What is composting?
Decomposition is a natural biological process in which organic material such as leaves, grass, clippings and food waste break down (decay) with the help of decomposers. The end result is humus, a dark, rich organic substance consisting of partially or wholly decayed matter that provides nutrients for plants and increases the ability of soil to retain water. While decomposition occurs naturally, composting allows us to take advantage of the process. There are many forms of composting: commercial, backyard, anaerobic, bokashi, and VERMICOMPOSTING. No matter which process is used, composting is a natural method of recycling organic waste (food waste and yard waste) into earthy-smelling, nutrient rich humus. It’s an effective method of reducing the amount of organic waste a household typically throws in the garbage.
The benefits of composting are twofold:
Waste Reduction: According to the EPA, the total amount of Municipal Solid Waste generated in 2017 was approximately 268 million tons, of which, 67 million tons was recycled, 27 million tons was composted, and 139.6 million tons was landfilled. Of the material landfilled in 2017, 21.9% (approximately 30 million tons) was food waste and 6.2 % (approximately 8 million tons) was yard waste. Consequently, 28% of the material that is in a landfill does not need to be there. That would be 28% less material contributing to the production of methane gas and leachates within landfills if it had instead been composted.
Soil remediation: By composting food waste and yard waste, decomposers break down the waste into compost, a nutrient rich material that promotes healthy vegetation growth. Compost contains nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous as well as secondary nutrients such as calcium, that are necessary for plant growth, photosynthesis, seed development, and disease prevention. Since compost is created through a natural process, plants can absorb the nutrients more easily than nutrients from manmade products. Furthermore, compost aids in water retention as soil that is rich in organic matter can hold on to moisture longer. Adding compost to a garden can increase the water holding capacity of the soil and thus reduce the need to frequently water the plants.
What is Vermicomposting?
Vermi means worms in Latin. So, vermicomposting is WORM COMPOSTING. Like other decomposers, worms are busy recyclers, breaking down organic matter and creating that nutrient rich material, compost. In the case of vermicomposting, the finished product has a variety of names; compost, black gold, or worm castings. We can also call it what it is, worm POOP.
Like all compost, worm castings are beneficial for plants. Specifically, the castings make a great additive for houseplants. Just spread it up to ¼ inch thick on top of topsoil. For garden plants, sprinkle the castings into the seed row or transplant hole. Layer the castings around foundation plants, such as azaleas and rhododendrons. They love worm castings.
Why compost with worms?
Vermicomposting can be done on a small scale, as it requires minimal space. No yard is required. The worm bin can be placed indoors and so it is a great idea for an apartment, condo, or classroom (The bin cannot be in a location that will freeze or overheat, it must stay between 55-75 °F ). Because the bin is indoors, it is easier to access than a traditional backyard composting bin. A cold, snowy, or rainy day will not deter a person from adding material to the bin. Vermicomposting also has less of an odor and it yields faster results than backyard composting.
What kind of worms?
Redworms (Eisenia foetida), also commonly known as brandling worm, panfish worm, trout worm, tiger worm, or red wiggler is a great choice for vermicomposting. Lumbricus rubellus, also has a common name of red earthworm and can also be used as a composting worm. Both types of worms are excellent composters as both worms are epigeic worms, surface dwellers instead of soil dwellers (endogeic). They can be found in the first 6 inches of soil, and feed only on organic material, not soil. They are not powerful burrowers, but instead prefer to live in loose organic material such as leaf piles. They will not survive in most gardens unless there is a thick layer of organic matter on top. In fact, both species are technically invasive species in North America.
The Redworm is a successful composter because they:
• Feed on organic matter
• Process material fast
• Tolerate a wide range of temperatures (55-75 °F), acidity, and moisture conditions.
• Live in leaf piles which is easy to replicate with shredded newspaper in a bin.
• Fast reproducers
• Withstand handling; can be shipped by mail or delivery service.
What type of Bin to Use?
Westmoreland Cleanways- Instructions to Build a Worm Bin
There are a variety of premade bins or worm farms available for purchase online. Alternatively, you can build your own bin. When deciding which route to go, you must weigh your time and effort against cost. Store bought worm bins will cost more upfront, but in most cases provide for easier harvesting of the compost. The bins consist of stacking trays with screens for bottoms. The worms travel up from tray to tray in the search for food, while the compost falls through the screens to the bottom. On the other hand, homemade bins are much cheaper. A plastic storage bin (at least 12-15 inches deep) with a lid works well. Just add ventilation holes along the sides of the bin and in the lid to allow air circulation for the worms. Although cheaper, DIY bins will involve more time and work when harvesting the compost. In this case, there are no screens, instead you will have to devise a system to separate the worms from the finished compost. (see harvest instructions under Worm Bin Care)
The size of the bin needs to be sufficient for the amount of food waste created within the household. A half pound of food waste per day requires a worm bin that has at least four feet of surface area. So, you would need a 2′ x 2′ bin.
(chart taken from “Ultimate Guide to DIY Worm Composting for beginners” by Bethany Hayes)
Worm Bin Care
(Please note that a store bought bins will have specific directions for that container, the instructions provided below are for DIY bins and general information) Westmoreland Cleanways- Worm Bin and Care Instructions
Bedding provides air pockets, moisture and a source of carbon for the worms as the worms will eat the bedding. Add at least 4-6 inches of bedding to the bottom of the bin. Shredded newspaper works well. Bits of carboard, leaves and sawdust can also be included, but are not necessary. A worm doesn’t have a nose, instead it absorbs oxygen through its skin. For the air to be absorbed into the body, the worm’s skin must be moist. For this to occur, the bedding must also be damp. Keep the bedding damp by using a spray bottle or lightly pour water over the newspaper. Bedding should be as damp as a wrung-out sponge and occasionally fluffed to create air pockets. Over the bedding, place a sheet of newspaper, or burlap. This will help slow down the rate of water evaporation.
Temperature/Light (where to store the bin)
Redworms prefer a temperature between 55° and 75° F. The colder the temperature, the slower the worms will eat and reproduce, and extreme temperatures can kill your worms. You will know your worms are cold if they huddle together in a writhing mass. On the other hand, if the bin gets too hot, the worms will try to escape. Because of this, you should never place your worm bin in direct sunlight or near a heating or cooling vent.
Even though worms don’t have eyes, they are very sensitive to light. Therefore, keep the lid on the bin to minimize the amount of light. If the room is dark enough, slightly crack the lid to aid in air flow.
Besides light, worms are sensitive to vibrations as they “see” by feeling. Keep the bin away from dish washers, washing machines and driers.
Worms have tiny mouths and no teeth. When possible, break the food into smaller pieces in order for the worms to process the food faster. It is essential that the food be buried within the bedding so as not to attract fruit flies.
Redworms eat organic matter such as:
Vegetable scraps and peels
Breads and pastas
Cereals (avoid super sugary cereals)
Leaves and grass clippings
DO NOT include:
Meat and Fish (odor causing)
Dairy products (odor causing)
Overly salty food
Overly sugary food
A large amount of citrus (affects the pH levels in the bin)
Once the majority of the bedding has been eaten, it is time to harvest the compost. At this time, do not add more food or water to the bin. This is the only permitted time to allow the material to dry out slightly. The drier the compost the easier it is to separate the worms from the castings. There are a variety of methods to harvest the compost. Using trial and error, pick the technique that works best for you.
1. Push the compost to one side and add fresh bedding and food scraps to the other. Over a few weeks, the worms will move to the fresh bedding, and then the compost can be removed. Keep in mind, especially if introducing invasive animals to your garden is a concern, that worm cocoons and the very young worms will not transfer over.
2. Dump the entire contents of the bin on to a covered work table. Depending on space, you can work with 1 large pile, or separate the contents into a few small piles to make them easier to work with. Using a small paint brush and a work light, systematically separate the worms from the compost. Shine the light on to an area of the compost pile for 20 minutes or so. The worms will wiggle away from the light. Then using the paint brush sort through that lighted area looking for eggs, the young and any stragglers. Repeat until the entire pile is gone. This process typically takes a few days. When not actively harvesting the compost, place a newspaper over the pile to protect the worms from the light.
3. Dump everything onto a tarp outside on a sunny day. Heap the compost into a pyramid and wait for the worms to move to the bottom of the pyramid. Brush the compost off the outside of the pyramid and wait for the worms to burrow deeper. Keep doing this until you are left with a ball of worms.
Worm bin odor– There is too much food in the bin in relation to the number of worms and the amount of bedding. Solution: Add dry bedding and stop or reduce the amount of food being added to the bin.
Worms are inactive– If the bedding is too dry, the worms will become inactive, as their skin must be wet to breath. Check the bedding moisture. If you scoop up a handful of bedding, the bedding should not feel dry and crunchy. Instead it should feel like a wrung-out sponge. Solution: 1. Because water flows down to the bottom of the bin, mix the bottom bedding to incorporate it into the drier top layers. 2. Add water to the bin.
Fruit Flies– Fruit flies are attracted to the rotting food, especially if the food is not buried. Solution: Use a hand rake to bury the food deeper in the bin, add more bedding, and place a sheet of newspaper over the top of the bedding.
For questions about vermicomposting, contact our Program Director by email or call 724-879-4020.
The Worm Bin is a popular tool for getting students interested in the environment. Young learners have the opportunity to make observations and gain respect for living organisms. Older students can focus on the biology involved in decomposition and plant nutrient levels.
Westmoreland Cleanways maintains two worm bins for use in schools. This can consist solely of a presentation or can include care of the bin for up to a month. Students feed the redworms vegetable scraps, fruit peelings and bread from their lunches and watch the worms digest these materials and produce worm castings (compost). Contact our Program Director by email or call 724-879-4020 for more information or to schedule a presentation.
For other educational programs, make sure to visit our Speakers Bureau page.
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