Vermicomposting. Have you heard of it before? If not, you’re not alone. Vermicomposting involves composting with worms, but not just any worms. Common earth worms have the tendency to dive down deep, which means they won’t be reaching the nutrients that are on the top layer of soil. Therefore, vermicomposting requires worms that tend to dwell towards the surface. This is where Red Wigglers come in. They tend to stay near the surface of the soil. This means that they can get to all the nice juices that come from the plants that you add to the compost. They’re not the only worm you can use in vermicomposting, but they are one of the most common species people use.
Juices? Where do the juices come from? Well, when you put in your fruit and veggie scraps (let’s say an apple core), microbes that are in the soil start releasing enzymes that break down the cells of the apple, causing the cells to rupture. The worms come along and feed on this slurry of stuff (microbes, soil, fungi, apple cells, etc.). As it passes through the worm’s gut, all of those microbes and apple cell innards are digested, leaving nice, disease free black gold!
Vermicomposting has some really cool benefits when compared to traditional composting (in my opinion). One of the biggest ones is that it can easily be done indoors and has virtually no smell (as long as you don’t put any onions, garlic, meat, or dairy in there). In this blog post, I’ll show you how I set up my composting bins and talk a little bit about how other people did it. Another really good thing about vermicomposting is that it is really (and I mean REALLY) hard to mess it up. Let me tell ya, there’s been a few times I was expecting all my worms to be dead, but some still managed to survive (thank you genetic diversity!).
Step 1: Deciding you want to start vermicomposting. First thing’s first, you need to decide you want to do it. There’s many reasons to want to compost. Maybe you’re a gardener, maybe you want to cut down on your trash production, maybe you want to make a little money on the side by selling worm compost tea and black gold, or maybe you just want some pet worms. No matter the reason, deciding you want to do it is the first step, and the reasons behind why you do it will influence how you set up and run your compost.
Step 2: Getting your materials. I decided to start composting because I wanted a lab that I could do with my students throughout the semester, and I wanted to produce less trash. I also wanted to be able to use it in my plants. Because I tend to be a bit of a granola, I also wanted my process to be as toxin free as possible. All these aspects influenced by design.
My Materials List (depending on why you’re doing this, your list may be different):
– Three (3) totes
– One (1) tote lid
– Organic Hessian (burlap)
– Drill and bits
– A spout set up of some kind (including gaskets) that can open and close
– Something waterproof to set a tote on (I used two small plastic totes that I had laying around)
– Coco Brick
– Food scraps
– Red Wigglers with starter dirt (DUH!)
Of course, you could skip the whole ‘do it yourself’ thing and order pre-made worm farms and even buy the worms online. There’s a variety of online sites, but one that I’ve seen that seems to have a large variety is Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm. They have large and small composting units and a variety of bedding options. Your local garden store might have some supplies as well. I was lucky enough to have worms and some starter compost (rich with all the needed microbes) given to me by a colleague.
Step 3: Construction. You’ll need to drill holes in the bottom of two (2) totes. Leave the third one alone for now. Evenly space the holes and make sure to put some in the corners. The holes should be about the width of a pencil. If you only have a smaller bit, I would drill more holes. The point of the holes is to allow water to drain (we’ll talk a little bit more about that later). You’ll also want to drill some holes near the top of the tote. This will allow air to constantly have access to the compost—Remember when I said this type of composting has almost no smell; it’s because this is an aerobic process so fermentation (and all the accompanying smells) doesn’t happen.
Now, take that third, untouched tote. We’re going to drill a hole where we want our spout. The size of the whole will depend on the size of your spout. To measure mine, I found the center of the tote and made it so the bottom of my spout lined up to the bottom of the tote (so I could sit my tote on a flat surface). The spout will allow you to collect the liquid that drains from your compost. What’s this liquid? It’s compost tea (and you probably won’t see any for about 4-6 months). Its excess moisture that will drain down. The liquid is a mixture of water and a whole lot of nutrients—basically worm poop tea. It’s important to allow this liquid to drain because if it’s not allowed to drain, your worms will eventually drown. After you have the hole drilled for your spout, insert your spout set up. I didn’t want any leaks, so I put a small amount of caulking around the outside of my spout.
Step 4: Assembly. After you have all your holes drilled and your spout installed, you’re ready to start a worm farm. Seriously, construction of the worm farm is that easy. To assemble your worm farm, you need to take your tote with the spout and place it on the bottom. Inside, put your two small blocks (or whatever you scrounged up) on the bottom. This will allow the second tote to sit off the bottom, ensuring liquid drains smoothly and no worms drown. Next, set a tote with holes on the blocks.
Now, you’re probably thinking “what stops the worms from falling though the holes?” Well, that’s where the burlap comes in. Most people use wire mesh, but I couldn’t find any wire mesh that wasn’t coated in chemicals that would leach into my compost. So, I went with burlap, knowing full well that the worms and microbes will eventually eat through it and that I may lose a few worms. (It’s been 7 months now and only a few worms have made it though). Place the burlap on the bottom of the tote. Next, you’ll have to make bedding for your worms. I chose organic coco fiber. Many people use newspaper. Some people use leaves. Some people use a variety of things. It’s really up to you. Like I said, I chose coco fiber. I did this because it was an organic resource that wasn’t going to carry any harmful chemicals in it (if you use newspaper, read up on dyes and inks before you start). Plus, it was January so I didn’t have any leaves laying around. To use coco fiber, you’ll have to soak it in water for about 5 minutes. Next, scoop the fiber out with your hands and really squeeze any excess liquid out. Sprinkle the moistened fiber around the bottom of the tote. After the bedding is in place, you can drop the worms in (at least, that’s what I did). I then sprinkled food around. I put the lid on, and let them do their thing.
*One note about the lid— I never close it tight. In fact, I sometimes flop it on sideways to allow for maximum airflow. I really just used to lid to block out light because the worms are photosensitive. If your worm farm is outside, having a snug lid might be best because it would help keep rain out. If you decide to put a tight lid on, I would suggest drilling a few more holes in the top of the tote to allow more airflow.
Step 5: Keeping it going. Many people say you need to cover the worms to maintain moisture levels. Initially, I used burlap to do this, but I kept having fungi take over the burlap. So, I eventually did away with the cover, and my worms did just fine. If you are in a dry area, I can see where the cover might be advantageous, but my worms are kept in my house, and they have done great without a cover. Another thing that many people do is continuously add bedding. I guess I’m lazy because I don’t add bedding until I’m adding another tote on. My worms are fine, in fact, there’s almost too many of them.
That brings up a good point: adding another tote. Once your worms have a nice layer of dark, rich black gold, you can add another tote. To do this, you just take your other tote with holes drilled in the bottom, set it on top of your tote with the worm castings, and sprinkle some bedding and food. Worms will migrate up to the next layer, leaving a layer of worm castings that you can just lift out. If you’re having a difficult time visualizing this process (I know I struggled with it for a while), a diagram can be found to the left. After you harvested the castings, just continue the process you have been doing. Below, I have my three layers. My bottom layer has some liquid in it. My second layer has some nearly finished worm castings, and I’m starting my third layer by putting some scraps in it (but I still need to add the bedding). I’ll let that third layer sit on top for as long as I need. When I see that all the little left overs are gone from that middle layer, I’ll harvest the castings.
What about those mistakes I mentioned? Well, in the beginning, I was putting way too much food in there. This caused a fungi bloom. I fixed that by airing out the tote and not feeding them so much. Another mistake that I made was that I accidently put them in the supply room of the school, which happens to be super dry. My worms dried out almost all the way, but some survived. I just sprinkled water around to keep them moist whenever I had to put them in the supply room.
Like I said, there’s many ways of contracting and maintaining your vermicomposting bins. I’ve included some Youtube videos below to show you the variety that’s out there.
Did I exercise fair use?
Well, I hope so. The two photos in question would be the Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm logo and the diagram of worms moving to the next layer. The first Red Wiggler photo was open for public use, and the rest of the photos were mine.
I believe using the Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm logo was justified because it accompanied a brief review of the website and was used for educational purposes. Additionally, I used only a portion of their website’s title design.
For the diagram of worms moving to the next layer, I believe that would justify as fair use because I am using it for educational purposes and it is only a small portion of the webpage and does not fully encapsulate (by any means) the breath of knowledge that the webpage was offering.
I’m not sure if the Youtube videos would even be considered potential fair use because I really just included the url for the videos with a thumbnail link. So, I don’t think those even need mentioning.
To be honest, I am still struggling a big with understanding fair use, but I hope I exercised it correctly in these cases.
References and Resources