May 26, 2020

The Dirt on Worm Wrangling

Worms from coffee compost pile

Worms from coffee compost pile | Credit: Wikimedia Commons - User: Shanegenziuk/CC-BY-SA-3.0

• By Janine Pineo •

Just call me a worm wrangler.

I’m still a bit of a novice, but after four months of baby-sitting a pile — and do I mean pile — of wiggling earthworms, I think I’ve earned the title.

The adventure began in December when an innocent-sounding co-worker called me one night and popped the question: While she was away in Spain for six months would I tend her composting worms?

“Sure,” I said, thinking I’d rather be in Spain.

Well, now I’d done it. What did I know about keeping a bin of worms alive? Panic set in when I realized I’d be responsible for all those lives that soon would be squirming around in the root cellar eating garbage.

What if they were kind of stinky? What if it was too cold for them? What if they refused to eat my garbage and — gulp — died?

My fears were boundless and pointless. Keeping composting worms is so easy, even children do it (of course, the same is said about kids and computers).

Worm composting is a quick and rewarding method of recycling many food wastes; 2,000 worms will eat about 7 pounds of waste a week when temperatures average 60 degrees. The worm “castings” — or compost — is a great soil enhancer. Plus, the ever-growing population of red worms (one breeding worm can have 96 or so babies in six months) can be tossed into the garden or compost pile or you can give them to friends. Think of it as a birthday surprise.

The simplest version of a vermicomposting system — the impressive scientific term for a worm bin — requires a plastic tote bin or wooden box with a depth of 8 to 12 inches. Some references on worm composting encourage the use of wooden bins, especially one you make yourself, but I think they are too bulky and heavy; they also will rot after a few years. A plastic tote bin just needs a few holes poked into the cover and bottom — for drainage (I’ve had none) and aeration — and it is set for use.

The worms will need good bedding to thrive in their new home. Shredded newspaper is a terrific material because it is easy to get (you’re holding one now), retains moisture and is light enough to keep from smothering the worms. Other bedding material that can be added include animal manures, leaf mold and peat moss, but all of those have a few pitfalls.

Manures, a natural home for red worms, smell and are heavy. They, and leaf mold, also may be infested with other not-so-friendly bugs. Peat moss is a standard bedding for some growers, but it has almost no nutrients and is highly acidic, which could harm the worms.

The best route is probably to use moistened shredded paper and add a couple of handfuls of the other bedding — even dirt would be OK — to provide a little grit to aid the worms’ digestion. Red worms love decaying vegetation, so most of their time will be spent in the garbage anyway. As for the shredded newspaper, they eat it.

The type of worms used is important. Red worms, also known as red wigglers, are the worms found in manure piles and under piles of decaying leaves. They are surface feeders and don’t really mind temperature changes as long as it’s above freezing and out of direct sunlight. Try your Cooperative Extension for worm sources or a local person who sells earthworms for bait. A catalog source is Gardener’s Supply Co. (128 Intervale Road, Burlington, Vt. 05401; telephone 1-800-863-1700), which is selling earthworm eggs now and generally sells complete vermicomposting systems.

Once you have all these things, the rest is easy. Just add garbage.

If it’s from a plant, the worms probably will love it. Citrus rinds seem to be unpalatable; however, a whole tangerine, rotten to the core, had the worms wriggling with delight.

Coffee grounds, tea bags and banana peels are worm favorites, and so are squash guts, seeds and all. Carrot, apple and potato peels will be eaten over time, as will corncobs (one tossed in by my friend before I started worm-sitting is now but an empty shell). I can attest that rotten potatoes are worm magnets; I found worms clinging to one like it was a lifeboat.

Worms will eat a little meat, but the smell might not be so grand before they finish eating. And there is the problem of bones, which just sit there.

An occasional crushed eggshell is a must since worms need the calcium for their reproductive systems. Not long after I started worm-sitting, I discovered a nest of dozens of baby worms; nearby was crushed eggshell. Coincidence? I think not.

I admit there have been a few problems. Most of the past four months, the bin has hosted a convention of fruit flies. It is a composting system, which in nature means it ain’t just worms living in there. Helping out are bacteria, protozoa and nematodes, to name a few.

As for the fruit flies, you can order traps from Gardener’s Supply Co. or you can build your own. Take a jar and add  1/2 cup beer. Find a small plastic bag and cut a tiny, fly-size hole — less than one-quarter inch — in a corner. Place the bag inside the jar with the cut corner closest to the beer. Secure the top of the bag to the jar’s rim with a rubber band. Voila.

Beer is toxic to fruit flies and likely will take care of the problem. Using citrus juice as a lure may exacerbate the situation because it only encourages the flies to breed, faster than rabbits. A citrus-juice trap would have to be cleaned every few days to keep ahead of them.

But wait. I almost forgot the most important instruction, besides occasionally misting the bedding to keep it moist, not wet.

How do you get the compost without picking out scores of worms by hand?

When there are enough castings to remove (poke around a bit to see how much is recognizable food and how much looks like dirt), shove the contents to one side of the bin. Lay new food on the clear side and cover it with fresh bedding. Most of the worms should migrate in a couple of days, leaving the castings nearly worm-free.

Even a kid could do it.

Book source
A great book that answers all your questions — and more — about worm composting is “Worms Eat My Garbage” by Mary Appelhoff, published in 1982 by Flower Press.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in April 1997.

Update: The friend came back from Spain for a while, but the worms stayed with me. There was an unfortunate incident, however, some time later. Let’s just say if you have watermelon rind, only give the worms a little piece at a time. Otherwise, it’ll be a really good party until the worms just kind of explode with all that watery goodness.