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Recycle Your Food and Paper Waste with Worms

Vermicompost = Worm Power

Earthworms turn food and paper waste (any organic matter) into an elite waste product that plants love and need. You can harness this power in plastic bins.

A happy healthy earthworm, not to be confused with a caterpillar or larvae, can live 5 to 15 years. In the happy worm temperature of 50 to 75 degrees with lots to eat, a worm will make a cocoon of 2 to 12 babies about every two weeks. Those babies will be ready to make their own cocoons in about 2 weeks. The earthworm is a true contender for world domination. Luckily for us, they have no teeth and no eyes.

Worms eat your food scraps and paper waste to create worm castings. That’s the polite term for “worm poop”. Castings are a nutrient rich compost amendment for your plants.  Vermicomposting keeps your food waste out of the landfill and out of your yard waste compost where rats and mice can get to it. 

Just Do It

#1 You need a quality plastic chest-type container with a lid, at least 12 inches deep. Wooden boxes rot and preservative coatings are not designed to stay moist constantly. My old bins were Rubber Maid. My new bins are durable heavy-duty black plastic containers from Costco or Home Depot. These are made of stronger material and have the extra benefit of being black, sheltering your worm kids from the light.

#2 Drill 10 or 12 Half Inch Holes in the bottom of the container for drainage. Food is wet. Some people catch the drips and make worm casting/poop tea for their potted plants. Drainage is important. Worms can drown.

#3 Place Your Bin away from direct sunlight. If you live in a place that gets extremely cold winters (well below freezing) or extremely hot summers (weeks in the 90s and 100s), you may want to pull the bin into an outbuilding or garage. A few days in the 20s or 90s or 100s won’t kill them all. They will bounce back. If you are placing your bin on a deck, patio or in a building, you may want to place a drip tray under your bin.

#4 Add 4 to 6 Inches Moistened Bedding. The worms used for worm bins are surface dwellers. They don’t mind being in the food, but they like to have a break from the heat and acids from the decomposition of food waste. Paper bedding gives them this space, and they eventually eat the paper. The best bedding is a mix of shredded newsprint, junk mail, catalogues, and office paper. Hand shredded is fine. Newspaper retains needed moisture, but it creates an impenetrable mat. Office paper provides openings for worm transit, but it doesn’t hold moisture very well. You have what you have.  Worms don't eat staples, plastic, paper clips, or the window of window envelopes.

#5 Add Food Waste from vegetables just under the bedding. Animal products (aka meat and dairy) have an unpleasant (understatement) odor as they wait to be consumed. Worms are omnivores and will eat it, odor or not.  I have read warnings about feeding worms onions and citrus. The acids in these foods dissipate in time and then the worms eat them. After this first seeding of the bin with food before the worm residents arrive, place subsequent installments of food waste on top of the paper. When the layer of bedding is covered with food waste, add a little layer of paper shreds on top. This is less disruptive than digging into their residence. The paper shreds cut down on fruit fly access.

#6 Add Worms. Red worms or red wigglers are surface dwelling worms and are great for composting. People with worm bins have worms to share. Inquire in your local FaceBook, NextDoor or gardening groups. You can get them through your local plant nursery. You can order worms from online sources. How many? A bunch. A big bunch if you can.

#7 Place a Black Trash Bag atop the bedding. Cut it in half so there is only one layer of plastic over the worms. Otherwise, they go exploring inside the bag. The bag holds in moisture and blocks any light that filters into the bin.

#8 Place the lid on your bin. It should be snug.


Should I put worms in my garden?

You can, but unless your garden has lots of organic matter to eat, you are sending them to their deaths.

If I cut a worm in half, do I get 2 worms?

No, you do not get 2 worms. You get a dead worm or a horribly mutilated worm. 

Harvesting Your Worm Bin

When your worm bin becomes full, it is time to harvest. I use the Sunny Day Dump method every spring. I add the harvested castings to my yard waste compost that sits finishing for a season. Since I use No Till gardening and add my amendments as a garden top dressing, this season hold-over keeps left over food bits off the surface of the garden and the holdover prevents unconsumed seeds from spouting in the garden.

Two Simple Methods

The 1/3 Removal: As the worm bin becomes over half full, focus food waste additions to one side of the bin. When you see few worms and little remaining food waste on the unfed side, remove that unfed side. It will be about 1/3rd of your bin. A few months later, do the other side. I have tried this method but opt for the other method for a few reasons.  More uneaten food waste is transferred out of the bin. More worms are lost in the transfer. Also, with the 1/3 Removal method, there is no regular access to the drain holes, which crust over with time.

The Sunny Day Dump: On a sunny day, overturn your bin and dump the contents onto a tarp. Ensure that the bin drain holes are open and return bin to original position. The now top of the heap will look like dark rich soil. Those are the castings. Most of the worms will be with the food and bedding. Scoop off the casting layer. Return the uneaten food waste and bedding to your bin and add a new top layer of bedding. Done.

Using this vermicompost system keeps your food and paper waste from going to the landfill or feeding your local rats and mice. It is easy. I have been doing vermicompost for nearly 30 years. I managed to drown a bin full of worms and I just lost 3 bins full of worms to the Central Texas summer temps of over 100 for months on end. I am working on a new strategy to keep the kids cool. Life is a work in progress.

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