Gardening is about enjoying yourself and enjoying the plants you grow. For some people, it is also a bit about self-sufficiency and maybe a little about reducing waste. That’s what worm composting is about. Taking your kitchen waste and recycling it, or keeping it out of the landfill, or maintaining the circle of growth and rebirth. If you haven’t considered using worms for composting, maybe you need to understand the reasons why it’s time to start and exactly how easy it is.
Why Worm Composting?
Composting is about turning waste into food for your plants. It is a vital part of organic growing practices. Most gardeners will compost outdoors in some sort of container that helps keep things neat. My outdoor compost bin consists of a couple of square frames contained in chicken wire. Some of my friends have the room to have a huge pile in one corner of their yard. Outdoor compost piles or bins are still important to have if you can spare the room in your yard without antagonizing your neighbors.
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Composting with worms, or at least the method that I encourage, is an indoor activity. You can feed the worms year round, no matter what the weather outside. And you can use the compost for your indoor plants and your seedlings.
Using vermicompost, the fancy name for worm poop or worm castings, offers lots of beneficial bacteria to help roots grow strong. You can consider it fertilizer, yes, but it is also about those microbes that help roots stay healthy and absorb nutrients.
Composting using worms is easy. Feeding a moderate amount once a week is usually sufficient. My worms have gone a month without a feeding and been fine. While regular feeding is best, if you go on vacation, unless it’s for months at a time, you don’t need someone to feed them.
The main thing you need to get started is worms. This may seem obvious but what I’m really saying here is that you need the right kind of worms. And you’ll want to purchase them. Don’t think you can run out into the garden and dig up a few worms, put them in a box, and voila, you have a worm bin. It may work to a point, but let’s look at a better way.
The kind of worms you want are red wigglers. They are smaller than the ones you find in your garden beds and they are voracious eaters. If you can find a local source nearby for red wigglers, I’ll be the first to congratulate you. If you want to get started this weekend and you can’t find a local source, please check out Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm. This site is all things worms.
Uncle Jim has all kinds of reference materials, books, and, the best part, absolutely everything you need to get started. I know I said all you need are worms, but you do need a place to put them and some bedding.
What can you put worms in? Pretty much anything that is big enough. There are all kinds of homemade bins out there. If you have two or more plastic totes lying around, you can make your own worm bin.
Homemade bins come in a variety of forms. I don’t have one so I won’t provide any photos of examples.
The idea is that you use one tote for the base. The base level tote will be where any waste liquid, or worm tea, can collect and be drained off. This base level usually has one drain hole where the worm tea can be removed from the container. This worm tea can be used as a fertilizer after it is diluted, but I prefer not to as it really is waste material. Each person decides on their own if they want to use this tea or dump it out, but the most important thing is that when building your own worm bin, you need to plan for it.
Every other tote will create levels where you’ll be feeding your worms. These bins will be where your worms live, eat, produce worm castings, and breed. One tote is used until it is mostly full and the next tote is added on top.
Essentially, what the worms need is a multi-level condominium where the dining room is always at the top. This is another reason why you need red wigglers. Unlike night crawlers, red wigglers want to be at on top of their worm world, where night crawlers prefer to live deeper in the ground.
I know that some of us are lazy. OK, maybe we aren’t lazy, maybe we just want to be more efficient. When I started worm composting, I wasn’t going to be bothered making my own house for the little critters. I decided to purchase the “Worm Factory 360” model. For some reason, when I introduce the Worm Factory 360, I always hear the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey playing in my head. You know the scene where the monolith shows up and they have that da-da-da-dum sound? That’s how I envision the Worm Factory 360 being introduced. Best part? Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm carries this model.
You truly don’t have to buy anything ready made to compost with worms—truly you don’t. And believe me, there are all kinds of different commercially available designs. Follow this link to find a sample of them you can find at Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm and use the pull-down menu under Order Stuff to find indoor or outdoor worm bins.
Buying something will help you get started faster and without the energy spent on design. All the instructions come with these contraptions so there really is almost nothing else you need. Except maybe for the worms themselves.
So now you have a home for your worms and you’ve ordered your worms, then what?
Let’s first choose the right location. The optimum temperature range for red wigglers is between 55 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit (about 13 to 25 degrees Celsius). Can they survive outside this optimal range? Sure but they may not be as active. Unheated garages could work for some geographical areas but I wouldn’t recommend it. Do you have a utility room where your worm bin will fit?
My utility room is in the basement where the temperature hovers around 58 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. A constant temperature within the optimum range for the worms ensures that they will stay productive year round. If you are worried about your worm bin stinking up the house, think again.
The bin is odor free and you won’t even notice it’s there. So maybe I’m a bit lazy or neglectful sometimes and forget to feed them. In those instances, the food scraps I’ve collected have begun to rot. I still feed the rotting scraps to the worms and the sour smell from the scraps is the only reason the worm bin stinks for the rest of the day. Once these old scraps are covered up with bedding, the smell is usually gone by morning.
The point is that the worms don’t create any offensive odors, my own forgetful laziness is the reason there are any odors at all. If you are better than I am about keeping up with the food scraps, then you won’t have any problem with odors at all.
Anyplace in the house where the bin can be out of the way and doesn’t have a huge temperature fluctuation would be fine. Many people in mild climates place their bins in a protected location outdoors.
Now you’ve set up your worm bin. The first thing you need to do is add enough bedding to cover the bottom of the bin.
Make sure the bedding you are using is moist but not dripping wet. Bedding can consist of shredded newspaper, coconut coir, shredded cardboard, or shredded paper bags. I always have a big bag of coconut coir on hand and supplement it with shredded paper. Shredded office paper works fantastic, and I’ve been using this free source of worm bedding for years. Old potting soil is also a perfect source for worm bedding. I often reuse potting soil but when it’s ready to add to the compost heap, I’ll use some of it for worm bedding.
Bedding should have nothing inorganic in it. For example, when I’m using worm compost in the garden, I’ll find things that I mistakenly placed in the worm bin. Examples of things I’ve found are labels placed on vegetables with bar codes on them. These labels must have some sort of coating (and glue) that the worms don’t like so the labels remain untouched.
Since I use shredded office paper, every once in a while, I’ll find shredded credit cards or computer CDs. I can usually find the tiny pieces before I place them in the bin since I use my hands to add the paper. Every now and then, though, I won’t catch these pieces of plastic until I’m spreading the finished compost. Anything you can do to keep inorganic items out of the worm bin will be helpful in the long run.
After you moisten and add the bedding, you can add your worms. As the worms are crawling around after being cooped up during delivery, you can place a few food scraps in the bin. Keep it to a minimum that first day and then add more the next week.
Worms will readily devour: vegetable peelings and trimmings, vegetables that are past their prime (clean out the fridge), fruits (no citrus), stale bread, pizza crust, crackers, egg shells (ground up), coffee grounds, spent flower blossoms and trimmings—you get the idea.
Do not feed dairy products, meats, citrus fruits, or anything that is very oily, such as avocados. I admit that avocados are a bit controversial amongst worm farmers. Some say they’re fine, other say absolutely not. When it comes to my worms, I err on the side of caution.
Be careful about feeding anything highly acidic, which is the reason to avoid citrus. Other items in this category include pineapples and tomatoes. You can probably get by with adding small amounts of these things, but to be safe I put these items in the outdoor compost instead.
And no hot peppers! Keep that spicy stuff in the outdoor compost heap.
Moisture and pH are important considerations when using worms for composting.
Moisture levels must be kept consistent or worms will die. This is done by adding moist bedding at every feeding. The food scraps are usually already moist and by adding about the same amount of moist bedding, you actually are doing two things at once.
First, adding bedding at every feeding keeps the ratio of green organic matter to brown organic matter to about 50 percent. This ratio is optimal to keep your worms happy. And by happy, I mean eating and breeding. More on happiness later.
Second, the ratio of 50 percent green (fresh or actively rotting) food scraps to 50 percent brown (coconut coir or newspaper) will maintain the correct pH. Worms will not survive acidic conditions, so prevent them before they happen. Don’t feed acidic foods and always add the same amount of bedding as you do food. If you do these two things, you should have a thriving worm bin for years and years.
Another important consideration is to keep the worm bin covered. This means two things. The lid should always remain on but should not be airtight. Directly on top of the worms (under the lid), place moistened newspaper as an added layer to prevent the bin from drying out.
The final considerations are sources of grit and some extra air flow. If you aren’t added finely ground egg shells, then you will want to add glacial rock dust to every tray. At the same time, add a handful or two of volcanic pumice to help provide air pockets.
The only maintenance your worms should need are feeding, adding bedding, adding grit and pumice to every tray, replacing or adding moist newspaper over the top tray, replacing the lid after every feeding, and draining off the worm tea when necessary. If you are interested in seeing how I feed my worms you can watch my video below.
Happy Worms Equal Happy Gardeners
I’ve been composting with worms in my basement utility room for about six years now. I’ve never added more worms and you shouldn’t have to either. How do you know if your worms are happy?
I look for a couple of things to measure the happiness level of my worms. First, are they active? About two days after the worms are fed, are there a lot of worms moving around when I peak under the damp newspaper? It should only take a day or two for the worms to move back to the top of the bin and start feeding again. If they are active, then I know they’re happy.
Are they making compost quickly? It shouldn’t take but a week or a little more before you see your food scraps start to disappear. If it takes any longer than that, you may have fed them too much at one time. Don’t fret, though, because they will adjust their breeding program according to how much you feed them. If you start feeding a larger quantity, it may take a little while for the breeding program to increase the number of worms necessary to consume the larger amounts of food.
Are they escaping? If you see lots of worms on the outside of the worm bin or on the floor around the bin, you know something is definitely wrong. The last time I had this happen, the drain spout on the bottom of the bin was clogged. More than one tray was waterlogged and the worms were running for dear life. It was an easy fix once I cleared the drain spout and all became right in their little world again.
Stop Reading and Start Doing
If you’re intrigued by the prospect of vermicomposting, maybe it’s time to just get started. You only need to follow a few simple rules and you’ll have some of the best compost you can imagine.
There is so much more I can tell you about this wonderful addition to your gardening routines. Yet maybe you’ve read enough so far. What’s keeping you? Don’t have the space? Ask a gardening neighbor to help with a location and then you can both benefit. If you love gardening, believe me, your plants will love fresh worm compost.
Have adventures in vermicomposting? Share your experiences by leaving a comment below.