Worm Turn

Reader Contribution by Loretta Liefveld
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January. Winter. Can’t do much in the garden because the ground is frozen solid. A little too early to plant seeds indoors, because the last frost date is still 3-4 months away. Seed catalogs invite me to buy, buy, buy, so I read them cover to cover and make list after list of what I want to plant. Of course, I don’t yet have the amount of prepared space to be able to plant everything I want. Enthusiasm for planning wanes after a while.

I think it’s the perfect time to assemble my ‘new’ Worm Wigwam that I purchased at a Mother Earth News Fair last August!

I already have one of those stackable tray things for my worms. The one I have has 5 trays, and I’m currently on tray #3. It works very well, looks reasonably nice, is easy to maintain, and I like it. But I can only harvest a small amount of vermicompost at a time.

Stackable tray worm system.

Vermi-What, you ask? Vermicompost is compost made by a special kind of earthworms. It contains worm ‘castings’ (worm poop), which are highly nutritious for plants, as well as discouraging many insect pests.

To give you an example of the power of worm castings, I once had a blue hibiscus bush that became inundated with spider mites and white fly. The nurseryman suggested putting worm castings all around the bottom of the plant. Although I was extremely skeptical, I tried it, and in no time at all, the spider mites and white fly completely disappeared! Apparently, there is some natural chemical contained in worm castings that the plant takes in and is repellent to these insects.

Vermicompost is more than just worm castings. It also contains composted plant matter such as kitchen vegetable waste (peelings, cores, overripe produce). A large enough system can also compost garden prunings in a very short time. My small system is barely enough to handle our kitchen waste, and my garden prunings pine away for months and months in my lazy-man’s compost pile (it just sits there and gets added to, hoping that someday it will decompose).

My new worm system has a 3-foot diameter and is about 4 feet tall. It’s a continuous-flow (also called flow-through) system. This means that vermicompost is ‘dispensed’ out of the bottom of the bin, where it can be shoveled or scraped out. This method completely eliminates the step of sorting out the worms in a more contained system. It’s also large enough to handle garden waste and should provide plenty of vermicompost to use in my garden and as an ingredient in seed-starting soil.

It looked easy enough to assemble, but it weighs about 85 pounds, empty. Finding a permanent location for it is key. I was going to put it on top of a pallet, just in case we decided we needed to move it (you know, Murphy’s law), but my husband talked me out of it. My first thought was to put it inside my greenhouse/garden shed, because it needs protection from the rain and snow, and shade from the hot sun. My husband had another idea – the chicken coop. Perfect. In the winter, the heating element on top of the worm bin and the heat from composition of materials will provide some small amount of heat to the coop. In addition, it will be convenient to move the chicken litter into the bin.

The coop is fairly small, so I began the assembly on our concrete patio. Easy-peasy, I thought… until I got to the 2nd step (okay, so I didn’t get very far by myself). Once enlisted to help, my husband pretty much took over the majority of the assembly, and I was the one helping. Although online reviews indicated it only took about an hour to assemble, it took us about 3 hours before we were done. Of course, that included backing into the chicken roosts and hitting our heads a couple of times.

Worm bin ready to fill.

It’s now waiting to be filled. The instructions recommend 6 inches of finished horticultural compost as worm bedding to start. Next, add the worms, another 2 inches of compost, and then worm food, covered by another thin layer of bedding. From that point on, it’s a lot easier, layering worm food with worm bedding (to keep pests down). After 90 days, the first harvest of vermicompost can occur.

Filled bin, ready for heater.

Heater with thermostat for winter.

Heater installed, ready for cover.

I’m super excited to get this going. I’ve ordered OMRI (certified organic) compost online with free delivery, because my lazy-man’s compost pile is not even close to being composted yet. I’ll use the contents of my existing worm system for the final layer of bedding and the worms. Worms sometimes try to escape when they are moved from one environment to another, so we set up a temporary light over the worm bin. The light encourages the worms to burrow down, instead of trying to escape.

My chickens, however, don’t exactly know what to think about this gigantic ‘thing’ in their coop. They are now roosting outside on the fence.

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