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Composting 4, Vermiculture and Various Thoughts

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Composting 4, Vermiculture and Various Thoughts

Post by Forerunner on Fri Nov 20, 2009 7:41 am

I hadn't much considered worms in the earlier composting endeavors of my teenage years, though I did regularly pluck dew worms out of the nighttime yard and sell them to local fishermen as one of my earliest entrepreneurisms.
I always knew, likely due to conversations or object lessons with my father in my earliest years, that worms were a good thing.
Not until coming across the chapter on "vermiculture" in "Rodale's Complete Book of Composting", did I really give detailed thought to the subject of worms.
I do vaguely remember reading bits and pieces about the little guys in other publications, and there is quite a contrast in opinions out there concerning the value of the earthworm and the messages that their varying degrees of presence and activity in the soil convey to the horticulturalist.
Some authors put great value in both the worm, itself, and in what the worm's very presence in your soil might mean. Others--and this is what gets me--adamantly declare that the worm is too small and their numbers grossly insufficient to effect any measurable degree of benevolence in soil, compost activity or plant life, whatsoever.
I have made my own observations, and will dedicate this writing to both what I have experienced and what I have come to believe about the little guys.
Earthworms of all kinds possess and contribute to soil structure and fertility
immeasurable value. The excrement they leave behind as they pass through any soil type is said to be seven times more fertile than the surrounding soil.
That is noteworthy, to say the least.
The infinite and intricate maze of tunnels that they form as they pass from one place to another allow oxygen and moisture to travel freely, regularly as deeply as six or more feet in the ground. Now those worms--and the number of them that you might have working for you will determine time frames--are burrowing down into clay after having eaten a belly full of rich, organic matter. The steady exchange of such matter to the lower depths with high mineral clay brought to the surface must be one of the quickest ways that nature builds six feet of topsoil. All the worm asks for is adequate moisture and an organic bite to eat, here and there, and they will happily give their all to the soil connoisseur. Another benefit that the worm offers via his extensive borrowing is the gradual loosening of soils and breaking up of the hardpan. Some plant roots actually follow the tunnels in their deep and ambitious quest for lower lying minerals, and, during dry spells, water.
Therein lies another means by which worms greatly facilitate the introduction of organic matter far deeper than even our mechanized means care to dig. Those roots die in the tunnels and become food for worm and plant, alike, as they decompose. The whole notion of farming with worms has a positive snowballing effect that lasts for several years as the little guys get themselves thoroughly established in a new area.
The very presence of a large quantity of very active worms is assurance that the land is quite fertile and devoid of harsh chemical applications for some time previous. The absence of worm activity in what otherwise looks to be rich, black soil is a shameful testament to the harsh manner in which that soil is being treated by the steward.
As I've mentioned before, I came out here to clay, sand and timber soil. The land had been occasionally been used as pasture, and there was the occasional evidence of worms, but certainly no notable population. Their activity was only evidenced during heavy rainy seasons and there was zero evidence of the commonly sought after red wriggler, which brings us to one of my key observations....
I have always been told by book and "expert" acquaintance, both, that red wrigglers must be imported. They simply aren't supposed to exist in most of the natural world. My experience coincides with the maxim, "if you build it, they will come". I recall my first few compost piles. They were simple affairs containing mostly manure and sawdust. Digging around them and in the older piles always produced ample dew worm and smaller fellows for fishing, but the wrigglers didn't show up right away. It was after I had built the concrete bays against the house and fed those bays a steady diet of manure, sawdust, grass clippings and then kitchen waste that I got my big surprise. Sure, I knew the piles were there, but I wasn't in the habit of giving them or what went on inside them a great deal of thought. Compost was, well, compost. I remember well the day. There was a fresh supply of garden waste, both fruit and vegetable, thrown out on the piles. It had been sitting, uncovered, for a week or so. I went out to the piles to scratch around for no particular reason and upon turning over that fresh fare was shocked at the large wriggling ball of voraciously dining red wrigglers.
They came, seemingly out of nowhere, and they came by the hundreds of thousands.
Over the next few years, as I spread the piles on the gardens and fields, I would monitor the worm populations. At first, turning over the occasional clod or leaf would reveal a worm or two, but they would be few and seemingly far between. Just this last late summer, after the digging of the potatoes, I walked through the patch to see the few straggler spuds that the rains had turned up, and they were in the middle stages of rotting due to the excessive moisture. I kicked one of them over for no reason and was shocked again to find another surprise. If I cupped both my hands, I could not have held the number of red wrigglers that were feeding beneath just one, tennis-ball-sized, rotting potato. They are now evident in the bare, fall soil; even more so under the residual grass and wood chip mulches; but most of all under the watermelons still huddled out there in the corner of where the patch was this summer. There is a veritable wriggling explosion every time we pick up one of those grossly overripe melons to take to the chickens.
The regular worm activity in the compost piles by the house has also increased steadily, though said activity waxes and wanes with the seasons and with the level of decomposition that each pile is currently undergoing.
There is one pile that is composed of the late summer/early fall garden waste, topped with two feet of wet leaves for insulation, in which we routinely bury the contents of the sawdust toilet. That pile is warm just to hold my hand over without digging, and there are wrigglers scattered throughout it's warm and nitrogen-rich outer six inch layer. Deeper than that it is too hot for them. The pile at the opposite end of the three bay structure was completely decomposed, but rather than spreading it this fall (due to excessively muddy conditions for accessing the pile) I decided to keep adding to it. There is finished black beneath, where can be found the occasional wriggler. But, as in the garden, where there is fresh food, currently cabbage leaves, jalapeno and sweet peppers, tomatillas, egg shells, and etc. there is a wriggling ball lying just beneath.
Now, maybe some of those more skeptical authors only had a worm or two working for them. Maybe they were stingy with the groceries and the worms were on strike..... I really can't imagine why else. But by the sheer number of worms that are evident here I KNOW that they are breaking down the material I give them as fast or faster than the microbes, themselves.
They are spreading their rich enzymes throughout both compost pile and garden. Their dead bodies are contributing nitrogen to the more carbon-rich piles. They are one of the happiest worm populations on the planet and they serve the organic needs here with devotedly reckless abandon.
Now IF I were "trapped" in town with limited space and resources, I would definitely have an array of plastic tubs or barrels in my basement to feed and house as large a worm population as I could sustain, if for no other reason than to watch the kitchen waste melt into the bedding pack basically overnight, and to be able to run my hands regularly through the mess to enjoy the fellowship with all those wriggling and slimy little buddies. I really enjoy watching them, knowing what they are doing for the soil. I would regularly, and in season, facilitate the transfer of a few hands full at a time from breeding/feeding ground to garden. They are the quietest and least intrusive breed of livestock and I've yet to have a neighbor call because they are through the fence eating his corn......

A few thoughts that I've had since beginning these articles have come to me.
They will likely be found scattered and some may be redundant with what has already been written, but I'll share them as they come to me, all the same.

Always err in your C/N ratio in favor of carbon.
Carbon will always draw nitrogen to itself from the land and atmosphere surrounding. Too much nitrogen will lock up decomposition and putrify.

Your compost pile should be your first consideration for homestead waste disposal. If the worms or microbes will eat it, feed it to them. It the material is offensive, cover it with carbon. The worms will appreciate the resultant privacy as you will the lack of odor. Of course, less offensive and higher grade wastes might be better given to the chickens, pigs or other suitable feeders.

A word about chickens..... if you possess a particularly abundant supply of worms, and a particularly hard heart, and your compost piles are suitably bordered to avoid overt scattering of the contents, consider letting your chickens have the run of the pile every few days or so. The protein in the worms will make delicious and abundant eggs, and the scratching around does wonders for the pile as well as the birds' trace mineral needs.

Employ gravity efficiently. Everything on the homestead, whether it be fresh water, grey water or the slurry from a wet compost pile, flows down hill.
Locate the house below the spring, the compost pile below the house, the gardens below the compost piles. Let the rains work thereby for you, rather than against.

If the growing size of your compost operation takes on a life of its own, you will eventually witness a quantity of black liquid seeping from its downhill side. That liquid should be, at worst, seeping into the garden, and at best be contained and reintroduced to the upper layers of the compost pile. The liquid is extremely rich in nitrogen, trace minerals and enzymes and wasting it is a sin.
Dilute the stuff with water for a great compost tea.....

Build at least two piles in close proximity, and three if you are able.
Be constantly building the one, aging the next, and drawing off the finished latter of the three. Add a little finished compost to each layer of new. A shovel full every now and then is enough. That ensures adequate biological activity from the start.

A pile of pure carbon, i.e.sawdust, wood chips, old straw, dry leaves or grass clippings etc. can be converted to a full blown compost with the addition of animal urine, compost tea, the occasional dead animal, and immediate contact with already fertile soil. Allow it a little more time and watch the color over time. Black, nearly odorless and grainy at the finish is the key.
Finished compost consists largely of the dead accumulation of microbe bodies, hence the lack of evidence of the finished material's original components. They literally eat the raw material and die, adding, as do the worms, certain ezymic activity and trace minerals in the process.

Do not hesitate to add any of the normally taboo items to your compost pile, be they meat, pet wastes, fats, food grade oils, etc. so long as the pile is of sufficient size and balance to heat for several weeks or longer. A pile the size of two ample pickup loads would be an adequate minimum.

For those who may believe themselves to be in too short a supply of organic matter to undertake composting, never underestimate the value of weeds.
Most of the gardeners I know have a ten to one ratio of weeds to intended crops, by weight and volume. Those weeds are begging to be profitably employed in some manner or another. Before they seed, they make great on-the-spot mulch. During and after seeding, they make great chicken feed for penned up birds, as well as a great base to the best of compost piles. Use them as green as possible for their higher nitrogen content. Layer them with other dry carbons and occasional animal wastes, grass clippings and the like. Every weed brings to the table a different trace mineral package. Volumes have been written about what the presence and condition of various weeds in your soil might be trying to tell you.

The stinging nettle (urtica), for many and sometimes mysterious reasons, is an excellent addition to the compost pile, as well as highly nutritious potherb and tea, as well as most benevolent to soil and living vegetable companion plant. If it volunteers in the garden, let it grow and harvest it sparingly as you have need. It benefits everything around it except for your bare skin, and there has been much written that suggests that it may well be of high value there, as well....

If you live in drier climates, or if you are very frugal with your household water use, or if your compost piles are larger than average, you might consider employing your microbes and the carbon sponge of the compost material to soak up and filter your grey water. In wetter climates, all other criteria being equal, consider tarping the pile and using grey water exclusively for its irrigation. Reference Joseph Jenkins "Humanure Handbook" for all of the practical and bureaucratic details. You might be surprised what his research has done to pave the way for a more exploratorily permissive approach to the residential handling of grey water.
If I haven't mentioned his book, previously, I highly, highly, highly recommend it now.

For the hardcore, I will conclude with two more reading recommendations.
There is a pair of researcher/authors from the late 60's/ early 70s who have individually and collectively put out some very interesting reading.
They are Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird.
The two books I am recommending are "The Secret Life of Plants", and "Secrets of the Soil".

I was first introduced to the former by a very mysterious gift in late '04.
It didn't take me long to order my own copy of the latter.
At the time, I was dubious about the content of "Plants".
I mean, how many types of books about plants could there be ?

That book more than doubled my knowledge base and awareness of the natural world around me, period. You will lose most of your remaining blissful ignorance of a great many truths upon it's thorough digestion.
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Re: Composting 4, Vermiculture and Various Thoughts

Post by Sonshine on Fri Nov 20, 2009 7:43 am

Thank you so much for sharing with us. You are a blessing and a wealth of information.

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He who cultivates his land will have plenty of food,
but from idle pursuits a man has his fill of poverty
Proverbs 28:19[b]
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