worms in dirt for a worm composter

Turning Waste into Gold: The Incredible Benefits of Worm Composting

Worm composting to dispose of your kitchen scraps can be very effective. It can also provide you with the most amazing, free compost for your plants. It can be done inside or outside. And anyone can have one, even if you don’t have a deck or backyard. When done properly they do not stink or make a mess!

Worm composting, also known as vermicomposting, is no new fad. It dates way back to the Egyptians, under Cleopatra’s ruling. They recognized the incredible soil amending properties of worms. It became punishable by death to remove any worms from Egypt. 

But, the worm composting systems we see today were believed to have been started by Mary Appelhof, a Michigan biology teacher. She wanted to continue composting through the winter and thus created the indoor composting system. 

Worm composters come in all shapes and sizes and can usually be made with things you have laying around. They just need to follow the same general outline: levels of substrate and food scraps (where the worms live), and somewhere for the excess liquid to go.

Before we go into detail about the different types of worm composting systems, we need to understand what worm composting actually is and why more people should use it.

*Disclosure: Please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you click on the link, I may earn a commission at no extra cost to you.. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.*

So, What is worm composting?

Worm composting is a sustainable and eco-friendly way of turning your food scraps into compost. AND it provides you with the most amazing, free, and natural fertilizer. In turn it helps keep heaps of food out of the landfill.

Vermicomposting can be done inside or outside and there are a couple different methods. Once set up, its a simple process, add the food, worms eat the food, and then worms excrete the food. Worm poop (also called worm castings) is an extremely beneficial source of nutrients for all plants. And the best part, not only is it free and never ending, it’s an eco-friendly way to dispose of your food scraps.

worm composting

Different types

Worm composters can look and work differently, depending on what you want. There is an inground method, it can be slower and is placed in the ground within your garden. There is a multi-level method, this one is the most common and can be used for indoor use. It uses multiple layers for easy emptying. The last method is a stack method where you just keep adding layers. Once it’s mostly full you can harvest the castings from the bottom.  Compost Collective shows a great visual of the last two methods.

All of these methods use the same type of composting worm. They are known as Red Wigglers (binomial name eisenia fetida). They are the most common and easy to find for purchase. There are a couple other types of composting worms. Although they are a bit more sensitive to cold temperatures or can be harder to find. You can easily find Red Wigglers online or in some stores across Canada and USA.

Regardless of what system you use they all work the same way. You add the food scraps and the worms eat them. Gradually over the 1st 6 months you can increase the amount of food scraps. This will help them increase their numbers without causing problems.

The benefits of using a worm composter

There are so many benefits to using worms to reduce your food scraps and fertilize your plants. 

Environmental benefits of vermicomposting

Worms benefit the world more than they get credit for. Let’s start with reducing food waste.

According to Made in Ca “The average consumer household food waste in Europe and North America is between 95 and 115 kilograms, while in sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeastern Asia, it is only 6-11 kilograms per year.” I assume only a small portion of those countries have a green waste program where someone comes to pick up your food waste and takes it to be turned into compost. Which means that the majority of the food waste is ending up in the landfill.

Uncle Jim’s worm farm states “decomposing organic waste in landfills creates large amounts of landfill gas (LFG), which is comprised of about 50% CO2 and 50% methane – a greenhouse gas approximately 28 times more powerful than CO2.” 

Each year, Canadians create over 50 million kilograms of food waste. 47% of that is created within households. So imagine what a difference it would be if even half of those households put their scraps in a worm composter rather than in the landfill.

Replaces chemical fertilizers

Worm castings are one of the most beneficial fertilizers that occur organically. It provides the right amount of nutrients for every type of plant and soil. Worm castings release the nutrients very slowly. Because of the slow release you cannot over-fertilize your plants.

Yet when using synthetic fertilizers if you feed too much you could kill your plants. Synthetic fertilizers also produce quite a large carbon footprint to create. Constant use of chemical fertilizers can actually hinder your soil health while potentially contaminating local streams and waterways making them not good for the environment.

Improves soil and plant health
  • Plants are able to absorb nutrients from the soil even when the PH isn’t correct. 
  • Improved water retention, aeration, and drainage
  • Improve seed germination and growth
  • As worms are eating, their body naturally removes heavy metals and toxins from the soil
  • Prevents some plant diseases
  • Deters pests like aphids and mealy bugs
  • Higher yields

Types of Worm Composters

There are several different methods to choose from when looking at starting a worm composter. They all have their own perks depending on what your personal needs are.

Layer method worm composting

This system works well indoors or outdoors. There are typically three layers. The bottom level is to catch all the run-off liquid. The top two layers are for the worms to live and eat in. There is bedding in the middle level and then the top level has more bedding plus the food scraps. Add some more dry bedding on top and put a lid on top. When the bottom of the top bin has filled up with worm castings you swap the top two levels. This will put the top bin, full of worm castings and worms, in the middle. Add some fresh food (with dry bedding on top) to the top bin (previously middle bin). This will cause all the worms to leave the middle bin and move up to where the food scraps are. 

This will make it much easier to harvest the worm castings, but not the worms. Once the worms are all at the top, you can add the compost from the middle bin right to your plants. 

You can also do this with only 2 bins, one for drainage and one for worms and food. However, its more of a process when you are wanting to empty out the worm castings. The easiest way to use only 2 bins is to alternate which side you add food to. When the food is gone you add scraps to the other side. Once all the worms have gone over to the food you can harvest the castings from the other side. You will still need to look out for worms that may still be mixed into the castings.

Worm Tea

And don’t forget to collect the liquid “worm tea” from the bottom bin and feed it to your plants. It is a very concentrated fertilizer so you need to dilute it.

mix 9 parts water to 1 part worm tea before giving to your plants.

If your bin is outside you can drill a hole in the bottom bin and place a bucket under the hole. This allows the liquid to continuously drip out and you can use it as needed.

Stacked worm farm

If you are able to place your worm farm outside there are a couple different methods you can use. One is using a tall bin, or barrel, like The Hungry Bin. You add worm bedding to the bottom quarter. This can be things like compost, animal bedding, potting soil, hay, dead leaves, coconut fibers, or shredder paper/ cardboard. And then add your worms and a small amount of food. Cover the top with damp newspaper or cardboard. 

To harvest the castings from this method you take it from the bottom once it has filled up about ¾ of the way up. These types of worm composting bins have a hatch in the bottom for you to open and remove the bottom castings. You don’t need to be too worried about having worms mixed in as they prefer to be at the surface. Once the bottom fills with worm castings and you continue adding more on top, the bottom becomes more compact, while the top stays light and fluffy and easy for the worms to move around in.

In ground worm farm

This method uses a bucket with a fitting lid and gets dug into the ground, with just the top of the bucket above ground. Holes are drilled around the outside and bottom of the bucket (none on top) and add some bedding and your food scraps on top. This method does take longer to break down and depending on where you live it can freeze, or come to a near halt over winter. 

This type of composter is great in that it does not take up much space and can easily be hidden within your garden. This method also adds some nutrients right back into the soil and plants surrounding the bucket without you having to do anything. The in-ground worm farm helps bring more worms into your garden, giving you the double benefit. 

When there is a surplus of food the worms will produce more worms to eat it all up, but unlike the other methods they are free to leave and spread around your garden benefiting all your plants with little work on you.

in-ground worm composting

The castings will still need to be emptied every once in a while but any liquid will just seep into the surrounding soil. To harvest all the worm castings you simply stop feeding the worms for 2-4 weeks before harvesting to ensure they have finished eating everything and have moved out of the bucket. You can then go and dump the castings around whatever plants you want.

How do you start a worm farm?

If you are wanting to start your own worm farm you need to look at whether you are going to make it yourself or purchase one, and whether it will be kept inside or outside. There are multiple highly rated worm farms online if you do not want to make one yourself.

If you are wanting to create your own layered worm composter you will need:

  • 3 bins (with 1 lid)
  • Bedding (compost, animal bedding, potting soil, hay, dead leaves, coconut fibers, or shredder paper/ cardboard)
  • Worms 
  1. Drill multiple holes along the bottom of 2 of the bins using a ⅛ drill bit.
  2. Drill a couple holes along the top on each side to allow air flow.
  3. Place bedding in both bins that have the holes. The 3rd bin will be to catch liquid so leave it empty.
  4. Stack the 3 bins, the empty one goes on the bottom. If the bottom bin is too big and the other bins are sitting on the bottom you need to add something to raise the top two bins. There should be space between the levels.
  5. Add food scraps, cut up to the size of golf balls or smaller.
  6. Add worms and cover with damp newspaper or cardboard.
  7. Secure the lid on top. This will stop other animals getting into it as well as keeps the sunlight out, as worms do not like sunlight.

When you are ready to harvest, simply stop adding food scraps and once all the food that was in there has been eaten, swap the top two levels. Add some more food scraps to the new top level and wait for the worms to come up. Once you harvest the castings from the middle level add some new bedding in and place back in the middle level until the top becomes full.

To start an in-ground worm farm

This method requires the least amount of things. 

  1. Find a bucket (3 or 5 gallon) with a lid. 
  2. Drill holes all over the side and bottom of the bucket, but none on the lid. 
  3. Dig a hole deep enough that just the lid is still sticking out.
  4. Place the bucket into the hole and fill it all around with dirt.
  5. Place some worm bedding (compost, animal bedding, potting soil, hay, dead leaves, coconut fibers, or shredder paper/ cardboard) into the bottom of the bucket
  6. Add some food scraps in – if you have some, a scoop of moist unfinished compost on top*
  7. Cover with dampened newspaper, burlap, or cardboard.
  8. Close the lid and leave it. 
  9. Check back every so often and as the food scraps are eaten you add more and then add more dry bedding.

*by putting unfinished compost on top you are also adding in all the living microbes that help break everything down.

When you are ready to harvest you simply stop feeding them and wait for everything in the bucket to be eaten before lifting it out and spreading amongst your plants. Refill with bedding and repeat.

In-ground worm farm for patios

You can take the same method as above except instead of putting it into the ground you put the bucket into a large planter. The only difference is that you will need to add some worms into your bucket.

Can you harvest worms right from your backyard?

Technically yes, but it depends on what your end goal is. It is typically recommended to start with around 1000 worms so they can keep up with your amount of food scraps. It would be a lot of work to find that many worms. There are also several species of worms in your yard and garden, so you want to be sure you are getting the right worms. If you choose to start with only a handful of worms from your garden, it will take a very long time for the worms to multiply enough to accommodate the amount of food scraps.

My first worm farm was an experiment that my son and I did after he built a wormery (worm farm) at school. 

When we built ours we intended to create it without buying anything. And we searched our backyard for worms. We did this, taking into consideration how the different types of worms live and what they look like. 

There are 2 main kinds of worms living in your garden, epigeic earthworms and endogeic earthworms. Epigeic earthworms tend to be darker in colour, faster moving, and do not burrow underground, instead they live at the surface under decaying plant matter. Endogeic are lighter in colour, are slower moving, and they burrow underground. They come up to the surface periodically but mostly stay underground. 

When my son and I searched for worms we went to places that had decaying matter like under stumps/ logs, piles of leaves, and of course we took some from our compost pile. My son dug in the garden and found some endogeic earthworms that he added in as well. After the worms had been in there for a while we had a good look at it all and noticed how the worms from the garden stayed at the very bottom (we took them out and put them back in the garden), but the other worms stayed near the top wiggling amongst the food scraps.

Common mistakes of worm farming

Inadequate diet

Worms like to have a mixture of browns (carbons) and greens (nitrogen). Browns are dry things that come from a tree (wood chips, leaves, shredded newspaper). And the greens are things fresh and moist (food scraps, grass clippings, manure, coffee grounds).

This will take experimentation to see how quickly the worms go through the food. You should feed them only once they have eaten most of their food. You want there to be a little bit left (so they don’t completely run out of food) but the majority eaten. If there is still too much food in there then feed a little less. You want to be feeding them at least once a week. The worms will eventually reproduce to match the amount of food but it takes time to increase to your household amount.

What if you overfeed or under feed your worms?

If you are overfeeding your worms the food will start rotting before the worms have a chance to eat it. This creates a breeding ground for fruit flies and gnats as well as an increase and moisture within the worm bin. The worms like to eat food when it just starts decomposing and is going all soft. But if there is too much food in there the worms don’t have a chance to eat it all before it rots. This can cause a toxic environment and can kill all your worms.

If you do not give the worms enough food their numbers will decrease to eat the amount of food.

Moisture level

The moisture level matters a lot in your worm bin. Worms breathe through their skin, so if conditions aren’t just right they will die. If the worm bin is too dry they suffocate and if it is too wet they can drown. So you want to check your moisture levels often and add more water to moisten or add some shredded newspaper to help soak up the excess.

Temperature

Worms don’t like temperatures that are too hot or too cold. So keep them in a shady spot and in the winter either bring them inside or even under a shelter and protected from the wind. If its really cold and you’re concerned for them you can add some dry hay or straw on top, this will help insulate.

Air flow

Like all living things, worms need air. If a worm bin is sitting undisturbed for too long the castings and bedding can compact, preventing the air from circulating through. Each time before you add more food scraps give the bin a mix around first to loosen everything up, allowing air to get to all areas.

Toxic materials

If you add shredded paper from glossy magazines, or paper that has been painted or glued you could kill all your worms. These things are not natural and can create a toxic environment for the worms. You also don’t want to add non-natural things if you plan to use the worm castings in your fruit and vegetable garden.

In conclusion, creating a worm composter offers an array of environmental and agricultural benefits that align seamlessly with sustainable living practices. By converting organic waste into nutrient-rich worm castings, worm farms not only help reduce landfill waste but also lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with organic decomposition. Furthermore, the use of worm castings as a natural fertilizer enhances soil health, boosts plant growth, and increases water retention in soils, all without the need for chemical fertilizers.

Starting your own worm farm is an eco-friendly step that contributes positively to our environment while providing a practical solution for waste management and gardening. Whether you’re an individual looking to reduce your carbon footprint or a community seeking sustainable waste solutions, worm farming is a rewarding endeavor.

So, why not take that step today? Start small with a bin in your backyard or join a community project to expand the benefits. Embrace worm farming and join the movement towards a more sustainable and environmentally conscious world. Let’s work together to turn our waste into gold and our gardens into havens of productivity and life!

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