November 11, 2022

A New Colony

 …of worms!

Back in the 90s, we had a good landlord who let me put a composter in the corner of the property. It was shaded, though, and there were only two of us generating waste, so it never got "hot" enough to really work. I'd seen Mary Appelhof's "Worms Eat My Garbage" somewhere and gave worm composting in my apartment a go. I filled a Rubbermaid bin with shredded newspaper, added worms, and fed them kitchen scraps. The bin worked pretty well. Until I made two mistakes which sent me running out the door and dumping the entire contents into the outdoor composter. Afterwards, that thing kicked butt!

It worked so well, we ran 2 full size composters in Colorado. Now we live in condo with no place for one! I've had to peel carrots, potatoes, shuck corn over the garbage can. Painful! It was time to revisit the indoor worm bin. The memory of running out of the house with cold, gooey worms stuck to my hands still vivid, I wanted something I knew was designed well, compact, and portable for our next move. And having just invested in a new suite of stainless appliances, it also had to look stylish in my kitchen. So here it is, my Wow Worm Farm from Gardener's Supply Company.

Glenniwick enjoys walking in the forest, teasing fairies, and gathering nuts and berries. And now he enjoys worm farming!

My goal with this post is to offer a guide to getting started with vermicomposting, so here we go!

Even before we sold our Colorado house, I knew we'd be moving twice and I got into a weird habit of taking pictures of how new things arrived, to make packing easy. It's a weird way to live, permanently temporary. Anyway, here's a picture of the Wow Worm Farm packing order. It's smartly nested in a perfectly sized box, with a short length of kraft paper that serves both as void filler and bedding material for your worms (not included). I purchased mine from Uncle Jim's because it seems like an established and reliable purveyor. Their website has a lot of good information on vermicomposting, too.

Wow Worm Farm, unboxed.
The Wow Worm Farm assembles easily with no tools. Much like a beehive, the two "living" levels are interchangeable, with holes through which the worms can pass when moving from one to the next, and the lid is ventilated. Fresh air flow was a key feature missing from my DIY bin and let me tell you, the worms did not like that. A bottom tray catches excess liquid, leachate. Not to be confused with "worm tea," leachate isn't a by-product of fully composted waste. And since it isn't a finished product, using it on plants isn't recommended. Worm tea is liquid strained from finished compost that's been steeped. I'll let you know if it's as great a fertilizer as it's said to be, once my compost is mature.
Putting them over their first batch of feed: dilapidated salad greens (why is it the red leaf lettuce always go slimy in the box first?) and carrot peels. The Rubbermaid tub, though not great for my DIY worm bin, was ideal for hydrating the bedding.

I think it may be a little while, but fully expect my antsy patience to turn into panic. Worms are able to double their population every 90 days (or something like that), so I opted to start with a small colony, a nuc as it were. One hundred worms fit my budget better than a thousand, which seems the norm to start, but it means a slow start for our worm bin.

The worms arrived in dry peat (not sure if it's coco or sphagnum peat), the darker material you see in the black container that I hydrated them in. The lighter color bedding is a peat-free blend I'm testing. In case you didn't know, peat moss-based potting mixes are terrible, environmentally speaking. I encourage you to do some research, to learn how it's simultaneously not sustainable and detrimental to the planet. If you're starting a worm bin, too, yes, worms love peat and will thrive in it. But I hope my worm bin will inspire you to go peat-free.

Spent mushroom growing substrate and mycelium (white fuzz on the stems of mushrooms) are a favorite food of composting worms.

Almost two weeks in, the worms are liking the peat alternative but the carrot peels remain largely visible if I go digging at all. Apparently I need a colony of beneficial microbes to become established (and you're not supposed to give them "leftovers of stalk vegetables" in the beginning). It turns out that the worms don't actually eat the kitchen scraps; they eat the decomposed remains of them, and that work is done by a microbial community. I used an Oatly carton to have decomposing feed ready when the worms arrived, but with just 100 worms I couldn't put more than a couple of tablespoons in the bin. Especially when getting started, it's important to not overfeed your worms.

One of my golden rules is to not feed my worms anything that can ferment – a story for another day – but I read that banana peel will make the microbes bloom, so they got a small piece. And I gave them some chopped up fuzzy white mushroom stems to hopefully speed things up.

Lots going on here. 1) Carton of veg waste, coffee grounds, ground egg shell. Worms don't chew but instead have a gizzard similar to birds and need grit to help break up food particles. 2) Tearing up corrugated cardboard, a supposed favorite bedding/feed, is hard on the hands even with the help of utility scissors. I much prefer the peat-alternative mix Gardener's sent me to test. 3) To encourage the worms to not run away and burrow into the feed instead, I'm keeping them exposed to light by not using the lid to start.

Composting worms process food waste and bedding equally. Akin to reading a hive's bottom board, the filter level shows that the worms are most active on the left side, where I've been feeding them. (The filter keeps the worms and finished compost from getting into the leach tray below.)

Looking forward to the day when I have a large colony of worms, I also bought some Uncle Jim's worm food, to have on hand in case my household of two isn't producing enough vegetable scraps, and they're hungry. (At half their weight per day, 500 worms will be able to process 1/4lb of waste per day.) It looks like a mix of crushed grains, like corn and maybe oat or barley. I don't know what all is in there. I only know it sprouts.

The happy little sprouted feed is letting me know the bedding is staying properly moist.

I'll let you know how the colony progresses, how the peat-alternative performs, and if I'm overrun with worms. Meanwhile here's a link for you, in case there's an indoor gardener in your life who needs an indoor worm farm, too. The Wow Worm Farm comes in green (new plastic) and grey (recycled polypropylene), both available from Gardener's Supply.

You may be interested in Mycovermicomposting


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