What happens when you mix food scraps, junk mail, and worms? You get dirt! Vermicompost (worm composting) to be exact. You can save money every spring by creating your own nutrient and microbe-rich soil amendment at home and the best part is, you have most of what you need at home to get started! Now, before you squirm at the idea of playing with worms, channel your inner child and hear me out.
Your soil needs you! In order to produce beautiful flowers and nutrient-rich food, soil needs to retain water and have access to nutrients. Vermicompost increases the soil’s ability to retain water and feeds the soil organic matter that releases nutrients over time for your plants to consume. Vermicompost is so nutrient dense that a little goes a long way; you should only use 20% of the volume of the soil you are treating. Keeping a worm bin will save you a lot of money by reducing your kitchen waste and will feed your garden without the need for chemical fertilizers.
If that isn’t reason enough, according to the EPA, over 50% of the waste generated in the US is consists mostly of organic materials (paper and paperboard products, food scraps, and yard clippings) as of 2018 1 . That is 146 million tons of waste that were carried away to the landfills! If we would all maintain a worm bin we could greatly reduce the waste going to landfills as well as our dependency on non-renewable energies used to transport and process that trash. Nothing speaks to my heart more than a simple solution to a complex problem. Worms to the rescue!
So, what is composting? Composting is the process of converting organic materials into nutrient-rich soil amendment. This typically requires building an outdoor pile (at least 3’ X 3’) of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ organic materials (more on this later), keeping it moist, and turning it every so often. The pile will get hot, killing all of the pathogens that may be present, and the microbes will work to decompose all of that material in 6-9 months on average. Vermicomposting has a similar process minus the heat and with the addition of worms to the pile. Best of all, keeping a worm bin is easy; you only need 4 things: a bin, bedding, worms, and food.
You are going to need a home for your worms. This is as simple as getting a plastic storage tote with a lid from your basement or garage, you know you’ve been wanting to pick that up anyways. Now take that bin and make holes along the top 1 inch to allow for air circulation; don’t make holes on the top or bottom of the bin. Holes on the top of the bin will allow too much light and holes on the bottom of the bin will allow moisture (and potentially worms) to escape. Your worms will need a dark and moist environment to thrive so keep this in mind as you prepare your bin. Then you’ll need to find a place to put the worm bin, this can be indoors or outdoors as long as it’s protected from the elements. The most important thing about the location is that it is convenient for you to visit and feed the worms, so think of an area of your home that you visit regularly; I keep mine in the back porch under a table.
Worm bedding is as simple as shredding cardboard or paper and you can add peat moss, coco coir, or even yard waste (like grass clippings and wood chips) in moderation. The job of the bedding is to absorb and hold moisture, allow oxygen to flow, and block out light.
When you are ready to get your worms, reach out to that friend or neighbor that already has a worm bin or to a local master gardener. Happy worms double their population every 90 days, so we are happy to share some with you to get started. If you decide to buy some, there are many sources online, just make sure you get Red Wiggler worms. Red Wigglers love your organic trash and their one mission in life is to eat it. Other types of worms, like the ones you find in your garden after a heavy rain, are not interested in your food scraps and will not be happy in the bin environment you carefully crafted. As a rule of thumb you should start with about a pound of worms but you can absolutely start with less. Just keep in mind that the amount of material you put in the bin is relative to how many worms you have. You don’t want food going bad before your worms can eat it because the bin can get smelly and attract other critters you don’t want around.
There are two types of organic material you can feed your worms: greens (nitrogen-rich) and browns (carbon-rich). Greens are fruit and vegetable scraps (peels, husks, leaves, cores, melon rinds, roots, and stems), wilted, brown, or rotten produce, coffee grinds, and lawn clippings. Bread, pasta, and rice fall in this category too, but keep these to a minimum. You can even feed them that dead plant you forgot to water, just make sure it wasn’t diseased so you don’t spread the disease. Brown materials are shredded paper, cardboard, newspaper, paper towels, coffee filters, egg shells, dryer lint, feathers, and hair (human and animal). You should avoid feeding them garlic, onions, human or animal feces, citrus, dairy, meat, oils or grease, and bones. When it’s time to feed your worms, make a hole on one side of the bin, fill it with the green material and then cover it with the brown materials. You want to be mindful not to overfeed your worms; they eat half their weight per day, so if you started with a pound of worms, you can feed them 3.5 pounds of food per week. Before feeding them again, make sure they have eaten through the food they already have and alternate the side of the bin with every feed, this will encourage the worms to move through the bin and aerate the compost for you.
Hopefully by now you are inspired to start your own vermicompost bin and feel armed with all of the information you need to do it. If you need additional help with information or worms, talk to one of our Patrick County Master Gardeners and they will point you in the right direction.
Now go do like the early bird, get some worms and battle climate change one banana peel at a time.
1 https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-fi gures-materials