The Lazy Gardener’s Guide to Black Gold
September 11, 2015
By Molly Jameson
Red wigglers hanging through the bottom bin of a “Worm Factory” vermicompost system. Photo by Molly Jameson.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 33 million tons of our food waste ends up in landfills every year. For those keeping track – that’s over 6 million adult African elephants. Or 165,000 adult blue whales. Now picture a blue whale for every seat at Doak Campbell Stadium. Then double it. Before you ask me how a blue whale could possibly raise its flipper to do the chop – think about what YOU could be doing to reduce waste in the landfill in the first place!
By now we’ve all heard about composting. How food scraps, leaves, paper, and coffee grounds can turn into black gold right in your own backyard. But when you get into the specifics, you find out the process actually involves a good bit of labor – and possibly a pitchfork – to promote air circulation, the same amount of heat to cook a steak medium-rare, the correct ratio of ingredients, and enough materials to fill a large trash can. Not to mention – it’s summer and it’s hot!
But what if I told you there was a way to create compost that could be done indoors? No pitchfork required, no hot steamy temperatures, a simple mix of ingredients, and could fit right under your kitchen sink? As long as you can convince your family that having worms in the house really isn’t that weird… then you are in luck!
It is called vermicomposting, and it is a wonderful way to responsibly dispose of food waste and reduce your garbage by a third. Vermicomposting uses red wigglers, which is a type of worm that specializes in ingesting organic matter. They can digest their own body weight in food each day and can double their population in just a couple months. Microorganisms inside the worms are actually doing most of the work, and the “castings” excreted are teaming with beneficial microbes and nutrients that will condition your soil and make the plants in your garden shine.
Vermicompost bins are easy to make and easy to use. They are commonly constructed at home, but they can also be purchased online. You will need about 1,000 worms to get started, which weighs about one pound. Red wigglers can also be purchased online, at local nurseries, and some bait shops. Better yet – if you know vermicompost enthusiasts, they may be happy to share.
Bins should hold about five gallons for one to two people or ten gallons for three to four (Rubbermaid containers work nicely). Also, red wigglers do not like to burrow deeply – so the container should not be deeper than about 12 inches. You will also want good aeration, so drill 10 to 20 half-inch holes in the bottom of the bin. Either place the bin in another container or put the bin on bricks and use a tray underneath to capture escaped materials. Either way, you will want a lid – as worms do not like light and need moisture – but they also need to breathe, so make sure it is not airtight! If you store your bin outside, be sure it is never in direct sunlight or in a location that regularly exceeds 80°F.
Once you have your worm bin, you want to prepare your worm bedding. Shredded newspaper works great – and if it is from the Tallahassee Democrat, the ink is soy-based, so it will not harm your worms. Another great material is coconut fiber (coir). You will also need to add a small scoop of garden soil to inoculate your bin with microbes. When starting out, fill your bin about two-thirds full with lightly moistened bedding.
Now it’s time to add the food! Worms love vegetable scraps, most fruits, old bread, coffee filters and grounds, tea bags, and crushed eggshells. They like their food chopped into small pieces for fastest consumption. Foods to avoid include meat, dairy, large amount of citrus, onion peels, and anything you cannot chop. Start out slow, and put the chopped food in the corner of your worm bin. Once your worms are settled, maintain the bin as half bedding, half food scraps. Bin looking too dry? Add more food. Bin looking too wet? Add more bedding or hold back on food a few days. Bad odors will develop only if the worms are overfed!
Give your worm bin about three to four months, and begin to harvest! Depending on the design of your bin, there are multiple methods. One technique is to push castings to one side and add fresh food to the other. After a few days, most of the worms should have migrated to the food side for easy harvesting. Add a handful of castings to potting mix or a thin layer directly to your garden. Go ahead and give it a try – your plants will thank you, your trash will not stink, and you will reduce your global impact!
Molly Jameson is an Extension Agent with Leon County/University of Florida IFAS Extension. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov.