The Tillers of the Earth: Vermicomposting
Imagine stepping out of doors on a perfectly beautiful morning making your way to the garden. The sun is slowly rising above the horizon. The morning dew on the tomato leaves reflects the first rays of light. The symphony of song birds echoes through the yard in perfect harmony. Nature flows to a dance always kept in perfect rhythm, and by choice you enter this space to inhabit.
But here is where your imagination truly comes into play.
You look down at the rich soil underneath your feet. The very soil you worked so hard to enrich just perfectly right to produce for you at the optimum. Suddenly you notice hundreds upon hundreds of earth worms standing at attention, all saluting you, and one is carrying a sign which says, “You Are Welcome!”
The truth is we are never alone, nor is it ever a solo task reserved only for you to enrich the soil of your garden. But you play a key role in its development.
WHY RED WIGGLERS
There is hardly a patch of soil on this earth which has not been through the digestive system of worms. They are the Life Blood of the earth. Capable of ingesting organic matter and turning the substance into something more precious than the finest gemstones to any devoted gardener. Worms come in many colours and sizes, and each species owning very unique specialties.
But for today, we will focus on a gardener’s favourite, The Red Wiggler. Also knows as the redworm, panfish worm, and trout worm.
Red Wigglers are ideal for vermicomposting because they are so adaptable.
Fun Facts About the Red Wiggler
They are hermaphroditic, meaning they have both male and female sex organs. But they do get together at least once for a date, because two worms are actually needed to reproduce. Then both exchange sperm and secrete cocoons containing eggs.
Each cocoon carries an average of 5 worms, but typically only 3 will hatch. If you provide enough food and a suitable environment, Reds will happily thrive and work wonders for you.
They can eat up to their own weight each day, though half their weight in one day is more common.
Very much like humans, teenage worms eat more than adults.
Red Wigglers are rarely found in soil.
Reds thrive on the nightshift. They are photosensitive and can only work in the dark.
Like other types of worms, they breathe through their skin and need to stay moist in order to take in oxygen.
Baby redworms are much paler than adults and may appear somewhat white.
During the summer months Reds can be added straight in the garden around the soil of your plants. The only downfall is they do not overwinter well and will die if not protected from the cold temperatures. The reason is they do not burrow deep in the ground like earthworms and are adapted to the first few inches of the top layer of soils.
Reds are able to endure a wide range of temperatures, but love it best between 15 C – 27 C.
Reds live in colonies and can even be found in writhing masses, especially when a food source they love is available. A simple household bin 30cm X 30cm can hold 1000 worms.
1 pound carries approximately 1000 worms typically costing $15-$40 depending on your source.
Setting up a home for your new lodgers
Now, let's dive into plans to have these mini composting machines settle under your kitchen sink, basement, garage or backyard for what is called vermicomposting.
Vermicomposting simply means, composting with worms.
Whether you use an outdoor or indoor bin, the basics are the same. You will need a home for the worms, bedding material, water, food waste, and of course the worms.
A worm bin can be constructed out of wood, but never build with any type of treated wood. Another popular alternative are plastic containers used for storage bins. Though for outdoor uses plastic is not the best option as the bins overheat, whereas wood has good insulation value. Then there is also the potential the plastic could leach when exposed to outdoor elements.
Bin size is all dependent upon the amount of food waste you produce. Everything in moderation. A good measure to follow is for, every pound of waste your household produces each week, then one square foot of surface area is required. For instance, if your family produces 4 pounds of food waste each week, then the top of your bin should be 4 square feet.
For outdoor bins, holes in each side and bottom are preferred. However, this method is not practical for indoor bins. The solution for indoor uses is simply to drill 5 to 9, ½ inch holes in the top and bottom. For indoor uses, the bottom holes of the bin can be covered with a very fine mesh screen to prevent your new tenants from going on hikes to new lands. Or, place your drilled bin inside another bin without holes.
In all cases, keeping the optimum conditions forever prevents the worms from roaming. The idea is to keep the bedding moist and with enough air circulation. For indoor bins, placing a shallow plastic container or lid underneath is recommended to prevent any moisture if seepage occurs.
Remember, worms work in the dark, so keep the lid on at all times. In the event the bin becomes too damp, removing the lid for a few days for the material to dry is fine, because the worms will keep busy under the surface. Turning over the contents by hand each day will speed up the process of drying.
Reds need bedding material to begin working, this allows a place for them to burrow and also a location for you to bury the food. Porous material which holds moisture and at the same time allows air circulation is needed.
For many, potting soil is a great starter and something the consistency of the soil is usually the proper environment for the worms. Other materials which are suitable are as follows. Previously composted animal manure. Shredded paper or cardboard. Decaying or shredded dry leaves. A combination of all these materials can also be used.
Remember, never use glossy paper, coloured ink products, coated cardboard, or any product of which you are in doubt. Worms do not have teeth, so they need roughage to break down the food entering their stomach. Throwing a few handfuls of soil from your garden to begin is highly recommended. Coffee grounds are also excellent roughage material.
Bedding must remain moist at all times. When setting up the bin the first time, for every 12 liters volume of bedding material used, a liter of water is required. As you spread the bedding material in the bin, spraying with a household plant mister is favourable because you will have better distribution.
When worms crawl up the side of your bin, then your material is too wet, and the lid should be removed for a few days to dry. Again, turning the material over once a day to speed up the drying process can be done if desired.
If you add foods with high water contents such as, pumpkin, cantaloupes, watermelon, then the content of water should not be adjusted. By the way, all the previously mentioned fruit are a delicacy to Reds. Bin contents needs to be moist and not wet. Some water is required when adding dry scraps, but not in the case of other foods.
If you forever keep in mind a simple list of guidelines then you can not go wrong on what to feed your new family members.
What they love:
Garden plants when no longer producing
Crushed egg shells
Coffee grounds (small amounts due to acidity)
Cardboard – non-toxic and uncoated, also good for bedding material
Paper – no coloured ink, and only vegetable-based ink
Pasta, rice, potatoes – no sauces
Well aged manure
Anything going into the bin should be added in moderation.
What they hate:
All meat products, including the bones.
All dairy products
No kitchen oil, grease, or fat.
Limit citrus fruits because of the acids.
No human, unless you are doing humanure ;)
No pet waste, unless you know your compost pile will be able to break it down or it is well aged livestock manure
All food scraps added to the bin should be chopped, torn apart, or broken down.
This makes it easier for you to bury the food and prevent fruit flies from also making the bin their home. Also, this will speed up the process of breaking down the food for the worms.
1. Select where you want your worms to be housed.
Indoors, some popular spots are under the kitchen sink, laundry room, basement, mud rooms, or large pantry areas. As long as the temperature is between 15 C – 27 C, then all is well to begin.
Outdoor bins must be protected from rain runoff because if waterlogged the worms will drown. Also, direct sunlight is a definite no. People often store their bins in garages or storage sheds over the winter to protect from freezing. Added insulation can go around the bin, just as long as some air circulation is present.
2. Build their bedding.
The idea is to layer the bottom of the bin with bedding. Whatever material is used, the bedding needs to be moist or damp. Too wet will deter the worms from working and they will seek to escape the bin.
A general rule of thumb is no matter what type of bedding you begin with, if you can squeeze out more than 2 or 3 drops of water, then it is too wet. If this is the case, then let the contents air dry.
3. Have food scraps on hand.
After the initial layer, continue adding bedding material and then food scraps, until the bin is filled or you run out of material.
Make sure the last layer is bedding, all food scraps need to be buried.
4. Add the worms.
When ready, gently place your worms on the surface of the material in the bin and leave the cover off for a while, this will encourage the worms to burrow and settle into their new home.
For the first week, do not add more food scraps, give your little buddies time to adapt.
Some people prefer to wait a few days before adding the worms so everything has time to settle, which when completely set should be about one third of the bin.
An abundance of online video sources is available. Here is a very good source from the University of Maine and it is easy to follow https://youtu.be/jJ3QIZMta98.
If you ever run into problems
Very little can go wrong with vermicomposting, especially if all the steps are followed. Other than neglect, here are few things to keep in mind.
Fruit flies – If fruit flies are a problem, be certain to bury your food scraps. Plus, overly damp bins also attract fruit flies.
Odours – If a bad odour rises from your bin, then something is out of balance. Bins should smell like fresh garden soil when everything is working fine. The solution is simply turn over the contents to air dry and also add dry bedding material.
Too much moisture – If the bottom of your bin has water, then you must rebuild your bin from fresh. Meaning transfer as much of the worms and castings to a new bin with fresh bedding and food scraps. If so much moisture entered the bin in the first place then you must identify how this happened. Was water added? Did you use an excess of food scraps with a high moisture content? Such as watermelon, cantaloupes, tomatoes, etc. A high level of humidity where the bin is stored can also have an effect.
Escaping worms – A happy environment, means happy worms. They will not seek to run away. When first establishing the bin, a few may attempt to leave, this is perfectly normal until they adapt to their new home. Leaving the top of your bin off in a well-lit area will encourage them to bury through the bedding.
Another factor for escaping worms can be a toxic environment. If too many food scraps were placed in, then the system may have begun composting and heat levels to rise dramatically which may be too hot for your worms. Remove some food scraps and add dry bedding.
One last factor is do not allow pets to disturb your bin. Worms are quiet little creatures and prefer a peaceful environment. Even checking up on the bin a few times a day can at times have an effect and disturb them. Solution; resist the urge to say hello too often.
Harvesting worms and castings
You’ve had your bin working perfectly fine for several months, and you notice the time has arrived to begin the process anew and begin using your castings for the garden. Two methods will prove rather effective.
1. Let nearly all the food scraps go down to nothing in the bin, then dump the contents entirely. Sift through the castings and place the worms in the new bin, along with cocoons you are able to find.
2. Another method is to separate your bin in half. Pile the contents to one half of the bin, and in the other half add fresh bedding with food scraps. After about a few weeks to a month your worms will have moved to the new source of food. Then your worm castings can be removed.
The benefits of vermicomposting can not be overstated.
Whether for garden or household use, the castings produced by worms is one of the richest sources of nutrients for all plants.
In gardens, adding the castings directly where your seedlings or seeds are sown is the best option. Wherever you water and the roots have access works fine. For perennials, mixing castings in the top layer of soil is all which is needed, either once or twice a growing season.
Vermicomposting is even great for people living in the city because the bins can go nearly anywhere. The system is clean to use. Some cities even have vermicomposting programs to encourage less garbage for the landfills.
You are turning what would usually be discarded into landfills, into something incredibly beneficial for all soils and plant health. An effort so small and so simple to practice can actually turn even the poorest of garden soil into rich regenerative soil. The castings added to the garden will also encourage a healthy and well-balanced gut microbiome from the nutrient-dense food you eat coming from such nutrient-dense soil.
As human beings part of the larger ecosystem, we have an advantage over other life forms on earth. Meaning, through our actions we are able to move around and affect entire environments within a very short time period.
More and more we are taking notice just how much our presence on this beautiful earth has an impact.
Something so simple as vermicomposting can do so much for the environment in which you reside.
Also, as humans, we not only are able to help each other out, but we can also help all forms of life around us, it is within our power to do so!
Let's get vermicomposting!