Compost Guy | Composting Basics | Worm Composting | Winter Composting | Bokashi
Aquaponics | About | Contact | Sitemap | Privacy Policy |

Worm Composting Basics

Originally I wasn’t going to bother adding a worm composting page to this site – after all, I have an entire website dedicated to the topic called ‘Red Worm Composting‘. In thinking about it some more, I’ve come to realize that it would still be very valuable to have a worm composting page here at Compost Guy. This way people can come to the site and find a good overview of a number of different composting methods (and variations of composting) all in one place. Then of course, those who are really keen to learn more about worm composting specifically can check out my other site.


You might want to watch this video before reading the content below – it is basically my attempt at providing a “big picture” overview of worm composting.


What Is Worm Composting?
How Is It Different From ‘Normal’ Composting?
What Kind of Worms Can I use?
How To Start a Worm Composting System



What Is Worm Composting?


In technical terms, worm composting involves the bioxidative degradation of organic wastes via the joint action of earth worms and microorganisms. Geeky definitions aside, worm composting is simply a form of aerobic composting that involves the use of specialized worms to help break down organic waste materials. It is also known as ‘vermicomposting’, and is closely related to ‘vermiculture’ and ‘worm farming’ – although those terms general imply a great focus on the growing of the worms themselves, rather than on the waste processing and compost production side of the equation.



How Is It Different From ‘Normal’ Composting?


Aside from the obvious difference of utilizing worms while regular composting does not, worm composting is also a cooler (mesophilic) type of composting. Not only is a hot composting stage not required, but it is actually something that needs to be avoided in order to keep the worms alive (although, if the system has enough room for the worms to spread out they should be able to move away from the hot zones).

Here are some other differences:

For a full comparison of vermicomposting and hot composting, be sure to check out the blog post I wrote on the topic: Hot Composting vs Vermicomposting



What Kind of Worms Can I use?


Many people assume that you can use any type of worm for worm composting. This is in fact not the case. Effective vermicomposting requires the use of specialized earthworms – species that are adapted for life in and amongst rich organic waste materials, and warmer, crowded conditions. Just as regular soil worms won’t do all that well in a worm composting system (although they certainly can be found in the lower reaches of outdoor sytems), composting worms don’t generally do very well in normal garden soil, unless of course a considerable amount of organic waste has been added.

Species of Composting Worm

Undoubtedly the most common species of worm used for composting is Eisenia fetida – the ‘Red Wiggler’ worm, also known as Red Worms, Brandling Worms, Manure Worms, and Tiger Worms (among others). This worm can vary widely in terms of coloration and size, which helps to explain why there are so many common names. This also highlights the important of using scientific names!

This species is incredibly versatile – it has a temperature tolerance ranging from 0C (32F) to 35C (95F), is a prolific breeder, and will readily feed on a wide range of organic waste materials (more specifically, on the microorganisms inhabiting the material, but we’ll chat more about that further down).

Another species of worm used for worm composting (especially overseas), and one that is becoming much more popular here in North America, is Eisenia hortensis – the ‘European Nightcrawler’, also known as Belgian Nightcrawlers, ENCs, and Euros. This species is a larger relative of Eisenia fetida and has similar preferences and requirements.

Interestingly enough, this is a species that has been viewed by researchers as inferior to the Red Worm in a lot of ways. It reportedly has a much lower reproductive rate, is slow to mature, and is not as effective at converting wastes into vermicompost. Many worm farmers (and others who have raised them) tend to disagree however, saying they are just as good or better.

Based on my experience thus far with keeping this species I would tend to agree. I’ve found them to be a very tolerant and durable worm (more so that Reds in my opinion), active breeders, and quite effective when it comes to processing wastes. I’m hoping to test them head-to-head with Red Worms in the near future.

Aside from these two commonly used species, there are a handful of other worms used for vermicomposting as well. Generally, they are tropical worms and just don’t have the versatility (for a number of reasons) that the above-mentioned species do – especially not in cooler regions of the world. Just so you know, two commonly used tropical species are Eudrilus eugeniae (the African Nightcrawler) and Perionyx excavatus (the Malaysian Blue Worm).

Note: If you are interested in ordering worms to set up a vermicomposting system, they can now be purchased >>HERE<<



How To Start a Worm Composting System


Starting up your own worm composting system is a very simple process. There are 4 basic requirement for getting a worm system up and running: 1) A container 2) Some sort of ‘bedding’ 3) Organic waste materials, and last but certainly not least – 4) Composting worms.

I highly recommend that newcomers start by focusing on the first three well before getting worms. It is important to remember that, while you are trying to compost wastes, you are also trying to keep your worms alive and happy. A great way to do this is to create an ideal habitat for the worms to live in – something I’ll talk further down the page. In case you are interested, here are several videos I made for YouTube, showing how to build relatively simple “worm bins”. To be totally honest, I’m not all that big a fan of the stacking (with lower reservoir) bin any more – preferring more of a “K.I.S.S.” approach.




Container
The container you use for your vermicomposting certainly doesn’t need to be an expensive, ‘fancy schmancy’ system . There are a wide variety of inexpensive options out there, and who knows – maybe you won’t even need to leave the house to find something functional.

I personally prefer using Rubbermaid (TM) plastic tubs (with lids) for my indoor bins. They are very inexpensive, lightweight, and retain moisture very well. Even though I made (and now use) the bin in the video above, for the most part I like to keep things simple by using just one basic bin – although there definitely are advantages to having drainage holes and a reservoir bin below.

Regardless of what sort of system you settle on, there are a few things to keep in mind during the selection process. For starters, your bin should be opaque (i.e. NOT ‘see-through’). Worms are sensitive to light, thus a clear system may end up causing them unnecessary stress. I tried making an aquarium into a worm composting system once, and while it was pretty darn cool to be able to watch the decomposition process, I ended up feeling pretty badly for the worms. They were basically trapped in a poorly oxygenated system where they couldn’t even come to the surface or along the walls – except at night (when I would see masses of them along the glass).

Also, if you are going to use a plastic system I would suggest using something fairly soft – not the really hard plastic. The latter variety of tub seems to crack more easily, especially if located outdoors.

Bedding
Bedding is essentially the main component of the ‘habitat’ in a worm bin. The distinction between bedding and worm ‘food’ is a little misleading however, since in actuality bedding is simply a longer term food source.

Bedding materials tend to be carbon rich and absorbent, so they are important for helping to maintain some balance in the bin.

Excellent bedding materials include shredded cardboard, shredded newsprint, peat moss (although not necessarily the most environmentally friendly), coconut coir, well-aged manure, mature compost, straw, and fall leaves. I personally prefer to use the bulkier bedding materials, such shredded cardboard, since they help to encourage airflow in the bin, but combining bulky materials with some of the more absorbent materials (like coir, or aged manure) can provide you with the ultimate worm habitat.

It should also be mentioned that less absorbent materials like leaves and straw, while certainly great additions to any worm composting system, are better used as secondary bedding materials since they simply won’t hold water nearly as well as some of the other bedding substrates mentioned above.

Aside from the large quantity of bedding added when you first set up a bin, it is also not a bad idea to add a small amount each time you add food scraps as well, since this will help absorb excess moisture and ensure that the C:N doesn’t get too low (which could result in the release of ammonia gas).

Worm Food (Organic Waste)

There are a wide variety of organic wastes that can be successfully processed via vermicomposting, but some materials are definitely better suited for a worm bin than others.

Great Choices

In Moderation

Not Recommended

Keep in mind that these are simply basic guidelines, and there are many exceptions across the board. These lists apply primarily to vermicomposting newcomers who are setting up a small indoor worm bin. Using various specialized vermicomposting systems and with more vermicomposting experience, the range of “great choices” certainly expands.

It should also be said that moderation and balance are really the key to successful vermicomposting – i.e. Just because rotting lettuce is an excellent material to feed your worms, it doesn’t mean you can fill your bin completely with it and expect great results. You still need to balance the “browns” (carbon-rich) with the “greens” (nitrogen-rich) – the wet with the absorbent etc.

Preparing Your System For the Arrival of Worms

If you watched the video posted above, you should be fairly familiar with my recommendations for setting up a new bin. I thought it might not be a bad idea to included written instructions here as well.
As mentioned earlier, it is important to remember that we should be trying to create an ideal ‘habitat’ for our little wiggly friends, so that they remain as healthy (and thus as efficient) as possible. Many people recommend simply setting up a worm bin once your worms arrive – I don’t personally agree with this idea, since it basically means you are introducing your worms into a fairly sterile environment.

While we tend to think of worms as feeding directly on the waste materials that we add to the bin, more accurately, they are actually grazing on the microbial community that colonizes (and decomposes) these wastes. Of course, in the process they DO consume some decomposed waste as well, but most of their nutrition is derived from the microbes. As such, it really helps to introduce your new worms into a microbially-rich habitat. Lucky for us, creating such an environment is relatively easy.

My basic method for getting a worm bin ready involves mixing shredded cardboard (my favourite bedding material) with food waste in a volume ratio of approx. 4:3 (bedding to food) – you may want to be a little more cautious if you are just starting out, and simply add a higher proportion of bedding. This mixture is moistened (but not soaked) using a spray bottle, then closed in some sort of plastic container – it doesn’t even need to be your actual worm bin. If you are receiving your worms at the same time as your bin, simply mix up the materials in a tub or bucket then transfer to your bin once it arrives. It does help if this container has some sort of lid since this will help keep the moisture in.

I prefer to leave this mixture to sit for a good week or two (with occasional stirring and additional misting with water if necessary) since this allows for more decomposition to occur and a larger microbial community to develop, along with a better distribution of moisture in the materials.

This is also a great way to make ‘food’ for your bin once it is up and running. Simply line the bottom of a bucket with shredded cardboard and store your food scraps (mixed with more cardboard) in it for a period of time before adding them to your worm bin.


For more information about worm composting, be sure to visit my vermicomposting site: Red Worm Composting

28 comments

Read the comments left by other users below, or:

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com niki
#1. August 10th, 2008, at 11:52 AM.

hi,

Thanx a lot for the information regarding VERMICOMPOSTING…

I guess now i too can put the acquired knowledge in to practice.

Regard, NIKI

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com susan cole
#2. September 15th, 2008, at 4:21 AM.

I’m trying to make up my mind if I can do this indoor’s in my apt. Will it smell?

Sausan Cole

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Eve
#3. September 18th, 2008, at 1:21 AM.

When I started mine I had used every extra stinky thing in sight when making the bedding. It got real bad by the time the worms arrived but after i put the worms in it stopped smelling in 72 hours. That third day the bin went from a real stink to smelling like wet paper.

I wouldn’t recommend starting with food that has already turned the corner. Then waiting two weeks to get the worms. Use the nice stuff just off the kitchen counter.

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com jaibee slysz
#4. October 6th, 2008, at 2:32 PM.

i am doin a science fair project on worms/ composting. idk wat 2 do!!!!

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com jaibee slysz
#5. October 6th, 2008, at 2:38 PM.

can u use the carpet lint /waste that comes from when you vaccumme????

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Carol
#6. October 9th, 2008, at 7:18 PM.

Is it okay to use worms from the garden?

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com GregJ
#7. October 12th, 2008, at 9:32 PM.

We’ve been putting food scraps and coffee grounds in the freezer. Once a week we defrost and puree the all defrosted food, drain off excess moisture from the puree and feed the worms. They’ve gone from consuming a pound or so a week, to around 4-5 pounds in just a month.

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com WK Leong
#8. December 23rd, 2008, at 1:52 PM.

Do you use EM-1( effective microorganism ) solution to help soften
the waste food so that the worm will like it?
How to make the EM-1 solution?
How to make “worm tea”?
What is the pros and cons of the worm Tea?

Please help me, all friends who read this message.

WK Leong – Malaysia

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Mackenzie
#9. January 10th, 2009, at 3:12 PM.

This website is a great source of information to start your own verma composting system…… however; I do reccomend you add lots of garden soil to your worm bin if you are making it as the video instructs. This system will (even if proper methods are in use) will smell. Having the vermacomposting bin anywhere near our kitchen attrcted a great deal of fruit flies :S ….. the worms can handle pretty drastic temperatures and mine are healthy and thriving at a 2-8.C temperature range during the winter. It is very healthy and normal for the worms to have a dark green almost blackpee, which is a sign of them being healthy. I found this to be a great project for my gr. 8 science fair and hope others will be encouraged to start this eco friendly method of organic matter disposal.

Mackenzie

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Compost Guy
#10. January 13th, 2009, at 1:26 PM.

Susan – if done properly, vermicomposting should NOT smell. When you first start out however there is a decent chance you will do something to make it smell!
:-)

Eve – really good advice. My suggestion to let the bin age does in fact assume you are starting with fresh materials. If the waste has “turned the corner” as you say, it is basically ready for the worms – just mix it with some moistened bedding and perhaps let it sit overnight, then add the worms. That being said, with enough good bedding material (bulky absorbent stuff is best), adequate aeration, and with periodic mixing of the material, the bin should actually stop smelling on its own.

Jaibee – you can use pet hair, lint etc – just be sure you know what all is in there. If it’s from a vacuum, make sure there is no carpet powder or other chemicals. If it’s dryer lint, you might want to be careful with it if dryer sheets are used etc.

Carol – garden worms are adapted for a soil environment, not one made up mostly of rich organic matter. They are also not as tolerant of warm temps and crowded conditions. You should be using one of the composting species if you want a vermicomposting system that is going to work well for you.

Greg – great info – thanks for sharing that! Highlights the importance of helping the worms as much as possible if you are looking to optimize your system. Cooking/freezing/chopping/blending/aging are all ways to assist the process. Just make sure you are keeping things well balanced – when blending it is much easier to be fooled into thinking you are only adding a small amount of material. Make sure you add plenty of bedding to ensure your C:N doesn’t get off kilter.

WK – I don’t bother with EM. I have used bokashi systems before, but it certainly isn’t necessary to treat wastes this way before feeding to worms. Worm tea is made by soaking high quality worm castings (vermicompost) in aerated water (not by collecting the leachate that drips from the bottom of you bin if you have drainage). The pros of worm tea are that it allows you to cover more area (such as foliage) than you can with the compost alone. It can help to fight disease, and apparently even pests. The cons are that it has a limited shelf life – if it goes anaerobic you will lose the benefits.

Mackenzie – if you are using composting species (such as Red Worms) – which, as mentioned above, you should be for proper vermicomposting – it is not a great idea to add lots of soil – especially not when making a bin like the one shown in my video. I add a small pinch simply to help kickstart the microbial community. If you add more than that you will make your bedding dense and heavy – not great for allowing proper aeration. You mention that the system WILL smell – you are probably right if lots of soil is used. Without adequate air flow conditions become anaerobic, which causes bad odours to develop.
Anyway – definitely not trying to rain on your parade. I just want to make sure people don’t get the wrong idea about vermicomposting. I am very glad to hear that you enjoyed your project, and applaud you for taking the time to encourage others with your comment here.

Bentley

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com bridget
#11. January 24th, 2009, at 7:40 PM.

Love everything and i’m excited about getting started. Is it ok to expose the bin to direct sunflight or should we keep it in the shade

thanks

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Bentley
#12. January 25th, 2009, at 6:00 AM.

Hi Bridget,
It is definitely best to keep your system in shade if possible – especially if it is a plastic, enclosed system, since these can heat up very quickly. Worms are also very sensitive to light so it’s best to reduce their exposure as much as possible.

Hope this helps

Bentley

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com WK Leong
#13. January 26th, 2009, at 7:25 AM.

I hav read from the net about Vermicompost as above. The exact word definition between vermicompost and worm casting are the words the same which means that the end product of the worms afterthey consume the organic scraps.
Hav you heard of Worms being feed on palm Oil fruit bunch? Our country Malaysia is rich in the growing Palm Oil trees, for the extraction of the oil for cooking.Can I use the squeezed palm oil fruit bunch for the worms to consume and churn out the vermicompost for fertilizer? How to get the Palm oil fruit bunch soften for the worm consumption? Hope you can help me.

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Sarah
#14. March 11th, 2009, at 11:36 PM.

Just looking for some information and I have a couple questions that may seem a little silly :)

We are likely to get started on this tomorrow, wooohooo.

I was just wondering if we do everything as instructed above, how soon will we get good compost for our garden? and How do we collect it (just scoop it right off the top)? and how often should it be collected?

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Christina
#15. March 12th, 2009, at 8:05 PM.

Great video! Two questions: How many red worms do I add to a system of this size? How long will it take before the bin can be harvested? Thank you! Christina

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Cheryl
#16. March 13th, 2009, at 6:26 PM.

I have a can o worms and it has become very wet and smelly, any suggestion?

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Gloria
#17. April 10th, 2009, at 2:18 PM.

I had a pretty successful worm box that seemed to be doing well. In anticipation of the effect of the hot south Texas summer on the worms in the plastic box I moved the worms and the material in the box to a planting box in my garden. I notice there are a large number of red ants in the box and my worms seem to be gone. Can someone tell me if ants are enemies of worms?

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com John
#18. May 9th, 2009, at 1:05 PM.

I started a worm bin about a month ago and now have three going. I am trying various things with each to see what works best for me and the worms.

One of the bins began producing a great deal of foul smelling leachate about a week ago so I quit feeding and added shredded newspaper. I have the bed sitting on two large bricks with one end lower than the other to collect leachate. I increased the angle sharply and have been monitoring the quantity of liquid collected closely.

After several days the liquid is starting to diminish as well as the odor. I was wondering if I should turn the bedding and add more dry bedding material or just continue on and begin feeding again?

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Mary Alice
#19. May 31st, 2009, at 3:01 PM.

Your video on setting up the worm composting system was good, but it would be helpful to tell how long to leave it and what to do with the worms when you are removing the compost.

Thank you for your help. I am going to try this.

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com jolj
#20. September 19th, 2009, at 7:16 PM.

Redworms look gray,what is wrong?

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com KARE Club
#21. October 14th, 2009, at 2:02 AM.

Great videos, will be showing them to the kids. We started a worm bin at the elementary school for our ecology club. We had a very rocky start with too much food for too little worms. That is fixed we hope but question is should we be stirring it? We also have a huge crop of gnats – anything to do with that situation? Thanks!

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Trevor
#22. November 9th, 2009, at 12:15 PM.

A great and very informative site Thanks.
Can I use palm peat in my bedding?

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Compost Guy
#23. November 12th, 2009, at 6:34 PM.

Really sorry for the lack of response here folks! For those of you who added comments awhile ago please feel free to email me directly if you are still looking for answers.

I’ll respond here to some of the more recent comments.
—–
KARE CLUB – Stirring is not really necessary since the worms do must of the turning of material. It is helpful if you have bulky bedding materials such as shredded cardboard though since these help to increase air flow within the composting zone. Fruit flies and fungus gnats are really problematic, even for those of us who have been doing this for many years. In my experience, fruit flies are a lot easier to deal with since you can set up traps and stop feeding (next to impossible to starve the worms) – or only feed bedding materials (like cardboard). In both cases, it can really help if you suck up the adults with a vacuum as often as possible. These are the breeders so it will help to prevent the population from growing TOO quickly.
—-
TREVOR – If palm peat is the same thing as coco coir then you certainly can use it as a bedding. One thing to keep in mind just as is the case with normal peat – I recommend also using something a bit more bulky (such as shredded cardboard mentioned in my other response) since the peat tends to get compacted, thus impeding air flow.
—–
JOLJ – thanks for the kind words. Hopefully I will be even MORE helpful in future by actually responding to these comments in a more timely manner!
;-)

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Scott
#24. February 8th, 2010, at 11:26 PM.

Question, how do you collect the castings, and how often should you be taking them out? Once you have them, do you just mix straight into your soil?

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com joy
#25. April 24th, 2010, at 6:56 AM.

Do you harvest the worms too? Do you put them in the soil? Won’t they die if you do? (not enough organic material) If you don’t harvest the worms, what happens when they multiply and become too much for the small compost bin?

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Lyndsey
#26. July 8th, 2010, at 5:02 PM.

well im building a worm box for where our fishing camp is and this site helped me get a very good compost for the worms. Thank you

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Bentley
#27. December 18th, 2010, at 1:29 AM.

Hi Everyone,
Sorry for the lack of replies – have not been working on this site for awhile.
Please visit RedWormComposting.com for worm composting info – that is now my main site.
Thanks

Bentley

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Danny
#28. November 8th, 2012, at 12:08 AM.

can red wigglers and European nightcrawlers be mixed in the same composting bin?

Leave your comment...

If you want to leave your comment on this article, simply fill out the next form:




You can use these XHTML tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> .