Let Worms Do The Work

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Oh, my aching muscles...

By M.L. Dehm
Late summer can be a quiet time for the gardener. Major spring projects are done and the fall projects are still ahead. There’s not a lot to do now except maintain, mow lawns, dead head flowers and persist in the ongoing battle of the slug. If you’re finding yourself in need of a new summer enthusiasm, why not give worm composting a try?

Easier than a regular compost pile that you would have to turn, worms can turn your scraps into super compost in a relatively short period of time. It’s an old idea that’s gaining new popularity. And worm bins are super easy to make, even for those of us with little skill. An ordinary plastic garbage can or a sturdy tote container can be transformed into a worm bin in less than half an hour.

Simply use a drill to make many air and drainage holes on the sides. (This is easiest if you have the lid on and someone holding the can for you. ) If you’re going to be leaving your bin in one place outside and not moving it, the best drainage is accomplished by removing the bottom of the container entirely. (Use a keyhole saw.) This will also enable you to harvest from underneath the container by pushing it to one side. Worm bins can also be made from recycled ice chests, large flower pots or old cold frames.
Use your imagination. The secret is to provide lots of air and drainage but make sure it is secure enough to keep out pesky birds looking for a free meal. If you’re a whiz with a hammer you might consider building a worm bin from lumber. Plans can be found from many county extension agents, nurseries and books.

When filling the bin you need to be sure your worms will have a varied diet and somewhere pleasant to live. You can use alternating layers of garden waste and bedding media or you can sink pockets of vegetable matter into the bedding media. Both methods seem to work equally well.

The bedding material will be where the worms spend their nonproductive moments. Good choices include garden soil, ground leaves, finely shredded damp newspaper, heavy sawdust or wood shavings. It is important to keep the bedding to vegetable waste ratio at 50:50. Your worm bedding needs to be uniformly damp when applied and should be kept at even moisture. A damp piece of carpet or burlap can help.

The best worm for composting is the red wriggler. Nightcrawlers are not as effective. You can purchase compost worms at a growing number of garden centers. One pound of worms should be sufficient for the size of bin discussed here.

The rules for worm bin composting are similar other composting  methods. Meat, milk products and oil should not be composted. Dog and cat waste should be excluded. A layer of garden soil or bedding material over the top surface of the bedding  will help keep out fruit flies. A smelly bin usually indicates insufficient drainage or an imbalance in the bedding to scraps ratio. Take care when adding grass clippings. Very thin layers work best.
When you judge the time is right to harvest your compost, you can use the compost, worms and all, or you can save the worms for the next batch. To do this, remove the compost in small heaps to a flat surface in bright light. The worms move to the center of the heap to avoid the light allowing you to scrape the finished compost off the outside. What you are harvesting is super compost, enriched with worm castings and you didn’t have to lift a spade!

NWGN Archive published September 1998

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