Wednesday, March 16, 2011


            Composting during the winter months can be a challenge, at least for me.  Adding table scraps to an outside bin that is alternately freezing and thawing for several months can—when the final thaw comes—just end up a gray mushy (and often anaerobic) mess. To avoid this, some of my friends freeze their table scraps during the winter and then, when spring comes, add them little by little to their other compost material.  We don’t have that kind of extra freezer space.  So, as an alternative, we got more worms.

            I’d first set up a worm bin early in the fall as part of my Master Composter Recycler training.  There we’d each taken a small plastic bin, drilled a few holes into it for air space, lined it with some dirt and shredded newspapers, sprayed the lining material so that it had the consistency of a sponge that had just been wrung out, and then added three or four red wigglers.  I brought the bin home, stuck in about a third of an apple core, and put the bin in a kitchen cabinet.  

Worms can eat about ½ their weight a day, so three worms didn’t need much food.  And, if you’re lucky, they double their number every two months, so the worms in that bin weren’t going to be eating much more food in the near future. 

            In November, as the outside composting began to slow down, we discussed the possibility of increasing our vermicomposting. We decided that, rather than just adding more worms to our small bin—an option I’d learned a fellow Master Composter was about to take— we’d move to a bigger bin.  If we’d had time we could have made such a bin fairly easily, but instead we decided to buy one.  There are so many options out there—worm farms and worm cans and worm benches and more.  We eventually chose a three layered system that could easily fit in the corner of our dining room.  We set it up, layering coir and wet newspaper into the first layer of the system.  The two pounds of red wigglers we’d ordered arrived a few days later and we were good to go.

            Each day or so since, we cut up any large table scraps that we have, add the smaller scraps and put them in our worm bin.  We cover most of the food with the newspaper, coir, leaves, or dirt in the bin and the worms begin their work. Worms will eat most fruit and vegetables, as well as stale bread, pasta, rice and paper of various kinds.  We’ve learned though that worms—or at least our worms—still have preferences for what they’ll eat first. If given a variety of choices ours will choose banana peels or melon rinds any day and will only move toward potato peels as a last resort! 

            One way to tell if your worm bin is working correctly is by the smell –or more accurately, the lack of smell.  If you’re near our worm bin most days, you smell absolutely nothing.  If you take off the lid and put your nose close to the bin, you’d notice a fresh earth type smell.  But one morning I opened the lid and there was an unpleasant smell, telling me something was off.  I checked the collecting tray at the bottom of the bins and there was liquid in it, telling me that the bins had too much moisture in them.  I corrected the problem by adding some dry shredded newspaper to the bin to absorb the water.  The unpleasant smell quickly disappeared.  For a few days afterwards, to make sure the problem was gone, I also avoided adding food like tomato or melon that have extremely high moisture content.

            Little by little this winter, the food we’ve been adding has changed to vermicompost.  These worm castings are extremely nutrient-rich and work as a wonderful organic fertilizer, both for houseplants and outdoor vegetation.  When it’s time to put our seedlings outside in a month or so, we’ll have a good amount of environmentally friendly, beneficial vermicompost to topdress the soil in which they’ll be growing.