Casting Call: Just Add Worms for Great Compost
Q: Do you know anyone who can help me get started with vermiculture, and who sells the right types of worms for various gardens? And do you recommend worms in raised beds and/or container gardens?
While a lot of folks may not even know what vermiculture is, I can’t imagine growing anything without earthworms, which are the subterranean workhorses of the garden! In fact, everything I do for my soil is aimed towards keeping my earthworms healthy, and in turn they make my garden soil grow the best plants.
By using shredded leaves and bark mulch, and sticking with natural fertilizers, I am helping the earthworms help my plants. After eating the leaves and mulch, they spread their nutrient-rich manure (called “castings”) throughout the soil. And their burrows create perfect pathways for water, air, nutrients and new roots.
Worms in the Compost
As I add new material to my compost bin, I always throw a shovelful or two of old compost into the mix, which adds not only the beneficial bacteria that get things started by breaking stuff down, but also a few worms which finish the job by churning it all up.
I also add a light dusting of cottonseed meal, which is a safe, organic cotton processing byproduct used in many foods, and as a cattle feed supplement, because of its high protein content. It’s perfect for compost piles because it is very high in natural nitrogen, which helps the compost bacteria work faster, as well as providing the protein that bulks up my earthworms to work better. Cottonseed meal can be found through organic gardening suppliers.
Hardcore Worm Farming
This is creepy to some folks, but you can also “grow” worms and make compost indoors in a covered box filled with moist, shredded newspaper and small amounts of kitchen scraps. The worms eat it all and turn it into some of the richest fertilizer on earth. If you do it right, there should be no odor at all, other than the smell of wet paper.
There are special vermicompost boxes available, with screens and a drain for the excess liquid (which in itself is super for using on potted plants). But I grow my worms in a big, inexpensive plastic sweater box with a tight fitting lid that has had some small air vents cut in the top and upper sides.
A Little How-To
Most indoor vermicomposters use “red wriggler” worms (Eisenia fetida). These small tropical worms are much better suited for indoor temperatures, and consume more and produce faster than larger, slower outdoor earthworms. You can buy red wriggler worms by the pound from many suppliers; find them through a simple Internet search.
The regular black and white sections of newspapers (most of which use a harmless soy-based ink, safe for worms and compost) can be torn top to bottom into narrow strips. Soak them in water for a few minutes and let them drain before adding to your bin. Then bury a handful or two of chopped vegetable and fruit scraps, plus a small amount of coffee grounds if you have them, and add your worms. The kitchen scraps add additional moisture to the mix.
Add the worms, and feed them additional kitchen scraps a little at a time. If the bin gets too wet, drain out the excess moisture and use as a fertilizer “tea” for potted plants. And be sure to keep the bin covered or worms may crawl out at night when the lights are off.
One special addition: Worms need “grit” for digestion, and calcium for laying egg cocoons. Help them on both counts by adding some finely-chopped eggshells. Putting them in a blender with a little water makes this job easier.
Harvest the vermicompost by exposing it and shining a bright light on it, which drives the worms deep so you can scoop off a layer at a time.
Again, this is creepy to some folks, but it is an interesting, ecologically correct, and highly productive hobby to many gardeners who appreciate how worms can eat their garbage and turn it into super rich compost and fertilizer.
Get more growing advice from gardening expert and certified with Felder Rushing at www.slowgardening.net