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One breezy fall day in October 2010, Chris and I made a fateful decision. We attended a vermicomposting workshop led by Stephanie Kichler of Wormplicity at Boxcar Books in Bloomington, IN, and things haven’t quite been the same since. Basically, I wanted to spread the worm word far and wide. I wanted to shout it from the roof tops.

E. fetida, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. You clean up my kitchen scraps. You live in the tiniest of spaces, allowing anyone to put you to good use. You churn out “black gold” like it’s your job for the garden or the potted herbs and tomatoes on the porch (and, yes, “black gold” is most certainly a euphemism for worm poop  – or worm castings, if we’re going to get all scientific).

20110417. the tiniest worm.

A baby worm Chris found the first time we harvested their castings.

Side note: I also think it’s hilarious and awesomely nerdy that, just a few months into our courtship, Chris and I were hitting up vermicomposting workshops. We know how to party.

So what does one need to get started with vermicomposting? Here’s the quick and dirty rundown:

  • A bin or container with ventilation holes – A Rubbermaid or other lidded container works nicely. It creates a dark, protected space for your worms, and you can get them in just about any size and shape (you know, in case the only space for your worms is under your bed – go for it, as long as they get air!). For every pound of food waste you produce in a week, you should provide one square foot of surface area for your worms. Worm bins MUST have good ventilation, but they need not be deep since worms feed in the top layers of their bedding. If the food and bedding and castings are getting too deep, you should consider harvesting the good stuff and getting them going again with fresh bedding; otherwise, your dudes are going to get STANKY and production (aka poop) will go down.
20120114. the worms' new house - so spacious!

Our worms' super high-tech home.

  • Bedding – There are all sorts of bedding types, but we like brown paper bags because a) they work and b) if we forget our reusable bags at the grocery store, we know the worms will use up the brown paper ones. Hey, no one’s perfect. Although you can tear up brown paper bags from the grocery or liquor store, we have found that actually shredding them makes for a loose, fluffy worm bed. The worms can also break shredded paper down more quickly and easily.
20120114. the worms.

What's for dinner? I see a coffee filter, part of an oregano plant, and some celery leaves.

  • Water – While you need damp bedding to get a worm bin started, after we got ours going our only problem with water has been too much of it. A bin should smell like a forest with mild undertones of food. If the bin starts smelling nasty, your worms appear to be swimming around the bottom of your bin, or food is getting moldy, remove any moldy bits, mix in some dry bedding, and leave the lid off the bin overnight.
  • An awesome guide to all things worm-y – My favorite: Worms Eat My Garbage, by Mary Appelhof. Seriously, this is the place to go to learn everything about vermicomposting. They don’t call her the “Worm Woman” for nothing.
  • Kitchen Scraps – The main causes of stinky worm bins in this house are too much water and too much food, so cut the food into little bits, feed them slowly, and keep a watchful eye as you get started. Spread a thin layer of food scraps just under the surface of the bedding; covering the food will keep it moist and palatable and also reduce any smells. Worms can eat all sorts of things with a few caveats: we don’t feed ours anything oily or fried, meat or dairy, egg yolks or whites, hot peppers (although they love bell peppers), or onions. Throwing in coffee grounds and, sparingly, finely ground, dried egg shells gives them some necessary roughage, too.
  • Worms (duh) – Okay, it’s a no-brainer that you need worms to start your vermicomposting setup, right? Take it from us, though, that it’s important to get the right kind of worms. We accidentally got my friend, Sally, the wrong worms, and they didn’t *ahem* flourish. Eisenia fetida is what you want, otherwise known as red wigglers or redworms. You can find them at bait shops or order them online. How many do you need? Keep in mind that red wigglers reproduce quickly until their numbers are limited by space and food. We started with only 100 worms per small bin (about 9″x14″) and have since moved them to a larger bin, but we’ve never had to buy more worms.
20120114. the worms.

The worms will climb up the sides of your bin occasionally, and the bedding will break down over time.

As you feed them, be sure to check on the mini ecosystem you have created in their container. Is it too wet? Too dry? Does it smell not-quite-right? Remember, these are living creatures who you have welcomed into your home and who are completely dependent on you for their survival. Treat them right.

Future blog post: how to harvest your worm castings. I know, I can hardly wait myself.
20110417. worm piles.