All organic gardens start with compost. That’s why, in our last post, we started saving materials to make compost in a 5 gallon bucket. In this post, we’ll take a few more simple steps in the compost-making process.
There are many different ways of making compost ranging from easy to elaborate. I am going to explain a few simple options in this series. But, regardless of which methods you ultimately end up using, I recommend that all new gardeners start by making vermicompost!
Vermicomposting makes great humus which is magical stuff that helps everything in your garden grow better. Plus it also makes “plant perfect” fertilizer that you can start using almost immediately.
What is Vermicompost?
Vermicompost is made primarily by red wriggler worms. Red wrigglers are very small worms that can eat half their body weight, each day, of all those fresh materials you’ve been saving in your 5 gallon bucket.
In reality, you’ll get a lot of ebb and flow in compost production depending on what you’ve got in your bucket. Still, with very minimal work, you can accumulate quite a bit of the highest quality, least work compost possible using these amazing worms.
Also, if you plan to keep other livestock later, your ability to take care of these worms is both good practice and an excellent test of your readiness for more complex life forms (e.g. chickens).
How Do You Care For Worms?
To take care of your worms, you’ll need to provide them proper shelter and bedding, nutritious food and sufficient water, occasionally clean their living area, and make adjustments in their care as required for their continued good health. (Incidentally, that’s also what you need to do for all other livestock.)
– Shelter and Bedding
For your first round of worms, their shelter will be a plastic container. Their bedding will be compost or top soil.
– Food and Water
Their food will be the materials you have been saving in your 5-gallon bucket, plus some loose brown matter that I’ll tell you about in a minute. Generally the food materials from your bucket will have sufficient water to hydrate your worms. Although, you may occasionally need to moisten your feed materials if they start to dry out.
Like us, worms don’t want to open the metaphorical fridge and find that the only thing to eat is ketchup. So, make sure to feed them before they run out of food. That way they can pick and choose what to eat and don’t end up living on nothing but onions and coffee grounds for a month.
Similar to making compost, some people say you shouldn’t give worms certain things. Well, smells and insects can be a problem in indoor worm bins. So I recommend you do one of two things.
- Use the “limited list” compost approach to collecting in your bucket. This excludes things like meat, dairy, and cooked foods.
- If you prefer to compost everything indoors, then you’ll need to ferment your compost materials before you feed them to your worms. This is done by a very simple process called bokashi. (I will tell you more about that in our next post).
People also say you should chop things up small — not give whole egg shells or wash them first, avoid citrus, limit onions — etc. etc. etc. Personally, I ignore all those special rules. Whatever the worms don’t eat, goes into the garden with the worm castings. There, other life forms end up eating them eventually.
As far as cleaning goes, I recommend that you make at least two worm bins. When one bucket fills up you can scrape the majority of the worms from the top of your full bucket and transfer them to a new bucket. Then all you need to do is spread the compost from your first bucket on your garden. Once your second bucket is full, repeat the same process.
You will also need to empty the liquid, called leachate, that drains from your worm bin into your second container, regularly. Dilute this liquid to a ratio of 10 parts water to 1 part leachate. Use it to water the roots of your more mature plants. (Don’t use this on seedlings, sometimes it can be too strong.)
Worm care is very simple. Still, I can’t tell you how many people have managed to kill their worms. One lady left them shut up in her greenhouse on a hot day. A man put them in his garage which was well below freezing, so his worms froze to death. Most people just fail to feed them and those poor, trapped worms die of starvation.
Worms like the same basic climate conditions as we do for best performance. Well, except that they live in a plastic box – which amplifies conditions like sunlight, heat, and cold. Basically, though, if you keep them at the house temperatures you feel comfortable in, out of direct sunlight, and away from vents that will cause them to become too dry, they’ll be happy.
Feed them before they get hungry. Transfer them to a new bin before they run out of space. And remember to treat them like they are living beings, doing amazing work for you, then you’ll do just fine!
Now, that you are primed on the basic needs of worms, here’s what you need to do to start using them at home.
1. Prepare Your Browns
You’ve already started gathering your worm food in your 5 gallon buckets. But now, it’s time to start saving up some separate “browns” to go help create a hospitable environment for worms. Used computer paper, newspaper, junk mail with the plastic windows torn out, paper towels, cardboard, paper egg cartons, tissues boxes, toilet paper rolls, etc. are all good options. Crushed, but not composted, fall leaves are also a good option when the season is right.
Shred your paper items if you can. But if you don’t have access to a shredder, you can also do this manually. If you watch any TV or movies, tearing large paper-based materials into small pieces by hand while you watch is relaxing and redeeming. (Personally, I don’t feel guilty about my TV time if I am also doing some homesteading “work” while I watch).
2. Make Your Worm Bin
Extra large cat litter boxes or 5 gallon sized food grade buckets make great worm bins. Ideally you’ll want two containers of the same size that you can nest together.
If you don’t have any containers from your own purchases, ask friends and family to collect these for you. Or check with your favorite restaurants to see if they can save you their large food grade buckets.
– Make Drainage Holes For The Worm Compost Leachate
Drill a few holes in the bottom of one container for drainage. Put some weight on the bucket using your foot to keep it steady. Then hold the drill with two hands to drill the holes. (Keep your foot away from the drill, though for safety).
Note: Those cat litter pails have ridged bottoms. Make sure you drill the part that is flush with the bottom — not the inverted ridges — because liquid needs to flow to the low point in the container. This is where your worm compost tea will drain out thanks to gravity.
Look! This is so easy, you can even get your cat involved!
– Make a Vent for Fresh Air
If your container has a lid, you can use a sharp utility knife to make an air vent. Cut out a small section. Cover it with a few coffee filters, folded to size, and held in place with duct tape. Paper towels also work if you are not a coffee drinker.
Note: Some people worry that the worms might eat through the coffee filters. I have never had it happen. I suspect that’s because there are better food options in the body of the bucket. But, if you are worried about this, you can use a piece of metal screen like you use for your screen door or over windows to keep flies out instead.
– No Lid? No Problem
If you only managed to scavenge containers but no lids, then just cover the whole top with a towel and secure it with a rope or bungee cord. You will be getting in and out of this bucket from time to time. So make sure you secure your towel using something you can untie easily.
Again, if you are concerned about worms escaping by eating the towel, then use some screen cut to size instead of a towel.
– Add Your Compost Leachate Catcher
Nest your bucket with holes inside your other container that doesn’t have holes.
With the cat litter boxes, you can even lean the drilled side forward a bit to help the liquid drain faster. This doesn’t work with round buckets, but it will still drain fine (just a bit more slowly).
3. Prepare Worm Habitat
There are all sorts of formulas out there for what to put in your worm bins. Personally, after years of raising worms in bins, in beds, and direct in the garden, I have decided that nature knows best.
I add 3 inches of top soil or finished compost to the bottom of my worm bin since this is what the worms live in when they free range. This also helps maintain the moisture in the bin in while acting as a bio-filter for the liquid that drains out the bottom.
Moisten your compost or soil so that it is like a full — but not soppy — sponge.
Side Note For Garden Preparation
You are going to need to get some already-made compost for your garden very soon. So, go ahead and start buying a couple of bags a week in preparation for starting your beds. If you grab a few bags each time you do your normal shopping, it’s not such a hit to your budget or so much heavy lifting for your back! Then you can use some of this in your worm bin too.
You’ll need about 3 cubic feet of well-aged compost for every 10 square feet of garden space you’ve earned based on your estimated compost making ability. Normally bagged compost is about 1 cubic foot per bag. Double check the label to be sure, though. (Organic compost can sometimes be in smaller bags to make the price seem more similar to the non-organic variety).
4. Move Your Worms into their New Home
You can buy worms online from specialized suppliers. They sell them by the pound or piece count. A pound of worms is about 1000 worms, and that’s about what you need to get started. Some suppliers only ship in good weather for worm safety. Others charge a lot for shipping because they use foam coolers and insulation to ship year round.
You can often get a batch of worms from other gardeners (if you ask nicely and maybe barter a bit). Bait and tackle shops often carry red wrigglers for fishermen to use as well.
If you have seen red wrigglers in your soil, then you can also just put a couple inches of your compost materials on your soil and wait until the worms crawl up to eat it. Then you can pick out worms and put them in your bin. You’ll need to repeat this a few times to get a sufficient population for your bin. But, it saves you up to $40 on the price of worms.
Once you have your worms, spread them out on top of the compost in your new worm bin. Introduce yourself. Let them know you’ll be taking care of them. And wish them well in their new home!
5. Feed Your Livestock
Now, add about 3 inches of loose compost materials from your 5 gallon bucket to this new worm bin to get them started. Do not pack this in. You don’t want those worms to suffocate or get crushed!
Cover the fresh materials with about 2 inches of the loose brown matter from step 1 above. The brown stuff will cut down on smells and irritating gnat flies.
If you haven’t collected enough browns yet, then you can also sprinkle just enough of your bagged compost to cover the fresh materials.
6. Get to Know Your Worms
Like any new livestock, you’ll want to spend a lot of time with your worms at first to get to know as much as you can about them. Move aside your browns every day or two and see how much your worms have eaten. Check to see if your materials are still moist. Pay attention to how much black, gummy goodness (a.k.a. worm poop) your power eaters have made.
Each time you visit your worms, add in more fresh food and browns, as needed, to replace what’s missing. Also, give your worms a banana peel now and then. That’s their favorite food!
Actually it’s the potassium in the peels that they are attracted. Potassium can be hard to come by in other forms of organic matter. When you add a banana peel or two to each batch of vermicompost, you also increase the potassium content that will be in the vermicompost and leachate that you feed to your plants.
When you have accomplished the above, you can add “vermicompost manager” to your homesteading resume. You have not only started to make your own compost for the garden. but you have also added your first kind of livestock to your homestead line-up!
These simple steps, have led to huge progress. This one skill can feed your garden and your family for years to come. And, if you take great care of your worms, they will live long and propagate so you never have to buy them again.
Continue your simple homesteading journey with Less Trash + More Bokashi = Garden Love.