The Rise of Worm Farms Is Reducing the Ick Factor That Comes With Composting
Worm farms are becoming more and more popular. Here's why vermicomposting is one of the *least* icky ways to upcycle food waste.
Mention the words “worm farm” to the uninitiated, and you’re likely to be met with looks of confusion and disgust. But try the magic phrase (which has 48 million views on TikTok)—or the more accurate “vermicomposting” (46 million views)—on an earthworm composting convert, and you can expect an effusive description of the method of food waste disposal that is, in fact, less gross than most at-home options.
“It’s not icky or smelly,” says solid waste specialist Rhonda Sherman, author of NC State University extension paper Worms Can Recycle Your Garbage. Since its initial release in 1994, Sherman’s comprehensive paper has informed the creation of maintenance of worm farms all around the world, literally: Sherman has been contacted by people from every continent and more than 125 countries, and that interest is only continuing to grow.
When carried off correctly, a worm farm offers an affordable, accessible, less smelly, and more effective alternative to countertop compost bins and pricey machines. “If you manage the worm bin, it takes very little time and effort,” says Sherman. “It’s not this thing that you have to hide in your basement—it can be right out there in your home.”
What Is a Worm Farm?
A worm farm is a bin that combines composting earthworms, bedding, water, and organic materials to create a vermicomposting system. Bins are typically made from well-washed plastic or untreated wood and include a tight-fitting lid, holes for drainage and aeration, and a dark coloring (worms are light-sensitive).
And it is, indeed, a farm. “That’s what you’re doing when you have a worm bin—you’re practicing earthworm husbandry,” says Sherman. “If you have a herd of cows, you’re using animal husbandry to care for them. So you’re doing the same with worms, which makes it very different from a compost bin. With a compost bin, you toss in the organics, but with a worm bin, you’ve got these living animals, and they have needs and preferences like all animals. You have to provide the correct conditions to keep them alive and thriving.”
Fortunately, a bit of preparedness, attention, and troubleshooting make caring for your worms—and creating rich vermicompost—an easy undertaking.
What Are the Benefits of Vermicomposting?
Think of vermicompost as compost on steroids. “There have been thousands of scientific studies comparing the two and their effects on plants, and vermicompost always outcompetes compost,” says Sherman.” Seedlings emerge more quickly, the plants grow bigger and stronger and have better-developed root systems, and vermicompost also can suppress diseases and insect pests.”
As with regular compost, vermicompost’s organic matter—augmented by worm castings, or manure—improves soil integrity, allowing water to permeate the dirt and the dirt to retain the moisture where it's needed (aka around the roots of your plants). It also ups solid microbial populations and provides nutrients.
Another bonus? If you’re creative enough, you can build your worm farm into your existing kitchen furniture. “I know several people that have lovely coffee tables that are also worm bins,” says Sherman. “People do all sorts of creative things.”
Not only is operating a worm farm easy and convenient, it actually quells the smells that come with food waste. “Vermicomposting is known for kind of eliminating odors,” says Sherman. “I visited a hog farm, and hog manure is one of the stinkiest things I’ve ever smelled. There was a vermicomposting operation taking place about 20 feet from a farmworker’s residence, and you couldn’t smell hog manure, even though it was a huge operation.”
Still with us? Here’s how to start your own worm farm, according to Sherman’s long-lauded guide. And don’t worry if things go sideways, Worms Can Recycle Your Garbage features an abundance of troubleshooting information designed to make your worm farm a sustainable success.
How to Start Your Own Worm Farm
Photo: NC State Extension
1. Get a Worm Bin
Order or build a worm bin, made from either cleansed plastic or untreated wood. Bins must be a dark color and have tight-fitting lid and specifically placed holes for aeration and drainage. The size of your worm farm will depend on your household needs.
2. Add the Bedding
The bedding of your worm farm should be made from a nontoxic and slightly absorbent material—Sherman recommends newspaper, paper bags, or cardboard. Tear or cut into strips, soak in water, and wring until damp. Add enough bedding to fill your bin halfway, then add a scoop of healthy soil into the mix.
3. Now, the Worms
One pound red wiggler worms (Eisenia fetida) per one square foot of surface area will make up the population of your worm farm. Sherman suggests buying your wigglers from a worm grower. Place them on top of your bedding and leave them be!
4. Toss in Food Scraps
After a few days, you can start adding small food scraps to your worm farm. As with regular composting, avoid meat, bones, fish and other oily or salty food, and citrus. Cover the scraps with bedding to prevent unwanted pests like fruit flies. Within a few weeks, harvestable vermicompost will begin to appear!
Congratulations, you’re now a full-fledged worm farmer.
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