Squirming about food waste? Try worm composting!
While decluttering my desk this week I came across a recent article on food waste which had this scary statistic: According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, over 40% of food in the US is never eaten. In a past post I discussed how reducing food waste could save a family of four up to $1,800 per year!
While I try to reduce the amount of food waste I generate, there are some things that I know I can’t eliminate: vegetable peelings, or the bad bits from fruit or vegetables, for example. But instead of throwing them into the trash, I have another solution: I feed it to my worms. They love these otherwise inedible scraps! Worm composting (or vermicomposting, if you want the fancier name) is a great way to use up a lot of your food scraps, and also some of your paper waste too. Read on to find out more…
What you need
Basically, you need 4 things to get started:
A worm bin for them to live in
The best kinds of worms for vermicomposting are red wrigglers (Eisenia foetida). Unfortunately, it is unlikely that you’ll find these worms living in your garden, so you’ll need to buy them – unless you are lucky enough to know someone who already has a worm farm and are willing to give you some. To get started, I bought some Red Wrigglers from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm , but you may be able to find someone locally who sells them too.
As for the worm bin, they can be purchased ready made or, if you are handy, then you can also make your own. I opted for buying a worm bin from Amazon – made cheaper by the points I had collected from my Bing searches!
When I bought the worm farm, it did come with some bedding but making your own is very easy and a great way to use up old newspapers or junk mail! This infographic from The Squirm Firm details some of the good stuff to use for worm bedding.
The best food to feed your worms is raw fruit and vegetable scraps, cut up small. Coffee grounds, tea and tea bags, and ground-up or crushed eggs shells are also good. If you are feeding coffee grounds to your worms, then it’s a good idea to also balance them with the crushed/ground-up egg shells. Not only do the egg shells help the worms to digest their food (worms have no teeth, so they need some “grit” to help them break down their food), they also balance the acidity of the coffee grounds.
Try not to feed your worms the following foods, as they can attract pests and flies to your worm bin or make your worms sick:
Acidic food like citrus fruit and peel, pineapples and tomatoes
Cooked food scraps
Salty foods like olives.
What to do
Setting up your worms is quite easy. First you need to get a worm bin and prepare it with some bedding. Then, once the worm bin is set-up, you can buy your worms. Getting the worm bin ready first means that when your worms arrive you can immediately introduce them into their new home. When I set up my worm bin, I did have a few worms escape (don’t worry, they are very tiny and don’t get far!) but after a couple of weeks they settled down in their new home.
Once the worms have settled for a few days, you can start to feed them. When I add food to the worm bin, I bury it in the bedding as this helps discourage flies. One recommendation is to start in one corner of the bin, bury food there and then the next time, bury the new food next to it. Then the time after that you add the food next to the second area, and so on. However, I am not that organized, and I usually add the food to one of the four corners, and just check on how much food is left from the last feeding to make sure everything is OK.
As well as feeding them, you need to keep an eye on a couple of other things:
Moisture: worms like their bin to be damp; not too wet or not too dry. If the bedding is too wet, you can add more dry bedding, like shredded paper. If it’s too dry, then mix in some water.
Temperature: worms prefer the temperatures between 55° and 75° F (12° to 24° C). If they get too hot (above 95° F / 35°C), they can overheat and die. Too cold (32°F / 0°C or below), and they can freeze to death. Note: worms do slow down when they are too hot (above 80° F / 27° C) or too cold (between 40° F / 4° C and freezing), which means they eat less. So, if your worms are not eating as much as normal, this could be a sign there is a temperature problem.
How much time?
Getting the worm bin set up took me a couple of hours, which included reading the instructions, assembling the worm bin, preparing the bedding and adding the worms.
Chopping up the fruit and vegetable scraps or grinding up the egg shells takes a few minutes each time, and feeding the worms (which I do 1-2 times per week) takes about 10 minutes.
Expect to pay between $25 - $35 for 1,000 worms. Worm bins prices vary - I found one for $45 on Amazon, but others can cost over $200. Making your own bin would be significantly cheaper.
Is it worth it?
The quality of compost created by the worms is excellent, and it can be a good way to use up a lot of your food scraps. But if you are looking for a cheap way to create compost, this is not it! I would recommend a compost bin instead.
If you don’t have space for a compost bin, and you still want to use up your food scraps, or you think it would be a great project for your kids, then worm composting can be a good option.
Based on this, I give worm composting a 3-pig rating. It does take some time and money, but if you feel that it is worthwhile (and find it amazing that these little worms can turn food waste into amazing compost like I do) then go for it!
Anything else I should know?
How much should I feed the worms?
The best advice I can give you is: don’t overfeed your worms! Especially when you first get them, it’s best to only feed them small amounts on a regular basis. Worms can eat about half their own body weight per day, but remember they don’t weigh much! If you overfeed them, the food hangs around and can attract flies. I have a plastic bucket that I store the food scraps in, and then feed the worms 2-3 times a week. If you’re worried about the food scraps in your bucket going bad or attracting flies, then you can either refrigerate or freeze the scraps until you need them.
Need more details on feeding, check out “How to avoid over-feeding composting worms”.
Where should I keep my worm bin?
Somewhere warm, dark and dry is perfect. Not too hot in summer and not too cold in the winter - worms prefer temperatures between 55° and 75° F (12° to 24° C). I keep mine in the garage, but a basement or laundry room is just as good.
Will my worm bin smell?
I have read countless articles about vermicomposting and they all say that your worm bin should not smell. Mine does slightly, but it’s an earthy smell – which is not surprising since the worms are busy making compost in there! If your bin does smell, then the most likely culprit is rotting food. Therefore, it’s best to remove the food and reduce how much you are feeding your worms.
Will the worm bin attract flies or other insects?
Fly infestations are usually caused by rotting food hanging around too long and attracting the flies. To prevent this, don’t overfeed your worms, and freeze the food scraps until needed (but don’t forget to defrost them before feeding).
If you already have a fly problem, then take a look at this helpful “Fruit flies invading your worm bin? We can help” article.
Will the worms eat all of my food scraps?
No, as mentioned above there is food that you shouldn’t feed your worms such as meat, dairy products, etc. Also, worms eat about half their own body weight per day – i.e. if you have a pound of worms, they’ll eat about ½ pound of scraps per day – so if your household produces a lot of food waste then it may be too much for the worms to eat. In this case, you could create a traditional compost heap for the excess.
Want to know more? Then I highly recommend the book “Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System” by Mary Appelhof. It definitely helped me get my worm bin set up and working great!