Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Worms and Great Writing

You're right, no matter how many times you read that title, it still won't make sense. Those two concepts, "worms" and "great writing", just spar with each other. And that, dear reader, is exactly the problem I've been having. Reading other Spring Flingers' blogs has given me serious performance anxiety; but after months of stalling, it's time to talk about vermiculture - the proper term for worm composting. Guess I'll stick to what I know and leave the great writing for the pros.

The best primer on this subject is probably "Worms Eat My Garbage" by the late Mary Appelhof. She started writing in the 70's about her experiences with vermiculture, and the company she founded is a dependable source of worms, worm bin supplies, and information. No doubt, even a slight interest in vermiculture has led you to the internet and that site. Her book is widely available at bookstores and organic gardening centers, as well as online. It's a great place to start if you're considering keeping a vermiculture bin.

Started with a few worms given to me by a friend, my bin exists primarily to teach me about the subject. Let your reason for having a bin help determine the size container you choose. Obviously, if you're serious about using vermiculture to handle all of your kitchen scraps, it will need to start on a larger scale. Take the plunge and order a pound of worms to start. It took nearly a year for my small handful of worms to multiply to the point that they even needed the 5 gallons of space I initially gave them. The scraps I offered seemed to sit for weeks and I'd about decided the worms had all died. But once they took off, they really took off. Now, I'm about to move them into a 40 gallon bin. So, here's what the past year in worms has looked like.

As soon as I got them home, I went to work preparing the bin. They need air, darkness, food, and moisture (but not too much water.) If you order your worms, you'll have time to get the bin ready before they arrive. But mine were a bit of an impulse, so I had to work fast.

First, I drilled small air holes in the lid and all around the top third of the container. I hoped the holes would be big enough to provide air circulation but small enough to prevent escape. Some people cover the holes with fine screen, but that hasn't proved necessary. Either the holes were the right size, or my worms are nice and fat.

The first time you prepare bedding for your worms, you can shred newspaper to create a 8 to 10 inch layer. Lightly cover the paper with a thin layer of sand or garden soil, mix in with the paper, then use a spray bottle to dampen the bedding. You want it barely damp, but not wet. Put your worms in the bin and give them some time to burrow down - about 30 minutes. Sprinkle the bedding with chopped up food scraps and place a piece of cardboard loosely on the surface. The cardboard seems to encourage the worms back up to the surface to eat the scraps (and the cardboard.) Replace the lid on the container and give your worms at least a week to settle in before you start peeking in on them constantly to see if they've multiplied yet.

The picture at right shows an active bin where the worms are processing newspaper, food scraps, and eggshells. They've also eaten the cardboard cover.

Worms eventually eat about half their weight in scraps each day, but you do have to work up to that amount. (Being a former chef, I had to fight my impulse to feed them constantly.) When there is very little of the original bedding visible, and the bin contents are brown and "earthy" looking, you know your bin is working. Feed small amounts until you see evidence of your worms breaking down the scraps. Many people rotate placement of scraps in their bins so the scraps remain undisturbed until broken down by the worms. I mentally divide my small bin into eighths and rotate through the sections. Scraps should be chopped or shredded, and eggshells crushed. Tea leaves and coffee grounds, shredded paper towels and coffee filters, grains, and vegetable scraps are just some of the things your worms will consume. If it seems too wet, you can add more dry material such as shredded newspaper, crushed leaves, or dry soil. Avoid meat, dairy, and large amounts of fat. If you're already composting outside, most of the same guidelines apply. However, unlike outside composting, some of the problems you may encounter are overfeeding, too much moisture, and temperature. Vermiculture bins should be stored in temperatures above 40 degrees and less than 85 degrees F. In Texas, this generally means in a sheltered area out of direct sun.

Look closely - in the picture above you'll see where the air holes were drilled in the top portion of the bin.

It's a little odd to talk about what the worms "like", but mine seem to thrive when I add an occasional layer of moistened coir. It comes in dried bricks which must be soaked and broken apart and is available where hydroponic gardening supplies are sold.
If the surface layer of the bin is covered with food scraps, I'll often completely cover the entire surface with shredded newspaper or moistened and shredded coir. Also, as I mentioned before, they really seem to be more actively eating and reproducing when the surface is lightly covered with a piece of cardboard as well as putting the lid on the bin.

This is the finished product - compost ready to put in the garden and even more worms ready to go back to work in the bin. Various methods are used to separate out the worms. Although they will often clump together near the bottom of the bin, I generally put on a pair of gloves and gently spread the bin contents out on several layers of newspaper. When I've separated as many worms as possible, I put them back into the bin and the process starts all over again.

It's hard to imagine, but there's really very little ick factor to vermiculture. It's a good option for apartment dwellers, offices with kitchens, and other places that generate food scraps but don't have the option of an outdoor compost pile. Properly maintained, they don't stink or attract flies and other unwanted pests. Gather your courage and give it a try.
(Lori asked the questions you probably have at this point - check out the comments.)