A couple weeks back, I did a talk for the Kanawha County Master Gardeners Association on the basics of worm husbandry — more commonly called vermicomposting. I have done three such talks in the past six months. I guess it is safe to say, worms are crawling into the mainstream.
The funny thing is, these worms have been very popular for years with anglers. The red wigglers you see being sold at sporting goods stores and your local gas station in the Styrofoam cups are one of the same genus of worms you can use to eat your kitchen and yard waste.
So, why would I use worms for composting food waste? There are plenty of reasons!
- Compost worms will convert your food waste in one-third the time it takes other traditional composting methods
- It’s free fertilizer for your plants from your plants.
- You’ll never need to buy fishing worms again.
- You’re keeping organic waste out of the landfills.
- You will always have a great conversation starter at office parties and holiday gatherings. Trust me on this last one!
Let’s talk about the basics of becoming a new worm parent. First, you need to understand that rearing worms is not super easy. Compared to tossing things in a pile and turning it a few times a year, worms are living creatures just like us or our pets. They need to be cared for.
The environment your worms will need to live has a few requirements.
Temperature is key — you need to maintain a range between 58 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. Compost worms will die if you let them freeze or stay below 50 degrees for long periods of time.
You need good ventilation around your worm bin at all times. Basements and heated garages are ideal places to set your worm bin. You can also use a backroom or even your kitchen to house the bin.
The bin will not stink if cared for properly. The only smells you should notice are when you’re opening the lid or put your face right beside the bin. Even then, it should smell like wet earth or mushrooms. It should be a slight decaying smell, but never rancid.
Once you have determined a suitable environment for your new worms, then you will need to start weighing your weekly food waste in pounds, for three-to-six weeks.
After three or more weeks, average how many pounds of kitchen scraps your family generates. This will tell you how many worms you need to purchase initially to consume your waste stream. Most American families of four create around three to four pounds a week of vegetable waste.
You will need to furnish a home or bin for your newly appointed refuge workers. There are numerous options one can use for a worm bin.
I like a simple plastic tote set inside another tote, with a drain placed into the side to remove any liquids that may form inside the bin. This valuable liquid can be used as a compost tea to fertilize plants. Commercially available worm bins will have everything right out of the box to get started, including instructions on setup and basic care.
If you’re truly motivated to get started in vermicomposting, I recommend you buy and read cover to cover “Worms Eat My Garbage” by Mary Appelhof. This book was originally published in 1979 (Appelhof passed in 2005). It has been republished several times and is still widely available. There is a reason for this: the book is truly the definitive guide of vermicomposting.
Here I have only covered the very basic requirements for keeping a worm bin. You need to take the time to educate yourself more about vermicomposting, rather than just meeting the environmental conditions and buying a bin. You need to know about worm bedding, their sex lives, what kinds of garbage will they eat, how to dry castings and many other worm housekeeping things.
If done right, letting worms eat your food scraps can be very enjoyable and give you a sense of pride in knowing you have a zero-waste stream coming out of your kitchen.