Vermicomposting replicates nature's process of breaking down vegetation and other organics such as kitchen scraps and leftovers using earthworms, beneficial bacteria and other organisms. Turning the organic waste of a household into compost allows us to return badly needed organic matter to the soil. In this way, we participate in nature's cycle, and cut down on garbage going into already burgeoning landfills. Earthworms are at work twenty-four hours a day creating nutrient rich castings that mixes and aerates the soil, improves water filtration, moderates soil pH, makes nutrients more available to plants, breaks animal and plant matter into compost and increases beneficial microbial action in the soil. It can take a gardener up to 240 days to make a fine grade of compost. Worms can make vermicompost in just thirty days.
So what do you need to get started, you ask? To start with you need a worm bin. Most people purchase a specially-designed worm bin or use a standard plastic storage tote. Other options include old trunks, barrels, or build your own wooden bin.
First, drill 8 to 12 holes (1/4 to l/2 inches) in the bottom for aeration and drainage. Raise the bin on bricks or wooden blocks, and place a tray underneath to capture excess liquid which can be used as liquid plant fertilizer.
The bin needs a cover to conserve moisture and provide darkness for the worms. For indoor bins, a sheet of dark plastic or burlap sacking placed loosely on top of the bedding is sufficient as a cover. A solid lid is preferred for outdoor bins to keep out unwanted scavengers and rain. Like us, worms need air to live, so be sure to have your worm bin sufficiently ventilated.
It is necessary to provide damp bedding for the worms to live in, and to bury food waste in. Suitable bedding materials are shredded newspaper and cardboard, Coco Coir, chopped up straw, sawdust, and compost. Vary the bedding in the bin as much as possible, to provide more nutrients for the worms, and to create richer compost.
It is very important to moisten the dry bedding materials before putting your worms in the bin, so that the overall moisture level is like a wrung-out sponge. Fill the bin about three-quarters full of moistened bedding. Lift the bedding gently to create air spaces to control odors, and give freer movement to the worms.
Now it's time to move your worms into their new home. But where do you get your starter worms from? The Internet or local gardening club is your best bet for finding a worm vendor near you. There are several varieties of worms that are bred and sold for vermicomposting; just digging up earthworms from your backyard is not recommended. The worms most often used, Eisenia foetida (Red Wigglers), are about 4 inches long, mainly red along the body with a yellow tail. Another variety is Eisenia hortensis, known as "European Night crawler." They do not reproduce quite as fast as the red wigglers, but grow to be larger, eat coarser paper and cardboard better, and seem to be heartier. They are also better fishing worms at full size.
Worms are capable of escaping almost anything, but if you keep your worms fed and properly damp, they should not try to escape. A light in the same area will ensure your worms stay put. Sprinkle the surface with water every other day. Feed your worms vegetable scraps at least once a week. Add more cardboard, shredded newspaper, hay, or other fibrous material once a month, or as needed.
It is important to separate the worms from the finished compost; otherwise the worms will begin to die. There are several ways to do this. The quickest is to simply move the finished compost over to one side of the bin; place new bedding in the space created, and put food in the new bedding. The worms will gradually move over and the finished compost can be skimmed off as needed.
Another simple method is to dump the contents of the bin onto a large plastic sheet and separate the worms manually. Most children love to help with this process and you can turn it into a fun lesson about worms for them. Look for the tiny lemon-shaped worm cocoons which contain between two and twenty baby worms!
If you supply the right ingredients and care, your worms will thrive and make compost for you. Happy and successful composting!
Don and Sandy Landers are owners of Dream Garden Hydroponics, LLC.