Our first attempt at raising worms for castings (poop) was a complete disaster from the very start. In fact, I thought about naming this post “Our Worm Farm Failure” but since there is a happy ending, I didn’t. I had read somewhere that you could use a plastic storage bin as a worm bed. Supposedly, you fill the bottom of it with shredded paper that has been soaked in water overnight, top with kitchen scraps, let it sit for a couple days (and start to rot just a bit), and just add worms. Theoretically, the worms would eat their way through the kitchen scraps, poop, and then you take the castings and spread it in the garden. Gee, that sounded easy enough. Instant organic fertilizer. I was so excited. “How hard could this be,” I thought. I was not blogging at the time, so sorry I have no photos of these bins.
While researching for this post, I was thrilled to come across Stephanie’s blog, Good Girl Gone Green, where she explains not only WHY you should raise worms for castings but also the proper way to use bins, and I wish I had read HERS first. She is also raising worms for castings and apparently, the instructions I originally read were remarkably lacking. (This is the internet; can’t believe everything you read, right?) They did not tell me it should be a double-decker or that it needed holes in the bottom or how to harvest the poop or any of the stuff Stephanie explains. She even covers what you should and should not feed worms and I don’t cover that here. Best piece of homesteading advice I can ever give you is to research a project before you embark on it, and find out from others who have actually done it whether it works and what the pros and cons are. I didn’t do that with this project. That is my fault.
That said, there is more than one approach to raising worms for castings. I cover here only what we did wrong with the bins, and then in Part 2, the approach we ultimately used (worm tower). Therefore, I suggest you read both this post and Part 2. Then, for good insight on the other approach (using bins), go read Stephanie’s posts. Her method is just as effective, and her instructions are much more complete and accurate than the first one I read. Then, you can decide which approach is best for you. Or if you know of some other approach, tell us about it in the comments!
The Story Behind Our FIRST Worm Farm Which Is No More (A Lesson In What NOT To Do)
So thinking that the wet paper in a bin idea sounded legit and without any further research, the next thing I did wrong was order 300 red wigglers from (of all places) Amazon — which would not have been so bad had it not been mid-July during 2012’s early and deadly heat wave in Ohio (and it was BAD … 104 degree heat index for 10+ days straight). When I first placed the order, it had not occurred to me that these poor little creatures would be shipped in much the same way every other Amazon product is shipped. This meant cargo holds across country, then to various distribution centers, conveyors belts, and tossed into the back of a 110 degree delivery truck when, after five long days, they would be delivered to my door. No, I did not think of that. When we opened it … my gut reaction was truly a gut reaction. I nearly hurled. I belted out a shocked, “OH. MY. GAWD. What have I done?” But, hey … shouldn’t I have thought about the heat? Maybe. But I didn’t.
Amazon Customer Service was my next contact. God love ’em. I have to hand it to Amazon, they really do their best to make things right when they go wrong. They quickly (before I even knew what they were doing) gave me my money back. I didn’t ask for that; they just did it. At the same time, they contacted the seller who immediately sent out another shipment, and this time, marked it “LIVE ANIMALS.” Why they didn’t do that the first time — I have no idea. I feared the same thing would happen again and they assured me it would not. So I crossed my fingers, and three days later, another box appeared on my doorstep (even though my money had already been refunded). Yes, I held my nose and opened the box.
These worms, much to my delight, were alive and well … and hungry! Okay, two thumbs up for Amazon’s customer service (and of course, the seller).
I found out much later that red wigglers (true composting worms) are easily available locally at bait stores (even the Meijer fishing department has them). I will not be getting them by mail order ever again!
NOTE: What many folks think of as earthworms or night crawlers are not true composting worms. You need red wigglers for that. Our friends at Vegetable Gardener explain it well here. So if you are going to do this, make sure you get the right worms for your purposes.
How to Separate a Worm From Its Poop — The Plot Thickens
When our worms arrived alive, we were pretty stoked. We put about 100 worms into each of three prepared worm beds (plastic bins, wet paper, & rotting kitchen scraps) and covered them loosely with old towels to keep the fruit flies at bay, and for several months, we fed them all our kitchen scraps. They ate and ate, grew fatter and longer, created lots of poop, and we are not sure, but we think they must have made some baby worms. When it was time to start separating out the poop and spreading it in the garden, we found ourselves stumped. Is there no easy way to separate a worm from its poop? Again, I had not (as usual) thought that far ahead and if you get to know me, you will see I do this a LOT. So I did a little research and found this device (which came highly recommended) from Gardner Supply Company. That said, I need to start thinking ahead and being more proactive in the research department.
Theory behind this garden sieve is that you put both worms and their poop into it, shake it gently, and the poop falls out, but the worms stay in. (However, this could be very hard on your worms, now that I think about it. Stephanie’s way is better than this way.) Still, we bought one. BUT it didn’t arrive until after the first hard freeze, which sneaked up on us completely out the blue way earlier than usual, and I had not brought them into the house yet. I had read somewhere that they needed to come in for the winter because, in a bin, they can’t get below the frost line (play taps in your head). Now, this may or may not be scientifically true, I am no worm expert (obviously) but as a result, we just assumed that had we BAKED the first batch and FROZE the second one. Like I said, a complete disaster from the start … OR SO WE THOUGHT. Read on.
Side Note: I thought about bringing them into the house anyway, just in case they were still alive … but, I just (*squeaky voice, funny face, squinting*) couldn’t quite bring myself to have three bins full of maybe-dead worms in my house all winter. Why didn’t I just look in there and see if they were dead or alive? Good question. I thought, “Let’s get Eddie to look.” But he just said, “No — I’m not looking. YOU look!” Call me squeamish, but I figured, “I can wait.” Hey, I had to draw a line on this homesteading thing somewhere. What can I say? (I hear you guys laughing … go ahead. I deserve it. I am such a wuss and at moments like that, I think to myself “Girl, who are you trying to kid here? Homesteading is sometimes dirty, smelly, even slimy work.” But I still did not look in the bins.)
We then decided that we still wanted worms, but this time, we wanted to do it right. No more sacrificial invertebrates due to my ignorance. So the intense research that should have occurred much sooner got underway over the winter of 2012/2013. To catch the happy ending to this story, click over to Raising Worms For Castings – Part 2.