Worm Composting and a DIY Worm Composter – Your Garden’s New BFF

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We have always been big compost bin experimenters here at Catnip Farm. I have monkeyed around with aerobic composting (no, that isn’t composting in leg warmers), anaerobic composting, turning, not turning… but none of it is as fun and easy as vermicomposting. Vermicomposting, or Vermiculture, is the process of enlisting the help of worms to facilitate rapid decomposition of vegetable scraps, paper and other plant matter. The worms turn stuff into rich, black soil faster than any other composting system I have ever experienced. The vermi-castings (worm poop) make an incredible soil amendment, and you can set up a vermicomposter anywhere…even in a space as small as the area under the kitchen sink!

Find a shady spot for your outdoor vermicomposter.
Find a shady spot for your outdoor vermicomposter.

Now before you start getting all squeamish on me about keeping buckets if icky rotten vegetables full of worms under your sink, let me clarify… done right, there is little or no smell. The worms immediately eat anything that is decomposing, so it really just smells like wet dirt. Also, the worms used are the little “red wiggler” variety, so they aren’t nearly as big and squirmy as night crawlers. They are just happy little red worms, doing their happy little red worm jobs! Believe me, this is way lower on the “gross-out” scale than a lot of things you do now. One critical point, though- NO MEAT SCRAPS! The worms don’t like them, and they WILL get gross in a hurry! On the other hand, egg shells are okay.

Building Your First Vermicomposter

Setting up a beginning worm composter is easy. The best design I have found utilizes four of the el-cheapo plastic storage bins from the big box store. You just drill lots of 1/4” holes in the bottoms of three of the bins and these are going to be your stackable “worm condos”.

Drill plenty of holes for the worms to move between floors in their new condo.
Drill plenty of holes for the worms to move between floors in their new condo.

The bottom layer of the worm condo needs to be watertight. This is because all of the liquid from all of those vegetable scraps is going to find its way down to the bottom. This will be your “Worm Tea” collector, and you will need to empty it occasionally. You can fit it with a handy drain valve, or just pour it out into a bucket or jug. This worm tea is an excellent fertilizer for your plants, so don’t dump just it down the drain!

You will need to add some bricks or other supports to the bottom of the worm tea collector to keep the lowest floor of the worm condo out of the liquid. Otherwise it will get water-logged. Then, just start adding your scraps, and when the first floor is full, add another on top. The worms will work their way up and down through the holes you drilled. Keep a lid on the topmost floor, to keep out flies and other unwanted visitors.

Here, Wormy Wormy Wormy…

Okay, now you have a worm condo, you have some potato peelings and wilted lettuce laying around, but the worms just haven’t answered the “for rent” sign you put up. What now? To the Web!

You can order red wigglers through the mail! A box of friendly, hungry worms can be delivered right to your door. Just do a search for “Red Wigglers” or “Vermiculture”. You could also check at a local garden supply or even at the farmers market in the spring to see if anyone has them locally. AND, there is always good old Craigslist.

To get the little guys started, don’t just dump a bucket of scraps on them. Start your first floor residents with a little peat moss, some old shredded newspapers, and just a few scraps. As they start to work, you can add more and more stuff. They will be fruitful and multiply, and pretty soon they will be ready for that 2nd floor addition.

Dinner is served.
Dinner is served.

When the bottom layer is well composted into nice black dirt, You can take it straight to the garden, if you like. There will be some worms still in it, but they will live happy and free in your garden. If you want to minimize your loss rate, you can move that bin to the top and leave it open to dry out for a week- the worms will move down away from the dry soil and light and into the layer below.

Egg shells (and even the cardboard egg carton) take them a little longer, but you can see the rich, black dirt they make in just a week.
Egg shells (and even the cardboard egg carton) take them a little longer, but you can see the rich, black dirt they make in just a week.

One of the great things about vermicomposting is that it is scaleable. You can do it with old 5 gallon buckets in the broom closet, with bins in the garage or basement, or even go bigger out in the yard. Just remember, worms like those mild underground temperatures, so don’t put your composter out in the direct sun, or let it freeze! Otherwise, you can’t go too far wrong. Vermicomposting is fun, educational, economical and environmentally friendly. Seriously… you are going to love these worms!

Photo of author

About Rich

Rich Dana loves to build things, to tinker on things, and to grow things. After more than a decade as a historic building remodeler in Brooklyn, New York, he and his wife Ericka moved to their back-to-the-land dream home (and fixer-uper nightmare), an 1870s farmhouse on 15 acres in eastern Iowa that they call “Catnip Farm.” For the last 18 years, Rich has specialized in super-efficient historical renovations and solar PV installation. He is working to convert much of the farm into perennial food crops like nut trees and berries, and he helps Ericka out with her heirloom seed project. His latest passion is learning to sew.

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4 thoughts on “Worm Composting and a DIY Worm Composter – Your Garden’s New BFF”

  1. I really want to do this under my kitchen sink, but I don’t have air conditioning and my apt reaches upper 80’s – low 90’s for a couple of hours a day in July. Would these temps kill my worms? (I imagine under the kitchen sink may stay a bit cooler than this)


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