The cool thing about vermicomposting (that's composting using worms) is that it doesn't have the smell usually associated with traditional composting, so, you can easily store your worm bin indoors or in your garage. So, a worm bin can be an easy and space saving alternative to a compost. Pre-made worm bins come in various sizes, or you can make your own. Start your worm bin now and in a few months you'll have rich soil perfect for gardening.
To be honest, I was a bit nervous to set up a worm bin but with a little bit of learning it was a straightforward and fun process. My worm bin came with easy to follow instructions, both for putting the bin together (just a few components to snap together) as well as for making a comfortable home for the worms. If you want more detailed info about building your own worm bin and worm bin management you can take a look at Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof.
Most worm bins consist of stacked trays that have holes in the bottom. This photo shows the holes in the bottom of one of the trays. You start the process by using only one tray in your worm bin. Worms live in this tray where you put food scraps for them to eat. The holes at the bottom are initially covered with cardboard so the worms don't fall through. Once the worms have eaten enough food to fill one tray, a second tray is stacked on top of it and new food scraps are place into this upper tray. The worms will migrate through the holes up to the top tray to eat their new food source. Then the bottom tray is removed and harvested for the rich soil (technically worm castings). This process usually takes several months.
Here's the initial worm bedding where the worms will live and your food scraps will be buried. Worm bedding can be made out of many materials -- shredded black and white newspaper, decaying leaves, coconut fiber, wood chips, peat moss, etc. My bin came with a compressed block of coir (coconut fiber) that I soaked in a bucket of water where it expanded and broke apart. The material was then laid down evenly in the tray.
Here comes the fun part! Worms!! Even if you buy a pre-made worm bin you'll probably need to buy your worms separately. You can start off with 1 or 2 lbs. of worms (about 1,000 worms per pound!). Worms are a bit pricey at over $25 a pound but it's a great investment. My worms arrived within two days packaged in some bedding material. The next step is to spread the worms even in the worm bin. Here I am holding a clump of worms (break it up guys!). I was a little squeamish at first but I got over it. Worms are cool! The process of putting the worms in the bin is done in the sun or under lights. This is because worms do not like light and so within 10 minutes or so they will all bury themselves in the bedding material.
The next step is to spread some food scraps over the surface of the tray as "starter food." It's important not to over feed the worms during the first week as they acclimate to their new home. Otherwise, food scraps may become moldy and will need to be removed from the bin. Over time you should be able to feed the worms about 1/2 pound of garbage per day but they are not picky about being fed every day and the number of worms can be adjusted for your household's needs. One cool thing about vermicomposting, is that when managed properly the process does not smell because an aerobic process is used (oxygen present). Worm bins can even be kept inside the house. This is opposed to many compost piles that use an anaerobic process (no oxygen) that can give off quite a stench.
The last step is to cover the tray with moist cover material. I used a few layers of newspaper and sprayed it down with a spray bottle. The paper cover can be replenished if the worms start to eat, which they might! Another cover option are burlap sacks. The cover keeps out flies, allows the food and bedding to retain moisture and keeps the worms in the darkness they enjoy. Now you are all set to have fun with your new pets and feel good about keeping tons of food waste out of landfills while creating rich new soil in the process! The worm bin featured in this essay is a Wriggly Wranch purchased from a municipal program in San Mateo County, California. Check with your city and county for possible worm bin subsidies as well as classes. If they don't have them, encourage them to get it started!
Photographer Mike Kahn is passionate about sustainability and happy to be a new worm "wrangler." He runs the Green Stock Media photo agency.