There’s a small worm farm tucked away under a tree in my back garden.

It’s not a fancy worm bin. Just some stacked plastic boxes with lids and dividers.

At any time of the year, it contains thousands of wriggly creatures. Willingly consuming potato peels, apple cores, banana skins and other kitchen scraps.

Myco, eco, mytho, domestico

We can’t opt out of being part of the cycles of life and death, says writer and poet Sophie Strand.

Sophie advocates finding ways to be at home in the landscape of our local environment.

For me, my worm bin is part of how I do this.

It’s a small, hands-on gesture towards rewilding my kitchen, my household and my garden.

Sophie describes herself as an “animist troubadour and a huge pile of composting leaves”. We all have our different ways of infusing animacy and sacredness into our world, she says. She feels like a younger sister or niece to me.

“Ooh, witchy!” commented my friend Gina, when she saw me with handfuls of worms. NB worms don’t appreciate being handled, but sometimes hands-on is the best way to deal with the worm bin contents.

“That’s just seriously gross,” said my husband Matthew, who is usually pretty tolerant with creepy-crawlies. His mother was a science teacher, who used to breed locusts in the garage.

Admittedly I did ask him to take some photos for this post. Which I decided not to use, because I don’t want to trigger “yuck” responses. (Thanks, Matthew.)

Worms bring to mind Medusa, Eve, and other transgressive and/or scary female icons.

But they’re also, simultaneously, humble and domestic

The win-win of worm farming

Worm farming is the kind of composting that works for me.

I can do it little by little, over time. When a lot of other things feel too big, or too hard.

There isn’t a huge amount of energy involved.

The worms eat up small amounts of household food scraps easily.

I get nutrients to return to the garden – worm castings and worm liquid.

And it’s interesting – well, I think so.

Worm farming is an intriguing combination of grounding and humble and weird.

What’s a worm farm?

A worm farm, also known as a worm bin, is a very small-scale variety of composting.

It’s a set of boxes or a container in which compost worms (often called tiger worms) consume household food scraps and paper and transform them into useful garden fertilizer.

A worm farm can be very tidy if that’s what you prefer.

Women and worm farming

Mary Appelhof popularized home-scale worm farming in the 1970s and 1980s. A high school biology teacher from Kalamazoo, Michigan, she taught the process of using compost worms to recycle household food scraps, in a container system that can be kept indoors in all seasons.

Mary’s worm farming manifesto, Worms Eat My Garbage, was first published in 1982 and is still in print.

However, my aunt, Rosemary Pownall, was worm farming in Gloucestershire in the 1970s. So there may also have been European pioneers of this domestic art.

There are other female leaders in this field. Soil scientist Elaine Ingham is one of the best-known theorists and teachers of the soil food web.

This is the soil science paradigm in which soil is seen as a living medium. It’s the science underpinning organic and regenerative agriculture.  

Confessions of a worm farmer

One day I bought myself a basic cheap worm farm kit and followed the instructions on the box.

I dug some worms from the bottom layers of our backyard compost pile and introduced them into their new habitat.

It all worked just fine.

That was many years ago. The worms and I have been collaborating ever since.

Every week I feed the worms a layer of food scraps from the kitchen. For more details, see later in this post.

For a few years I even had a micro-business, supplying tiger worms to people who were starting up worm bins.

I looked into expanding it, but I couldn’t figure out a sustainable business model that would work for me.

Also, some of my clients would kill off their worms and shamelessly come back for more. Others were buying the worms for fishing, which didn’t feel quite right either. I don’t have anything against fishing, but I didn’t want to breed worms so that they could be gobbled up off a hook.

Easier than compost

I’m a much more confident worm farmer than compost heap builder.

I am hugely respectful of people who are skilled compost builders.

I have taken part in many composting workshops over the years. I’ve come to understand that good backyard composting needs more skill, attention, resources and physical energy than is often assumed.

Also, you need much more than household food waste and lawn clippings. A compost heap is carefully curated and combined to a good balance of carbon and nitrogen.

A yucky old compost heap

When I was a kid, my mother, Sue Bulmer, always had a compost heap in our back garden.

But I now understand that Sue was a very negligent composter. We used to just throw our food scraps onto the compost heap and leave them there.

Composting needs to be done mindfully. But Sue’s mind was always on her current archaeological project, twenty thousand years in the past.

A compost heap is not a mini-landfill into which we dump any food waste. It’s also not a rat feeding station.

Given enough time, even the grossest compost heap – anaerobic, slimy, smelly, etc – will become compost eventually.

But before that happens, most of the food scraps will be eaten by rats. I’m assuming that this is not your intention.

Starting a worm bin

Here are some suggestions on stepping into worm farming, based on my experience. You can also find plenty of contradictory instructions online. 

You can either buy a worm bin or build one yourself.

A third option is hiring a bin. If you’re in Aotearoa-NZ, Why Waste have a subscription package that includes a monthly visit for advice and TLC. That’s great value if you want some help to get started, or if you think you won’t have enough time to look after the worm bin. 

There are many kinds of worm bins, for a range of prices.

My cheap model works okay. But the boxes are heavy when they’re full of worm castings. Many of the new-tech worm bins don’t have heavy parts to lift.

If you and/or your family care about aesthetics and/or tidiness, one of the newer designs would be a good investment.

You can also make your own worm bin. My friends Anna and Chris Fairley have a large worm bin built from a repurposed bathtub. That’s a classic permaculture model. It works really well, but takes up space.

Not all DIY models work equally well.

Early in my worm farming career I made a worm bin from a repurposed wheelie rubbish bin. It looked impressive. But it was too deep. Worm bins need to be wide and fairly shallow.

What kinds of worms?

You’ll need a small supply of compost worms – purchased from a worm bin supplier, donated by a friend who has a worm bin, or dug out of the bottom of your compost heap.

Only a few kinds of earthworm will be suitable for your worm bin.

The main worm bin species is the tiger worm, Eisenia foetida. There are a few other species that are sometimes found in worm bins, e.g. red worms, Lumbricus rubellus.

But other common earthworms, e.g. the big night crawlers, Lumbricus terrestris, won’t appreciate the conditions in a compost heap or worm bin. They have other roles in soil creation.

Feeding your worms

Once your worm bin is started, the worms will take a few weeks to get used to their new home, before they start eating good quantities of scraps.

Check the bin every few days. When you can see the scraps are being eaten – don’t wait till they’re all gone – give the worms some more.

Most kinds of fruit or vegetable scraps and crushed eggshells are good worm food.

The worms also enjoy eating paper scraps, tissues and damp cardboard. Pizza boxes are ideal, but soak them till soft before adding to the worm bin. If you have old towels with holes in them, add a layer to your worm bin.

However, a worm bin isn’t the solution to every kind of kitchen food waste.

In general, don’t feed them high-carb leftovers, like bread, cake, pasta, rice. Very small amounts are okay.

Also, don’t put meat, bones and fat into a worm bin. Give these to someone with a backyard chicken coop.

Anything in large quantities will overwhelm a small worm bin. Keep it varied.

People are often told not to put citrus peels in the worm bin. But Anna and Chris Fairley say their worms will happily eat citrus, as long as it’s not huge amounts.

Give them shelter

Keep your worm bin in a sheltered place. Worms don’t like extremes of temperature. If the bin is in full sunlight the worms will get cooked and die.

They can drown if heavy rain pelts directly on the worm bin. Also, make sure the worm bin doesn’t dry out. A piece of old carpet on the top layer will help keep the contents damp.

If you notice fruit flies, it’s getting too acid. Sprinkle a small amount of lime and cut back on acid fruit.

A worm bin can be kept in a garage, or on a back porch.

Some people keep their bins indoors. Worm bin pioneer Mary Appelhof kept hers in the basement.

The many benefits of worm farming

Worm farming is a hands-on way to contribute to some really big issues.

Like, recycling kitchen waste, so it doesn’t go into a landfill.

And engaging with the cycles of nature. Like other kinds of composting, a worm bin is a constant process of living and dying. When we successfully compost, we’re collaborating and co-creating with soil creatures, micro-organisms, fungi and more.

If you have small children in your life – your own children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, neighbours – a worm farm is very educational in a hands-on way.

When you have a worm farm, you’ll get used to having your hands in the dirt every so often.

The worm castings/ garden fertiliser that the worms produce are made only from food scraps and paper.

It looks like rich soil and doesn’t contain any weed seeds, unlike most backyard compost.

There’s nothing yucky that you don’t know about.

You know exactly what ingredients went into your worm bin.

Like a home-made soup. Or a baby!

More reading…

Hands in the Dirt

About Alice

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