Worm farming may sound easy, but branding all those little slimy critters can be hard work! Okay, okay—so it’s not exactly farming. In fact, worm farming is just composting, vermicomposting to be specific.

In nature, the ongoing recycling process breaks down any once-living material into the nutrients plants use. If you leave your leaves and grass clippings alone, they can take years to compost. Feeding organic matter to earthworms, a classification of worms whose bodies are segmented, can speed up the process, creating compost in as little as three months. The millions of microbes living inside worms make short work of converting your kitchen waste, paper products and other organic matter into nutrient-rich compost.

The technical term for using worms to process compost and create castings is vermicomposting, and the finished product is called vermicompost or vermicast. These castings (or worm poop) can be harvested for use as an organic option to chemical fertilizers. Vermicompost will significantly increase the growth of your plants and flowers while making their immune systems stronger.

Worms That Work

To get high-quality castings, you have to use the types of worms that adapt well to living in a container and processing organic waste. Digging up whatever worm variety you come across in your garden will most likely produce poor results. Nightcrawlers, for example, are difficult to raise because they burrow deep into the ground. If you are just starting out, you probably want to buy your worms from an experienced vermicomposting supplier, not from the local bait shop. Visit findworms.com to find a trusted worm supplier.

The most popular worm species for worm farming is the red wiggler, also known as redworm or Eisenia fetida. Unlike many earthworms that live in solitude in permanent burrows, the red wiggler is communal and burrows randomly through the litter layer of topsoil. Another benefit of redworms is that they are unlikely to try to escape because they dislike light. Most importantly, red wigglers reproduce quickly and can consume more than half their body weight in organic debris every day.

Worm Farming for Compost

“The millions of microbes living inside worms make short work of converting your kitchen waste…and other organic matter into nutrient-rich compost.”

Build Or Buy The Farm?

Building your own worm-composting bin is not difficult, but be sure the construction addresses your worms’ needs. For example, it’s important to have ample room for drainage and enough holes for proper ventilation. Redworms will sometimes try to crawl out of the container, so either keep a light on over them to make them want to stay underground or make sure the bin has a tight lid.

For several reasons I recommend “buying the farm.” Commercial vermiculture bins like the Can-O-Worms and the Worm Factory are designed specifically for food waste recycling. Usually there are several tiers so one can easily lure worms with food to an upper tray in order to harvest worm castings from a lower tray. Another bonus is a bottom spout to collect leachate, an extremely potent liquid fertilizer.

Because worm farms have little or no odor when their lids are on, many worm farmers place their bins indoors where the temperatures are more stable. If you keep the worms outdoors, always shelter your composters in a covered, shady, well-ventilated area. Never expose your worms to direct sun, rain or freezing temperatures.

3 Keys To Worm Care

Because your worms are being taken out of their natural environment, it’s up to you to provide the necessities for their health and survival. Managing the food, bedding, temperature and moisture will guarantee a successful vermicomposting system.

Bedding: This is the “worm dirt” your worms will live in. On top of a newspaper page, lay down 4 to 6 inches of bedding material comprised of coconut coir, peat moss or fine mulch. Made from coconut husks, coconut coir is an excellent soil amendment because it retains moisture well while allowing air to circulate. It also breaks down to provide edible grit to aid a worm’s digestive process. Disturbing the bedding too much reduces breeding and feeding, so try to keep the intrusions to a minimum.

Moisture: Redworms do not have lungs. They get oxygen through their delicate skin and must remain moist to survive. From time to time, give the bedding the squeeze test. If a few drops of water dribble out and the bedding remains in a firm ball after being released, you have the right amount of moisture. If you add enough food containing moisture (like fruit), you won’t have to add much water.

Feed: Red wigglers are surface feeders and will only eat the top 3 to 5 inches of material in your bin. To start, add some of their favorite food—melon rind, with the juicy part facing down. Add a handful of sand because gritty substances help their digestion. Add another handful of crushed eggshells for calcium to help with reproduction.

Feed your worms a balanced diet of about half kitchen scraps and half fiber (like paper or crushed leaves). Feed fruit and vegetable peelings and cores, coffee grounds and tea bags. Chopping up the food a little helps with decomposition. Place the food in a fresh section of the container at each feeding and cover it with some bedding material. Do not feed your worms any meat, bones, white flour, sugar, salt, vinegar, juice, preservatives, oils or dairy products. Be careful not to overfeed them, as worms don’t like food that has been heated up and started to compost. Wait until the food is gone or almost gone before feeding again.

Worm Farming Worm Tea

Rich in nutrients, worm tea is the liquid concentrate of worm compost. Use it as a root drench or foliar spray to fertilize your plants and flowers.

Leachate & Tea

The primary purpose of worm farming is to harvest the worms’ byproducts, called leachate and castings, to feed your garden. During the composting process, gravity pulls moisture through the worm dirt, dragging nutrient-rich particles called leachate to the bottom collection tray. Place a container under the spigot and turn the valve to drain the liquid. After diluting the solution with equal parts water, pour the leachate from one container to another to add oxygen. You can then use this natural liquid fertilizer to water or spray on your plants.

A cautionary note: Opinions vary on the use of leachate. While it can have value as a liquid fertilizer, under certain circumstances leachate can contain toxic anaerobic microbes that would be harmful to plants and anyone who eats them. It may be advisable to skip the leachate and brew up some worm tea (see below). To learn more, go to wormfarmingrevealed.com/leachate-vs-worm-tea.html.

Harvest Time

After a few months of farming you should be ready to harvest soil-enriching castings full of live microorganisms, plant growth hormones and nutrients. Castings are often compared to expensive slow-release fertilizers because they stay alive in the soil and release nutrients over the long term.

When it’s nearly time to harvest, add another worm bin layer. If you have a homemade bin, you can place a piece of window screen (cut to fit the bin, with holes big enough for the worms to pass through) over the worm bedding. Then place fresh bedding and food in the top layer. The worms will work their way up as the food above attracts them. After a few months, lift out the top layer and harvest the castings in the bottom layer. As a top dressing for plants, just sprinkle castings onto the ground around your plants and water them in.

To give your plants an immediate boost, give them worm compost tea. Mix 1 cup of castings in 1 gallon of dechlorinated water (you can just leave tap water out overnight). Molasses can be added to the solution as a catalyst to stimulate the growth of the microbes. Then aerate the mixture with an aquarium pump. Use the solution within 12 hours as a root drench or foliar spray.

Composting with worms has skyrocketed in popularity to the point where there is a wealth of information available in the form of workshops, blogs, books, videos, websites and e-newsletters. For more information about life on the worm farm, check out thewormfarm.net and happydranch.com. Perhaps you’ll even find some helpful hints on branding all those little slimy critters, too. 

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Winter 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.