A few months ago a friend called me in the evening:
“Hey, you at home?”
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“Mind if I bring some garbage around?”
It wasn’t code for a drug deal nor a twisted new hobby where I collect people’s trash; I live in an apartment block with a generous waste disposal facility consisting of several skip bins, and he needed somewhere to put a few extra bags after a house party. Leaving aside the ethics of this arrangement, the problem he had was that his household generates far more waste than the council was allowing him to get rid of.
Long story short: he looked into composting, bought himself a compost bin for organic waste, almost halved the amount of garbage needing to be collected and couldn’t be happier. I admit I was somewhat envious – my parents used to compost as well and I spend more time thinking about garbage than a normal person should. Of course I hit the ‘net straight away to look for an apartment-friendly option.
The solution: worm farm.
I’ve had my setup for a couple of months now, and I’ve learned a few things from the experience that I’d like to share with anybody who also has an interest in worm farming. I’ll try not to cover off the basics that you can easily find elsewhere on the Web, but will include practical advice about acquiring and setting up a worm farm, and correct a few misconceptions that seem to be quite common amongst the many articles and blogs that I’ve read on the subject.
Buying a worm farm
Don’t be stupid like me and buy from Bunnings. After parting with my money I discovered that almost every council in Australia has a composting and worm farming program to encourage waste reduction. They sell worm farms and compost bins at subsidised prices, cheaper than what you will pay at retail.
Whether you buy from a council or at retail, you’ll almost certainly be getting one of the stacking baskets systems. This is the only viable way of keeping a worm farm in an apartment complex. Generally speaking it’s clean and efficient, and the online literature and included instructions make it all sound so very easy, but one Australian authority on worms, David Murphy, writes this caution in his book Organic Growing With Worms:
I don’t like the stacking basket system, primarily because the baskets are made from moulded plastic. Although the bases of the baskets are perforated, the sides are solid and impervious. Worms need an oxygen-rich environment and so do bacteria.
The problems with the stacking basket system (bad smell, disappointing results, difficult operation, worm migration) stem from the use of impervious plastic that allows no air access. It is a product designed using poor advice and little practical research, and I don’t recommend it.
My own experiences match up with this somewhat (in the disappointing part at least). He advises drilling as many holes as possible to improve ventilation but I haven’t tried this yet since I don’t have a drill :-)
[Update: I bought a drill and made some holes. It didn’t seem to make much difference, but for what it’s worth I’ve had my worm farm for almost 3 years now and it’s still going strong.]
Again, stay away from the boxed products that you buy in stores. Your local council can refer you to a worm farmer who will provide a fresh supply of healthy, mature worms. The woman who I bought my worms from, Kim, said that buying this way helps you to avoid the tedious setup in the worm farm instructions, and gives you a 12 month headstart.
What you buy is not only the worms themselves, but a valuable amount of vermicast – the bedding material that the worms produce as they feed. Yes, they live in their own poo, but it’s not like human poo. It’s a dark, odourless, soil-like substance rich in nutrients and ideal for using on your plants (more on this later).
Otherwise you’re left to try and set up the worm farm using coir for the bedding, which will take the worms time to adjust to, not to mention the crazy amount of watering that is necessary to keep it and the worms’ moist. The instructions say to pour 5 Litres of water through it a week, compared with my setup which only requires 1 cup of water a week!
Feeding your worms
This is one area where what I have learned from my own practical experience and also from reading Organic Growing With Worms differs greatly from the advice on worm farming on the Internet. The biggest misconception is that the worms eat the food scraps that you feed them. This is untrue. The worms are actually after the micro-organisms present on the scraps, such as bacteria, fungi and algae – a fact that is quickly and easily confirmed by asking Google “what do earthworms eat?”
This insight provides a much better guide than the “do/don’t” lists, and greatly impacts the selection and method of feeding your worms:
- Choose foods that are conducive to bacteria growth, i.e. avoid acidic foodstuffs such as onions and citrus, although a small amount mixed in with other stuff is OK. Otherwise, they will eat anything that’s organic – even things like stones and seeds from fruits; it’s just a matter of how long it takes the bacteria, etc. to break it down. Hard things just take longer to decompose and take up valuable space.
- Pre-processing your food scraps (e.g. in a blender or food processor) creates a larger surface area for micro-organisms to propagate. This also helps to destroy seeds and prevent them from sprouting (this is a real problem since vermicast is an amazingly effective environment for producing germination). Be careful not to liquefy your scraps though, because then it’ll just wash right through the bedding before your worms even have a chance to get at it.
Depending on the water content of the food that you feed to the worms, solid waste will only account for 10% of the output of your worm farm, which means that the other 90% will be liquid. Despite what you’ll read elsewhere, Murphy emphatically states that this liquid is useless, especially if you’re following the instructions in the kit and putting through 5L of water a week. What’s valuable is vermicast dissolved in liquid, which contains soil-enhancing nutrients and bacteria.
The 10% rule also means that your worm farm will build up at a very slow rate, and you’ll only need to skim off excess vermicast once or twice a year at most. Dissolve a tiny amount in water, and use this to water your plants – they will never look better!
Consider worm farming!
To conclude the post, I’d like to give you one reason to consider composting or worm farming: garbage tips contribute greatly to the amount of methane, which is produced as a result of the organic matter decomposing in anaerobic conditions (that is, starved of air). So you’re not only dealing with your waste in a natural way, you’re also reducing the amount of waste being contributed to landfill and helping to better the environmental in the process!
Oh, and read David Murphy’s book. It’s truly excellent in many more ways than I have time to go into here – two words: waterless toilet. (Sorry Book Depository fans, it’s only published in Australia so you’ll be hard pressed to find this one overseas).