The Simple Worm Composting Bin Used at Mutiny Ranch

Worms live in my kitchen.

Does that seem strange? Or gross? Are you thinking to yourself that you might not want to be invited for dinner at our house after all?

There's worms in that black bin...
Well, if it's any consolation, no one who has been in my house even knew I had worms in the kitchen...unless I told them. But, once they knew, they did ask why. Why on earth do I have worms in my kitchen?

Part of our decision to get off the road and buy property in this exact area of Colorado had to do with our desire to grow our own food. By chance, I came across a flyer announcing a 2-day Permaculture Convergence being held at a nearby farm and it was there I learned about vermicompost...also known as worm composting.

Just a few of the classes offered at last years convergence.
I'd always been intrigued by the concept of building soil through composting but I didn't know how it really worked. My last compost pile (a decade ago) was just a mound of kitchen scraps near my suburbia issued wooden fence that I never tended. It ended up sprouting some rogue cantaloupe one summer, no doubt from seeds I dumped there after eating one I bought from the store. But those were the best cantaloupe I've ever had. After being on the road for four years, unable to save food scraps and dealing with stinking kitchen waste while searching for public garbage cans and dumpsters, I longed for a yard big enough to accommodate a compost heap. Oh, how wishes and wants change over time...forget the nice car and matching crystal, I just wanted a place for my rotting fruits and veggies to turn to dirt.

As you can imagine, I got a little thrill when I saw there was a class on worm composting at the convergence. Greg Hopkins, compost specialist and operator of Breen Mesa Farm, held an informative, hands-on class outlying each step required to build a successful worm composting bin. A few weeks later I was elbows deep in shredded newspaper, veggie scraps and worms.

Here's what I learned and how I made my first bin...

First you need to know why a worm composting bin is beneficial. After all, you could just have a compost heap or tumbler or bokashi system. All those systems are fine. But adding a worm compost bin gives a few other benefits not found in other systems.

Benefits of Worm Composting:

1) Worm bins are easy to maintain...once you get the hang of it (which isn't hard). It's very little effort for a large return.

2) Worm bins are inexpensive and, if you keep you worms safe from freezing temperatures, you'll only need to buy worms once.

3) Worm bins are great for many small space applications and for those without yards. Since they're contained in a bin they can be tucked in small spaces like under tables or counters. Some people even make fancy bins that function as furniture too (think coffee table or dining room table bench).

4) There are many fruits to harvest from a worm bin. Most people know that worm casting are valuable to gardens. People even buy bags of worm poop at their local hardware store or nursery. You can easily harvest your own castings for a fraction of the cost. But you can also harvest "worm tea". Don't gag just yet, I'm not talking about squishing the poor worm's guts out or steeping them in hot water. No, worm tea is the liquid that you can collect from the bottom of the bin to use as fertilizer on your plants and garden. This black gold is a mixture of the liquid expelled from the worms and the rotting fruits and veggies you put in the bin to feed them. It also includes some of the moisture that seeps off from adding water to keep the bin damp. Besides casting and worm tea you could even harvest the worms for fishing or as treats for your chickens.

5) Worm bins can help eliminate the amount of food waste going to the dump or stinking up your garbage. (More on that later.)

How to make a simple, inexpensive worm bin:
Note: you can make a worm bin out of many different types of a matter of fact, I'll be making an outdoor bin from our old bath tub this spring...this is just one simple set up that requires very little upfront cost or skill.

1) Gather your supplies:

Plastic bins: Ideally, you will want to find, salvage or purchase 2-3 identical plastic bins that are meant to stack inside of each other. Greg, from the permaculture convergence, recommended the large plastic bins available at Costco but since we don't have one nearby (and after searching all of our local thrift stores for a couple weeks) I ended up purchasing two 19-gallon black Sterilite bins with black lids. The darker and less transparent the container, the better. Worms do not like light so don't use clear containers or lids that allow light to shine through.

Not bad for a $1 investment.
Shredded Newspaper: If you don't get the paper you can check with your neighbors or see if your recycling center will let you take some from a bin. Ours won't allow that but I found out I can buy stacks and stacks of old newspapers from our local press for just $1. Be sure you removed the ad sections or any shiny inserts. I hand tore my newspapers but you can also use a shredder.

Wood chips: A nice layer of wet wood chips on the bottom of your bin allows for air flow and good, natural fodder for your worms.

Dirt: A hand full of dirt acts as a starter in your bin and gives it a little microbial boost.

Food Scraps: Depending on how many worms you start with will determine how much food they can process. I started with a one pound package of red wigglers. They can only process about 1 pound of food per week. I placed, at  most, a half pound of scrap veggies and fruit in my bin to get them started.

Worms: Of course! You're going to want to source some worms. You might be fortunate enough to find someone locally who can either gift or sell you some of their worms. If that's not an option, check with your local nursery or look online (Uncle Jim's Worm Farm is a best seller). Just be sure to emphasize that you are looking for composting worms...not earthworms! There's a huge difference and you just can't teach an earthworm to become a composting worm. Different types of worms require different conditions and feed on different things.

2) Prepare your bins:

Drilling holes on the ridge which is actually the lowest point in the bins once it's turned right side up.
Drill holes in your bin: But wait!! We're going to use one bin as a liquid catchment container so DO NOT drill holes in it!! Put that bin to the side and flip over your other bin(s) so the bottom is facing you. Using a 1/4-1/2" drill bit, start drilling holes along the ridges of your bin. Remember, you want the holes to be at the lowest point of your bins when they are right side up so be sure you're drilling in the right area. You can space your holes every 2-3" or so...this isn't rocket science so we don't have to get technical. Just drill a whole bunch of drainage holes all over the base without getting so carried away that you compromise the integrity of the bin. You also don't want to make the holes too small...don't worry, your worms won't try to escape and, if you are using the 3-bin system you will want the holes large enough for the worms to pass through easily (more on that later). If you are using 3-bins be sure to drill drainage holes on the bottom of 2 of the bins.

Drill holes in one lid: We really only need one lid for our worm bin. That lid should have plenty of air holes drilled into to it. I've never had any worms try to escape (or if they have they've never succeeded) so I made sure to drill lots and lots of air holes in my lid. Worms need oxygen and you don't want to seal off their container with a solid lid. You also want to be very aware of what you might end up placing on top of your worm bin (hint: it should be nothing!!) which might obstruct the air flow.

Remember to use a solid tub with NO drainage holes underneath your active worm bin to catch (and contain) any liquids that seep through.
Neatly stacked two bin system.
Stack you bins: Obviously, the solid bin (the one we didn't drill holes in) will be the bottom bin. This is the bin that will ensure you do not end up with worm "tea" all over your floor. And remember, that $#*t is valuable (hello, it's called liquid gold) so even if you leave your bin outside you don't want to let it drain into your, you want to capture it and hoard it!!

So, solid bin on the bottom followed by an empty bin with holes inside. If you have a third bin you can either leave it to the side or place it underneath the solid bin for later use.

Sorry for the blurry photo...I had used some straw in my original worm bin simply because I had some on hand. It decomposes rapidly.
Add the bedding and worms: Soak your wood chips in a bucket and then start grabbing handfuls. Shake it out a don't want them dripping wet. Next add your shredded newspaper. Dunk these in your bucket of water and wring out a little (think wet sponge). Get a nice layer in there and then throw in a handful of dirt. At this point I added my worms. I got mine from my local nursery and just emptied the entire contents into the bin. I then covered the worms with dry shredded newspaper until my bin was about half full (NOT packed but nice and fluffy). I took my watering can and dampened all of the newspaper thoroughly...again, think of a wet sponge you can barely squeeze a drop or two of water out of.

There's a balance you need to find between keeping the worms and their bedding moist and preventing them from drowning. Worms need the moisture to live and glide through their bedding but they can't handle bedding that is so saturated it compacts down and smothers them. It's not as hard as it seems but I encourage you to dig around in the bedding and check the moisture from top to bottom. It should feel moist throughout so their little slime covered bodies can glide through without drying out.

Add food: Some people like to freeze their food scraps and then wrap them in a sheet of damp newspaper before placing it their worm bin. This helps speed up the decomposition of the food while keeping fruit flies at bay. I made the huge mistake of just tossing scraps on top of the worm bedding at first. My kitchen was soon full of fruit flies and I ended up having to separate my worms from the bedding and starting all over again (an all day process). Even if you don't freeze your scraps first you should at least bury them under a few inches of bedding.

The completed worm bin.
3) Maintaining you bin:

Feeding: The amount of food scraps your worms can process will depend on how many worms you have. I have about 300 worms and they can only handle about 1.5 pounds of food scraps per week. That's not a lot. I feed them twice a week so about 3/4 of a pound each feeding. Keep an eye on things and you'll gain a better understanding of what your worms like (and don't like) as well as if you need to increase (or decrease) the amount of food you're giving them. Rotate where you bury your scraps so your worms work through all areas of their bin.

Adding bedding: Your worms will also be turning their bedding into casings so you'll need to add shredded newspaper periodically. Check the bedding regularly and add shredded newspaper on top of the existing bedding and then wet it down with your watering can. Be aware that weather conditions can dry out bedding more frequently so check them often and water when necessary.

Separate your worms and collect castings
: There are several ways to collect the castings for use in your garden. Some people dump the entire contents and use everything, worms and all. However, know that this will  be then end of your worms. They will eventually die once they have no more organic foods to eat. Some people consider this part of the fertilization process. All those little dead worm bodies decompose and add nutrients to the soil. But, I like my worms so I choose to separate them. If you have that third bin you can put it to use now.

First, stop adding food scraps to your bin and carefully place the third bin right on top of your worm bin bedding. This bin should already have those holes pre-drilled in the bottom. Create the same layered bedding you did before (damp wood chips followed by shredded, wet newspaper but this time use a handful of the worm castings from their bin). Next, bury some food scraps in this new bedding. Once the second bin runs out of food, the worms will start making their way up through the holes in the top bin. Eventually, they will all migrate up into their new home. You can then remove the original bin and use the casting as you please.

If you aren't using the 3-bin system there are ways to separate your worms from the casting fairly easily but it can get messy. I use a large tarp, dump the entire contents out and physically separate worms from castings. Using shop lights helps to move the worms (they retreat from the light) but it does take some time. This and other methods are spelled out in the book Worms Eat My Garbage, a great resource for all worm bin composting fanatics. =)

Worm Food: Worms seem to like a wide variety of kitchen scraps (it's not recommended to feed them cooked food) and there are many opinions on what you can and cannot feed them. Mine enjoy pretty much all fruits and veggies but I go very light on citrus. They also enjoy some of my coffee grounds. I haven't fed them meat or cheese. They will eventually break down egg shells but those are also good when placed directly into the garden (no need to process through a worm first) and I often dehydrate my egg shells and then crush them as a calcium supplement for my chickens. I've also emptied my dog hair filled vacuum canister in their bin and they didn't mind a bit. But I don't add least not anymore (I learned the hard way on that...bread molds quickly and brings in a whole host of other critters you might not want in your bin). There are lots of resources (and opinions) available online to help you out with the what-to and what-not-to feed your worm questions. 

Worm eggs! Yes, we became grandparents...many times over...
My Red Wiggler family is doing well. As a matter of fact, they've laid little worm eggs and hatched little worm babies (that's right...we're grand-parents!!). This spring will be my first opportunity to put their poo to work and enjoy the magic of worm tea. We saved the old, plastic bathtub we removed during our guest room remodel and plan on making a larger bin this summer so we'll post more on that as the project unfolds.

Happy Worms, Happy Garden.
We'd love to hear about your composting experiences so leave us a comment or post your photos on our Facebook page.