Vermicomposting: An Earth Day resolution you won’t want to wriggle out of

Each year since 1970, Earth Day rolls around on April 22, and we all make plans to be more ecologically minded. But the problem is that Earth Day plans are a lot like New Year’s Eve resolutions: We intend to do something great, but other things get in the way.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we tend to think in too large in scale. After all, who is really going to commit to losing 50 pounds in a year? Wouldn’t losing, say, 10 pounds be a more reasonable goal? And instead of trying to save the earth all at once, what if we just began with a small step? Maybe something like starting a vermicomposting bin.

“Vermi-what?” you might ask. Quite simply, vermicomposting is when you recycle your food scraps from the kitchen by feeding them to worms, which in turn digest your scraps and change them into nutrient-rich fertilizer. And there are an increasing number of people who are doing it.

For example, Mary Cox, an employee at Worm’s Way Organic Garden and Home Brew Center in Creve Coeur, has had her own worm bin for years. “I first got into vermicomposting because it produces some of the best soil amendment you can find, and it’s the only kind I can produce at home. I mean, seaweed also works very well as a soil amendment, but it’s not like I can go harvest some seaweed whenever I want.”

Barbara Addelson, senior manager of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Education Division, also had her own worm bin for eight years. “I originally created a worm bin as part of an educational program that I was part of, which focused on teaching teachers how to start their own bins,” Addelson said. “I liked the bin I created at work so much that I ended up creating one for my home and kept it down in the basement. I really liked how it cut down on the amount of kitchen scraps I had to throw away, and I was rewarded with organic fertilizer.”

The next question you might ask is how to start one of these bins yourself. One option is to head to Worm’s Way and buy your very own Wormtopia kit. This is the Cadillac of worm bins. It features everything you need to get started as well as a snazzy, stacking four-tray system.

“This makes it easy to collect the worm castings,” Cox explained. “All you have to do is remove the bottom tray, collect the worm castings and then place the bottom tray on the top tray.” In addition, the stacked trays give the Wormtopia a pretty cool look, something that’s hard to pull off in a worm bin.

The Wormtopia also features a “tea” collector, which amounts to a spout at the bottom of the tray that you can use to drain the “worm tea.” While the notion of “worm tea” may sound disgusting, it’s actually a very good supplier of nutrients for plants and is already in a liquid form.

One possible drawback for those on a budget is Wormtopia’s price. The bin costs $109.95 and the kit (with worms and a detailed book) will set you back $149.95. However, for those who do not wish to spend as much money, there are less-expensive options.

“I created my worm bin from a 10-gallon Rubbermaid Roughneck, which I bought at Target [for] around $10,” Addelson said. “Then I drilled several nickel-sized holes into the bottom to allow for aeration and placed the bin on bricks so that the air could circulate underneath. I kept the top covered with a lid to prevent fruit flies from getting in.”

While Addelson’s solution may not be as attractive as the Wormptopia, it serves the same purpose: It provides an aerated and enclosed space to set up your vermicompost. And as long as the worms have enough air, moisture and food, they tend to not care about brand names.

Once you have your bin ready to go, the next consideration is bedding. A simple solution to the bedding is to use shredded newspaper. To figure out how much newspaper you will need, find out how many cubic feet your bin can hold. For each cubic foot the bin can hold, you will need about 2.5 pounds of newspaper.

“You also want to make sure that the newspaper is wet but not soggy,” Addelson noted. “Since worms are composed of about 75 percent water, you want your newspaper to be about the same.” If you slept through most of ninth grade algebra, don’t worry; all you have to do is multiply the number of pounds of newspaper you are using by three. That will tell you how many pounds of water you will need. Also, throw a couple of handfuls of dirt in with your bedding, and the worms will feel right at home in your bin.

The next consideration for your worm bin is, of course, the worms. “You have to use a specific kind of worm,” Cox said. “Many people think of night crawlers when they think of worms, but that kind of worm won’t work because they eat mostly soil. What you want is the type of worm called the red wiggler.”

“We buy our red wigglers from a local bait shop that is nearby,” Addelson said. “You usually want about a pound to a pound and a half of worms to start out with. After that, the worms will reproduce on their own. All you have to do is put the worms in the bedding, and they will disappear down into the bedding quite quickly.” If you’re feeling a bit apprehensive about asking the local bait-store owner to show you his red wigglers, you can request the worm by its scientific name, eisenia fetida. And if there isn’t a local bait shop nearby, you can buy red wigglers at Worm’s Way, as well as online.

Now you’re ready to start vermicomposting. “I recommend putting in no more than about a pound of food scraps every two or three days for the first month,” Addelson said. “Simply bury your scraps into the worm bedding and the worms will do the rest.”

However, just as in regular compost bins, there are certain foods that you should never put in your vermicomposting bin. “You never want to put any meat, dairy or grease products in your bin because they will make your bin smell bad. If you stay away from these things, your bin should never have any real smell to it,” said Cox. “You also want to stay away from lemon and lime peels because they upset the pH of the bin.” Addelson also recommended not putting in anything that will be hard for the worms to break down, like large stems of broccoli.

Beyond that, the worms are not especially picky eaters. “You can put in egg shells or coffee grounds or empty the tea leaves from tea bags and the worms will eat it right up,” Cox said. “And you can put pretty much any kind of vegetable scrap or apple cores or anything like that in the bin and the worms will digest it.”

Addelson recommended removing the worm castings, i.e. the fertilizer, every three to four months. If you shelled out the big bucks for the Wormtopia, just follow Cox’s advice from above. If you went the way of the Rubbermaid, the process is only slightly harder. “What I like to do is get a big plastic sheet like a curtain liner, which I spread out on the ground outside,” Addelson said. “Then I empty my bin onto the sheet and sort the worms out from the castings. Then I add fresh bedding and the whole process starts again.”