In the Garden:
Lower South
July, 2011
Regional Report

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A five gallon bucket will work as a starter home for composting worms if you provide drainage and adequate aeration.

Worm Ranching

I am a worm rancher. Seriously. I figure these days I have about 4,000 head on my place, give or take a few. The exact number is hard to keep track of since some of the critters escape occasionally and the rest are reproducing like crazy.

Many years ago I gained an interest in vermiculture, the fancy name for raising worms, more as a curiosity than anything else. As with most gardening type endeavors, one thing led to another and the curiosity became a growing project. Soon I was teaching classes on how to build your own worm bin to interested folks.

Vermiculture is a great way to accomplish several great things at once. It helps recycle kitchen scraps and other organic materials into very rich worm castings (the more dignified word we worm farmers use for worm poop). These castings are very rich in nutrients and microbes, making them a great addition to soil or potting media to boost plant growth. Worms are also a fascinating way to teach kids about life science. The worms, their cocoons from which the new worms hatch, and the tiny thin new worms are way cool!

My youngest daughter and I have built bins from many different materials. Our latest starter bin was a 5 gallon bucket with holes in the bottom covered with plastic screen material and set inside another 5 gallon bucket to allow excess water to drain out. We have also used the colored plastic storage bins. Our latest is about 16 by 28 inches and a little over a 12 inches deep. We call it the "Worm Waldorf". The worms seem to be happy in whatever bin provided the conditions of their bedding is right, or at least I have never heard one complain.

If you'd like to start your own a worm ranch you have several options. There are a number of bins on the market, some with multi-tiered racks and spigots on the bottom to drain away extra liquid which is rich in nutrients too. These can get rather expensive but much less than other hobbies such as golf carts and clubs, hunting rifles, shop saws, or big red garden tillers!

Do-it-yourselfers may prefer to go online and find plans for building a wooden box for worms, or converting a plastic storage bin into a worm ranch like we do at our place.

Basically, you will need a shallow container, not much over 12 inches deep. It will need to have some way for excess liquid to drain away. Otherwise the decomposition inside will turn anaerobic and unpleasant odors will form. This is detrimental to the worms too. You don't want to have to rush any worms to the local veterinarian -- they tend to look at you funny if you do.

Place your bin in an area where the temperatures will be between 40 and 80 degrees. Optimal range is about 55 to 77 degrees. The bin will need some ventilation, so make a few holes and then put mesh over them to prevent escapees or other things from crawling in. I make small holes one half to one inch in diameter and then cover them with plastic screening using a hot glue gun to attach it over the holes. This allows ample oxygen to keep the worms and other microbes in the bin happy.

Inside the bin place some partially decomposed organic matter such as rotting leaves or compost. Then add organic materials such moistened leaves or paper. We tear cardboard or newspaper into 2 to 3 inch strips and wet them in the kitchen sink. Squeeze out the water so it is moist but not still dripping wet. By the way, you may have noticed that newspaper tears into strips nicely down the page but not across it, sideways. This moistened paper is the bedding for the worms.

Then add some worms to get things started. Just spread them onto the surface and they'll take it from there. Choose red worms, not night crawlers, as the red worms feed in the top foot of material and do best in a vermiculture bin environment.

There is a lot of information online regarding how many worms to add per square foot, how much food scraps can be added per pound of worms, and how many square feet of surface you need per pound of food scraps per week.

As a general starting point, count on adding no more than a pound of kitchen scraps per foot of surface area. Plant based scraps are best, including fruit, grains, vegetables, egg shells, coffee grounds, and tea bags. Worms don't like citrus or onions in my experience. Avoid meat, fish, milk, fats and oils, and pet droppings.

We add scraps to one square foot area one week and then move to another area the following week. This rotation helps avoid overloading the system. Check on the worms a couple of times a week at first to see how things are going and to decide if more or fewer scraps should be added.

If you haven't tried vermicomposting before, give it a try this year. Do some research online to get more details and then go for it. You may find worm ranching downright fun and your plants will thank you for it too.


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