Canada

Brian Minter: Vermiculture — using earthworms to aid in decomposition of organic matter — is part of the answer

Opinion: There are many who are both leaders and educators on how we can more effectively deal with the millions of tonnes of organic matter we create.

Red wiggler composting worms.

Composting dates back to our earliest gardening communities, when people realized the importance of building up their soils with leftover organic waste and nature’s gift of fallen leaves each autumn.

Composting is about the decomposition of a wide variety of organic matter — a process that is aided by fungi, bacteria and many different, naturally occurring organisms.

Today, with our busy lives and relatively small-space gardens, most of us dump our organic material into community-supplied bins to be picked up weekly and distributed to commercial composting companies. These companies have really improved their techniques for turning waste into viable soils for sale back to the public.

The Canadian Compost Council works with both municipal governments and composting companies across our country to co-ordinate how we deal with organic matter, to improve the whole process and to educate people on their responsibility to use organic waste in a positive, environmentally friendly way.

Today, there are many individuals who are both leaders and educators on how we can more effectively deal with the millions of tonnes of organic matter we create. One such person is Andrew Couzens, a computer systems analyst who resides in Chilliwack but works internationally. He started a company, called Terra Flora Organics, because he knew the whole composting process could be done better and much more efficiently. He also saw the potential of engaging Canadians, especially our millennial generation who have a deep concern for our planet.

Couzens realized that vermiculture — using earthworms to aid in the decomposition of organic matter — was part of the answer. Worms, particularly red wigglers, have a remarkable digestive system that produces a rich, probiotic compost like no other.

His company produces worm castings (literally earthworm manure) for commercial use and sells those precious red wigglers to folks for use in their own composting systems. He believes that, instead of so much organic matter going into collection bins, we should be taking advantage of this material to produce our own fabulous soils, as well as compost “teas” to fertilize our indoor and outdoor plants.

Couzens has introduced a worm composter from New Zealand called the Hungry Bin. This vermiculture bin has a capacity of more than 120 litres and can handle up to two kilograms of kitchen waste per day, which, when used properly with red wiggler worms, can produce high quality worm compost every 90 days. The beauty of this composter is that it can also be used effectively outdoors.

He adds about one kilogram of biochar (a charcoal-like soil ameliorant) that provides a rich home for microbes and aids in the decomposition process. The value of worm-produced compost can’t be overstated. When added to soil, it will improve yield, sequester carbon and produce a stable carbon that will last for hundreds-of-years. It provides balanced food for all plants and contains both micronutrients and beneficial bacteria.

Worm castings, basically earthworm manure, will greatly enrich your soil.
Worm castings, basically earthworm manure, will greatly enrich your soil. Photo by Terra Flora Organics /PNG

By adding water to the Hungry Bin and allowing it to drain through the system, a wonderful compost tea can be made that has comparable value to some of our best organic fertilizers.

I asked Couzens about the proper way of creating outdoor compost. He was adamant about two things: You don’t need to buy a fancy compost bin when you can easily make one yourself, and the proper way to do it is with a three-bin system. He believes recycled wood pallets, bound together with poultry wire, are a great way to make a simple bin. He emphasized the importance of creating a “layer cake” effect, using lots of coarse materials, like twigs between alternating layers of leaves and layers of vegetable matter. The size of the bins can be customized to suit your available space and the amount of material you would realistically compost in a year.

In the three-bin system, the first bin is the “hot” one, where heat is generated as the bacteria and other organisms break down the organic matter. The breaking-down process creates higher temperatures, which in turn kills many harmful pathogens.

The next bin is used to aerate, spread out and turn over the hot compost. The third bin is used to give access to red wiggler worms to consume this organic matter and turn it into some of the richest compost you’ll ever use in your garden.

This natural process can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months to complete, but it’s well worth the effort.

Couzens, on his farm, does this on a much larger scale to create and sell worm castings — a product he says is true “living” soil. When incorporated into existing soils, it performs like magic. For seeding, he suggests adding 10 to 20 per cent by volume to your seed starter mix and about the same proportion when planting or transplanting everything from vegetables to fruit and flowering trees. The improvement in the quality of your plants and their root systems, he says, will be quite remarkable.

Couzens is passionate about the regeneration of our soils by using natural, organic methods. His company sells the Hungry Bin, as well as red wiggler worms and worm castings. He is also heavily involved in educating folks and has partnered with Local Harvest, a 25-acre, no till market garden in Chilliwack to produce a fully virtual gardening course where 40 per cent of the content is focused on composting with the home and market gardener in mind.

He also works with both young and old on how to become far more environmentally friendly when dealing with organic matter, composting methods and vermiculture. For more information, including instructional videos, visit terrafloraorganics.com. To register for the gardening course, visit thelocalharvest.ca.

With today’s garden regeneration trend and the renewed dedication to bettering the environment, we’re lucky to have such a passionate young man leading the way.

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