One of my earliest and fondest memories involves my grandfather tending to his worm composter. My grandfather wasn’t a farmer, but he did have a small vegetable garden that was his pride and joy. He knew that to get the best vegetables, he had to ensure that the soil being used was as nutrient-rich as possible. Anyone that knew him would call him “old school,” and there was no way he would trust a premade, store-bought brand of fertilizer or compost. His philosophy was always, “if you wanted a job done right, you did it yourself.” That’s why he took the time and effort to do worm composting at home.
Worm composting, also called “vermicomposting,” is the process of allowing worms to break down certain food wastes. As the the worms eat the wastes, they naturally produce compost. Worm compost is also called worm manure, vermicast, or worm casting. It is this material that acts as an organic fertilizer and is filled with the nutrients that are so beneficial to plant growth and soil conditioning.
Vermicomposting isn’t as simple as putting some worms and dirt in a box, adding food scraps and waiting for a couple of months to have high quality compost to use in your garden. My grandfather spent a good amount of time on researching all the ins and outs involving successful worm composting. He also gained experience from years of trial and error efforts.
Thankfully for those interested in learning about how to compost at home, there are dozens of books and resources to help teach them both basics and advanced techniques. One book that has become a classic in the topic of worm composting is “The Worm Book: The Complete Guide to Gardening and Composting with Worms” by Loren Nancarrow and Janet Hogan Taylor. This information-packed paperback will provide guidance on what worms to use, which food wastes are allowed and which could be detrimental, how to properly remove the worm castings, and much more.
The quality of the compost made has a lot to do with the food wastes that are being supplied. Unfortunately, not all household wastes can be added to a home compost bin. Some things that should be avoided are commonsense like metal, plastic, and other non-biodegradeable materials that can add damaging chemicals and dyes to the compost. Meat and dairy products are also forbidden, since they can putrefy, causing foul odors and potentially attracting flies and rodents. The best material to include in your home vermicompost bin are fruits and vegetables, coffee grinds, tea/teabags, grains, and wet leaves. Crushed eggshells are also beneficial, as long as they are thoroughly rinsed off first in order to remove any animal byproducts.
When it comes to creating the best compost at home, the type of worms being used is critical. People often make the mistake of thinking that all worms are basically the same. This couldn’t be further from the truth. By using the wrong type of worms, you may waste months of effort and have nothing to show for it. The common nightcrawlers found in most people’s soil will simply not do. They are ineffective for worm composting because they naturally like to burrow deep in the soil. For home composting, worms that tend to stay near the surface provide the best results. The ideal choice being red worms, also known as “red wrigglers” (Eisenia foetida or Eisenia andrei). Another suitable, but not as productive, choice would be the red earthworm (Lumbricus rubellus). There are a few ways of finding these worms in the wild, but it is easier just to save yourself the time and buy them. A very popular and affordable source of redworms is Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm Red Wiggler Live Composting Worms. The best part being that they will ship them quickly right to your doorstep.
How many worms is needed for your home vermicomposting setup? There is no exact amount, although most experienced vermicomposters typically estimate using one to two pounds of worms for each pound of food waste and bedding being used. One thing to keep in mind is that worms can reproduce very quickly, especially when they are living in such an optimal environment. It’s better to use fewer worms than too many to start out.
My grandfather did everything from scratch. It helps that he was a carpenter and could make just about anything from wood. After a few different versions for composting bins, his final one was constructed out of solid Western Red Cedar. When it comes to the bin to be used for your home vermicomposting, the material selected plays a significant role. Choosing the wrong material, and you could harm (potentially kill) your worms, as well as not provided the maximum amount of vermicompost that you could have. Although my grandfather used wood for his bin, not all woods are suitable for home composting. Certain woods have resins that can be leaked into the compost and prove detrimental. This fact is true for most cedar woods, although the Western Red is ok. If this wood is too expensive or difficult to get, many home composters use Hemlock for their bin construction. Although wood is a great material because of its porous nature, it will eventually start to rot and will need to be replaced.
Along with wood, another common material that can being used for a vermiculture bin is plastic. The biggest drawback to plastic is that it doesn’t allow moisture to naturally be released. This can cause the moisture to gather at the sides and bottom of the bin. This excessive moisture needs to be removed manually. To reduce the chances of this happening, individuals often drill small holes into the sides and bottom in order to allow drainage. Metal is generally not recommended for bin usage because it susceptible to rusting and can potential leak harmful metals or chemicals into the compost. For those that would like an ideal bin environment but don’t have the skills (or desire) to build one from scratch, a fantastic alternative is the Worm Factory 3-Tray Worm Composter. At the time of writing this article it got a 4.4 out of 5 stars rating on Amazon.com. You can read the 60+ customer reviews by clicking here.
This worm factory composter was made specifically to create the ideal environment for vermicomposting. Not only that, it was made to be as user-friendly as possible. Another great feature is it’s unique stackable tray design. This allows composters to get generate three times the worm castings compared to other bins of similar size. The wealth of positive feedback from users make this choice a no-brainer.
Temperature plays an important role in home composting. Having it either too hot or too cold can adversely affect the health of the worms, and ultimately the amount of compost made. The standard temperature range that has been agreed upon by expert vermicomposters is between 59 degrees to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. This range has been shown to promote the most production for the worms being used. The temperature seems to be more of a concern for those that plan to store their compost bins outside, as opposed to those with a kitchen composter. Obviously, if the temperate begins to get below or above the optimum range, the bins should be brought inside. The bins should also be placed in an area that will not get direct sunlight, as this could cause the compost and bedding to increase in temperature and possibly dry out.
The process of vermicomposting isn’t as complicated as you may believe. But there are definitely some things that need to be considered. Worms should not be just dumped on top. Instead, dig a hole a few inches down, carefully spread out worms, and then cover them with dirt and food wastes. You should also place some bedding on top of that, in order to keep everything moist and protected.
There are no set-in-stone rules when deciding when the vermicompost is ready for harvest. The time frame can be anywhere between 6-9 weeks, depending on the amount of worms, worm productivity, the amount and type of food wastes, and the environment of the bin. Although deciding on a perfect harvest time is not possible, it is generally about the time that all of the food wastes has been turned into compost. Harvesting itself can be a tricky process for most, especially if it is your first time doing so. There are a few different ways to do this, and no way is deemed best. The key is trying to separate the vermicompost from the worms, without harming either. When doing this, it pays to take your time and be as careful as possible. Not only are you trying to remove as many worms as you can, but you will also be trying to gather up the many worm eggs that are also in the compost.
For those looking to create a high quality, organic fertilizer, learning how to compost at home can be exactly what they are need. Why risk purchasing a fertilizer from a store that could potentially have chemicals or may be lacking in nutrients? Like my grandfather, you may find that it is more rewarding to have the peace of mind in knowing that you are creating the best fertilizer yourself. Those that are interested in vermicomposting are fortunate to have a plethora of tools and resources available to them. With so many different factors that can influence the quality of your resulting compost, you may be a little daunted by the process. Rest assured that with the proper knowledge and equipment, vermicomposting will become easier each time it is perfomed.
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