Worm Composting

Composting at Home With Earthworms.

Earthworms are the champion composters of nature! Earthworm compost (also called "vermi-compost") is more nutritious than regular compost. In addition to well balanced plant nutrients, worm compost has powerful plant growth hormones and organic compounds that accelerate plant growth. And earthworms make it very easy to compost indoors or on a balcony with no smells or mess.

To start earthworm composting, get a 10-30 liter bucket with a lid and (just like in the sawdust method), drill 30-40 small holes in the lid. The holes should be about 1mm in diameter (small enough so flies can't get in). You can also paint the bucket and lid black because worms like the dark! Then get about 50 to 100 earthworms.

If you live in India, you want to a get a species of earthworm that is a top feeder ("epigeic") rather than feeds deep in the soil. Perionyx excavatus, Eisenia fetida, Eudrilus eugeniae and Lampito mauritii are species suitable for composting. Eisenia fetida is especially good for composting. Ask around in your community for someone who can sell you the worms. Your local agricultural university will also know where to get earthworms for composting; just give them a call.

Here's a way to collect your own earthworms:
worm casting on soil surface
Identify worm-inhabited soils marked by visible earthworm castings on the soil surface (the soil needs to be organic and healthy and free of chemical pesticides and herbicides). Dissolve about 500 grams of jaggery (native sugar) or molasses and 500gm fresh cow dung in 20 litres of water. Sprinkle on an area 1meter x 1meter. Cover with some straw. Leave the cow dung lumps and cover with an old gunny (burlap) bag. Keep watering for about 20 to 30 days. A combination of epigeic (top feeding) and anecic native worms will aggregate here that can be collected and used.

If you live elsewhere, ask around or look on the internet to get some starter worms. Remember, you want to get a "top feeding" species of worm. In North America, Europe and elsewhere, some good top feeder species are Eisenia feotida (aka "red wigglers"), Amynthas gracilus and Perionyx excavatus. Eisenia feotida is a common species of worm that's great for vermi-composting.

Put some shredded, moist newspaper and chopped dry leaves in the bottom. Then gently add the worms and cover them with shredded leaves or paper and some water so they're moist. Don't use too much water! The worm soil should be a moist. Not too dry or wet.

view inside worm bucket

Don't over feed the worms, especially at the beginning. Worms love chopped fruit peels, vegetable peels, tea and coffee grounds. The smaller the peels are chopped, the easier the worms can eat them. Don't feed them meat, oily, spicy or citrus foods. A few pieces of orange or lemon peel is OK. You can feed the worms watery food if you add some sawdust or shredded paper to the watery food.

Its good to bury the food waste a little when you feed your worms. If you put the food only on the top, it may get moldy. The mold doesn't bother worms (they just eat the mold) but the mold may create smells or cause sneezing. If you see any mold, just mix it into the soil. Its OK to use your bare hands when you feed the worms. That will help you feel directly if the soil is too wet or too dry.

Once every 4 -6 days you need to gently dig down all the way to the bottom of the bucket and check the moisture. The moisture will naturally flow to the bottom. If the bottom gets too wet, that can create problems and make the whole bucket go sour. If the bottom is too wet, add some dry sawdust or lots of shredded paper to the bottom. You can also lift the wet compost on the bottom to the top. A bucket that's too wet is one of the main reasons why bucket worm composting fails. So please closely monitor the moisture level! Also, if the bottom is too dry, just sprinkle a little water on top.

Avoid feeding the worms spoiled food or food that has become moldy or rotten. There's a chance that the spoiled food will spoil the worm bin and harm the worms. Don't give the worms any food that smells bad.

Make sure the worm bucket is never in direct sunlight or in a hot room. The worms prefer a slightly cool environment. Too much heat will kill the worms! The ideal temperature for earthworms is about 13C to 27C. Also keep the worm bin out of the rain. If the worms have a good environment with the right amount of food and moisture, they will breed rapidly. As their numbers increase, you can feed them more. Also put the bin in a place where young children or dogs won't knock it over.

To harvest the worm compost, let it sit for about a week or two without any feeding. Then bring the bucket outside to the light or under a bright light. The worms don't like light and will burrow under the soil. As they do, just scape off the top layer and put it in a separate bucket. Keep doing this until you have harvested most of the worm compost. Leave some worm compost in the bottom for the worms. If you have a lot of worms left, you can take half of them to make a new worm bin. Or you can sell some of them, put some in the soil of a garden or give them to a friend for their own worm bin or garden.

potting soil mix

Use no more than 20% worm compost when mixing it with potting soil. A good recipe for potting soil is about 60% sand (must be sand with no salt), 25% red clay soil and 15% vermi-compost. Mix well and this will be great for seedlings and potted plants.

All the worm compost needs to be harvested about every 4-5 months. If you wait longer between full harvests, the worm compost will get too old and become slimy and unhealthy for the worms. If the worm compost starts to feel slimy, that definitely means it's time to harvest all of it, clean out the worm bin and start the process all over again. It's fine to reuse the worms.

vermi ring around stem

To nourish and fertilize a grown plant, just put a ring of vermi-compost on the soil near the main stem. The water the vermi-compost. Do this about every 3-4 weeks. The nutrients will soak into the soil and keep the plant (and surrounding soil) healthy. Notice that not much vermi-compost is needed. A little vermi-compost goes a long way so don't use too much.

One easy way to harvest the worms is to "bait" them. Take a papaya peel, watermelon rind or something like that and put it wet side down onto the worm bed. The worms will soon come up and start feeding on the wet fruit left on the peel. After 24 hours or so you lift up the peel and you should see lots of worms there! You can harvest the worms to start a new worm bin. Also it's easier to harvest the worm compost when there are less worms inside.

Remember that one bucket of worms will probably not be enough to handle all your food waste. To handle all your food waste, you can purchase larger worms bins and multiple worm bins. Just do a search on the internet for different size worms bins. And its easy to make your own worm buckets using the method I describe above.

Don't be nervous or scared to touch the worms. They have no teeth and they don't bite! The more you realize how wonderful the worms are for healthy soil, the more you will appreciate them and marvel at how much they benefit the earth. I could write many pages here describing all the good things worms do for the soil and the environment.

Here are some links for worm composting. It is recommended to read these websites to learn even more details about worm composting. The more you learn the happier your worms will be!

http://www.savvygardener.com/Features/worm_composting.html. Good guide to start worm composting.

http://www.cityfarmer.org/wormcomp61.html. Excellent guide to worm composting with lots of links.

http://www.redwormcomposting.com/. A very complete guide to doing outdoor worm composting with tips on how to keep the worms active in colder weather.

http://urbanext.illinois.edu/worms/. This is a great educational website about earthworms and how they benefit the environment.

http://www.erfindia.org. This is a great website that explains worm composting in India and shows different worm compost techniques.

Another way to learn more is to search in your area for a neighbor or local organic farmer who is already doing worm composting. Look at what they're doing and ask questions! They can show you how easy it is and how good it feels to live in harmony with nature.