Sunday, August 8, 2010

worm composting!

i am so excited about worms right now. i’ve been hearing about worm composting for a while, and now that we’re living in a space with a garden (and no curbside composting) we decided to go for it.

so the first question is: where do you get worms?
i did some research on this, and it turns out that while earthworms are great for your garden, they are not the ones you want in your compost bin. as it was explained to me, earthworms are kind of solitary, slow-eating fellows, who generally like to stay buried in the dirt. the worms you want for composting are the kind that like to live in a colony, come to the surface to eat (the term is “epigeic”), and eat their body weight in food every day. there are two types of ideal composting worms: red wrigglers and blueworms. now, i read somewhere that you could pick up bait worms from a fishing shop and those would work – but i don’t do enough fishing to know if that’s true, and i suppose it depends on your bait shop. it’s worth a shot if you can distinguish red/blue worms from earthworms.

this is the blueworm, Perionyx excavatus
as it turns out, there is a worm store – yes, a store devoted to worm composting –two blocks from our new house. what are the chances of that? so even though i balked at paying $40 for ¼ lb of worms (!) we went there to get our worm colony set up. i figure, as long as this works out i’ll only have to buy them once and then they’ll make worm babies and i can give them away to friends (or start selling them for $120/lb!).
so we went to the worm store and they were super helpful answering all our worm questions. the worms eat any kind of food scraps, paper, cardboard, leaves – they don’t recommend putting in meat or dairy because it spoils and smells bad and can attract other kinds of critters to your worm bin. i’ve also heard not to put garlic or onions in there, but the guy at the worm store said that’s just for the sake of smell, the worms will eat it. what I found out recently from my friend noelle recently is they don’t like rice, so i’ve been avoiding putting rice in the bin.
we left the worm store with a ziplock baggie full of worms and dirt – and because we had a few more errands to run and I didn’t want to leave them in the hot car – i carried around a purse full of worms for the afternoon.

we made the worm bin ourselves, it’s really easy so i don’t recommend buying a worm bin unless you’ve got money to burn. i got a tupperware bin from walmart for $5 - i think i bought a bigger size than I needed for starting out (18 gallons), but i figure the worms can grow into it. i would actually recommend starting out with a smaller bin (like 10 gallons), since the worm guy said if they're in a large bin they spend more time looking for food and for each other to mate, so they eat/reproduce more slowly. we drilled ¼” holes on the bottom, sides, and lid for ventilation, and then put it up on cement blocks with a tray underneath to catch the worm juice. yep, worm juice. they call it “worm tea” and it supposedly makes a really good fertilizer for your plants – you can dilute it 20:1 and spritz the leaves, or water the soil with it.

when we got the worms home we had to make up their bedding. so we layered a burlap bag on the bottom of the bin – to encourage them to stay in there and not slip out the holes in the bottom. then we ripped up strips of newspaper and crumpled it and moistened it to make a bed. i guess they really like to bed in newspaper (or regular shredded paper) and they’ll eventually break it down too.

then it was time to put the worms in their new home. we poured out the worms and dirt from the ziplock, and they say you should mix in some of the dirt they’re used to into your new bedding, this involves slowly carving away at the outsides of the dirt pile. these worms really don’t like light, so they’ll dive inward away from the outside of the pile as you carve the dirt away, leaving a wriggling ball of worms in the middle – which is pretty fun.

once you’ve got the dirt mixed in with the bedding you can put your worm ball in there – don’t break them up, they’ll do that on their own. and then feed them and put more newspaper on top and tuck them in with another layer of burlap. you can leave your worm bin uncovered – which helps with ventilation, but it also invites other critters in there and since our backyard is a lizard haven I didn’t want to encourage the lizards to predate our worms – those little buggers are expensive! so we keep a lid on ours.

if you figure they eat their body weight in food a day, you can start out feeding them ¼ lb of food scraps daily – or what we’ve been doing is keeping a bag of scraps in the freezer and then feeding them the whole bag at the end of the week. i’ve also heard that the freezing process helps break down the food so they can eat it faster. keep in mind you have to thaw it before putting it in the bin – you don’t want frozen worms. as they start to break down the newspaper you can add more, and always bury your food scraps underneath the newspaper layer, and keep everything moist – they like moist, dark conditions. you can even keep your worm bin inside your house – but since we have very limited indoor space we’re keeping them in the shade outside. you can expect other kinds of bugs and stuff to live in there with the worms and help break down the food. as long as you keep nice conditions for the worms they should leave peacefully together. They worm guy said that if your colony is unhealthy that’s when other organisms can come in and take over.

and that’s it! they’re super low maintenance and so gratifying. marty and i never thought we’d be so excited about worms. they look really happy themselves; they’ve been getting fatter and reproducing. and though they were kind of shy for the first week and hanging out at the bottom of the bin, now they’re eager to come up and eat stuff. 

our first few feedings were really coffee grounds- heavy, because that was pretty much all we were producing in waste when we first moved in. i’m not sure how the worms deal with coffee, but i figured we might be cracking them out on caffeine, so i stopped putting coffee grounds in, and started sprinkling them around the outsides of our planter boxes so discourage slugs from munching our vegetables. i also try to chop tougher things – like rinds and peels – up before feeding it to them, just to encourage the breakdown process.
the worm poops are called “vermicast,” also known as “gardeners gold” because it’s great for planting and adding extra nutrients to your garden. once your worms have eaten their way through about 6 months worth of food, you can harvest the vermicast – and separate out some worms to give away if you like. i’ll give a full report when we’re ready to harvest.