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By: Joe Lamp'l / Scripps Howards News Service
If thoughts of a steaming-hot compost pile in your backyard are just not practical for whatever reason, consider making a worm bin instead. It's a great project for even apartment gardeners and a super project to involve kids.
Vermicomposting, or cold composting, uses worms, as well as microorganisms, to break down organic wastes into slow-release organic compost that's rich in water-soluble nutrients available to plants with no danger of burning delicate roots. Vermicomposting works at about 80 degrees, with considerably smaller amounts of material and space requirements. And as odd as it may sound, many vermicomposters I know keep their bins under the sink or in their basement, for example.
Best of all, the worms do all the turning and digesting, churning out finely textured, crumbly and nearly odorless finished castings in a fraction of the time. These castings help plants fight disease, open up soil to air and water and even protect against soil-borne insects. They regulate soil pH, fight harmful fungi and can be brewed into a quick-acting foliar spray fertilizer "tea."
With vermicomposting, the most common species of choice is Eisenia fetida, commonly known as redworms or red wigglers. They live closer to the surface as they consume and digest decaying organic matter. They're readily available from bait-and-tackle shops or commercial Internet sources.
There are lots of sources for home worm bins and kits, such as catalogs or the Internet. Some bins are single units, like large trashcans; others have stacked modules that are easy to fill with scraps and to harvest the finished compost. Prices vary, but you can find a wide variety of choices between $60 and $120. The alternative to store-bought is to make your own wormery.
Redworms can work in a composter made of plastic tubs, such as lightproof Rubbermaid Roughneck storage boxes. The 12- and 18-gallon sizes are perfect for the scraps generated by an average family. One pound of worms per square foot of surface area can convert a half-pound of scraps per day, 14 pounds per week.
The bedding material, usually shredded newspaper with a little organic compost or garden soil mixed in, should be moist enough to form a crumbly ball without excess water dripping out. It's layered with any kind of biodegradable organic matter, especially from the kitchen, with the exception of proteins like meat and fats, oils or dairy products. Typical additions include coffee grounds, small vegetable scraps, eggshells and fruit. Even damp paper-towel rolls are readily consumed. Feed the worms every other day with a half-pound of chopped scraps dug into one end of the bedding material or even placed across the top.
Drill several small holes into the bottom of the bin to allow excess liquid to drain. But have a way to collect and hold this liquid runoff. An extra inverted lid under the bin is ideal. This liquid diluted 10:1 with tap water that's been left to sit for a day or so (to evaporate the chlorine) makes an excellent fertilizer. Just be sure to use immediately for best results.
In a couple of months, it's time to harvest some of the rich dark castings. Keep in mind that the worms are where the food is. So a few days before harvest, concentrate the food on one side of the bin and scoop your castings from the other. Alternatively, if you have a way to collect the castings from the bottom, the worms tend to stay closer to the surface. But they don't like light and, once exposed, they head deeper below the surface. A small amount of castings, about 10 percent to 15 percent of total soil volume, offers some pretty incredible results. Adding them to your seed starts or vegetable garden is a great place to begin.
A greener relationship with our planet starts with understanding how she works and working with her. These humble little worms, which leave behind better than they take in, are part of a system we're just now starting to comprehend. Working with them, on their terms, helps us take our place in that system. And gets us some pretty terrific gardens in the process.
(Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a Master Gardener and author. For more information, visitwww.joegardener.com. For more stories, visit scrippsnews.com.)