Squirm Wrangling 101

Reader Contribution by Jen Ubelaker
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It started innocently enough with a text that read “Would you like some worms for your compost?” I replied yes and instantly thought of one of those Styrofoam cups full of nightcrawlers that you get when you go fishing. I could dump them in my compost bin and have a great addition to our pile. When I went to see my friend, she tells her husband: “Help her carry it out to the car, please?” It was only then that I realized a teeny cup of worms was not in my future. I was gifted a ginormous worm pagoda/condo thing that was already teeming with worms and compost. What a fantastic gift!

Worms are amazingly tolerant houseguests. Since we live in a climate where sub-freezing temps are possible, we put the worm bin in our basement pantry. It stays a pretty regular temperature down there, and I don’t have to worry about freezing or over-heating. You don’t need to have a fancy set-up to house worms. The worm factories run around $100 online, and have a really neat set-up, but honestly, worms aren’t house proud. You can raise a small squirm (bed, bunch, clew, clat and squirm are all names for a group of worms. I like squirm best.) in a modest plastic flat or bucket that you can often get for less than $10. Really, all you need to keep in mind is to get a container that will adequately hold the amount of scraps you have to give them, and that worms live shallow. They only need about 6 inches of depth to be happy. A plastic bucket under your kitchen sink will do them just fine.

Some common types of worms found in vermicomposting are Red Wigglers (Eisenia fetida) and Nightcrawlers (Eisenia hortensis). These are the beauties that are currently eating my scraps. The Wigglers are a small worm, only about 2 inches long, that like cool, moist places. The cool thing about these guys/gals (worms are hemaphroditic too!) is that they can eat up to half their body weight in food each day. They chow down.

The Nighcrawlers like warmer weather, and don’t tolerate handling as well. They take a deeper worm bed, and they tend to not like vibrations or cold weather. I have a feeling these were included in my gift because the previous owner used them for fishing. I placed the worm bin in a place that doesn’t get a lot of traffic out of respect for their needs.

Worms have a pretty varied diet. When I got my bed as a gift, I asked the previous owner what he fed them, and he told me that he basically just shredded his junk mail and put it in the bin. They lived off of that quite happily. In my own research and experiments, I have found that worms will eat just about everything you’d put in your outdoor compost pile. Don’t feed them meats, bones or oils, but all other compostable food scraps are fair game. They are not fond of citrus, and readings will tell you that it also draws fruit flies. (Who needs them?) Readings also say to avoid onions for the odor.

In our home we have two small bowls by the kitchen sink. First, anything the dog might like goes straight into his food bowl. We have been trained.

Then the two bowls on the counter hold scraps for the chickens and the worms. Our chickens don’t like certain things, the worms aren’t picky. They eat the things that chickens aren’t fond of like green peppers, banana peels and apple cores. One small tip is to just put your potato peels in your outside compost bin. Our worms don’t eat them quickly enough to stop the eyes from sprouting and I’ve lifted the bin lid to find root tendrils. It’s more hassle than it’s worth.

Basic care for worms is very easy. A simple bedding of shredded newsprint is enough, moistened to about the consistency of a damp dish sponge. Place your food scraps in this bedding and cover with a lid to keep it dark and moist in your container. They aren’t fans of being disturbed a lot (who is?) so all I do for my squirm is go down once a week, lift the lid and poke around with a small trowel to make sure they have enough food in the bedding.

When I add new food, I tear a small piece of newsprint to cover it, and then squirt the newsprint with a spray bottle of water until it is soaked through. This gives the worms some protection as well as serving as a seal over their bedding.

When they have more castings than space available for food, you can simply take the worm bed outside and place it in direct light. The worms will travel to the bottom of their bedding and you can take castings off the top for use in your garden. I have done this once now, and used the castings in my strawberry bed.

This has been quite a journey with our squirm. We’re still learning about all the magnificent things that worms can do on a homestead. The best thing for me is that between the chickens, worms and compost pile, we have virtually no food waste. Everything goes to ‘someone’ and eventually gets back into the yard to grow more food and eggs. Just more proof you don’t have to have several acres to be more self-sufficient!

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