Let Worms Compost Your Kitchen Scraps

comments (13) March 23rd, 2009

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ChrisMcLaughlin Chris McLaughlin, contributor
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Worm composting (vermicomposting) has to be one of my favorite gardening topics in the world. There are so many good reasons to keep red wigglers in the kitchen or by the back door, munching and crunching on your kitchen scraps that it's hard to know where to begin.

I affectionately think of this practice as "worm farming" mostly because I like my personal title of "worm wrangler". It conjures up a truly gritty image of me in half-chaps and carrying a whip. Not that you need a whip for these hard-working little characters.

Worm composting or vemicomposting is another way of collecting the stuff you typically throw away and letting the worms create a soil nutrient so rich that gardeners call it "garden gold". We're talking about worm castings. Castings are one of those words that were created so that vermicomposting could be discussed in polite society. Worm castings are just worm poop.

Here's the big deal about castings. They are much higher in available nitrogen, phosphates and potash than your average topsoil. "Available" means that the nutrients in castings can get to the plants for easy absorption because it's water soluble. Worm castings will also greatly improve your soil's texture.

Create a Worm Composting Bin

The first thing you'll need is some redworms called red wigglers (Eisenia fetida), tiger worms (Eisenia andrei), or the "true" redworm called Lumbricus rubellus. Like everybody, it's a fact that not all worms can do every job. We all have our strengths and making compost is not the night crawler's area of expertise.

While night crawlers aren't without the skill, they are quite slow at decomposing materials and live much deeper into the ground – about 6" or so. The night crawler's best work is soil aeration and earth work – oh and as fishing bait.

The Red Wiggler, Tiger Worm and True Redworm are surface dwellers; they are the decomposers. If you use the true redworm they'll pull double-duty for you as a decomposer for your bin and as an earth-worker.

Do the little wiggly guys make you nervous? Try naming them – it changes the relationship entirely. We have ours named Freds 1-10,000. Our herd of Freds isn't much for conversation but they do have a spokes-worm, Fred# 422, which has asked us to knock it off with the onions. So, I'll pass that little pearl on to you; they're not that into onions.

So, you have your worm-workers and now you need a home for them. For years we have used a Rubbermaid type bin for our worm farms, but recently, we purchased a fabulous worm condo. You have never seen a more excited person (I was literally clapping my hands). These condos make it easy to harvest the castings as the worms work their magic. There's also a tap where you can drain off some worm castings tea to pour over plants like a mid day power drink.

When you have your container, drill some holes in the sides and the lid. Don't worry, they don't see the holes and make a run for it; worms do not bite the hand that feeds them. They are perfectly happy to stay where the food is. For bedding you can use newspaper strips – just rip them into long shreds. You can also use coconut shell fiber ( coir), peat moss, leaves, or even wood chips.

If you use wood chips, those can be screened out when you harvest the castings and then reused, as the worms won't eat them. The worms will eventually eat the other products I mentioned. As far as the leaves, they work but tend to stick together when you moisten the bin, so it's harder to bury the scraps. Personally, I like the newspaper, but I'm experimenting with coir for the new luxury townhouse.

The worm bedding should be kept moist at all times like a wrung-out sponge. Worms like cool and dark places and need the moisture to survive. Be sure to keep the worm bin out of any direct sun; they prefer a cool porch, basement or kitchen.

Worm Bin Care

Take about a pound of red wigglers and place them into the wet bedding in the bin. Now you can toss a little soil in there, because I know that'll make you feel better. Feel free to sprinkle corn meal in there and some coffee grounds, as well. Starbucks usually has a special basket with bags of coffee grounds free for the taking.

There's no turning the bedding with worm composting. The worms know their job, so just let them keep on keepin' on. You'll want to feed them kitchen scraps about 2 -3 times a week by burying the food stuffs under the bedding. The smaller the pieces of food, the faster castings will be produced.

Worm cuisine incudes; banana peel, potatoes, tea bags (filter and all),  apple peelings, grains, pizza crust, cucumber, cake, cereal, fruit, and almost anything that comes from the kitchen. I usually go pretty easy on the citrus as they seem to always leave these for last. What you don't want to feed them is dairy products or meat. Also, don't give them dog or cat poop. Yuck.

What worms lack in vision (they don't have eyes) and hearing (no ears either), they make up with some serious work ethics. Worms eat about their own body weight in a day. It'll probably take about 2-3 months for you to be able to harvest some worm castings for your house plants or garden bed.

And lest you think worms make lousy pets, let me remind you that they can love you as much as any dog can - maybe more – with their 5 sets of double hearts.

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posted in: compost, vermicomposting, worm composting, worm bin

Comments (13)

mickysingh writes: its great
Posted: 2:15 am on November 23rd
ecogardener writes: I am going to say something sacrilegious to many, but PLEASE reconsider earthworms. They aren't the good guys we think of anymore. They are damaging the ecosystem in woods. Look it up. Department of Minnesota Natural Resources is a good place to start understanding this. http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/terrestrialanimals/earthworms/index.html
Yes, they may be giving nutritious castings, but they can eat up the duff (leaves, etc) in the woods so fast that it is disrupting the many systems depending on them like fungi, microorganisms, bacteria, salamanders, many insects, and even plants like trillium.

Posted: 10:58 am on May 4th
Markworms writes: I have 3 worm bins I made myself. I started 6 months ago. Rescently timber flow through. All flow through system. 60 litre bin, otto bin 140 litre and a timber bin 850×700×600. Also 3 broccoli foam boxes for breeding in which I get alot of cocoons and adults red wrigglers to add to timber bin alot of surface area. ? My Question is how many worms for area 850 wide ×700 ×600 deep will I need to eat kitchen scraps twice a week plus manure's bedding.?
Posted: 8:20 am on February 11th
punkinlily writes: I'm just curious with all the red wigglers poop in the soil, won't the earthworms (nightcrawlers) move away? could they be territorial?
Posted: 12:20 am on June 22nd
jenmom writes: I am not the gardener in this family, I am the idea person and I LOVE the idea of worm composting...however, my dear husband is not as infatuated w/ new ideas as I am and I don't quite get what happens next...Do you remove the worms from the compost to put in the garden? I am assuming the "castings" will look like "regular" compost? Also will the worms reproduce so we can raise worms for fishing for my 3rd son (who is the fisherman in the family)? I'm figuring I will get this compost all set up and then have nothing to do with it..not a good plan...
Posted: 8:15 am on April 17th
hayley3 writes: I bought one of those expensive worm bins and then bought the book, but my worms never did anything. I tried and tried to get them to the second level but they finally died. Was an expensive failure.
Posted: 9:15 pm on October 19th
Paraider writes: Is there a place to buy worms??
Posted: 8:12 am on June 23rd
ChrisMcLaughlin writes: Daska - You can absolutely feed them and leave for two weeks! Just make sure they're in a cool, dark place so their bin or condo doesn't dry out; that's really the key.
Posted: 1:43 am on May 22nd
DEE_DEE2DAE writes: Just a bit of advice on worm gardening.. After a class on worm composting,I learned that worms have very senstive skin and the heat and salt from your skin burns them and thats why the wiggle when you hold them in your hand. always wear gloves when you have to touch your worms .They will Love you for wearing gloves !:)
Posted: 11:20 am on May 19th
Daska writes: I would love to try worm composting but have a question. How long can the worms survive if they are not fed? Can I feed them extra and then say leave for two weeks on vacation? I'm not sure I could ask my naighvors to come over to feed my worms...
Posted: 4:03 pm on May 4th
gardengaia writes: I have never tried worm composting, just the regular kind, but a few worms always end up in the compost. The worm condo looks handsome but expensive -- maybe I can convert one of my compost bins to do the job using hardware cloth to keep the bedding, etc., above the collection area.
Posted: 4:01 pm on March 24th
ChrisMcLaughlin writes: erock: Glad you asked! The difference is that while both consist of the breakdown of organic materials and give a terrific plant product for the garden, worms bring there own special blend to the table.

Worms ingest your food scraps and after they have passed through the worm's gut, the end product is a biologically active material. The castings contain more beneficial micro-organisms, enzymes, humus, and plant stimulants.

Castings present these nutrients in high percentages in a slow-release form and have excellent soil binding, and water retention abilities. They also have wonderful aeration, porosity and structural properties.

By the way, worms are present in general garden compost as well, they are part of the breakdown in a regular heap - so you're getting this there, too. Worm composting in a container just intensifies the end product, so you have a super-charged dressing or amendment.

Posted: 11:32 am on March 24th
erock writes: What's the difference between worm castings and compost made in a bin if any?

Thank you in advance!
Posted: 2:41 am on March 24th
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