I’m always looking for new ways on the farm to re-use, recycle and repurpose, and there’s nothing I love more than an opportunity to reduce the amount of waste we produce.
Our kitchen waste is already pretty minimal, thanks to a combination of cooking our own dog food, and having chickens and rabbits, but I do still occasionally find myself with leftovers.
The other thing I really get passionate about, is finding new and inventive ways to do things naturally, like killing weeds with vinegar solution instead of toxic weedkillers, and fertilizing the garden with Epsom salts and coffee grounds instead of chemical soil enhancers.
So when you can combine these two things, I’m a happy girl. Let me introduce you to vermiculture, the practice of raising worms for their castings, which is essentially worm poop. Some sources say that the worms actually eat the waste, others say that what the worms are actually consuming is the micro-organisms that causes the food to decay. Modern research appears to support the latter theory and, for this reason, if the food is slightly rotted when you add it to your worm bin, it will help the process along even better. Food that should not be fed to chickens or the dogs because it is ‘off’ or moldy, is a gourmet meal to your new friends. They will quickly turn it into gold for your garden.
Vermicompost is favored with gardeners as a superior natural fertilizer because, unlike other natural fertilizers, such as horse and chicken droppings, it is not ‘hot’ and can be added directly to the soil around the plants, providing enrichment and a huge nutrient boost without risk of burning the plant and its roots.
Unlike manure from other livestock, worm castings have been shown to contain lower levels of contaminents such as feed additives, antibiotics and other medications, making it ideal for chemical conscious and organic farmers.
Vermicompost is a dark, peat-like material, higher in nutrients than regular compost. It is said to contain five times more nitrogen, seven times more phosphorus and 11 times more potassium than traditional compost! It is also broken down faster than a regular compost pile, due to the worms’ activity, and the huge bonus is that they essentially do the turning of the compost pile for you, aerating the material and eliminating the back breaking work that has always put me off having a true compost heap in the past.
The two most common worms used in vermiculture are red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) and European Nightcrawlers (Eisenia hortensis). There’s enthusiasts of both varieties, but it seems that the former are the most widely used so, for the purposes of this beginner setting up her first worm farm, that’s what I chose to use.
Worms can be bought online, and are probably one of the more unusual things you will ever receive through the mail. Prices vary, but read around for reviews and recommendations when buying worms sight unseen by the pound, as there are stories of companies sending what essentially amounted to boxes of dirt and trying to convince the customer that the worms were in there, but were just very, very small.
Because I live near the river, places selling bait worms are practically every fifty yards down the road, so I simply stopped at one of those and bought a bunch of red wigglers. A worm will eat half of their body weight each day in waste material, so consider the waste output of your household when deciding how big you want your worm farm to be.
So what will they eat? Basically, they will consume all kitchen waste, and if it is moldy or slightly rotted, so much the better. As I mentioned above, it is the micro-organisms that they eat, not the actual food, so speeding the process by offering them food with the micro-organisms already present is beneficial to them. Vegetables, fruit, bread, pasta, eggshells, coffee grounds and tea bags, paper towels, shredded newspaper, junk mail and napkins are great – and even limited amounts of aged manure from poultry and rabbits. Citrus should be avoided in quantity, and do not add salty or greasy foods as these do not break down correctly. The key is to not add too much of any one thing at a time, or you could upset the pH balance of the farm. They need a pH between 7 and 8, so if you are unsure, it might be a good idea to buy some litmus paper and test it; if you find it is too acidic, add some baking soda or some crushed eggshells, too alkaline and you can add some 3/1 water / vinegar mix. Eggshells are good for worms, because they process their food in a gizzard, and the eggshells help them digest it properly, kind of like a chicken needs oyster shell and grit!
If you detect an unpleasant smell coming off your worm farm, or you have a cloud of fruit flies hovering, you’ve probably been overfeeding, and the worms cannot keep up, thus making the habitat too damp. Try adding some more dry bedding – shredded newspaper, cardboard or dry leaves — and hold off feeding for a few days until the worms catch up.
The container that you choose for your worm farm should have a good amount of surface area and be fairly shallow; a bucket is not a good choice, but a Rubbermaid container or similar will work well. These can be found pretty cheaply at Walmart, but I had a dirty, old one hanging about in the shop, so I decided to use that. You’ll also need a lid to go with it. The tub needs to be opaque, as worms are sensitive to light.
The first thing you need to do is drill some holes in the tub. I drilled a bunch of 1/8″ holes in the top and sides for aeration. Worms are aerobic, just like human beings, and require oxygen to survive. Without proper ventilation in your tub, the atmosphere in it will become toxic and the worms will eventually die.
I then drilled some 1/4″ holes in the bottom of the tub for drainage. Be sure to drill the holes in the lowest part of the tub where the liquid created by the worms process will gather; you’ll see that most tubs have a ‘gully’ around the edges of the bottom, this is where the liquid will sit, so drill here. The liquid that comes out of the bottom is called leachate, and can be gathered to use as liquid fertilizer for plants. The idea way to do this is to have a second Rubbermaid tub, slightly larger than the first, and you can stack the smaller tub inside the larger, with a couple of rocks or small pieces of 2×4 inside the bottom tub to boost it up.
Next, shred up some paper for bedding. I had a bunch of old cardboard boxes laying around waiting to be burned, so I deconstructed them, split the three layers of cardboard, and then shredded it roughly. Add a good thick first layer, and then gather some food. If you are putting your worms in right away, as I was, try to add some food that is already slightly rotten, so that the worms have something to eat from the get-go. I had a mushy cucumber that I had been meaning to throw to the chickens, so I put that in, along with some coffee grounds, and some bread.
Then I added my worms. They came with a small amount of casings in the tubs with them, so I dumped that in for good measure too. Then I added more bedding on top, sprayed it with water to damp it down and laid down a piece of flat cardboard on top to hold in moisture. Then I clipped on the lid, and took the whole thing down into the cellar, where it was going to live. Because I live in the South, finding somewhere cool to put the bin was a challenge. Worms should not be exposed to temperatures below 50F and above 85F and they reportedly feed fastest at temperatures between 59-77F. In the South, that’s a tall order, and we don’t even have AC in the house, so I decided that the cellar was the best place for them during the summer.
I anticipate that it will take 3-4 months for my worm castings to be ready, just in time to fertilize my fall garden! Harvesting is pretty simple; just push the castings and existing contents of the bin to one side, and add new bedding and food to the other. The worms will naturally migrate over to the new side where the food is, and you can then scoop out the castings.
You should also see a relatively quick increase in your worm population. Worm eggs look like tiny, pale colored spheres, and they should hatch in 21 days. I’m hoping that if I manage to succeed at growing worms, I can set up a much larger bin system later in the year.
Castings can be used as is, or can be made into what is known as ‘worm tea’; basically you steep the casings in water and use the resulting mixture as liquid fertilizer. A quick look at eBay shows that worm tea is a popular and expensive plant treat, but I am looking forward to creating my own.
There’s an added bonus too, one that is not lost on my husband, and I bet your family will be all for it, too. The resulting worms are perfect for fishing, so you’ll have your very own bait right there on hand for fishing trips. And in a family who regards fishing as important as the other necessities in life, such as breathing and water, the prospect of home grown bait suddenly puts vermiculture into a whole new light.