Tag Archives: vermicomposting

Vermicomposting I: Setting Up Your Worm Bin

Vermicomposting is an indoor composting technique where you keep a worm bin and let the worms do their good work in converting newspapers and kitchen scraps to “worm castings.” This form of finished compost is incredibly high in rich microbial life (the basis for nutritional exchanges in the soil) and rich in nitrogen.  Its a perfect soil amendment for organic gardening of all kinds (or house plants if you aren’t actively gardening). About a year ago, one of my friends lead a workshop for our Permaculture Meetup on Vermicomposting; I supplied all the materials, and I ended up with a great worm bin. I fed it religiously for the first few months in the winter, sporadically after that, and, honestly, forgot about it for the last two months with the flurry of end-of-semester activity.  Recently, I opened it up to harvest the castings and refill the bin–the worms were still happy as could be and had produced an amazing compost!

My Worm Bin in Kitchen Corner

My Worm Bin in Kitchen Corner

Vermicomposting is one way that people in apartments or other small spaces can compost without worrying about having the outdoor space for a compost bin–you can add the compost to plants grown in pots or buckets, and have a small-scale patio garden operation!

 

Vermicomposting is also particularly useful for the colder months of the year. In December-February most of my food scraps will freeze if I throw them in a pile (and even sometimes, if I throw them to the chickens and the chickens choose not to eat them).  The worms are a perfect way to use those scraps and keep your compost moving and getting different kinds of compost year round (for other composting methods, see this post).

 

I also like the earth-centered energetics of the worm bin.  The humble earth worm, with a strong presence in your kitchen, brings excellent earthy qualities.  The idea that the soil web of life is happening right there, before your eyes, is a very magical experience.  I could also see this as a great way to educate children about the cycles of nature and our incredible soil web of life.

 

Building a worm bin is very simple, and probably can be done with materials you likely already have around your home (we built mine by finding materials in my garage). You can buy fancy expensive worm bins (usually running about $100 or so), but I think its much more fun and sustainable to build a bin out of what you already have.  You can also often find cracked plastic tubs on the side of the  road–a cracked tub would be fine for the inner bin.

 

Materials for the Bin: Here’s what you need to build the bin:

  • 2 plastic tubs. One tub will need to fit in the other, and the inner tub will need a lid. The tubs should be opaque (the worms like it very dark).
  • 2 “supports” 3-4″ high.  I used plastic deli containers, but you could also use bricks or stones.
  • A drill and largish-drill bit (like 1/4″ or so).
  • Newspapers.
  • Bucket of water.
  • Worms and food scraps (covered later in this blog post).

 

How to build your worm bin:

1.  Start by placing your supports in between the inner and outer tubs.  Your supports should hold one tub above the other about 3-4.” See my photo below for more information.

Supports in bottom of bin (this bin has been going a while, so you see some castings in there)

Supports in bottom of bin (this bin has been going a while, so you see some castings in there)

2.  Once you know how high your inner tub will be, you need to drill holes. You will drill holes  around the top edge as well as in the lid for air flow in and out of the bin. You will also need to drill holes in the bottom for drainage (the worms sometimes produce a “compost tea” that will drain into the bin and that can also be used for plants.

Drilled holes

Drilled holes

3.  Once this is done, add your supports and put the inner bin inside of the outer bin.

4.  Now its time to fill the bin! Tear your newspaper into strips.  Try not to tear too many sheets at once–you want to pull the sheets apart, tear them up, and then crumple them up.

5.  Add the strips to the bucket of water and soak for a few minutes.

6.  Add the soaked newspaper strips into the inner bin–you want to fill the bin 1/2 – 3/4 of the way full with the newspaper.  You can also add a bit of soaked cardboard or paper towel tubes if you have them–the worms will eat through pretty much any paper product.

Worm bin (1 month in, they are doing their good work!)

Worm bin (1 month in, they are doing their good work!)

7.  At this stage, your bin is ready to accept food scraps and worms!

 

Worms.  Most indoor vermicomposting does not use typical earthworms found in, say Michigan, but rather worms called “red wrigglers.” If you have a friend who has a worm bin, they can just give you a handful of their works–that’s how I got mine originally, and a small handful of worms quickly multiplied.  If you don’t have friends with worm bins, you can order them online (just google “red wrigglers.”)  They run about $15-30.

Worm in the bin

Worm in the bin

 

Food Scraps.  Worms can only digest certain kinds of food scraps–mostly vegetable in origin.  Here’s what you can’t put in a worm bin:

  • Meat and bones
  • Dairy
  • Citrus (the acidity of the lemon or orange peels can irritate the worms)
  • Eggshells (I learned this one the hard way–they don’t break them down)
  • Anything sprouting, like a sprouting potato peel (the worms tend to avoid eating living things)

 

Feeding your worm bin. Depending on the size of your family and the amount of vegetables you consume, one worm bin might not be sufficient for all of your composting needs. What you want to do is start on one side of the bin, pull back the newspapers, and bury a small handful of food scraps within. The next day, you can move a few inches around the edge of the bin, and add another handful. In about a 2-3 week period, you can work your way the whole way around the bin, burying food in many areas.  By the time you work back to the original spot, the worms should have taken care of that section and you can add more food.  If you add too much, just give the bin a week or so before adding more scraps.  When you are getting ready to harvest your worm castings, you probably want to let the bin sit about a month so that the worms can take care of the last of the food scraps–then they will move to working on the newspaper and break that down.

 

Harvesting and refilling your worm bin. I waited about 9 months to harvest my worm castings for the first time, but I know I could have probably harvested them a bit sooner.  What I did was take a small spoon and pull the castings up from the bin, checking them for worms, and then putting them in a separate bucket. Any worms I found went into another bowl, that eventually went back into the bin. I didn’t harvest 100% of the castings–I left about the bottom inch (which still had some newspaper) in the bin. That last inch had the highest concentration of worms anyways. After I had harvested my castings (probably 3 or so lbs of them) I refilled the bin with wet newspapers (just like I described above) and began adding food scraps again.  I think if you had a few bins, you could get them on different harvest schedules and have castings more often.

Finished worm castings--awesome!

Finished worm castings–awesome!

A Guide to Composting with Tumblers, Sheet Mulching, Worms, Chickens, and Piles

Composting is a very easy way to integrate natural processes and nutrients into your garden, flower beds, and life.  While various statistics exist, most commonly, I’ve seen statistics that suggest that up to 50% of what we throw away in the USA is food items or items that are biodegradable.  These are items, like vegetables or stems, that come out of the nutrients in the system.  Americans also like  to rake up/bag up and throw away their lawn clippings, “weeds”, etc.  By sending them into a landfill, we lock those nutrients away and don’t allow them to cycle through the system again.  So composting is an important part of shifting to a more sustainable practice and allows us to build great soils in the process.  By composting, I was able to reduce what I threw away/put on the curb by almost 50%–and now I know how much I was wasting.

Over the last three years, I’ve been experimenting with a number of composting methods.  I currently am the composting site for three families (including my own).  As such, I’ve worked to develop a number of different composting strategies.  All of the strategies that I’ll present here work in combination with each other for different kinds of composting at different speeds.

The final product!

The final product!

Sheet Mulching – Direct Composting in Garden Beds

Materials you can compost: Fall leaves, yard waste, leftovers from last year’s garden (corn stalks, tomato plants, etc.).  Grass clippings, provided they come from a pesticide-free yard (get them from the one that still has dandelions)!

How to do it: In a previous post, I detailed how sheet mulching (preparing new garden beds or adding nutrients to existing garden beds).  Sheet mulching is a great approach because it really only requites you to move the material once–you just lay it in place and the beds make themselves over time.  I really like this approach and use it throughout my homestead.

Finished sheet mulched beds--planted with potatoes, kale, and garlic!

Finished sheet mulched beds–planted with potatoes, kale, and garlic!

Compost Tumbling- Keeping the Critters Out and the Nutrients In!

Materials you can compost:  Any food waste (except meats and cheeses), yard waste, garden leftovers.

How to do it:  For compost tumbling, you’ll want to get a compost tumbler.  You can make one relatively cheaply from an old barrel (fill it up and roll it around the yard) or you can purchase a nice one.  I bought one that is insulated, which theoretically allows one to compost in the winter…..or not.  In hindsight, I would have just made one myself out of recycled materials, such as an old 50 gallon pickle barrel.  I find that my compost tumbler takes about 2-3 months to produce a nice compost (and mine has two sides, so you let one compost down while filling the other one).

Leaf pile and compost tumbler!

Leaf pile and compost tumbler!

The Traditional Open Compost Pile

Materials you can compost:  Any food waste (except meats and cheeses), yard waste, garden leftovers.

How to do it: A compost pile is the simplest form of compost.  You just pile stuff up, wait, and if you are feeling really ambitious, turn it over every once in a while.  I started with a compost pile, but my neighbors dog started coming over, eating out of my pile, and then pooping all through my yard.  So I bought a compost tumbler.  You can prevent your neighbor’s dog from engaging in his nefarious behavior by using palates or scrap wood to create a bin that isn’t accessible from the outside.

Traditional open compost pile (about 50% of previous size, composting for 8 months, no turning)

Traditional open compost pile (about 50% of previous size, composting for 8 months, no turning)

Improved "open pile" with wire cage to keep out neighbor's dog.

Improved “open pile” with wire cage to keep out neighbor’s dog.

Worm Composting (Vermicomposting)

Materials you can compost: Food scraps, mainly.

How to do it:  In February, our permaculture group had a skill share on vermicomposting (and this is the link to a video). Since I provided the materials for the worm composter, I was able to get it at the end of the skill share.  I placed it in kitchen and  its been working really well.  The best thing about it was that I was able to find all of the materials in my garage, and the worms were donated to me by my friend, so it literally had no upfront cost.  You *can* go out and buy expensive worm bins, or you can just use the methods that are in the video (which consist of two opaque tubs, drilling some holes, adding some wet shredded newspaper, adding some worms, and adding food scraps).  The best thing about it is that you can compost this way year round, and you get AWESOME worm castings.

Vermicompost bin - yes, you can also add cardboard!

Vermicompost bin – yes, you can also add cardboard!

The Chicken Method: Let the Birds Do the Work!

Materials: Food scraps, old moldy bread, yard scraps, pretty much anything. We’ve given ours moldy cheese, old sauerkraut, leftovers from going out to eat, even the carcasses and bones of chicken, pork, etc.  They eat it all.

How to do it.  This last method is now my preferred method of composting! For this, you need Chickens in an enclosed coop.  I had my chickens free ranging, which means they help keep the bug populations down.  However, they were destroying the mulching around my perennial beds and I also lost the two bantams (smaller breed chickens) to hawks.  So I built them a larger coop, and with the advice of a friend, started “chicken composting.”  Basically the way it works  is this–you put whatever you want the chickens to compost in the coop.  Most of this they eat, and in a matter of hours, produce a nitrogen-rich dung (which needs to sit about 6 months or it will burn plants, its so high in nitrogen!)  What they don’t eat attracts flies and worms, which they do eat.  I also throw a ton of unshredded fall leaves in there, especially ones like oaks that are harder to compost down.  What you end up with is a wonderful tilled up hummus, straight from the chickens, with minimal work.

Chickens in their enclosure (note the enclosure was built with 90% repurposed materials!)

Chickens in their enclosure (note the enclosure was built with 90% repurposed materials!)

Chickens working the compost!

Chickens working the compost!