Worms do what!?!

Yes, they eat our garbage! Worms transform our food scraps into rich, even-better-than-compost "vermicompost" — compost made by worms.


Compost bin in winter  ©Janet Allen
Outdoor "regular" compost bin in winter

The first question people ask is, "Why do you do it?" There are many reasons. It's fascinating and fun, but there are practical reasons as well. We have a garden and use the rich vermicompost to enrich the soil. We raise worms in order to recycle our food scraps into compost. Fishermen look at the process the other way around: they use their food scraps to produce worms to use as bait.

In the winter, it's an easy way to dispose of our food scraps without throwing them in the garbage or onto the frozen "regular" compost pile. Also, worms can handle food scraps that wouldn't typically be added to a suburban or urban compost pile — things such as cooked foods or leftover pizza—so we continue worm composting throughout the year. It complements our "regular" compost bins, which we now use mainly for yard wastes.

Worm composting has other advantages as well. People who have produced compost in an outdoor compost bin are familiar with the routine of turning the compost so it will process faster (although if you're patient, it's not absolutely necessary.) When you compost with worms, the worms do the work.

Worm composting also fills the bill for apartment-dwellers who may want to produce compost for their houseplants or even for the plants on their apartment's property. They also might just want to experience the fascinating process of transforming their food waste into rich compost — one of nature's miracles.

We think worm composting is fun, but it's more than a hobby. It's part of our stewardship of the earth. For us, it represents respect for natural processes and an appreciation of the need to care for the finite resources of the earth. Our 10 pounds of food scraps a week yields a yearly total of more than 500 pounds of material that is transformed into life-giving compost that enriches our soil instead of being added to landfills. That's a quarter of a ton a year, a ton every four years.

We started vermicomposting in the late 1990s, so this has been a part of our life for about 20 years. At 10 pounds a week, this translates into a TON every four years, or five tons over 20 years! Five tons that would otherwise have gone into the landfill —or into our water system if we had used a sink disposal (which we have never had, thankfully).

There are about 178,000 households in Onondaga County. If just 1,000 of these households did the same, it would represent more than 200 tons a year. Perhaps you can be one of the thousand.


earthworm ©Janet Allen
Surprisingly, earthworms aren't native in our region

If you live near wooded areas, you need to be more careful than those of us living in urban environments. Since worms are not native to the parts of the continent that was covered with glaciers, all worms—including composting worms—are non-native.

Contrary to what we've grown up thinking, worms aren't always a good thing. In northern North America, worms are invading the forests causing a lot of damage. (I know this is hard to believe, but see the sidebar for links to more information.)

If you live in an area where this could be a problem, freezing the compost by putting it in an unheated garage (below freezing) over the winter would kill the worm and their eggs.

How to

There are many methods, but here's how we do it.

Start with worms

To begin worm composting, the first thing you need is worms. You can't use just any worms and definitely not nightcrawlers or the earthworkers living in burrows in your garden. You need the worms known as red wrigglers (Eisenia foetida). We bought our worms over the internet, and we have been providing worms to other people ever since.

Start with 1,000 worms, which is a pound—about a fist-sized ball. A thousand worms can process about 3½ pounds of food scraps a week. They'll soon reproduce, and the population will self-regulate based on the amount of food they're given.

Give them a place to live

Worm buckets  ©Janet Allen
Worm buckets

Once you have worms, they'll need a place to live. You can buy commercial worm composting systems, of course, but they're fairly expensive. We've found that simple plastic storage containers work well.

We keep our worms in Rubbermaid bins about 20" by 15" by 8" deep. The bin has a few holes drilled in the bottom so that liquid can drain out. This bin is stacked on a similar bin, preferably one that is deeper, with no holes in the bottom so that the liquid draining out the bottom of the top bin goes into the empty bin below. To begin worm composting, the worm bin is filled about halfway with bedding and worms and then kitchen scraps are added as available. Over time the kitchen scraps disappear and dark brown wet compost is produced. Eventually much of the bin is full and the compost needs to be removed.

I lay a sheet of black plastic on top of what is in the top bin because worms do not like light. Trust me, the worms won't crawl out. In fact, if you put a cover on the bin the worms, being in total darkness, will crawl all over the bottom side of the cover and fall out when you remove the cover. So leave it off, but where you can find it when you need a place to temporarily put the inner worm bin during harvesting.

Provide bedding

Fill your containers about half-way with bedding. Bedding can be shredded newsprint, "regular" compost, shredded tree leaves, or a combination of any of these.

Worms need to be in a moist environment, so moisten the bedding liberally. Most food scraps have a certain amount of moisture in them, so maintaining a moist environment isn't difficult. Your bins will collect what we call "worm juice" that drains through the holes. This should be drained off occasionally and, diluted with an equal amount of water, can be used to water your garden plants. . It is said to be excellent as a fertilizer for plants. If it accumulates for a long time this liquid may have a less than pleasant odor.

Worms do best when the room temperature is between 59° and 77°, but any temperature between 50° and 86° will do. Our basement, which is where we keep our worms, falls within this temperature range.

Feed them

Once you have worms and a place for them to live, start feeding them. You'll be amazed at how many food scraps you produce in a week. We have produced a weekly average of about 10 pounds of fruit and vegetable peelings, coffee and tea grounds, eggshells, spoiled or moldy food from the refrigerator, and plate scrapings. The worms' special favorites seem to be melon rinds and banana peels. I've read that they also like leftover chocolate, but who has "leftover chocolate"?

Adding food waste to the worm bucket ©Janet Allen
Adding food waste to the worm bucket

When I add food to the worm bins I wear a pair of rubber gloves to keep my hands clean. I pull the black plastic sheet back half way, reach into one of the exposed corners and lift up the bedding and worms down to the bottom of the bin and put handfuls of scraps into the hole created. I push the material I pulled up back over the new scraps and then do the same with the other corner. Pull the black plastic back over and wash off your gloves. It is recommended that you bury the food in this way so that you're less likely to get fruit flies. I have tried laying the food scraps on the top just under the black plastic but fruit flies find them, and they can multiply quickly. Another option is to put aluminum screening over the top of the bin.

Worms will eat many things, but there are some things you should not give them: hot, spicy foods, highly acidic foods, citrus, onion and garlic. It's best not to add meat products since they might cause odors, and for health reasons, don't use pet feces. Of course, non-biodegradables won't work. Garden wastes, such as grass clippings, are not recommended since they would heat up and harm the worms.

Ready for harvest ©Janet Allen
Ready for harvest

As the composting process continues, the worms excrete castings—worm poop! Every three to six months, the concentration of castings relative to bedding increases so that it's time to harvest the vermicompost and provide new, clean bedding.