Earthworms & Vermicomposting

Earthworms & Vermicomposting

In the animal kingdom, earthworms are the kings of composting. They simply eat all of the kitchen scrapes and garden waste that we give to them and excrete an amazingly rich form of compost and fertilizer as their “castings”. Today we are going to talk about Earthworms & Vermicomposting

In addition to building a compost heap to process massive quantities of plant waste and animal manures, building a worm bin is the next best addition to your garden.

¿What is the vermicomposting?

Vermicomposting, or vermiculture, is the process of creating a comfortable home for earthworms; feeding them judiciously with rich succulent food, like kitchen waste; and harvesting the nutrient rich castings and liquid (worm juice) that they produce. Containing water-soluble nutrients and bacteria, earthworm castings, also known as vermicast, are perhaps the richest organic fertilizer and soil conditioner available.

 

Vermicomposting is the easiest way to recycle food wastes and avoids the needless loss of vegetative food nutrients to the landfill or municipal dump. It is relatively easy, requires a simple setup and maintenance, can be employed indoors and out. Composting with earthworms is ideal for those who do not have the space or need for an ordinary outdoor compost pile. A small worm bin can be placed in your house or apartment, as well as in the garage, backyard, or garden.

 

Vermicompost contains not only earthworm castings, but also bedding materials and organic wastes at various stages of decomposition. It also contains worms at various stages of development and other microorganisms associated with the composting processing. A worm bin is a community of hundreds or thousands of small but mighty soil builders.

 

Only a few things are needed to make good worm compost: a bin, bedding, earthworms, moisture, and a constant source of food.

 

Benefits of vermicomposting

Earthworms are accountable for a variety of soil elements including the amount of air and water that travels into soil.

They break down organic matter and when they eat, they leave behind excrement that is an exceptionally valuable type of fertilizer. Worms, by simply eating, excreting, and living turn common garden soil into soil of superior quality.

 

Vermicompost soil benefits:

  • Increases soil fertility. Earthworm castings in the home garden often contain far more nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium than the surrounding soil.
  • Secretions from the intestinal tracts of earthworms, along with soil passing through the earthworms, make nutrients more concentrated and available for plant uptake, including micronutrients, such as calcium, zinc and boron.
  • Burrowing earthworms increase soil aeration and water transport. Worm castings when mixed with garden soil create better texture and soil-enhancing properties including increased porosity, aeration, and drainage.
  • Enriches soil with micro-organisms, adding enzymes such as phophatase and celluase, and plant hormones such as auxins and gibberellic acid.
  • Earthworms stimulate microbial decomposition and improve soil structure by encouraging aggregation of particles. Microbial secretions and growth of fungal hyphae stabilize the worm castings. Microbial activity in earthworm castings is 10 to 20 times higher than in the soil and organic matter that the earthworm ingests.
  • Improves water holding capacity. Worm-worked soil is relatively water-stable and will resist soil compaction and run-off due to rains.
  • Vermicompost offers plants disease-fighting properties; lower anaerobic rotting odors; and enhanced microbial activity. Harmful organisms such as Salmonella bacteria are destroyed at a higher rate.
  • Attracts deep-burrowing earthworms already present in the soil.
  • Earthworm activity decreases the amount of heavy metals present in the soil.

 

Experiments have shown that as earthworms ingest soil particles they absorb heavy metals in their gut, decreasing bio-available metals between 35 percent and 55 percent in two months.

 

Plant Growth:

  • Enhances rates of seed germination. The germination rate was 65 to 70 percent higher in controlled treatments with earthworm compost as compared with soil that

had no earthworms.

  • Increased availability of soil nutrients results in superior plant growth and crop yields.
  • Improves structure and growth of plant roots.
  • Reduces transplant shock.

 

Environmental benefits:

  • Reduces the waste stream by recycling food waste, and closes the energy/nutrient loop when used to grow food crops.
  • Reduces contamination of other recyclable materials collected in conjunction with food waste.
  • Production reduces greenhouse gas emissions such as methane and nitric oxide, which are produced in landfills and waste incinerators.
  • Reduces fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions required by transport of food wastes since waste products are consumed on-site.

 

Economic benefits:

  • Conversion bio-wastes to saleable products creates new business opportunities.
  • Creates low-skill jobs at local level.
  • Low capital investment and relatively simple technologies make vermicomposting practical for less-developed agricultural regions.

 

Uses of vermicompost

In addition to improving garden soil in general, vermicompost has a number of specific and specialized uses in the garden. Earthworm compost is more concentrated than most other composts so use it sparingly for best results.Vermicompost can be mixed directly into the soil, or leached in water and made into a worm “tea” by mixing some vermicompost in water and steeping for a few days. The microbial activity of the compost is greater if it is aerated during this period, but mixing it with air using an aquarium or fountain pump. The resulting liquid is used as a fertilizer or sprayed on the plants.

 

  • The dark brown waste liquid leachate, or worm “juice”, that drains into the bottom of most worm bins, can be applied back to the bin when added moisture is needed, or it can be made into a very rich “tea” for watering fertilizing, or foliar feeding. Since it is very strong, it MUST be diluted before use.
  • The pH, nutrient, and microbial content of these fertilizers varies upon the inputs fed to earthworms, but tends to be acidic. Test the acidity with a litmus paper and add lime to adjust the pH within a range of 6.0 to 7.0.
  • Vermicompost can be used in potting soil mixes. For healthy seedlings, mix one part worm compost with three parts potting mix, or three parts sand and soil combined, or equal parts of peat moss, Perlite and earthworm castings.
  • In the garden mix earthworm compost into the bottom of seeding trenches or transplanting holes.
  • Earthworm castings can be used as a top dressing for house plants. Lay a thin layer around the plant stem covering the surface of your potting soil. Each time you water the nutrients will percolate into the plant roots.
  • Vermicompost also makes an excellent mulch and soil conditioner for the home garden. Apply a one-inch layer to the soil around plants. Be sure not to pile it against plant stems.
  • To amend soil, earthworm compost can be spread one-half to two inches thick over garden soil and mixed in before planting.
  • Worm juice tea is an excellent booster for seedlings, and young transplants.
  • Earthworm casting and worm juice teas are superior foliar feeds.

 

Types of earthworms

The best earthworms to use are Red Wigglers, also called brandling worms (Eisenia Foetida or Eisenia Andrei), or European Nightcrawlers (Eisenia Hortensis). The three species are completely compatible with each other and can coexist nicely in the same worm bin.

 

These earthworms are commonly found in organic-rich soils throughout Europe and parts of North America and live in rotting vegetation and manures. As they are shallow-dwelling and feed on decomposing plant matter in the soil, they adapt easily to living on food or plant waste in the confines of a worm bin. They will eat up to three times their body weight in food scraps per day.

 

Do not attempt to use Canadian Nightcrawlers (Lumbricus terrestris) or the common fieldworm (Allolobophora caliginosa), the types found throughout North America, because they are essentially vagabonds by nature and do better in open spaces with lower density populations.

 

Climate & tempurature

The most common types of earthworms used in vermicomposting feed most rapidly at temperatures of 59-77°F. They can survive down to around 50°F, but temperatures above 86°F may harm them. This means that indoor vermiculture with redworms is suitable in all but tropical climates. If a worm bin is kept outside, it should be placed in a sheltered position away from direct sunlight and insulated against frost in winter.

 

It is a good idea to monitor the temperatures of worm bins, especially in large-scale bin systems, which can have high heat retention qualities, causing the decaying worm food to compost instead, further heating up the bins and killing the earthworms.

 

Feeding your earthworms

The beauty of worm composting is that it is an easy to dispose of a variety of food wastes, which in turn provide you with a valuable and healthy fertilizer and soil conditioner. Earthworms will consume almost everything you feed them as long as you feed it to them at a rate they can easily consume. The word, almost, is important because while they can eat much they can’t consume absolute everything. Some food wastes are too harsh for them or cannot be digested at all.

 

What Earthworms Love: The list is long and really does include nearly everything. Here are the general rules:

GREEN MATERIAL

  • Almost all fruits and vegetables (with the exceptions listed below)
  • Vegetable and fruit peels and ends (cut into thumb-sized pieces for faster

composting)

  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Tea bags (even those with high tannin levels)
  • Grains such as bread, cracker and cereal (including moldy and stale items)
  • Eggshells (rinsed and crushed)Non-Greasy Leftovers

 

BROWN MATERIAL (Bedding Materials)

  • Leaves, dead plants, and trimmings from the garden (shredded or chopped)
  • Grass clippings (dry)
  • Newspapers and Brown Bags (shredded)
  • Straw (chopped or shredded)Compost (dry)

 

What Earthworms Don’t Love: There are just a few things to avoid feeding your worms:All citrus fruits:

These are often too acidic for the soft bodies of earthworms.

  • Meat scraps: They will usually putrefy before they can be consumed by the worms. They also attract vermin such as flies, maggots, rats, mice, skunks, and raccoons.
  • Dairy products: Like meat dairy products will spoil well before the worms can eat them. These are sure to bring in lots of unwanted visitors.
  • Sticks or woody materials. (Worms don’t have teeth and these are too tough for soft-bodied creatures to digest.)

 

Composting containers

For vermicomposting at home, you have a wide choice of materials, each with its advantages and disadvantages.

They may be made of old plastic containers, wood, polystyrene, or metal containers.

The design of a small bin usually depends on size, where the bin will reside (indoors or outdoors), and how the earthworms are to be fed. In addition there are a number of commercially available worm bins, most made from a plastic product.

 

Some materials are less desirable than others in worm bin construction. Some wood products like cedar and redwood, while rot resistant, contain resinous oils that may harm earthworms. Other wood products are inexpensive, but will absorb moisture and odors, but will eventually decay and need to be replaced.

 

Metal containers often conduct heat too readily, are prone to rusting, and may release heavy metals into the vermicompost. Worm compost bins made from recycled or semi-recycled plastic are ideal, but require more drainage than wooden ones because they are non-absorbent. This is why most commercial worm bins are plastic.

 

 A few good worm bins

 

The Worm Bucket:

A simple and inexpensive way to get started is to install a worm bucket in your garden. This consists of a five gallon plastic bucket buried in your garden with the lid exposed so you can add kitchen waste.

one pound earthworms

Drill holes in the sides so the earthworms can enter and exit the bucket at will; you’ll have truly free range earthworms. Since the earthworms will work the soil to a 5-8 foot radius around your worm bucket, one or two bucket is suitable for a small garden. Red Wigglers and European Nightcrawlers will stay in the area of the bucket and keep coming back for more kitchen scraps.

 

 

  1. Obtain one-half to 1 pound of Red Wigglers or European Nightcrawlers. You get about 1000 worms per pound. They cost about $25 to $50 per pound, depending on the source, and can be purchased over the Internet.
  2. They ship well and will generally show up at your home in good shape. If you can’t start them in a worm bucket right away, make sure that you keep them moist (but not wet) and store them in a cool place. You can keep them in the refrigerator for a couple of days, but it is best to start them in your bucket as soon as possible.
  3. Take about one-half pound of your best garden soil mixed with one-half pound of compost. You can also use one-half pound of coir (ground coconut husks). It is usually sold in bricks and you can get it at hydroponic supply stores. Although the use of coir is not considered an organic best practice for widespread use in the garden, you will use very small quantities and it will be composted immediately by your worms.
  4. Get a 5 gallon plastic bucket. You can use a well washed paint bucket, but an excellent alternative is to ask your local restaurant for extra buckets, since many of them receive pickles, barbeque sauce, etc, in 5 gallon buckets AND they are food grade.
  5. Acquire some old newspapers.
  6. Drill (32) to (64) 3/8″ holes in it in the bucket spaced at regular intervals. Drill plenty of holes in the sides and if you live in an area where you get torrential rains, drill some in the bottom. If you choose not to drill holes in the bottom, make sure that there are side holes near the bottom to keep any excess water from accumulating, say about 1/2″ from the bottom. This is so the bucket will retain some moisture, but not flood if it really rains hard.
  7. Drill some holes in the lid too, but not too many. This lets air circulate, so it doesn’t get too hot and also lets some rain in but not too much. You may need to experiment a little with this. Typically (4) 3/8″ holes are enough.
  8. Start with about one-half pound of the soil/compost mix. You can add more if there are too many bare earthworms showing after you put them in. (Alternately, use one-half pound of coir.)

In a separate bucket, add the soil/compost mix and an equal amount of dry shredded newspaper. Add water until the newspaper is wet, and the soil/compost is very moist.

Squeeze or press out any excess water. If you are using coir, soak it in water for two hours, add an equal amount of shredded newspaper and squeeze out the excess water. Make sure that you break up the coir block. This will form the bedding material for your worms.

Add the moist bedding material to the worm bucket. The mixture should not be dripping wet.

Put your earthworms in the bucket. Don’t use much more than 1 pound of worms because they will multiply and you want to leave a little room for this.  One-half to 1 pound is plenty.

Dig a hole in the center of the area of the garden that you want worked. In small gardens, dig a hole in the center of the garden. Bury the bucket 90% of the way in the hole so that the top 10% sticks out. Fill soil in around the bucket and lightly pack it place. The worms within the bucket will work the soil surrounding the bucket. They will NOT eat the roots of your plants so you can plant right up to the edge of the bucket.

As often as you like, put vegetable based food scraps in the bucket. It is best to start out slowly, but after a few weeks the earthworms will eat about 1/4 a bucket full of food scraps each day or two. After your worm bucket is established, it is OK to fill the entire bucket up with vegetable waste. You will be amazed at how fast your worms process it. They will migrate out the holes and into the garden, but will generally return to the bucket for more vegetable scraps.

Check periodically for moisture content. Be careful not to let the bucket get too wet or dry. Moist/damp is good. Worms are happy with a range of just a little moisture to fairly wet. If the bucket gets too wet, they will drown.

After about 2 to 3 months, check the depth of the worm castings in the bottom of the bucket. When they get around 5 inches deep, it is time to remove them. Get another bucket with a little bit of moist soil in it to temporarily house the worms. Gently lift the worms and castings out of the bucket and place them on a large flat surface.

Separate the castings from the worms and place the worms in the second bucket, keeping them covered as much as possible to avoid sunlight. Look for light-colored small football shaped grains within the castings. These are worm eggs. Try and return as many of these as you can to the worms you separated.

When you are done, return the worms to the original bucket. Make sure that the worms have sufficient bedding material so they can hide under the surface. Add a bit more soil if too many worms stick out.

Continue feeding scraps to your earthworms. And the cycle continues.

After a week or two after you get started, the worms will really catch their stride and seriously start processing lots of waste. You may also notice furrows emanating radially out from the bucket showing where some of the earthworms have worked the soil.

You can check you worm population by gently reaching into the bottom of the bucket and lifting a handful of earthworms and worm castings out.

You should see worms of all different sizes. Red wigglers rarely get more than a couple inches long. You can tell they are at a reproductive stage by the telltale “cigar band” around them of a lighter color.

You really shouldn’t have to add more worms; in fact you will probably notice the opposite. After a month to two, the worms in your worm bucket should double in quantity.

You can split them into different colonies and start more worm buckets or give them to a friend to spread the goodwill. Either way, you worms should stay happy as long as you keep them fed, keep them moist and observe the rules below.

 

The rules for your worm bucket:

 

  • Feed them as described above
  • Keep the worm bucket moist but don’t let it get sopping wet or your worms willdrown.
  • Don’t let ants form an ant hill near the bucket. They consider worms a gourmet meal and will quickly decimate you worm population.
  • Don’t let castings pile up forever. Instead, remove them periodically for a healthier worm population.

 

Despite these rules, keeping your worms happy is fairly simple and does not require a lot of work. A good idea is to split your worms into other separate colonies once when you get a chance. That way, if one colony has a problem, you don’t have to buy more worms to re-establish it.

 

Paired Plastic Boxes:

This is a simple system made from easily available off-the-shelf products: a couple of storage bins, a lid, and some blocks. This rectangular worm bin is easy to put together and maintain, can come in a number of different (as long as it is big enough to house the worms), and is ideal for indoor vermiculture.

 

Obtain one-half to 1 pound of Red Wigglers or European Nightcrawlers. You get about 1000 worms per pound. They cost about $25 to $50 per pound, depending on the source, and can be purchased over the Internet. They ship well and will generally show up at your home in good shape.

If you cant start them in a worm bin right away, make sure that you keep them moist (but not wet) and store them in a cool place. You can keep them in the refrigerator for a couple of days, but it is best to start them in your bucket as soon as possible.

Take about one-half pound of your best garden soil mixed with one-half pound of compost. You can also use one-half lb. of coir (ground coconut husks). It is usually sold in bricks and you can get it at hydroponic supply stores. Although the use of coir is not considered an organic best practice for widespread use in the garden, you will use very small quantities and it will be composted immediately by your worms.

You’ll need two identical plastic storage containers, one close-fitting lid designed for the container, and four bricks or blocks. Your bin needs to be only 8 to 16 inches deep, since compost worms are surface feeders. A standard 53 liter storage “box” is ideal.

Acquire some old newspapers.

Drill (32) to (64) 3/8″ holes in it in one the bins spaced at regular intervals. Drill plenty of holes in the sides and some in the bottom. This is going to be the inner bin in which the worms will live.

Locate the undrilled bin where you plan on keeping the worm bins. This is the outer bin which will catch any drips from the inner worm-housing bin. Place the four bricks in the corners of the bottom of the bin, then place the drilled inner bin inside the outer bin. Even though the two bins are nested, the bricks should allow good air circulation around the inner bin.

Start with about one-half pound of the soil/compost mix. You can add more if there are too many bare worms showing after you put them in. (Alternately, use one-half lb. of coir.)

In a bucket, add the soil/compost mix and an equal amount of dry shredded newspaper. Add water until the newspaper is wet, and the soil/compost is very moist. Squeeze or press out any excess water. If you are using coir, soak it in water for two hours, add an equal amount of shredded newspaper and squeeze out the excess water. Make sure that you break up the coir block. This will form the bedding material for your worms.

Add the moist bedding material to the inner worm bin. The mixture should not be dripping wet.

Put your worms in the bin. Don’t use much more than 1 pound of worms because they will multiply and you want to leave a little room for this. One-half to 1 pound is plenty.

Snap the lid onto the inner and your worm bin is complete.

As often as you like, put vegetable based food scraps in the bucket. It is best to start out slowly, but after a few weeks the worms will eat about 1/4 a bin full of food scraps each day or two. After your worm bin is established, it is OK to fill the entire bin up with vegetable waste. You will be amazed at how fast your worms process it

Check periodically for moisture content. Be careful not to let the bucket get too wet or dry. Moist/damp is good. Worms are happy with a range of just a little moisture to fairly wet. If the bin gets too wet, they will drown.

After about 2 to 3 months, check the depth of the worm castings in the bottom of the bin. When they get around 5 inches deep, it is time to remove them. Push all of the castings and bedding to one half of the bin. Add some fresh, moist bedding and some food scraps in the other half. Wait a week.

The worms should have migrated to the new bedding. Skim off the castings and sort out any worm eggs, returning as many as possible to the worm bin. Look for light-colored small football shaped grains. These are the eggs.

Continue feeding scraps to your worms. And the cycle continues.

After a week or two after you get started, the worms will really catch their stride and seriously start processing lots of waste. You can check you worm population by gently reaching into the bottom of the bin and lifting a handful of worms and worm castings out.

You should see worms of all different sizes. Red wigglers rarely get more than a couple inches long. You can tell they are at a reproductive stage by the telltale “cigar band” around them of a lighter color.

 

You really shouldn’t have to add more worms; in fact you will probably notice the opposite. After a month to two, the worms in your worm bin should double in quantity. You can split them into different colonies and start more worm bins or give them to a friend to spread the goodwill. Either way, you worms should stay happy as long as you keep them fed, keep them moist and observe the rules below.

 

The rules for your worm bin:

 

  • Feed them as described above
  • Keep the worm bucket moist but don’t let it get sopping wet or your worms will drown.
  • Don’t let castings pile up forever. Instead, remove them periodically for a healthier worm population.

 

Despite these rules, keeping your worms happy is fairly simple and does not require a lot of work. A good idea is to split your worms into other separate colonies once when you get a chance. That way, if one colony has a problem, you don’t have to buy more worms to re-establish it.

 

The Wooden Bin:

If you are experienced in rough carpentry or handy with wood-working tools, you might like to build this wooden compost bin.

 

Troubleshooting

 

Smells:

A well-maintained bin should be odorless with the lid closed. When opened, there should be little smell. If any, the smell should be earthy, like damp soil. If your bin smells rotten and/or attracts flies, it is likely caused by one of four things:

 

  • There is not enough air circulation. Add new dry bedding at the bottom and on top of the existing bedding. Do not feed the worms for around a week to allow all the food scraps to be processed.
  • There is un-compostable material in the bin, such as meat, dairy products, or greasy food scraps. Also, you may have added food scraps that are too large or too hard, and have putrefied. Check the bedding and remove the offending items.
  • There are exposed food scraps in the bin. Check the bin. If there any exposed scraps put them under the existing bedding or add new bedding on top to cover them.
  • There is too much food waste in the bin. If you place too much in the bin at one time, the worms cannot process it all before it begins to rot. If you have an ammonia-like smell, this is your problem. Reduce the amount in the bin. Monitor the situation. When the worms have eaten all the food waste, only then should you judiciously add more food scraps to the bin.

 

Excess Moisture or Waste “Water”:

If there appears to be too much moisture or excess waste “water” is dripping or draining from the bin. decomposition has become anaerobic. To restore healthy conditions and prevent the worms from dying, the bin returned to a normal moisture levels.

 

  • First remove the smelly, drain all excess waste “water” (It is water-based but it isn’t really water any more).
  • Then reduce existing food scraps with high moisture content.
  • Add fresh, dry bedding such as shredded newspaper to your bin, mixing it in well.
  • Add newer very moist food waste in small, judicious amounts, monitoring the progress of their decomposition. Your bins will soon get back in balance.

 

Worms Escaping:

Having worms escape is one of the most feared outcomes for many new vermi-composters. Worms generally stay in the bin, but may try to leave the bin when first introduced, or often after a rainstorm when outside humidity is high. To eliminate this problem when worms are first introduced to this bin:

 

  • Maintain proper temperatures and moistures conditions within the worm bin.
  • Put a light or lamp over the bin.

 

Worms Dying:

If your worms are dying there could be several causes:

 

  • They are not getting enough food; you should bury more food into the bedding.
  • They may be too dry; you should moisten the box until it is slightly damp.
  • They may be too wet; you should add bedding.
  • The worms may be too hot; you should put the bin in a cooler location.
  • The bedding has completely decomposed; it’s time to add fresh bedding.

 

Pests:

Pests such as rodents and flies are attracted by certain materials and odors, usually from large amounts of kitchen waste, particularly meat.

 

  • Eliminate the use of meat or dairy product in your worm bin.
  • Thoroughly cover the food waste by at least 2 inches of bedding. In warm weather, fruit and vinegar flies breed in the bins if fruit and vegetable waste is not thoroughly covered with bedding.
  • Maintain the correct pH (6.0 to 7.0) and water content of the bin (just enough waterwhere squeezed bedding drips a couple of drops) can help avoid these pests as well.

 

Nutrient levels

Because the small-scale and home systems use a varied mix of feedstocks, the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus content of the resulting vermicompost will also be inconsistent from batch to batch. However, commercial vermicomposting operators test and amend their products to produce consistent quality and results.

NPK testing may be helpful before the vermicompost or tea is applied to the garden. In order to avoid over-fertilization issues, such as nitrogen burn, vermicompost should be diluted 50:50 with water to make a tea, or as a solid can be mixed in 50:50 with soil.