My Big Fat Worm Bin

These worms are fat and happy

Some of you may remember that Earth Goddess Nancy Klehm taught a vermicomposting class at our house in October. Some of you reading this may have even attended!

That day, Nancy and the class foraged and gathered materials to fill a bin and worked together to chop, moisten and prep the materials. The materials included our own kitchen scraps, farmers market trimmings, cardboard and newspaper gathered from neighborhood recycling bins, chunks of our infamous prickly pear cactus, a “nitrogen contribution” from one of the more intrepid class members, some well aged humanure compost and some of the aged cat compost from our kitty litter compost barrel. (More on that later.) We didn’t have our final worm bin built at that time, so the materials were layered like a lasagne in a 50 gallon drum. When introduced the worms from our sad little kitchen bin into this pile of goodness, the worms thought they had landed in nirvana.

Since then, Erik has built a giant wooden bin for us following Nancy’s plans. It’s a simple thing, very like a toy chest. Nancy’s plans called for it to be 4 feet long, but Erik built the chest 5 feet long because he was working with 10 foot boards (less waste that way, you see). The result is a long pine box that looks disturbingly like a coffin! But that’s okay. Really, what better than a pine box full of worms staring us in the face to remind us all that we have to seize the day? 

Why do we have a coffin on our back porch, you ask?
The inside view, proving it is not a coffin. We’re going to decorate this somehow–which might help, or it might just look like we have a decorated coffin on our back porch. Right now the process is stalled because we are bickering over which pretentious Latin motto to paint on the side.

I transferred all the contents into the coffin box. What was interesting about Nancy’s mix is that it is much more like an active compost pile than the traditional newspaper shreds + scraps that make up a typical worm bin. The materials had heated up while sitting. Heat isn’t good for worms–they like to occupy cool compost piles–but I figured in a box of that size they could find cool pockets and edges to hang out in until it cooled off.  And that’s exactly what they did. There weren’t so many of them to begin with, and they were happy to hang out on the top layer until the rest cooled.

Since then, a wormy miracle has taken place. First, given the space and resources, they’ve started breeding like crazy. That’s to be expected. More interestingly, they’ve grown. The worms are getting super big and fat. I figure they’re like goldfish, adapting to fit their space. I think they really like the diversity of materials they’re living with, both in terms of habitat and nutrients.

The surface of the bin as of today. You’ll see it looks a lot like a compost pile, as opposed to a bunch of newspaper.

For my part, I love, love, love having a huge worm bin because it can easily absorb all of our kitchen waste. I can take my entire one gallon scrap pail, dig a hole in the bin, and dump it all in. When we had the small worm bin–which was made of a plastic storage bin–I could only add a cup or two of scraps at a time. This made the bin more of a hobby than a convenience. What’s extra cool is that those huge scrap loads vanish really fast in the new bin, whereas scraps tended to linger in the small bin.

Here’s a morbid question for you all: Whenever I add new scraps and see the old ones broken down so quickly, I recall something about an old cemetery in France, I believe, which was known for breaking down bodies extra fast, due to the composition of the soil. Mr. Google isn’t helping me recover this lost information, but I believe the cemetery was nicknamed “the man eater” or the “bone eater” or something like that. Does anyone with similarly Gothic tendencies happen to know what I’m talking about?

On outdoor worms:

Outdoor worm bins do have to be protected from worm predators–lots of critters like to eat worms, even dogs–either by weighing down the lid or latching it somehow. For now, we’re just keeping a big chunk of broken concrete on top. (Uhh…do I hear banjo music?)

Extreme temperature fluctuations are a problem outdoors. Worms like the temperatures we humans prefer, essentially. If it’s broiling out and they can’t find cool ground, they’ll die. When their bin freezes, they’ll die. Freezing is not an issue for us, but Nancy, being from Chicago, is an authority on cold. She says what happens with outdoor bins there is that when the deep freeze comes, the adult worms will die off, but the eggs will overwinter, and the bin will rebuild itself in the spring. Obviously, if you want your worm bin to function year-round in a cold climate it will have to be kept in a basement or a mudroom or somewhere where the temperatures are a little more moderate.

On the flip side, the mass of a big bin helps insulate the worms from the heat. They can dive deep, or hang out on the shady side of the bin. But it helps quite a bit if you can give the worms some shade during the summer, either by moving the bin under a tree or setting up some kind of screen to block the worst of the sun. 

Managing the waste stream:

Diverting all kitchen waste to the worm bin works well with our waste stream because of late, Erik has preferred to build his compost piles all at once–usually when we clear out our garden when the seasons change. The piecemeal additions of food scraps interferes with the timing of his compost harvest. See, if you build a pile all at once, you get finished compost much more quickly than if you add material a bit at a time. This is not to say that “bit at a time” piles are bad, they’re just slower. Now we have the best of both worlds.

Regarding the cat poop compost:

This should probably be a whole other post. But the short version is that I’ve been composting our cat litter in its own separate pile. This works pretty well, but with two indoor cats (aka pooping machines) the bin fills up fast. When we built the worm bin, Nancy had us harvest some of the older, more finished kitty litter compost from the bottom of the cat pile to mix into the worm pile as a base material, and I will continue to do this whenever our cat bin overfloweth. The ability to transfer some of the mature material to the worm bin will function as sort of a pressure release valve on our cat pile, allowing the whole system to work better.

Is this safe? I’m not going to say it is. I’m not going to recommend that any of you do this. When it comes to composting pet or human poo, we believe good composting technique, worms and time make all things well. But obviously if this is done badly, it could be quite dangerous. If you’re interested in extreme composting, as always, I recommend you visit Joe Jenkins’ site–he’s the author of The Humaure Handbook.

So from Erik, me and the worms: A huge and hearty thank you to Nancy and to all the class attendees who helped us make this wonderful bin!

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36 Comments

  1. I have a question. my worm bin is very dry at the edges. do I have to water it? I wish that I had nice moist earthen bedding like you. Any suggestions on how to make my bin more evenly habitable? the worms are all clustered in the middle of the bin, happy, but not as festive or active as yours.I am loving this vermiculture, though!
    thanks friends

  2. So I don’t see any tap, such as I have on my commercial worm bin, for leachate or “worm tea”. What’s the deal with that? Do you add dry stuff to absorb moisture? Or is it due to your dry climate?
    I am inspired to make a bigger worm bin. A 50 gallon drum you say?Hmmmm……

  3. @Nutty Professor: Yes, you want to water your bin if it goes dry. The ideal consistency is moist as a wrung out sponge. Not dripping wet, but not dry. They can’ go into the dry areas, so are constrained to the middle.

  4. @Sarah:

    Good question. No, this bin has no drain. Why is sort of a matter of philosophy and circumstance. Nancy uses these bins–uses them in huge numbers, because she used to run a *huge* worm composting operation with these very bins–because she likes the absorbent, breathable quality of the wood. It makes for a good environment for the worms.

    But because it’s not plastic, there’s no way to siphon leachate toward a drain. The leachate absorbs into the wood. If there’s a ton of it, it will leak out in random places. There shouldn’t ever be a ton of it, though–because that would mean the bin is too wet.

    However, there could be some, and it will end up on our patio. We’re extra relaxed about that, though, because not only is our patio a cracked, nasty old wreck, but we also put french drains in it to protect the house from flooding, and the bin is over one of those drains. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen no leakage yet.

    (BTW, we’ve never been into using leachate in the garden–preferring finished compost or castings or tea made of finished castings– so don’t miss the ability to collect it.)

    So the trade off for this natural, airy environment is the possibility of a stained floor. This doesn’t matter to us, and it didn’t matter to Nancy in her set up–but it could be a problem for someone else in different circumstances. I suspect leachate stains.

    Erik has a vision of a bin constructed out of an old bathtub–where the leachate would–naturally–drain through the tub drain. When this one rots away, we’ll probably try that.

    Re: the 50 gallon drum: The problem with that is that the drum is so deep you run a high risk of swampy, anaerobic conditions forming in the lower half. Now, cutting a drum in half the long way, and then nestling one of the halves on a stand so it doesn’t rock, or just wedging something under the sides…poking some holes, improvising a lid…that might work. You could actually have 2 huge bins from one barrel! Oh–or you use the other half as the lid! Now I’m excited.

  5. Erik – when you wrote you compost cat liter does that include the actual liter(not just the poo!)itself? If so, does the claylike liter break down or remain the same? Are there any negatives? I’ve often wondered about that.

    As for vermiculture, the summers where I live (Valencia) can get incredibly hot. Even in the shade, I’ve had several colonies of worms literally cook in their above ground commercial worms bins. I finally switched to 18 gallon plastic totes that I partially buried in the ground which helped to diffuse some of the summer heat and has kept my worms much more comfortable.

  6. @Max: You can’t compost clay litter (because it doesn’t break down), or any of the litters with fragrance and chemical additives (because those might poison your worms)–to do this, you absolutely have to use some kind of all natural, carbon based litter, like Feline Pine or Swheat Scoop or maybe World’s Best (though they are a little cagey about their ingredients. It’s corn, but what else?).

    And yes, we compost everything–litter, pee and poop. It takes all 3 to make compost.

    Your buried totes is a great idea. Worms burrow deep into the ground when it’s hot, so you’re helping them do what they want to do. And the mass helps, too.

  7. I used to work at Dover AFB mortuary. The director, Mr. Carson, used to tell me that there were graveyards in Louisiana where the “remains” dissolved quickly due to very moist soil. Considering the connection between France and Louisiana, I’m wondering if that’s what you’re thinking of. I did a quick Google search but didn’t find anything.

  8. Since the box reminds you of a coffin, perhaps a more expansive version of a well known Latin phrase would be in order. This atheist suggests Ecclesiastes 9:10, KJV. It’s the sort of exhortation that would do *me* some good to see on a regular basis, particularly when I’m in the garden.

  9. @Sherry: I’m almost 100% sure it was France. It was one of those medieval cemeteries where folks went straight into the ground and then were dug up later when they needed the room–their bones being moved to ossuaries. (I got to use the word ossuary! woot!) But thank for trying.

    @Kate: Crap. And I was doing such a good job of procrastinating today! So all you reading this don’t have to go look it up:

    Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

  10. Yeah, “carpe diem” is more succinct, and less explicit with the whole mortality thing. Still, I like the language and meter of the bible verse.

  11. Your box is not shaped like a coffin, large at shoulders and narrow at the feet. You have a casket in your yard.It would be interesting to make a worm bin shaped like a coffin and point out that the worms eat whatever you put in the it.

  12. Check out the book Holy Shit; how manure can save man kind by Gene Logsdon. He covers composting cat manure as well as almost everything else that produces manure, including people.

  13. @Parsimony: We do give scraps to the chickens as well, but not all the scraps. Special scraps, I guess. I mostly like to feed them fresh whole greens out of the garden–thinnings. Then there’s their favorites, like leftover oatmeal & etc. The worms get the rest.

    Coffin does not equal casket! Ahhhhh…..

    @Wendy: Yes! The bin does indeed double as a bench.

  14. @David: I need to read that–I know Erik had it out of the library a while back, but I’d like to read the cat parts. I remember Erik saying he explained how the profit motive took deep bedding out of the industrial agricultural vocabulary. Bastards.

  15. @Cynthia: They’re red wigglers, all right. They’re just fat! So big and fat it’s like the red is getting stretched off them. I swear they’re getting huge in that box. Next thing I know it will be like a scene from Dune out there.

  16. i love this! they are some healthy red wigglers! the fatties!

    I wish I could replicate what you have done. any other suggestions for bedding other than newspaper? it really does get too dry and I would rather not water all the time!

  17. @Professor: Sure–instead of (or in addition to) newspaper you could use dry leaves. These are the worms’ natural habitat. There’s a few types I wouldn’t use because they’re poisonous–like eucalyptus or oleander–and I’m a little suspicious of walnut and pecan — but your basic street tree like maple would be fantastic. Use a mix of leaves if you can. Chopped up straw is good. If you have any access to horse manure, you could use that–but not when it’s green, because its very hot. You want aged manure. A little half finished to finished compost would be a treat. Dried lawn clippings. Be sure to dampen anything you use before it goes in, or it will just suck moisture out of the bin.

  18. Re: the horse manure getting too hot. My understanding is that horse manure will only get hot if it’s mixed with a carbonaceous bedding (straw, wood shavings, etc) material, which it often is. If it’s pure horseshit, it stays fairly cool; enough so that the worms can place themselves near the edge of the pile to stay happy. Granted, it may be hard to come by pure horseshit. But if you can, vermicompost away!

  19. I made an almost identical box, just smaller, last summer. I don’t have access to any outdoor space so I kept it in my apartment, with a lot of cardboard and newspaper underneath. Then I packed it with coconut coir, soil and compost. I bought a pound of worms, and they promptly died within a week. I haven’t been able to keep worms at all, and no online forum has been able to help. Guess I will just have to keep throwing out my kitchen waste!

  20. AJP: That’s very odd. I’m sorry you lost your worms. It’s particularly interesting that they died so fast. They can’t starve that fast. And since they were indoors I expect they didn’t die of temperature extremes. Were the bin contents evenly moist? They could have died of being too wet or too dry. The only other thing I can think of is that your box itself was the culprit–was it made out of pressure treated lumber?

    Or, maybe you just got a bad batch of worms. Maybe they were too shook up in transit or had some worm disease. Please don’t give up! The motto around here is try, try again–and have a stiff drink if you need one.

  21. does the worm bin have a really terrible odor? If not, throw some butt pillows on that thing and it’s not a coffin, it’s a porch seat!

    not that many people would be thrilled to sit on top of worms, but what they don’t know… ;)

  22. Hi guys I don’t know if this post is too old for a question, but whatever I’ll give it a go. I’ve got a box full o’ fat happy worms who’ve made me a nice crop of castings. For the life of me I can’t figure out how to get at those castings without spending hours hunched over it hand-picking the worms out of there! I’ve tried the pyramid method, and they move down like a centimeter at a time – so SLOW – and I still have to spend time picking. Now I’ve been trying just putting food on one side of their box and waiting for them to move over – how many months is this supposed to take?? I look at the almost pure castings side of the box and it is still LOADED with worms – HELP!! I love them but they are not making this easy. Any advice?

    • Is your pyramid in strong sunlight? Light is the key. Wait for a really nice day. Put it in full sun. Wait all day long if you have to. Sometimes its a mystery with the splitting the bin. Some want to stay in their own poo. Go figure.

      But the truth is that you will always have to do some picking–or accept some worm mortality. I absolve you of guilt if some worms die. (Come to think of it a chicken could clean out those castings double quick!)

      The good news is that you have lots of worms, so you’re a good worm farmer.

      I’ve been putting off harvesting ours for a while, because it is some work. But if you think of it like shelling beans or something like that, and just resign yourself, it’s not too bad. Do you have any friends or family who’d sort with you, to make the time go by faster?

  23. Ha I’m trying to imagine what that invitation would look like – a Picking Worms out of Worm Poo Party! Woo hoo! :)

    We have an incredibly worm-friendly climate here so I really do nothing except dump my kitchen scraps on them and they just go crazy – can’t really take credit for any special worm farming skills.

    I think with the pyramid I just have to wait longer. Patience is key with all things worm. I also have to get over my tendency to anthropomorphize all living things and then yes, maybe if a few worms don’t make it back to the bin it won’t seem such a tragedy. Ok, I’m determined to try again – thanks for the help! :)

  24. Pingback: Maintaining a Worm Bin | Root Simple

  25. I would love to know what type of wood you use to make your bin. I know you need breathable wood for the worms. My husband and I are wanting to get back into raising worms. Thank you for any information you can give…

    • I used cedar fencing material and some scrap 2×4 douglas fir. Let me know if there’s any other info you need.

  26. Pingback: Getting started with worms | Root Simple

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