To most people who use worms to breakdown household kitchen scraps and especially to experienced vermiculturalists, a seething mass of healthy red, squirming compost worms delights the eyes. It means our efforts to utilize compostable vegetative waste has been successful, and there’s a rich treasure of soil to help raise healthy plants. To me it’s akin to alchemical magic, transforming waste into black gold.
Ideal for the gardener who has a small to medium-sized garden and no real access to bountiful plant waste to make a regular compost heap, the worm compost provides even an apartment dweller with rich soil for containers and flower boxes. Worm composting is simple to set up although I find its maintenance requires more attention to assure minimum odors if done indoors. If done outdoors, it is still a good habit to keep odors under control so as not to attract raccoons and rats. There is a plethora of videos, books, and websites that show and explain their construction so I won’t be going over that. This article is to share my journey and what has worked for me.
I grew up on a rural farmstead in north Idaho in the 50’s and 60’s. My family raised a variety of animals over time, adding their manures in the fall and spring to enrich and enliven the garden and orchard soils. Most of our household scraps were tossed to the chickens who dutifully did their duty of turning them into manure which we added to the garden. There was also a compost pile surrounded by railroad ties stuck off to the side into which stalks, weeds, etc. were piled and occasionally turned. No thought at the time was given to the leaching of creosote out of the bin but only that the ties wouldn’t deteriorate. The material in this pile served as a source for earthworms as bait for fishing expeditions and when there was enough broken down to have produced soil, it was tossed around the trees in the orchard, under the raspberry bushes, or under the shrubs in the flower gardens.
When Michael and I moved to Alaska, I was told you couldn’t compost so being the person who likes to take on a gardening dare, I found you could if you used a shredder first and turned the pile often and sifted it before applying to the gardens. I also ordered worms from the “Outside” and added them to our greenhouse beds each year. The worms froze during the severe freezes of winter except for a few worms I found one spring. We had a garden down below at the old, ramshackle homestead for a couple of summers which was hand watered from a nearby pond, before building our own place by hand with new gardens and greenhouse along with house, sauna, dog lot, etc. above the road. Quite the endeavor!
Our food compostables were fed to a flock of chickens we raised each summer which had to be penned up because of the foxes, weasels, owls, wolves, bears, coyotes, etc., that would have done them in. We butchered each fall and the feathers, offal along with additional kitchen wastes were shredded, too. Of course, the bins were outside, well secured, turned often, and kept meticulously clean so as not to attract critters, especially the bears. With the long days of summer and with water hauled from the lake or gravel pit or collected during rainfalls, our gardens and greenhouse which incorporated drip irrigation were spectacular, if you don’t mind my saying so.
Moving back “Stateside,” I found living in town to require a different approach although we tried building regular layered composts which needed to heat up in order to kill the disease organisms and weed seeds. Eventually, worms started to invade from the bottom up as it cooled down and in order to save time and energy to pursue our gardening and herbal chores instead, we incorporated composting worms or red wrigglers with a large starter mass from a friend who owned a restaurant and was using worms to break down his compostables including copious amounts of coffee grounds.
We went through several incarnations of compost bins which Michael made including one in which a panel at the bottom of the bin allowed us to access the rich soil that eventually accumulated.
Over time we settled on stackable bins where we could add vegetative parts including household scraps, leaves, weeds, coffee grounds, etc., and the worms could do their duty. After the materials gained a certain height, they were turned and piled into another set of stackable bins, back and forth until they were almost totally broken down. I found the worms were most productive by this method if carefully turned and thus exposed to the new territorial food sources. To separate the worms at the end, I’d put in a rich wad of fresh kitchen wastes at the top and a good amount of worms migrated to begin “eating” through the scraps. This was then taken out and stored until I sifted the finished compost and then the whole process was started again.
First we’d pile a layer of rough weed stalks, then some of the composted soil full of healthy organisms which I collected and set aside before sifting, the wad of worms and new scraps, etc., allowing the worms to work their way upwards as the wastes get tossed in and periodically turned.
Our gardens also received copious amounts of birch leaves collected in the fall which went through a leaf shredder and then turned into the beds by hand. Additional fish emulsion and some manures were added, as well, to enrich the soil but always side-dressed with compost.
In Hawaii, I simply took my kitchen scraps across the street and threw them into the jungle where they magically disappeared overnight and seemed to keep the vermin away from our side.
Moving to Sequim, WA, because I didn’t want to waste the scraps from our lovely organic produce we are able to procure, I started a small wormery in a plastic storage bin which we had many of with our recent move from Hawaii. Michael drilled holes in the sides for ventilation because worms are living creatures who require food, air and space to grow.
The bin was stacked on top of two, upside down flower pots in another bin to collect the occasional moisture that dripped through due to the plastic nature of the bin and all the moist food the worms ate through. The bin has a secure top because we have a family of raccoons living close by and although they never have bothered it, there’s no reason not to think one night they might investigate.
I got a few starter worms from friends and it wasn’t long before I had a plethora of wrigglers which I started giving away to a friend who has an orchard, gardens, and much larger compost pile. I couldn’t use all the compost my worms produced for our container gardens so decided to harvest the worms often and she uses all the worms I breed to help breakdown their ever-growing garden wastes. She also takes my excess kitchen scraps and adds them to her pile.
For me it is a delight to open the bin and investigate what’s happening in the worms’ world. Having raised and lived with so many generations, I swear they know me and I get these messages of when to come visit, what to add, and when to add it. Sometimes they want something sweet such as fruit, other times I add protein-based fat such as beef fat off the bone broths. I especially find this request coming at a time when it turns cold. The sweeter contents are tossed in when the worms are actively breeding and producing eggs. All is covered with brown paper before topping with a secure lid to keep out raccoons.
So I do hope you find worm composting to be an effective way to turn your kitchen scraps into gold and enjoy the process involved with their bountiful gifting efforts.