Taking Your Gardening Dollar

Worm Composter Roundup

Newbie worm composter here, trying a large homemade bin (shown here) but dreaming of something MUCH better.  That’s because this single-compartment system is waaay too inexact, too messy, too intimate!  My friend uses one and LOVES dumping the entire contents out on newspaper and carefully picking through all the uneaten food, the worm crap, worm cocoons and whole worms in order to "harvest" usable bits of worm crap for her garden.

But see, I do NOT want to do that.  I want a stacked system that roughly divides thWormbin300ae crap from the worms and the food they’re still working on.  I know the sorting process isn’t perfect and you still have to remove some live works from the poop when harvesting a finished trayful, but that I can deal with.   

So experienced worm composters, please weigh in on the indoor system you use, or others you’ve tried.

SMALL, HOMEMADE AND CHEAP (photo above right)
Three small Rubbermaid containers can be stacked to create a compost system for just $20, plus the cost of the worms.  You simply drill holes, add worms and bedding, and the whole unit fits easily under the kitchen sink.    This may be just the right size for a one- or two-person household.  Here are the instructions.

LARGE, Canoworms2READY-MADE AND NOT AS CHEAP
Among the commercial offerings these all look great to me.

Can-o-Worms for $105-130 (photo right)
One composter warned me that the tall legs makes this unit wobbly, but our Amy uses Can-o-Worms and wrote: "The
layered compost bins are great and well worth the money — I have had mine for
at least 12 years. Tell people that it should take about a year to fully utilize
all the layers.  Once that happens, they might find themselves rotating the
trays every three months or perhaps more than that."

Worm Chalet for $160 (photo below right)
I’m told the Chalet has very deep trays that hold a lot of material, which means that harvesting can be done less frequently.  The trays also have removable screens on the bottom, which makes cWworm_chalet_3leaning easy.

Worm Factory for $67 or Gusanito for $65
Anybody know anything wrong with these cheaper units?

Tips for all bins:

  • If you don’t add fruit at all, you won’t have fruit flies.
  • They really don’t like being cold, as my wigglers taught me by trying to escape.
BUT ARE THEY INVASIVE?
I’ve been researching that very question for my next newspaper column and will post the short version of the answer right here next week.

Posted by on January 6, 2009 at 4:15 am, in the category Taking Your Gardening Dollar.
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25 Responses to “Worm Composter Roundup”

  1. Thanks for bringing all this info together.

    My gardens are full of earth worms (hauled in good, rich garden soil) and they do a great job helping with the garden. I’d love to raise them.

    Cameron

  2. Mrs.Flam says:

    Thank you for sharing , I saw a tuit the other day in passing somewhere (i don’t remember where now) On how to make Worm Cubbies with Storage Containers. Its a real thought for me , because I have limited space ,but escapee’s terrify my husband so i can’t do it yet.

  3. Dave says:

    I was planning on trying the homemade version this year. I figure I’ll try the cheap way first to see how it works and go from there.

  4. Tracey says:

    What a terrific post. Looking forward to what you learn. So I can learn!

  5. Katie says:

    Awesome post! I am going to scour it for information for my next post on the goorganicgardening blog. I am about to embark on a major compost program. If anyone has any suggestions please head to the blog and let me know!

  6. Pam J. says:

    “My friend uses one and LOVES dumping the entire contents out on newspaper and carefully picking through [it].”
    Susan tells the truth: I DO love to dump and harvest. And she gets an A+ for pretending not to be grossed out while she watched me do it. She sat quietly and patiently right next to me, and although she didn’t act all girly-scardy-cat I could sense her discomfort. You know those involuntary lip curls that we all do when we’re grossed out? She did that. My sister has one of the Worm Factories and it works very well, although she was also a tad squeamish about her first harvest so I offered to help her with it. (Her squeamishness was probably caused by the mail delivery of her worms: the package was leaking and worms were crawling around the post office when she picked it up—postmistress was NOT happy.) My composting operation is home-made all the way: leftover plastic tubs with holes drilled in the bottoms. I cover the boxes with newspapers or cardboard and have never had a breakout. I’m so enthralled with my worms that I’ll talk about them to anyone, anywhere, anytime. And I highly recommend Amy Stewart’s book, The Earth Moved, for those of you who get obsessed like me.

  7. chuck b. says:

    This sounds like a winter project for frozen landscapes. How is a worm bin better than a compost bin?

  8. gardenmentor says:

    I’ve been composting with worms for years now. We have a wooden chest style bin that acts as a garden seat as well. We modified the Seattle Tilth Plans found here: http://www.seattletilth.org/search_rss?SearchableText=worm+bin
    to fit our needs. The box is made of untreated wood and has a mid-point mesh throughway for the worms to pass through when they’re done with one side of the bin. Yes, the wood will eventually breakdown (usually the bottom goes out first), but there’s zero plastic involved.

    Here in Seattle, a bin will keep going, outdoors, even in winter…though I must admit my bin has gotten hit pretty hard this winter, which has been exceptionally cold for us.

    I haven’t been a fan of the plastic bin varieties. They seem to produce a lot of yellow-jacket-attracting soup in heat. Anyone had that problem and tackled it? We’re thinking of adding more bins to our garden.

    Have kids who want to learn about worm composting in a very hands-on way? I’m offering a worm seminar for kids especially at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show in February. Details here: http://www.gardenshow.com/seattle/seminars/seminarDetail.cfm?id=284

  9. I use the Worm Factory and I am delighted with it. This is my fourth year with it ensconced in my inside wash room. There are a few fruit flies, but not invasive. I use a wee little fruit fly trap near it, so it is REALLY not a problem. No smell at all! It does take a while to get a harvestable amount of worm castings, it took me a year to get a full tray. You also have to make sure the water out-take nozzle doesn’t get plugged up, I have had to unplug it three times in four years. I use the water – the “worm juice” :~) to water my indoor plants, and newly transplanted plant babies. It is also advisable to make sure that you cover the top of your worm foods with a layer of newspaper. The lint from your dryer works great as fiber, by the way! Talk about recycling! I introduce them to visitors as my “other pets” *giggle* Everyone that knows me thinks (nay, KNOWS) I’m weird anyway, so hey! just another layer to my Mythos!

    Happy VermicuComposting! (try to say THAT three times real fast!)

    >^,,^<

  10. Pam J. says:

    Chuck B. asks “How is a worm bin better than a compost bin?” I’m sure Susan will give us more details but I think the answer to your question is intestinal secretions. (Per Amy’s book I believe.)

  11. firefly says:

    Actually, my outdoor compost bin, and the leaf mulch bins, both host hundreds of garden earthworms. A “cold” outdoor compost pile will house worms; a “hot” one won’t.

    For me, the big difference would be the ability to compost scraps in the winter. But I also do not want to spend my time picking worms out of uneaten scraps and poop (I have six cats and handle poop scooping quite enough already) so I have waffled miserably about getting a worm bin.

    I want something I don’t have to fuss over too much. Have heard that the stacked ones require a sufficient level of material so the worms will be close enough to “climb” to the next level, leaving the goodies behind, but haven’t seen any detailed instructions on how to achieve that.

    The upshot is I still don’t have a worm bin. Looking forward to someone else being the compost noob and letting us all know what to, and not to, do.

  12. SeaHunt says:

    I have used the Gusanito Worm “factory” for five months–I call it the “worm condo”. The trays work well; after I feed the worms my pile of kitchen scraps, about every 10 days, they will start producing “worm tea” for fertilizing indoor and outdoor plants within a day or two. After temps in the DC area began approaching 30deg in Nov, I moved the condo inside where everyone remains well contained and content. I will have to harvest the new worm castings soon but will wait for a warm day and do this outside, with some newspapers to sort through worms, castings and stuff that still needs their attention.
    There are no smells; fruit flies a bit of a problem so will try the trap. Thus far, guests are completely unaware that they share space w a bunch of hungry worms!
    And, my garbage has shrunk to nearly nothing given the amount of other recyclables that my county arranges for.
    So, there is nothing wrong with these inexpensive composters and much to be said about happy worms noshing away on your kitchen leftovers, producing quantities of “tea” and rich soils to make indoor and outdoor plants quite happy, year round!

  13. Amy Stewart says:

    You guys are welcome to download my quick & dirty overview of worm composting:

    http://www.amystewart.com/images/worm-composting.pdf

    And I do highly recommend buying a stackable bin. Mine has lasted forever. Worth the money.

  14. sarahammocks says:

    I started my worm bin 2 months ago, after a talk by a woman who’s been raising (farming?) worms for 20 years. She offered free worms–red wrigglers–to anyone who was interested, so how could I pass that up? I got a plastic bin and poked a lot of holes in it, put in the requisite materials and food, and so far the herd seems pretty contented. I keep a regular compost pile outside, as well. Of course I will use the vermicompost to enrich my one indoor plant and outdoor plants (I already made a small batch of worm tea), but mostly it’s fun to watch the worms do what they do so well. If the herd outgrows its Rubbermaid bin, I will consider one of these fancy condos. I dream of someday having ducks, chickens, even a yard goat to cut the grass–but for now I’m focusing on these very quiet and undemanding little guys.

  15. Danny Staple says:

    Thanks for this – I am so chuffed that I added a link to it on my igrowfood page.

    I have had my eye on a worm composting bin for some time. In flat occupied by 2, eating a lot of veg, it sounds like it makes sense.

    I may try to build that Cheap and Easy one – I love building my own stuff.

  16. I build a composter and worm box the same way. I take four wood pallets and wire the corners together to form the box. I then line wire mesh inside and add additional wiring to make it stronger. They usually last 3-4 years.

  17. Dorene says:

    Banana peels are the only thing that gives me fruit flies. Another gardening friend suggested that I nuke the peels in the microwave for half a minute, then put them in the worm bin — no more fruit flies since!

    I mix my worm castings with potting soil for my seedlings — I don’t have to fertilize and it extends my potting soil so that I can grow more plants!

    It’s also good to toss at the bottom of the hole/trench when tranplanting high-nitrogen needing plants like leeks. I have a regular compost bin at the community garden, but I wouldn’t be without my two worm bins (just large Rubbermaid tubs — I love the fancy ones shown in this post) for raising seedlings/transplants.

  18. shannon says:

    Do all the worm composting you want. But I would NOT purposefully add earthworms to your garden, especially if you live near any pristine woods. Imported, non-native earthworms have wreaked havoc on the Eastern deciduous forest, as any observant Easterner knows – we have hard-pan soil now below our trees instead of thick humus because these imported pests consume all the carbon and turn it into gas, yep, you got it, carbon dioxide. I’ve seen no figures, but the carbon loss from the mixed mesophytic forest has probably amounted to hundreds of millions of tons.
    Back to the garden, more worms mean less carbon there, and your compost benefits disappear quicker. When I’m spading or hoeing, I toss any worms I find out on the grass for the birds! If you want to help your garden, and non-additive charcoal. Long live terra preta, but a robin’s beak for all alien earthworms!

  19. We have compost worms in a worm hotel build by the power tool half of the household. He designed and built it.

    Compost worms are decent pets – no pet sitter required while you travel.

    To shed light on a little misinformation by previous commenters: Vermicompost worms are not earth worms and if you add them to the garden they would do no damage because they would die.

    Do it! No matter which form of vermicomposting you use, it’s another way to spare landfills and make use of useful veggie scraps.

  20. Against my husband’s wishes, I had the homemade compost bin in our basement. It was infected with all kinds of different bugs. Roly polys, fruit flies (which was my bad for adding some fruit), house flies, and more. My husband said no more, and since I got tired of going down into the basement and fighting off bugs, I agreed.

    The compost bin went outside, where it will stay. Sadly, we do not currently have a bin big enough for all our scraps and with it so dang cold out (and a pile is not even an option), we have to wait until it warms up and gets above 0, or even freezing for pete’s sake, before we build a bigger outdoors compost bin.

    But, come this spring… I will have my outdoor bin. :)

  21. I should add… the house flies didn’t come FROM the worm bin, but they were drawn to it for some reason. We had no oils, no meats, etc in it. Only vegetables. Our house is old (built in 1900), and I think the other bugs came in from cracks in the foundation and just made their home in the bin. I bet it smelled like heaven to them (although it never put off a real noticeable odor to me).

    If there hadn’t have been so many bugs, I would have been happy to continue to have it in our basement. Now I’m looking forward to having spring-summer-fall worm compost bins outdoors… As long as no one shoots me if I can’t get them to overwinter properly and the poor worms die. But I swear, I’m going to try to maintain the heat so that doesn’t happen!

  22. Faith says:

    My favorite part of worm compost is the huge benefit it gives to potted plants. My indoor plants, especially the herbs and citrus, have been so much happier and healthy through our long winters since I started mixing worm compost with my potting soil — roughly half and half.

    When adding to my potted plants, I don’t worry too much about whether the compost is finished. Or if a worm or two get into the mix — all the better. I put a little mulch (coir or wood chips) on the surface so the soil stays moist and worms can stay munching away as long as possible. Halfway through winter I’ll top- dress the pots with more compost.

    Contrary to everyone else who’s posted, I simply use intact 5 gallon plastic buckets or rubber maid tubs, without holes, to do my composting. No fuss or mess.

    I put a layer of dry carbon materials — newspaper, leaves and/or straw — on the bottom then fill the bin with moist (not wet) versions of same. I occasionally add kitchen waste that’s been well drained, tucking it into the carbon material, making sure the waste is well covered. Then I cover the material in the bin or bucket with cardboard and set the container cover losely on top to allow for ample ventillation.

    I think my simple system works only because I don’t try to add too much waste to the bin so don’t end up with liquid accumulating in the bottom resulting in an anaerobic (stinky) mess.

    Since I have an outdoor composting system that can handle all my kitchen waste, my primary worm composting goal is to have a handy source of nutrient-rich compost. I don’t think this system would work as well for anyone trying to use it primarily for kitchen waste disposal.

  23. Todd says:

    My experience over the last few months as a newbie has been the same as in the previous post..I use a simple-one-compartment bin, and I feed the bin and my outside bins as well. I don’t put enough wet stuff in there to generate liquid, but the worms are very happy. I like grabbing a small handful if the shredded leaves/clippings from the outside compost bins to add to the mixture too along with the new shredded newspaper. The wet outside stuff during this time of year is nice and moist and maybe keeps the newspaper moist longer too.

    Its all pretty darned easy–one of those things that sounded like it would be tricky, but is happily not.

  24. Justin says:

    I have a couple of questions for those that have used these before.

    1) Can you use dog droppings in them and if you do, will it cause odors?

    2) Can you use everyday paper shredding material, or does it have to be newspaper?

  25. gardenmentor says:

    Justin,

    I’ve used all sorts of paper waste.

    Dog dropping worm composters exist. I would not recommend using dog waste in your regular worm bin. And, despite the reports that all is fine with dog waste, personally, I wouldn’t use decomp’d dog waste from a worm bin in my garden beds, esp. edibles. That’s me…err on the side of safety.

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