Sunday, March 28, 2010

Uneeda Worm Bin

Thanks to my friend Ruth for asking about my worm farm. It made me realize I had never posted a report for would-be worm wranglers.

Your task is to create a warm and fuzzy place for a colony of red wigglers to live somewhere in your abode. Unless you live in a place that never freezes, you're best bet is to find an out-of-the-way space indoors for your colony. Ours live in the spare room.

You can name them if you want. But you're going to need a lot of names. And I have to admit I sure as hell can't tell them apart.

They make pretty good pets. They don't bark, they don't bite and they don't generate massive veterinarian bills. Not too cuddly, I'll admit. And they poop a lot. But that's the whole point of having them around.

Because worm poop makes the best compost. Period. And if it's compost you're after, worms turn kitchen scraps into rich, black soil faster than by any other method.

Red wigglers are a species of earthworm that are really good at processing organic material into compost (read, pooping.) they are cousins to the worms that live in your yard but not the same. And boy, do they eat. They eat shredded junk mail, egg cartons, tea bags and coffee filters, dead flowers - you name it. Anything that is or used to be a plant is pretty much fair game. They don't want meat or fat and will ignore bits of plastic that sneak in with the shredded junk mail. They'll eat eggshells but I've learned that you have to grind them practically into a powder first, so I've stopped putting them in the worm bin and instead they go to the regular compost pile.

You don't need a ton of money to get started. All you need is paper, some natural potting soil or peat moss and worms in a big Rubbermaid storage bin, a big bucket, an old bathtub, whatever. But I heartily recommend spending $100 or so on a bin system designed specifically for worms. With that, you'll have less work and less worm handling, as you use the worms' natural tendency to find food to move them from point A to B. With the storage bin farm, at some point you are going to have to dig into it and figure out a way to separate the worms from the compost, which can be a bit of chore and not so great if you'd rather avoid close encounters of the worm kind.

The other nice thing about the upward-migrating bin is a built in spigot allowing you to draw off "worm tea" to use as plant food.

First stop: Paul Coleman at His Can-o-Worms is an excellent upward-migrating type, however I found a different style for less here. Very similar to the Can-o-Worms but around $20 less. It also comes with a really good book. But Paul had the best price on worms when I was shopping for them.

Once I set up the bin, which took all of 45 minutes, I added the wormies and hoped for the best, assuming they would all meet their immediate doom at the hand of their clumsy master. I had little to worry about. As long as you keep them moist and relatively warm, they are happy little squirmies. Worms live an admirably simple life. All they want is food, water, dark and a place to poop.

At first I was worried they were not eating at all - but what's actually happening is the food has to rot in the bin first - it's the fuzzy slimy stuff they actually eat. Plus they don't really get cooking until they've reproduced a few generations and the population grows to match the food supply.

Odors have been no problem - the bins are designed to deal with that. Fruit flies are a PIA in the fall but there are ways to manage them. Keep one bin filled with only dry shredded paper as your top bin at all times. The flies have trouble getting through that and out into the world. The rest can be dealt with with the wand of a canister vacuum cleaner or a homemade fruit fly trap. It's not a year-round problem, only a few weeks in fall.

After a few months and when you've built a worm population in two or three sections, the worms will crawl up to the new food supply and the bottom bin will become almost worm free. When that happens, you get the payoff: pounds of the best compost you'll ever use. It's a 30-minute chore of dumping it out, relocating any stray worms back to the main bin and hosing it off to start fresh the next time you need a clean bin. At that point I also clean the worm tea drainage pan with a plastic putty knife - you add all that wet compost to the one you just dumped and then hose off the drainage pan. If you do it in a garden or flower bed, what you rinse off gets used as fertilizer there. It's enough of a mess to do it outside - kind of like re-potting plants. No big deal.

The only caveat is that they are not speed-demon eating machines. They can't process all our daily kitchen scraps. For that I think we'd need more than one worm bin going. So instead I just feed them what they need and toss the rest in our passive compost pile out in the yard.

Need more? The web has lots of guides and details - here's a good one.

And for more on worm tea for lawn feeding, Tukey's got the goods.

Now, get squirming.

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