by Donna Mazzitelli
According to HowToCompost.org, worm composting, also known as vermicomposting, is the easiest way to recycle food wastes. It’s ideal for people who do not have an outdoor compost pile. Composting with worms avoids the unnecessary disposal of vegetative food wastes.
When working with worms, remember that they are living creatures. They have specific needs just like we do in order to remain healthy and content. As their guardian, your job is to provide the right environment (e.g., the right amount of light, moisture, temperature, etc.) and the right food. Your worms will reward you with an ample supply of castings, or vermicompost.
Worms don’t smell and they don’t roam around. Red worms are content to stay right in their little bin, happily chewing away on your food scraps. Keep in mind that they will not survive below freezing temperatures, so they must stay inside during the winter. They like being kept between 50–70 degrees Fahrenheit and can be kept in any indoor place. Just as you would outdoors, avoid putting bones, meats, fish, or oily fats in the worm box since they emit odors and may attract mice and rats. If cared for properly, worms process food quickly and transform food wastes into nutrient-rich “castings.”
Place the redworms in a box or bin, along with “bedding” of shredded cardboard and/or paper moistened to about 75 percent water content. The container should be wide enough so that food scraps can be buried in a different part of the container each time. The size of the bin depends on the amount of waste food being produced. A worm bin should have about one square foot of surface area for each pound of food waste added each week. A 2′ x 4′ box, for example, is large enough for eight pounds of kitchen scraps a week. Opaque plastic storage bins are ideal for vermi¬composting. They have lids, they’re moisture proof, inexpensive and they come in several sizes. Packing crates and foam plastic chests are also fine. Whether your container is made from wood or plastic, it should have air holes in the top or the sides. It should also be no more than 12 to 18 inches deep.
Proper bedding for your worms is very important. It gives them a damp place to live, a balanced diet and prevents odor problems. Shredded newspaper or cardboard, potting soil (with no chemical additives), garden soil, peat moss, fall leaves, straw or a combination of any of these can be used. Fill the bin almost to the top with loose bedding. Sprinkle the bedding with water until it is as wet as a wrung-out sponge. It should form a “mud ball” when a handful is squeezed.
Feed the worms by burying food scraps in the bedding. To discourage flies and odors always cover the scraps with a few inches of bedding or vermicompost. Bury the scraps in a different spot each time to evenly distribute the food for the worms. They especially like melons, lettuce and apples but you can feed them any vegetable scraps. Try to give them a variety of foods, and only a small amount of citrus fruits, so that the pH stays fairly neutral. The smaller you cut up your food scraps the faster they’ll disappear. Do not feed your worms animal products, oily foods, cheese, butter, meat, fish, dog or cat feces. Do feed them coffee grounds and filters, fruit rinds and peels, vegetable scraps, grains, breads.
Usually about three to six months after starting a new bin, the worms will have digested not only the food you gave them but most of their bedding as well. What will remain are primarily black worm castings, or vermicompost. This is the soil-like material that makes a very good additive to your house plants or flower beds. You must harvest the castings in order to maintain a healthy environment for your worms.
Harvesting Your Worm Compost:
The Side to Side Method
1) Move finished compost to one side of the bin and fill the empty side with fresh bedding.
2) For six weeks or so bury food waste only in the newly bedded side of the bin.
3) The worms will eventually seek out the fresh food and migrate over to the new bedding and fresh food. When they have done so, you can scoop out the castings.
The Bright Light & Scoop Method
1) Shine a bright light on the worms. They’ll avoid the light and burrow down through the vermicompost.
2) Scoop off the top layer of vermicompost until you see the worms again.
3) Repeat the process. Eventually the worms will be concentrated at the bottom of the bin. These can be put into fresh bedding.
The Sun Dried Method
This is a fairly fast, easy way of harvesting the worms but it requires a second bin and some plastic mesh.
1) Put fresh moistened bedding in a second bin and cover the fresh bedding with ¼” plastic mesh.
2) Dump the castings and worms from the first bin on top of the plastic mesh and put the new bin out in the sun.
3) The sun will dry the castings. As it does, the worms will move down through the mesh into the moist bedding below.
4) The worm compost on top of the mesh is now ready for use.
Using Your Vermicompost
1) Mixing with potting soil – use one part vermicompost to three parts potting soil.
2) As top dressing – sprinkle 1/4 inch of castings on houseplants, every 1½ to 2 months.
3) As starter mix – sprinkle castings along bottom of seed row, or into the hole when you are transplanting.
Red Worms… Not Brown Worms
Vermicomposting is done by red worms, also known as red wrigglers (Eisenia fetida). They thrive on organic materials like food scraps. They are not the same as common brown earth worms, which prefer to live and burrow in soil. Red worms are smaller and more reddish in color, preferring a dark, warm, very moist environment. They work best at temperatures from 55–70 degrees F. Under these conditions they are voracious eaters. One pound of worms can eat ½ pound of food waste every day.
One of the most common problems with worm bins is fruit flies. They are not dangerous and they don’t bite, itch, or even buzz. When they fly around, however, they can be annoying. There are simple ways to deal with them.
• keep fresh food wastes covered with a few inches of bedding or castings.
• freeze the food scraps overnight before adding them to the bin.
Your worm bin is a living environment that can be shared by many small creatures besides your red worms. Many of these creatures are actually beneficial to the process and are rarely a problem. Only centipedes, which will eat your worms, pose any threat to your bin.
If the worm bin smells bad it probably has too much food waste in it, is too wet or animal products are present. To eliminate bad odors remove excess or inappropriate wastes and add fresh bedding. You may also want to remove the lid for a while to allow for some evaporation.
*Part I of this article can be found in the March 2013 issue of BellaSpark Magazine at www.BellaSpark.com.
Donna Mazzitelli was a contributing author to Speaking Your Truth, Vols. I and II. The Word Heartiste, Donna helps others connect to their stories and craft them with heart. She and partner Jordon Holiday recently co-founded Merry Dissonance Press, a place for writers and other creatives to make mirthful, discordant noise in the world. Visit www.writingwithdonna.com and www.merrydissonancepress.com.