Raising a herd of composting worms in the house all winter

Starting the bin in autumn: torn-up egg cartons, finished compost (earth), and veggie scraps plus a few red wigglers from the compost outside. Covered with newspaper and a layer of shredded paper.

Late February: big fat worms making heaps of black gold (worm castings) from a slaw made of veggie peelings and scraps.

I thought I'd add a page about my vermiculture experience, because the people talking about it online are too deep inside it to give newbies the Big Picture. It's only just now, after one year, come to me why it's worth cultivating a squirm indoors. Worms turn compost into gold – worm castings. I knew that, but I couldn't see the benefit beyond making great potting soil for the seedlings I grew in the window last spring. After that, I tossed the rest of the herd into the compost heap. One of my composting gurus told me not to waste red wigglers on the three-bin system, but to use them in windrows. I think he imagined I'd do a better job with the bins than I did and they wouldn't need the help, plus they'd get too hot for worms. The efficiency of my bins is sort of halfway between windrows and Berkley-style bins. Keeners talk about chopping stuff like tomato plant stalks finely before adding it, but I just toss everything in whole. I didn't tun the piles, but I did tuck new green stuff into the middle from time to time, which must have heated it up, because it's all fine black loam now.

I understood that red wigglers don't survive the winter, so that was the reason to bring some indoors. But the people at vermicomposters.com talk about cocoons, which do survive the winter. And I understood red wigglers aren't the same as ordinary earthworms, who aerate the soil so well. But that doesn't mean they aren't a huge help. I know I haven't been diligent like some composting gardeners, monitoring the temperature, etc. But, boy the stuff I have now is beautiful and I think it's at least partly because of the red wigglers. Once I add lovely finished compost laced with worm castings to my sandy acidic soil, earthworms will come.

I vaguely understood the concept of 'bedding' – shredded paper, or even better – shredded egg cartons. I had started a half-assed new squirm a few weeks ago (October) in a tall bucket. I put in a lot of wet peach peels and tomato scraps. And I did a Bad Thing – I stirred them in. The experts say worms hate being disturbed. They'll find the food. And they need to be able to get away from the heat generated by decomposition. The bedding goes on the bottom where it absorbs excess liquid. The worms will eventually consume it, although I'll have to see it to believe it.

I was under the impression that indoor vermiculture was all about turning kitchen scraps into worm castings. Not exactly. Now I see that it's about having as many worms as possible to put into the compost next spring to get it turning into black gold as soon as possible. That means feeding them stuff they really like, such as leaf mold (really, some of this year's finished compost) and even manure. Most kitchen scraps are too coarse for worms to eat. (See the next paragraph.) They love rice, which I never throw out. But I'm trying bread crumbs from slicing my home-baked bread. I'm going to put some buckets of leaf mold in the screen porch to freeze this fall (to make sure I'm not bringing in all sorts of bugs) so I can give the worms fodder all winter.

News flash! I met the Worm Lady from The Worm Factory at an event. She advises keeping an old blender on the kitchen counter for the scraps that will be fed to the worms. (I was surprised to hear no onions.) When it's 3/4 full she adds a bit of water to make a smoothie for the worms.
And then you cover the smoothie serving (about a cup) with more earth. I've just been making a smoothie with one meal's peels, since my squirm is still small (October). And she finally cleared me up on the shredded paper. It goes on top of the pad of damp newspaper as a barrier (think barbed wire fence) to the worms crawling up the sides, to flies entering, to any crawlies that came in with the earth, and especially to odors. And she said not to keep a lid on the tubs at all, because that will keep it too moist. But I keep loose lids on top and my herd is happy.

My first fear about vermiculture was having mold growing in the house. The experts say it's the spores I'm sensitive to, so a cover of wet newspapers solves that. Writing in February I can say that a bit of mold fuzz sprouted up a few times, but I covered it with more food and dirt and ultimately the worms take care of it. I change the bedding once in awhile, basically when it starts to rot. So mold is pretty much a non-issue.

So, I've got two of these shallow tubs started with worms I picked out while sifting the sticks and stones out of my compost. I keep feeding them smoothies on one side of the bin, so they can escape the heat of decomposition. Once they start reproducing they can become really thick in there! Last year I insisted on keeping them in the basement, which is accessible only from outside. This year I have the bins in the cool back room here in the house. I hope I don't start ascribing human qualities to them.
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