I’ve Got Worms: Adventures in the Art of Vermicomposting

Earth knows no desolation.
She smells regeneration in the moist breath of decay.

-George Meredith

Cory and I have decided to call our enterprise, “Lil’ Bit Farm”. That way we never have to commit. When someone asks what we do, we can just say, “Oh, a lil’ bit a this and a lil’ bit a that.” I like it. Not that it’s much of a farm yet; more like a collection of projects. Sometimes I feel like an aging 4-H student, but regardless, everybody needs a name.

One project that I’ve been working on for quite a while is my vermicomposting bin. Vermicomposting is the process in which worms, usually of the red wiggler variety (Eisenia fetida), eat and digest compostable materials like vegetable scraps, eggs shells and coffee grounds. The worms’ castings (ahem, poo), are then released as a nutrient rich amalgamation of fertilizing magic.

I was first introduced to the idea by my Brooklyn roommate. We lived in a tiny, shoebox apartment, and I was enthralled by the idea that we could compost in such a small space. But we never quite made it to the worms. In fact, all we managed to do was save massive amounts of rotting produce scraps in our freezer. I do not recommend this. These were in addition to the dead parakeet and dead turtle that we also kept in the freezer. I do not recommend this either, but I digress.

I finally got my worms about a year later, after I had moved back to my parent’s house to (re)attend college. I remember it like it was yesterday. I walked into the kitchen to find my mother, a short (well, shorter than all of her children), surprisingly scrappy woman from the Bronx, waiting for me with a deadpan expression. “Jenny, your worms are hea (that’s spelled right). They’re on the dining room table,” And here her deadpan expression turned slightly less dead, “get them awf (that’s also spelled right) the dining room table.” My mother is a saint and quite supportive of all of my endeavors, but hell, they were worms.

I carefully opened the cardboard box they had been shipped in. A couple of weeks before I had ordered a pound of red wigglers from Wilson’s Worm Farm in Norris, Montana. I really had very little idea what to expect, but what I found was a greyish mass writhing in very clean looking soil. I had prepared a shallow plastic bin with shredded newspaper as per expert’s instruction, and installed them promptly, covering them with more newspaper. I poked holes in the lid for air circulation and gave them a steady stream of kitchen scraps and awaited my black gold.

What I got was mud. Lots and lots of mud. Stinky mud. I tried airing out the box, draining the box, adding in flour, cereal, dry newspaper; anything to lower the moisture content, but for three years all I got was mud. I stuck it out though. I couldn’t stand the thought of chucking my babies. It wasn’t their fault that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. So for three years I carried around a box of mud, from apartment to apartment, not really sure how to solve my problem and have a productive worm bin.

Then I moved to Vermont, the land of all things compostable, and I got a chance to visit a real live worm farm. Down to Earth Worm Farm in Greensboro Bend, Vermont, promotes wooden boxes for housing vermicomposting operations. The theory is simple: wood breathes. It’s porous and allows for far more circulation then my little air holes ever could. My plastic bin was really good at collecting condensation and letting it pool to create an anerobic (oxygen-free) little swamp, perfect for killing worms. Perhaps this is why every time I opened the bin to check on my worms, several of them would be clinging to the inside cover as if attempting an escape. They were not happy.

Down to Earth also bucks convention by recommending maple leaf litter bedding (Vermont, go figure), instead of newspaper. I’d assumed that there were baddies in yard waste that could hurt my worms, but I failed to realize that there might also be goodies present that help with the composting process. Worms are not the only creature that composts. Also, the forest floor provides more nutrients than dead newspaper, resulting in more nutrients in the finished product.

It’s all experimentation, as always, but if you’d like to try a worm bin for yourself…

1.Start with a shallow wooden box. Exterior grade plywood is appropriate. The exact dimensions are up to you, but keep in mind how much space you have and whether or not it will ever have to be moved. Red Wigglers are surface dwellers and anything more than about a foot deep will be lost on them.

2.Add bedding. Maple leaves work well for this as they break down easily. Mulching them into smaller pieces speeds the process. Soak the leaves in water  and then squeeze out the excess before adding a layer to your box. You don’t want them sopping wet, but worms can’t move well through dry material.

3. Add your worms! I started with one pound. You can order them online or check out local bait shops. Red Wigglers are usually recommended for home composting systems. Cover them with a bit more bedding.

4. Feed them. Appropriate items include fruit and vegetable scraps and peelings (My worms seem to dislike citrus, especially lemons), coffee grounds, loose teas and natural tea bags, egg shells, cereals and flours, soy milk and tofu. Dairy and meat products may make your box smell, and if you have animals they may be more interested in your box then you’d like. Bury all food additions under at least 3″ of leaf litter.

5. Remember the temperature. Worms function best between 50-80 degrees F. They’re also very sensitive to light and vibration so select their location carefully.

6. Harvest your castings! You probably want to wait about a year to harvest your first castings. It’s easiest to begin a couple of months before you want to harvest, by feeding only on one side of the box. Most of the worms will migrate to the food leaving the other side free to harvest. Sift your castings through a screen to remove any large, uncomposted chunks, and any worms that didn’t get the memo.


2 responses to this post.

  1. I put you in for an award over at my page. I enjoy reading your blog and I thought that maybe my post may send a few more readers over your way.


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