Odds are pretty good that if you have mailed us a bill, newspaper, or magazine over the past few years, we didn’t recycle it. Our worms ate it. Odds are pretty good if we cooked it, forgot about it, or just waited too long to use it, it didn’t go to waste. Yeah, our worms ate that too. You see, we use worms to eat our trash and turn it into vermicompost, just another easy way of closing the loop and turning waste into a valuable product.
what is vermicompost?
This process of composting using worms to digest and break down our wastes is known as vermicomposting. The end product or manure, called worm castings, is a nutrient-packed humus great for use in the garden. We use it to create organic fertilizer and soil conditioner for all of our garden beds and in soil mix for our seeds.
the process of composting with worms
To begin to raise worms for compost, it’s actually really easy to setup. You need the right kind of worms, a worm composting bin, bedding, and food. Here is what you need to pick up:
worm composting bin
The composting bin can be as simple or complicated as you want. You can essentially find someone who has made a worm bin out of everything from a bathtub to a trash can. The two most common types are a simple plastic tub with vents and a stacked tray system. The stacked tray worm compost bin tends to require more investment in the beginning but are extremely easy and very functional for long term use. This is the worm bin I have used for the past few years and love it:
The multiple layers allow for a continuous supply of worm castings for the garden. Worms can move freely between the trays. I tend to be a bit passive with the worms, so the multiple trays ensure worms can go towards food if they start to run short in some areas. The spigot allows you to pour out any excess water which keeps the bin from staying too wet.
Three years, three states, and four moves later, it still works perfect.
Once you have your worm bin, get it set up for the future residents. You can use leaves, newspaper, peat moss, coconut coir, shredded paper, or compost. If I am starting a worm bin, I like to use newspaper or a mix of paper that is softer and easier to break down. After the worms are established, I use shredded paper from envelopes, junk mail, etc. (it’s free and never seems to end). Very occasionally (if I need to) I will use some thinner cardboard. It just takes a couple of rotations in the cycle to make them disappear.
types of worms
the type of worms you use in your worm compost bin is very important. The two most frequently used types of worms used in vermiposting are Red Wigglers (Eisenia foetida) and Red Earthworms (Lumbricus rubellus). These are adapted to thrive and feed within rotting vegetation and composting materials. They are very rare in the wild, so be sure to purchase these from a reputable dealer.
For a worm bin, start with 1 -2 pounds of worms (1,000 to 2,000 worms). This is what I have used in my worm bin:
Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm 500 Count Red Wiggler Live Composting Worms
what can worms eat?
Worms can eat most foods that you would typically throw away quickly turning them into vermicompost. When I am first starting a new colony of worms, I prefer to use peat moss. It’s cheap, easy, and seems to help get the worms established quicker. Coconut coir works great just takes a bit longer to break down.
When I started my first worm bin, I had great success using this as a starter:
Peat moss works just as well if not better:
After the worms get eased into the world of the bin, you can feed them all kinds of things. Check out the list below:
- Vegetables – scraps, peels, cobs, etc.
- Fruit – pits may take significant time
- Coffee grounds
- Tea bags
- Egg shells
Keep away from the worms:
- Grass clippings
Chop all materials into small pieces before adding them. Keep the worm’s diet diverse and be sure to maintain a balance of food wastes and bedding material. If you have extra food, you can always freeze it and feed it to the worms later. Be sure to thaw out before adding to the worm bin.
how to start a vermicompost
To get your own worm bin churning, here is how I started my most recent worm factory:
Line the bottom tray with newspaper or paper. This helps hold in the worms and media as they get established.
Fill the bottom tray with about 3-4” moistened peat moss.
It’s worm time! Go ahead and add the worms to the ‘food’ layer of peat moss. Gently spread them around and start the next step.
Layer it up with a few inches of the moist newspaper.
Cover them up with the lid and tuck the vermicompost in a safe area. After a few days, you can begin to add food scraps.
storing the worm bin
Keep the worm bin in an area that does not get very hot or very cold. You can store them in the garage or well insulated storage rooms and sheds. I like to keep my worm bin inside year round. Our bin sits in our utility/laundry room as out of the way as possible.
I tried keeping a worm bin temporarily in a shady spot outside but the bin ended up infested with black soldier flies (great for the outside compost pile….scary once it came back inside). They bear a striking resemblance to wasps. Inside, the new bin stays…
keeping up with the compost
For every pound of worms, they will eat up to two pounds of food scraps per day. That is under perfect conditions. They are perfectly happy with much less. I like to try to feed a small amount every other day or so, at the very least a cup or two of food scraps. Every time you add food scraps, add as much bedding material (shredded paper). Keep the compost moist but not saturated. If I add dry food, I add moist paper. If I add moist food, I add dry paper.
It comes in handy to always have some shredded paper ready to add. We like to have ‘shredding parties.’ We crank up some music or a movie and shred up a month’s worth of paper for the worms.
When a tray fills up, start a new one on top of the old one. I go ahead and add a layer of moist shredded paper to the new tray and add food scraps to it as they become available. After a while you start to see the worm’s incredible work:
If you go on vacation (or have a little mental vacation), they will be fine for weeks without continuous additions of food scraps. Feed them well and add more bedding and they will be happy.
use the vermicompost
After a few months, the worms will have generated enough worm castings for use in the garden. There should be little to no identifiable food or paper scraps.
If you have a stacking tray compost bin, most of the worms will have moved up towards the newer trays. I try to sift through the bottom tray and move any stragglers up as well. Here are a few of the ways to use worm castings in the garden:
- Mixing into a new garden bed
- Spreading as a top dressing
- Compost tea
Once you begin to apply worm castings to your garden, so many things begin to happen. Your soil begins to become ‘alive’. This is just a basic list of the benefits within the garden:
- Improves soil aeration
- Improves water retention
- Inoculates and enhances soil with beneficial microorganisms
- Enhances growth, seed germination, and even crop yield
- Improves root structure
Try it for yourself. Why not turn trash into something valuable?