In my household, we recycle everything – cans, plastic, paper, paperboard, wine corks, batteries, electronics, and other items we no longer want or need that could benefit someone else I donate to local homeless and animal shelters.
On average, we have about 1 13-gallon bag of actual garbage a week. By the look (and smell) of my weekly garbage bag, most of that 13 gallons is filled with food scraps. Living in a small apartment without a yard, a large scale compost pile for my old leftovers isn’t really an option. However, a worm bin on my balcony is.
Vermiculture (also known as worm compost, vermicast, worm castings, worm humus or worm manure) is a composting process that uses worms to break down and decompose food waste into fertilizer.
How it works is simple. You let the worms have at your food scraps, they chow down at the all-they-can-eat buffet and then they poop, leaving behind some of most nutrient rich natural fertilizers that your garden will love. It doesn’t sound very elegant (it actually sounds kind of disgusting) but what’s great about this kind of composting is that it’s self-contained (no pile in the backyard that needs turning), is super easy AND (if you’re doing it right) it doesn’t smell – very unlike my garbage.
The beauty of vermiculture is in its simplicity. All you need to compost with worms is a bin, bedding, worms and worm food.
Worms don’t really care about aesthetics. You can use just about anything for a worm bin so long as it has drainage and air flow. Worms like moderate temps, so it’s a good idea to keep the bin in a shady place that won’t get too hot or cold.
Treehugger.com has a great run-down of the different kinds of bins you can use. Having seen several in practice, I’ve found the “continuous vertical flow” to be the easiest (and least messy). If you’re making your own, make sure the container is wide and shallow for good ventilation and there are air holes in the bottom.
Bedding is easy. Again, worms aren’t picky and shredded paper or newspaper is the perfect bedding material, so chances are, you’ve already got what you need lying around. The bedding should be a little moist, but not dripping wet (worms can drown). An easy way to moisten the bedding is to dunk it by the handful into warm water and then squeeze out the water until it’s barely dripping. Pull it apart to make little pockets and passageways, toss in a few handfuls of dirt and leaves and the bedding is ready for worms.
Vermiculture does require a certain type of worm. You can’t just go digging around in the backyard for nightcrawlers. Worm bins do best with Red Wigglers or Red Earthworms who are especially adapted to the conditions of rotting vegetation, compost and manure piles.
You can find worms at many garden stores, fishing suppliers, but most people order them online, by the pound. 1 pound of worms will run you about $20 and
should be more than enough to get you started. In addition to eating and pooping, the worms do other things, too. Worm populations double every three months so you can start another worm bin, or share your worms and help your neighbors start their own bin!
Here is where worms can be a little fussy. No meat, no dairy, and no grease. Also, never give your worms anything salty, spicy, or acidic like lemons, limes or oranges, or anything synthetic.
They do like coffee grounds (which because of its grit is great for the worm’s digestive system) and coffee filters, tea leaves and bags, non-acidic fruits (remember NO oranges, lemons or limes) and veggies (like tomatoes and green peppers but no hot peppers) fruit/veggie peels and cores, leafy greens (sans salad dressing), paper, rice, grits, and cotton are all things worms can eat. Eggshells that have been washed out and ground up are also an excellent source of calcium for the worms.
To feed them, simply bury the food beneath the bedding and leave the rest to the wiggly guys. Start feeding them a little bit at a time (it’s easiest to start burying in one side of the bin so you can tell how much they’ve eaten. Worms easily can eat more than their own weight every day.) After getting to know your worms and their eating habits, you’ll know how much to regularly feed them. If your bin starts to smell, you’re probably feeding them too much or not burying food deep enough – a well balanced bin shouldn’t smell like anything but fresh dirt.
Collecting the Castings
Worm castings (a nice term for worm poop) collects at the bottom of your bin under the bedding. How you collect the castings will likely depend on the type of bin you’re using. The worms are attracted to food, so if you feed your worms on one side of the bin and wait about a week, the worms will concentrate on that side, allowing you to move the bedding from the other side and collect the compost.
Using a sifting device (a colander or chicken wire and wooden frame work well), separate the casting from the other organic matter left behind. Any worms and food remaining can be put back into the bin.
What you’re left with is “black gold” – the most nutrient-packed fertilizer you can find. It’s great for your garden when added to the soil around your plants. You can also mulch the compost into potting soil for your houseplants and other potting mixes.
Composting with worms is easy and will cut down on the amount of garbage you send to the landfills. What’s more, this green practice will help you grow green in no time, too!
For more information on vermiculture, see the following sources:
TreeHugger. Vermicomposting and Vermiculture: Worms, Bins and How To Get Started
How Stuff Works. How Vermicomposting Works.