Vermicomposting

What is a worm farmer, and why on earth would you want to be one? Because worms can eat your garbage and produce natural fertilizer for your garden! The process of making compost with the help of worms is referred to as vermicomposting.

I know it may sound strange, but I am not making this up. Redworms can be used as efficient little composters. Those who practice vermicomposting are referred to as worm farmers, and the worms are referred to as their herd, just as if they were little cows.

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Instead of discarding food scraps in the trash, sending them into the septic system through the garbage disposal or adding them to an outdoor compost pile, food scraps can be recycled and turned into nutritious soil for plants with the help of worms.

Redworms are the worm species most suitable for vermicomposting. Redworms may also be called red wigglers, English red worms or striped worms. The Latin name for vermicomposting worms is Eisenia fetida. Ordinary nightcrawlers that you may find in your garden are beneficial for the garden, but they are not suitable for a vermicomposting herd. Redworms can be purchased online from commercial growers, and they may also be found at the local bait shop.

Vermicomposting is done within a bin, either indoors or outdoors. When the worms are kept in a bin, they can’t crawl away to join their friends in the wild. You can construct your own worm bin or purchase one that is ready-made. If making a vermicomposting bin from wood, be sure to not use pressure treated lumber. For a two-person household, a box that is 2 feet square and 8 inches deep would contain enough worms to digest the household’s food scraps. As a rule, a vermicomposting bin should allow for one square foot of surface area for each pound of food scrap garbage gernerated by your household each week. A household of four to six people typically generates about six pounds of food scraps each week, so a 2-foot by 3-foot bin would be adequate.

Drill eight to twelve half-inch holes in the bottom and sides of the bin to provide aeration and drainage. You will need to keep a tray below the bin to catch any moisture that may drip out. Worms prefer to live and work in the dark, so keep a lid on the vermicomposting bin and they will not try to escape. When you are working with the bin, keep a light over it to encourage the worms to stay buried within the bedding while the lid is off.

Once the bin is ready, add bedding such as moistened shredded paper to the bin. Worm bedding should be a nontoxic material that will hold moisture and allow for air circulation. Shredded paper such as newspaper, paper bags or cardboard is ideal, although shredded leaves may also be used. Do not use the glossy, colored pages from the newspaper or from magazines. Tear or cut the paper into strips, soak it in water briefly, then wring it out until it is damp but not dripping wet. If the bedding dries out at any time, use a spray bottle to moisten it again. Toss in a handful or two of soil to add helpful microbes and roughage for the worms and mix it in with the bedding. Vermicomposting worms will also appreciate the addition of some crushed eggshells which will provide calcium and roughage for their diet.

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Choose an appropriate location for your vermicomposting bin. A worm herd will appreciate air temperatures of 55 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit, so the bin may be located indoors, such as in a mud room, basement or heated garage. If the bin is properly maintained, it will attract fewer pests than a kitchen trash can, and there should be no disagreeable odor. You can even find plans for a worm bin that is disguised as a coffee table. But many folks don’t like the idea of a worm bin in the house, so it can also be kept outdoors. Keep the bin in a shady area during the warm summer months, or in the garage or carport. In cold climates, surround the bin with hay bales in the winter to insulate it from the cold.

Next, add the worms and give them some food. A pound of worms is suitable for a 2-foot by 2-foot box, or add two pounds of worms for a 2-foot by 3-foot box. Add any food scraps you have available, but do not add any meat or fish scraps. Your worms are vegetarians. They are particularly fond of melon rinds and they will devour a Halloween jack-o-lantern. Worms will also eat tea bags, a small amount of coffee grounds, paper coffee filters and garden refuse. Be careful to add only a limited amount of citrus to prevent the environment from becoming too acidic, and your herd won’t like greasy or oily food either.

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Whenever scraps are added for the worms, they should be buried within the bedding. Dig a hole in the bedding or pull the bedding aside, then cover the scraps with at least an inch of bedding. Bury the scraps in a different portion of the bin each time more is added. Worms can be fed as little as once a week, so you don’t need to feed the herd on a daily basis and they can take care of themselves if you’ll be away from home for a few days. On average, one pound of worms will eat about four pounds of food scraps per week. If the scraps begin to accumulate without being digested, the worms are getting more food than they can handle. If this occurs, stop feeding the worms for a few days until they can catch up with the food supply.

After about six weeks you should begin to see worm castings in your vermicomposting bin. Worm castings are the waste that is excreted by the herd. Worm castings are a wonderful potting mixture all on their own or they can be mixed into commercial potting soil for an added nutrient boost. Worm castings provide humus and organic nutrients that will not burn even the most tender plants.

In three to four months it will be time to harvest the vermicompost. The herds’ sensitivity to light will aid in this process. When the lid is removed from the vermicomposting bin, the worms will immediately begin burrowing down into the bedding to get away from the light. At this point you can simply push all of the material to one side of the box and add new bedding to the other side, along with some food scraps. The worms will migrate into the new bedding to get their food, and you can scoop out the vermicompost and mix it into your garden soil.

If you wish to harvest the entire bin of vermicompost, the contents can be dumped out onto a tarp. You may wish to separate the pile into several smaller piles to make the job easier. Wait about ten minutes to give the worms time to burrow down into the pile, away from the light, then scoop the castings and vermicompost off the top of the pile. The worms will immediately begin burrowing downward again. Repeat the process until all you have left on the tarp is a wriggling mass of worms that will be anxious to return to their dark and cozy bin.

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Multi-compartment bins can also be used for vermicomposting. A mulit-compartment bin generally consists of two or three bins stacked one atop the other and they are separated by a screen and a section of plywood. Initially, the worms are added to the bottom bin. Begin with about six inches of bedding and keep adding more bedding on top of it as the herd does their work. This raises the worms up over their castings over time, and as they near the top of the lowest bin, remove the plywood that is separating them from the next bin. Add some bedding and food scraps to the next bin and within a week to ten days the worms will have migrated through the screen and into the fresh bedding in their search for food. Leave the bottom bin alone for another week or two. This gives any worm cocoons that are left behind time to hatch and the little worm babies will then migrate upwards into the new bedding also.

Don’t worry if a few worm cocoons are left behind in the vermicompost. When the vermicompost is added to the garden, those babies will go along with it and help aerate the garden soil and produce rich humus for your garden plants.

Each worm cocoon contains twenty or more baby worms. Look for the tiny cocoons that are shaped somewhat like lemons, and drop them into the new bedding along with the rest of the herd before adding the vermicompost to potted plants. They cannot survive the conditions in a plant pot.

To fertilize potted houseplants with vermicompost, you can make a compost tea. Add two tablespoons of vermicompost to a quart of water and allow it to steep for a day, stirring occasionally. Then simply water your houseplants with the tea.

Vermicomposting provides a natural, slow-release, water-soluble fertilizer for plants and also adds a great deal of beneficial bacteria and organisms to the soil. As an added benefit, a worm farmer will always have a good supply of fishing worms available.

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