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TRASH TALKING WITH WORMS
The Dirty Truth About Worm Composting By Eric Vinje, Planet Natural
Worm composting also known as vermiculture is
the proverbial win-win situation. It gives you a convenient way to dispose of
organic waste, such as vegetable peelings. It saves space in the county
landfill, which is good for the environment. It gives worms a happy home and
all the free "eats" that they could want. For those that have gardens
or even potted plants, homegrown compost is a great way to feed and nurture
Worm composting, which some advocates have dubbed "the organic garbage
disposal," recycles food waste into rich, dark, earth-smelling soil
conditioner. It's such great stuff that Planet
Natural sells a variety of organic compost that ranges in price from $5.95
to $10.95 as well as potting soil that contains compost.
And despite its reputation, composting doesn't need to be a smelly endeavor. If
you take care to set things up correctly, your compost bin shouldn't be stinky.
Worm composting is being seen more and more as a way to help our environment
and reduce waste. The City of Oakland in California has a recycling program expressly for food waste. (It
supplies the bin and you supply the organic garbage.) The City of Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, supplies residents with worm bins and even has a
hot-line you can call to find where to buy worms. Spokane,
Washington posts information on how to get started in worm
composting to encourage residents to try this environmentally friendly way of
disposing of garbage.
To get started you need: worms, a container and "bedding."
Don't go out and dig out night crawlers that live in the soil by your home to
populate your compost bin. Night crawlers need to tunnel through dirt to eat
and survive and they can't live on vegetable waste. Instead, you need redworms Eiseniafoetida (also known as red wiggler, brandling or manure
worm) and Lumbricusrubellus
You can buy worms from sites like Planet
Natural. (They sell 500 red worms for $18.95 - shipping included.) If
you've got the time and the access, you can also find a horse stable and
recover worms from horse manure or ask a farmer to ransack his manure pile for
MaryAppelhof, author of
"Worms Eat My Garbage" (on sale at this site and the
"Bible" of worm composting) recommends two pounds of worms about
2,000 wigglers for every pound per day of food waste. (Some experts recommend
a one-to-one ratio one pound of worms for one pound of garbage.) To figure
out how much food waste your household generates, monitor it for a week and
divide by seven.
When populating your bin with worms, also keep in mind that worms, provided you
give them adequate food and a good home, can double their populations every 90
days. It's probably best to start out with slightly fewer worms than you need
and just expect that your worm population will increase to fill your demand for
processing organic waste.
You'll also need a container for the worms. Planet Natural also carries a variety
of worm bins including the Wormtopia Worm Bin
($109.95) and the Can O Worms Worm Bin ($99.95).
If you prefer, you can also build your own. Size does matter when it comes to
compost. You'll want a container with depth of between eight and 12
inches. Wood is a great building material. If you don't feel like
building from scratch, you can even adapt a "Rubbermaid" type tub and
turn it into a composting bin. Books such as "Worms Eat My Garbage"
give details on how to build your own compost bin. Just remember that worms
like a dark, moist (not wet) environment and they hate light. Any container
should be opaque.
Bins can be located anywhere from under the kitchen sink to outside or in your
garage. One important consideration is temperature. Ideally a worm
compost bin should be located in areas where the temperatures are between 40 to
80 degrees Fahrenheit. Red worms generally prefer temperatures in the 55 to 77
degree range. If you live in an area that has harsh winters, you'll need to
move your bin inside during the winter months or compost on a seasonal basis.
Another consideration: worms are like people in that they do not like a lot of
noise or vibrations. Keep them away from high traffic areas.
Once you've got the worms and the containers you're ready to set up your
First you'll want to build a home for your worms and one which will make them
happy and prolific. You'll need bedding that will fill the bin from one-third
to one-half full. To create bedding soak a large
quantity of shredded newspapers or cardboard. Worms want an environment that is
about 75 percent water. Newspapers should only take a few minutes to take up
enough water to make proper bedding. Allow cardboard, such as toilet paper
rolls and tissue boxes, to soak overnight. Don't use garden soil or mix fresh
cow, horse or chicken manure into the bedding. These emit gases and will raise
the temperature of your compost bin. You could end up "cooking" your
worms to death.
Once the bedding matter has been soaked, wring it out until it is moist, but not
dripping. Place it in the bin along with something gritty such as a bit of
soil, fine sand, leaves, cornstarch, sawdust or ground egg shells. (Worms don't
have teeth so they need something gritty to help them grind up the paper and
food.) Once your bin is up and running it will be self-sufficient and you won't
need to add additional grit until you harvest the worm castings and clean the
To make your worms feel at home, dig down until about the middle of the bedding
and place your worms there. Don't just put them on top. Then place the lid on
the bin and keep it at a moderate temperature. Leave them alone for about
a week to settle in. They will feed off the bedding.
After about a week, start feeding your worms food
scraps such as fruit and vegetable peels, pulverized egg shells, tea bags and
coffee grounds. Avoid meat scraps, bones, fish, leftover dairy products and
oily foods since these will make your compost pile smell as well as attract
flies and rodents. Experts are divided on whether pasta and grains should be
tossed into the compost or thrown away in regular garbage. Your best bet is to
experiment and let your worms tell you what they'll eat or won't eat.
Of course, there are certain things that worms won't eat or shouldn't eat. Do
not dispose of glass, plastic or aluminum foil in your compost. Although paper
can be used as bedding, don't include paper with colored printing on it. Many
colored inks are toxic to worms. Also avoid rubber bands and sponges.
It's best to feed worms once a week in small amounts. If you feed them more
than they can process you will end up with a stinking compost bin as the
garbage literally backs up.
Compost actually doesn't smell. The foul odor comes from rotting food that the
worms haven't eaten yet. If you give them appropriately sized meals not supersized entrees they will eat the food before it
starts rotting (and smelling.)
If they are eating too slowly, chop up vegetable matter, which is easier for
them to eat and gives new meaning to the term "fast food." If the
chopping doesn't help enough, reduce the amount of organic matter you are
When you feed your worms, check and see how things are going. If the bedding is
wet, give some additional paper bedding to soak up the excess. (Remember that
the bedding should be moist, not dripping.) If the bedding is too dry, use
water from a spray bottle to moisten it.
Once your compost bin is up and running, it requires little maintenance until
little or no original bedding is visible and the contents of the bin are
reduced in bulk and mainly consist of worm castings, which are brown and
"earthy" looking. Once your bin has reached that point, it's time to
harvest the worm castings and give your worms new
bedding. Castings can be harvested anywhere from two and a half months to every
six months, depending on how many worms you have and how much food you're
There are several harvesting methods. For those with the time and patience or
little kids, you dump the bin's contents onto a large plastic sheet and then
manually separate the worms from the compost. Children usually love helping out
with harvesting the worm casings. Remember that your helpers as well as yourself should wear gloves. Once all the worm casings are
removed, keep aside some of the compost to mix in with the new bedding and then
the cycle starts all over again.
A more common way to harvest is to move everything worms, castings, bedding, food to one side of the bin. Pick out partially decomposed
materials and push to the other side. Place some food on top of the partially
decomposed materials. Replace the lid and leave it alone for a couple weeks.
During that time, the worms should migrate over to the new food. Once they've
gone to the other side, put on a pair of gloves and harvest the castings. Make
sure you don't remove any worms in the process. Then give the worms new bedding
mixed in with some residual compost.
Compost is useful whether you have an apartment adorned with potted plants or
you have a backyard garden. Use compost to enrich potting soil and the soil in
your garden. It also makes great mulch. It's relatively hassle-free and you're
not only helping your plants, but the environment as well.