Winter provides an opportunity to create compost for later use in your garden, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.
"Worm composting is an easy way to turn your kitchen scraps into compost for your indoor and outdoor plants," said Ron Wolford. "Vermiculture is also a great way to introduce kids to recycling and environmental issues.
"All you need to get started is a plastic bin, a drill, newspaper, soil, worms, and fruit or vegetable peelings."
Wolford said that 10-gallon plastic bins work well for first-time worm composters. These can often be found on sale at local discount stores for under $5. Worms need air to survive so drill holes no larger than 1/4 inch or smaller into the sides and the lid of the bin. At a minimum, the bin should be 10 to 16 inches deep.
"Newspaper is readily available and easy to prepare as bedding for your worms," said Wolford. "Tear the newspaper into one-inch-wide strips and pack it down into the bin to within a couple of inches of the top. This is a great time-consuming activity for kids. You can also run the newspaper through a shredder.
"Add water to the newspaper and mix well until the paper is as wet as a wrung-out sponge. If it's too wet, just add more paper. Add a handful of soil to the moistened bedding. The gritty soil will help the worms digest and grind their food in their gizzards."
Next, add the worms. The worms that work best in a worm bin are red worms or "red wigglers." These are not the large earthworms found in your backyard after a heavy rain.
"Earthworms like temperatures around 50 degrees F and like to burrow deep into the soil," he said. "They are not suited to the 70 degrees F temperatures in your home and the confined space of a worm bin.
"Red wigglers on the other hand, are surface feeders and thrive in room temperatures. You can buy red wrigglers at local bait shops or numerous places online."
It takes about a pound of worms--1,000 worms--to start a bin. A pound of worms will cost from $17 to $20.
"Add the worms to the bedding; the worms will immediately make a beeline under the bedding because they are sensitive to light," he noted.
Worms will eat potato, carrot, apple, banana peelings, orange and grapefruit rinds, oatmeal, coffee grounds with the filter, tea bags, and crushed eggshells. Chopping or grinding the kitchen scraps in a blender will make it easier for the worms to eat the scraps.
"You can keep a supply of food in a plastic container in the refrigerator for the worms," he said. "Do not feed them any meat, dairy products, or oily foods."
It is important to bury the scraps in the bedding. Leaving the food on top of the bedding may attract unwanted pests like fruit flies.
"After feeding the worms, leave them alone for a couple of weeks to let them get used to their new environment," he said. "Feed them every couple of weeks. Add more bedding every three to four weeks.
"In two to three months, you should have a bin of worm compost that is ready to harvest."
When harvesting the compost, a couple of options are available.
"With the 'divide and sort' method, you stop feeding the worms for two weeks," Wolford said. "After two weeks, move the old bedding to one side of the bin. Add fresh bedding with food. The worms will migrate into the fresh bedding, allowing you to harvest the finished vermicompost.
"Another option is 'live and let die.' After three months, just stop feeding the worms. The worms will die, leaving behind the finished worm compost."
The worm compost can be used as an amendment to potting soil for houseplants or as an organic addition to your garden soil.
For more information about worm composting, check out the University of Illinois Extension website: The Adventures of Herman the Worm at http://urbanext.illinois.edu/worms/.
Source: Ron Wolford, Extension Educator, Horticulture, firstname.lastname@example.org
Pull date: March 21, 2014