Doing What Works
Here is something that anyone with even the smallest garden really should be doing. The benefits are huge and it’s really quite fun. What I am talking about (believe it or not) is keeping a worm farm!
Stay with me on this… this really is very, very cool!
Let’s look at some of the benefits first:
1. Fertilizer. Produce a very high quality liquid plant food that you can use to either root-feed or foliar feed your plants. This “worm tea” is unbelievable stuff. I have seen plants go from droopy and sickly-looking to happy in one day from a worm tea feed. And this feed is really good for the soil too (unlike chemical fertilizers). Sound good? Well now you can get this stuff in abundant quantities for free and on tap as a gift from your worms!
2. Vermicompost. The worm castings themselves are also a wonderful fertilizer than you can dig into your garden from time to time. The benefit of the castings (a solid) over the worm tea (a liquid) is that it adds beneficial structure to the soil in your garden. It also releases the same wonderful plant food to the soil on a slow-release basis.
3. Waste disposal. If you aren’t doing “green” activities like recycling then you certainly should. And this is the very greenest of all possible recycling activities: much of your kitchen waste goes into the worm farm instead of the bin. This lightens the load on waste disposal systems. As a side-benefit it also makes your trash less smelly and easier to work with.
You can also feed your worms green plant matter from your garden such as leaves and soft, green stems.
4. Worms anyone? If you know someone that wants worms (for fishing or feeding tame worm-eating birds for example) then you’ll have a huge supply on hand.
5. Education. If you have kids you have to do this! They will be fascinated by the process of watching kitchen waste being converted to compost at high-speed by these amazing wormy critters. Who knows what interests could be stimulated by participating in such a process!
So those are the benefits. In a nutshell, you’ll be converting waste into something really awesomely useful. And if you grow your own veggies like I do then this will be doubly useful in supplying your family with a food source that is far healthier that you can ever get from the store.
So how to do this? It is really way easy to set up and once it’s going there is even less to it to keep it going.
What you'll need:
1. Red Wriggler Worms
This is a species of earthworm that is perfectly adapted for just this job. They are unbelievably effective at converting decomposing vegetable matter into high grade compost products at a surprisingly fast rate.
They won’t readily invade your soil as they don’t burrow. They really are best adapted for the conditions one will find in your worm farm – where other earthworms will probably not thrive.
So you will want to start by sourcing a few worms. You’ll really only need a very few to start off with as they can double in number every three months or so! They will stop increasing when they reach the natural limit of the container size (more about that next). The good thing is you’ll only have to source them once. If you keep your farm alive (which is super easy) you’ll have worms for life.
Where you get them from is up to you. Ask at your local nursery or search online for “Red Wrigglers For Sale”. This is really not a big secret so they are not hard to find!
Once you have placed your order and your wrigglers are on the way, you’ll want to get their home sorted… Your worms will need just three things: food, a home and water. Let’s address those in that order.
These worms will eat nearly all the vegetable matter that comes out of your kitchen. I did say vegetable matter. Don’t put animal matter in your worm farm. It will putrefy, smell bad, attract harmful bacteria and your worms won’t eat it. But do feed your worms with fruit and vegetable peels and off-cuts. They love tea leaves and coffee grounds too. They also like shredded paper. If you don’t overload them, they will happily munch through grass clippings and leaf trimmings from your garden. But do make sure there is also some sugary stuff (like fruit peels) to energize them from time to time.
They don’t like a lot of citrus peel though. A little is fine but don’t overload them with that. They are similarly not overly fond of pineapple and the other is garlic. Again, a little is fine but too much and you'll kill them.
If you live in a rural area and have access to cow, horse or donkey manure then this is worms delight! They love it and turn it into the very finest a-grade compost faster than you can say “eeeyew gross!”
Other things that you can put into your farm includes:
A small amount of saw dust (from untreated, unglued wood). They use this as “roughage” to digest.
A sprinkling of sand. This is also useful to their digestion. But keep it light… too much will make them unhappy.
A little sugar water or honey water. If their diet is a bit low on sugars (only green material) you can pep them up with dilute sugar or honey. But keep it very dilute.
So that’s the worm food sorted. Next you’ll need a home for your new best buddies. There are a million and one different ways to house your worms but I have a tried and tested method that I have found to work best. Try my method and adapt it to suit your needs. Or do something else entirely. The worms aren’t all that fussy. But here is what you’ll need for the system that works for me:
I recommend getting three large plastic tubs. I bought three 30-litre washing tubs and found them to be ideal.
Drill just one big-ish drainage hole in the bottom of tub 1 and many smaller aeration holes on the sides. Put it on blocks so that it is lifted off the ground. Put a small (perhaps 2 litre) collector container under the hole. This is where you will collect your worm tea. Now put enough worm food into the bottom of the tub to keep your new lodgers busy. Sprinkle water on it to make sure it is damp but not soggy. Excess water will anyway just drain through to the collector underneath. This is obviously not worm tea yet. It’s just excess water. Now place your worms on top of the food and cover them. You can use paper, cardboard or leaf clippings (like mulch). As long as they are covered they will be happy. They flee from the light so if you don’t cover them they won’t eat the top layer of the food during the day (but will get to it at night). Also, if they are not covered the top layer dries out.
Then, whenever you have more food you just take the protective layer off and dump the food on top. Replace the protective layer and they’ll get to it.
At some point that first tub will be full. This is when you start your second tub. You can just repeat the procedure from the first tub or, if you are lazy (or efficiency seeking as I like to call it) then you can do as I do and stack your tubs.
If you will be stacking the tubs then you’ll want to put many small drainage holes in the bottom of tub two and also a number of small aeration holes in the sides.
Now begin tub 2 as you did with tub 1. Put food in the bottom but, instead of store bought worms, collect a goodly amount of well-wormy decaying stuff from tub 1. This is your starter for tub 2.
And so you proceed. At some point tub 2 will be full and then you begin, in just the same way, with tub 3.
When tub three is full, tub 1 is mature and ready to be used in your garden. Empty tub 1 of it’s contents and use this very high-grade vermicompost as desired.
I like to take the opportunity to aerate and turn over the tub 2 by emptying it into the now empty tub 1. The contents of tub three gets aerated and turned into tub 2. Tub three is now empty and ready to be started. And so the process continues ad infintum.
When you are just starting out with your first tub, your worms will only need a little water to keep their food moist. A sprinkling of a cup of water every other day is more than enough. And the water that drips through into your collector is a wonderful liquid fertilizer that your plants will LOVE.
As the tub fills and as the worms multiply to fill it, so you will give them more water more often. When the tub is full you can be giving about a litre a day. You will also notice, as you go, that what is collected at the bottom begins to change. It becomes dark brown and soupy. When this happens, you are beginning to get worm tea. This is THE STUFF. You can dilute this 1 part to 10 parts water for a first-class feed for your plants. But the nice thing is you cannot overdose your plants with this. Even neat it will do your plants no harm. So go ahead and give your plants and super-nutritious worm tea treat.
By the time your second tub is full you can be putting as much as a litre and a half of water through the system each day. I don’t give it much more than that even when the third tub is nearly full as it does all filter through and the worms like it moist but not soggy. And one and a half litres of worm tea every single day is quite a lot.
If you need more than that then I’d suggest starting additional tubs.
Smell. The first thing people ask me is “doesn’t it stink?” And the answer, is that a healthy worm farm gives off surprisingly little odour. They get to work on the decomposing matter so quickly and efficiently that it doesn’t just sit there rotting. Right next to the tubs you can smell them but even just a few metres away it’s fine. I wouldn’t want this in side my house but outside it is completely inoffensive. If a worm farm smells really bad it is because is being fed the wrong stuff – almost certainly animal matter.
Fruit flies and other bugs. I also get asked about other bugs taking up residence in the worm farm. The thing to realise is that a healthy worm farm is actually a complex cooperative ecology. Worms, for example, do not have teeth. So they need other organisms to do the primary degrading of the vegetable matter to make it soft enough for them to eat. The point is there is a complex interaction between many organisms to make this all work. And, other than the worms, all the other bugs will find their way to your farm on their own. You don’t need to introduce them and you certainly don’t need to fend them off.
Ants. There is an exception to the above. If ants get into your worm farm this is bad news. The ants are not there to participate in the good work the worms are doing. They are there to kill and feed off of the worms! There are two strategies that I know of to deal with ants. The one is to put your farm on legs that stand in water. The ants won’t cross water to get into your farm. The other is to use my home-made non-insecticidal ant killer (see the related blog post). The one thing you can’t of course do is spray tons of insecticide all over your worm farm to kill the ants. You’ll kill everyone in your farm if you do.
And so there it is. That’s all I can think of to tell you if you are interested in starting your own farm. It’s not rocket science and it’s quite hard to get disastrously wrong. But go ahead and ask any questions in the comments box. And please do let me know if you are worm farming and how its working for you!