“I used to say that one ton of worms could eat one ton of garbage. I was always thinking big like that. Then I found out that Seattle had distributed four thousand worm bins. I did some figuring and realized that worked out to ten tons of garbage going into worm bins. That’s when I realized—it’s happening! It just isn’t happening the way I originally thought it would.”
Mary Apelhof, author of Worms Eat My Garbage
As a gardener I have always been in favor of worms. I’m delighted to find them when I dig in my garden. I’ve even collected worms that washed up and onto the sidewalk or road after a heavy rainstorm and put them lovingly in my garden.
I have been aware that their burrows help keep my soil aerated, and that their castings (manure) are valuable fertilizer. I even thought that, someday, I might start a worm farm.
Last June I met Amy Donovan of the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District at the Riverfest in Shelburne Falls. She was there with the worm bin she used to spread the word about worm farming in area schools. That was a further prod, but it was not until the impending arrival of three grandsons that I decided the time had come. Building a worm farm would be a perfect project.
Using Amy’s directions (which are available online at www.franklinwastedistrict.org/vermicomosting) and the labor of three young grandsons we set up a worm farm with an opaque plastic bin. The boys drilled air and drainage holes in the bin and we put in about four inches of newspaper ripped into strips, soaked in water and wrung out.
Because that wet newspaper did not look very hospitable I had my grandsons add some old leaves and compost.
I bought a pound of worms for about $30; they were delivered through the mail. They attracted no attention from the USPS, unlike the arrival of chicks.
Over the summer various visiting grandchildren kept the worms fed. Worms are vegans. To keep a worm farm healthy the worms should only be fed vegetable trimmings, fruit scraps (except for citrus and pineapple), moldy bread, rice, tea and coffee grounds, but never never any meat or dairy products.
Many people keep their worm farms in the kitchen or an out of the way spot in the house where the necessary temperature range is easily maintained. Worms prefer temperatures between 50 and 90 degrees, although between 65 and 80 is more desirable. I kept the worms outside in the shade until I moved them into our newly repaired basement. The temperature is a stable 50 degrees, and when it dipped below that for a few days during a bad cold spell in December I thought my worms had died.
When a grandson visited during the February vacation we inspected the bin and were amazed to find live worms. The feeding started again and it is clear that baby worms are being born.
I also noticed that all the newspaper bedding had disappeared and was no longer recognizable. Worms eat newspaper, too.
One thousand worms can eat 3-5 pounds of food scraps a week. It is time for me to harvest the valuable worm castings, known as vermicompost, for use in the garden. Vermicompost has been shown to be even more valuable than regular compost. It can be used in planting holes, as top dressing, and even as top dressing or in potting soil for indoor plants.
Vermicompost can be harvested every three or four months. The worms then go into a bin with new bedding.
Worms are not much trouble. They need bedding made of newspapers, moisture, and food. They do not need the large amount of soil and compost I added to the newspaper although a cupful of compost is helpful.
If the worms seem to be crawling out of the bedding and onto the sides and lid of the bin it means that something is wrong with the bedding, too wet, too dry, not enough food or too cold.
I did have some trouble with fruit flies, but cut down on the fruit I was feeding them and laid several sheets of wet newspaper over the top of the bedding. This seemed to make a difference.
The biggest challenge I face is keeping the temperature above 50 degrees
One potential worm farmer told me she was worried about the worms escaping and ruining local forests. She had read that non-native worms in the northern forests of our country and Canada are eating through the duff, the leaf litter on the forest floor that feeds the trees and other plants, stressing the trees and altering the eco-system for other animals and birds.
Composting worms, Eisenia fetida are not a threat. If they get loose in the garden they will not survive our winter temperatures. Make sure any worms you buy are this variety, listed by scientific name.
It is Anecic worms like the common nightcrawler, Lumbricus terrestris, that are the threat. They feed on surface litter which they bring down into their deep burrows, returning to the surface frequently.
For complete and detailed information about setting up a worm farm you can read Mary Apelhof’s book, Worms Eat My Garbage or go online to www.wormwoman.com or www.wormdigest.org or www.happydranch.com for information and worm bins that range in price from about $70 – $125.
March 28, 2009