Comparing Vermicomposting Methods – An Overview

This post was graciously written by my friend Jo, from the blog Homestead Chronicles. I want to welcome Jo to this space and thank her for coming to share her knowledge with us today. Welcome, Jo!

Known as vermicomposting, raising worms specifically for the purpose of harvesting the castings to use as garden fertilizer is both an organic and effective method for giving your vegetables the nutrients they need to thrive. Castings are worm poop – waste – what worms “cast off” as excrement, and to a gardener, it is pure black gold. Yes, I know but try to get passed the yuck factor for a minute because I am going to explain how not to have to deal with the yuck factor at all! Yes, there is a way!

Before I go any further, though, I want to make it clear that I am by NO MEANS a vermicomposting or worm expert. In fact, when I bought my worms, I simply had to trust that the retailer was indeed selling me red wigglers. To me, a worm is a worm. But now that I have a full year under my belt, I can give you the basics – a plain English overview of vermicomposting to help you get your head around it. As we go along I will give you resources where you can get more in-depth information. But first, let’s discuss, “Why vermicompost at all?” (If you already know, you can skip the next section.)

vermicomposting - the homesteading hippy

Why Vermicompost at All?

Worm castings used as fertilizer provides all sorts nutrients and trace minerals (such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) and it rejuvenates and conditions tired soil to better hold those nutrients in place (so they do not wash away with watering). The nutrients they provide are naturally water-soluble which means that they are in a form that plants can metabolize on a cellular level … which is WHY it works. This is mostly because of all the microbial life (germs) at work. Additionally, castings also contain that slimy stuff (the mucus that worms produce). That slime helps to hold those nutrients in place in the soil during watering so that it better retains the nutrients and moisture longer. It is just … nature’s way.

So castings not only provide an excellent source of nutrient-rich organic fertilizer but it also serves as a soil conditioner. Oh, and one last thing worth note: studies indicate that worm castings (as compared to regular compost that has not been digested by worms) contain significantly fewer contaminants and more nutrients than just plain ol’ composted organic matter that has never seen a worm. So while your regular compost is great, vermicompost is even better. More bang for the buck! The best part is that this method is completely chemical-free, and if not having unnecessary chemicals on your food or hidden in the cells of your food is important to you, then that matters.

So what is the downside? Castings are neither cheap to buy nor fun to handle but I have a way around BOTH problems!

If you just do not want to do your own vermicomposting and rather just buy it, you can. But a 15 pound bag of worm castings can run anywhere from $18 to $35 USD and that does not go very far. You may thinking, “That is pricy, but if I do it myself, then I have manage the worm poop, right?” Well, not necessarily – not if you use the tower method. So let’s get into the methods!

Housing Your Worms

Assuming you are running a small (home) worm farm operation (and not planning to get rich selling worm poop), there are two basic ways to raise compost worms for their castings. One is the bin method and one is the tower method and done properly, they both work quite well. This is really the biggest decision you need to make so let’s briefly describe both.

The Bin Method

You can build a bin, buy it, create it from repurposed materials, or just wing it. Just be sure there are adequate air & drainage holes. Be sure to explore numerous approaches to bin construction before settling on one because each one has its own unique set of pros and cons.

  • Don’t use metal (retains too much heat, can rust, and can leach heavy metals into the otherwise healthy compost and castings).
  • If you use wood, avoid cedars and redwood because they have resinous oils that can be harmful to your worms or to your food. Choose a wood that will hold up well to very moist conditions without rotting but that has not been treated with hazardous chemicals.
  • Large plastic tote bins or buckets are a pretty safe bet.

bin method of vermicomposting
Photo courtesy of Kathie Lapcevic of Homespun Seasonal Living

You can find detailed instructions in this post from Common Sense Homesteading: Getting Started Vermicomposting.

The Tower Method

My preferred method is the worm tower. It is quick & simple, just needs set in place, and never requires cleaning or “poop sorting.”

    1. Put a bunch of holes in a PVC pipe.

tower method 1

    1. Plant it permanently and vertically in a deep hole in the middle of the garden.

tower method of vermicomposting 2

  1. Backfill it.
  2. Place in some worms.
  3. Start filling with kitchen scrapes a couple times a week.

tower method of vermicomposting 3
You can find detailed instructions in this post from Homestead Chronicles: Raising Worms For Castings Part 2.

I have deep affinity for the tower method mostly because a) I am lazy that way and b) not really excited about bin maintenance and poop management and c) I trust nature to do its job probably better than I can. But you may not agree, so let’s look carefully at the pros & cons:

Method Pros Cons

vermicomposting methods

How to Apply the Castings

If you are using the tower method, the worms spread their castings for you – all on their own (so no yuck factor). But with the bin method, you will have to harvest and then apply the castings to the garden yourself. There are a several ways you can do it.

applying worm castings

  • Mix the solid castings directly into the soil just like you would regular compost. That slimy mucus I spoke of earlier creates a time release fertilizer which cannot burn plants so this method is safe for your plants.
  • Make compost tea and water your plants with it. For a great method on how to make compost tea from any manure based compost, visit How To Brew Chicken Poop (or Horse Manure) Fertilizer Tea for your Garden at Fresh Eggs Daily. This method works just fine for worm castings, too!
  • Diluted with 50% water, you can turn it into a spray for use right on the plant’s foliage but be careful. This method is sans the slime and could be too strong. Such over-fertilization can cause nitrogen burn.

What Kind of Worms and Where to Find Them

Note that these worms are neither the kind that crawls up on the sidewalk after a storm nor are they the kind that anglers typically use as bait (although you can). For vermicomposting, most folks go with red wigglers (Eisenia fetida or Eisenia andrei) because they adapt best to the shallow depths of the typical worm bin and because they eat decomposing vegetable matter. But you can also use other species like the Dilong (Lumbricus rubellus), European nightcrawlers (Eisenia hortensis), or African nightcrawlers (Eudrilus eugeniae). We do not recommend the Canadian nightcrawlers (Lumbricus terrestris) or the common earthworm as they like to go much deeper and decaying kitchen scraps may not be their preferred diet (although, I am not sure what is). Compost worms are drawn to compost specifically. All others, not so much. In scientific terms, Wikipedia puts it like this:

Composting worms which are detritivorous (eaters of trash), such as the red wiggler Eisenia fetidae, are epigeic (surface dwellers) together with symbiotic associated microbes are the ideal vectors for decomposing food waste. Common earthworms such as Lumbricus terrestris are anecic (deep burrowing) species and hence unsuitable for use in a closed system.

Yes, it was a bit over my head too! TMI! Keep it simple and get red wigglers.

What is important here is to choose a composting worm species that is a) suited your to climate b) adapts well to living & procreating in the confined space of a worm bin (assuming bins are your method of choice) and c) is happy to eat rotting kitchen scrapes (or other decomposing plant matter – you know, the stuff from your garden that you won’t eat). You can find such worms online, at garden centers, or bait stores or you can collect them yourself from existing compost piles (which tend to attract the right kinds of worms in the first place).

worm composting
All that said, there is an unsubstantiated rumor/hypothesis that says some red wigglers can be invasive in the northern US. While I HOPE that my worm tower is environmentally responsible, I have no proof that it is and no proof that it isn’t. I installed my worm tower before I found out about this, so if some folks are right … well, it is too late now. Point is, we have no conclusive evidence one way or the other. Check this article for details and just be aware: Do Composting Worms Pose a Threat As An Invasive Species.

Okay, now you have an overview of why to vermicompost, the basic (home) methods and their pros & cons, what kind of worms to buy & where, and how to make use of the gardener’s black gold … castings. Let me know if you have any questions. I will help as best as I can.

Jo from HomesteadChronicles.com
Jo is Homestead Chronicle’s editor-in-chief, site administrator, and lead author. She is a photographer and semi-retired technical writer with a passion for homesteading and self-sufficiency as a philosophy and lifestyle. She and her husband, Eddie, have a house in the city where they live with their three elderly dogs, a small square foot garden, and neighbors who think them a bit eccentric (okay, weird). Jo does most of her gardening, canning, research, and writing at the house in the city. She and Eddie make the 80 minute drive to their 100+ acres every (possible) weekend to get it ready for the transition to live there. Their weekends are spent working side by side planting trees, fixing the road, taking care of the “campsite” (potential future cabin site … she’s not sure yet), checking on the fish in their pond, and generally trying to figure it out this whole “homestead thing.” Everything Jo is, everything she does, and everything she works hard to achieve is all about “getting down to that land to live.” She has learned a great deal along the way, and while there are many challenges yet to face, she is loving every minute of it, and wants to share that journey with you.



  



DISCLAIMER: The information provided on The Homesteading Hippy is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to prescribe, diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. It is your responsibility to educate yourself and address any health or medical needs you may have with your physician. Please seek professional help when needed.

Comments

  1. says

    What a great source of information. I also had never heard about worm towers, and I think they are an awesome idea. I personally will be using a bin, because my raised beds and containers will need direct application, plus the kids will love the ‘yuck factor’ of seeing the worms do their thing in a bin. :) Great article, thanks!
    Andrea recently posted…Peanut Butter & Jelly OatmealMy Profile

  2. says

    We are trying to do composting this year. Last year was the first year our garden actually turned out good so this year I want to make some nice composted soil to put on it. Thanks for the information!

  3. david p says

    Heather, I am starting a barrel garden this year. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufEQ6ZljJBE

    I am ready to add the soil material and worms. Do you know a good soil mix that worms find “yummy” and will remain reasonably light weight? I don’t want a barrel full of heavy mud… just a nice soil for vegtables and worms.

    • Heather says

      I personally like to add coffee grounds (I don’t drink coffee at home myself but the coffee shops offer their used grounds free) to help attract the worms

  4. says

    I love composting! It intrigues me so much to learn about everything to about it! I have a box set up that I compost in, I personally use any type of worms to throw in the box! If my kids find worms they put them in there! It is like gold for gardeners! It is easier then most people think! Thanks for sharing such a great article! http://www.janrosereviews.com
    Jan Rose recently posted…Kelly Kettle ReviewMy Profile

  5. Rachelle says

    Love this Jo! I will hopefully be starting ours soon. I actually will start with the bin method until I can have enough worms to move some of the worms to the gardens in a tower method. We actually have two gardens so will need to have several towers eventually. Thanks so very much for the wonderful information.

  6. Terri says

    Thanks for the great post. I was told red wigglers cannot overwinter in our Colorado climate, so keep my bins in the garage in winter. However they do survive in my compost bins. I find them next to my bins in leaves every spring. I’ve also been told my compost bins are not hot enough to be truly composting if worms live there. Meaning seeds survive. I’m ok with that. This winter I got lots of condensation under the lid, so I think I’m making progress.

    • says

      Hi Terri. Red wiggler should be able to overwinter just fine so long as they able to get below the frost line, However, it sounds like you are using bins, in which case, they cannot get below the frost line. If you are keeping them in the garage in bins, and they still survive, then either your winters do not get that cold for a long enough time OR you garage stays fairly warm. Not sure which. Regardless, you are fortunate if they are surviving in spite of the temps. Honestly, I am confused by “compost bins are not hot enough to be truly composting if worms live there.” Whether or not worms are present has nothing to do with whether or not compost is truly composting. And technically, neither do temps. You can compost in subzero temps… it just takes a WHOLE LOT longer to do it. Eventually, all organic material will compost regardless of the temp. But when it is HOT outside, yes … it will compost much faster than at freezing. Make sense?
      Jo Rellime recently posted…Worm Bins vs Worm Towers – Vermicomposting Methods ExplainedMy Profile

  7. says

    Would the tower method work in a raised garden? Since the worms would be ‘contained’. Also using the tower method, is
    it cooler for the worms than if they were living above ground in a container? I’ll be living in central Texas soon and it gets hot
    in the summer. Thanks
    extexanwannabee recently posted…Homebrew UpdateMy Profile

    • says

      Thanks for your question, extexanwannabee! I think that would depend on whether there is an impenetrable barrier at the bottom of the raised bed and the bottom of the pipe. The worms need to be able to escape extreme cold and heat. If they cannot get below the frost line and find a constant temp, then no. I don’t think that will be good for them. Will they survive? Maybe, but without an escape from extreme weather, I cannot promise that. As for your second question, it might be cooler for the worms in a container, but it depends on how cool the room is. If in a container in a room at 70-75 degrees, then they will be cooler than in a room that is at 80-85 degrees. BUT so long as they are somewhere/anywhere within an acceptable temp range, they should be just fine. Does that answer your question?
      Jo Rellime recently posted…Worm Bins vs Worm Towers – Vermicomposting Methods ExplainedMy Profile

  8. Rick Rose says

    I live in Phoenix, AZ and have been bin composting for years. I can’t stress enough how these little guys have grown on me. Once a month we get this incredible ‘mud’ to spread in our garden and they eat almost anything from fruit and vegetable scraps to dryer lint and even dog hair. I sweep our concrete floors and toss that in too. The only problem is fruit flies.

    My wife finally put her foot down about the fruit flies and also wants to reclaim the shower where they reside. They have to be indoors due to the hellish Phoenix summer heat (I’ve cooked them twice before).

    I’d never heard of the tower method but it makes perfect sense. I was going to just bury the bins and their contents and hope for the best. Now I can still feed them and know that they are better off in the wild.

    Thanks so much for the simple solution to my problem. My wife sends here heartfelt thanks as well.
    Rick Rose
    Phoenix, AZ

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