Vermicomposting…Some call it worm farming… some, composting with worms.
The nutritional value of soil is hard to tell just by looking at it. The darker the soils the more probable that more organic matter is there. Did you know that the richest soil around is made up mostly of earthworm castings, which is the earthworms manure? The earthworms waste products add valuable nutrients to any soil. The concentrations of nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, and phosphates are all higher in soil that has earthworms. The movement of the earthworms through the soil loosens it up and makes it valuable to all gardeners and to many others. The enriched soil is naturally processed by the earthworms.
As the earthworm passes through the soil it eats, decomposes, and deposits the castings. The earthworm neutralizes the material by the secretions of calcium carbonate from glands near the earthworm’s gizzard. The gizzard breaks the material down to a very fine texture and then it is digested by the earthworm. Continuing on through the earthworm’s digestive tract, there are hormones, enzymes etc. that continue to breakdown the material. When it passes out in the form of castings, it is a rich and high quality humus material. These casts are not only high in nutrients but also high in beneficial bacteria for the soil.
If you have a lawn and you use insecticide, you may want to rethink that. Try using a natural form of insect control because the insecticide will make the earthworms burrow very deep into the soil, unable to help your
lawn. If you do not use insecticide, the beneficial earthworms will stay toward the top of your lawn where soil aerification is needed. The earthworms consume thatch also.
Most gardeners have a compost pile where they throw all of their vegetable scraps and dried leaves etc. It takes some time for all that to break down into usable organic matter. If you put earthworms in the pile the decomposition will take place much faster. To have plenty of earthworms be sure the pile is moist at all times or the earthworms will die.
“All fertile areas of this planet have, at least once, passed through the bodies of earthworms.”
~ Charles Darwin
Commercial worm farming, technically known as vermiculture, got it’s start in the bait industry. In the 1800’s fishermen got lazy and entrepreneurial folks realized there was money to be made in selling earthworms to fisherman.
Concurrently, in the twentieth century people began to explore more thoroughly the role of earthworms in soil cultivation, aeration, and plant growth. Although science, through people like Darwin, showed the important role of the earthworm in agriculture, worms for the bait industry took off.
Small Scale Vermicomposting
Small-scale systems may use a wide variety of bins. Often, small-scale composters build their own worm bins. Companies also sell worm bins. Commonly, bins are made of old plastic containers, wood, Styrofoam containers, or metal containers.
Some materials are less desirable than others in bin construction. Styrofoam is believed to release toxins into the earthworms’ environment. (do we really need a citation here?) Metal containers often conduct heat too readily, are prone to rusting, and may release heavy metals into compost.
Bins should have holes in the sides to allow air to flow, and a spout that can be opened or closed or holes in the bottom to drain into a collection tray. Plastic bins require more drainage than wooden ones because they are non-absorbent. The design of a small bin usually depends on where an individual wishes to store the bin and how they wish to feed the worms. Most small bins can be grouped into three categories:
- Non-continuous – an undivided container. A layer of bedding materials is placed in the bin, lining the bottom. Worms are added and organic matter for composting is added in a layer above the bedding. Another layer is added on top of the organic matter and the worms will start to compost the organic matter and bedding. This type of bin is often used because it is small and easy to build. But it is relatively difficult to harvest because all the materials and worms must be emptied out when harvesting.
- Continuous vertical flow – a series of trays stacked vertically. The bottom-most tray is filled first, in a similar fashion to any other bin, but is not harvested when it is full. Instead, a thick layer of bedding is added on top and the tray above is used for adding organic material. Worms finish composting the materials in the bottom tray and then migrate to the one above. When a sufficient number of worms have migrated, the vermicompost in the bottom tray can be collected and should be relatively free of worms. These bins provide an easier method of harvesting.
- Continuous horizontal flow – a series of trays lined horizontally. This method too relies on the earthworms migrating towards a food source in order to ease the process of harvesting. The bin is usually constructed to be similar to a non-continuous bin but longer horizontally. It is divided in half, usually by a large gauge screen of chicken wire. One half is used until it becomes full, then the other half is filled with bedding and organic matter. In time, the worms migrate to the side with the food and the compost can be collected. These bins are larger than a non-continuous system but still small enough to be used indoors, with the added bonus of being easier to harvest.
Make an above the ground worm bin…
Red worms castings are an excellent addition to a compost pile. The worms help to process the pile by eating the decayed matter and turn the waste into fine top soil in approximately 2 to 3 months, depending on the quantity of worms introduced into the pile, the outside temperatures, and the time of year.
A compost heap is 4′ x 4′ x 4′ should have a minimum of 3,000 to 10,000 worms introduced into the pile – that’s close to two pounds. (don’t worry, that’s not NEARLY as much as you might think.. my first red worms came in a box about 8″X 8″!!)
Add them to your compost pile when it has broken down and is warm but not hot in the center. Dig down about a foot and add the worms. Keep the pile moistened, but not soggy wet. This pile will be your “breeding area”.
When you want to remove some of the worms for next compost pile, begin feeding the worms at one spot near the edge, and when the worms move to this area after a few days, add some of the worms to your other compost pile.
At this time you can also remove some of the soil and worm castings for your garden lowering your pile a foot or so. Keep feeding the worms in the breeding area by adding greens and shredded alfalfa hay to the top of the pile every few weeks.
Be sure to add four or five inches of shredded alfalfa hay for winter protection, and keep the pile moistened, but not wet.
“Worm castings are as natural to plants as breast milk to a new born baby.” The book, “Worm Farming Revolution” is available HERE. (When your worms first arrive they may be slightly dehydrated, you can feed them a light dusting of corn meal before you cover them.)
Loosely cover worms/waste with a 2-inch layer with shredded alfalfa hay. Water and feed two or three times a week – adding vegetable waste under the alfalfa layer to keep the process going. Each time you feed your worms place the waste mix next to the previous feeding area, working your way toward the opposite end of the pit.
When you get to the end of the pit, feed back towards the beginning. As you continue these layers and reach the top, leave a four-inch space between the cover and the mixture for ventilation.
Cover the top of the pit with a sheet of plywood to keep out the elements and critters, and weight down with rocks.
In a few months and under the alfalfa layer you will have worm castings, which can be transferred to your garden beds. To harvest your worm castings wait until the worms are being fed are at one end of the pit. You can remove the castings from the opposite end of the pit.
Replace the castings with the mix of 2/3 corrugated cardboard and 1/3 sphagnum peat moss, shredded newspaper, shredded leaves, a little crumbled aged or composted manure, and a cup or so of fine sand mixed with equal parts of wood ashes, and ground limestone. Cover with the 2-inch layer of damp shredded newspaper or cardboard mixed with straw.
Indoor Worm Bins
Compost can be made all year round, and indoors! by using wood, metal or plastic bins with lids. Special worm composting bins may be ordered online, or you can easily make your own. Special worms are used in Vermicomposting: Eisenia foetida or Lumbricus rubellas, which can be ordered from worm farms or some nurseries. Start with about a pound or worms, around 1000.
They can multiply quickly, and the surplus can just be added to your summer garden, or given to friends.
For two people… a box 2′ x 2′ x 8″ deep, or so, wood, metal, or plastic, will suffice. For a larger family, make it 2′ x 3′ x 1′ deep. There should be some small 1/4″ holes in the bottom for drainage, and the box should be set on a tray with 1″ spacers between the tray and the box, for aeration and drainage.
Line the bottom with shredded 1-inch strips of newspaper, inch wide strips of cardboard boxes, and peat moss. A mix of 2/3 corrugated cardboard and 1/3 sphagnum peat moss, or newspaper, is a good bedding mixture.
You can also add shredded leaves and a little aged or composted manure, and a cup or so of fine sand, ashes, and limestone. Moisten the bedding, mix it well, and add the worms. Let it set for a few days before kitchen waste is added. Your worms will happily feed and make castings.
Add kitchen waste every day or so, by burying it a few inches or so in the bedding mix in one end of the box.
Kitchen waste can include: vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds and the filters, tea bags, without the tags, any vegetable matter, bread scraps, dried and crushed eggshells, and small amounts of finely chopped meat scraps, garlic and onion.
Cover the top of the compost bedding with a layer of damp newspapers, and a loosely fitting lid with holes for air. Every time you add waste, work your way to the other end of the box, so you will have about 8 or 9 different adding areas. When you get to the end of the box, start over at the other end. Worms will eat the bedding along with the scraps, and you may need to add more.
Keep the bedding mix/scraps moistened, but not soggy wet. In a few months you will be ready to harvest your compost.
To harvest compost castings, follow the same procedures for gathering outdoor castings. Only add the castings to your garden beds, these special worms live indoors only.
More Vermicomposting Resources
“Worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them, by boring, perforating, and loosening the soil, and rendering it pervious to rains and the fibres of plants, by drawing straws and stalks of leaves and twigs into it, and, most of all, by throwing up such infinite numbers of lumps of earth called worm-casts, which, being their excrement, is a fine manure for grain or grass.”
~ The Rev. Gilbert White of Selborne, 1777