Want to compost your food scraps, but have no room for a traditional compost heap in your backyard? Worms can help you out.
Known as vermicomposting, the act of keeping a “worm bin” to quickly compost your non-meat, non-dairy food scraps is a popular option for eco-conscious apartment dwellers and others who don’t want to mess around with bulky, space-consuming, traditional compost heaps.
Keeping a worm bin is no big deal, says Clark County Master Composter/Recycler Lee Clapp of Yacolt.
“I know people who keep smaller worm bins in their apartments, under the kitchen sink,” Clapp says. “You just have to keep an eye on your moisture … and, as long as you don’t feed them meat or dairy, it shouldn’t smell.”
Worms, more specifically, red wiggler worms, are master composters. Their natural digestive process turns organic waste into worm castings. Put a pound of those wiggly critters in a 5-gallon Rubbermaid container or homemade, wood-framed worm bin; add bedding like newspaper scraps or dry leaves; add a food source such as vegetable-based kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and eggshells; and watch as the worms devour the food scraps and turn them into worm castings. These castings, when combined with partially decomposed organic matter, turn into vermicompost, a natural fertilizer.
“They produce plant food, not compost,” Clapp explains of his worm bin critters. “With compost, you can add it to your soil … but you definitely don’t want to treat this (the worm bin material) as compost.”
In fact, if you were to dump the end product of your vermi-composting endeavors on a houseplant, you would probably end up with a very dead houseplant.
“There’s too much nitrogen in it,” Clapp says. “When I transplant in the spring, I’ll take a teaspoon and add it in with compost … but you can’t use too much.”
Most worm bins are set up to collect the moisture that passes through the worm castings. The collected liquid is called “leachate” and can be used in a very diluted form on outdoor shrubs, and ornamental plants. Because it can contain harmful phytotoxins, the leachate should not be used on edible garden plants.
However, some vermi-composting enthusiasts make a “worm tea” by steeping a bag of worm castings in a mixture of rainwater and unsulphured molasses for at least 24 hours (or using a bubbler to speed up the process and aerate the tea and encourage the growth of beneficial microbes). The resulting worm tea can be used as a sort of “superfood” for your houseplants.
Clapp doesn’t get a lot of leachate, because he regulates his bedding and tries to keep his bin free of excess moisture.
“You want to keep your worm bin nice and dark and regulate (moisture) with proper ventilation and with your bedding,” Clapp says. “The bedding can be shredded paper .. .a lot of people shy away from using colored inks, but all of the printers in this area use soy-based ink, so that’s OK. But you don’t want to use any glossy inks. Leaves can also be a great bedding.”
According to worm-bin enthusiasts on the online site www.vermicompost.net, red wigglers love to eat things like pumpkin, leftover corn cobs and watermelon or cantaloupe rinds. They also like to eat coffee grounds, tea bags, most veggies and fruits, crushed egg shells and banana peels. They will tolerate citrus fruits, onions and garlic, but should not eat bones, meat, dairy products, oils, salty foods, grass clippings or any inorganic matter.
“Feed your worms a diverse diet and always feed in moderation,” the experts on vermicompost.net advise.
“I use it mostly for kitchen scraps. I don’t give them any meats or dairy, and I try to limit the oils I put in there. Those things will attract other critters and I don’t want that,” Clapp says.
Clark County has resources for people interested in learning more about worm bins and vermi-composting. In fact, the Columbia Springs Environmental Education Center’s Master Composter/Recycler program, which is funded by a grant from Clark County’s Department of Environmental Services, offers classes related to worm composting and creating your own worm bins. To find out more about the Master Composter/Recycler program and to find a soon-to-be updated calendar of compost-related events, including worm bin seminars, visit www.columbiasprings.org/programs/mcr/workshops.
Washington State University also provides simple directions for making your own worm bin. To view these step-by-step instructions, visit http://whatcom.wsu.edu/ag/compost/easywormbin.htm.
Clapp also recommends checking out the book, Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof.
For more information, visit author Appelhof’s site for worm composting resources at www.wormwoman.com. Although Appelhof passed away in 2005, her publishers have kept the site going and offer information, books, videos, worm bin resources and other tips related to vermicomposting. The Worms Eat My Garbage book is available for purchase, but Clapp says he’s also seen several copies available for checkout at local, Clark County libraries.
“That book’s been around for 20, 30 years and it’s a very good, quick read with all types of information about worm composting,” Clapp says.
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