The Dirt on Worms: Vermicomposting at Home

On August 16th, Rye’s Homegrown will be partnering with Worm Share to offer a free workshop on DIY vermicomposting. We will also be selling complete worm composting how-to kits as well as single bags of worms. E-mail us to request one: foodsecurity.ryerson@gmail.com. 

Worms

Why Worms

Ask most people about the idea of voluntarily bringing hundreds of slimy invertebrates into their kitchen, and it’s not hard to imagine their reaction (“gross!”), but a tub of worms can actually work wonders for your household plants and requires only minimal upkeep in return.

Worm composting is the next level of recycling, an efficient and effective way to reduce your carbon footprint by facilitating a “closed loop” system where waste from the plants that you yourself grow and eat gets converted into fertilizer for all your future plants. It’s the ultimate in GROW to THROW! With the use of worms, you can turn garbage into gold. Rich, earthy gold. A kilogram of worm compost can sell for around 25$, while the worms themselves are also money makers: the little self-replicating digestion machines can retail for around $35 per pound.

According to a recent survey, approximately 45% of Toronto’s household waste is organic. While the city’s Green Bin program diverts much of this away from landfills, using worms to produce your own compost can drastically reduce your trash output. This not only means smaller landfill heaps, but fewer vehicles trucking waste around emitting nasty exhaust.

Worms chew and eat food scraps, paper, and other organic material, breaking it down and turning it into “vermicompost,” a highly nutritive and sought-after plant fertilizer. Adding worm compost will greatly improve the health of your plants, by adding much-needed nutrients and altering the soil composition to help it retain moisture. This reduces both the amount of water that you will need to use and eliminates the need for artificial fertilizers.

While maintaining a worm compost might appear to be a daunting task, you’ll be surprised by how simple and manageable it is. Once your bin is set up and ready to go, providing food and shelter for your worms will be as simple and routine as any other household task.

How to Care for Worms

The first thing you need to think about is giving your worms a good home. For worms, this means a proper box and bedding with enough food, air, moisture, darkness and warmth to thrive.

Typically, worm composting is done with California red wrigglers, a species of worm that can quickly process food scraps into compost and are well-suited to small container settings.

The boxes you use to house the red wrigglers can be made out of just about anything. Containers can be plastic, wooden, or even glass, anything that meets the criteria for a happy worm home. If you do not have an excess plastic container and are trying to reduce the amount of plastic you consume, find an old discarded dresser drawer on a moving day and convert it into a worm metropolis. Whatever the container material, it is necessary that the bin is well-ventilated with small holes that permit airflow but do not present an easy opportunity for worm escape.

Containers can vary in size, depending on the number of worms you intend to care for and your average output of organic waste. If you live alone or with one other person but produce a large amount of food scraps yourself, a 5 gallon plastic bin should be sufficient. If you have a family and your waste output is prodigious, you may want a 10-gallon box. Since red wrigglers do not dwell deeply beneath the soil, it is better to have a container that is longer and wider than it is deep.

Within the container, you will need appropriate bedding. Bedding is the worm’s habitat inside the bin, providing fibre and holding in the moisture and air that worms need to survive. Shredded newspaper is probably the most common container bedding for kitchen red wrigglers, but other acceptable materials include sawdust, peat moss, coconut coir, shredded dried leaves, shredded cardboard, shredded paper bags, shredded straw, and compost. Most soft brown materials make acceptable bedding, but it is recommended to shred the material to make it more traversable for the worms. Adding some small handfuls of sand or soil to the bottom of your bedding will also provide grit that will help worms digest their food.

Once your bedding is prepared, you will need to water the bedding before adding your worms. Add enough water to moisten all of the bedding materials, and wait several hours to allow it to soak through. Before your worms are added, you will want to make sure that your bedding is moist, but not wet. If your bedding ever dries out, you can moisten it with a spray bottle.  Eventually, the bedding will be broken down into compost with the food, and it will have to be replaced by new bedding.

Some dried brown material is simply not traversable for worms and is therefore not recommended for use in your worm bin. Avoid using wood chips (especially from pine or redwood) or anything that has been pressure-treated. Some types of conifers (pine, cedar) contain small amounts of natural insecticides that can harm your colony.

Once your bedding has been created, and your worms have been added to the by-now suitable container, you will need to begin adding food. Raw fruits and vegetables are the most common worm food, but coffee grounds, plant trimmings, tea leaves, rinsed and crushed eggshells can also be added to your worm community. It is best to add a little bit at a time, and bury it slightly within the bedding. Before adding food, it is best to blend it a little or chop it into tiny pieces. If worms are given too much food at once, they will not be able to eat through it before it rots and attracts fruit flies.

Meats, fatty foods, and foods cooked with oil should not be added to your worm bin. Even feeding grains to your worms will encourage pests and may cause odors. For the most trouble-free worm bin, it is best to stick to finely chopped raw vegetables and slightly rotting fruit.

Sifting For Black Gold

Since red wrigglers are such hard workers, it will only be a matter of a few short months before the original bedding has disappeared and turned into black gold. Harvesting the compost will be the most demanding task in the cycle of worm bin maintenance, but it is so valuable and nutritious for your garden plants that it also presents the greatest reward.

In order to make use of this black gold, you will want to separate the worms from the compost as best you can. There are several ways to achieve this:

One way is to shape and separate the contents of your bin into your bin into distinct corners. Once the bedding has been completely disintegrated, move all the compost into one corner, and then add bedding and food scraps to a different part of the container. Over time, the worms will migrate over to the new area. This method is free of mess, but it takes a longer time before the finished compost is relatively worm-free.

If you want your compost harvested sooner, you will have to be prepared to get your hands a little dirty. Dump the bin contents onto a wide surface, and make balls or mounds out of the compost. Shine a bright light on the mounds, and the worms will crawl to the bottom of the piles. Once they do this, scrape the compost from the top, and then remove worms with your hands. It may even be a good idea to enlist some help to do this: if your friends are as crazy as you are, you could even host a “worm harvest party” where you could bribe some friends with your valuable worm castings in exchange for their valuable labour.

Troubleshooting

 Here are some general troubleshooting tips for harvesting worms:

Problem: Bad smells  Solution
Food not eaten fast enough Add less food, remove some food and cut into smaller pieces
Not enough air Stir the contents to aerate, check air holes to make sure they are not clogged
Too much acidic food Add fewer acidic foods (fruits, coffee grounds), or add finely ground eggshells
Too damp Unclog air holes or add new ones
Problem: fruit flies /
Food not eaten fast enough Add less food, remove some food and cut into smaller pieces
Exposed food Bury food within bedding

Where to Get Worms

If you feel ready to take the leap in sustainability and incorporate the GROW to THROW model in your own home, you can order worms from Rye’s Homegrown. We are currently offering single bags or red wrigglers, or as complete kits featuring worms, prepared container, and bedding. These will be in limited supply and available by request only, so e-mail us to confirm your interest. They will be available for pick-up in our office or at our Worm Composting 101 Workshop on August 16th.

E-mail us at foodsecurity.ryerson@gmail.com, for worms or anything else!

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