The red wiggler aka Eisenia fetida, is a great addition to virtually any household. These little critters can turn your veggie trimmings and even your waste paper into some of the most wonderful compost you can imagine. We bought a pound of composting worms from Mark at WormMainea which is located not far from our place in Southern Maine. His site is full of information about vermiculture and his blog is a great read too.
The needs of the worms are pretty simple, they need to be kept in a dark area, between 40 and 80 degrees, moist but not wet, and fed once a week or so. A week or two before the worms are to arrive you will want to begin collecting some kitchen scraps and a some newspapers. Worms will eat just about anything that doesn’t include meat, oils, or dairy. Citrus and potato skins don’t go over well either and the potato skins can actually sprout if there is an eye on them. Coffee grounds and melons seem to be a real favorite and crushed egg shells are great to help the worms process their food since it acts like grit in their gizzards. Yes, worms have gizzards, like chickens; remember biology class? In our experience having the first batch of scraps we fed the worms be well wilted almost to the point of mushy helps the worms to begin eating better. We used lidded plastic half-gallon ice cream containers from our local hand made ice cream shop (insert shameless plug for Shaw’s Ridge Farm Ice Cream here!) as scrap buckets.
For the worm bedding, fill your tub with shredded newspaper. You can prepare the newspaper by taking 3 or 4 pages at a time and, holding them fold up, tear through the fold into 1/4 inch strips. Wider strips or sheets of paper should be avoided as they will mat down into solid layers, not good for the worms. Shredding is a good project to tackle while watching TV as it takes a while to tear enough strips to fill your worm tub. You can use the regular pages and most of the advertisement pages of the newspaper for worm bedding as nearly all papers use soy based inks now, just don’t use the glossy pages or ANYTHING with staples or other metal bits in it. You will need to add shredded newspaper to every couple of weeks as the worms will eat the paper and also the shredded paper helps to absorb some of the excess moisture in the bucket and keep the worm dirt from being too wet.
To house our worms we bought a plastic tub about 2 feet long by 16 inches high with a lid. Ours was a blue Sterilite tub from Walmart but any similar tub will do as long as it is a solid color, not clear or opaque. With a hole saw, I drilled a half dozen 1 1/2″ holes in the lid and glued pieces of old window screen over them; this allows air to circulate but keeps worms in and critters out. We kept our worms in the basement and this size worked great for us. If you are going to be keeping your worms where they will need to be moved occasionally or if you will be keeping them under the kitchen sink you could use a smaller size tub. Speaking of keeping them under the sink, there is really very little odor to this process. If you are concerned about odors, you could cover the holes in your tubs with the odor absorbing carbon pads that are available for cat litter boxes. One other thing concerning under the sink, make sure that the worm bins and household chemicals never come together, the worms would lose.
When you get your worms home, put a thin layer of shredded newspaper on the bottom of your worm bin and press it down so it isn’t fluffy and covers the bottom of the bin completely. Dump your worms into one corner of the bin and then dump your veggie scraps right on top of them. Don’t spread the worms or the scraps around, just dump ’em out. Now take the rest of your shredded newspaper and fill your tub to the top, this will keep the worms insulated, control moisture, and control odors as well as providing an additional food source for the worms. Place the lid on the tub and put something on the lid directly above where the worms were dumped to mark that corner. One week later, open your tub and dump that weeks container of scraps in a different corner of the tub (I went clockwise). Then take some of the worms from the original pile and put them on the new pile of scraps. Continue moving the food clockwise around the bin to force the worms to populate the entire bin otherwise all of your worm dirt will be in one corner! To begin with, you will want to feed an amount of veggie scraps roughly equal in weight to the worms you bought. After 3 or 4 weeks, you can increase this by 25% and continue increasing by 25% every 3 or 4 weeks thereafter. If you find that there is an excess of uneaten food left in the bin when you feed the worms, decrease the amount for a couple of weeks. If you find that there is virtually no food left at feeding time, increase the amount you are giving them. Be sure to keep a thick layer of newspaper on top of the worms and their food. We began feeding around the bin and once the worms had a good layer of castings built up, we stopped feeding in all four corners and just alternated between ends of the tub.
Red wigglers don’t do much burrowing and like to stay near the top of the bin where the food and bedding are. I haven’t found many worms at the bottom of my bins so when the bin gets pretty full, I will dump it upside down on a tarp and scoop the bottom (now on top) half or two thirds of the dirt into a new container and replace the remainder in the original worm tub. The product of the worm bin, also known as worm dirt or castings is one of the best top dressings for plants that there is. It can also be wrapped up a couple of cups at a time in cheesecloth and suspended in a bucket of water to make a compost tea that will have your plants doing a happy dance! As you resume adding scraps and shredded paper to the worm bin, the worm population will continue to grow. When you harvest your worm dirt, you can take some of the worms out of the bin and start a second bin or you can share them (or sell them) with friends or family, or you can simply let the limited space and limited food supply naturally control the worm population in the bin.
Like nearly all worm species found in the northern US, including earthworms, Eisenia fetida is not native to the Americas. Unlike earthworms however they cannot survive being frozen. While we may end up with a couple of worms or egg cases in the castings we use for top dressing our plants, there is no chance that these will survive.What this means is that you could toss a bunch of red wigglers into your outdoor compost pile and watch as the composting process speeds up. A lot! In our northern climes, we don’t have to worry about the worms becoming an invasive species but I have two concerns. First is that introducing any non-native species into a non-controlled situation is bad practice; and second, these worms aren’t going to survive much past October anyway (the center of the pile is too hot and the edges are too cold) so is there really much sense in tossing them out there? These things sell for $20 per pound!
I know this has been a long post and there is a lot more that can be said about composting with worms. I highly recommend http://www.wormmainea.com as a source of more information as well as worms. Also, the book Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof, considered the bible of vermicomposting, is available on amazon.com. One of these days I’ll actually get around to setting up my affiliate link so I can get a commission from amazon.com, until then, I still recommend them. Vermicomposting provides great rewards and teaches a lot about the lower end of the ecosystem. If you have kids it also makes a great class project and I have even heard of people putting worm bins at work. Best of luck and have fun!