How to Compost Using Worms
A typical size container is 1 foot high by 2 feet wide by 3 feet long. The container will need at least six holes that are 1/2 inch in diameter located on the sides and two holes that are 1 inch in diameter on the lid for ventilation. Either hot glue screen material over the holes on the inside of the container or insert vents (which can be found at the hardware store). Containers can be made out of wood or plastic, but make sure to thoroughly rinse plastic containers before using. The container can be kept in a garage, basement or even under the kitchen sink. Ideally the temperature will be constant and in the range of 65 to 75 degrees F. If the container is to be kept outside, it will need to be in the shade in the summer. In the winter, a soil heater or infrared light bulb will keep the worms, bedding and food from freezing and the composting process will continue.
A four inch layer of shredded newspaper makes a good starter bedding. Add a handful of fine sand to provide grit for the worm’s digestion, unless you will be using coffee grounds as part of your worm food. If possible, spread some worm castings over the bedding. The castings contain a healthy web of microorganisms which will increase the rate of food decomposition. The strips of newspaper should be approximately 1 inch wide to provide maximum surface area with minimum compaction. The bedding should be thoroughly moistened (ideally before it is added to the container). At the correct moisture level, the bedding will feel like a squeezed out sponge. Spread your worms over the moistened bedding (no more than two pounds of worms per square foot of surface area). The worms should burrow into the bedding in 10-15 minutes. To retain moisture cover the bedding with a layer of un-shredded newspaper or cardboard. The worms like to be in the condensation that forms under this cover. Keep the lid off and a light on for a couple days to encourage the worms to settle into their new home.
The worms will consume any kind of biodegradable matter, and enjoy a varied diet. Suggested: fruits and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, crushed eggshells, stale bread and other vegan kitchen wastes. This includes napkins, paper towels, cereal boxes, tea bags, coffee filters, plant trimmings and other plant derived waste products. Do Not Add: Meat, bones, dairy, oils, very salty or acidic foods. While composted cow and horse manure are a favorite food for red wigglers, never add cat or dog manure (these carry diseases). For a faster rate of decomposition, chop or food process the food before adding to the box. Place the food into a different section of the bed each time you feed, and cover with fresh bedding material. The moisture content should be maintained at 65-75% for worm health and optimal decomposition rate. Either a moisture meter or the sponge test can be used to determine moisture content. It is best to use de-chlorinated water to avoid killing the beneficial microorganisms in the compost. Water from a tap can be set out overnight to let the chlorine outgas. Use a spray bottle to mist the bedding. This will ensure even wetting of the material and prevent compaction of the bedding. In dry climates a little misting every day may be necessary.
Castings are the end-product of the earthworms’ digestive process. The castings are alive with beneficial soil organisms, some of which produce plant growth hormones and/or protect plants from diseases. The nutrients in worm castings are immediately available to the plant on an as-needed basis. You can begin collecting the castings 3-6 months after starting your worm box. Push all the material currently in the box to one side. Add fresh bedding to the empty side. Feed and water this side only. The worms will finish up on the old side and then move over to the new side. After a couple months the compost on the old side will be ready to harvest with only a few remaining worms to sort out. Depending on your intended use for the compost, you may want to pick out any unfinished paper products and add them back into the bin. If you plan on tilling the compost into a garden, it is fine to leave in the bits of partially decomposed material.
Castings Solution: Soak 4 Tablespoons of castings or two castings tea bags in one gallon of tepid de-chlorinated water for 12-24 hours. Strain, if not using a tea bag. Using a spray bottle, apply the solution directly onto the foliage of houseplants, including hydroponically grown plants. Or, water as usual using the castings solution instead of plain water. Using a garden sprayer, apply the solution to lawns, vegetable and flower gardens, landscape plants, fruit trees and any other plant which you would like to watch flourish.
Fine Castings: Use fine castings to make the castings solution, a potting mix or to sprinkle directly around the base of houseplants and other potted plants. Castings can be used with seedlings and transplants to encourage root growth and reduce transplant shock. To make a castings potting mix, use one part castings to nine parts traditional potting mix.
Vermicompost: Use vermicompost in addition to traditional compost to give your garden soil a boost of microbial life, micronutrients, plant growth hormones, and humus. Also, use a generous amount before laying sod or reseeding a lawn.
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Note: A more comprehensive explanation of vermicomposting can be found in Worms Eat My Garbage, by Mary Apelhof. This book is available from the Durango Compost Company.