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Julia's Compost Shop

Worm Farming

Please note that these worms for sale need to live in either a compost bin or worm farm, they are NOT the right sort of worms for garden soil.  

Sadly with many new homes, the garden soil is often left bereft of any life, including earthworms.  The best way to remedy this is to apply as much organic matter as possible, this can be as simple as sprinkling lawn clippings direct on the soil each time you mow, and in the autumn try to add lots of leaves.  Over time, worms will find their way to your garden, but there needs to be something for them to eat. Click here to watch amazing time lapse footage of what happens under the soil when leaves are covering the surface.

 

Worms will chomp through a huge variety of organic matter (OM) such as kitchen scraps, leaves, torn up cardboard - they particularly enjoy the corrugated variety, and the occasional handful of grass clippings and coffee grounds. Banana skins and comfrey leaves are particular favourites and are high in potassium.  In fact worms will eat pretty much anything that is plant derived, but there are a few things they are not so partial to.

Common consensus is that it is best to avoid giving them anything from the onion family, citrus, salt (they are very sensitive to salt), oil or fat. Pineapple can be also be quite acidic and contains digestive enzymes and has been known to kill worms.  Meat or meat products are not recommended as they likely to smell and attract flies.

Keeping a worm farm is one small thing everyone can do to reduce precious organic matter going to the land fills where it will break down anaerobically and produce methane - which is far worse for the atmosphere than CO2.  By using worms to digest food waste and using the resulting vermicompost on your garden, you will be helping to sequest carbon from the atmosphere by generating humus and encouraging strong plant roots.  If you are interested in finding out more, there are some links to some interesting TED talks on The Wormery page.   

The Compostshop offers a range of worm bins and you should find one suitable for your needs.  Choosing which one depends on your ‘output’, for instance a two person household  will find the Worm Factory about the right size, a four person family should opt for a Can O Worms. the Worm Café or The Hungry Bin. 


Once you have purchased your worm farm, vermiculture requires very little effort. There are three key thing to remember - Protection, moisture and food.

Protection - avoid extremes of full sun in summer and exposed cold in winter, Ideally, a shed,  garage or covered car port should provide year round protection

Moisture - this means damp but not exessively wet. All our worm farms are supplied with lids which will keep out rain if you have to site it outside, but will keep the inside moist. If you find your worm farm is getting too wet, add torn up corugated cardboard or scrunched up newspaper down the sides of the bin. This will help absorb the moisture and the worms will enjoy burrowing into it. It will also provide some carbon, which helps keeps things in balance.  You will know it is too wet as there will be a lot of leachate collecting in the bottom tray.  

Food -  Do monitor how fast the food is disappearing, and adjust the amount you give them accordingly, also, they will apreciate a varied diet. Remember also, in cooler temperatures they are less active and will not consume the same amount as in the summer. Ideally, place 'food' in a different part of the bin each time and monitor how long it takes to dissapear, don't add any more if there is still a lot visible.

 As the worms munch their way through the 'food' you give them, they leave behind castings and as this builds up, it creates the lovely dark humus that you can eventually collect, this is known as vermicompost. You know it is ready when there is nothing identifiable- apart from bits of egg shell-more on that below. 

The vermicompost can be used as a top dressing in the garden to provide a slow release fertilizer as it contains high levels of soluble calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium and other nutrients. It will also be beneficial as it will add to the  micro organisms in the soil. I had amazing results on an avocado that was looking decidedly sad, and perked up amazingly after couple of weeks after applying a top dressing plus watering using my VCT bags, you can see images here 

If you want to use the vermicompost as a growing medium, it is advisable to ‘dilute’ it  with some other material, such as coconut fibre, garden soil or low nutrient potting compost.  From my experience, about a third vermicompost by volume to other medium works well.  Planting in pure vermicompost is not ideal as it is very difficult to re wet once it has dried out.

The liquid that collects at the base of all the worms farms is technically leachate, it is a basically moisture produced from the breakdown of organic matter in the worm farm.  To make what is commonly called 'worm tea', is just a matter of taking some vermicompost from the base of the working tray and mixing it with water. This can then be strained and used wherever you need a quick blast of nutrients.  There is more info on 'proper' worm tea in The Wormery. Any leachate that collects in the base of your worm farm should be diluted and used as soon as possible. Keeping the tap open and having a bucket underneath it to catch the liquid is a good way of monitoring moisture levels and it will also allow a bit of air movement in the lower section.

 

The key thing to remember is that worms do not have teeth, so all the material in the bin has to be quite soft and slushy (something like the pulp around pumpkin seeds) for it to be processed it efficiently.  If you chop up your veg scraps as finely as possible, this will increase the surface area of the material and allow it to soften and partially break down - with the help of a myriad of other microorganism that will be in your worm farm -and in turn, your worms will be very grateful and more able to feed on it.  Actually, it is the bacteria and fungi that decompose the food that the worms feed on, so don't worry about any mould, it's all good. 

If you are really keen, putting all their food through a mincer will do a great job of creating exactly the sort of mush worms will love.  With so many mouths to feed at the Compostshop, this works really well. I usually incorporate some shredded paper to help soak up some of the liquid and also always add some coffee grounds to the mix to provide some roughage, worms need a little grit to aid their digestion.

 

worm mush


 

Here is a link to a great time lapse video of worms (and all their mates) breaking down food in a worm farm over 8 weeks, You can see by all the movement that there are lots of other creatures helping to process the food. Click here to watch


Other creepy crawlies

You may see quite a lot of other little creatures finding their way into the bin, these are generally quite harmless and will be working with the worms to break down OM.

Most common are tiny white crawling creatures about 1mm long, these are likely to be springtails  (there are some good photos here )and they are no threat to the health of the worms.  Alongside all the tiny creatures you might see, there will be millions of others that you can't see such as micro organisms, bacteria and fungi, they will all be busy breaking down the OM, and all have a part to play in the wonderful process of turning your kitchen scraps into valuable humus.  Fruit flies will probably find their way into the bin at some time, and apart from it being really annoying to get a flurry of them flying out when you open the lid, they are in fact happily working with the worms to break down all that lovely food you have been putting in. One way you can keep the fruit fly numbers down is by always covering the food when it goes into the bin, either with newspaper or a layer of shredded paper or cardboard. Just push it aside each side food is added then replace it.

 

                         springtails

Springtails all over the avocado skins. The shredded paper had only been in a week and had already absorbed a lot of moisture and the worms were loving it.

There are very few other creatures that really pose a threat to your worms apart from flatworms, which are not really worms at all. There is some useful information on this link

http://soilbugs.massey.ac.nz/turbellaria.php , but as the article says, these are likely to only eat one worm a week, but you wouldn't want them breeding in your worm bin so if any are found, best to carefully remove them and carefully place somewhere damp and shady, well away from your worm bin.

Adding egg shells

Eggs shells are an excellent source of calcium and will also help to keep the worm farm 'sweet', that is preventing it becoming too acidic.  The best way to add them is to try to grind them to as fine a powder as possible. The image below shows  some shell that I had sifted from my compost bin and crushed using a trusty lump hammer. The white pile on the right are some straight from the kitchen that had been rinsed, then sun dried, then put in a magic bullet, by far the easiest way to get them fine enough. I no longer add egg shells straight from the kitchen, they are always ground up first.

 

crushed_eggshells

 


What kind of worms work best in a vermiculture system?


The two types of composting worms supplied are the tiger worm (Eisenia foetida) and Indian blues (Perionyx excavatus).  The Indian blue is easy to identify as it has a darker head than body, pointy ends, usually pale in colour and moves very quickly, if held, they flip about and are extremely intolerant of light.   Both work very well in a worm compost bin as they thrive in material that is high in organic matter, which is why they are the best type to use in an enclosed system.   Your common or garden worm that is normally found when you turn over soil, (and there are quite a lot of different species) tend not thrive in worm bins.  

 


Preparing the Bin for Worms

Tear corrugated cardboard into fairly fine shred and mix with plenty of partially decomposed leaves, chopped up hay or straw,  a small amount of grass clippings (about a handful), a cup or two of coffee grounds if you have them, some spent (really old, no fertilizer) potting compost and coconut fibre, -  - this is absolutely the best material for a worm bed.  Soak the mixture well and stir it up, all the while chanting some witches gibberish,  then allow to drain for a bit.  Exactly how much you need will depend on the size of the bin, but you will need to create a layer of about 30 cms in the base of the worm farm

It’s a good idea to start with a minimum of 1000 worms, which is approximately (250g).

Add your worms, cover with a little more bedding and then you can start feeding them.

NB. The Worm Cafe, Worm Factory and Can o Worms are all supplied with a coco peat brick which needs to be re hydrated, This will provide the ideal bedding to get the worm farms started and I always supply worms in a good quantity of their 'home' so their transition to their new premises is made as stress free as possible.

 
How much will they eat? 

The best advice is to observe how quickly your composting worms are consuming what you give them.   Once the bedding has broken down a bit they will also use this as a food source, so you are not likely to starve them for the first  few weeks.  Start with an ice cream container full of kitchen scraps and see how long it takes them to get through it. Remember, the smaller the pieces are, the quicker it will break down.

 As the population increases, more food will be needed.  You will know when conditions are right as you may notice little yellow capsules (similar in appearance to some slow release fertilizers) amongst the vermicasts. These are worm eggs (cocoons).

In ideal conditions, that is an ambient temperature of  between 15 and 25c, bedding at 80% moisture with a nice open aerated structure and adequate food, a mature worm can produce three or four cocoons a week. These cocoons can contain 1 to three baby worms and it takes an average of 70 days for the worms to reach maturity.

The worms will start egg laying when they are around 9-12 weeks and at this age, will usually have a raised 'ring' about a third of the way down their body.   

It is also a good idea to cover the top with some newspaper or cardboard, this will help keep up the humidity and if they are really starving, they will start eating this. It will also help keep the fruit fly population down, which can sometimes be a problem in the summer.

 Harvesting the vermicompost, Usually it takes a few months for the vermicompost to build up. Best to remove a small amount at a time and work your way from one side of the bin to the next.  If it is very wet, it may be a bit smelly, but not despair, it is still packed full of nutrients. Allow it to dry on some newspaper in an old washing up bowl, or similar, and you will find after a day or so it should be crumbly, do sift through and remove any worms and eggs and return these to your bin.  A very simple way of screening the compost is to take a handfull or two and use a seed raising tray, the ones with the criss cross base have holes that are just the right size to sift out the finer material and any coarser bits can be returned to the worm farm.  You can use the compost as a soil/potting compost amendment, add some to water to create a liquid feed or use as a top dressing for container plants. 


Happy worm farming. Laughing

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