Trash Talking with Worms – The Dirty Truth About Worm Composting

First you’ll want to build a home for your worms and one which will make them happy and prolific. You’ll need bedding that will fill the bin from one-third to one-half full. To create bedding soak a large quantity of shredded newspapers or cardboard. Worms want an environment that is about 75 percent water. Newspapers should only take a few minutes to take up enough water to make proper bedding. Allow cardboard, such as toilet paper rolls and tissue boxes, to soak overnight. Don’t use garden soil or mix fresh cow, horse or chicken manure into the bedding. These emit gases and will raise the temperature of your compost bin. You could end up “cooking” your worms to death.

Once the bedding matter has been soaked, wring it out until it is moist, but not dripping. Place it in the bin along with something gritty such as a bit of soil, fine sand, leaves, cornstarch, sawdust or ground egg shells. (Worms don’t have teeth so they need something gritty to help them grind up the paper and food.) Once your bin is up and running it will be self-sufficient and you won’t need to add additional grit until you harvest the worm castings and clean the bin.

To make your worms feel at home, dig down until about the middle of the bedding and place your worms there. Don’t just put them on top. Then place the lid on the bin and keep it at a moderate temperature. Leave them alone for about a week to settle in. They will feed off the bedding.

After about a week, start feeding your worms food scraps such as fruit and vegetable peels, pulverized egg shells, tea bags and coffee grounds. Avoid meat scraps, bones, fish, leftover dairy products and oily foods since these will make your compost pile smell as well as attract flies and rodents. Experts are divided on whether pasta and grains should be tossed into the compost or thrown away in regular garbage. Your best bet is to experiment and let your worms tell you what they’ll eat or won’t eat.

Of course, there are certain things that worms won’t eat or shouldn’t eat. Do not dispose of glass, plastic or aluminum foil in your compost. Although paper can be used as bedding, don’t include paper with colored printing on it. Many colored inks are toxic to worms. Also avoid rubber bands and sponges.

It’s best to feed worms once a week in small amounts. If you feed them more than they can process you will end up with a stinking compost bin as the garbage literally backs up.

Compost actually doesn’t smell. The foul odor comes from rotting food that the worms haven’t eaten yet. If you give them appropriately sized meals — not supersized entrees — they will eat the food before it starts rotting (and smelling.)

If they are eating too slowly, chop up vegetable matter, which is easier for them to eat and gives new meaning to the term “fast food.” If the chopping doesn’t help enough, reduce the amount of organic matter you are feeding them.

When you feed your worms, check and see how things are going. If the bedding is wet, give some additional paper bedding to soak up the excess. (Remember that the bedding should be moist, not dripping.) If the bedding is too dry, use water from a spray bottle to moisten it.

Once your compost bin is up and running, it requires little maintenance until little or no original bedding is visible and the contents of the bin are reduced in bulk and mainly consist of worm castings, which are brown and “earthy” looking. Once your bin has reached that point, it’s time to harvest the worm castings and give your worms new bedding. Castings can be harvested anywhere from two and a half months to every six months, depending on how many worms you have and how much food you’re giving them.

There are several harvesting methods. For those with the time and patience or little kids, you dump the bin’s contents onto a large plastic sheet and then manually separate the worms from the compost. Children usually love helping out with harvesting the worm casings. Remember that your helpers as well as yourself should wear gloves. Once all the worm casings are removed, keep aside some of the compost to mix in with the new bedding and then the cycle starts all over again.

A more common way to harvest is to move everything – worms, castings, bedding, food – to one side of the bin. Pick out partially decomposed materials and push to the other side. Place some food on top of the partially decomposed materials. Replace the lid and leave it alone for a couple weeks. During that time, the worms should migrate over to the new food. Once they’ve gone to the other side, put on a pair of gloves and harvest the castings. Make sure you don’t remove any worms in the process. Then give the worms new bedding mixed in with some residual compost.

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