Vermicompost for Beginners

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Using worms in your compost isn't as weird as it sounds.
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“Compost Revolution” by Helmut Schimmel combines classic and cutting-edge research with real-world experience in gardens and horticultural applications.

Compost Revolution(Acres U.S.A., 2018) by Helmut Schimmel teaches alternatives to conventional composting, particularly those using earthworms. Worm composting is a superb alternative to traditional composting methods, which generally suffer from high-energy losses. Working in harmony with the below-surface army of microorganisms, the lowly earthworm is now known to be the true hero in the underground, a soil builder par excellence, not only in nature, but also in garden- and farm-scale composting systems. This section will help you get started with incorporating worms in your compost.

Suggestions for Beginners

People who are just starting out with brandlings still lack an understanding of vermiculture. The first thing they need to do is adjust their actions to the demands and preferences of the brandlings (Eisenia fetida). Many think that once they’ve acquired a bucket of worm substrate (organic material and the worms themselves), everything else will work itself out. In reality, this is only the beginning of their problems. From my own experience I know that getting started with vermiculture can be a hurdle.

There are a few things that you must keep in mind to avoid jeopardizing the success of your worm raising. I’ve observed this not just in my own case but also among other gardeners.

The same mistakes are constantly repeated: in spite of emphatic warnings and advice, people place their new worms into whatever compost pile they have at hand, reasoning that it provides them with enough space to spread out and develop. The relatively small number of worms then disappear into the large volume of the compost pile and are never seen again. What is happening? This is a case of disregarding the fact that brandlings are social creatures that require contact with others in order to reproduce even though they are hermaphroditic. This makes it important to limit the worms’ living area, especially early on. Building a small worm container out of old boards or some sort of small cold frame doesn’t take much effort, but is a valuable aid.

It’s important for the number of worms to remain within a certain ratio to the surface area and amount of food (e.g., two buckets of worms including substrate per one half to one square meter of surface area). The initial stock of worms (one thousand to three thousand) determines whether the worm operation will ultimately be successful. It’s better to add too many worms than too few.

The ground beneath the area where the worms are being raised should be loosened and protected against predators (moles) from beneath with a mesh of chicken wire. On top of this surface should be a layer (about four inches or ten centimeters) of heavily decomposed material (e.g., compost, garden soil, and decomposed manure). Above that should be a second layer, made up of partly decomposed material (raw compost). Then the worm substrate (large and small worms, including eggs) should be spread on top of this layer. Above that, the worm food should be spread in thin layers. If the temperature exceeds 86 degrees Fahrenheit, then too much material was added. A soil thermometer is essential for checking the temperature. Keep everything nicely moist. If conditions are agreeable, the brandlings will eat their way up to the top as they are drawn to the freshly added food.

The breakdown of the organic matter by microorganisms in the soil begins at this point. It will sag together and become greasy and partially mushy. This puts things into the right state for the worms, and they eat the predigested mush and eat their way through the waste. Compost that has already been humified is less appealing as food and serves more as an area for the worms to retreat to if unfavorable environmental conditions appear (e.g., frost or excessive heat or dryness).

Especially at the beginning, it’s important to add in “treats,” bite-sized foods such as grass clippings mixed with chopped straw, coffee grounds, moistened corrugated cardboard, and, if possible, stable manure (e.g., cow manure) diluted with water to reach the optimal C:N ratio (30:1).

In summer when the weather is dry, it’s a good idea to lightly water the worm area from time to time and to keep it in the shade. Earthworms love darkness and work in hiding. Worm humus composting requires higher moisture levels than conventional composting (which can be checked using the fist test). However, the composting area should definitely be protected from prolonged heavy rainfall (lasting multiple days). This also goes for conventional composting. Too much water displaces the air in the substrate that contains the oxygen needed for both the worms and the soil microorganisms to survive.

Very wet conditions at night also run the risk of prompting the worms to migrate away, especially if there is a shortage of food and heavy population pressure. There are a few points that beginner brandling raisers should be sure to keep in mind in order to get off to a successful start:

  • Start with a sufficient number of worms.
  • Maintain a balance between worm population and food supply.
  • Take appropriate measures to limit the worms’ area of activity.
  • Set things up so the brandlings can eat their way upward from below.
  • Provide a balanced food supply: mix moist material with dry material and nitrogen-rich material (manure, fresh grass clippings) with carbon-rich material (straw and woodchips).
  • Frequently add small layers of food, keep things sufficiently moist, and avoid overheating.
  • If possible, shred large material (branches and wooden stems) before mixing it in.

But the greatest challenge to a beginner still lies ahead: guiding the heat-loving worms through their first winter. This is certainly the riskiest aspect of all in worm raising and is a true test of a beginning worm keeper. But don’t despair, some always make it through.

There are two ways to make it through the winter if you’re raising your worms in a fixed outdoor location:

Option 1: Add large amounts of food and protect the worm area with materials that guard against wetness, cold, and frost, such as cardboard and water-impermeable tarps or pads. Then leave the area alone and wait for the worms, which will have retreated into frost-free layers, to reappear and visit the higher layers as it begins to warm up in the spring.

Option 2: Continue to add food throughout the entire winter. The heat generated by the food (fermentation heat) will maintain suitable temperatures in the compost pile, 50 degrees Fahrenheit to 77 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing the worms to carry on their work without interruption. If you cover it from the outside (with a tarp), leave sufficient air space (twenty to thirty centimeters).

I chose option 1 (high risk) during my first winter and option 2 during every subsequent one. It’s safer, but requires more active maintenance. I’ve developed this method to the point where I am truly raising the worms even through the winter. An attitude of “I’ll try it and we’ll just see what happens” doesn’t accomplish anything.

Taking note of these simple suggestions and pieces of advice can prevent repeated expensive false starts. Keeping brandlings and allowing them to reproduce is not an art. Anyone can learn to do it. It just requires following instructions and a basic knowledge of natural science.

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Excerpted with permission from Compost Revolutionby Helmut Schimmel. Published by Acres U.S.A., © 2018