You’ve embraced vermicomposting. How can you create perfect conditions for your worms?
If you’ve ever tried composting fruit and vegetable scraps, you’ll know that the process takes time. One way to speed things up is to add worms to the mix. Worms are munching machines. They can chomp through their body weight each day, leaving behind rich, fertile ‘worm castings’ that are perfect for any garden.
But just like a conventional composter, a worm farm can thrive or struggle depending on the conditions inside. How can you be sure to give your worms what they need so they work as fast as possible?
How long does worm composting usually take?
The simple answer is ‘that depends.’ What you feed your worms, where you locate them, and how you manage their environment will help determine how fast your worms can work. That can be anywhere between 2 to 4 months.
First, it’s good to know what a thriving vermicomposter looks like. An ideal worm composting system is one where the temperature is somewhere between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Worms get enough food to keep them happy, but not so much they can’t handle the job. The finished vermicompost is dark, crumbly, and uniform. Oh, and there are no fruit flies.
If this doesn’t sound like your vermicompost, you’re not alone. Maximizing your worm bin can take practice, but once you’ve struck the right balance, your worms will take it from there. Here’s what you need to know.
1. Manage moisture
One of the most important factors for a healthy worm bin is adequate moisture. Without this, worms will have trouble maintaining the slippery coating that protects them from harm and helps them breathe. Adequate moisture also supports the colonies of bacteria that work synergistically with worms to grind up your food waste.
To monitor your worm bin’s moisture content, purchase a moisture meter and check levels periodically. Since different foods will have different water contents, it’s best to check a few locations in the bin and average the readings. Your bin will thrive in and around 80% humidity.
To moisten a bin that seems dry, mist with a spray bottle or add more wet ingredients. If your bin gets too wet, add shredded newspaper or cardboard to help rebalance. You can also opt for a worm bin designed to channel liquid down a spigot or into a tray made especially for harvesting compost tea like the Hungry Bin. These models make managing vermicompost moisture levels quick and easy.
2. Remember to aerate
Along with moisture, worms need air to survive. Well-aerated compost breaks down quickly and never gets too hot. It also contains a network of tunnels and air pockets that worms use for moving through your bin. And remember those synergistic microbes that help worms by pre-digesting your food scraps? They need oxygen too.
Some premade worm bins come with enough aeration and drainage holes that you’ll never have to manually aerate. The worms will do that for you. Others will benefit from a monthly manual aeration.
Aerating a worm bin is simple. You can stir the contents, turning material from the outside into the center, using a trowel or a bin aerator. You can also add ingredients like shredded cardboard, coconut coir, or pumice to increase aeration and mixing.
3. Keep temperatures consistent
As noted above, worms do their best work between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Worms will work in temperatures between 60 and 40 degrees, but they will be sluggish, eating and reproducing less the more extreme temperatures get. Anything colder than 40 degrees or hotter than 80 degrees will threaten your worms’ survival.
To keep your temperature consistent and within ideal ranges, there are a few things you can do. First, locate your bin in an area where temperatures don’t fluctuate wildly during a twenty-four hour period. Worm bins located outdoors in summer should be placed in shady areas with good airflow. Worm bins in a cold location can be sheltered in a heated garage or indoors during winter time. Next, use a soil thermometer to check on your worms periodically.
To further protect worms from temperature extremes, consider the following:
- Insulating your bin with blankets, cardboard, and other materials can be a good temporary fix on cold nights.
- Feeding your worms foods high in nitrogen will help generate heat as the foods get broken down.
- Keeping the bedding moist (but not soaking wet) will help cool a worm composter.
You might also consider an in-ground worm composting bin. These models use the surrounding soil to naturally insulate worms from temperature extremes.
4. Add foods that worms like, in the right balance
According to the makers of the Worm Factory 360, red wigglers can eat up to half their weight in food per day in a well managed vermicomposter. European night crawlers are larger and can tackle twice that amount. But like anyone, worms have preferences. They will work more quickly when you avoid things they dislike. This includes salty and spicy foods, too much citrus, oils, prepackaged foods with preservatives, and meat and dairy products. This also includes any food that is starting to go moldy.
Unlike conventional composters where you need to add more brown (or carbon-rich) than green (or nitrogen-rich) ingredients, worm composters do best when these are equally balanced.
Examples of these materials include:
- Greens: Fruit and vegetable scraps, old bread, cooked pasta, coffee grounds, non-plastic teabags, dead plant matter.
- Browns: Newspaper or cardboard, non-glossy junk mail, paper egg cartons, dry leaves.
Chopping up your food waste and shredding any paper added to your worm bin will also give worms a head start and speed up decomposition.
5. Don't overfeed
Any bin with layers of undigested food on the top needs more worms or less food. A good practice is to avoid adding more food to your tray until your worms have started to eat the last thing you put inside. You’ll know when they’re fully engaged with something, because they’ll be crawling all over it. As your worm bin matures and your worms reproduce, you’ll be able to add more food.
Give worms what they need for the speediest compost
If you’ve embraced worm composting and are wondering how to help your worms along, just remember: worms are a lot like people. They need a healthy diet, a comfortable shelter, and plenty of oxygen and moisture. Once they have these things, they’ll get down to doing what they do best–making nutrient-rich compost for your garden.