Traditional composting uses microbes to do the heavy lifting, but there are other natural processes that can work even faster. Worms are popular compost helpers – these little workers eat more than half their body mass every day. Worms burrow through garbage and eat soil that’s rich in anaerobic bacteria. They excrete soil with even more bacteria, and their waste has helpful aerobic bacteria instead of foul smelling anaerobes.
Photo found on Flickr.com courtesy of CleanAirGardening.
Before you start composting with worms, its important to figure out how large of a composter is needed. You’ll need roughly one square foot of surface area for every pound of organic refuse that you generate per week. It’s okay to overestimate the area, but underestimating can result in waste that isn’t processed. Most earthworm activity takes place in the top inches of soil, so most of the waste they digest will likewise be found in the top inch or two of a worm compost bin.
Worm compost bins can be made from wood, plastic, styrofoam, and metal. The metal and wooden bins tend to weigh the most and they can rot or rust over time. Worm bins often include a drip tray for collecting moisture from the compost; that compost tea is prized for watering houseplants. Some worm composters also include a sieve tray to collect worm castings (that’s the polite term for worm poop). Worm castings make a great fertilizer and they can be used to restore biological activity to inert soil.
The two most popular worms for composting are Red Wrigglers (Eisenia foetida) and Red Earthworms (Lumbricus rubellus). These red earthworms are also known as manure worms, and they are different from Nightcrawlers (Lumbricus terrestris). Nightcrawlers (which are also known as Common Earthworms, Dew Worms, and Lob Worms) are found much deeper in the soil – except when it rains. Nightcrawlers don’t do well in compost bins, because they are always trying to burrow out of the bottom. Red worms can be found in leaf piles, compost heaps and old manure piles.
Red worms are quick workers. Finished compost will be ready in about two to three months, and redworms are also quick breeders. It takes about three weeks for fertilized eggs to hatch from their cocoon, and multiple worms will hatch from each cocoon. In three months the young worms will start laying their own eggs. Worm composting not only produces lots and lots of usable soil, it also produces an endless stream of bait for trout fishing!
There are a few quick steps to prepare a worm bin before adding worms. First, you need to install a bedding. The bedding will keep worms inside your bin without clogging the drainage holes in the bottom. The bedding should be made of organic material that the worms will nibble at, but its best to use something with a high carbon content, such as tree leaves, shredded paper, strips of cardboard, or coir (aka coconut fiber). You shouldn’t use peat moss or any other material that has high acidity – this can hurt the worms and make them work slower. Line the bottom of the compost bin with this bedding material, then sprinkle on water until the bedding is as wet as a wrung out sponge. This bedding should be kept damp to help regulate the temperature of the compost bin and so that worms have a supply of moisture to stay alive. On top of the bedding, put a good layer of soil. Then, put in the worms and your first batch of compost!
Worms vs Grubs
Grubs are an increasingly popular animal to use for composting waste. Grubs are voracious – they eat and breed even faster than earthworms, and they convert a higher percentage of compost into biomass. A popular grub is the larvae of the Soldier Fly – a type of fly with a long larval lifespan that lives for only about 7 days after growing wings. The adults have no mouth and are much less of an annoyance than stinging house flies. Soldier flies convert about 5 percent of the waste into friable compost and 20 percent of the compost will turn into additional grubs. They work extremely quickly – a bin full of grubs can process 5 lbs of compost daily.
If you have pet fish, birds, or reptiles, grubs make a nutritious animal snack. You can save money on pet food by raising grubs, and you’ll also save time by cutting down on trips to the store to pick up food.