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DIY Worm Composting (or “Vermicomposting”) in Alaska

Home and Gardenby Dennis Garrett

for Alaska Home Tips (Used with permission of the author).

17 Jan 2014

Introduction: Using an inexpensive, easy-to-build worm composter, you can effortlessly turn kitchen scraps, mail, and other materials into one of the richest benefits your gardens could ever want, as well as reducing materials in the landfills. You can buy commercial worm composters, but it's easy to make your own. This article will cover the basics and what I used, but there are other methods and materials, even a 5-gallon bucket will work. What I used:

2000 Red Wrigglers, $29.95 + $12.95 shipping, $42.90 (I ordered them from Uncle Jim's).
2 Rubbermaid Totes, $14.00
0.5 cu. ft. Organic soil, ~$5
Kitchen scraps, cardboard egg cartons and eggshells, Boletus and Puffball fungi, shredded newspaper, mail, etc: would have been eaten/composted anyway. ( I rarely receive edible mail).
Scoop of Alaskan-produced rabbit food, Maybe $1.
Filtered well water-Free.

I already had everything but the worms and totes, so say $60. (I'm not counting labor, because it was a nice day to be outside working).

PREP: It's best to do this with 2 totes: a relatively shallow transparent tote for the base, and the actual opaque composter. Worms don't like light. I went with an 18 gallon Rubbermaid tote in a medium blue. (Note: Use of a product name does not imply endorsement of the company or product). I bleached and scrubbed them to remove any trace of potential trouble, and let them air dry.

The bottom semi-clear tote is to catch any drainage from the composter, which is valuable for plants. Plus the worms are like Goldilocks: Not Too Wet, Not Too Dry, and too wet is very bad. You'll want some stones in this bottom tote to raise it up, otherwise the composter will just suck the water back up, and no one wants that. Also, putting some water in the bottom tote will keep out ants and slugs.

The actual composter needs one or more small drainage holes in the bottom (look for the lowest parts, and consider a slight angle) and holes near the top for ventilation. I cut 6@ ~2 ¾ in holes 2” from the top and a small “X” in the bottom for drainage. If you cut a hole in the bottom larger than a worm, you'll want to cover it with screen. A slit is just fine.

Prepped worm composter, the screw is for scale. The worms are in the box.

The live worms with instructions.

Next I put some newspaper in the bottom (I used the free papers, made of recycled material with soy ink-never use the slick stuff), a little clean sand, and some organic soil. Then some wet cardboard egg cartons and eggshells, some shredded free papers, some kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, and another layer of organic soil and newspapers, with a sprinkling of clean sand. They need some sand in the soil to digest their food.

The worms in their new home. Afterwards, I covered them with several sheets of damp newspaper.

These materials are also the food your worms will eat. Worms cannot eat dry food. The smaller the pieces of food you add, the quicker the worms will consume them. Mixing the scraps into the bedding is highly recommended. Sprinkle the surface with water every other day. You want your bedding to have the dampness of a wrung-out sponge. Moisten any dry materials, such as newspaper and cardboard, before adding it. You'll also want to remove the windows from envelopes before added them.

Worms DO NOT LIKE: Citrus, urine, salt, meats of any kind, dairy, and fats. A little tomato is OK, but use sparingly. NEVER put in fecal matter from any meat eater. Rabbit poop is good, as is goat, horse, sheep, camel, Llama, Alpaca, Caribou, Moose, and Bovine. Again, sparingly. Raw chicken manure is too 'hot'. Composted manure is best, as dangerous pathogens are dead.

Under ideal conditions, a worm will consume its' body weight in a day. Figure 2 lbs of worms = 2 pounds of feed per day. Remember to try for a balance of 'brown' vs. 'green' feed.

My first worm farm/composter last season used Canadian Nightcrawlers, large but sluggish worms. This project uses “Red Wrigglers”, smaller but more active.

You may be asking “Why put mushrooms and mycelium in there?” It's a Total Package: mushrooms are rich in nutrients and beneficial to plants, and by adding edible fungi into the mix, you benefit the worms environment as well as the gardens when the worm castings are added. DO NOT TRY THIS if you have no knowledge of your local fungi. Many fungi have a symbiotic relationship, such as the Amanita and the Birch, while some are poisonous parasites. Your leftover button, crimini, oyster, Portabello, and shiitake are OK to put in the worm composter. Fungi are beneficial to your lawn and gardens in many ways, but that is the topic of another article here on where I will discuss ways to grow edible mushrooms on Birch logs and other media.

If you follow these instructions, there will be no odors. The best place to have this is in your kitchen, so that you can add food as it becomes available.

Eventually, (after several months, possibly 6 months) you will want to stop adding food, and separate the worms from the compost. The easiest way to do this is to dump the contents of the composter onto a tarp or similar item, and pick the worms out (this is a great job for the kids). Now you can restart the process.

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