Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Vermiculture - Yes, Playing in Worm Poo

You eat right? Which means you make food waste, leftovers never to be eaten and peels and such. A recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans generate roughly 30 million tons of food waste each year, which is about 12 percent of the total waste stream. All but about 2 percent of that food waste ends up in landfills; by comparison, 62 percent of yard waste is composted. While that food is rotting in the landfill, it is producing methane gas, a leading contributor to global warming. "But," you say,"you can't expect me to eat my potato peels." What can I as a conscientious eater do?

Well, one of the most obvious answers is for us to buy more locally and in smaller quantities but that blog post is for another day. Another answer is to get some chickens, a great way to turn your food scraps into eggs.

Or...you could get some worms. That's right worms. These little buggers chow down on kitchen scraps. One pound of worms will eat up to 4 lbs of food a week. They are easy to take care of and produce gold for you with a little amount of care.

"Gold!" you question me. "I don't believe you." Well, in my opinion they produce a resource more valuable than gold. You can use worm castings (a pc way of saying worm poo) as a super booster for your garden. It's wonderful to apply as a fertilizing mulch around the base of your plants. It is especially good for those nutrient hungry ones, such as tomatoes. Just make sure you don't put it right up against the plant stem. It can also be used to amend your garden soil and as a fertilizer in potting mix or to fertilize your household plants. One of my favorite ways to use worm castings is as a compost tea. Compost tea is easy to make and use. Simply add 1-2" of compost to your water can or rain barrel. Allow compost and water to "steep" for a day, mixing occasionally. Then water plants as you normally would. The resulting "tea" helps make nutrients already in the soil available to plants. And is great as a quick pick-me-up for your plants. A word of warning though, don't use this "tea" on really hot days, it could burn plants if it gets directly on their leaves. Use it early in the morning or on overcast days.

Now that I've convinced you, let's get started. First you need to acquire some worms. The absolute best worms for vermiculture is Red Wigglers (Eisema foetida). They are perfect for our worm composters for a variety of reasons. First of all, they are incredible composters. As mentioned before, they are the workhorses of the composting world, eating up to half their body weight a day. They also are surface feeders, getting their daily meals from the surface of your bin. They reproduce at a rate that would shame rabbits. Additionally, warm and cold don't bother them as much as many other kinds of worms. That being said, do not leave your compost bin in the direct heat of summer, the worms will cook. Not good. Also, don't leave you compost bin out in the freezing weather of winter, they will also freeze. Your kitchen is a great place to keep the bin (if noone minds), it makes it a convenient place to have it to add scraps to. The basement or garage are also excellent places to keep your composter.

It's easy to take care of your worms. Just make sure you provide a temperate place for them to live, change their bedding and feed them appropriate food and you should not have any problems with your worms. Worms can be fed a wide variety of things, vegetable peels, most kitchen scraps, fruit, breads and grains, tea bags, coffee grounds and filter, egg shells and even newspaper. There are some foods you should avoid, however. Never feed your worms any meat product, anything oily or greasy, anything dairy and avoid putting slick colored newspaper in with them. Crushed eggshells are a great addition to your bin periodically. It provides grit for the worms and helps them digest their food.

You need a bin for your worms to live in. It can be as elaborate or simple as you want. I'm going to give you plans to build a bin like have. I've been using this bin for over 5 years and it is as simple as it gets. First you need a plastic container, a lidded tub will work great. You don't want it to be too deep, remember they're surface feeders, and you don't want it to be clear, worms don't enjoy the light. You want a few very small holes in the bottom of your container for drainage, worms can become waterlogged. If you desire, you can put a piece of screening at the bottom to make sure the worms don't get out but I have never had a problem with this. Also, make sure that you have something underneath to catch this drainage. It makes great fertilizer. Now, shred up some paper - remember, nonglossy is best. You can also use cardboard, leaves, straw, dried grass or peat moss. Whatever you have on hand. Fill your container 2/3 the way up with the bedding. Every week or so, you will want to add more bedding. Your worms will actually eat it and turn it into compost also. Now, add your worms. You will also want to add a small amount of dirt and sand if you have it to get them started. Cover it with a lid, those little guys will try to escape if they are not getting enough food. All you have to do now is a little weekly maintenance and harvest your castings when you need it and you'll be a successful worm farmer.

Harvesting your castings can happen in a couple of ways. If you are opposed to digging around in the poo and are the patient type. You can use one of two ways. The first way is to only add food to one side of the bin, in about a week most all the worms will be on that side of the bin and you can just take out the compost from the other side and add some more bedding and be done with it. Or if you are not quite that patient, you can dump your bin out on a trashbag, spread it out a little and leave a light on. In about 24 hours, most all the worms will have migrated to the bottom of the pile. Take off the top of the pile to use as compost, put the rest that has the worms in it back in the bin, add more bedding and your done. Or for the hands on type, and my favorite way, is to just dump your bin out, grab a handful of castings and look for worms. A little secret, if there is still food in there you will find huge amounts of worms around and in this food. I would often pick up an apple core and there would be a hundred worms half buried in it. There will be no way for you to get all the worms completely out no matter which way you chose. If you are adding the compost into the garden all the better, they will work hard for you there also.

A couple of things to watch out for. If your worms start to die, make sure you've been feeding them enough, make sure your bedding isn't too dry or too soggy, make sure they aren't freezing or baking or that they don't need new bedding. If your bin starts to smell, this isn't normal. Make sure you aren't giving your worms too much food, that you aren't adding meat or dairy products, and that they have enough bedding. It is normal for small nematodes to grow in your bin. They are just helping your worms compost the food scraps. Flies or fruit flies are not normal. Make sure you are putting your food under a little bedding, that the lid stays on and that you are not over feeding your worms.

If you want more information Mary Applehof's book, Worms Ate My Garbage, is very useful. You can also google vermiculture or worm bins and pull up tons of information on the web.

Once you've become a successful worm farmer, share some of your worms with friends. Fill them in on the wonder of worm poo and why your garden looks so great.


  1. Great post. What we normally do is give worms stuff that's partially composted in the regular compost bin. These little buggers are so happy and prolific that we find them in our raised beds as well. At first we thought it would be time consuming and a pain to maintain the worm bin, but it isn't at all. E.g. someone told us to microwave egg shells and then pulverize them before putting them in the worm bin. Huh? Way too involved and not necessary as proof of the many generations of worms over the last four years. So yes, reduce landfills, and create FREE fertilizer gold for your gardens and containers!

  2. If your ready to start your own worm compost and you live in our area, Lisa LOVES to barter!

  3. I am such a geek that I can honestly say that one of the "famous" people I was most excited to meet was Mary Applehof :P

    Great post!

  4. Great post! I might try this in addition to my regular compost. As I sat here reading this, a skunk has released his eau de scent directly outside the sliding door by my computer area, and OH MY, did that wake me up!!

  5. Cool post! You have inspired me!