We recently had the pleasure to host and participate in a vermicomposting workshop, and we wanna get y‘all excited about worms! Vermicomposting, or composting with worms, is the quickest of the three composting methods, and is easy to pick up if you want to cut down on household waste, learn about composting, and get your own nutrient dense compost to add to your garden or houseplants.
Kelsey Allan taught the workshop, and generously shared with us her extensive knowledge and passion for composting and sustainable food systems. She helped us build our own worm bin step by step, offering tips and tricks along the way to help our worm bin thrive. Most of what we’ll cover in today’s journal entry is taken directly from Kelsey’s class materials, which we also got to take along with us.
Firstly, what is composting and why should we do it? Composting is the process of organic materials decomposing into nutrient rich soil. Composting is a regenerative process! It can repair soil that has had its nutrients depleted, it can help with sustainable farming practices, and it cuts down on waste. In America alone, we throw out 32 million tons of food a year, and 97 percent of that waste ends up in landfills! Trapped gasses in those anaerobic environments mean more methane in the atmosphere, and a continued warming of our planet. Composting can repair our Earth’s soil and in turn, nourish us. The healthier the soil is, the healthier our food that grows from it will be.
The three primary methods of composting are aerobic, anaerobic, and vermicomposting. Aerobic composting requires oxygen to aid decomposition, and often requires frequent turning. With bacteria and oxygen working together, organic material breaks down over time, creating nutrient rich compost. Anaerobic composting will yield the same results, but without oxygen. The microorganisms at work in anaerobic composting do not require oxygen to break down organic matter, and is generally a much smellier method.
Now, to vermicomposting. This method also requires oxygen and moisture to break down organic matter, but with the help of worms. The worms digest the materials and excrete compost, or worm castings. Vermicomposting is the quickest way to get nutrient dense compost, as the worms can produce usable compost in as little as a few weeks. It's less work, because the worms are working for you. If your worm bin is healthy and doing well, it is also the least smelly of the composting methods. It can also be done indoors or outdoors, and is perfect for folks who live in small spaces, but can be scaled up for any size household.
In the workshop, Kelsey taught us all about which kinds of worms work best for composting, what their needs are, and how they actually go about the business of making the compost. Ideal conditions for these little squigglers is about 50-80 degrees fahrenheit, and they require the proper amount of moisture in their environment at all times, because they absorb nutrients and oxygen through their skin. That’s how they breathe too, since they don’t have noses. Worms possess both male and female sex organs, and reproduce by wigglin’ all around one another exchanging sperm.
In an enclosed environment, like a bin, they’ll regulate their own populations so as to not overpopulate their own environment. They can eat half their weight in food per day, and their population can double every 90 days!
Building the worm bin requires newspaper, moisture, and a way for the worms to regularly get oxygen. It's also important to get a container that is not clear, and is opaque. Worms are very sensitive to light and overexposure to it can kill them. The particulars about *how* to build the bin are details we will spare for now, but definitely worth reading up on, or better yet, taking the next workshop Kelsey offers. We’re here for the overview!
Once your worm bin is ready to roll, the maintenance of it is fairly simple. Feed the worms, turn the contents of the bin, and harvest the compost regularly. There are some definitive do’s and don’ts, though. Worms love most food and veggie scraps, rinsed egg shells, unbleached coffee filters, coffee grounds, tea leaves and tea bags (no plastic or shiny paper tags), beans, bread, oatmeal, and pasta too, so long as they don’t have oil on them. You can even throw dead leaves and garden/plant clippings in the bin.
Bedding material is also necessary for your worm bin to thrive, and will help keep the proper moisture balance in your bin. Newspaper, brown paper, shredded untreated cardboard, coconut coir, and peat moss are great bedding options. Just make sure that they aren’t glossy, and don’t have any tape or other remnants on the paper. Think about how much less garbage you can make if you vermicompost!
There are a few things to remember to keep out of your worm bin. No meat, oil, dairy, or processed foods can go in the bin. Also, excessively salty food isn’t good for your worm friends either, nor are fruit pits, or acidic foods like citrus and tomato. Don’t put in any white office paper, colored or glossy papers, or pressure treated sawdust either. All that stuff is bad for your worms! Real tough skins like avocado skins aren’t great either, though banana peels can be added to the bin no problem. (The worms might just take a little longer to break down such items.)
When feeding your worms, it's important to prepare their cuisine to their liking, if your bin is to succeed. The smaller the food scraps, the easier it is for the worms to break them down, since they don’t have teeth. They eat the food, then “grit” inside their digestive systems helps break down the food. Soft foods break down faster than hard foods. Over time, you gain a sense of how much to feed your worms. You can, in fact, overfeed them. Knowing how much, and monitoring their progress is part of a rhythm you establish over the life of your bin. Kelsey recommended starting with less food and working up, to see how much the worms are consuming.
In addition to feeding your worms, there are a few other housekeeping items that keep your bin in tip top shape. Generally maintenance also includes adding bedding when necessary–to help regulate proper moisture levels, regularly turning the contents of the bin, and regularly harvesting the compost your worms produce. It's important to keep your bin in a place that stays generally dark and the proper temperature, too.
Ensuring these criteria are met and maintained will keep your worms healthy and your bin producing compost. Kelsey has plenty of particulars and indicators to look for with this, too! A good general rule is that if your bin smells bad, something is wrong. Also, if your bin gets quite heavy, it can mean you aren’t harvesting your compost. We also learned proper harvesting techniques so as not to remove your worms with your compost. Kelsey also taught us other applications for the spoils of your worm bin, beyond just the compost. Sometimes, the liquid that builds up in the bottom of the bin, referred to as “worm tea,” can be harvested and used as a liquid fertilizer for your plants, because it's rich in nitrogen. It sounds gross, but is actually really cool. Promise.
There’s so much information to absorb, but once you get it, keeping a worm bin is easy, fun, sustainable, and rewarding. On April 23rd, Kelsey is hosting another workshop. We definitely would encourage you to attend–it was fun, interesting, and rewarding to learn all about vermicomposting. Dig it!