Thursday, May 7, 2009

Meet a Few of My Best Friends

OK, they're not the most attractive or glamorous bunch.   And they hang out in some pretty icky places. But honestly, these are some of the best friends a gardener can have!  Entertaining for these guys is a breeze! No fancy gourmet dinners necessary.  Just toss them a few vegetable peelings, the mushy leftovers from making vegetable stock, those forgotten, semi-identifiable remnants from your vegetable crisper, some crushed up egg shells, coffee grounds, used tea bags, corrugated cardboard, shredded newspaper, and a few toilet paper rolls and they're TOTALLY happy!  And what they leave behind is pure gold, from a gardener's point of view!  

We're talking worms here.  But not just any worms . . . these are compost worms (also known as redworms, red wrigglers, tiger worms, manure worms).  These worms are related to the good old-fashioned earthworm, but compost worms don't really want to live in the earth.  They need a diet much richer in organic matter than that, and will seek out any good compost pile in which to make their home.   And they'll be more than willing to eat much of your kitchen garbage in exchange for making the most wonderful organic fertilizers!   (For free!)  And if you have kids, starting a worm bin would be a great fun project for them!

So, how do you get started?  Basically you need a fairly large container (depending upon how much kitchen scraps you generate) that's dark (worms don't like light) and has a lid.  I use a large Rubbermaid container.  The worms also need air, so drill some holes all around the top bit of the container.  I found a really neat little video that shows this perfectly in pictures here. The only difference with the tub they set up and mine is that they didn't put drainage holes in the bottom. I did because I also want to be able to collect the liquid that gets produced as the worms break down your kitchen scraps.  This is called "worm tea" and diluted about 10-to-1 is an excellent liquid fertilizer.  I set my Rubbermaid container with the drainage holes in another similar container with no holes, and the worm tea drains into that.  I keep my worm bins (I have two) in my garage.  People say you can keep them in your house, but unless you're really vigilant about not too many fruit scraps you'll wind up with lots of fruit flies.  Since my worm bin's in the garage (detached!) I don't care about the fruit flies since they also help break down the garbage, and make nice treats for the hummingbirds that visit my flower garden each summer.  Make sure it's not in the sun if you put it outdoors as the worms can't tolerate too much heat, but also keep in mind that the worms can't survive being frozen, so for winter time it's best to find a more sheltered place for them.  My garage is unheated, but the worms seem to survive ok as long as I leave the worm bin full over winter for insulation.

Once you've got your holes drilled and figured out where you're going to put your bin you need to create some bedding for your worms.  This can be shredded newspaper or corrugated cardboard (no glossy stuff please!), moistened to feel like a damp sponge.  Throw in a couple of handfuls of garden soil (worms need a bit of grit to digest their food), and some non-acidic food scraps--avoid citrus like lemon, grapefruit, and orange peels, at least at first.  Once your worm bin is really going they can tolerate a bit of these.  Lastly, (and most importantly) you'll need some compost worms. You can get these from a well-established compost pile--you'll really need at least a few hundred of them to get started. Or you can mail-order worms for about $15 for a half-pound of worms here, plenty to start your bin off.  And if your worms are well cared for and happy they'll reproduce, A LOT!  (Look for little oval, yellow worm cocoons, about 1/8" long in your finished compost.  Each one contains from 1-5 worms!)  And each one of these guys can eat its own weight in kitchen scraps every day!  

Keep adding kitchen scraps (a little at a time at first, more after you start getting more worms). Always keep fresh, moist bedding on the top.  This will prevent most flies from discovering your bin, and keep the worms happy on the top food layer since they like to be covered with a moist mat.  And this is a great way to get rid of those cardboard boxes, newspapers, brown papers bags, toilet paper rolls, paper napkins, used kleenex, etc that would otherwise end up in the land fill.  And worms also like stuff like pet hair, human hair, and the contents of your vacuum cleaner bag!  Just make sure that the worm bin is kept moist.  

Harvesting the finished worm compost can be a bit labor-intensive with this type of worm bin unfortunately.  Obviously the finished compost is going to wind up at the bottom.  This is the reason why I ended up with two bins.  When the first one is full I stop adding to it for a while, and put my kitchen scraps into the second one.  After a few weeks I'll check on the first one again.  Most of the identifiable food will usually be gone, and it will be mostly dark, finished worm compost.  If there's still un-composted food, scrape it off and set it to one side.  Since I consider my compost worms to be as valuable as the compost, I don't want to just chuck them into the garden since they won't survive there.  So I really try to separate them from the compost.  One way to do this is to move all the finished compost to one side of the bin, and start adding fresh stuff to the other.  Eventually the worms will migrate out of the finished compost and into the new side.  To make sure you don't lose them you can scoop the finished worm compost into a cheap plastic colander (I got mine for $1!) and set it over where you want your worms to go, and put the whole set-up in the sun.  As the worms go down to get away from the light you can scoop off the top layer of the compost.  Eventually the worms will go through the colander.  Of course, if you have kids this could be a great afternoon project for them!  
If this sounds like too much work, and you don't mind spending a little bit of money on your wormery, you can purchase a really nifty thing called a "Can of Worms".  This is a system of stacked sections that the worms can travel in-between.  As you fill one section you put another on the top.  Eventually you can move the bottom, finished section to the top, let the worms migrate down, and use the compost.  You can buy one here.  There's a British company called Wiggly Wigglers who also sell them (although I think the shipping would be pretty prohibitive!) who have made a series of videos about how to set up and use a Can of Worms you can watch here-1, here-2, here-3, and here-4.  (They also have a weekly podcast that's VERY entertaining and informative.  They have me hooked!)

Anyway, I hope I've convinced you to make some new wormy friends who'll make you your very own organic fertilizer and keep your kitchen scraps out of landfills.  Once you start composting with worms you'll see your "garbage" in a whole new light!