It was several months before I finally got up the nerve to admit to my wife I was raising worms in the basement. And actually, it might have been much longer had I not been found out. Becky was used to seeing piles of leftover food accumulate on the counter from the day’s meals. She knew those were bound for the compost pile. It was the frequent trips to the basement with the leftovers that finally raised her suspicions.
No dear, these are not going in the compost pile. They’re uh, well, I’m feeding the worms, I said timidly. You’re whaaaaattttt she wailed!?! Anyway, I’ve always thought it was better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission. And that’s how my worms officially came to reside in our basement. Now, it’s no big deal, and my girls love to visit them often.
The practice of harvesting worm castings (waste) for use in the garden is referred to as vermicomposting. It is one of the most beneficial amendments you can add to your soil. They are high in nutrients, often containing 5-11 times more primary nutrients than ordinary garden soil. The castings are purely organic and look like rich dark soil.
Worm castings are becoming more widely available commercially. Which begs the question, if I can buy them, why would I raise them? Actually, that is a reasonable question, and one my wife would ask. My answer would be that if you’re really into the hands-on aspect of gardening, this about tops the list. It’s like starting seeds and watching them grow. Besides, it’s a great way to involve kids. They love it!
Raising worms at home is easy. They like a dark, moist environment and average temperatures. The ideal temperature range is between 55 and 77 degrees. They’re not picky about their food. There are a number of commercially available worm habitats on the market, but for just a few dollars, you can easily build your own. Start with a storage container. It can be wood, plastic, metal, or whatever you’ve got. Just be sure there are holes for drainage. Worms also prefer a dark environment, so don’t use clear or white containers. I find the solid color plastic storage containers in the 10-gallon size work well. My wife likes the tight fitting lid.
Next, add shredded newspaper. Make the strips about an inch wide. Add enough so that it provides plenty of bedding area but no more than about 12 inches deep. Worms like a moist but not wet environment. Soak the paper shreds in water, but squeeze out the excess water before adding to the bin. Next, add the worms. Red wigglers are a good choice for a number of reasons. These can be purchased through many suppliers by mail order or online. Simply type “vermicomposting” into your search engine. Expect to pay about $20 per pound plus shipping. One pound will be plenty for a ten-gallon container.
Feed the worms about two times each week. Food scraps as well as paper products and cardboard work well but avoid the use of meat or dairy products. Cut any food scraps into very small pieces to speed up the process. You can bury the food into the bedding or on top and the worms will “surface” to feed. If you choose to place the food on top, add some shredded newspaper above to cover. Remember to moisten.
After a few months, you can start to harvest the castings. When the container lid is removed, the worms will move from the surface where they are feeding and retreat to the darkness below. You can scrape off the castings from the top layer without disturbing the worms.
Another method is to alternate from side to side within the bin as you feed and harvest. The side that you plan on using to remove the castings should not be the side where they are actively feeding. A week or two before you retrieve castings, add food only to one side. This will draw all the worms to the active feeding side, leaving the pure castings side for retrieval.
When you’re ready to add the castings to your garden, they should be mixed into the soil at an optimal rate of up to 15%. If you have any liquid that has drained from you bin, use this as a liquid fertilizer. Mix it with water, and pour it over your plants. I’ve seen quick and dramatic results using this foliar application. Becky’s approval wasn’t as quick and dramatic, but ultimately she came to accept our new basement dwellers.
Watch our show on vermicomposting – The Power of Worms