Common questions about red worms
Here are some common questions (and answers) about keeping worms:
What is vermicomposting?
This is a process that describes the action of a species of earthworm (eisenia foetida), which is adapted to living in and consuming decaying organic material. As they consume clean fruit and vegetable scraps and some other organic materials, they deposit vermicasts (worm poop), which is a nearly perfect plant food.
Isn’t this a little creepy?
The process of changing waste to resource is so familiar in nature that we are almost unaware of it. Working with worms and kitchen garbage might qualify as ‘creepy’ if you feel that is a synonym for ‘unfamiliar.’
Why keep red worms in the house?
Because the worms:
1. Need to be contained in their environment and
2. They have temperature requirements that are close to normal home indoor temperatures (55 -75), they belong in the house.
3. Think of their needing the same temperature requirements as a houseplant!
Garbage as a resource? You’ve got to be kidding…
The vocabulary of being ‘green’ is changing rapidly. The commonly used word, ‘recycling’, is understood by most persons as downcycling, the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of lesser quality and reduced functionality and ultimately adding them to the dump.
Upcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products intonew materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value.
What will the worms do for me?
Material (clean food waste) is harvested (consumed) by the worms and a totally new product (the vermicast) is returned to the soil with no loss of components. The initial kitchen waste has become a nutrient-rich resource for the soil. In soil science this process ismineralization… decomposition or oxidation of the chemical compounds in organic matter into plant accessible forms. (Mineralization is the opposite of immobilization.)
In what manner and how do I house the worms?
It ought to be reassuring to know that “in the wild” red worms are found indecaying organic material at the interface of the soil surface and decaying material. That means they are happy at the bottom of an old manure pile, a pile of rotting hay, garden waste or leaves (none of which, thankfully, you need to provide in your home!)
Composting red worms are not able to burrow into the soil.
That means that their housing or environment (which is also their food) ideally is:
A source of food (shredded, wet newspaper counts as food)
Kept at temperatures between 55-75 F.
How do we keep them contained and how do we control the population?
You will provide a container that is appropriate to your setting. It is reassuring to realize that the worms don’t care…other than observing the four points, above. Thus the container can be a purchased vermicomposting ‘system’, a 5-gallon bucket, a plastic storage bin, or wooden box. It’s up to you.
The population of the worms is controlled by the same controls that affect every life form: availability of food and space.
What and when do I feed the worms?
These are creatures that eat organic material. In a domestic vermicomposting situation, AVOID FEEDING THE FOLLOWING:
Salt or salty foods
Cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower (which outgas as they rot)
Generally, you want to feed ONLY what the worms can consume in a short time. If you begin with a small population, feed finely chopped or minced food in small amounts. Check to see if bacteria and fungi are acting on the food. This is crucial to the process because the worms rely on them to break down the food so the worms (toothless critters) can begin to consume the food, which they do by utilizing their saliva.
What are the cautions?
Remember – this is a closed environment (like an aquarium) which should contain ONLY:
Wet, shredded newspaper (bedding)
Therefore, ignore the well-meaning but incorrect suggestions from other sources to add garden soil, chick grit, or laundry lint to the bin.
Overfeeding can throw the environment out of whack and invite fruit flies.
Keeping the bin wet and well-aerated are crucial.
Tell me again… why I am doing this?
For most of us, the reasons we keep worms are any combination of the following:
- A desire to reduce our kitchen’s contribution to the municipal waste flow.
- A desire to be personally responsible for the upcycling of kitchen waste.
- A desire to develop a supply of nutrient-rich vermicompost to add to potting soil, seed starting mixtures, or to use as top dressing in the garden.
- A desire to assist in the creation of a good soil amendment at no cost.
Do I have to ‘cook’ for the worms?
Their food list should pretty much mirror the eating habits of your household. For example:
- All clean vegetable and fruit peels
- Egg shells crushed or whole
- Rinds of fruits: pineapple, melons, cucurbits, citrus (in moderation), banana
- Coffee and tea grounds, coffee filters and tea bags
- Fruits and vegs that have gone past their prime (cukes, zukes, grapes, etc)
- Worms like high-sugar foods. Avoid over-acidifying them with citrus or tomatoes.
If you have recently divided the (worm) contents of the bin and want to jump-start your population without having a fruit fly invasion, feed about half a can of whole kernel corn or place 3-4 "biscuits" of dry horse manure in the bin.
When the bin WORKS, what happens?
Virtually everything in the bin will be consumed and turned to vermicasts.
The bin will quickly contain or develop fungi and some mold, and you will see small bin mites, and other micro creatures. This is normal, good, benign and part of the process. The worms are voracious eaters but have a small mouth and no teeth. They rely on the action of the ‘bin creatures’ to begin the decomposition process and the worms’ own powerful saliva.
Worms will eat their weight in food almost daily. You will need an established population before you can add food without checking to assess the speed of degradation and consumption.
Happy worms (moisture, dark, temp and food) will eat steadily and reproduce rapidly. They are hermaphrodites and ALL will produce worm ‘eggs’ or cocoons.
So, if the bin is all set up and functioning, what would the checklist be?
- A container, preferably plastic with a lid.
- The container perforated with 3/8” holes, top, bottom and sides on a 2” grid.
- Small cans (cat food) to keep the base of the bin off the ground.
- A plastic sheet or some sort of waterproof item on the floor.
- Shredded (or ripped) newsprint (no shiny pages) saturated with water and barely wrung out.
- The bottom ¼ of the container filled with the wet newsprint.
- Your worms, placed on top of that.
- Their food, placed on top of the worms.
- The remainder of the container filled with shredded, wet newsprint.
- The lid on the container (loosely, not air tight.)
How do I prove to my friends who think I’m nuts that this is a good thing?
Your properly functioning worm bin will have NO ODOR.
The vermicast will look and smell and function like good garden soil.
The worms are producing THE BEST QUALITY NUTRIENTS for your garden.
There is NO COST.
There is almost no work/maintenance/cleaning
Resources…The Web is filled with information about vermicomposting. Some of the information is accurate and experience-based. Some of it is frankly foolish. Some has simply been recopied, reprinted, and passed along by numerous folks who haven’t a personal clue about how the process works.
In general it is a good idea to access the .edu and .gov sites before trying to find provable research/experience on blogs, chat rooms and other wastes of time. At the risk of stating the obvious, remember that opinion – ours and everyone else’s is simply opinion and that should be clearly identified as ‘opinion’ which may or may not be fact-based.
As an example – here is a .com site (commercial), and .edu site (educational (in theory), and a .gov site. In my personal opinion, based on almost three decades of working with worms, these three are basically helpful. I would politely disagree with each in certain areas – based on my personal experience.