Worm composting (vermicomposting) basics

By Deanne Converse                                       No part of this article may be transferred or copied without permission from the author

Vermicomposting is a very fast, no-fuss way to compost.  It can be done either indoors in a small space (or large) or outdoors.  A properly managed worm composting bin has no noticeable odor. We have a vermicomposting bin right behind our recliner in the livingroom, and no one ever knows it is there! It can be done on a shoe-string budget bringing successful organic gardening within the grasp of anyone. Most of our redworms live outdoors year round;  in the summer in over 100 degree heat at times and in the winter under a blanket of snow several feet deep.

Read the section on Redworms 101 first, and then continue here:

What will redworms live in?

There is no formula necessary to follow.  Plunk redworms in an already existing compost pile that seems to be doing nothing.  Add redworms to a bucket of shredded bills and newspaper.  Both are great places for redworms.  If you need a “formula” for bedding here it is:  Use any of the following alone or mixed together as long as it is moist: a bunch of dead leaves (avoid oak as the major source since these are acidic), straw, shredded paper (avoid magazine-type paper due to the acidic processing), shredded card board, peat moss. Bedding should be at least 6 inches deep.   Redworms will consume this bedding.  What do you feed the redworms? Here is good news for those who have “refrigerator experiments” that did not make the cut for a scientific grant.  Feed those “experiments” to the redworms.   Redworms will eat kitchen wastes such as peelings, leftovers from a meal, stale breads, used coffee grounds plus the filter, dead bouquets, etc… If the redworms are living in a small bin, do not feed them citrus, onion or garlic, due to the fact that the limited space can become acidic and kill the redworms. These items are fine if placed in a large outdoor wormbed.  To feed the redworms, dig a whole in the bedding, plunk the food in, and cover it up with at least two inches of bedding.  This depth is needed to avoid attracting flies, which entomologists say will not burrow to that depth to get at scraps.   There are often warnings not to add meats or dairy to the wormbins or wormbeds.  The reason not to add meats or dairy to a bin is that it will smell as the breakdown begins.  A well managed wormbin can be kept indoors with no smell associated with the project. Just avoid adding meats or diary.  Meats CAN be added to a wormbed outdoors.  Keep in mind that if this type of feed is not buried adequately, it can attract pets and pests such as raccoons.  There will be no smell.  It may seem rather gross, but there are farms that use vermiculture/vermicomposting as a way to dispose of livestock mortality, and it is a recognized legal, method of doing so.

A strategy we use on our farm is to raise our vegetable garden in the wormbeds.  The result is that the short season dwarf corn (which is supposed to grow only to 4-5 feet tall) we grow in the wormbeds grows to 7-12 feet tall, and produces well.  An example of the benefits worm castings can give a garden.  The vegetables in the wormbed help shade the redworms from the direct rays of the summer sun. Even root vegetables can be grown in wormbeds, with excellent results.  Remember, redworms only consume dead or decaying matter. In the winter we insulate the wormbeds with a thick layer of barn matter and leaves in winter.  This is important so redworms can get below the freeze line.   Any wormbin outdoors in the winter needs to be protected so that the bedding does not freeze clear though.  This can be accomplished by insulating with straw bales, foam insulation around the bin, or digging a hole in the ground and placing the bin inside with a cover.  For additional strategies, anyone can contact me via e-mail for help in you particular area.

 How much should redworms be fed?  How many redworms are needed to for a specific project? These  are two very common questions.  In ideal conditions, redworms will consume half their weight in matter a day.  This means that one pound of redworms can consume one half pound of food in a day.  What are ideal conditions?  Proper moisture and aeration and temperature all add to this.   The moisture part of the equation has already been addressed.  Aeration is needed.  Remember redworms do breathe.  Also aeration keeps the environment the redworms live in from becoming anaerobic, where the food and bedding begins to rot in a fermentation process, which will also produce heat.  A wormbin needs adequate drainage and air holes.  This means holes in the top, sides and bottom of the bin. No, the redworms will not leave the bin if they are kept properly moist and fed.  A wormbed needs to be able to drain and not be thermophylic (hot – as in a hot compost pile).  The ideal temperature range for redworms is sited as 88-44 degrees Fahrenheit.  That being stated, the redworms on our farm live outdoors year round in temperatures over 100 degrees in the summer (they are shaded), and under a blanket of snow in the winter (all they need is an insulating layer such as leaves or barn matter to avoid freezing), and they are content and happy.      Outside the ideal temperature range, redworms will slow down their activity, but still thrive.  Back to how many redworms, and how much to feed them.

Redworms are fast reproducers.  In general, each mature redworm is capable of producing one cocoon per week. Cocoons look like pearlescent grape seeds in size and shape, which go from a pearly green to reddish-brown in color as they mature.  Three weeks later, on the average of 1-5 baby worms will emerge.  In 60-90 days these new redworms are mature and capable of reproduction.  This truly is exponential population growth.   This is good news for anyone on a slim budget, in that any redworm project can be started with a minimum number of redworms. Project results will speed up quickly as the population increases, whether the redworms are being kept for a feed source or for a composting project. etc..  On the average, 1000 mature redworms weighs about one pound (actually just a bit less).    Feed them ½ pound of food a day. The average family of 4 who are not vegetarians can do well with a start of 1000-2000 redworms (1-2 lbs.) fed on household scraps.  Keep in mind that even starting with fewer redworms works since the population will grow rapidly.  Some people worry their household may not produce enough scraps to keep a worm population going.  Additional food sources for redworms can be your neighbor’s guinea pig cage bedding (plus droppings – as long as they do not use cedar bedding which is acidic),  coffee grounds from your office break room or church, small amounts of grass clippings, barn matter from a neighboring farm or stable, and trimmings from the local grocery store produce section. Remember as the bedding redworms live in (paper, leaves, straw etc.) breaks down this will be a food source for the redworms too.

Redworms will do well in a manure/ barn bedding pile outside, cutting the composting time by a third and increasing the nutrient value of that pile. One thing to remember is that in general fowl manures are too hot to be used fresh.  On our farm we add fresh farm fowl manures at one end of a pile and the redworms move into it when it the conditions are right for them.  Other manures are generally okay to be used fresh as feedstock for redworms.  Redworms are even often raised right under rabbit hutches, living successfully in the droppings as they collect under cages.

Redworms are low maintenance “pets”.  You can stock them up on food for a month easily if they are in a bin, go on vacation, and return to a thriving worm population.  Just be sure the bedding is adequately moist.   Worms in a wormbed can easily be stocked up on a food source for several months and be left alone if an extended vacation is planned.

How do I separate the redworms from the castings or vermicompost?

Redworms create what are called worm castings.  This is, bluntly, worm poop.  It is completely clean.  Redworms do not bite and there is no disease known that they transmit.  In fact in 3rd world countries, redworms are being used in projects to clean up the open sewers and the disease problems associated with them.  The redworms actually consume human wastes and the associated disease causing pathogens.   The resulting byproduct is clean worm castings.  Worm castings look a lot like fine coffee grounds, and have a light earthy scent. Redworms cannot live in their own excrement, so once a wormbin looks as if it is mostly worm castings it is time to separate the redworms from the castings.  You can run your bare hands though the redworms and castings, but gloves are okay too. If you cannot get past the EEEWWW!-factor, all is not lost. Redworms and castings can be separated without having to touch them.

You will need a sunny spot or a lamp, and a table or other area covered with plastic or cardboard or a tarp.  If you have a worm bin, dump the contents of the worm bin on a table in a sunny spot or with a lamp shining on the pile. If you are working out of a wormbed, place a few shovels full of the wormbed matter on the set-up. Wait about 5-10 minutes and scrap off the top layers of castings with your hand or a trowel, until you see redworms.  Wait a few more minutes while the redworms burrow to escape the light, and repeat scraping off the top layer of castings again.  Repeat this process until you have a wriggling mass of redworms in one pile and castings in another pile.

There is another method of separating redworms which takes less work, but more time.  If using a wormbin, shove all the bedding and worms to one side and add fresh bedding to the other side of the bin.  The redworms will migrate over to the fresh bedding in a week or so.  Remove the castings after a few days.  This same concept can be accomplished in an outdoor wormbed by placing a row of fresh bedding/food material next to an existing wormbed.

On our farm we harvest our redworms and castings in volume so speed and ease   are necessary components in the process.  Another article on worm separators will address this need.  Anyone wishing to use redworms as feed will find a separator a huge savings in time.  The other article will address a large separator and also a smaller portable one that can be made from readily available resources.

Your separated redworms should be used as live feed right away.    They can even be washed prior to use as feed to rinse off bedding/castings if desired.  If you wish to keep the redworms for further vermicomposting, add them back to the prepared wormbin or the wormbed.

The resulting pile of separated castings will likely be a combination of castings and vermicompost (not completely consumed matter).  Vermicompost is fine for any use as castings.  Some people wish to further refine the collection so that the product they have is purely castings. An easy home method is to sieve this pile through a window screen. (Easily found in the free section on Craig’s List often).  Even redworm cocoons will not go through standard window screening.  Any matter that will not go through the screen can be added back to the wormbin or wormbed for further refining by the redworms.

What do I get out of raising redworms?

You will get a healthy population of redworms available as a feed for your various projects, literally from your garbage.  At 19% protein, this is good news!

Two pounds of redworms are capable of producing 7 pounds of worm castings a month. Worm castings are known in gardening circles as “Gardener’s Gold”.  It is higher in plant available nutrients than any other fertilizer, compost or manure, and is natural and safe to use around pets and children. Worm castings can be used in your own garden ventures, or make a great gift.  The value and use of castings is addressed in another article written by D. Converse.  An easy read. Worm castings increase water retention properties of soils and improve soil texture, so gardeners will end up needing to water less.

You can lower your trash hauling bill by feeding compostable trash to redworms.

Both the redworms and the resulting castings are project products that can be sold, for an added source of income.

Here is a recap:

–          Plunk the redworms in moist bedding (shredded paper, card board, peat moss, leaves, straw, barn matter).

–          Bury any scraps they are fed at least two inches deep, and cover.

–          Redworms will eat the food and bedding creating worm castings, and increase in population as they do this

–          Separate the redworms from the castings when the matter they are in begins to look mostly like castings (which look like fine coffee grounds)..

   Here is one more piece of information that is necessary.  Redworms are sensitive to, and naturally avoid vibrations.  This is how they protect themselves from predators such and birds and moles.  Redworms can move surprisingly quickly.  This piece of information is important when choosing where to keep your wormbin or set up your wormbed.   A worm bin can be set up indoors or out, in almost any location away from of the baking rays of the sun, as long as it is not next to a vibrating appliance.  Redworms will stay put in their home unless they are disturbed by vibrations, then they will leave enmass.  Do not put the wormbin next to your furnace, a generator or the washer/dryer or pump in a pump house.  Any outdoor set-up needs to be away from stationary vibrating farm equipment.

It is fun to watch the redworms work.  Redworms do not respond to disturbances well.  Avoid the temptation to dig around in the wormbed or wormbin to see how things are going very often.  When redworms are introduced to a new environment, it will take about three weeks for them to settle in and begin eating and reproducing at their normal rate.  Feed them, but leave them alone during this adjustment time.  Feed the redworms in a different spot each time.  It is recommended to feed your redworms daily, weekly or monthly, meeting their food demand, but avoid digging around in the past feed spots for a few weeks, or the redworms will feel threatened and leave those feed spots for a while, slowing the whole process down.

Keeping redworms really is simple.  It can get scientific if you wish to maximize the number of red- worms raised and the amount of castings produced in a particular amount of time.  You can get to the point where you use moisture meters, specialized flow-through feeders, and exacting mixes of feed for the redworms.  Redworms have been alive since they were created, and survived and reproduced just fine without fancy equipment. By knowing the basic needs of redworms and a little about their habits, and providing for that, anyone can enjoy the benefits of having redworms working for them.

If anyone has any questions, I will be happy to answer them. And yes, we do have redworms available, which we can ship anywhere in the USA  (except Hawaii). Please contact me by e-mail at: waconverse@yahoo.com.

2 thoughts on “Worm composting (vermicomposting) basics

  1. Pingback: How to Make a Worm Bin | What is Aquaponics?

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