If you are a serious gardener, and happen to have a yard, chances are good that you have a compost pile where kitchen scraps and garden waste are routinely disposed of in the hopes of cooking up a batch of compost for the plants you grow. And this fall, once bins are emptied onto vegetable and flower gardens to supercharge soil in time for spring planting, how many of us will persist over the winter months?
Hauling a bucket of decaying organic slop through deep snow to toss onto a frozen heap when it’s -20O is not always feasible, or fun for that matter. But there is a solution to this winter composting conundrum: vermicomposting.
Vermicomposting is a process of composting at lower temperatures than hot, outdoor composting, whereby kitchen waste like banana peels, wilted lettuce and used tea bags, is recycled into a rich, nutrient-dense soil amendment for all plants — both indoor and out-door — with the help of specialized worms in containers. It requires no special skill, is odour-free and can be done 365 days a year in the comfort of your home. Some will have to come to terms with the ‘ick’ factor when dealing with worms and their poop which, as you will see, is really not repulsive at all. So, if you are willing to give it a try, read on.
Why bother vermicomposting?
With more and more people gardening in pots and downsizing to smaller quarters without access to a yard, vermicomposting makes sense. Even if household organic waste is picked up in your municipality or is composted in a bin outdoors, you can still make high quality worm compost with a small quantity of kitchen materials. Children in particular are fascinated by worm bins and can help ensure its success, so involve them in the process whenever possible.
The worms used in vermicomposting are not the traditional earthworms found in gardens, but a different species with a ravenous appetite called red wrigglers (Eisenia Foetida) who eat half their weight in food scraps daily. Because they don’t burrow well, preferring shallow surfaces, their container should be more wide than deep. Red wrigglers can be obtained locally online through various eco sources. About a half pound of worms is all you need to start your bin.
Worm bins are available commercially, but it’s easy to make your own using a Rubber-maid-style bin with lid. To start, drill holes ¼-inch wide along the bottom and sides of the bin and lid to allow air in and excess water out. Don’t worry, worms won’t escape from their bin and run rampant in your home: they require darkness and moisture to survive. Elevate the bin on bricks and place a tray or another bin underneath to catch any drippings, which can then be diluted and sprayed onto a plant’s foliage to boost vitality and prevent disease. Red wrigglers will die in extreme temperatures so keep your bin out of heat or freezing cold. Worms can survive for weeks at a time without any fresh food scraps, so you can go away and not worry about feeding them.
Once holes are drilled, fill a third of your bin with dampened, shredded newspaper or brown leaves. This ‘bedding’ will eventually be turned into compost by the worms and will need to be replenished once vermicompost is harvested. When conditions are too wet, worms may crawl up the sides of their bin. Remedy this by adding more dry bedding.
Worms are vegetarians, so avoid feeding them meat, dairy, fats, fish bones, or excessive citrus, which can render the bin environment too acidic. To aid their digestion, toss in a couple of handfuls of soil or sand with the initial bedding and chop food scraps in a food processor. Bury scraps in different locations of the bin for each feeding, once to twice per week should do.
You should have worm compost after three months. To harvest, move the pile to one side then add bedding on the other side with food scraps. Worms will naturally migrate to the food side leaving the compost side free to harvest. Alternatively, shine a light on the pile and they will move to the bottom where it is dark and moist. Worm castings are clean and free of harmful bacteria and can be applied right onto soil without burning plants. If a few worms are found in the finished product, simply remove them.
Vermicomposting is an excellent way to recycle kitchen waste over the winter — or anytime — and nourish your plants. Start one now so you’ll have a batch ready in time for seed starting season, and when the compost bin outside is thawing out.
Elaine Sanders can be reached at www.solutionsjardins.com