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Join the Solana Center for a great course on how to start and sustain a school garden. As with any garden, composting plays an important role and will also be discussed in this course along with several other issues that are critical to school garden success. One of the class days will focus on a hands-on garden build, from the dirt up! Please contact Elizabeth for more information at (760) 436-7986 ext. 218 or elizabeth@solanacenter.org.

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Static composting can take as long as a year to complete. Since you’re routinely adding new material to the top of your pile and you’re not really mixing the entire pile, then you may have compost ready to use near the bottom of your pile. If you have the space or the means, access the oldest, lower layers of your compost. The compost is ready when it is dark brown, has a crumbly texture, and smells earthy. The materials you added to the pile should no longer be recognizable. A good and easy way to test if you’re compost is mature is by doing a bag test. Simply fill a baggie with compost and seal the baggie. Leave it alone for a week or so. To re-check your compost, open the baggie and smell. If it still smells earthy, your compost is ready. However if you smell ammonia or any off odors, then the microorganisms are still busy eating and you’ll need to wait longer for your compost to mature.

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Although chemical fertilizers give plants a quick,  lush growth boost they are soon depleted and actually leave the soil in a chemically dependent state.  The use of vermicompost as fertilizer adds living  micro-organisms to the soil and begins breaking down organic matter, making it nutritionally available to plants.  Surrounding and existing soil becomes  viable and sustainable; one begins to notice that the neighboring plants and yards improve as well.
When using vermicompost, mix it into the existing soil at the ratio of 5-15 % (vermicompost to soil), improvement doesn’t increase after 20%. With new plants, place a handful of vermicompost in the bottom of the planting hole. If vermicompost is not mixed into soil, but left on the surface, it quickly dries out and becomes crisp and useless.

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The Wriggly Wranch Worm Bin is designed with two different tiers. When the  first tier fills to the line inside the bin, you add the second tier and start feeding and add some new bedding. The worms will usually go wherever you are feeding them but oftentimes there are a few that stay behind. Here are a couple of tips from our Master Composters to speed up the process of harvesting:

1. Irresistible Foods Method: Add some melon or avocado to your bin. The worms will not be able to resist and will all  congregate in the same area  to eat. After a couple of days, physically move them where you want them to go.

2. Sun Method: Dump the contents of your bin on a plastic tarp outside in the sun. The worms do not like light so they will burrow to the bottom. You can even make cones of compost and take off the tops to speed up the process a bit.

3. Slurry Method: One of our Master Composters suggests putting some of your vermicompost in a bucket of water. Once in the bucket, the worms and compost will separate and you can quickly rescue your worms and put them back in your bin. Pour out the extra water and add your compost to your garden!

4. Waiting Method: Your worms will eventually move to other areas of your bin as long as you continue to feed there. If you happen to accidentally grab some worms with the vermicompost don’t worry too much about it. Red wigglers reproduce very quickly and your bin will not be affected.

Have any other tricks for harvesting?? Leave a comment and share them with us!

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The next Master Composter Course starts September 27th!

Learn the ins and outs of composting, meet new people, and teach others in the community about composting!

Dates: 5 consecutive Mondays – September 27th – October 25th

Time: 6-8:30pm

Location: Encinitas

Application Required: Please click here

The Master Composter Program is designed to extend composting information to the public through volunteers who have successfully completed a comprehensive training program. There is a $30.00 materials fee, payable at the first class session. There is also a required textbook, The Complete Compost Gardening Guide, by Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin. This book will be available for purchase at the first class for $25.00, or you may purchase a copy elsewhere.

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The latest edition of the Solana Center Composter Newsletter was emailed on September 1, 2010. This edition includes information about worm tea, composting tools, and upcoming workshops and events! Click here to take a look!

For a complete list of past Composter Newsletters visit the Composting 101 page. Don’t miss the next newsletter! Click here to join our mailing list!

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Do you own a Wriggly Wranch Worm Bin or a worm bin in general and wonder what the liquid that forms in the bottom tray is? It is worm tea, sometimes it is also called “worm castings” or “vermiwash.” You may not be aware but there are numerous benefits of using worm tea in your soil. Worm tea is a natural fertilizer which is used to promote the growth of plants. If you own a wriggly wranch bin, worm tea forms in the bottom tray that can be drained from the spigot. If you are a gardening enthusiast, you can use worm tea to replenish the soil with nutrients and protect plants from many plant diseases.

Worm tea has the same benefits as worm castings, but in liquid form. Castings are produced when worms break down the organic matter in the soil. It is also called “worm manure” or “worm humus.” These castings are present in the worm beds. When you run water through these castings, nutrients such as nitrogen, calcium and magnesium are picked up. The process of harvesting worm castings is called “vermicomposting.”

How to Make Worm Tea

For making worm tea, you will need a large bin or worm compost bin, such as the Wiggly Wranch bin. The bottom tray should have a drainage spout and holes for aeration. Soak a handful of worm castings in at least 5 liters of warm water. Allow the castings to soak for a couple of days. Next add a teaspoon of molasses (optional). Molasses will promote the growth of micro-organisms. If you feed your worms a balanced diet such as fruits and vegetables (no meat or dairy) they will produce the best castings and worm tea.

The water must be chlorine free because chlorine will destroy the “good” bacteria. To help conserve water, rain water is a good source of unchlorinated water to use. Pete Ash, an experienced gardener, long time master composter, and organic farming and gardening teacher, crafts a tea bag of the compost and vermicompost to soak in water. He suggests using an aquarium pump to keep the water aerated to stimulate micro-organism growth. Pete says, “The idea is to wash the microbes out of the compost into the water; adding a simple starch or sugar to the brew to feed the bacteria that are breeding. Use the wash water from rice rather then washing it down the drain.”

How to Use Worm Tea

The best way to use worm tea is to dilute it. Pete owns a few Wriggly Wranch bins. He dilutes the worm tea with 4 to 6 parts water (or more) for foliar spray applications. He also recommends using the tea within a couple of days and as it accumulates it may spoil. It is not clear to anyone how long worm tea should brew for, but if it smells bad you should not use it. Pete harvests his castings regularly because the mucus can build up along with bacteria and can actually become toxic for the worms. As Pete says, “No one likes to live in their own feces.”

Benefits of Worm Tea

Worm tea and compost is excellent for a garden. Pete uses worm tea as a foliar spray and compost tea as a field spray. There are many, many uses for worm tea. Here are a few ways to use worm tea to grow healthy fruits and vegetables:

  • Use worm tea as an inoculant for potting soil. The nutrients in worm tea help seedlings grow strong. It is suggested that inoculation should be done two weeks before you plant your seedling.
  • Plants that are grown with worm tea are healthier. Worm tea has many nutrients of food and medicine the plant needs to thrive. Plants grown with worm tea are also more nutritious than plants grown in soil treated with chemical fertilizer.
  • Worm tea also helps recover polluted soil. If you repeat the worm tea applications, the microbes will convert and metabolize organic and inorganic chemicals. The worm tea will help sequester the heavy metals found in chemicals.
  • Sometimes lawns can become sterile due to chemical treatment. Worm tea will repopulate the soil with microbes, enrich the roots and break down the thatch turning it into food for grass.
  • During hot summer days, worm tea can help retain water in soil.
  • If you decide to use worm tea as a foliar spray, it will help your plants produce more foliage and larger stems. This greatly helps plants that are lacking enough sun.
  • You may also add worm tea to a compost pile to speed-up the break-down process.

By using worm tea, you can help the environment by reducing and even eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers that can cause water pollution. Studies show an average American family produces a ton of waste each year. The estimate is 1/3 or ½ of household waste is organic matter (kitchen waste). If you vermicompost, you will reduce the amount of organic matter that ends up in landfills, help mitigate global warming and make nitrogen-rich organic fertilizer and worm tea for yourself. Vermicomposting is nature’s way of completing the recycling loop. If you are interested in learning about “the circle of life…the circle of rot” please refer to our March 2003 newsletter for a discussion of why you should compost, how this is improves healthy soil, which in turn creates healthy vibrant plant life.

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