Worms, recycling and vermicomposting

While recycling is certainly more prevalent these days; we are also consuming a lot more and therefore generating more waste per person (on average) than we were a couple of decades ago.

Something most of us can do to minimize the amount of garbage we send to landfills is to compost our organic waste such as newspapers, vegetable waste, cardboard – even coffee grinds and eggshells. There’s a very easy way to do so that has minimal smell, doesn’t take up much space, can chew through a heck of a lot of waste quickly and leave you with a most sought after product.

The workers you’ll need to assist you are worms and the process is called vermicomposting.

Our worms, collectively known as “Bob II” have been working hard for us for a couple of years now. They require minimal care, are quiet, never go on strike and incredibly cheap to maintain. Even setting up a worm farm isn’t terribly expensive; our ready-made farm cost $50 and the initial worms about $15. Since starting a worm farm we’ve cut down on the amount of waste we’d usually bin by at least 25%. Over a year that translates into hundreds of pounds.

Our worms spend their entire lives eating our trash, stopping only to reproduce. As far as I know, worms don’t even “sleep”. A pound of worms (around 4,000) can eat half a pound of organic material in 24 hours!

What’s left after their digestion, called castings, is one of the best and safest fertilizers around. It’s also ph neutral meaning that it’s halfway between acidic and alkalinic – just like water. Castings feel and smell like good soil because effectively that’s all they are; in fact, it’s said that worm castings are 5 times richer in nutrients than good topsoil.

Castings aren’t the only valuable product created, a fluid called leachate that seeps through the material the worms digest is also highly prized. Brown in color, it has no odor to speak of,

“Worm tea”, another non-smelly popular worm by-product is made by soaking worm castings in water.

So, what can you feed your worms?

– coffee grounds
– paper
– cardboard including egg cartons
– vegetable peelings and waste
– eggshells

The general rule of thumb is if it the waste is plant based, worms can deal with it; with a couple of exceptions; being:

– pineapple – contains an enzyme that will dissolve the worms
– citrus and highly acidic vegetables such as onions (ok in small amounts)
– green grass clippings should be added sparingly as large amounts generate excess heat and produce ammonia which will kill the worms

You can purchase worm farms at most hardware stores or make one yourself. You’ll need:

– A plastic tub with a lid
– A pan for leachate runoff
– Spacers to place between the tub and the catchment pan

All you need to do then is to drill a series of small holes in the walls of the tub to allow air to circulate and holes in the bottom to allow for drainage. Don’t be too concerned about worms escaping as they don’t like the light. If worms are escaping, it means there is something wrong with the farm; either too dry, too damp or too acidic.

You never have to worry about your worms overpopulating as they will self-regulate reproduction. The more waste that’s available, the more the worms will reproduce; but bear in mind don’t “overfeed” in the early stages while your population is getting established.

To start your worm farm off:

– Place a layer of small pebbles in the bottom to assist with drainage.
– Add a couple of loose layers of damp newspaper, building it up to a inch or so thick
– Then it’s just a case of adding waste as it becomes available.

The worms will then chew their way up through the material leaving their castings behind. When your tub is full and you can fit no more waste in, don’t start pushing it down as you’ll most likely crush your composting pals. Remove the layer of waste and a few inches of castings as this will contain most of your worms. With what’s left, put it to one side for use on your garden, add the scraps and worms back in and you’re all set to go again.

If you purchase a large worm farm, you’ll find that most have removable panels at the bottom of the sides to allow for easy removal of castings. It’s kinder on the worms and less mess for you as well.

For castings and leachate, while you can use them as is without dilution, the recommended mix is one part leachate/castings to 4 parts soil or water.

Other vermicomposting tips.

– Use proper composting worms; garden worms won’t be effective
– Never add any sort of animal products to the farm, including dairy
– Waste mix should be kept moist, not too dry or wet.
– A sign of mix that’s too wet is a methane type odor and worms trying to escape.
– Dampen paper and cardboard products before adding
– Keep the farm in a shady place

Have questions about worms, vermicomposting or other worm farming tips you’d like to share? Please feel free to add your comments below.