Friday, May 27, 2011

Worm Farming 101

At the end of February I attended a vermicomposting workshop in Dallas held by Heather of the Texas Worm Ranch.  As if the name of her company doesn't give it away, vermicomposting is the act of composting through the use of various worms - in Heather's case (and now mine), red wigglers.  The first time I had ever heard about vermicomposting was about 10 years ago when my "kooky" (what I thought at the time - of course, I am now squarely in this category as well!) college roommate listed worms on her wedding registry! 

Believers in vermicomposting/worms list the seemingly endless benefits:
  • Improves soil structure, enriching it with numerous micro-organisms
  • Improves water holding capacity
  • Improves root growth and structure
  • Enhances germination, plant growth, and crop yield
  • One pound of mature worms (appoximately 800-1000 worms) can eat up to 1/2 a pound of organic material per day
  • In a healthy worm bin, the worms and beneficial microbes work together to neutralize odors, making them suitable for indoor use (while up until now we've kept ours outside, I can attest to the fact that I have never once smelled anything untoward upon opening our bin, despite the rotting food inside)
  • Does not produce methane gas
  • Worms can eat most fruits, vegetables, grain waste, manure, leaves, newspaper, cardboard, office paper, junk mail, and other sources of cellulose
  • Converts waste (i.e. worms eat the refuse and poop out castings) into a great organic amendment that's beneficial for gardens, houseplants, and landscaping
There are huge "farms" dedicated solely to composting with worms and then selling the castings as garden fertilizer.  However, it is just as easy for a homeowner (or even apartment dweller!) to have your own worm bin to compost kitchen refuse.  I'd only seriously started thinking about getting worms in the last year, but wondered what was involved in getting started.  Turns out not much!  Other than the cost of the worms (a hefty $25-$30/pound depending on where you purchase them), it is possible to set up your own vermicomposting bin with almost no expense.

Here's what I did, generally following Heather's instructions:
  • Use a 14 inch by 24 inch bin I had on hand (can go smaller or larger)
  • Drill some air holes along the top and a few in the bottom (amazingly, as long as the conditions inside are acceptable, no worms attempt to get out of the bottom holes)
  • Fill bin about 5-6 inches with chicken litter from the coop, compost, or dirt
  • Place 1 pound of red wigglers on top of the dirt section
  • Put a thin layer of food scraps (no meat, dairy, pineapple or papaya, minimal citrus) over the worms (not pictured)
  • Top with another 6 inches of moist shredded newspaper, office paper, or cardboard (not pictured)
  • Snap on top!
  • Add a handful of food every second or third day underneath the paper layer (though I must admit I've gone as long as a week and they've been completely fine)
  • About once every two weeks I took a hose and quickly (and lightly) sprinkled some water on top of the paper layer to keep it moist

 Bin filled with chicken coop litter

 Close-up of litter

Added one pound of Red Wigglers

 Finished product after 12 weeks!  The tiny brown particles are worm poop!  
Castings - black gold.  Perfect to side-dress the veggies or fruits in your garden!

Supposedly 12 weeks is a bit too long to wait to clean out your bin.  Ideally it is done every 8-10 weeks.  I think it would be best (i.e. quickest) to make a simple worm/casting separator screen out of a wooden frame and 1/8 inch wire mesh.  I didn't have one today so I just used a cup and scooped out the castings.  You have to be careful because you will get some worms in the cup - especially small ones.  They'll need to be picked out and put in another holding area as you work through the rest of the bin.  As you work your way down through the castings the worms don't like to be exposed to light - so they quickly retreat into the deeper parts of the bin - making your casting collection easier.  In 1 hour I ended up with a whopping 40 cups (!) of castings/excessively decomposed matter - and I only got through half of the bin!  I proceeded to spread this around my blackberries, cucumbers, zucchini, and my lone (though impressive at 6 feet tall and completely unplanned) volunteer tomato.  I then shoved the remaining worms and decomposed matter to one half of the bin, added about 4 inches of new composted chicken coop litter, shoved the worms/matter back over on top of the new litter, added 4 more inches to the other side, and then spread the worms back over everything.  Added new kitchen refuse to the bin along with some moistened, shredded documents - and we're good to go for the next 8 to 10 weeks!  

Up until now we've kept the bin outside and have had no problems.  However, now that the weather is warming up here in Texas I am sure we'll need to bring it in the house.  The problem is finding a suitable location for this large bin in our already small house.  I may need to break it up into two smaller bins.  The worms are really a no-brainer.  Time will tell if my hour spent today will help yield more impressive vegetables and fruit - my fingers are crossed - but I suspect it will! 

Heather at the Texas Worm Ranch is a wealth of information - it is clear she loves what she does!  Please contact her if you have any questions or want to get started with your own vermicomposting operation.  I'm sure she would be glad to assist you! -Carrie

4 comments:

  1. Awesome! We <3 our worms. We started out with a fancy multi-layer worm condo, but we've now reverted back to a simple bin system like you. It's so much easier to maintain and so far we've avoided having another wormpocalypse. :)

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  2. What Pigs Don't KnowMay 27, 2011 at 9:19 AM

    Hi Annette!
    When we were considering adding worms to our composting efforts I thought about getting a fancy system like you describe, but they were pretty expensive. I'm happy we went with the bin. Very easy, and cleaning it out only 3-4 times/year isn't so bad. Hope you're doing well! -Carrie

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  3. Just turned on to your article by Heather's facebook post! Looks like your worms are very happy.

    We must have been in the same class: http://blog.briangallimore.com/2011/03/composting-worms/

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  4. What Pigs Don't KnowMay 28, 2011 at 11:25 AM

    Yes, Brian, I believe we were in the same class! I was the one with a 10 year old girl and a 3 year old boy who wouldn't sit still. Thanks for stopping by! Looks like you have a much more intricate worm system going on than we do. Perhaps we'll expand one day, but for now it suits us (and my unfortunately small garden) just fine. -Carrie

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