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DIY: Composting – Reporter tries to get some black gold using worms

May 28, 2013 -

It’s often called black gold, and it’s easy to make. Well, relatively easy.

It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since moving to Central Oregon 10 years ago, and it’s something my editor thought would be a good idea, too. So about six weeks ago, I finally embarked on my do-it-yourself compost mission.Composting made perfect sense. Our family could use our kitchen scraps and waste and make something valuable. What could be easier?

The black gold is a rich natural nutrient for your plants. By using my own homemade compost, I could avoid chemical fertilizers this summer. I have visions of a bumper crop of tomatoes and herbs.

Of course, first I had to get through the naysayers. My daughter Kiki said, “Eww gross, you’re going to use worms?” My husband thought it would attract pests and deer.

Only my youngest daughter, Taye, 14, who watched “The Clean Bin Project” movie at BendFilm thought it was a good project.

“Yes, it’s a great idea to rethink waste,” said Denise Rowcroft, The Environmental Center’s sustainability education coordinator. “Thirty-five percent of the waste product in an average home is kitchen waste or organic material, and all this type of waste can be composted instead of going into the landfill.”

After buying my black plastic composting bins, which are called tumblers, I started to collect our kitchen scraps in a two-quart resealable plastic box.

I was surprised how quickly each day this kitchen box filled with banana peels, egg shells, coffee grounds, apple and pear cores, avocado skins and almost anything else you could think of. I did learn there are certain things you need to avoid putting in your composter.

“You definitely don’t want to throw meat scraps or most proteins in there, and definitely not fat or greasy items,” cautioned Rowcroft. “Breads and rice are sort of a grey area, you can throw those in the composter every now and then, but they shouldn’t have fats or sauce on them.”

Since collecting kitchen waste is not rocket science, I thought this would be the easiest DIY yet, but there’s always a caveat isn’t there?

The waste collection was going well in the kitchen. But, since we were coming out of winter, I was low on leaves and brown organic waste from the yard. I confess I used commercial peat moss in the giant tumblers with my kitchen scraps, which are known as green waste.

The science part of it is a simple ratio, aiming for one-third nitrogen (moist green materials, probably most of your kitchen waste) to two-thirds carbon (dried brown matter, like leaves, yard waste and shredded paper), this combination should allow organisms to thrive to help break down the waste.

Breaking it down faster

The Wonder Worman, Laurie Perez, delivered a pound of red wigglers for me, which Perez explained helps to speed up the process of composting. Perez charges $25 a pound for her worms, which is about 500 red wiggler worms.

“The great thing about using worms is they eat their own weight each day in food, which will be your kitchen scraps,” said Perez. “Being hermaphrodites, they also reproduce quickly and you can double the number of worms you have now in a few months.”

When you use worms with your composting, you don’t need to turn or mix the compost, as the worms will do the work for you.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know this until after I bought my tumblers. Perez explained I could still use the tumblers, but probably didn’t want to tumble these black drums too much and disturb the worms.

“The compost should have moisture in it, but it shouldn’t be really wet in there, you can drown your worms and kill them if it gets too soggy,” said Perez. “It’s also important to change the bedding in your compost bin for the worms. You can use shredded newspapers or even shredded office paper or peat moss.”

Perez cautioned not to put pine needles, pinecones or citrus items in the composting bin with the worms, as the environment can become too acidic.

Ideally, if you’re using the worms to help with the composting, it’s best to have a compost open pile, a one bin enclosed system, or a multi-bin system.

The tumbler bin makes it easy to turn the compost and, because the bins are black, the added heat within the bin can make the composting process go more quickly as things break down faster with the heat.

Heat is the operative word here. When I started this project, it snowed. I wasn’t feeling the heat when I went looking for the worms. I grew oddly concerned for the health of my worms. They’re actually quite fascinating. The worms seemed to be fine. The composting material was sort of warm, but those kitchen scraps just looked like they were being refrigerated in my compost bins. I was hoping all those organic scraps would be reduced to black gold after a few weeks, but alas Perez explained it takes at least three to four months.

In contrast, Rowcroft says she harvests her compost pile only once a year, letting her pile sit for almost a full year, and harvesting the black gold in the spring.

Patience is definitely needed.

Sun comes out

The warm weather finally came to Central Oregon a month-and-a-half into my compost project. I noticed every time I went out and fed the worms with my kitchen scraps, there was a bunch of fruit flies buzzing about as I opened the bin door. Honestly, it was a bit smelly in there.

What I wanted was black gold, what I seemed to be getting was a fruit fly breeding haven. Time to call the Wonder Worman.

“If you’re getting a strong odor from your composter, you need to stop adding food and let (the worms) consume what is already there,” said Perez. “The worms will break down the decomposed remains of the organic matter, and the valuable result will be nutrients like nitrogen, calcium, magnesium and potassium, which is in the compost that will enrich your soil.”

So in compost bin No. 1, for the time being, I stopped adding food scraps, and I started my second bin, even moving some of my worms to this next bin. I hope my transplanted worms are happy in the new bin I’ve started. It’s interesting and frankly a bit bizarre how much you start to care about your red wigglers. (Perez warned me that attachment to worms could happen.)

I’m hoping by August, the compost in bin No. 1 will be ready for harvest. Though every day I check to see if those watermelon rinds look smaller, but so far they don’t even look shriveled. The eggshells look the same as they did a month ago, too.

When to harvest

Perez recommended to stop feeding the worms for about a week after three to four months, once the bedding looks like dark soil, you’ll be ready to harvest the compost.

“One way to harvest is to expose the entire bin to the light, and let the worms crawl to the bottom. Then remove the top layers of rich compost,” said Perez. “While harvesting compost, search for yellow cocoons. Many babies are in there. Put the cocoons with the worms to start a new bin and begin the process again.”

Rowcroft often sifts her compost before using it in the garden.

“I went to Pac-It and bought these metal grates, that have about three-quarter-inch squares that allow us to sift out the bigger items that haven’t decomposed fully in the compost bin, like big twigs or an avocado pit,” said Rowcroft. “The compost we make is a great soil amendment for the garden, it’s great as a mulch to help plants retain moisture, and it works as a lawn top dressing.”

I’m hoping that with summer’s warm weather, the composting process will go faster.

One thing I have noticed other than the fruit flies, is the deer that seem to know something good is in the bins. I’ve got a small herd that likes to circle around the bins. I’m glad these bins lock.

The small amount of liquid that sometimes leaks out of the bins has made the wild grass underneath the bins quite lush, and perhaps that is what the deer are after now. If my tomato plants grow as well as the wild grass underneath the compost bins, I’ll be canning a lot of pasta sauce this summer.

Compost tea

Rowcroft explained that the liquid that comes off of the compost bins is called compost tea and this nutritional drink for plants helps them thrive.

“You can put some of your compost in a burlap bag, and let it steep in a large bucket,” said Rowcroft. “When the water is steeped, you can water your plants with this compost tea. What makes this so great is that, unlike fertilizers, it won’t burn your plant, but it still provides all these natural super-charged nutrients to help your plants grow.”

I’m quite optimistic about this DIY composting project and I’m keeping quite a bit out of the landfill, all the while I’m collecting compost for my summer garden. It seems like a win-win situation all around, unless the deer figure out how to open the compost bins.

“It’s easier than most people think,” said Rowcroft. “You can do it almost anywhere. It’s the one thing that mimics nature; it’s something that nature has been doing since the beginning of time. Composting has a real direct impact, and we all need to rethink waste.”

Items to compost

• Grass clippings
• Old plants and potting soil
• Shredded paper
• Leaves
• Flowers
• Fruit and vegetable scraps
• Coffee grounds, tea bags
• Eggshells
Do not compost …
• Meat or fish
• Dairy products
• Bread or grains
• Greasy or oily foods
• Diseased plants or leaves
• Noxious or invasive weeds
• Weeds “gone to seed”
• Pet feces

More information on composting:
www.rethinkwaste project.org
www.envirocenter.org, 541-385-6908
For more information on Red Wiggler Worms:
• Wonder Worman, Laurie Perez, 541-390-7610 or www.wonderworman.com

By Penny Nakamura / The Bulletin
Published: May 28. 2013

Editor’s note: This is an installment of the feature DIY Adventures, in which reporter Penny Nakamura tackles a home project and reports about the process.

Reporter: 541-382-1811, pnakamura@bendbulletin.com