Since learning about the negative impact of fertilizers and pesticides, gardeners and farmers sought greener alternatives. Vermicomposting is one strong possibility for those hoping to replenish the soil, encourage plant growth, and avoid damaging the ecosystem.
Vermicomposting is a green gardening system that converts waste into nutrient-rich soil that you can apply directly to plants without risking damage. Plus, it’s easy to manage and even works in small spaces, like apartments.
Read on to learn everything you need to know before getting started with worm composting in our Ultimate Guide to Vermicomposting.
Vermicomposting is an easy way to convert food waste and other compostable materials into rich soil. More specifically, vermicomposting relies on worms to do most of the heavy lifting.
Also known as worm composting, this green gardening method makes use of a worm’s natural diet. Worm excrement contains beneficial microorganisms and nutrients, making it an exceptional fertilizer.
You can use any organic materials, like food scraps, yard clippings, and animal feces. Toss them into the compost bin, and let the worms go to work! The result is nutrient-rich soil that can boost your plants and protect them against diseases and pests.
It’s surprisingly easy to establish and maintain a worm composting bin, and you can even keep it inside with a proper setup. Vermicomposting requires minimal care, making it an excellent project for kids to teach them about green gardening.
You don’t even have to worry about an overpowering or off-putting odor. Properly built and maintained worm composting bins may have an earthy smell, but it’s not offensive.
Vermicomposting vs. Traditional Composting
Composting is generally considered a positive step for most gardeners and farmers. Both types of composting rely on natural processes to break down organic materials to a stable state. However, the catalyst for stabilizing the organic matter differs.
Traditional composting, also known as microbial composting, relies on various microorganisms and fungi to compost the organic materials. Unfortunately, traditional composting has several drawbacks, including the amount of work required, the smell, and the tendency to attract unwanted pests and vermin.
Vermicomposting relies on worms to break down organic matter. It’s more versatile than traditional composting.
What’s the Vermicomposting Process?
Vermicomposting is a fairly basic, natural process. Think of it as a looping system that results in nutrient-dense soil with some fertilization qualities.
The worms feast on organic matter, partially digest it, then excrete it. Since worms can’t break the matter down in one digestive cycle, they repeat the process until the matter reaches its simplest form. Expect this process to take anywhere from three to six months, depending on how large your system is and how many worms you have.
You can harvest the worm castings to use as nutrient-rich soil and fertilizer for your garden. You’ll know it’s ready by the dark brown coloring and uniform texture.
What’s the Benefit of Vermicomposting?
Aside from being an easy green gardening process, vermicomposting has some significant benefits that may surprise you.
Even though the process is literally about making worm waste, you won’t get much of a stench, just a mild, earthy smell.
Easy to take care of at home
Vermicomposting systems require limited setup and maintenance because the worms do all of the work. Worms don’t require a lot of care, and they don’t make noise.
Good for kids to learn and engage
It’s a kid-friendly task involving fun, wriggling worms. You can teach kids about worms, green gardening, and the science behind all of it.
How to Prepare for Vermicomposting?
Are you ready to get started? It’s time to gather your supplies through whatever means you deem necessary. Note that you don’t have to buy everything brand new, and repurposing items is another way to be eco-friendly!
You can certainly invest in a vermicomposting system if you can afford it, but it’s not necessary because a basic plastic bin works well. You may even be able to give new life to an old container that’s lying around collecting dust.
Here are some tips for choosing a bin:
- It needs to protect your worms from the elements.
- You need to be able to cut air holes into the sides.
- Some type of cover is advisable, like a lid, burlap, or plywood.
There are a few different methods to choose from, depending on your needs. The stacking system uses stacked trays that allow worms to finish a level and then move up to a fresh tray. You can remove the completed tray to use the worm castings.
The DIY or homemade method requires two plastic bins. One serves as a basin for the other, so you may want to get a shorter, wider bin with a taller, narrower one.
Since worms are the stars of this composting method, it helps to know what to prepare for and how to choose the right ones for your bins.
1) Which Type of Worm is Right for Vermicomposting?
The best worm for vermicomposting is Eisenia foetida, commonly known as red wigglers, brandling, or manure worms. They eat their weight in garbage every day, prefer to live in larger colonies, and aren’t picky about food.
You should be able to find them at a bait shop, but be prepared to pay a little more than you would for standard nightcrawlers. However, you’ll discover that the Eisenia foetida is worth every penny.
The alternative is Lumbricus rubellus, common manure worms. They do well in composting bins but may not be as productive as red wigglers.
2) How Many Worms Do You Need?
Determining how many worms you need depends on how much food waste you produce and the amount of space you have. Note that worms eat a lot in one day, and they multiply rapidly.
One pound of worms is about 1,000 wriggling warriors ready to go to town on your organic waste, but you can expect that number to double in about three months. It may be better to start slow with fewer worms and rely on their reproductive habits.
3) Pay Attention to the Life Habits of Worms
Worms make excellent housemates because they are quiet and keep to themselves, but they have some preferences to stay happy and healthy.
A worm’s ideal habitat is shady, damp, and warm. Keep them dark, quiet, and away from soaking conditions. Despite being resilient, they don’t like extreme temperatures and prefer to stay between 12°C and 32°C.
Though they aren’t particularly picky about food, you’ll make your buddies happier with soft foods that tend to be sweet or sour.
4) What to Feed and Not to Feed Your Worms
Feeding your worms properly is crucial. Though it’s tempting to toss in all organic matter you don’t want, it’s not the best choice for your worms.
Stick with fruits and veggies, except for highly acidic ones, like oranges and lemons. Teas, grains, starches, and withered plants work well, but avoid seeds and fresh grass or leaves. You can even toss in eggshells, coffee grounds, cardboard, and hair.
To avoid issues with your compost, leave out edible oils, meats, leftover fish, and salad dressings.
Vermicomposting Step By Step Guide
Once you have your supplies, it’s time to dive in. It’s not too physically demanding to start your worm farm, but following these steps will yield better results.
Step 1: Choose a Location
It’s possible to set up your worm bin inside or outdoors, provided you can keep your friends protected and at a comfortable temperature. For many people, the basement makes an ideal location.
If you choose to keep your worm bin outside during the summer, find a nice shady spot. Likewise, you may want to bring everything inside during the cold winter months.
Step 2: Bedding
Like most creatures, your wriggling red worms needs proper bedding material to make a cozy home. Bedding should take up between one-third and one-half of the bin. It helps to use a combination of materials including:
- Strips of newspaper
- Shredded paper grocery bags
- Composted manure
- Old, dry leaves
Make sure everything is clean and non-toxic because your worms will feed on the bedding too. Avoid using any glossy papers or treated materials.
Worms like a damp environment, so it’s important to wet materials down before putting them in place. If you use cardboard and paper, try to soak it until it’s pliable enough to rip into smaller pieces.
If you’re unsure about how to make proper bedding, try this technique:
- Loosely fill the bin halfway with bedding, a few handfuls of dirt, and crushed eggshells.
- Fluff the bedding as you place it in the bin so that the worms can work through it and bury their food. It’s also key to keeping odors and bugs away.
Note that you can substitute a bit of sand or cornstarch for the dirt, but the eggshells are necessary as they provide calcium.
Step 3: Introducing the Worms
With the bedding in place, it’s time to introduce your worms to their new home. It’s best to give them a day or so to acclimate before adding food.
Step 4: Feeding
Feeding your worms begins with collecting food scraps. It’s helpful to keep a covered container in a convenient location to dump your kitchen scraps after meals. Be careful to exclude meat, dairy, fats, and bones.
Worms eat paper, so coffee filters and paper tea bags work just fine. They even eat produce labels!
Stick with a weekly feeding schedule to make life easier for you.
- Using a trowel, create a hole for your kitchen scraps.
- Toss in a little shredded paper first, then add your scraps.
- Completely cover the scraps with damp paper and dirt. By covering the food scraps, you won’t attract fruit flies.
- Remove any uneaten scraps from the previous feeding.
- Replace the lid, wash out your storage container, and start over!
Try to keep an eye on what foods your worms eat and which ones they avoid. Worms avoid food scraps because they don’t like them or they are too big to eat.
Tip: Try adding food scraps to one side of the bin. As the worms break it down, move it to the center and replace it with fresh bedding and scraps.
Step 5: Moisture Control
Worms like damp conditions, but they don’t appreciate puddles or standing water. Managing the moisture levels is one of the few maintenance tasks you need to keep up with regularly.
Dry, crumbly paper tells you that there’s not enough water in the bin. Grab a spray bottle and dampen those dry areas a little at a time.
When worm bins have too much water, you can add more dry bedding to absorb the excess. Paper and cardboard make excellent sponges and can rebalance the moisture content fast.
Alternatively, you could drain the excess water. Depending on your system, you may have to gently tip the entire bin to release the water through drain holes or the top.
Step 6: Collect Worm Tea
If you drain your bin, be careful to save as much liquid as possible because it can be valuable! Vermicomposting produces liquid known as worm farm leachate or worm wee.
Even well-maintained worm composting bins can produce excess liquid, but it’s not all bad. Combine one part worm wee with ten parts water to create fertilizer for indoor and outdoor plants.
You can also collect worm castings and steep them to make worm tea. Simply add worm castings to something thin, like pantyhose, and leave it fully submerged in water for at least 24 hours. The result is a clean, green liquid fertilizer!
Step 7: Harvesting Castings
You can harvest the castings about three to six months after beginning the worm compost process. Your compost is ready if:
- It’s a deep brown color but not black.
- You notice a uniform texture.
- The surface looks like a felt.
- Your worms aren’t reproducing as fast.
- Individual worms look smaller than usual.
It’s important to note that having more than two or three of these signs could mean you waited too long to harvest. Keep an eye on your bin and try to harvest when you notice one or two indicators.
To harvest your castings, you need a sifting mechanism and an empty container. Set up your sifter on top of the empty container and start scooping your compost onto the screen. Pull out the worms and any remaining waste that doesn’t fall through the sifter.
Return any worms and organic materials to the bin to start over. Sprinkle the castings over soil and plants to give them a boost.
Using proper tools can make vermicomposting easier and cleaner. It’s not always easy to choose when there are so many options, so we pulled together some of our favorite composting tools to help you.
1) Vermicomposting Bins – Worm Factory 360 Composting Bin
This worm composting bin utilizes the stacked tray system and makes composting simple. While you can easily fit it into an apartment, this composting bin is one of the largest you can get for home use.
The Worm Factory 360 features four trays, but it’s expandable to eight trays if you need more space. Some helpful features include a convertible lid that doubles as a tray for harvesting and a spigot for collecting worm tea.
It’s preferable to a homemade unit because it’s already well ventilated and doesn’t require complicated assembly.
Beginners might appreciate the digital instruction manual and step-by-step setup. Plus, you get a magnet that reminds you what food to keep and what to discard.
Of note, you need to purchase worms, expansion trays, and some accessories separately.
2) Worms – Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm Red Wigglers
When you need worms to get started and can’t make it to a bait shop, you need to find an alternative. You can score 250 red wigglers packed in dry peat moss to keep them at a steady temperature.
Plus, Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm guarantees their red wigglers to arrive alive, insect-free, and mite-free within two days of purchase.
The worms may arrive slightly dehydrated, so you want to get them into their new habitat as soon as possible.
3) Soil Moisture Meter – XLUX Soil Moisture Meter
The XLUX soil moisture meter can help you maintain the best environment for your worms. You can get instant results about the moisture levels in your compost bin.
There are ten color-coded scales to measure the moisture level. With a little trial and error, you can figure out the optimal level for your bin. Plus, this soil moisture meter has a single probe, so you don’t have to worry about hurting your worms.
It doesn’t take batteries, so you don’t have to worry about replacing them. For those seeking an easy-to-use device that’s accurate and affordable, this may be the best bet.
Anybody who works with soil, plants, or animals can tell you that things can go awry from time to time. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that worm composting can have occasional pitfalls as well.
1. Too Much Food Leftover
If you notice a lot of leftovers, then you could have a few issues on your hands.
Firstly, there could be too much food for your worms. To remedy this without letting the scraps go to waste, try one or more of the following solutions.
- Use fewer kitchen scraps at a time.
- Cut your food waste into smaller pieces
- Add more worms.
- Scatter the food scraps more.
Secondly, it could be too hot for your worms. You may have to move your compost bin to a cooler location.
Finally, your bin could be too cold. Try covering the compost container with something to help it retain heat. Be careful not to block air holes.
2. It Smells Bad
Compost bins should smell earthy and mild, not foul. Stinky bins generally come from two issues, too much moisture or food that worms don’t eat.
If you struggle with managing the moisture, try getting a moisture meter to keep better tabs on the compost. Add more wood chips, paper, or cardboard to absorb excess moisture and rebalance your bin.
Worms don’t eat meat or fish, and both items can make compost bins smell terrible. Be careful to remove any animal byproducts before feeding your worms.
3. Fruit Flies and Gnats
Seeing these pests swarming around your bin is gross but preventable. It’s a sign that your compost is too wet or too acidic, and you can correct both issues by adding more paper or wood chips.
You hate to see mold pop up in your bin, but it happens when things get too acidic. To rectify the situation, change out the bedding and avoid all citrus fruits until you no longer have mold. Carefully reintroduce your worms to the bin.
5. Dead Worms
Finding dead worms is a sign of overfeeding. The overload of food waste ferments and worms can get stuck. To correct this issue, reduce the size and amount of scraps.
Do you still have a few questions about vermicomposting? Perhaps these frequently asked questions can shed some light on them.
How Long Do Composting Worms Live?
A composting worm can live about a year. The truth is, you probably won’t notice a worm dying because their bodies shrivel and become part of the composting process.
Can Worms Digest Food Completely?
Worms start with foods containing fiber to give them time to digest other types of food. As long as the worms keep eating, you can continue adding food for them to turn into compost.
What Do We Do When the Temperature is Very High or Low?
The ideal temperature range is between 12°C and 32°C. If it’s extremely hot outside, move your bin to a cool place out of the sunlight. When the weather turns extremely cold, move the box to a warmer place and use paper, foam, or blankets to retain heat.
What Are the Disadvantages of Vermicomposting?
There isn’t much to complain about, but it does take time for the worms to digest the food scraps and turn them into something you can use.
Vermicomposting could be a good idea for you if you feel bad about the amount of food waste you toss in the garbage every day. The system is low-maintenance and high reward. You can even share excess castings and worms with friends and family.