By Valarie Rider – Even homesteaders on a tiny urban plot make a lot of waste. Our multi-faceted approach to recycling sends most yard waste through our chickens to start the composting process along with both an outdoor, hot composting system and an indoor worm bin. Most manure for gardens needs to be composted so it doesn’t burn plants but vermicompost is ready to use and doesn’t burn even tender young roots.
Chickens effectively break down garden waste and chicken manure compost provides much-needed green material for hot composting but may not be allowable for some families.Hot composting provides well-balanced compost (containing both fungi and bacteria) but takes time, room, and labor. However, vermicomposting can be accomplished in four square feet and about an hour per week, providing vermicompost in 4 to 6 months. I’m going to show you how to vermicompost in your home, turning kitchen waste into fabulous black gold!
Worms need bacteria to digest food, so their waste is teeming with the beneficial bacteria present in healthy soil. Worm castings are 50% higher in organic matter than average soil. The bacteria, along with fungi and other organisms, make up the soil food web that naturally and sustainably feeds plants.
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While vermicompost adds beneficial bacteria to garden soil, a healthy soil food web contains fungi, which is not present in worm castings. If you have the room and as much garden waste as we do, try hot composting with a three-bin compost system or buy an outdoor composter.
My family creates about eight pounds of kitchen waste weekly, supporting 2,000 to 3,000 worms. The byproducts are liquid leachate and rich vermicompost. Fresh, high-quality worm compost is an excellent garden soil boost and we use it to create custom-brewed compost tea as an inoculant for organic fertilization. Additionally, if your worms are as happy as mine, they reproduce and within a few months, you will have worms to sell or give to friends.
How to Set up a Worm Composting Bin
Years ago, when I started keeping worms, I made a system from two Rubbermaid-style bins. The bins are not very attractive plus with that system, the keeper needs to separate worms from finished compost, which can be quite messy. Recently I invested in a Hot Frog ™Living Composter system ($120), which is attractive enough to keep next to my kitchen table; most people don’t know what it is! This system’s multiple levels allow the keeper to stop feeding one level, forcing worms to migrate to another. Keepers can then harvest compost from the finished level. Additionally, this and most ready-made vermicomposters have a valve for easier removal of the leachate or water that accumulates and can cause problems if left in the bin.
I keep bins in the kitchen for easy management but they can go anywhere that doesn’t experience temperature extremes such as a basement, garage, closet, etc. Worms like the same temperature range we do: they survive between 40 and 95 degrees F but prefer 60 to 70 degrees F. Worms can be kept outdoors during mild temperatures but should be protected from water intrusion, direct sunlight, critters attracted by food (bungie lid down), and temperature extremes.
Unless the bin is out of balance, your worms and bin should smell like earthy compost. The leachate smells yucky since it is anaerobic, but if you drain it several times a week, the bin will not smell.
You can buy worms from many online sources, perhaps local, or you may get some from a friend who keeps worms. Happy and well-fed worms reproduce quickly and often. A single worm can reproduce to over 49,550 worms in a year! Mine have doubled in the months since I got them, and I have added another level to my farm.
Red worms (Eisenia fetida) function better than nightcrawlers (Lumbricus terrestris) in a worm bin because red worms are more apt to eat decaying organic matter. They also tolerate crowded conditions and temperature fluctuations better.
Worms need bedding and food to survive. Good bedding materials include: coconut coir, peat moss, shredded paper (not colored), uncoated cardboard, cardboard egg cartons, newspaper (not glossy ads), etc. I use a variety based on what I have. Use small pieces and moisten thoroughly prior to introduction into the bin. Bedding should be like a wrung-out sponge; not dripping. Essentially, you cannot have too much bedding in the bin, but keep it no deeper than eight inches since worms tend to stay near the top and the bottom can turn anaerobic.
When you get your worms, fill the bin to eight inches with wet bedding. Mix in two cups of healthy garden soil (for grit). Place worms on the bedding and then cover with damp bedding material. They will work their way down. If they seem to be trying to escape, uncover the bin and place under a bright light. They are photophobic and will work into the bedding to escape the light. Let them settle in for a couple days before feeding.
I feed my worms twice a week approximately 1.5 pounds per 1000 worms per feeding. Worms work through food faster, while growing and breeding more, if food is cut small. I sometimes put food through the food processor first. If I process a large amount of scraps at once and then freeze, I always have frozen worm food available. Freezing also starts the breakdown of the food, making it easier for worms to eat. The only difference I have seen with frozen food is it seems to produce more water. I drain the leachate at least twice a week and dilute it for use in garden and pots.
Good food choices include: fruit or vegetables, peelings and trimmings, coffee grounds, tea bags, crushed egg shells, breads, cereals, grains, pasta, rice, hair, etc. My worms love banana peels! Avoid meat, dairy, citrus, pet waste, onions, potatoes. When you feed, carefully dig a hole the size of the food and then cover with fresh wet bedding material. I always feed in the same location so I can see how much they ate; this keeps me from overfeeding.
When learning how to vermicompost, you’ll find that most problems are due to too much or too little water, temperature extremes, or too much food. If the bin smells, it probably is too wet. You can add more bedding to absorb extra fluid. If you find unprocessed food after a week, cut back on feeding. It takes a few months in a new bin for worms to get comfortable enough to eat at their potential. As time goes by, you introduce more food. Small insects and critters are usually okay in the bin, since they are part of the composting process.
After five to seven months, it is time to harvest finished vermicompost. Whatever method you use, the first step is to stop feeding the area you will harvest for two-three weeks. With a bin system, you can push all the contents including worms to one side. Add fresh moist bedding to the other side. Feed only the new bedding for a couple weeks, encouraging the worms to migrate over.
Another harvest method, which may not be for the squeamish, is to dump all contents on a tarp in well-lit area. Make several piles. Wait a bit as worms move down away from light. Harvest top level of compost, leaving worms. Wait again and repeat process until mostly worms are left. Place them back in vermicomposter with fresh bedding and food.
Compost may need to be screened of non-composted material before use, however can then be used directly for indoor or outdoor plants or made into compost tea. Use compost quickly as the quality of the micro-organisms will degrade with time.
Now go get some worms and make your kitchen more sustainable — and when you end up with gobs of wonderful wigglers, give a friend some and teach them how to vermicompost too!