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Worm Composting on the Rise at Home
Copyright by Jim Jensen, YELM Earthworm & Castings Farm, 1998,
mail at yelmworms.com. Website: www.yelmworms.com. Permission granted to copy or post with complete attribution in whole, without addition, deletion, or substitution.
Ancient cultures revered worms for the valuable role they play in the formation of rich agricultural soil. Charles Darwin observed the activity of worms and credited them with
the fertility of farms the world over. For decades, worm farmers and anglers have
practiced vermiculture in the pursuit of profit and recreation. Recently, however,
homeowners and recycling managers have taken note of the potential of worms to help
manage our "wastes."
Feeding redworms is a good way to make high-quality compost from vegetable and fruit scraps. Unlike garden earthworms or nightcrawlers, redworms (known scientifically as
Eisenia fetida, or commonly as manure, striped, or brandling worms) thrive on high-
The use of redworms for home composting has been developing for many years and has
been popularized during the past decade. Home-scale worm composting is widespread in
the U.S. and Canada, and is supported by many recycling agencies and the health
How to Do Worm Composting
Worm composting requires four basic items: redworms, a worm bin, bedding for the
worms to live in, and food scraps. Redworms thrive in a rich organic environment, with
lots of decaying matter. They are capable of ingesting as much as their body weight in
wastes each day. That means that for however much food scrap you generate per day,
youll need to grow a population one to two time that weight of worms.
Researchers have found that redworms thrive in the following optimum conditions:
temperature: 65 to 80 degrees F (15 to 25 degrees C)
moisture content: 60 to 80 percent (higher than conventional composting)
oxygen: yes, the worm bed must be kept aerobic
pH: greater than 5 and less than 9
Two to three pounds of red worms will start most home worm bins. For larger scale projects, plan to start with one pound of redworms for every one to three square feet of worm bin surface area.
Give your worms a comfortable home. A good worm bin is a sturdy box with a heavy, tight-fitting lid to keep pests out and moisture in. A worm bin can be made from an old
cupboard or packing crate, or built with plywood and two-by-fours. A shallow
box12 to 18 inches deepis best because the worms live near the surface to get
adequate air. Drill holes in the bottom or otherwise provide for drainage. (An idea
for just trying it out: Recycle an old styrofoam chest for worm composting by poking a
few holes in the sides for ventilation, and make sure that there is never any standing water in the bottom of the chest.)
A worm bin should have about one square foot of surface area for each pound of
food wastes added per week. For example, a two-foot by four-foot box is large enough
for eight pounds of kitchen scraps a weekthe amount produced by two or three adults.
Generation of food scraps varies widely between households, so you may want to weigh
your scraps for a week or two before deciding what size or how many bins you want to
Fill the worm bin with moist "bedding," which provides the worms with balance in their
diet and a damp place to live. Composting food scraps without bedding can produce bad
odors and a slimy mess. Common bedding materials include fall leaves, shredded
newspaper or corrugated cardboard, old straw, coarse sawdust, and aged dairy or
horse manure. Rabbit manure also works well. Moisten dry bedding materials by
immersing them in water for several minutes before adding them to the worm bin. When
the bedding is thoroughly wet, remove it from the water and wring out or drain excess
water. Moist bedding should feel damp like a wrung out sponge.
Fill the bin to the top with loose bedding. This gives the worms maximum room to grow their population. Pull apart any compacted paper strips before adding them to the bin. If brown leaves or sawdust are used they may need to soak longer to become saturated.
Feed worms by burying vegetative food scraps in holes dug into the bedding. Bury scraps in a different spot each time to provide the worms with a balanced diet. Always cover
food wastes with a few inches of bedding or worm compost (called castings) to
discourage flies and odors. For best results, think of worms as strict vegetarians. Give
them scraps of fruits and vegetables, grains, old bread, coffee grounds, used tea bags, and
egg shells. But leave out oily foods, meat, seafood, or dairy products.
Every 3 to 6 months push the old bedding and decomposing scraps to one side of the bin, rebed the empty side, and start burying food wastes in the fresh bedding. Allow the older scraps to finish composting for another month or so before harvesting.
Harvesting Worm Castings or Worms
One of the real benefits of worm composting is producing worm excreta (known as
castings) for use in your garden. After a few months, worm castings from a worm bin will
look dark and rich, quite black. To harvest castings for garden use, simply move nearly
finished compost to one side of the bin and fill the empty side with fresh bedding
(composting reduces the volume of the wastes by over one half). For the next six weeks
bury food wastes only in the newly bedded side of the bin. The worms will migrate over
to the fresh food in the newly bedded side as the food on the other side finishes
decomposing. When the old bedding and food scraps are completely composted, the
castings can be harvested and replaced with fresh bedding. It takes from three to six
months for fresh bedding to decompose. Thus a worm bin can complete two to four
cycles each year.
Harvesting worms for fishing is easy. Just open the bin and pick a handfull out of the
bedding. To harvest more worms, take a few shovelfulls of castings out of the bin and
make small piles on a piece of plastic out in the sun or under a bright light. Let the piles
sit for ten minutes, then pull away the surface layer of castings until you see worms.
Repeat the procedure until the worms are concentrated at the bottom of the piles and are
easy to harvest.
Worm composting bins are relatively trouble free. The most common problem with worm
bins is fruit flies in summer. Fruit flies can be kept to a minimum by always covering
fresh food wastes with a few inches of bedding or castings, and by covering the bedding
with a sheet of plastic or newspapers tucked in around the edges. If the worm bin smells
bad, it probably has too much food waste in it, is too wet, or there is cheese or other
animal products present. To eliminate bad odors remove excess or inappropriate wastes
and add fresh bedding.
Call for Details or Assistance
Food Lifeline, Seattle, WA
As a major distribution center for food banks and meal programs in Western Washington, Food Lifeline's mission has always focused on people. So it was with their decision in late 1990 to add vermicomposting to their organization's work plan.
Food Lifeline uses leaves from the campus where it is located as a bedding in the bins. This leaf bedding serves many important functions, while reducing yard waste recycling
costs. It creates a textured material in which the worms live and move. It also holds
moisture and allows air to move and penetrate throughout the bin. It also provides a
source of carbon that supports decomposition by bacteria, which are another source of
food to the worms. The ratio of food scraps to leaf bedding is approximately 2:1 by
weight, or 1:3 by volume.
Preparing each bin for a composting cycle begins by putting 4 to 6 inches of coarse wood
chips at the bottom of the bin to assist aeration from below and to absorb excess moisture
that may drain from the materials above. As a result, leachate escaping from the bins has
not been a problem.
Next a 6-inch layer worm-rich bedding is laid down, similar to the way The Worm
Concern starts its windrows. Two or three times a week, Food Lifeline staff, supported by
volunteers and labor from a neighboring rehabilitation facility, feed the worms. Feeding
occurs in four steps. First, they collect, weigh, and move food scraps to the worm bins.
Second, they open the bins and mix the food and leaves in the top 6 or 8 inchesthe
active composting layerusing a pitchfork. Then, shallow troughs are made in the active
layer, where they place the raw feedstock. Finally, the food is covered and more leaves
are placed over the top to conserve moisture and serve as insulation. Water is added if the
contents appear dry.
The Food Lifeline project has as available equipment a 16 hp commercial yard waste
grinder to shred and mix the food and leaves. Food Lifelines staff found, however, that
most of the food composted well over time without grinding. Some large or hard-skinned
items, such as potatoes, carrots, squash, or melons can be hand-chopped with a machete.
.... To harvest the castings at the bottom of the bin, the active composting layer,
containing the greatest concentrations of worms, is taken from the top with a pitchfork or
garden rake and placed in another bin to start a new cycle. The finished vermicompost is
dug out by volunteers and used in an on-site food-producing garden, thus "closing the
loop" and further supporting the hunger-fighting mission of Food Lifeline.
The Food Lifeline project demonstrates that staff with a minimum of skills can be trained
to maintain vermicomposting systems. The labor required can vary widely. Food Lifeline
currently composts 1,200 to 1,600 pounds of food and leaves each week using 8 to 16
hours of labor.
**IDEAS ABOUT WORMS AND CHICKENS**
Getting the worms to grow awhile before the chickens get to them is the goal on some free-range ranchettes. On others, getting an extractable supply of worms to feed to the chickens inside their coop is the goal. Or, to dry the worms and mix as a protein element in blended feed. To accomplish these, some ideas might be worthy of consideration:
1. Grow the worms in bins, and just take out the active top layer and scatter it around for the chickens. Most worm-growers suggest this.
2. Make a frame on the ground, and cover it with several movable hatches. Bury new kitchen scraps and manure, etc., in some hatches, while chickens get to scratch under other hatches.
One size I'd like to try is a frame about 18 inches board-width (or 0.5 meter), measuring about 8 by 8 feet (or 2.5 by 2.5 meters). This goes on the ground, perhaps sunk into the ground. If you are inclined to use it, heavy-gauge wire (NOT chicken wire --- it rusts in a few years and kills your fingers forever after) covers the ground to keep moles from coming up and eating the worms. I'm not inclined to use it, but maybe I will be.
Then make 16 hatches 2 feet square, with 1 by 1 inch board rims on the bottom side. Use these to cover the ground inside the frame. Fill the frame with loads of leaves, sawdust, earth, manures, chicken coop bedding. Prepare as suggested by YelmWorms and others. Wet it all down good, with a lengthy sprinkling of water over all. Add worms. Put on covers. Rotate the digging in of garbage and manure with the opening up of some hatches for the chickens. Maybe this will prove to be a "SELF-FEEDING WORM FRAME" (like the self-fertilizing salads made by growing greens under wire frames for the chix to eat as the greens emerge out of the wire.)
3. Make an enclosed frame, very much longer than wide. One end is the intake end, where new mixes of leaves, scraps, sawdust, manure, etc., are added and pushed gradually down the closed shute. The other end is open to the chickens. It might be about 8 feet by 2 feet, with a 2-ft square opening at the OUT end, or maybe the compost just falls out onto the ground (where it would get flung to, anyway, probably). The IN end might also be 2-ft square, with a hatch cover, or wire cover to let in rain.
4. Harvest worms on a tabletop, so the valuable compost can be separated from the worms. Use harvested worms directly into the coop, or dry them in several ways to then grind for feed components (80% protein, as much as dried fish, liver, any other meat source).
*Dry in oven with gas pilot light or electric lightbulb.
*Dry in greenhouse.
*Dry in water-heater or central heating closet.
*Dry worms in an ORGANDY-material "pillowcase" that zips or ties closed
Sources of Information
THE WORM MAN
Quite a colorful site, unusual, fun to go through,
lots of different kinds of info.
Knowledgeable consultant happy to talk about worms
BIOLOGICAL HOMEGROWN FARMS
Knowledgeable consultant happy to talk about worms
Email: jrstobries at hotmail.com
Brazilian worm producer also produces dried worms for shipment.
Contact Dr. Afranio Augusto Guimares
Welcomes contacts in English.
E-mail: minhobox at minhobox.com.br
(in Portuguese with lots of pictures)
One of THE most comprehensive, clearly organized, and instructive sites in getting started with worms, and progressing to all stages of productivity.
YELM EARTHWORM AND CASTINGS FARM
c/o The Dirt Dept.
1477 Elliott Ave. W.
Seattle, Washington (WA) 98119
Email: mail at yelmworms.com
1. Start with a worm bin:
It doesn't have to be expensive or fancy.
2. Add "Bedding" and food to the bin:
We recommned wet leaves, newspapers, rabbit manure, straw, coarse sawdust, or aged
horse or dairy manure. Then bury the vegative food scraps in the bedding material.
3. Add Worms:
You'll need one to two pounds of worms for each pound of scraps that you produce each
What do I need? Here's a checklist of the basics:
- Worm Bin
- Worm Food
- A Worm Cultivator
- A Thermometer
Get your CAR or TRUCK ...
Preventing Worm Parasites
in our Posts Section
Complete Online Books!
about earthworms & poultry
The Worm Man Links
Lots of fun worm stuff
Mash: a blend of feed ingredients, ground to a small size but not to a powder; mash can be in pellet form
Pellets: small kernels of compressed mash
Concentrate: a blend of protein-rich foods, plus any other nutrients desired; usually fed together with a grain ration
Scratch: grains fed separately to chickens, usually scattered on the ground or litter of the coop
Grit: angular, hard crushed rock, preferably from granite, used by the chickens in place of "teeth" --- seashells and bone CANNOT substitute for grit; grit should be free-choiced several times a month at least
Calcium: provided by sea shells, crushed bone, and fresh or dried greens --- amounts need to be measured closely, if not free range
Protein: any food high in amino acids, used to build tissues; protein quality is determined by the "completeness" of the amino acid varieties in the food source; basically, meats, nuts, seed germs, and soy concentrates are protein sources
Amino acid: a molecule that is one building block of protein; there are many different amino acids, most of which can be manufactured in the body; the few that cannot must be supplied by foods
Vitamins: a general term meaning "life-giving"; see RECIPES section for which ones to use
Minerals: inert chemicals found in nature; kelp of all kinds supplies the complete spectrum of minerals
Free range: not controlled by fences, able to get to fresh greens and insects; as commercially used, this term allows fences, with minimum amount of space per bird being set by definition
Pastured poultry: hens kept in movable, usually wheeled, pens, moved daily over fresh pasture, creating delicious meat and nutritious eggs
Organic: inspected by government agencies, organic food sources must not contain traces of harmful chemicals; the term as currently used does not insure that poultry has been raised in the best possible way, only that it has near zero harmful ingredients
Pullets: female chickens under 1 year old
Hens: female chickens over 1 year old