Vermicomposting

 

The Earthworm
 Earthworms have been grouped into three categories, each with unique physical and behavioral characteristics, anecic, endogeic, and epigeic. These categories describe the area in which they are found in Mother Nature.
Anecic species, represented by the common nightcrawler (Lumbricus terrestris), build permanent vertical burrows that extend through the upper mineral soil layer, which can be as deep as 4-6 feet. These species coat their burrows with mucous that hardens to prevent collapse of the burrow, providing them a home to which they will always return and are able to reliably identify, even when surrounded by other worm burrows. When deprived of this burrow anecic worms will neither breed nor grow.
Anecic worms feed on decaying organic matter and are responsible for recycling huge volumes of this matter into humus.
Endogeic species build extensive, largely horizontal burrow systems through all layers of the upper mineral soil. These worms rarely come to the surface, spending their lives deep in the soil where they feed on decayed organic matter and minerals in the soil. While most people believe all worms eat soil, it is only the epigeic species that actually feed on significant volumes of soil itself.
These worm species help to incorporate mineral matter into the topsoil layer as well as aerating and mixing the soil through their movement and feeding habits.
Epigeic earthworm species, represented by the common red wiggler/red worm (Eisenia fetida), are found in the natural environment in the upper topsoil layer where they feed in decaying organic matter. Epigeic worms build no permanent burrows, preferring the loose topsoil layer rich in organic matter to the deeper mineral soil environment. Even in nature, these worms are found in highest concentrations in natural occurring drifts of leaves and organic debris rather than in soil. We can duplicate the preferred environment of these worm species in bin culture, and it is for this reason that the epigeic worms are used in vermicomposting.

 

Earthworms used in Vermiculture

The growth and reproductive rates of each worm species listed are the maximum identified under perfect conditions. These rates are less when the environmental conditions within the system are less than perfect.

 

Red Wiggler/Red Worm
(Eisenia fetida)

 Eisenia fetida is the worm specie most useful in vermicomposting systems and the easiest to grow in high-density culture because they tolerate the widest range of environmental conditions and fluctuations. Eisenia fetida tolerates handling and disruption to their environment very well. Eisenia fetida is common to virtually every landmass on earth, meaning there is no concern over importing potentially alien species to an environment where they might cause damage to the eco-system.
While this worm species is considered the best worm for vermicomposting, it is a small worm, good for organic feed for chickens and fish, not always suited for the use as bait.

  • Temperature range: Minimum; 38° F, maximum; 88° F, ideal range; 70° F-80° F.
  • Reproductive rate: Approximately 10 young per worm per week under ideal conditions.
  • Average number of young per cocoon: Approximately 3.
  • Time to emergence from the cocoon: Approximately 30-75 days under ideal conditions.
  • Time to sexual maturity: Approximately 85-150 days under ideal conditions.

 

European nightcrawler
(Eisenia hortensis)

Eisenia hortensis is a larger worm species well suited for use as a bait worm. Its ideal temperature range is a little  cooler than  that of the Eisenia fetida and it requires higher moisture levels than other species tested for use in bin culture and vermicomposting.  Eisenia hortensis tolerates handling and disruption to its environment very well.
Because this worm has a very low reproductive and growth rate, it is considered the least desirable species for either bin culture or vermicomposting systems.

  • Temperature range: Minimum; 45° F, maximum; 85° F, ideal range; 55° F-77° F.
  • Reproductive rate: Just under 2 young per worm per week under ideal conditions.
  • Average number of young per cocoon: Approximately 1.
  • Time to emergence from the cocoon: Approximately 40-125 days under ideal conditions.
  • Time to sexual maturity: Approximately 55-85 days under ideal conditions.

 

Alabama jumper
(Amynthas gracilus)

Amynthas gracilus is another large worm species well suited for use as bait. It is also a tropical species with a poor tolerance for cold temperatures. This worm tolerates handling and disruption to the worm bed as well as does Eisenia fetida and is generally considered an easy worm to culture provided appropriate temperatures can be maintained.

  • Temperature range: Minimum; 45° F, maximum; 90° F, ideal range; 70° F-80° F.
  • Reproductive rate: Undetermined
  • Average number of young per cocoon: Undetermined
  • Time to emergence from the cocoon: Undetermined
  • Time to sexual maturity: Undetermined

 

PESTS AND PROBLEMS
A healthy worm composting system will attract countless numbers of associated organisms (biota). Most will be 'mini-beasts' and unseen by the human eye, but others will be more obvious. Most of these creatures are not harmful and are, in fact, beneficial so don't race out and kill every critter that isn't a worm.  Remember that this is a living system. Every other creature is there for the pickings and will help break down the compost. The best system will be 'alive', supporting a complete and harmonious ecosystem as close to nature as possible. In general, only the top few inches will be affected by these beasts and you will find only worms deeper down. 
However, desirable as these critters may be in the compost, you may want to deter them for various reasons. Some may bite, some may eat the garden and some are just simply scary. Be assured your system will still work without them but don't use chemicals in the system to kill them.   
Simply keeping the cover on is the best deterrent. However, if you have a recurring problem with a pest, cover all the fresh waste with about 3-4 inches of dry vermicast, shredded paper or light soil and leave for a week before adding more waste. In most cases, this will destroy the habitat of the pest and kill the eggs. Like worms, these surface dwellers need the right environment to live and breed and they will quickly disperse or die if the usual surface conditions are changed. This method won't harm the worms.  

 

Other creatures found in your worm bin

If you thought you just had a bin of red worms this is not true. Red worms are greatly outnumbered by other organisms in the worm bin. The worm bin is an amazing, complex habitat, with hundreds or thousands of species all working together to turn your kitchen scraps into organic rich composted fertilizer.

All these organisms are decomposers and beneficial to your worm bin, so don't fear any newcomer that you may find in the worm bin, it most likely just another one of your red worms friends. Your worm bin is the cozy, damp environment that includes meals for all decomposers too enjoy. For this reason the decomposers will not leave the bin to explore other areas of your home.

People new to worm composting sometimes worry that these organisms may harm their houseplants. All decomposers that eat dead organic matter will not eat living plants. Using your vermicompost in your garden or on houseplants is safe. Any organisms that come with your vermicompost will only eat decaying organic matter or simply die.

The following is a list of the most common organisms found in the worm bin.
 
Bacteria, Molds and fungi
Bacteria, molds, and fungi are the most numerous organisms in the vermicompost system, and the primary decomposers of organic matter. They work on organic material by secreting enzymes which break the bonds holding molecules together, thus simplifying and reducing the elements for absorption. They are also an additional food source to other organisms in the system, including earthworms.

Molds and fungi can also serve as an indicator, telling us if the feeding rate is adequate. Large amounts of mold and fungi indicate there is more food than the system can quickly manage and the feeding rate should be decreased.

Fruit flies
Fruit flies are small flying insects with large bulbous, often colorful eyes. They pose no health threat to us or to the worms, and do not harm healthy plants.

Fruit fly eggs are introduced to the worm bin on the peelings of fruit which are tossed into the bin. The bin environment is an ideal breeding ground, with abundant food and moisture the flies flourish. Fruit flies are best prevented rather than controlled.

 

Preventing fruit flies in the bin

You can prevent fruit flies by burying food waste under several inches of bedding. Several sheets of damp newspaper will act as a barrier to odors preventing fruit flies from being attracted to the bin. Also try destroying fruit fly eggs by microwaving fruit and vegetable skins before adding to the worm bin.
If they are in the bin, make a fruit fly trap using an attractive liquid, such as: beer, soda pop, or fruit juice. Put a few ounces of "bait" into a jar or cup with a lid hat has small holes cut into it. The flies go in, but don't come out.

 

 Pot worms (Enchytraeidae)
Sometimes called white worms, these small, white, threadlike worms are found in worm bins when there is a quantity of finished material. Pot worms are small white, segmented worms, which can be mistaken for baby red worms. Their bodies are nearly transparent and their digestive system quite visible when viewed through a hand lens. They are beneficial organisms that feed on decaying organic matter and are considered a prized tropical fish food. Pot worms do not feed on living plants and pose no threat to the garden or houseplants. These are actually an earthworm that thrives on acidic material.  Their role is to neutralize the system making it more desirable for the other composting worms. Don't deter these.


Mites (Acarina)
Mites are among the most numerous inhabitants in the worm bin. They are generally found on the surface of the bin, though some predatory species will venture deeper if the material is loose and there is a food source. Mites have large bodies, small heads and eight legs. Their colors range from mottled brown, to red, to glossy white. Species of mite found in the worm bin pose no threat to garden plants or people. While beneficial to the system for the most part, it is not uncommon for mite populations to become so large that they stress the worms. Infestation level blooms generally occur on the surface of the bedding and cause the worms to remain in the lower areas of the bin and to decrease their activity. Mite populations can be controlled by removing the upper few inches of bedding during an infestation. Leaving the bin lid open and exposing the bedding surface to drying and light will also control mite populations.

The vast majority of mite species in the bin are beneficial organisms. Mite species which damage living plants are not found in the worm bin. Control of mite populations should only be considered if the worms are demonstrating stress including refusal to come to the surface, huddling in a ball, low reproduction or escaping from the bin.

 

Sow or pill bugs (Isopoda)
Also known as woodlice or roly poly bugs. Sow bugs have a segmented, armored shell similar in appearance to that of an armadillo, are brown to gray in color, have seven pairs of legs and two antennae. They are usually found in the top layers of the worm bin, where they shred and consume the toughest materials, which are high in cellulose. In the worm bin they are highly beneficial organisms.

Springtails (Colembola)
There are hundreds of species of springtail, all primarily decomposers of organic matter. Springtails in the worm bin are generally small enough to walk on the head of a pin and range in color from brownish to striking white. They have three distinct body segments, six legs and a pair of short, stubby antennae. They are generally beneficial in the system and have no interest in living plant tissue. The species most commonly seen in the bin is commonly seen in large numbers on the surface of the bin when there is a quantity of finished material.
  
Soldier Fly Larvae, or "Maggots"
The maggot commonly seen in a worm bin is grey-brown and about 1/2" long. The maggot needs a cooler, dryer place to go to in order to pupate so very few of the maggots will become adult flies. Worm composters find that these larvae show up in huge numbers, live a short while, and then disappear. So, be patient. Check to see if you have enough bedding in there. You can reduce the likelihood of having maggots in the bin by mixing in plenty of carbon-rich material every time you feed.  

 

Millipedes
Millipedes are long, slow moving, wormlike animals found in small numbers throughout all layers of the worm bin, where they feed on decaying organic matter.

Millipedes are long and segmented, with two pairs of legs per body segment and two antennae with which they sense their environment. Colors range from black to red, but those species found in the worm bin are commonly brown or reddish-brown. The millipede has an armored shell for protection and coils into a ball, like a pill bug, when threatened.

Centipedes
Centipedes resemble millipedes, but their bodies are more flattened and less rounded at either end. They possess one set of legs on most of their body segments and a large pair of pincers which originate behind the head. The centipede is generally more reddish than the millipede, is very fast moving and is generally found only on the surface of the worm bin.

It's unusual to have many centipedes in a worm bin and one or two are no problem. However, because these arthropods will eat worms as well as other organisms it's a good idea to keep their numbers low. The only way to control centipedes is to remove them by hand which should be done carefully.

 

Spiders
Get rid of them before they breed. They won't hurt the system but don't risk getting bitten.

 

Snails and slugs 
Excellent composters but you may not want them near the garden so physically remove them. There will be eggs just under the fresh waste so dry the system for a couple of weeks and the eggs will die.
 
Ants
 If ants appear, you have a dry spot in the worm bin. Flush them out with water.

 

 Beetles
 Beetles are mostly harmless composters. To deter, leave the cover off for a few days.

 

Grubs  
These are usually the larvae of beetles.  Some of the  larger species may be found quite deep in the compost. They are no threat to the worms. They will pupate then fly away as beetles.

 

Cockroaches
Bait with bread soaked in milk then physically remove.

 

Predators 
If left uncovered, predators will also be attracted to the system.  Worms are a delicious temptation for birds, possums, lizards and frogs but other less desirable predators include snakes, rats and mice. In snake or rat infested areas, keep the system away from overhanging trees (other predators can approach from trees but aren't harmful to humans). Dogs and cats love to dig in any kind of compost and so do little children.  A snug-fitting cover is the best safeguard against predators and be sure the sides of the system are flush against the drainage base. Rats, in particular, will dig up from under the system. 
While safe in their bedding, worms have few predators, but watch out for flat-worms. They can be at any depth in the system and you are most likely to notice them when removing the vermicast. They have a distinctively ribbon like and slimy appearance and are usually cream, pink, red or mauve in color. These worms are carnivorous. They eat normal earthworms by wrapping their flat bodies around the victim and slowly digesting it through their skin. If you find one, discard the flat worm and  the surrounding soil or compost, as it may contain eggs of the flat worm.

 

Other Troubles 
Like anything new you try, you could face a few problems with your system especially when you're just starting.  But don't panic, everything is fixable. Even from the worst neglect, a worm composting system will bounce back to health.  Scientists estimate that worms have been on Mother Earth for 600 million years which makes them very adaptable to their surroundings. That’s a lot of time to fine-tune their survival techniques. 

 

A Note on Invasive Worm Species
It is believed that vermicomposting is an efficient means of recycling organic wastes with benefits of reducing soil, water, and air pollution. Occasionally this assertion is challenged by individuals who ask, if we are aware that worms can actually harm the environment. The assertion is that earthworms have invaded North American forest ecosystems which evolved without them and are throwing those systems into imbalance. The danger is to tree roots, rare plant species, and animals sheltered by the leaf litter. This concern can be researched in detail with regards to Minnesota forests in contacting the University of Minnesota Extension Service.
The popular wisdom seems to be that earthworms eat microorganisms and cellulose present in organic matter and have no reason to spread to or ability to survive in to soils not containing sufficient "food". Some sources claim that at least two earth earthworm species are native to North America. Most earthworm species found in North America today were brought over from Europe, Asia, and Africa since the last ice age. As with all sorts of flora and fauna, climate changes ensure that certain worm species will be able to survive in ecosystems that previously were in hospitable to them. Conversations with cooperative extension agents, worm farmers, and biologists about the possible risks associated with vermicomposting and whether these outweigh the clear benefits have been inefficient.
To avoid contributing to an existing problem, we urge people to do the following:
1. Consult your local university cooperative extension service to see if earthworms pose problems in your geographic area and which species are causing the difficulty; buy a species that does not pose a threat in your area.
2. Avoid adding worms or worm castings (containing egg capsules) to any wooded area.
3. Consult relevant scientific studies.

 

Why everyone should be Vermicomposting

 

The average American family produces a ton of waste each year that is 2000 pounds of waste for each household. Estimated 1/3 to 1/2 of household waste is organic matter. If you vermicompost, you will reduce the amount of organic matter being transported out to the landfills, helping to slow down Global warming and making a beautiful, nitrogen rich organic fertilizer for yourself. Vermicomposting is nature’s way of completing the recycling loop. Being born, living, dying, and being reborn again.

 

Think About It

 

PUT LIFE INTO YOUR SOIL THE WAY NATURE INTENDED, VERMICOMPOST.  IT’S LIKE GOLD AT THE END OF THE RAINBOW...BLACK GOLD...”GARDEN’S GOLD™” …

VERMICOMPOST HAPPENS NATURALLY!

 

 

Facts/Questions:

Most organic waste can be recycled by worms!

An efficient backyard worm composting system will convert up to 60–70% of your household waste into nutrient-rich vermicast (castings/worm poop) to fertilize and replenish your garden, lawn, and household plants needs. The benefits of vermicast on your garden, lawn, and household plants are many:

-Vermicast is a rich organic fertilizer
-Bacteria in vermicast convert existing soil nutrients into plant-soluble form.
-Worm eggs(cocoons) in vermicast will hatch by the thousands in your garden and lawn soil

The benefits of worms in your garden are:

-Worms produce more vermicast.
-Worms move through the soil creating channels that greatly improve moisture retention, aeration and soil structure.
-Worms constantly turn the soil evenly distributing nutrients and preventing matted roots.
-Worms produce natural antibiotics which help fight plant diseases.

Answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about worms and worm farming.


 

Questions:

 

How many worms do I need to start composting at home?
This depends mainly on how much garbage your family generates. To determine how many pounds of garbage you produce in a day, weigh your food scraps each day for a week. Add each day's weight together and divide by seven (# of days in a week). This will give you a daily average. For example, if your family produces 14 pounds of garbage a week the equation would be 14/7=2. In this case the family produces an average of two pounds of garbage per day.
One pound of worms will eat about 1/2 a pound of garbage a day. This means that the family described above would need four pounds of worms to meet their composting needs.

 

How big a bin will I need?
This really depends on how much daily waste you want the worms to handle (see above question).
Most people agree that one square foot of surface area can support up to 4000 worms. However, it is believed that 2000-3000 is optimal. This means that in a 1 X 2 foot bin, one pound of worms could increase to over six pounds before needing more bin space or removal from the bin (for fishing, outdoor composting, etc.).
To put the last two questions into a practical application, if a family produces two pounds of organic waste a day, then they would need to start with a bin approximately 1 X 2 feet and four pounds of worms.

 

How many worms are in a pound?
Generally there are about 1000 bed run red wigglers in a pound, depending on their size. Bed-run worms include cocoons, babies, juveniles, and adults. Because of this, a pound of bed-run worms tends to have more worms than a pound of adults.

 

What is bed run?
Bed run provides adult worms plus a rich population of healthy hatchlings, juveniles and eggs, as well as a bed of the rich food in which they were raised.    The hatchlings and juveniles are so tiny that they add almost nothing to the weight of worms sold, but they are well started.  What this means for the buyer is that the hatchlings and juveniles are developing, with additional worms hatching out from day one, instead of having to wait for a group of adults to breed and lay eggs, and for the eggs to hatch.  This jump starts a worm bin population.
 
What can I feed the worms?
Most of your fruit and vegetable scraps, tea bags, coffee grounds, eggshells, shredded newspaper and dry leaves would be good food for your worms. Avoid meats, dairy products, and animal excrement as they attract rodents and create unpleasant odors. If you bury the food, your bin should be odor-free.

 

What pH and temperature should I keep my bin at?
If you are using household waste, you will want to monitor the pH. Worms like a neutral pH (7), erring on the acidic side. You will want to balance acidic foods (e.g. citrus) with alkaline foods (e.g. eggshells).
You can monitor pH with a small pH tester. These are inexpensive and are available at most garden centers.
Red worms breed best in temperatures ranging from 55°F to 77°F. They can survive at temperatures as low as 40°F and as high as 84°F. You would need to pick a location that would ensure appropriate temperatures. If a bin gets too hot, watering the out side of it helps cool it down.

 

How much water do the worms need?
Since worms get oxygen from water through their skin, it is important to monitor moisture conditions. If it's too dry, the worms can't breathe. If it's too wet, they drown. A good measure of moisture that most worm farmers use is to take a handful of the bedding and squeeze it. If droplets of water squeeze out between your knuckles, the moisture is just right. No droplets, too dry. Streams of water too wet.

 

What are worm castings and how do I use them?
Worm castings are the odorless excrement of worms and are prized by gardeners as an ideal soil enhancer. Castings provide many of the essential nutrients needed for healthy plant life and are a totally organic, all natural soil amendment. Worm castings will not burn even the most delicate plants, yet provide a concentrated source of calcium, magnesium, nitrogen, phosphates, and potash in a form readily available to your plants. The worm's digestive system coats castings with polysaccharides which provide for optimum soil structure, maximizing aeration and water retention (necessary for a healthy root system). You can use them for annuals, perennials, seedlings, African violets, cacti and succulents.
Studies have been done and indicate that adding 10-20% of worm castings to the soil, compost, or other potting mixes results in optimum benefits. Higher concentrations show little continued improvement in plant and root growth and using a 100% castings makes the mixture too loose to support plant roots and retain water.
Castings can also be used as a top dressing fertilizer. However, since they can dry out and prevent water from reaching the plants roots, they should be kept well watered.

 

What is worm tea and how do I use it?
Worm tea is the leachate obtained from worm castings. It is made from castings that have been steeped in water to make a "tea." It has essentially the same benefits to plants as castings, but in liquid form. Some studies show worm tea may even be an effective deterrent to some insects, such as whiteflies and aphids.
Worm tea is not the leachate from your worm bin. This runoff is a compost tea, which we believe has many of the same benefits. Worm tea is extracted from pure worm castings.
Apply worm tea to the root zone of plants as often as you would a fertilizer. You may also spray it directly on plants as a foliar. It will not burn and can be applied full strength or diluted at a 1:10 ratio.

 

Did you know?
Red worms stay home under normal conditions. They will not crawl away if adequate food and moisture are provided for them.
Red worms are bi-sexual, having both male and female reproductive organs. Each worm may produce egg capsules after mating with another worm.
Mature Red worms living under favorable conditions may produce an egg capsule every seven to ten days. Egg capsules incubate in 14 to 21 days producing from 2 to 20 worms with an estimated average of 4.
Newly hatched Red worms will reach breeding age in 60 to 90 days. The Red worm develops a muscular band called a clitellum around its body near the head signifying it is mature enough to breed.
Red worms continue to grow after reaching the breeding stage for 6 months before they are fully grown. The normal length of a healthy Red worm is about 3 to 3 1/2 inches and can grow to 4 inches.
Red worms have a life span of several years with some estimates of more than five years!
It takes roughly 1000 adult red worms to equal one pound in weight.
It takes roughly 4000 juvenile or bedrun red worms to equal one pound in weight.