardens. Initially the idea was simply to dump everything in and bury it with soil – but thankfully I ended up with a better idea. I decided to basically set up the trench like a giant worm bin to see if composting worms could help me to process all these wastes I was receiving.

    As you might imagine, these trenches (I added more over time) ended working very well. Not only was I able to continue receiving (and processing) the restaurant wastes for the rest of the summer, but the growth of my garden crops absolutely exploded that season. It’s safe to say that the experience has completely changed the way I think about outdoor vermicomposting (and gardening)!

    If you are in a location where setting up a vermicomposting trench is a viable option, I highly recommend giving it a try. You may just end up as blown away with the results as I’ve been!

    For more information about vermicomposting trenches, be sure to check out these articles (on Red Worm Composting website – will open in a new window):
    The Vermicomposting Trench
    Vermicomposting Trenches Revisted


    Vermi-Fertilization Hubs & Worm Towers

    What’s interesting (looking back now) is that my original plan for the restaurant waste vermicomposting project had been to set up a series of in-ground bin systems using plastic garbage cans. For whatever reason (I can’t recall now) I decided not to go ahead with that idea, and that approach in general has sat on the backburner ever since.

    Until last week, that is!

    I decided it was finally time to test out this approach for processing wastes, and fertilizing plants! So I set up one of these bins in the middle of a small raised bed garden. Some would definitely claim that this is a big waste of space, but the fact is, I only ever planned to put 4 tomato plants in that garden anyway, so I think this was as good a location as any for testing this system out – and I’m very excited to see what this thing can do!

    If you’d like to learn how I created and installed this bin, be sure to check out this article (on Red Worm Composting website – will open in a new window) : Vermi-fertilization & Watering System.

    Another similar approach I later learned about is known as the Worm Tower. Here is a YouTube video that shows you how to make one.

    This is another approach I have been meaning to test out for quite some time now – and this year I’m finally gearing up to do so!

    I purchased a 10 foot length of 4″ PVC drain pipe (white stuff that already has holes in it) and cut it into 2 ft lengths (actually slightly shorter to compensate for the one flared end). I also got some 4″ pipe caps as well.

    I have yet to install any of these (rest assured I will write about it here when I do), but the basic idea is to bury these lengths of pipe in the ground – in close proximity to growing plants – and to fill with bedding and food wastes (among various other options). You don’t HAVE to add composting worms (since soil worms will likely invade these as well) but they are ideally suited for this sort of approach and will greatly help to speed up the process of converting the wastes into beautiful “black gold” for the plants.

    UPDATE: As much as I love the Worm Tower concept, unless you can find a pipe with a decent diameter (or simply use something like a bucket or garbage can), the volume is just going to end up being too limiting. These smaller ones can still work well-just be prepared for them filling up fairly quickly.


    One other similar idea I’ve started to test out recently is my pet waste vermicomposting system (RWC site – opens in new window). I wouldn’t set up a bin like this close to where food crops are growing, but it can be a great way to fertilize shrubs, ornamentals etc, or even dynamic nutrient accumulators such as comfrey (image in backyard composting section below shows how well one of my comfrey plants is doing), which can then be used for a variety of other composting/fertilization applications.


    Vermi-Mulch Gardens

    Another vermi-gardening approach that can work well – and one that’s even easier to implement – is what I’ve referred to as the “Verm-Mulch” (or “Garbage Gardening”) method. The basic idea is that you create a rich composting worm habitat zone up above the soil surface, and introduce composting worms to that.

    While these beds may be easy to set up, the trade-off is that they can require more attention during the growing season since they are more exposed to the elements. It’s important to continually add water-rich food materials and/or soak down regularly. As I’ve discovered, the plants alone can take a serious toll on the moisture content of these beds (with their roots growing right through them), so when you end up with a hot dry summer as well – they can become next to impossible to maintain.

    Still a viable approach to consider, though!

    I should also mention that simply adding lots of rich organic matter, like aged manure and/or food wastes to raised beds and planters can help you sustain a population of composting worms in them. My only warning here would be to make sure you water them thoroughly before adding the worms if using bagged soils to fill them (these can sometimes contain starter fertilizers which can harm or kill the worms). Also be sure to use only organic-based gardening methods.


    Regular Backyard Composters

    Most people would likely think of backyard composters as something completely separate from their gardens. The idea is usually to add wastes and then, months later, harvest compost that can then be used elsewhere. This is a perfectly fine strategy (and I recommend you check out “Backyard Composting with Worms“), but if you choose the right location for these bins – ideally close to where you’ll be growing plants – you can add a serious boost of fertility without the hassles of compost harvesting!

    Manufactured bins (such as the “Earth Machines” in the image above) are very easy to set up – again, I recommend reading my other article on setting up a backyard composter for vermicomposting, linked above – but if you take more of a DIY approach and get creative with the design of these systems, the sky is the limit in terms of the integration possibilities!


    There are a wide variety other ways to use composting worms into your backyard gardening (or even farming) systems, but hopefully I’ve at least given you enough to make you want to learn more, or better yet – feel the urge to try out one of these cool vermi-gardening strategies!

    Please DO share your own experiences/plans here in the comments section! Rest assured, I will also keep everyone posted on my own vermi-gardening (and related) projects this year!

    Worm Composting Trench Video

    April 5, 2010

    I’ve written previously about my vermicomposting trenches. Well, I’m happy to report that I was finally able to put together a video offering an overview of this approach.

    Hopefully this will help to inspire others to give vermi-trenches a try!
    8)

    Gardening With Red Worms

    July 14, 2009

    Bean Garden & Red Worm Habitat
    These may look like your average straw-mulched gardens, but…


    …they’re NOT! 😆

    During the several years of writing about vermicomposting online I’ve been asked quite a few times about adding worms to gardens/lawns to help improve soil quality, plant vigor etc. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to have the notion in their heads that if they simply add worms to their barren soil miracles will happen.

    Add to that the fact that the composting species (the worms I write about and sell) typically don’t do all that well in soil – being adapted for life in rich, organic materials – and the outlook becomes pretty bleak. The really sad part is that some unscrupulous (or perhaps overly optimistic?) compost worm dealers will actually still sell worms to people wanting to introduce them to their soil…[sigh]…but that is an entire subject unto itself!

    Of course, what people should actually be focusing on is improving their soil so that more worms move into the area (obviously if you live in an area completely devoid of earthworms you may in fact need to introduce some – but you definitely need to create a good habitat first!) – and the key to success??

    ORGANIC MATTER!

    I’m sure everyone remembers that famous line from ‘Field of Dreams’ – “If you build it, they will come”! Well, the same holds true for your soil – build it up with lots of organic matter, and native earthworms will gravitate towards it (again, unless of course there are none within miles of your location). Common sources of organic matter include grass clippings & fall leaves, but there are countless other possibilities such as manure, peat moss, straw etc.

    OK – so that is basically how you get your regular ‘garden variety’ of soil worms to increase in numbers and improve your soil. But what about composting worms? Is it AT ALL possible to add them to your gardens – and more importantly, KEEP them in your gardens?

    I’m happy to report that the answer is indeed yes…with a little bit of extra work and care on your part, that is!
    8)

    I’ve written previously (here and elsewhere) about my ‘vermicomposting trenches‘. This is certainly a prime example of how you can basically introduce composting worms into your garden. I love this approach because it’s not only great for your plants but it also represents an excellent approach for keeping populations of Red Worms (Eisenia fetida) outdoors. Unlike keeping worms outside in plastic ‘worm bins’ (a definitely ‘no no’ unless in the shade, and brought in for the winter), a trench is the ultimate protective habitat. In the summer it will stay fairly cool and moist, and in the winter (with a little extra protection) it will keep your worms alive during subzero weather.

    Are trenches (and the closely related pits) the only option for gardening with Red Worms?

    This is a question I’ve set out to answer this year, and I am optimistic that the answer will be a resounding “NO”!

    There are a couple of main approaches I am in the process of testing out. The first involves what I like to think of as a ‘living mulch’ system. The image above shows a bean garden that has been set up in this manner. Essentially, the idea is that you not only mix lots of rich organic matter (in my case, horse manure and grass clippings) into the soil, but you also then add a layer of Red Worm habitat over top of the soil. This is then covered with straw to help keep moisture in (and the worms alive/active).

    This so-called ‘habitat’ is the material I refer to as ‘compost ecosystem‘ – basically bedding/food material that most of the larger worms have been removed from. It is typically loaded with cocoons and baby worms, and usually has quite a lot of good vermicompost in it as well. Apart from the relatively thin Red Worm ‘biosphere’ on the soil surface, I’ve also been adding the ecosystem material to the planting holes, thus providing the worms with sheltered retreats during hot/dry spells (not to mention providing the young plants with a great environment in-which to kickstart their growth).

    So far I have been REALLY impressed with the results! In all honesty I have never been able to grow good bean plants – they always seem to be stunted or distorted, and end up producing a pitiful crop (same goes with peas). This year I vowed to become ‘master of the legumes’ (haha), and while I don’t think I’ll quite live up to the title, I do look like I’m on my way to having a bountiful crop of beans and peas. Obviously, I can’t say for sure how much of my success is due to my Red Worm gardening methods, and how much is simply due to better gardening techniques in general – but my hunch is that the worms are definitely helping!

    How exactly?

    Red Worms are an asset to your plants because they greatly help to speed up the break down of organic matter into humus and plant-available nutrients. Microbes of course are doing their lion’s share of the work, but without the worms mechanical fragmentation abilities, and unique gut environment it just wouldn’t happen nearly as quickly, or result in a material quite a special as worm castings.

    Moving on to my second (new) Red Worm gardening approach…

    Another method I am trying essentially involves growing plants in open vermicomposting systems. I was inspired to start doing this on purpose after several years of watching healthy plants grow out of my wooden backyard worm bin on their own (to read more about this be sure to check out these posts on the Red Worm Composting blog: Compost Bin Potatoes & Compost Bin Tomatoes).

    I’ve written already about my ‘Worm Bed Potato Gardens‘ over at RWC as well. Initially, I wasn’t all that optimistic about my chances of success with this approach. I assumed that the continual settling of material in the bins, coupled with the constant worm movement down below would make for a very unstable (and thus unfriendly) growing zone for the roots/tubers of the beans and potatoes planted in the systems.

    Worm Bin Potato Box
    Young potato and bean plants seem to be enjoying the compost-rich habitat provided by this worm box


    On the vermicomposting side of the equation, I also worried that the boxes would get too hot sitting in directly sunlight during the summer.

    I must say that I am definitely feeling a lot more optimistic about this approach now, several weeks after getting started. In fact, I’ve come to realize that this may very well be a downright excellent approach for growing potatoes. As a few people have pointed out, a great way to stimulate more tuber growth is to continue heaping up organic matter and soil against the stem of the plant. Well as it turns out, in the case of my worm bin potato boxes, this is exactly what is going to be happening. As the worms lower the level of organic matter in the bin, I will be continuing to add ‘food’ (in this case bedded horse manure) on top, so all the plants in the boxes will end up with pretty long stems, mostly buried in organic matter. I’m not sure this will be quite so favourable for the beans, but they do seem to be doing reasonably well, so we’ll see how it pans out.

    Speaking of beans…

    Laundry Line Bean Planter

    Another set of these planter-worm-bins are sitting at the base of my laundry line posts, and are being used to test the growth of pole beans. My hope is that I’ll end up with a massive overhanging growth of various runner beans. Apart from the laundry lines themselves, I’ll be adding some lines of twine between the two posts as well, so as to provide the beans with more growing space.

    I’ve often felt guilty about not using the laundry lines for their intended use a lot more often, but at least this way they are being used for SOMETHING!
    😆

    I should mention that the set-up of these bean boxes was somewhat different from the potato boxes. All I did in the case of the potato systems was fill wooden boxes with partially composted horse manure containing loads of Red Worms. With the bean planters I first added a thick layer of aged horse manure, then added peat moss and coffee grounds (with crushed egg shells to help offset the acidity of these materials), and finally topped everything with the ‘compost ecosystem’ material I talked about earlier. Aside from not having enough ecosystem material to fill both planters, I also wanted to make sure that the systems didn’t settle too much, thus behaving a little more like a normal planting box.


    As mentioned, I’m feeling pretty optimistic about my chances of success with the crops in my various ‘Red Worm gardens’, but we shall see how everything pans out over the long haul!

    Stay tuned – I’ll definitely be providing updates!
    8)

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    The 100 Foot Diet

    June 29, 2009

    I’ve been amazed by the fact that ‘buying/eating local’ seems to almost be a trendy thing to do these days. I feel like I’m hearing about it EVERYWHERE, which definitely gets me excited!

    I’ve been somewhat familiar with the “100 Mile Diet” idea for awhile now, but in all honesty, it wasn’t until this year that I finally really started paying attention. I caught a few episodes of “The 100 Mile Challenge” on the Food Network and it was really fascinating watching these normal families (out in BC) trying out this approach – and for the most part, benefiting a great deal in the process.

    Interestingly enough, my wife has become very interested in ‘buying local’ this year as well (after taking a holistic nutrition course), which has certainly helped to add that extra bit of motivation to really take this stuff seriously. I’ve always been the eco-head in the family, but sadly I can also be really lazy and lax with some of my earth-friendly practices. Now that my wife is onboard with all of this, I foresee us moving a lot more quickly in a positive direction.

    We’ve already been making an effort to learn a lot more about local farms and businesses that subscribe to these sorts of philosophies, and it’s been fun starting to break away from the run-of-the-mill grocery store fare when it comes to meal preparation. I should mention that I have plans to write about a lot of these local businesses etc here on the blog in an effort to spread the word a little more, and help to get things a little more active around here.

    As the title of this post might imply, one of the major things I am also focusing on this year is growing a LOT of our own food. I’ve always been a gardener at heart, and have even grown some decent yields of various summer staples (tomatoes, zucchinis etc) – especially last summer, thanks to my restaurant food waste project – but I’ve never really taken the time to get serious about gardening, and to learn proper organic methods etc. This year I decided it was finally time to do so!

    It’s kinda funny when I think about it now, but I’ve always day dreamed about my ‘ultimate’ small farm property, where I would finally be able to put down roots (no pun intended) and get serious about my sustainable gardening efforts. I always just assumed that as long as I was living in the ‘burbs’, there wasn’t really any point in going too crazy with all of this. Thankfully, I finally woke up this year and realized that A) we might end up being here awhile, so I might as well take advantage of that and B) I have enough ‘land’ and sunlight to create a pretty serious little suburban eco-farm.

    Of course, my outdoor worm herd is playing a very important role in all of this! I’ve written previously about my vermicomposting trenches. Well, I’m happy to report that these systems are back in action this year, and I have even expanded my trench network. I am also experimenting with some other wormy methods, such as living mulch and worm box gardens (hope to write more about those in a future blog post). I have been really happy with the results so far, and expect that we’ll have a LOT of produce available later in the summer. Thankfully, we recently bought a small chest freezer, so now we have some place to store a lot of the extra veggies.

    Anyway, I hope to write a lot more about all of this on the blog in coming weeks and months!
    Stay tuned!

    Almost forgot…

    One thing to mention for those of you living in Waterloo Region – if you are interested in the 100 mile diet challenge, it is my understanding that there is a group of people in Kitchener-Waterloo who are doing this right now. Be sure to check out the “100 Mile Diet Blog” put together by the folks at Healing Path in Waterloo. I’ve only had time to quickly skim over the content, but it looks really interesting! Once I’m able to spend more time reading, I may write more about it here.
    8)

    Vermicomposting Trenches

    April 26, 2009

    vermicomposting trench

    Last summer I wrote about my attempt to deal with huge quantities of compostable waste materials from a very popular local restaurant. As mentioned, it was certainly a serious challenge, and in the end I had to abandon the project since I simply couldn’t keep up with all the material (keep in mind, I live on a fairly small suburban property – haha).

    One of the really positive things to come from the experience was my discovery of the ‘vermicomposting trench’ method. In desperation, I came up with various waste-burial strategies since they seemed to be the best bet for reducing foul odours.

    To learn all about my fun with vermicomposting trenches, be sure to check out my ‘trench wrap-up post‘ over at RedWormComposting.com – there are links at the end, leading to the various other posts I wrote on the topic.

    Anyway, I’ve decided to use my trenches this year, and to create at least a couple more. I’m happy to report that I’ll be taking a much more leisurely approach however – I learned my lesson as far as biting off more than I can chew goes! I have been seeking out sources of organic waste, but am making sure I’m dealing with amounts I can handle.

    Unlike last year, farmyard manure will likely play an important role in keeping my trenches (and of course the plants) fed. Red Worms absolutely go crazy for aged manure, so it should be a win/win situation for sure.

    I check the status of the trenches recently, and was amazed to find loads of small Red Worms alive and well! I’ve seen how cold-hardy these worms can be, yet I still never cease to be amazed by how easily they seem to survive southern Ontario winters.

    Another material I’ll likely be using a lot of is coffee grounds. I was given a large quantity of them earlier this spring, and am hoping to secure a steady supply of them moving forward. Once it is wet and starts to decompose, the worms seem to go absolutely will for this material.

    As far as what I’ll be growing goes, I don’t think too much will change along the fence-line. I love tomatoes and zucchinis too much to trade them for something else. I was however thinking of moving my pumpkin patch from the sandbox garden (if you checked out those other trench articles you will know what I’m talking about) and growing some corn in this bed this year. Given the size of the sandbox bed, I think it will be more for show than anything – I certainly won’t get a huge crop of corn. But I DO like to have a nice demonstration garden, so it should be fun. I was thinking of growing runner beans along with the corn (the way the native indians did) – they will help to provide nitrogen for the corn plants, and can use the rigid stalks for support.

    I was also thinking of putting in an all-natural privacy fence of sunflower plants along my back fence-line. To help fertilize these plants I will run a trench in front of that bed as well.

    Anyway, I’ll certainly be writing more about all this as the season progresses.

    If you are looking for an interesting green gardening strategy and/or a great way to actually benefit from adding composting worms to your garden, this is an excellent approach. Obviously, adding LOTS of worms would be the best way to kit the ground running, but even inoculation with a bag of Compost Ecosystem would get your worm population started.
    8)