We’re worm keepers. They save us money on organic soil purchases, they help me keep newspaper clutter down. They eat up all our vegetable, fruit and grain scraps.  They’re quite and clean. I love our worms.   Here is some information I’ve gathered.

  • ORGANIC MATTER: Anything made of living or once-living animals or plants. This can include paper, cotton socks, hair clippings, eggshells, wooden rulers,corn husks, and leaves.

    PEOPLE PRODUCE GARBAGE: Approximate 600 pounds of solid waste per year! An estimated 10%-20% is organic waste and can be recycled into a rich source of nutrients for plants and trees using vermi-composting (composting with worms!).

    WORMS EAT ORGANIC MATTER AND HELP PLANTS GROW: Worms eat and digest organic matter, burrow through the soil, and leave behind castings (manure) – a super source of nutrients for plants and trees. This is a SLOW-release, organic fertilizer, that will not burn plants.

    Within the gut of a worm, soil and decomposed organic material are mixed. The sand or soil in the worm’s gut helps break down the organic particles and is mixed together with microscopic bacteria, fungi, and mold. When the worm excretes the castings (manure) the microorganisms in the castings add to the health of the soil. They are all held together in a sheath that acts like a binder and dissolves slowly over time as food for plants. Cool.

    SOME WORM FACTS: No worm diseases are communicable to humans Worms have no bones, eyes, arms or legs Worms are hermaphroditic – having the reproductive parts of both the male and female. In the wild, worms can consume up to their own weight in organic food every day. Eisenia fetida –the preferred composting worm, known as the red worm, is top feeder staying less than 12 inches below the ground. Worms breathe through their skin. Worms need a great deal of moisture but can’t swim. Worms are nocturnal – and for a good reason. Direct sunlight can kill them in less than three minutes. The first 1/3 of a worm’s body contains most of the vital organs – the rest 2/3 of a worm are the intestines. Salt is harmful, even fatal to worms. Worms can’t hear but they respond to vibration, light, and temperature. Adult Red Worms have between 80-120 circular rings on its body. Setae, little hair-like legs help the worm tunnel, move and grip onto objects. Satae is made from same thing as fingernails. Worms have 5 hearts (more to love!) Worms have a mouth but NO teeth.  The worm produces enzymes which act as both insecticide and antibiotic for the worm. These are passed on to the plants as they absorb the worm castings. Worms and plants have a symbiotic relationship.

    SETTING UP THE BIN: Worms need a roomy “floor space” but anything deeper than 12” will not be used by the worm. A worm bin can be made from just about any old (untreated) wooden box, plastic bin, metal drum, even an old baking pan.

    I started out with a 10-14 gallon Rubbermaid or Sterilite-type storage bin found in Target or Wal-Mart. Do not use a clear bin because worms like it dark! Drill ¼ holes approximately 4” apart in the lid and bottom. These holes are for air flow and drainage. NOTE: Worms will try to escape through the holes if there is a major problem in the bin. See trouble shooting below

    Take an old cotton shirt or pillow case and soak it in water. Squeeze the water out and use it to cover the bottom. This allows excess moister to drain out while keeping the bedding in!

    Yes, worms need bedding. We use shredded newspaper and cardboard that is soaked in water for 24 hours to make sure any chlorine evaporates. The bedding should be damp but not wet! If you can squeeze more than two drops of water from the bedding it is too wet. Fluff the bedding and fill the bin almost to the top.

    Worms need soil or sand to act as “grit” in their guts. Worms also need other organic matter to help break down food small enough for the worm to eat. A handful of organic potting soil (NO FERTILIZER) should have enough microorganisms to get the bin started.

    Eventually you might find mold, fungi, bacteria, sow bugs, Springtails (tiny bugs), grubs, and mites in your ecosystem that act as PRE-DIGESTERS. These are all part of your mini ecosystem

    You can also use aged compost or manure from goats, cows, horses, rabbits, or chickens in place of potting soil but DO NOT use human, dog, or cat manure.

    Now it’s time to add the composting worms. We only use red wiggler worms. The worms will need a few days to settle into their new digs. You may keep your worm bin under the kitchen sink or in the laundry room – anywhere it is not too hot or cold. There are many places to buy worms. WORMS GROW: An adult (3 month old) worm can produce 2-3 cocoons per week. 11 weeks later the cocoons hatch. Each cocoon produces around 3 hatchlings and in 2-3 months they are ready to produce. A population can double very quickly. IDEA: Do the math and figure out how many worms you’ll have in a year if you start with two, or eight, or twenty.

    A worm cocoon is small yellow lemon-shaped object about the size of an “O”. Hatchlings first appear white then turn pink and finally red after around eight hours. The little buggers are HUNGRY and can eat!

    WORMS EAT: How much to feed worms? In captivity they will only eat about half their weight per day. In a container collect kitchen scraps of organic matter listed below. Chopping and freezing waste aides in the molecular breakdown. Soaking cotton, paper towels & cardboard help too and add moisture to the bin.

    Do feed them: Apples, pears, banana peels, bread, corn cobs & husks, coffee grounds and filters, veggies or all types, egg shells (they need the calcium!!), tomatoes, melon rinds, onion peels, celery sticks, carrot tops, cardboard, paper, old cotton socks, oatmeal, muffins, strawberry tops, rotting lettuce, napkins, and honeydew melon to name a few.

    Do NOT feed them: Salt or salty items such as potato chips, milk or creams, dairy items such as cheese, no meats, pressure treated wood, grass or leaves that may have been treated with pesticides, snack foods like fries, olives, no carbon paper, animal manure, citrus waste (oranges & lemons), vinegar, green grass (they create high temperature) alcohol, fruit pits, chemicals of any kind, or plastics.

    Trouble shooting: Trouble is bound to happen. After all this is a LIVING ecosystem with many variables to consider such as temperature, food, chemicals, bedding, and nature itself. Part of the learning process is to observe, come up with theories, experiment, take corrective action, adjust and make conclusions…THINK!

    Too wet? Add dry cardboard to soak up some moisture.

    Have ants? It’s too dry or exposed food. Add some water or frozen foods to bedding and bury the food just under the bedding.

    Have many mites? It could be too wet or you may have too much food.

    It smells! Lack of air, too wet –try to fluff bin, bury food, add dry bedding, & check drainage. A healthy worm bin should have a pleasant earthy, forest smell. Anything else is a red flag that something is wrong.

    Have fruit flies? –You probably have exposed food – bury food just under bedding Have white thread-like worms? These are natural. Do nothing.

    Worms try to escape? May be too wet, did you add salty foods, chemicals, maybe overpopulation is happening. Is the temperature too hot (do not keep over 84 degrees).

    THE HARVEST: In 4-6 months from building the worm bin you can harvest! The day before harvesting the worms shred and soak newspaper for new bedding you will need. On the harvesting day take a plastic table cloth and lay it out on a table outside. Wear gloves (to avoid getting our oils on the worm cocoons). Make 4- 5 cone-shaped mounds of humus on the table. The worms will dive down for cover to escape the sunlight. Take this time to prepare your new bin. Every five minutes or so take the top 2-3” layer of the mound off and put aside in another container – this is the HUMUS – the good stuff we’ve been waiting for! Continue until you are left with mostly worms and quickly add those worms to new bin. Extra worms can be used for another bin.

    Castings (worm manure or humus) can be used right away as plant food or fertilizer. It will not burn plants and is safe to use even indoors around pets. IDEA: Experiment to see if plants grow faster and taller with your worm casting fertilizer or with store-bought chemical ones.

    WORM TEAS – or liquid fertilizer is another great product to use.–Take one cup of castings and place in a sock, stocking (no fishnets) or cheesecloth. Soak in one gallon of water for three days. Pour liquid into a small spray bottle to use on household plants. You can still use the castings from the tea in your home or school garden! GREAT FUNDRAISING IDEA – Package worm castings or Worm Tea and sell to parents, teachers or neighbors for fundraising projects.

    Resources for worms: Southern Oregon Sanitation, sometimes have worms available at their Grants Pass location at 1381 Redwood Avenue. It is recommended that you call first to see if they have them available at 541-479-5335.

    Ladybug Indoor Gardens – 3960 W. Main Street Medford, 541.618.4459 $30 per lb. or $20 for a ½ lb.

    Internet resources specifically in Oregon: – Corvallis, – McMinnville, – Bend A great reference for getting started and maintaining a worm bin is the book “Worms Eat My Garbage” by Mary Applehof. It’s published by Flower Press; ISBN # is 0-942256-03-4.

    There are  also several resources online about vermi-composting.

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