Welcome to the World of Vermiculture
Vermiculture or sometimes referred to as vermicomposting is a clean odorless system or technique where food waste is processed into a rich fertilizer.
It’s simple. Red worms are put into a plastic or wood bin with moist shredded newspaper, peat moss, brown leaves or straw. Food scraps like apple cores, vegetable peelings and coffee grounds are buried in the bedding. The worms eat the scraps and produce a great compost that can be used to enrich the soil of your house plants, gardens and flower beds. It’s usually done indoors, so worm composting is great for apartment dwellers as well as those backyard composters who want to continue composting during the winter months. Worm composting also provides a great lesson in ecology.
Remember that worms are living creatures. They have specific needs just like we do in order to maintain health and happiness. As their guardian, your job is to provide the right environment (i.e.. Light, moisture, temperature etc.), and the right food. Your worms will reward you with an ample supply of castings.
Red Worms … Not Brown Worms
Vermicomposting is done by red worms, also known as red wrigglers (Eisenia fetida). They thrive on organic materials like food scraps. They are not the same as common brown earth worms, which prefer to live and burrow in soil. Red worms are smaller and more reddish in color, preferring a dark, warm, very moist environment. They work best at temperatures from 15 – 25 degrees C. Under these conditions they are voracious eaters. One pound (454g) of worms can eat 1/2 pound (227g) of food waste every day.
But Worms? In My House?
Don’t worry. They don’t smell and they don’t roam around. Red worms are blissfully content to stay right in their little bin happily chewing away on your food scraps. Remember, they will not survive below freezing temperatures, so they must stay inside during the winter.
Opaque plastic storage bins are ideal for vermicomposting. They have lids, they’re moisture proof, inexpensive and they come in several sizes. Packing crates and foam plastic chests are also fine.
Whether it’s made from wood or plastic, your container should have air holes in the top or the sides. It should also be no more than 12 to 18 inches (30cm – 46cm) deep.
The size of the bin depends on the amount of waste food being produced. A worm bin should have about one square foot of surface area for each pound of food waste added each week. A 2′ x 4′ box, for example, is large enough for eight pounds of kitchen scraps a week.
Proper bedding for your worms is very important. It gives them a damp place to live, a balanced diet and prevents odor problems.
Shredded newspaper or cardboard, potting soil (with no chemical additives), garden soil, peat moss, fall leaves straw or a combination of any of these can be used. Simply fill the bin almost to the top with loose bedding. Sprinkle the bedding with water until it’s all as wet as a wrung out sponge. It should form a “mud ball” when a handful is squeezed.
Feeding the Worms
Worms are fed by burying food scraps in the bedding. To discourage flies and odors always cover the scraps with a few inches of bedding or vermicompost. Bury the scraps in a different spot each time to evenly distribute the food for the worms. They especially like melons, lettuce, and apples but you can feed them any vegetable scraps. Try to give them a variety of foods, and only a small amount of citrus fruits, so that the pH stays fairly neutral. The smaller you cut up your food scraps the faster they will disappear.
Yecch!!! Worms should NOT be feed the following: Animal products, Oily foods, Cheese, Butter, Meat, Fish, dog or cat feces.
Mmmmm… Worms should be fed the following: Coffee grounds & filters, Fruit rinds and peels, Vegetable scraps, Grains, Breads.
Harvesting Worm Castings
Usually about three to six months after starting a new bin, the worms will have digested not only the food you gave them but most of their bedding as well. What is left is primarily black worm castings or vermicompost. This is the soil-like material that makes a very good additive to your house plants or flower beds. You must harvest the castings in order to maintain a healthy environment for your worms. There are a few different ways to harvest worm compost:
The Side to Side Method
1) Move finished compost to one side of the bin and fill the empty side with fresh bedding.
2) For the next six weeks or so bury food waste only in the newly bedded side of the bin.
3) The worms will eventually seek out the fresh food and migrate over to the new bedding and “fresh” food. When they have done so, you can scoop out the castings.
The Bright Light & Scoop Method
1) Shine a bright light on the worms. They will avoid the light and burrow down through the vermicompost.
2) Scoop off the top layer of vermicompost until you see the worms again.
3) Repeat the process. Eventually the worms will be concentrated at the bottom of the bin. These can be put into fresh bedding.
The Sun Dried Method
This is a fairly fast, easy way of harvesting the worms but it requires a second bin and some plastic mesh.
1) Put fresh moistened bedding in a second bin and cover the fresh bedding with ¼” plastic mesh.
2) Dump the castings and worms from the first bin on top of the plastic mesh and put the new bin out in the sun.
3) The sun will dry the castings. As it does, the worms will move down through the mesh into the moist bedding below.
4) The worm compost on top of the mesh is now ready for use.
1) Mixing with potting soil – use 1 part vermicompost to 3 parts potting soil.
2) As top dressing – sprinkle 1/4 inch of castings on houseplants, every 1½ to 2 months.
3) As starter mix – sprinkle castings along bottom of seed row, or into the hole when you are transplanting.
One of the most common problems with worm bins is fruit flies. They are not dangerous and they don’t bite, itch, or even buzz. When they fly around in their ambling sort of way, however, they can be a little annoying. There are simple methods of dealing with them.
• keep fresh food wastes covered with a few inches of bedding or castings.
• freeze the food scraps overnight before adding them to the bin.
Your worm bin is a living environment that can be shared by many small creatures besides your red worms. Many of these creatures are actually quite beneficial. They are rarely a problem. Only centipedes, which will eat your worms, pose any threat to your bin.
If the worm bin smells bad it probably has too much food waste in it, it’s too wet or there are cheese or other animal products present. To eliminate bad odors remove excess or inappropriate wastes and add fresh bedding. You may also want to remove the lid for a while to allow for some evaporation.
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Worm Reproduction Information
Under optimum conditions, each worm will produce an egg capsule or cocoon every 7 to 10 days. These will incubate for 14 to 21 days, usually near the surface area, where the ground temp is slightly warmer. The worm egg is slightly oval in shape and looks similar to a grain of rice or a lemon. The egg is creamy white when first laid then turns yellow and almost reddish brown as it nears hatching. It seems that worms encourage birds into thinking that a mature cocoon is a seed and the worms catch a free ride to new territory as they pass through the courier. Each capsule can contain 2 to 20 worms. The new worm reaches breeding age in 60 to 90 days when the band or collar appears about 1/4 down the length of the worm from its head, signifying sexual maturity.
No special care is required. Let nature take its course. All you have to do is generate the right atmosphere. If the adult population is healthy the cocoons and babies will be fine.
Worms that are sexually mature have a prominent ‘band’ around their body, called the ‘clitellum’. Most worms are hermaphrodites, which means that from each mating session, both worms will produce a capsule.
During mating, the worms will join together at the clitellum (sometimes for quite a long period of time). Reproductive material is exchanged. When the worms separate, a ring of mucus material forms at the clitellum of each worm.
The worm will then wriggle backwards, and the mucus ring slips off over the tail. The ring seals, forming a ‘capsule’ (also called an ‘egg’). All the necessary reproductive material is sealed inside.
The worm capsule, when first deposited is soft and milky white. This quickly hardens and turns a light lemon color. The capsule goes through various color changes…through different toning of yellow, then to a rusty brown color. Capsules are almost ready to hatch when they are the rusty color.
The capsule is about the size of a grape seed, but size is related to the size of the worm, with larger worms producing larger capsules.
Capsules generally take an average of 1 month to hatch – but depending on conditions, can take more or less. Worm capsule have been known to survive drought conditions for 12 months or more, hatching when conditions become suitable again.
Each capsule will produce up to 20 baby worms, but the average is about 4. If you watch the rusty capsules closely, you may be lucky enough to see the baby worms emerge through the neck of the capsule.
Holding the rusty capsules up to the light will let you see the tiny worms inside.
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Can Worms Fly?
This is a picture of the USS Eisenia fetida (a worm space craft also called a Cacoon). Take note of the gold colored skin. A craft ready for transport!
Our mission: To boldly go where no worm has gone before.
Worm Space Craft Specifications
Craft Dimensions: about the size of a grape seed (fairly small)
Crew Capacity: 4 to 20 wormanocs
Propulsion System: Avarian
Consider the following: if you have read the above article on worm reproduction all you have to do is read in between the lines or open your eyes and see.
Notice the similarity of a worm cocoon and a seed. Just think of how that brightly colored worm cocoon (seed) would standout in the dark colored humus that covers the forest floor probably just beneath a cover of decaying leaves.
Hope we got your imagination going. Now pretend you are a grouse or a pheasant. Remember how you forage for food? By scratching the forest floor looking for good things to eat, and there’s that bright yellow seed (worm cocoon). “Oh yummy, that looks like a delicious seed.”
more to come……