Friday, April 22, 2011

Vermicomposting for Earth Day

Happy Earth Day! Here's a neat Earth Day project, vermicomposting.

It wasn't that long ago I heard about vermicomposting for the first time. What is vermicomposting? Well, in short, worms eat your garbage! How cool is that?

Do you feel as guilty as I do when I throw compost-able garbage in the trash? I felt like I was throwing away something that wasn't really trash. I knew that food scraps even had the potential for environmental benefits, if I only knew how to compost and turn it into fertilizer. The problem was I didn't really know how to start. And I was afraid of a big smelly pile in my backyard. I have heard if you do it right, it's not supposed to smell. Well, I didn't really know how to do it, so there you go. It seemed like a risky, long and smelly experiment.

Then I met someone who had a somewhat expensive store bought vermicomposting bin. She composted indoors, in a little compact area. No smell. The reason there was no smell is the food she threw in there would be gone--gone--in hours. And it left her with incredible fertilizer (humus). What is humus exactly? Well humus is technically worm poop. But it's not, um, poopy. It looks and smells just like soil. It basically is soil. Very nutrient rich soil. Some reports show plants grown with humus perform 126% better than those with commercial fertilizer!

Ahem, perfect for the seeds I started the other day!

I was sold! But I still couldn't justify the expense for a store bought system (about $80, plus shipping, plus worms. Probably $130 total). There had to be a way to do it cheaper.

Luckily I learned more about it at a free session at our local public library a couple days ago. I'll show you how to do it. It's very, very easy!

Supplies:
Container of choice
Drill, or another device to make air holes
Chlorine free water
Newspaper or computer paper
Handful of soil (from the yard is fine!)
Red Wiggler worms
Food scraps
Optional: Corn meal

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I found this bin at Target for about $5. You need about twice as much surface area as depth, and you can see this container is quite tall. No big deal, we just won't fill it all the way to the top. The reason is, these types of worms don't like to burrow very deep, so if you have a lot of depth it reduces the chances they'll get to all your scraps.

Worms also don't like light, so it's helpful if your container has a lid to keep out the light.

Worms breathe oxygen just like we do, so you'll have to make air holes. Using 1/8" drill bit, drill a couple rows of holes all the way around your bin, about 2-3 inches apart. No reason to measure or get uptight about it, just drill away. Avoid holes on the bottom, which will let moisture leak out. Avoid holes on the very top, which might let in light.

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Now you'll need to create the bedding for your new worm friends. Newspaper is cheap and easy bedding. Rip it or shred it. You'll also need to make it damp. Not soaking wet (you never want standing water in your bin), not too dry. But beware, the water you use to dampen your newspaper must be free of chlorine.

Municipal water systems use a lot of chlorine to get rid of germs in the water system. So if you have city water you can do one of two things. Let a container of water sit out overnight. The chlorine will off-gas and the remaining water will be chlorine-free. Or buy a gallon of distilled water.

Put the water in a bowl and dip in handfuls of shredded paper, taking care not to get it too wet. Alternatively, you could also dampen your paper with a squirt bottle. Whatever you feel is easiest.

Take your ripped or shredded damp newspaper and throw it in your bin. For a container my size, I added about 12-18 inches of newspaper.

Why shredded and why damp? Worms breathe through their skin. They need air pockets and moisture to be able to breathe. Why no chlorine? As I said, worms breathe through their skin. You know how your eyes get irritated if you open them in a pool? Yeah. Same idea.

Next add a handful of dirt.

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Dirt from the yard is fine. There are two things we're accomplishing by adding soil. One is beneficial microbes which aid in the breakdown of your scraps. Second, worms need the actual grit from the dirt to help with digestion.

This next step is optional, add 1-3 tablespoons of plain cornmeal (not a mix).

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According to the vermicomposting specialist at the library, worms love corn meal. It's a real "wake up call".

Of course no vermicomposting system is complete without WORMS!

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You'll need a type of worms known as Eisenia fetida. All of the sources I read says these are commonly known as "Red Wigglers." For the instant-gratification factor I went to a bait shop and asked for Red Wigglers. I was told this is a southern nickname, that we don't call them Red Wigglers in the North. Then he handed me a container of "Big Reds". So Red Wigglers, or Big Reds, you need a specific type of worm.

Red Wigglers are ideal because they do well in close quarters, don't burrow deeply and they eat a lot. If you use regular earthworms it may still work, but it will take a looooong time. Red Wigglers eat up to half their body weight every day. So figure it out with me. If you have a pound of worms (1 pound of worms = approx 1000 worms) in your bin, they'll eat 1/2 pound of garbage every day. SWEET, right? You'll be left with NO trash sitting around, getting stinky.

To get the worm/food scrap ratio right, you might want to keep track of how much food scrap you make each day for a week or so. Then you'll know exactly how many worms to buy. I didn't do this. I just winged it.

Also keep in mind that worms reproduce. Your worm population will double every 90 days or so. So it is possible to start small and work your way up.

The cheapest way to buy worms in bulk is online. Try redwigglerworms.com. One pound of worms (1000 quantity) will be shipped to your door for about $30 including shipping.

For instant gratification, nothing beats your local bait shop. I found one by googling "Live Bait" and my city name. However, you'll pay more per worm this way. I bought two packages of 36 worms yesterday for about $7. I paid approximately 10¢ per worm, when I could probably get them for about 3¢ per worm online. In case you wanted to know. ha! Plus I probably have about 1/10 of the worms I need to eat all my food trash. There are a couple things I can do about this. I can see how it goes and let them reproduce on their own, buy more worms at the bait shop, or buy a package of worms online. I haven't decided yet.

After all this explanation, go ahead and add your worms. Nestle them in all snug-like in their new home.

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All they need now is some food to munch. Add your scraps! Some people recommend putting scraps 1-2 inches under the bedding, so they are easier for the worms to reach.

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You can add pretty much any food scraps, but here are some things to avoid: meat, citrus, eggs (egg shells are fine), dairy, anything very oily or fatty. Pretty much anything else is fine! Even natural cloth like cotton can be composted!

All there is left to do is put the lid on.

It's perfectly fine to put this in the house, or leave it outside. However, worms do best in temperatures between 40º and 90ºF, so if you leave it outside, be sure to bring it in during periods of extreme temperatures. I put mine in my basement. My very own worm farm. Feeling very eco-friendly this Earth Day.

Wanna learn more? Check out this article from How Stuff Works.

Or buy the book Worms Eat my Garbage.

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I hope you give it a try! Still have questions? Leave a comment and I'll answer them.

I'm going to try to link to some of these link parties and hope I don't get kicked off! ha!


Update: I bought more worms! Read all about it here.

10 comments:

  1. Great post Lisa!! I have wanted to try composting forever. But I don't really have enough room for a huge, ugly composter in my yard. So, I've just not done anything.

    This seems really doable...especially for those of us with your typical, small surburban yard. :)

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  2. I am sooo gonna try this. I've tried composting and I'm just not very successful at it. Thanks for all the great information.

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  3. I have been wanting to make a worm bed forever. We compost but we don't keep up with it very good.

    I just told my DH I have another project and he said your way over your head in projects right now- ok so I will have to wait till we get the room done and the ladies retreat if over. Darn i was ready to go order those wiggly little worms right now!

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  4. Thanks for sharing this post. Just an FYI- many, if not all, Wal-Marts have worms in their sporting goods departments. They are still likely to cost more per worm than the online option, but they are often less expensive than a bait shop.

    The Happy Wife/Danielle
    ldsmom2201 at yahoo dot com
    http://juanshappywife.blogspot.com
    Twitter: The_Happy_Wife

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  5. I was considering doing something of this sort for a summer-school project for my kids.
    Thankyou fo sharing! I need all the insight I can gather at this point!

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  6. This is completely awesome! Thanks for sharing!

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  7. Really well explained. Thanks!
    We have a composter in our yard but I have a hard time finding the desire to rotate it (such a pain). I love seeing the worms in it when we do turn it though and the rich dark soil.

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  8. I just found this post after posting my Organic Worms Casting Giveaway!

    If you get a sec, pop on over to Little Brick Ranch to enter!!

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  9. Your post is really interesting, you have your own ideas, i love reading it. Thanks for such a cool blog. mdma

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  10. I started out with an even smaller shoe-box size bin- I eventually moved up to the size you are using, and now I use a Wigwam. They can go through quite a few scraps. I also winged it with the feeding and it turned out fine. Best of luck!

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