Worm composting

Worms like to eat many of the things we eat, only they aren’t picky. Stale bread, apple cores, orange peels, salad trimmings, coffee grinds and non-greasy leftovers are just some of the foods we usually discard that worms will eat.

Worms eating your garbage can produce some of the best fertilizer on earth. Earthworm composting or “vermicompost” is a fascinating, fun and easy way to recycle organic kitchen waste.

Composting with worms is very inexpensive and requires little work, produces no offensive odors and helps plants thrive. Just like in a regular compost pile, it’s important to maintain a balance of carbon and nitrogen inside the worm bin. The purpose of the bedding material is to provide a food source for the worms, moderate moisture levels in the bin, control order and to ensure good aeration.

Only a few things are needed to make worm compost: a bin, bedding, water, worms and worm food.

The bin needs to be 8 to 14 inches deep, since compost worms are surface feeders. A wash tub, dish pan, used shipping crate or a commercial bin can be used. The bin should have a lid to keep out flies and rodents.

Holes about 1/4 inch or smaller should be drilled in the bottom for ventilation and drainage. The rule of thumb for bin size is two feet of surface area per person or one square foot of surface area per pound of food waste generated each week.

The worm bin should be placed in a shady area. Worms, like humans prefer moderate temperatures, between 55 and 75 degrees. Some good spots for a worm bin are the garage, kitchen corner, basement, patio or along an outside wall of the house.

The compost worm’s natural habitat is in piles of fallen leaves or manure above the soil surface. These materials can be used for bedding, as can partially finished compost or chopped hay. Black and white newspaper is the most readily available and easy-to-use bedding material; however, leaves will work as well. Tear the newspaper into strips about one inch wide and moisten them to the point as damp as a wrung-out sponge. Dry cow and horse manure can be used to lighten bedding and absorb excess moisture.

A handful or two of soil, ground limestone or well-crushed egg shells every few months should be added for grit and calcium.

To start the bin, fill it with bedding, water until evenly damp, toss in a few handfuls of soil and add the worms and food. Over time, the bedding and food are eaten by the worms and turned into dark, crumbly worm compost.

The best kinds of worms for composting are “red worms” or “red wigglers.” Their scientific names are Eisenia foetida and Lumbricus rubellus. They are often found in old compost piles, but are different from the earthworms normally found in the soil. Commercially grown worms are also available from order catalogs.

The red worms have a big appetite, reproduce quickly and thrive in confinement. They can eat their weight in food every day. When purchasing red worms, one pound is all that is needed to get a compost bin started.

Worms like to eat many of the things we eat, only they aren’t picky. Stale bread, apple cores, orange peels, salad trimmings, coffee grinds and non-greasy leftovers are just some of the foods we usually discard that worms will eat. Do not use meat and bone products, whole egg shells, dairy products, rubber bands, greasy foods and dog and cat feces.

Begin feeding the worms only in small portions at a time. As they multiply, add larger quantities of food scraps. Worms prefer smaller-sized scraps and will eat through them more quickly than larger or whole pieces of food.

After the worms have fed for three to six months, the brown, crumbly worm castings can be harvested. Harvest the compost and add new bedding at least twice a year to keep the worms healthy.

Jim Coe lives in Lawton and writes a weekly gardening column.

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