All You (N)ever Wanted to Know About Harvesting Worm Poop

We have previously established how awesome it is to have a bucket of worms under your sink, in your pantry, or hidden under the bed. Now that you’ve set everything up, your worms are settled into their new home, and they’ve had the opportunity to eat (and subsequently poop – a lot), you’ve made it to the next step – actually doing something with all of that poop.

After all, while it’s nice to be able to compost some of your kitchen scraps using worms, it’s extra nice to fertilize your basil and tomatoes with their, ahem, output. That will be the topic of discussion today: harvesting worm poop.

Step 1: Scope out the worms. I have been actively feeding only one side of the bin (the brighter, fresher looking side on the right) and allowing the worms on the other side to process as much old food as they can. Once I’m done with this harvest, I’ll keep feeding the fresher looking side for a bit, then move back to the other side and eventually harvest the right side of the bin. Basically, if you have one active-feeding side, the other side will be where you plan to harvest next once the worms have processed it.

20120407. The left side will be what we harvest today.

The left side of the worm bin, looking ripe for harvest.

Step 2: Scoop that poop! Scoop the most poop-laden side out onto a plate, preferably in a nice rounded pile. Worms don’t like light, and, as you will soon see, we are going to take advantage of their desire to get away from light as we harvest.
20120407. A whole pile of poop.

Step 3: Make a smaller, more manageable pile, and give the worms a few minutes to work their way towards the center of the ball. Remember, they want to get away from the light, and letting them do so will make your life easier.

20120407. Piling up the worm poop sends the worms to the center of the ball, making it easier to harvest.

Hi, guys!

Step 4: Begin harvesting. Slowly pull off pieces of that lovely black gold from the outer layers of the ball with a spoon, putting it into a Tupperware or other long, shallow container. As you remove pieces from the outside, you can throw any worms you encounter or less processed pieces (my worms just cannot get through the inner layer of edamame, for instance) back into the bin. As you work, the worms should be working themselves farther and farther towards the center of the ball and away from the light.
20120407. Beginning to harvest the worm poop.

Step 5: Revel in the magic of a giant pile of worms. Once you’ve gotten to the center of the ball, you will encounter a writhing mass of worms. RAD! After you have oohed and ahhed over how cool they are, put the poor dears back in their home – they’ve had enough excitement for one day.

20120407. Worm ball.

WRITHING BALL OF WORMS! MAGIC!

Step 6: Rinse and repeat with the remaining giant pile of poop on your counter until it’s all been processed.

20120407. Post-harvest worm poop!

I don't really have heartburn over having pieces of paper and bits of food still in the final product. It will all dry out, and I figure those pieces of paper are soaked in the same good nutrients I want for my plants.

Step 7: Add bedding. Now you’re ready to put some bedding back into the side of the bin you just harvested.
20120407. The end - time to keep feeding!

Step 8: Save the babies. Some people probably don’t care about this, but I like to save as many worm cocoons as I can from the stuff I just harvested and put them back in the bin. You know, cycle of life and all that crap. Plus, worm cocoons just look really cool.
20120407. Worm cocoon.

Step 9: Air it out. There is a lot of organic matter in there still, and if you let it sit wet, well, it gets stinky and funky and just plain gross. All it takes is letting it sit in a shallow container for a week or so, out of reach of any animals or small children. You might need to turn it over or stir it to dry it out completely.

On a related note, the other morning as I was tending to the cats, chickens, and worms, and it occurred to me that I tend to the input and output needs of a lot of different creatures on a daily basis. Weird. Also, speaking of worms, the chickens’ new cutest trick ever is playing keep-away with worms from the garden (no, I haven’t brought myself to feed them worms from the worm bin – it just doesn’t seem right!).

Next worm update: what to do with all that poop!

Eisenia fetida, or the Little Worm that Could (Getting Started)

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.