A steady source of organic fertilizer for your garden

Cheaper Ways to Set Up a Worm Farm

by Sandy Lim

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Worm farming (vermicomposting) is a great way to maintain a constant source of homemade fertilizer. It takes a little time to set up, but once established, a worm farm will provide your garden with balanced organic fertilizer containing essential trace minerals and beneficial organisms for your soil.

The premium way to set up a worm farm is easily a hundred-dollar minimum, usually involving a brand new black plastic tiered (stacked) system, a box of live starter worms, a jute fiber worm blanket, and compost conditioner. However, there are more economical ways to get started without compromising on the quality or efficiency of your worm farm once it's underway.

Secondhand and DIY bins

Keep an eye on your local classifieds for pre-loved worm bins. Depending on where you live, you may find secondhand systems for as little as 10% of the retail value, as gardeners upgrade farms or de-clutter their homes.

Alternatively, you can construct a homemade system from wood, plastic bins, buckets, urns, or household containers. A drill and some stackable containers can give you a tiered system for cheaper, though 'traditional' non-tiered single-chamber systems also work well and are easier to assemble. A traditional bin can be as simple as a covered plastic ice-cream container or bucket, with breathing holes punched in the top, making this method work for very small balcony gardens and city apartments.

Hunting and Saving Worms

In ideal conditions, a brand new box of worms will take about a month to get going. But if you don't mind waiting longer, you can cut costs by acquiring smaller quantities of worms from other sources. If you already know someone with a worm farm, ask if they can spare a handful of worms and a cup of compost. The compost itself is likely to contain a clutch of worm eggs just waiting to hatch.

Buying new worms, or getting them from experienced gardeners, is recommended if you're a beginner to ensure you get the right type of worm and a good start on your farm. However, in a pinch, you can sift through a normal organic compost bin for the red worms living in the upper layers. Avoid common earthworms, Canadian night crawlers, and dew crawlers if you do find them, as they will not survive the worm farm conditions you're aiming for.

During particularly hot summers, the worms in your farm may die of hyperthermia by the hundreds. Prepare for this by temporarily housing some live worms and compost in garden beds and pot plants, where they can wait for cooler weather outside the hot box conditions of a compost bin. If you do lose your worm population, wait awhile before starting over. A farm in good standing before the hot weather may still have eggs lying dormant, waiting for their environment to return to normal.

Recycled Worm Blankets

A worm blanket provides the cover, darkness, and moisture-retaining qualities red compost worms prefer. Rather than buying a commercial worm blanket, you can recycle a variety of household items, such as hessian sack, cardboard, layers of newspaper, old towels, bedding, or even used carpet. Just ensure there are no soaps, oil, chemicals, or other toxins present in your choice of cover.

Worm Farm in the Garden Bed

Instead of a free-standing worm farm, why not set one up directly in your garden bed? These are easily done by drilling holes into a large PVC pipe or tall plastic bucket. Bury the pipe upright in a corner of your veggie patch with about seven or eight inches sticking out of the dirt.

Inside, pad the bottom of the pipe with four inches of dry straw or grass and then add six inches of wet newspaper strips on top. Toss in your worms and add another two inches of wet newspaper strips. Cover the top of the tower with a plate or lid to keep out any rain or bugs and to stop the tower contents from drying out. After a couple of days, start adding kitchen scraps. Go easy at first, while your worm population establishes, so your scraps don't rot and attract pests.

What you CAN put in a worm farm

  • Vegetables and herbs
  • Non-citrus fruit
  • Tea leaves, tea bags, coffee grounds and filters
  • Eggshells (washed and crushed)
  • Fingernail and toenail clippings (no nail polish or acrylics)
  • Paper towels (no soaps, oils, or chemicals)
  • Non-woody prunings
  • Flower heads

What you CAN'T put in a worm farm

  • Citrus peel (contains a natural pesticide)
  • Onion and garlic
  • Feces from carnivorous pets and birds (rabbit and guinea pig OK)
  • Meat and bones
  • Bread and rice
  • Oily scraps (worms breathe through their skin, and will suffocate in oil)

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