Worms in soil
Kids tending worms

Vermiculture - A four-syllable word for the care and feeding of your worms

You've got all the ingredients; the bin, bedding, worms, and waste. You're now ready to become a vermiculturalist. Just follow these easy steps to make sure your worms are healthy and happy critters:

Remember: Contain your compost

Don’t let your worms out!

Earthworms are not native to Wisconsin’s forests. They eat fallen leaves on the forest floor making it hard for tree seedlings and other native plants to grow.

Worm bin

After selecting a good site for the bin, prepare the bedding.

  1. Plan on 5 to 8 pounds of bedding for a 2'x2' box; 9 to 13 pounds for a 2'x3' box.
  2. Place the bedding in a clean trashcan, plastic leaf bag or other large container.
  3. Pour in three pounds of water per pound of dry bedding, and mix well. (For reference, remember that a pint of water weighs one pound. A gallon of water weighs eight pounds. If you were using eight pounds of bedding, you'd need 24 pounds of water, or about three gallons.) The bedding should be uniformly damp, but not dripping wet.
  4. Toss in a handful of soil, crushed eggshells, or other additives. Lift and fluff the bedding to aerate, then put it into the bin.
  5. Sprinkle the worms over the surface of the bedding, gently untwining any wiggling clumps. Turn on a bright overhead light and the worms will burrow down into the bedding. It's a good idea to leave a light on your worm box for the first three or four days. Worms that have been transported through the mail or in a vehicle may want to escape initially following the bumpy ride. After a few days, they settle down and will stay put.

Now you can feed your worms.

  • Divide your bin into four or more sections with string or just in your mind, and attach a number to each starting with one.
  • Bury scraps under a few inches of bedding in the first section. Cover the bin with a wooden or plastic top left slightly ajar, or with a piece of loose black plastic, or with two or three newspapers.
  • Turn out the light.

The next time you're ready to feed your worms -- four or five days later, perhaps -- bury the waste under the bedding in the second section. The time after that, bury it in the third section. And so on. By following a rotation, you won't have to dig into waste that's not yet "finished."

Some people keep a covered "holding bin" in the refrigerator or under the kitchen sink to keep scraps until there's enough for a good feast, others add scraps daily. It's your call.

Redworms can eat a lot, but if your bin starts to smell, you've added too much food for the worms to keep up. Stir the bedding to aerate, cover the box, and add no more scraps until the odor is gone.

When you expect to have lots of food scraps, like during special events or holidays, plan to set up a separate bin, or dispose of food waste another way.

Worms are low-maintenance, and you can skip two or three weeks without feeding them. Any longer than that, and you'll have a big box of dead worms.

You are in charge and responsible for the worms. It will take some careful powers of observation. When you see worms scaling the walls, or when the bin population declines, it's time to make some adjustments.

  • Worms climbing up the container sides could mean the bin is too hot. Shade the box or move it to a cooler location. The bin also could be too wet. First, try leaving the lid ajar about an inch or add fresh bedding and more ventilation holes. If the bedding seems dry, sprinkle it with water until it's damp like a wrung-out sponge. If the bedding has a salty or acidic smell, it's best to change it.

Worm-watching isn't as exciting as whale-watching, but it is an intriguing way to witness nature at work up close. Keep an eye on your worms, tend to their simple but vital needs, and you will be rewarded.

Worms in compost

A few months pass, the worms are thriving, and you are absolutely thrilled because you are no longer sending food waste to the landfill. Be proud. Take a bow. Flip that potato peel into the worm bin.

Now your true interest in vermiculture must come forth. The products of worm cultivation depend on the three methods of harvest.

  1. If you want worms for fishing, harvest the worm castings every two to three months and move the worms to fresh bedding. Follow harvest method #1 ("Dump and hand sort"), and you'll end up with less compost and more worms.
  2. If you practice vermiculture only to produce compost, bury food scraps for four months. Then leave the bin alone for another three or four months. All the worms will be long dead, but they will have left you a box full of nice black vermicompost.
  3. If it's worms and compost you're after, harvest the castings every three to four months and move the worms to fresh bedding. Or help a friend get started composting. As long as you keep feeding them, the worms will keep on casting!

The methods of bringing in the harvest vary. Just remember that worms move away from light, and from extremes in moisture and temperature. They move toward a source of fresh food. These guidelines will help you come up with an individual harvesting technique to separate worms from compost. If you're not feeling creative, here are two guaranteed harvesting methods:

  1. The Dump and Hand Sort - Place a large sheet of plastic on the floor or on a table. Put on your rubber gloves. Dump the entire contents of the bin onto the sheet. Shape the compost into cone-shaped mounds. Shine a bright light above the mounds; this will drive the worms toward the bottom interior of each mound. Wait 5-10 minutes, then gently scrape off the layers of vermicompost until all you have left is worms. (You may see tiny, lemon-shaped cocoons; these contain baby worms, so be sure to add them to the new bin.)
    • Put the worms into a temporary storage container while you clean out the bin and fill it with fresh bedding.
    • If you use a wooden box, you can prolong its usefulness by rinsing it out and letting it dry first before adding bedding and worms.
  2. Divide and Harvest - Shift all the old bedding, castings and worms in the bin to one side. Add fresh bedding to the other side. Bury fresh scraps in the new bedding for a few weeks, and keep the new bedding covered. Leave the old bedding uncovered. Check after a week or two; the worms will have migrated to the fresh bedding. Harvest the vermicompost, then fill the empty side with fresh bedding.
Tags: Recycling