We’ve been a-composting since we’ve lived here on Tenth Acre Farm. We enjoy the process, even in winter: Simple, easy, low maintenance. But we always wanted to get a worm bin and try vermicomposting because – why not have worm castings as a great soil amendment, and who wants to walk outside during this crazy snowmageddon winter?
Worm bins are also a good solution for small-space living arrangements, where there isn’t access to a yard for regular outdoor composting.
So when my brother – a high school teacher who’s had a worm bin in his classroom for years – got our name for Christmas this year, he knew exactly what to get for us.
Worm bins can be built from a variety of materials or containers. The important thing is that the container is dark (no clear plastic) and breathable. A worm bin made out of wood will naturally allow air exchange for the wormies. My brother took a Rubbermaid tote with a lid, drilled 2 holes per side, and called it a worm bin. Man, I’m glad we didn’t have to do that for ourselves, lol!
What to Fill the Container With
Bad grammar aside, it’s now time to add bedding and food to the bin. This is the part where there are all kinds of theories about what works best. What we did was shred a bunch of newspaper and cardboard and use a spray bottle to moisten it down with water. You don’t want it dripping wet, but if the newspaper/cardboard isn’t moistened enough, it will wick moisture from everything around it, including the poor wormies, which could become dehydrated and in extreme cases, die. No pressure!
Next we added the peel and seed remnants from a winter squash. I thought they would enjoy the high sugar content of squash peels since they had gone 4 days without food (more on that in a minute). Worms can eat any fruit or vegetable scraps, egg shells and coffee grounds, except they don’t prefer citrus fruit, onions, or hot peppers.
We pushed everything to one side because one maintenance practice is to actively feed the worms on one side of the bin at a time like this one. When the food on one side seems to be all broken down and is mostly rich, worm castings, then you add bedding to the other side, and start feeding them over there. After a period of resting, the worms migrate from the “done” side over to where the fresh food and bedding are. Then it’s relatively easy to harvest the castings from the “done-resting” side. We’ll see about that!
Now add worms. Since my brother lives 500 miles away, he sent us worms from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.
They come “shipped in bone dry peat moss to absorb all moisture during shipment. This helps keep the worms from freezing in the winter…The worms can lose up to 70% of their body mass and weight during a 3-5 day trip through the mail.”
When they arrive, the directions are to immediately pour 1/2 a cup of water on them to begin the rehydration process. Talk about travel stress!
Keep the lid on and a light on in the room (at first) or they might try to escape before establishing themselves in the bin you’ve made!
Getting it Right
One of the reasons why we hadn’t been super motivated to get started with a worm farm prior to this point is because we worried about not getting it right. Since the bin is inside the house, what if it smells or creates flies? Our regular compost bins outside are fairly forgiving, and even when we’ve had some smells due to an imbalance of grass clippings to leaves, at least we knew how to remedy it (add more leaves!), and at least it’s not in the house.
With the worm bin, we’ve spent a good amount of time peeking in the bin and looking for signs of too much water or not enough. Too much food or not enough. Too much bedding or not enough. Are the air holes sufficient for air exchange? And on it goes.
Paranoia Leads to Real Problems!
Weird things started to happen. Perhaps we were worried for a reason! The next day after starting this worm bin, I was harvesting collard greens so I threw a few leaves into the bin for them. After the addition of collard greens to the bin, though, the entire house stunk like rotten Brassica for a week…because there WAS rotten Brassica in the house. Apparently I gave them too much food, too fast. I threw in a bucket of brown leaves and the problem seemed to go away.
That’s when I started the Bowl-on-the-Counter solution:
I keep a 24-oz bowl on the kitchen counter that I fill with egg shells, coffee grounds, and a few choice food scraps for the worms. It takes 2-3 days to fill it up, and then I take it down to the worm bin in our basement. I figured if I gave them relatively dry things to eat, eventually things would balance out from the collard debacle.
Meanwhile, all other food scraps go into my regular compost pail which goes outside to the regular compost bin. My first disappointment came with the realization that I would still have to make regular trips out to the regular compost, so in the category of time management and efficiency, this is a con. [What are people doing in apartments? Not eating very many fresh veggies? Having a worm bin in every room???]
But we started to get a few flies. I don’t know if they are fruit flies or gnats or what…but at least no smell! I thought that would all go away after the worms devoured that apple core I thew in.
But now we’ve noticed that the sides of the bin, the underside of the lid, and the top of the pile are all covered in tiny, white specks. Vince did some research, and it turns out these are mites. They are harmless, but show up when there has been too much moist food added to the bin at once. These guys compete with the worms for food.
The solution is to not feed the worms for a couple of weeks. So, I’m back to my regular outdoor composting for awhile.
We’re excited to get this right. Words of wisdom from experienced worm farmers are welcome!