Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Feed 'Em To the Worms, Boys

Jan over at Thanks for Today has created a monster of a blogging theme:  the Garden Bloggers Sustainable Living Project, where folks can discuss their favorite environmental issue for the upcoming Earth Day (that's the 22nd of April, folks).

So let's talk about worms.  Worms?!  You can't go anywhere without hearing all about the benefits of growing your own food, right?  Healthy eating, less carbon footprint, organic veggies- you know the schpeal.  But after going to all this trouble to create a healthy garden, who wants to dump Miracle Grow all over their heirloom organic seedlings?  (Hi, Dad!)

It just so happens that certain species of worms create the best compost to make your greens smile uncontrollably.  Red wriggler worms, or Eisenia foetida eat away the rotten bits of fruit and vegetable scraps, churning them away in their little compost machines for you to later deposit under your tomatoes.  Wonderful!  Now what?

Well, to begin your new career as a vermicomposter, first you need a box, or rather a stack of boxes.  Rodale Institute has ridiculously easy instructions for one here, but I received mine at a discount from a city program designed to entice people to compost.  It's usually two or three boxes nested into each other with holes drilled into all but the bottom box.  Shred newspaper into strips or buy a block of coconut coir fiber.  Spread a generous layer on the bottom of the next to the last bin.  If using newspaper, spritz with water until it's damp/wet, but not quite dripping.  Store your worm bin where it won't freeze, cook or be pirated by raccoons- under a tree, in the garage, in the cabinet under the kitchen sink. 

Buy your worms from a bait shop (I didn't have much luck with those myself), online, or from a friend.  Just make sure you're getting Eisenia foetida.  They're small, red and become quite active if handled or exposed to light.  The reason these worms work so well for composting is because they're adapted to rainforest environments, in which layers upon layers of natural mulch keep them busy and chomping away.  They don't actually live underground, just under mulch.  They're not adapted to cold temperatures, too so throwing them in the garden to tunnel away won't do you much good.  (Nice try!) 

a look into one of Bay Worms' compost bins

Lay the little buggers in the bedding and let them get used to their new home for a few days.  Don't worry, if they're hungry they'll nibble at the newspaper or coconut fiber.  Then slowly add bits of raw fruits, veggies, coffee grounds and tea bags.  Then can be picky eaters, however so here's a few guidelines:

Steer clear of feeding them:
Onions or citrus (some folks say citrus is ok, some say don't try it)
Cooked food
Dairy and meat (attracts undesirable creepy-crawlies)

When you add new food to that first box, make sure it's covered by the shredded newspaper.  It helps prevent that icky rotten food smell, which makes life more livable and the worms less attractive to raccoons, flies, etc.  As the worms eat, the food turns to compost and the space in the box fills.  When this happens, add new food bits to the second box up, covering with the shredded newspaper.  The worms will follow the food up, leaving you with a glorious bin of compost underneath.  Easy!  I probably check on my worms once every 2 weeks or so, adding some apple cores or mango peels when the mood strikes me.  Just try it out and see what happens.  You'll make cheap compost, use up scraps that might otherwise find themselves at the local dump, and have tomatoes that your neighbors will envy.    

Here's a couple of links for further research:

Bay Worms

A great starter's guide from Earthworm Digest

Wikipedia's vermicomposting article

Stop Waste's instructions on building your own bins

Thanks, Jan for hosting such a great theme!


  1. Great post! This is one thing we don't have set up yet. We're composting plant material, and of course we have lots of high-nitrogen chicken manure. Most of our kitchen scraps go via the chickens at the moment. It would be fun to be able to make my own 'worm-tea' though. Did you ever look for the plans the woman was talking about at the SF Garden Show, where she made a box out of recycled redwood? I think she said it was Santa Clara County that had that posted, but can't remember. Maybe I'll go a-Googling and see if I find it.

  2. I have a worm composting program too, but here in Massachusetts it is hard to keep a vital community going during the winter. I can't face having them in the kitchen, so they live in the basement which never gets much abot 50 degrees all winter. I love the compost I get, and I haven't killed all the worms yet. This is my second winter. The grandsons love it and always feed the worms when they visit.

  3. Hi Clare, I didn't have a chance to talk to the worm folks at the show. I feel like there were many things I missed! But don't fret too much about your lack of worms- you've got chickens to feed!
    Commonweeder- sounds like a challenge to keep the worms happy! Glad to have your more seasonal perspective.