I Got Worms! Composting & You

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As Lloyd Christmas so profoundly shouted “I got worms!” in the comedy classic Dumb and Dumber, having worms isn’t as bad as it may sound. Though he was referring to the name of his worm store, we are referring to vermicomposting.

Composting is catching on as “going green” becomes the norm, and worm composting is a great first step before you commit to a large compost pile.  But you may wonder wonder, why compost in the first place? Well, we’re glad you asked…

Composting is one of the most satisfying types of recycling based on the fact that, unlike that plastic bottles you send to the recycling plant, you can watch this recycling process every step of the way. In addition, the waste reduction impact can be huge.

In fact, the U.S. EPA estimates that each American throws away an average of 1.3 pounds of food scraps daily. The combination of this  food waste, along with yard trimmings, makes up 24 percent of our nation’s municipal solid waste stream.

Vermicomposting is simple to setup and minimal maintenance is required. Not only is it a great option for your trash bin, but it’s also a perfect way to fertilize your household and garden plants!

Only a few things are needed to make good worm compost: a bin, bedding, worms and worm food. Photo: Flickr/Mely-o
Only a few things are needed to make good worm compost: a bin, bedding, worms and worm food. Photo: Flickr/Mely-o

Sound intimidating? We thought the same thing, so we decided tobreak it down” and tackle it one step at time.

What is vermicomposting?

“Vermicomposting” is using worms to decompose your organic waste. “Vermicompost” is a mixture of decomposing food, bedding and castings (worm manure). Plain and simple, when worms eat organic waste, it is excreted in the form of nutrient-rich fertilizer.

Vermicomposting is different from other compost systems because it can be done inside, requires less maintenance and space and produces more fertile soil amendments.

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What are the benefits of vermicomposting?

Just to name a few:

  • Recycling kitchen food waste – Waste disposal costs are reduced and you send less to the landfill, plain and simple.
  • Producing soil amendments or fertilizer – Vermicompost is much more fertile than products of other composting methods.
  • Education in your backyard – Watching nature do its thing can be entertaining and fascinating – regardless of your age.

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Where can I vermicompost?

One of the greatest benefits of vermicomposting is its versatility. You can set up your bin indoors or outdoors, as long as it remains at a temperature between 40 and 80 degrees. Try to avoid overheating or freezing by keeping the bin out of direct sunlight and indoors during cold months. Some good places are kitchens, garages, patios and laundry rooms.

Establishing worm compost bins in workplaces and schools is a growing trend. Start one by setting up the bin and encouraging your co-workers or students to contribute their food waste.

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Flickr/amymyou
A variety of bins can be used for your composting system. The best materials are wood and plastic. Photo: Flickr/amymyou

How can I get started?

Just like any recipe, the key is in the ingredients. Lucky for us this recipe is pretty simple. Your base is your bin, mix in some worms, add a splash of bedding and stir in your organic waste…viola!

Bin

You can either buy or build your worm farm. Ready-made plastic bins are available at many retailers and garden centers.

If you want to make one on your own, the best materials for vermicompost bins are wood or plastic storage boxes. Bins made of polystyrene may leach toxins into the compost. If you want to have organic vermicompost, avoid these kinds of bins.

Bins need to be between 8 and 16 inches, based on the fact that worms are surface feeders. Also, the size will vary depending on the number of people contributing waste to it. The recommend size is 2 square feet of surface area per person, or 1 square foot of surface area per pound of food waste per week.

The two main requirements for the bin are ventilation and coverage. A few small holes in the top and bottom of the bin should provide enough air. A lid is necessary to keep fruit flies and other insects and rodents from joining the worms at the compost party.

Worms

The optimum compost worm is a red worm, or red wiggler. These worms reproduce quickly and can eat more than their own weight in food each day. Note that these are not the same as the earthworms you see on the sidewalk after a rainstorm.

It is best to use 2 pounds of worms, or about 2,000 worms, for each pound of daily garbage. The average family of four generates about 7 pounds of compostable waste each week.

Many online retailers sell red worms and will deliver them to your door. Other good places to find them include:

  • Fishing bait shops
  • Garden centers
  • Compost and manure piles (if you’re really adventurous)

Bedding

Just like humans, worms require a bed. The differences are, they prefer their bed to be moist and they eat it, rather than sleep on it. Bedding must be put down before the worms go in the bin. The most common bedding material is damp newspaper strips, but the following will also work:

  • White paper
  • Cardboard (with no wax coating)
  • Non-glossy magazines
  • Straw
  • Coir (coconut husk fiber)
  • Brown leaves

Contents

Once your bin is setup, it’s time to start feeding your worms. The worm-to-food ratio should be 2-to-1. Bury food at least 3 inches into the bedding, changing locations each time. But before burying it, remember that worms do not have teeth. It is much easier for them to eat if the food is blended or frozen and then thawed to be smaller and softer.

The following items can be put in the bin:

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Eggshells
  • Grains
  • Coffee grounds
  • Tea bags
  • Grass clippings and other yard waste

It is not recommended to compost meats, dairy products, oily foods and bones because of problems with odors and pests. Worms also do not like onion skins or citrus, so these may be used, but should be kept to a minimum.

Many people wonder if they can compost their pet waste in a worm bin. While it should not be composted in the same bin as your food scraps, a separate vermicompost bin for animal waste would work well. Castings from this bin should not be used in food gardens, but flower gardens and perennial beds will flourish.

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What should I do if…?

If everything is balanced, your bin will be self-sustaining until you are ready to use the compost. However, if problems listed below arise, various actions may need to be taken.

My bin smells!

If working properly, a vermicompost bin will not smell, so a smelly bin can mean one of many things:

  • Too much moisture
  • Too little oxygen
  • Too much waste

To fix these problems, try stirring the contents of your bin, adding more fresh bedding or reducing the addition of foods with high moisture content.

My worms are trying to escape!

This may signify that your worms are unhappy. There may not be enough food or moisture. But don’t fret, you need not have nightmares of worms crawling around your house. Simply put a light over the bin and maintain the conditions of the bin well. Your worms should be more than happy to stay and feast on your waste.

There are pests!

Pests are usually attracted to the smell of meat and dairy, so make sure you are not putting any of those products in your bin. Bugs are also drawn to moisture, but if fresh bedding is added to soak up any extra moisture, they will be turned off. Keep the lid closed to ward off any other pests.

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How can I collect my vermicompost?

Your newly collected compost can be used by spreading a thick layer around the base of outdoor plants. It will act as a fertilizer, seeping into the soil when watered. Mixing vermicompost with topsoil, vermiculite or perlite and coir in equal parts will make excellent potting soil.

Here’s how to collect it:

1. Move the contents of your bin to one side, filling the other with fresh bedding. Place new food scraps in the new side until the worms have migrated to the other side. Harvest your vermicompost after about a month.

2. Spread a tarp or sheet of plastic in the sun or under a bright light. Dump the contents of your worm bin into the center and separate into smaller piles. Worms are afraid of light, so they will burrow to the center of the piles, and you can remove the rings of worm compost from around them. Then simply put the pile of worms back in the bin with fresh bedding and more food.

3. Remove between one-third and one-half of your bin, including the worms, and simply place it in your garden soil. Add fresh bedding to your bin and continue composting food.

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  • http://www.mamaswormcomposting.com Jen

    This is a great and detailed introduction to worm composting. Considering that nearly 30% of landfill space is taken up by uneaten food, composting is something we should all be practicing. Thanks for a great article!

  • Tim

    Is it possible to find True Red/ Wiggler Worms in manure heaps? If so, will I have to wait till Spring? (It’s December here in S.E. PA. Thank you.

  • http://www.monroeworks.com/ Earthworm Castings

    Using your vermicompost as an addition to your potting or garden soil will provide excellent garden fertilizer because the earthworm castings or “worm poop” deposited by the worms in compost is a rich, slow release fertilizer that will not burn your plants. The vermicompost and castings will also be teeming with microbes.

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