The Burrow Presents...


How To Breed, Raise, and Maintain A 100-Pound Stock of Worms in a Single Room


Part 2

Well, now that I got that off my chest...(See part one for clarification.)

My original intention when I set up this bin-system was to let the worms use the cardboard as both their bedding material and food supply. I had read a couple of books that made passing remarks about the suitability of cardboard as feed for worms, and one particular article that claimed worms raised strictly in cardboard grew faster, larger, and healthier than their counterparts raised in virtually any other manner. The author went on to say that composted cardboard was also the finest planting medium in existance. Considering the amount of cellulose contained in paper products, and the animal by-products used to glue the layers of cardboard together, I had no doubt that he was at least right about the feed value. Added to the fact that cardboard and paper make up roughly 35% of the Canadian waste stream, this idea was looking better and better.

Of the above-illustrated amount of paper and cardboard, Saskatchewan, who has a really decent reputation for devotion to recycling, is still letting over 90% slide through to the landfill. (The recycling industry is simply too young to handle these kinds of totals, as shown by the figures I received from Environment Canada for 1994, showing that only 8.5% of the available waste cardboard was being recycled.) It is interesting to note, when you add in the remainder of what the worms are capable of eating (yard and food wastes just for starters,) the total percentage of the Canadian waste stream that could be recycled into a soil additive (rather than being hidden under the soil), reaches an amazing 72 percent! I figured I might not be able to make much of a difference to the overall total, but maybe that guy was right who said Niagara Falls was only a big collection of single drops of water. (If it seems to you that I'm digressing again, I'm not. I might a little later, but this stuff really is crucial to the story I'm telling.)

As I said earlier, the first stage of this procedure took over a year to reach completion, and the main contributing factor had to do with the fact that I had absolutely no idea how difficult it would be to try and harvest eleven cubic feet of cardboard squares. (As you may recall, this was in the basement of my house. A very cluttered basement at that.) For the first nine or ten months, it was really no problem, since I merely divided the first bed into two, and then split those two into three approximately four months later. That's when things got interesting.

If you really want to witness a modern-day miracle, try looking at a large container of apparently first-rate soil, where only scrap cardboard had been a little over a year earlier. Sixteen months after I started, I was looking at not just one, but two containers of this nature. My musty old basement now smelled like a walk in the vegetable garden, which more than made up for an earlier mistake of mine which almost brought my vermicomposting efforts to a screeching halt. My ex-wife was obviously a remarkably understanding lady, or that marriage would have ended a few years earlier than it did. (And now I am going to digress, because this is the type of story which I'm sure many other vermiculturists will appreciate, and if you've never had a similar experience happen to you (and you're reading this article), then it can at least serve as a warning of what not to do.)

It happened like this...

By the time I got around to stretching my worms (bad pun) into the third bin, I had all but run out of those great little cardboard squares. There were no fresh ones left at all, and the first two beds appeared to be converted pretty much completely into castings. Being the curious type of guy that I am, I decided it was time to try a different approach (at least until I found a paper shredder.) Moving material (used) from each of the first two beds into the third, worms and all, I was able to fill two-thirds of the last bed to an adequate depth, leaving one third empty. I decided to use this portion as a feed trench, and selected compost as a feed material.

Since I was going to require at least 20-30 pounds of compost to fill this rather large area, and considering it was winter at the time, I decided to make the compost indoors. The idea did not seem as silly as it sounds now, since I had read at least 10 composting manuals which all agreed that the smallest size of a compost heap which would successfully heat was somewhere in the range of three square feet. I also knew from first-hand experience that odor would not be a problem as long as I let the compost have lots of air to prevent invasion by anaerobic bacteria. As it turned out, I was more than successful on the first attempt (though the second batch was something I'll probably never forget.)

As I said, the first attempt was a great success. Using food scraps provided by myself and several of my neighbours, dry grass and leaves which I had bagged up in the fall, old newspaper, and the contents of a vacuum-cleaner bag or two, I was able to fill the trench with very little effort at all. The worms wasted no time invading the mixture, and if I had remembered that old saying of my father's about not fixing things that work, everything would have been fine. The problem arose from the fact that the worms liked it so much, I decided to set up a similar situation in the other two bins as well. Requiring a lot more of the material to accomplish this task, and over-reacting to the fact that I had detected a slight heat coming from the original trench (I should have accepted that it did not appear to be annoying the worms in the least), I set about building a medium-sized container in which to mix the next batch of compost.

{I found a set of directions for a worm-bin in one of the books I was reading, and modified it slightly to correct a couple of mistakes in the plans. Anyone out there who is interested in building this unit can find the modified plans for it by clicking here. It will hold a 6-pound population of worms, and a little extra work (by those of you with any talent in this particular direction) will turn it into a really nice piece of furniture.}

After building the new container, I gathered the raw materials together, and set about brewing a new batch of compost, roughly three times as large as the first. To this batch, however, I also added about one third of a fifty-pound bag of some no-name dry dog-food. (My Rottie had previously convinced me that the only way she wanted anything to do with this stuff, was if she ever got a job paving someone's driveway.) Once all the ingredients had been added, I went upstairs, got cleaned up, and took my wife out for the evening (it was her birthday.) The evening turned out to be really fun, and I never gave a thought to my latest project the whole time. That was to change approximately one tenth of a second after I opened the door upon our arrival at home.

To say there was an aroma in the house would be a lot like saying Charles Manson had a slight attitude problem. The words overpowering, awesome, incredible, and oh-my-God all come to mind, as do terrible, frightening, and horrific. The words my wife came up with weren't quite as pleasant, and they didn't stop until I had managed to rectify the situation roughly 2 hours later. When I finally summoned the courage to go down to the basement, I was greeted by the sight of billowing clouds of steam pouring out all the openings in my newest container. (Remember I mentioned I was the curious type? Well, before I actually did anything about solving this problem, I stuck a meat themometer into the center of the material, and got a reading of 166 degrees Farenheit.) My two-hour solution consisted of transferring the steaming compost into large plastic bags (several of them), dragging the now-empty container up the stairs and out onto the back porch, then dumping the contents of the bags back into the container. Even though it was 10 or 15 degrees below zero out there, the material in the box took several hours to cool off, and at least two days to freeze solid. Needless to say, my wife was no more impressed than she was the day several of my worms decided to bail out of one of the hanging plants (which I had forgotten to water), and managed to land on her head. But that's another story for another day.

To be continued....

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Copyright 1995, D. Brian Paley
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