Thursday, November 12, 2015

Autumn Tutorial - Indoor composting with Red Wiggler Worms

Autumn is full of preparations. It's time for back to school, Christmas craft shows are in full swing, and the garden gets put to rest for the winter.

Many people have started the habit of composting. You may think that this is something that you can only do in the warmer months, but with the help of some little creatures you can compost your kitchen scraps all year long! This is also refereed to as vermicomposting.

Red wiggler worms are not the same as the earthworms you find on the sidewalk on a rainy day or from digging in your garden. The love compost and unlike earthworms are surface dwellers. The best place to get worms is from a friend, or you can purchase them online.

Red wiggler worms tolerate temperatures from about 0 - 35 C, although it's best to keep them at temperatures at about 15 - 20C if you want them to breed (and you do!). When outdoors don't keep them in the sun or they will bake! I have heard that they may survive a winter by cuddling up into a big worm ball at the bottom of your compost pile. This may be true for some places, but we live in Winterpeg. I think I have had a couple survive last year's winter, but it was mild and I had a lot of compost and leaves piled in my outdoor bin. Be safe, don't count on your worms surviving a winter outdoors.

What I like to do is keep a couple bins functioning at minimum capacity over the summer then take them in for the winter. Over the winter months my two bins usually grow to 4. In the spring I harvest the compost for use in my garden, dump one or two of the bins full of worms into my outdoor compost pile to do their work and make sure the rest are happy to start the cycle all over again.

It is very simple (and inexpensive!) to set up a working vermicomposting bin for your home.

What you will need:

-2 plastic bins (I use 53L)
-Drill with large drill bit (3/8")
-worm bedding

The bins should be an appropriate size for the amount of scraps you will add. Personally, my husband and I eat a fair bit of produce, therefore for this tutorial we will be using 53L Rubbermaid bins. If you consume a very small amount then a smaller bin may be more appropriate for your needs. Whatever bin you use here are a couple things you want to keep in mind.

- Make sure the bin is opaque. Worms are sensitive to light and need a dark home.
- Use as shallow bin over a deep one. This prevents the compost from compacting too much, resulting in anaerobic conditions. If you bins stinks, that's because there is not enough air flow. We (and your worms) like oxygen!
-Choose bins that nestle nicely, leaving a bit of air space at the bottom.

Step 1

Drill holes near the bottom of one of your bins. You may want to nestle the second bin in the one you are drilling to better gauge how high your holes should be. This bin serves two purposes. First, it allows air flow up through the bottom of the bin (remember that anaerobic stickiness?). Second it catches any "drippings" should your bin get too moist. Although worms need a fair bit of moisture for their sensitive skin, they do not swim, they drown. (PS. Your plants will love these "drippings" just remember to dilute well!)

Step 2 

Drill lots of hole in the bottom of your second bin. Don't go overboard but don't worry about having plenty of holes. You may think that your worms will fall out through the holes, but don't worry! Even though these holes are much bigger than the worms, they prefer their compost home.

Step 3 

Now flip the second bin over and drill some holes near the top. Again it's a good idea to nestle the bin to get a good idea of where to place the holes. This allows air flow through the top of the bin for better circulation.

Your done!

Well with your bin anyways. Now we need to make it a cozy place for your worms to live.

Step 4

Add bedding. That's right - bedding. Bedding is often comprised of shredded cardboard or newspaper, and/or leaves. Bedding is necessary to help maintain proper moisture content, allow for air flow (prevents odour), and a place to bury your food scraps. A good layer of bedding on top of your compost bin also helps control flying insects from making the vermicompost bin their home too. You will still get some bugs, that goes with the territory. Keep this in mind when finding a spot in your house for the bin. I personally keep mine in our basement which in our 100+ year old house is not used for anything else and is closed off from the rest of the house. If you have a insulated porch or garage that may be a good spot too. Some people keep the bin right in their kitchen. It's really up to you.

Once the bedding is added, you want to wet it. There are some mathematical calculation for doing this, but really you're just aiming for bedding that feels like a wrung out sponge. Add water a bit at a time and mix it with your hands until it feels "right". You want it to be damp, but not dripping.

Step 5

Go ahead and add your food scraps now. There are a couple of things to keep in mind for this step. Although worms will enjoy a lot of your food scraps there are somethings to avoid in your vermicompost bin.

-fruit and vegetables (not including citrus, onion and garlic)
-egg shells
-tea grounds
-used coffee grounds

Add in Moderation (once bin is established)
-citrus fruits
-starchy foods such as breads, pasta and potatoes

-human/animal waste

Step 6

Add worms! It is a good idea to let your bin sit with it's bedding and food scraps for about a week or so prior to adding your little friends. This helps ensure a proper environment for your worms. It allows for the moisture to balance in the bin, but also allow microbes to built up on the rotting food. Lovely right? Well your worms think so. This may surprise you but the worms don't actually eat your yummy food scraps. They eat the microorganisms that break down that organic waste. Of course if you already have your worms, that's okay too. You can go ahead and add them.

As you proceed with your bin, you will most likely be letting the food rot a bit before adding it to your bin. If you compost outdoors, then you are probably in the habit of keeping a smaller bucket of scraps somewhere within easy access and then dumping the bucket into your compost pile all at once. If you do this with your worm bin the time it takes to fill the bucket will allow the microbes to start establishing themselves.

Be sure to rotate where you add your food scraps. Start by adding scraps in one corner, then the next time add in the next corner. This way the worms won't be overwhelmed by "fresh" food. They will follow the food when it has broken down enough for their liking.


-More paper on the surface keeps bugs at bay (although you will always have some)
-Although "allowed" I find avocado peels do not break down and are a real pain to deal with when harvesting the compost. I only put these in my outdoor bin.
-It is better to ignore your bin than feed it too much. I've left my bins for months at a time and though breeding may not be ideal, there are still plenty of worms and rich compost
-If you are worried that your worms are starving, give them a squash. They love squash.
-The internet is full of resources, tips and advice, much more than I can provide in one post.
-Most importantly, don't worry about it! A worm bin is very simple and low maintenance. Don't stress about doing things exactly right, have fun with it!

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