Deb Babcock: Let worms do the work for you

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Mondays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

When the ground gets hard around the Steamboat area and there’s no easy way to take food scraps out to the compost pile, consider worm composting indoors.

Last week, the local docent program invited Chris Bradley, of Sacred Resource, to a group meeting to discuss his art that uses beetle-killed wood to make many beautiful and functional objects, including an attractive worm composter. That got me thinking about this method of using worms to recycle our food waste, particularly in the winter.

Worms eat the food scraps you place in the composter, turning it into an organic, rich soil amendment called vermicompost. It’s great for plants indoors, and when spring comes, outdoors.

Setting up an indoor worm composter is pretty easy. You just need a bin of some sort, damp newspaper strips and worms. Layering the strips of newspaper (or leaves from the yard) give the worms air pockets in and among the food scraps you add to the box. Avoid meat and dairy products as they are more complex for the worms to digest and could attract pests; raw vegetable and fruit scraps are best. Try to avoid citrus peels since they can attract fruit flies or onions and broccoli, which have stronger odors than other fruits and vegetables.

Red worms and red wrigglers are the best for indoor worm composters and can be purchased from worm farms. Eisenia foetida (commonly known as red wiggler, brandling or manure worm) and Lumbricus rubellus are the scientific names for these earthworms. Several vendors for them can be found online.

The bin you use can be one specially made for worms, like the wooden one that Chris makes, or you can use a plastic tub like those plastic lidded storage bins found at Walmart. Wood is the preferred material since it breathes a little better and the compost doesn’t get as wet as plastic. Air holes should be drilled into the box so that the worms can breathe and the compost will dry out throughout time. If you can set the box on a catch basin, any liquid that might drain out can be used as a fertilizer for your houseplants.

The size depends on how much food scrap you will be introducing to the bin. Most indoor ones hold around five to 10 gallons and are about 8 inches high since worms tend to prefer the top six inches of soil in which to live.

Throughout time — or three to five months — you will notice that you’ll need less of the newspaper bedding in your box since the worms are producing a nice compost from the food scraps. You’ll notice them moving from one area of the box to another as new food scraps are introduced, which allows the older composted scraps to dry out somewhat.

To harvest your compost for indoor plants, dump out the soil and mound into small piles. The worms will migrate to the bottom of the pile as they are exposed to light. You then can take the top of the pile and use it in your potted plant container. It won’t hurt things if a worm finds its way to a potted plant, but it might not like living in such a small space and likely will die.

Use your compost as a soil amendment, a mulch or make compost tea (the liquid from a settled mix of half compost/half water) as a boost for house plants, seedlings and transplants.

By composting your food scraps in the worm composter during the winter, you are helping nature’s cycle of turning organics back into the soil while cutting down on the amount of waste going into our landfill. You’ll be doing something good for your garden and for your community.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.

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