Slender, slimy, wiggly worms. We all know they are good for the garden, and a fisherman’s best buddy. What you might not know is that they are also the ideal secret weapon for the compost bin. Those little wrigglers are constantly eating and pooping, recycling organic waste and bringing oxygen into even the densest material. With vermicomposting, you can easily – and affordably – harness all that worm energy to make terrific fertilizer.
This article will show you how.
What Is Vermicomposting?
Worms are not just good for catching fish or aerating dense soil, and there's a growing trend to raise worms. Why you may ask? Because the end product of worms is delightful!
Vermiculture is the science of raising worms – vermi means worm in Latin. Vermiculture is the practice of keeping worms with the purpose of making dark rich castings (that’s worm poop)! This nutrient-rich humus is an excellent source of nutrients for your garden.
You might not think about worm poop when you think about composting, but trust me, you'll want to start. Cultivating worms for compost is an easy process, and the results are hard to beat for the price. Plus, there's the added benefit of not having to use chemicals or pricey additives to make your compost exceptional.
Why Raise Worms?
Worms are surprisingly easy to raise and the resulting vermicompost is a wonderful mix of worm castings, humus, and decaying organic matter. It's nutrient-rich and makes a great organic fertilizer or soil conditioner.
Worm castings help the earth retain moisture and adds microbes to the soil, improving the texture and composition of your soil.
How to Get Started
What Type of Housing Do Your Worms Need?
You can buy a fancy vermicomposting bin or you can make your own. Some important things to keep in mind: you want your housing to meet the needs of the number of worms and amount of garbage you have to feed them.
For example, a 2-foot square plastic bin that is 8-inches tall can house enough worms and handle about four pounds of leftovers each week. A shallow container is best for worms. Worms are surface eaters and they will hang out in the top layers where the food is.
Worms need lots of air flow, which makes a wider shallow box better than a tall, layered box. Additionally, red wigglers prefer a shallow bin whereas an earthworm wants to dig deep into the earth.
Stay away from metal boxes, which can get too hot, and Styrofoam bins, which can release chemicals. Some woods, like cedarwood, contain oils that are harmful to the little wrigglers, so keep an eye out. Don’t use anything that has been treated with pesticides as this can kill your worms.
During the summer, you can keep your worms outdoors. In the cooler seasons, a heated area is best since warm temperatures are what keeps them working hard. During winter, you can raise worms in your kitchen, a garage or basement. They are most likely to feed in temps 60 – 80ºF.
Step One: Make A Simple Worm Bin
Step one is to give your worms a place to live. To get started with an easy vermiculture composting unit purchase a plastic bin roughly 2-foot by 2-foot by 8-inch in diameter. If you use a plastic bin be sure to drill numerous holes in the top as well as some in the sides.
You can buy a deeper bin if you want, but be sure to put in even more holes in the sides to keep air circulating. You also need holes in the bottom for drainage. When placing your worm bin raise it up on pieces of scrap wood or blocks and add a tray underneath.
You will want to place your worm bin in a warm area but away from sunlight. A shady area in a garden, below the kitchen sink, or a shelf in the back of the basement are all workable options.
Make sure to place your worm bin where the family cat can't reach it. You don’t want cat urine in your worm box!
If you have young children in your life then vermicomposting is a perfect learning experience for them. It is fun to use a clear plastic bin so that you can observe your worms at work over time. With a clear bin, you can see the layers of the earth and how the worms eat and mix the food and castings into the soil.
Step Two: Vermiculture Bedding
The next step is to make a bed for your crawlies. One of the great things about worms is that they are easy to please. You can use a variety of items for bedding. Some good choices include shredded newspapers, ripped up cardboard, leaves, and compost.
Worms' natural bedding is leaf mold, manure – all the things that make up a good compost pile. The key is to have the compost moist but never wet. It also needs to be light so that the worms can move around and do their job. Small amounts of peat moss help to control moisture but is acidic. Use small quantities.
Aged manure is best or fresh manure such as goat and rabbit that is on the dry side. Fresh horse, cow or chicken manure will produce too much heat and cook your worms. Don’t add wet straw or shavings from the stall. That would add too much moisture and ammonia.
Commercial worm bedding is available but obviously more expensive.
Fill your housing with two-thirds bedding that is light and fluffed up, less if you use a deeper container. You should have about two to four pounds of bedding for a 2-foot square container.
Add about two inches of water to the bottom of your bin and give your bedding time to soak that up. You want a damp, moist environment not a wet one so adjust accordingly. You can pour out excess water or add more dry materials.
Step Three: What Type of Worms are Best for Vermiculture?
Now it's time to pick your worms. Red wigglers, (Eisenia foetida or Eisenia andrei) are the most popular worms to use. Red wigglers are easy to find. They can be ordered online or purchased at your local bait shop.
Red wigglers are popular because they will reproduce readily in captivity. That means you can buy your “startup” batch and then raise your own from there. A thousand worms (a small quantity) is equal to about one pound.
Red wigglers are regular little workhorses. You can plan on a worm-to-garbage ratio of 2:1. If you start with the plastic container mentioned above, it will hold about one pound of worms. If you start off your bin with one pound of worms, you will need to feed them one half a pound of “garbage” per day.
Step Four: What To Feed Your Worms
Vermicomposting worms will love to eat chopped fruits and vegetables. Coffee grounds, tea bags, and eggshells are good. They can also eat most grains and bread.
One easy way to “make” food for your worms is to give them the trimmings when you cut up produce for your families salad. Worms will devour the outside leaves of lettuce, carrot peelings, and apple cores.
To add food sprinkle it on the top of the bedding and then cover lightly with dirt. Start by adding foods slowly and work up to more substantial amounts as you see the food disappearing.
What Not To Feed Your Worms
Worms aren't able to easily digest meats and fats. Meats and fats also start to rot and smell bad – not fun if you are vermicomposting in your house. Needless to say, don’t add anything that is not biodegradable such as plastic or Styrofoam.
Garlic and onions are also not easily digestible for your worms, so avoid those.
Step Five: Caring For Your Worms
Worms are the perfect pet because they need little attention. The key is to make sure that their environment is suitable. They should have good air circulation and a moist environment.
Keeping the vermicomposting bedding the right moisture level is essential. A natural worm bin will have little or no odor. If your worm bin becomes too damp, it may start to smell a little.
If your worm bin develops an odor, mix in some dry bedding. Shredded newspaper is a good fix or a small amount of peat moss. Then give the worms a couple of days without adding anything to let them catch up with what is available to them.
Step Six: Harvesting Your Vermicompost
Now it's time for the rewards. Every four months, you can harvest your vermicompost. To do this, you will need to remove the worms from the bin and then place your ready-made compost in a bucket or large plastic bag.
Separating your worms out can be a bit tedious if you take the time to root around and pluck them out. Although your young children may find this to be a fun game.
To simplify this process cover a table with a large sheet of plastic or vinyl tablecloth. Then gently dump your worm bin out onto the plastic.
Shape your worms and worm compost into a mountain. Using a bright light with a 100-watt bulb you can shine the light on the top of the mountain. Now take a five-minute break.
While you took your break, the worms were digging down to get away from the light. You can now safely scrap away the top layer of compost, checking for any stray worms.
Repeat this process until you have separated the worms from the compost. Eventually, you will have a bowl of worms and a bucket of compost. If you want to measure your breeding success, you can weigh your worms to see if you have gained or lost any.
Lastly, add fresh bedding to your vermicomposting container, place your worms back in, and you are ready to start again.
How to Use Your Vermicompost
I like to add a handful to the hole when I am transplanting seedlings. You can also use vermicompost to side dress a row of seedlings. Worm castings are mild and will not burn young plants.
Vermicomposting also works nicely for houseplants. Top dress your houseplants or add a few handfuls when you are potting them up.
A healthy vermicomposting system is an endless source of rich, healthy fertilizer for your plants, not to mention being a great way to get rid of kitchen scraps. It's an excellent way to keep a composting system indoors, too, since the worms appreciate the warmth and you'll appreciate having an easy place to toss out green waste.