Vermicomposting Vermicomposting, or composting with worms, involves creating an environment in which a breed of worms known as red worms, or eisenia

foetida, process your food scraps. The end-product, vermicast or worm castings (or worm poopoo) is an unusually high nutrient and bacterial mix used as a soil conditioner and quality fertilizer. As you have already read in the basics of soil, soil health can be understood as the presence of a large quantity as well as a wide range of diverse soil bacteria and fungi that work to support plant life. Worms are known as shredders, tearing their food up and processing it through their gut. The end result, though the numbers seem to vary greatly depending on who you ask, has been claimed to be as much as 5 times the available nitrogen, 1.5 times the amount of calcium, and up to 7 times the available potash as in a healthy layer of topsoil. Whatever the numbers are, it is clear that worm castings contain a very high level of diverse bacteria and have a high nutrient value. The nutrients are also water soluble, meaning they are immediately available to plants. Additionally, vermicomposting can be done very cheaply in urban environments and even inside the home with no bad smells, requiring little maintenance, and is fairly forgiving of mistakes. So lets get to it: First you’ll need to decide where you are going to keep your worms. This will probably be dependent on the size of your household and how many food scraps you will be producing. The number of food scraps that a red worm can compost varies from ½ it’s weight, to equal to its weight per day – meaning that if you start with one pound of worms (as is recommended on many websites), that they can process anywhere from ½ pound to one pound scraps in a day. In reality, this is highly variable, depending on the size and nature of the scraps given to them (as you can imagine, worms can go through softer materials much faster than they would through more dense materials), and the temperature that they are kept at. Additionally, aside from when you first begin, you will not really be able to accurately gauge the size of your population. Start Small: No matter how many food scraps you are producing, I recommend starting small, a soft plastic bin is what we use, but this is because we find them around town for free. If money is not an object, go ahead and buy one. Otherwise, scavenge around for one, use a five gallon pail, or simply build a box out of recycled plywood. Next, drill plenty of holes in the sides and bottom with a fairly large drill bit, ¼ inch or so, maybe even a bit bigger. It is difficult to overdo this step, but easy to underdo. The environment inside the worm bin must remain aerobic, meaning that air must be able to circulate and excess moisture must be able to drain. From what we hear from nearly everybody who has failed with worms (which is actually a surprising percentage of people we’ve talked to who have tried), is that they killed their worm population by drowning them. They then typically decide that worms are too difficult to keep and do not bother to try again (often having invested some ridiculous amount of money to get started in the first place). Actually, they simply either did not drill any holes at all for air to get in and water to get out, or

watered way too much. Worms need a moist environment to survive, but not saturated with water, similar to the moisture level required of a compost pile. If you take a handful and squeeze, you should not be able to extract more than one to several drops. Next you are going to create an environment in which red worms thrive. You are going to put down a layer of bedding and moisten it (you can use a spray bottle mist or just a bit from a watering can). For bedding you can either put down several inches of dry leaves or shredded newspaper. We use leaves because they contain nutrients (leaves of trees with deep root systems contain nutrients not found in any other mediums) rather than being inert like shredded newspaper, but if you do not have leaves, shredded newspaper will be fine. Next add a thin layer of food scraps, then sprinkle some sand or existing soil from your garden into the mix. Worms need sand to grind food in their digestive tracts, so make sure to provide this for them. Next you can add another layer of shredded newspaper or leaves. This last layer is to prevent fruit flies from reproducing and to mask any smell from the scraps. Make sure that you moisten everything up nicely.

And finally, add your worms! Worms are extremely sensitive to light and will quickly move into the pile, get used to their new environment, and begin to feast! It seems like I’ve already written a lot, but there is plenty more information you will want to become familiar with here. Where To Obtain Worms Red worms, eisenia fetida, are a variety of worm that is epigeal, meaning that they live on the soil surface, not under it. Strangely, many people purchase their worms. I say strangely, because the cost is unbelievable, from 35 dollars to 50 dollars a pound. Some companies advertise super breeds of worms that will process compost faster – this is misinformation. Though there may be some slight variations in red wriggler breeds, they will all work great for a home system. - Community and Craigslist: Many home gardeners are passionate, helpful people, and are rightly proud of their systems and want to help out those who are starting out. If you live in our area, we are happy to share our worms, though you will have to do the work picking them out of our compost pile (don’t worry, we’ll show you how). If you do not know anyone who vermicomposts, ask around. And if you don’t find anybody that way, craigslist is truly an amazing resource – post in the wanted section for red worms – propose to trade the person for some homemade cookies and I’m sure you’ll get a quick response. This is our number one recommended way – you will get to know people who are doing the same thing, make connections within your community, and make someone’s day with your trade. - Horse Manure: Red worms love horse manure. If you can find someone with horses or stables, look around in the poop for red worm populations and simply pick them out. This is how our population began, and we have been vermicomposting successfully for about a year now. Keep in mind that a pound of worms is quite a few, and a handful or two will make for a really slow start.

Actually, this is how we started, and it took way longer than we would care to tell you to get a large population going. Worms take 90 days to reach maturity and begin reproducing, and can theoretically double every day under perfect conditions. In reality, we have been told that with proper care one can expect to roughly increase their population from 1 to 30 pounds in a year. This is an impressive increase and nothing to scoff at. - Your local gardening store: increasingly, gardening stores are carrying red worms, and though it may be silly to spend money on a more or less available item, if you do not want to spend the time, or live in a city where the first two are simply not options, supporting your local gardening center is certainly not a bad way to go. Additionally, though 35+ dollars may seem steep, keep in mind that (1) you can sustain and grow your worm population indefinitely, providing a high nutrient fertilizer for years, possibly decades to come with no input other than food scraps and (2) when you compare to other fertilizers in the store, you will realize how quickly they will pay for themselves in comparison. - Online – lastly, worms are sold on a multitude of websites online. Do a little research for a reputable source, and if you can, purchase from a company as close to your home as possible. See if you can make the above options happen first. Maintenance This is where a little information and a lot of common sense come into play. Feeding: Food: worms will eat about the same stuff that you would put into your normal compost pile – any vegetation, coffee grinds, melon rind, basically any food leftovers. They are, however, sensitive to high levels of acid, and it is therefore recommended that you leave out citrus peels or fruits. Leave out any dairy, meat, bones, and oils. You can add food scraps by moving aside the top layer of leaves and burying scraps underneath, or simply making another layer of food on top and more leaves or newspaper on top. As you observe how much scraps your worms are going through, you can adjust up or down accordingly. Give them time to work through the food following the ½ - 1 pound of food scraps per day per pound of worms rule roughly – again, this is highly variable. If the bin begins to smell rotten, that is either an indication that the worms are getting more scraps than they can handle, that there is not enough air flow, or that the moisture level is too high and there is not enough drainage. Assess the situation – if it seems that it is too wet in the bin, mix in some dry shredded newspaper or leaves throughout to absorb some of the excess moisture. If the very bottom is just a sloppy mess, you do not have enough drainage and you must add holes to the bottom. If it is completely dry, the worms will begin to die, so make sure the bin is moist. Worms are sensitive to being disturbed, so try your best to do things properly the first time, and if you must adjust, so not do so frequently. If you are keeping your worm bin outside, make sure that it is covered with something heavy so that raccoons or opossums cannot get in. Worms do not like to be disturbed and if a predator is consistently disturbing them, there will be a worm exodus (for real). All in all worms are forgiving, just keep these things in mind, they want consistency and to be left alone in a dark environment.

Temperature: worms begin to work faster in warm environments and slow down once it gets cold. Their bin must be kept in the shade in the summer, and if your temperatures reach over 95, you must make sure to keep your worms cool and moist or they will die. Anecdotal information suggests that they will do alright in temperatures between 32-50, at least survive, but will begin to die in temperatures below freezing. A garage may be a good place for them if you are in an extreme climate one way or another. I have also read that coir (coconut fiber) is helpful in retaining moisture and coolness in hot environments. Be creative and make sure they don’t die! Harvesting You want to make sure that you are harvesting your bounty, after all, you aren’t vermicomposting just for fun, right? There are a number of equally as effective methods for doing this: 1. Once the worms have worked through a batch of material, move the worms’ food and bedding to one side of your bin. Then recreate their bedding and food on the other side. As they run out of food on one side, they will migrate. Give them a few days/weeks (depends on how much food they went through of the old batch), and eventually they will all be on one side of the bin. You can then simply harvest the other side and keep going. 2. Get a tarp and dump all of the materials out on it. Make a big mound of castings in the middle (or wherever suits you!). The worms will quickly move to the bottom of the pile to avoid the light. You can then harvest castings from the top and remound, wait, remove from the top, remound, wait, until you’re left with nothing but worms. 3. Lastly, you can obtain another plastic bin (that stacks into the first one) and create a new worm bin on top. Stack the new bin into the old one, and similarly to the first method, the worms will migrate into the top one as they run out of food. We have discovered a big problem with this method that I suppose could be remedied, but is still worth noting. Once the worms have worked through a good amount of food scraps, their castings become quite heavy and begin to compress the bottom of the bin. Adding a top bin further compresses the bottom and creates an undesirable anaerobic environment. One way to solve this would be to add the top bin before the bottom one is very full (I would say even less than halfway full), and begin allowing the worms to migrate up early, so that you don’t get that compression. Overall, with a little planning this method probably requires the least amount of work (always a good thing if you can achieve the same end with less work). Application Lastly, and very much not leastly, you want to use your worm castings. There are several methods to applying it, and they are identical to that of other fertilizers: 1. top dress by adding some of the product at the base of each plant and working gently into the soil. Water in. 2. do an extraction by rubbing worm castings between your hands into a bucket of

water. This dislodges the bacteria from the castings so that they are floating freely in the water. Then drench your plants with the solution – this is akin to inoculating your soil with beneficial bacteria and nutrients. If you want to use a watering can, make sure to strain the mixture so you don’t clog. And we’re done! Once you soak in all this information and get going, you will realize that vermicomposting is incredibly easy, quite a bit easier than a compost pile. It requires no turning or building, is cheap, and produces a product vastly superior to anything you can buy in the store. Remember, feed the soil, not the plant. Take care of your little soil herd, and your plants will reward you with a healthy, bountiful harvest of veggies.