If you are growing any kind of garden on your homestead, you should know about worm composting, also known as vermicomposting. It is a great way to take all of the food scraps you make at home and turn it into nutrients for your soil. This method of composting can be very beneficial for all plants, both inside and outdoor.
If you are growing an edible food forest, vermicomposting can be super beneficial, especially in the beginning stages!
How to Get Started with Vermicomposting
What is Vermicomposting?
Basically worm composting or vermicomposting is the process of disposing of your kitchen scraps and consequently creating a high-nutrient compost that can be used on all of your plants, both indoors and outdoors. Making compost in this fashion is a lot of fun and can be enjoyed by children also.
Worms in such a system have three jobs. The first is to eat the scraps you offer in the composting bin that they live in. The second is to get rid of that eaten food again into the bin. And the last job is to reproduce more worms to keep the worm bin going year-round. Simple right? Eat, poop, and make some babies!
Vermicomposting vs. the Compost Bin
In a traditional compost bin, you need heat, moisture, and a blend of brown and green materials in the right mixture, of the right temperature, and of the right moisture to be successful. If you get those things right and your lucky, in a few months to a year, you should have good clean and organic compost. Then you remove all of the compost and start completely over again.
With vermicomposting, you set up a bin, feed it once a week by burying food scraps, and let some red-wiggler worms do the work for you. Those worms are capable of eating up to half their weight every day, therefore, the worms make compost faster than the compost bin does!
A compost bin of usable size can be maintained throughout the warm months but becomes basically unusable in the coldest months. A worm compost bin can be brought indoors and protected from the cold making it usable year-round.
Worm Composting Benefits for Plants
Worm compost is an excellent way to feed all of your plants. From indoor plants to edibles and ornamentals outside, worm compost will allow your plants to receive many more nutrients than traditional compost.
Other benefits include:
- Increasing organic matter in the soil
- Increasing the beneficial microorganisms of soil
- Boosting nutrients that are made available to plants
Common Myths About Vermicomposting
These are a few myths about worm bins you should know before starting and how to make sure your worm bins are successful too.
Myth #1: Worms Will Escape!
Most people are afraid to invest in a worm bin because they are afraid the worms will get out and leave. But the truth is that those worms can’t really survive outside their habitat you create for them. If you take care of your worms they won’t have any reason to leave.
Why Worms Leave Their Habitat
There are three major reasons that will cause worms to abandon the home you made them. The first is during the ‘settling’ stage. This is when you first introduce the worms to the bin. During this stage they wiggle everywhere they can so they can explore their new home. By keeping a light on until they seem to settle. Worms do not like light so they will dig deeper to get to darkness.
The second reason they leave is when they have too much water and not enough air. Worms prefer moist soil, not wet. If there is too much water that means the spaces for bedding will be wet and worms will leave looking for dryer bedding. If your bin is too wet, simply add more bedding material or drill some small drain holes in the bottom.
Reason three for worms leaving their bin is due to the interior of the bin getting too hot. This can be avoided by keeping the bin indoors or in the shade. Also, remember not to feed too much food at one time to your worm bin. When too much food is added it turns into a self-heating compost bin and defeats the purpose of the worms.
Myth #3: It Will Stink!
Many people think the worm bin will stink. However, the truth is when vermicomposting, there should NEVER be a bad smell. If there is, something is wrong and must be fixed.
Why a Worm Bin May Stink
The following reasons will cause a worm bed to smell bad:
- Too much water (to fix, add bedding to absorb moisture)
- Too much food waste (add fewer scraps when feeding)
- Food scraps left on top of the bedding (always bury the food scraps)
Myth #4: Maggots, Bugs, and Other Pests Will Find It!
While it’s true that when keeping your worm bin outdoors it will be a host to some bugs, that’s okay. It actually means you have a healthy worm bin! Bugs like sowbugs (rolly pollies), ants, centipedes, millipedes, and slugs are actually common bugs found in a healthy worm bin.
If however, you find an infestation of ants it is usually a sign that you need to add more moisture to your bedding as it is too dry. Also, ants hate cinnamon so a good sprinkling on the top of the worm bin will usually rid the bin from the ants.
Maggots are usually the larvae of the Black Soldier Fly, not household flies and are beneficial to the bin because they too help eat the food scraps. Don’t worry these flies and your worms can live together peacefully with no harm to each other.
Which Worms To Use
You can use any type of earthworm while vermicomposting. However, the red wiggler worms are preferred by most worm farmers. Their actual name is Eisnia fetida and are also referred to as red worms, tiger worms, manure worms and sometimes even brandling worms.
These worms prefer the topmost level of the soil. They do not make tunnels and bury themselves as deep as nightcrawlers do. Although red worms are originally from Europe you can find them anywhere, sometimes in your own backyard. I recommend you order them though, as you need about 1000 to get started with at vermicomposting.
You can order red wigglers here.
The Benefits of Using Red Wigglers
Red wigglers reproduce very quickly, taking only 9 weeks to reach full maturity and being able to reproduce. They create small cocoons that each hold two to three red worms inside. This means in the right conditions your worm population is able to double about every three months!
Temperature preferences for the red worms are between 60°F to 80°F, which is ideal for your house, garage, porch or even outside. In these excellent conditions, they are also voracious eaters. These worms can consume between 1/4 and 1/2 of their body weight every 24 hours. That means for every pound of worms you have, 1/4 to 1/2 pound of food will be eaten daily.
Preparing Your Worms Food
Worms do not have teeth so we need to make it easy for worms to eat the scraps we give them. There are some great ways to break down your scraps to make it easier for your worms to devour.
- Make more surface area: chop up the food into smaller pieces.
- Microwave their food: softens the food and kills any fly larvae.
- Make a slurry: run the food through the blender.
- Freeze your scraps: helps break the cell walls down in the scraps making it easier to eat.
Setting Up Your Worm Farm
Before you can figure out how many worms you will need for your vermicomposting adventure you must know how much food waste you create in your home. To do this simply set aside a large container for daily food scraps to go into for the day. At the end of the day, weigh the container and record the weight. Do this for 7 days. Take all of the total daily weights, add them together, then divide the total by 7. This will give you the average weight in food scrapes your household produces.
Since red wigglers average about half their weight per day in food, simply compare your scraps in pounds. If you produce an average of 2 pounds of scraps in a week you need 4 pounds of worms. If you produce 3 pounds of scraps you need 6 pounds of worms. Easy Peasy!
Deciding the Size of your Worm Bin
Finding the right size of your bin is a simple process. For every pound of red wigglers, you need 1 square foot of bin. An ideal situation is 4 pounds of worms to a 4 square foot bin. Many plastic storage bins readily available at Walmart meet this criteria. Make sure to drill some small holes in the sides for airflow, especially if the bin will be outside. You can leave the lid off if you keep the bin in the house or shed instead.
For the record, a pound of worms is almost 1,000 worms. You don’t have to order 4,000 worms though. I recommend you order anywhere from 1/2 pound to 1 pound and let them reproduce on their own. This method will save you some money in the beginning.
What To Use For A Vermicomposting Bin
Many options are available for worm bins. Here are some common suggestions:
- Plastic totes: hard to salvage castings and needs ventilation holes.
- Old freezer: perfect for outdoor bins because it has built-in insulation.
- Trash cans: makes an excellent flow-through bin (see next section)
- Old coolers: good for small scale vermicomposting
- Worm Farm: Available on Amazon here
Directions for a Simple Vermicomposting Bin
- One 14 to 20 Gallon storage bin with the accompanying lid
- A drill and a 1/2″ drill bit
- Tons of shredded newspaper (strips about 2″ thick)
- A bucket of water
- Homemade compost or good clean dirt.
- 1 pound of Red Wigglers
- Use the drill with a 1/2″ drill bit to drill around 7 or 8 holes on each side of the bin.
- Add the shredded newspaper to the bucket of water until completely soaked (about 5 minutes).
- Remove the shredded newspaper from the bucket, let the water drain off a bit and place it in the bin, filling the bin at least half full of wet newspaper shreddings.
- Add about a handful of compost or dirt to the bin.
- Add your worms.
- Place the lid on your bin. Leave the bin in an area that will receive constant light for 48 hours.
- Feed your worms. Pull back some bedding, add some food scraps, and recover with the bedding. When it is gone, add more.
- Feed your worms about once or twice per week, depending on how much they eat.
- Harvest the vermicompost (worm poop) around 6 months later. This will be at the bottom of the bin.
The worm poop will take about the first 6 months when starting but you should be able to harvest it more often as the bin becomes more established.
Besides their food, the worms depend on good, moist bedding to survive. Shredded newspaper is the most common and as long as you don’t use the shiny stuff, you should be okay. A newspaper that has been shredded is best because it allows for the best airflow in the bin.
Another option is corrugated cardboard. Like the newspaper, cardboard is great for airflow, however, it can be difficult to shred. The last option for ideal bedding is dead leaves. These mimick the very top layers of the soil that the red worms are found in. It can be easy to recreate this environment for your worms.
Remember, the bedding should never be totally dry or your worms will dry. It should also have no standing water in the bin either.
Feeding Your Worms
Favorite Foods for Worms Include:
- Any rinds from melons. (cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon)
- Noncitrus fruits. (apples, pears, berries) **Citrus can burn the worm’s skin!
- Squash (fleshy part)
Less Favorite Foods Include:
- Bread (tends to mold too quickly)
DO NOT Feed:
- Meat (worms are vegetarians)
- Dairy products
- Oils or greases
- Any cooked food
- Dog or cat poop
Miscellaneous Items That Are Safe:
- Dryer lint
- Eggshells (provide calcium)
- Paper towels (no chemicals)
- Pet hair (small quantities)
- Teabags and coffee filters (good source of carbon)
- Cooked pasta and rice (plain only)
- Sawdust (from untreated wood only)
Special Notes on Feeding Your Worms
There are some things to keep in mind when feeding your worms.
Make sure to wait until your worms have finished their food before you add more to the bin. If you are feeding worms in an indoor bin, you will probably feed less food than in an outdoor bin. An indoor bin can be fed weekly or twice a week but fewer amounts than outside to prevent fruit flies and foul odors. For an outdoor bin only feed every two to three weeks, but more food at each feeding than the indoor bin
If you go on vacation for a couple of weeks don’t worry. Just add a bit more than usual food before you leave and they will be fine.
Final Thoughts on Vermicomposting…
You should now be prepared to start vermicomposting on your own homestead. You have all the information from what size bin to use, what to use for bedding, what to feed them and what type of worms to use. Watch for the next post How To Harvest Your Vermicompost Bin. There you will learn a few methods of harvesting your worm castings and where and how to use them in the garden.