By Barb Hilyard
July 4, 2014
So it begins, the mother of sons, who for over three decades has avoided the presence of squirmy, wriggly things in her home, is about to attempt vermicomposting.
Vermicomposting involves worms (Yes. Worms!) that break down substances (old paper, kitchen scraps, etc.) into a dark, nutrient-rich, natural compost in which your plants will thrive.
The one-pound package of Eisenia foetida “red-wigglies” has arrived. Preparations for this exciting adventure (while not as exciting as the arrival of a kitten or hedgehog- which actually have been occupants in my home) have been in the works for days. Power drills engaged, equipment cleaned, dietary essentials (garbage) collected. The little worm habitat is ready to go. Of course an additional benefit of vermicomposting is preventing identity theft. These fellows will eat all your shredded bank statements and documents, so need to worry about landfills!
Now the economical and practical procedure begins with two small plastic totes about 2ft x 2ft. These should be washed and aired to remove any smell or residue. This size bin is perfect for an apartment or property without areas for composting in the yard. The totes should be opaque because the worms do not like light. Drill numerous 1/8-1/4 inch holes in the top 2-3 inches of one tote. These holes allow air circulation and provide oxygen for the worms. Small holes are also drilled on the bottom of this tote for water drainage (otherwise known as worm tea -this can also be used a fertilizer.) Keep holes small to prevent the voracious wigglers from escaping. The second bin will not have holes and is used to collect any drainage. A small piece of brick or wood is placed at its bottom for elevating the first bin once it is stacked inside. The first bin’s air holes should be above the second bin’s rim.
Next, the worms need carbon rich bedding. Shredded newspapers are soaked in water and then drained. Allow paper to soak for a while so the chlorine in the water will dissipate. The paper should have excess water pressed out and then placed in the bin. Paper should not be dripping wet, as that will create a poor environment and the worms could actually drown. Also, do not use glossy paper or cardboard with plastic or waxy substances as they can poison the worms. Then gently mix in two cups of garden soil and dried leaves leaving air pockets. It is recommended to allow the bedding environment to set for a while allowing bacterial processes to begin.
The worms are then added. If they are not moving, or are trying to crawl out of the tub, you can shine a light on them. They will bury into the bedding. In the beginning, a small amount of food is slowly added to the top of the bedding. Red wigglers can eat up to one half of their body weight in food scraps a day. But if too much food is added in the beginning, the bin will smell. Later, no more than eight ounces of food for one pound of worms should be added. Recommended foods are food scraps such as banana peels, carrots, green kale, potatoes or any vegetable product. Worms eat coffee grinds. Crushed eggs shells are OK but do not use the egg or other dairy products. Watch citrus foods which can make habitat to acidic, and do not feed worms meats, oily foods, margarine, butter, spicy foods, peppers, sauces and only minimal amounts of starch. As recommended, you can freeze the scraps altogether in a plastic bag. Be sure to defrost the food to room temperature before adding to the bin. After feeding, close the container. More food scraps can be added as needed. It is best to watch how quickly your hungry worms consume their food and feed accordingly. Keep bins in the temperature range of 50-80 degrees. Vermicomposting bins should not have a foul smell. If they do, it is usually the result of too much nitrogen so the addition of high carbon brown foodstuff- paper or dried leaves should help. If not, the entire process should be redone.
Castings should be ready for harvest in about 6 weeks. Begin by placing handfuls of the dark material on a screen, and carefully separate the worms from the compost. Another method places food in one corner of the bin, attracting worms and removing the fertilizer from the other corner. Mix this harvested compost with your soil. It may be too strong to use as soil alone.
Hopefully this “wigglers” program will be successful! Check online for amazing photos of produce grown with and without the vermicompost. For more information on composting, check out OSU fact sheet HYG-1189-99.
Barb Hilyard is a Delaware County OSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteer