Worms are the magic ingredient that distinguishes traditional composting from vermicomposting. A bit of knowledge about your wiggling workers will go a long way in keeping your worm bin healthy and productive.
The Best Composting Worms
If there’s a fishing enthusiast in your family, they’ll be curious to know whether you can use nightcrawlers as composting worms. Nightcrawlers and other large worms (including many dug in your garden) are unsuitable for most compost bins. While red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) are content to be contained, nightcrawlers need room to move. Red wigglers can be ordered online or purchased at many bait shops. Although the first generation may seem a bit small and sickly, the descendants that live a happy life in your worm bin will be very fat and happy (and also good for fishing).
How Compost Worms Work
One of the reasons why finished vermicompost is so much finer than traditional compost is that the material has gone through the worms’ digestive systems. Food enters a worm’s digestive system when the worm slurps food particles into its mouth using a clear, straw-like structure called a pharnyx. The food travels down the esophagus to be stored in the crop. Worms don’t have teeth to chew their food, so they use small rocks and other hard particles to grind the food in their gizzard. Once the food is thoroughly ground up, the material travels through the worm’s intestines. If you hold a composting worm up to the light, you can actually see the digestive system at work through the somewhat translucent skin.
How to Increase Your Worm Population
By studying the worm’s digestive system, we can see that there is one way in and one way out. That means that worms do have a head and a tail. Many of us are familiar with the schoolyard myth that if you cut a worm in half, that makes two worms. The truth is that cutting your composting worms in half won’t make more worms. Although the severed sections will continue to wriggle for some time, the chopped worm will probably eventually die.
Rather than cutting worms in half, you can boost the population of the bin by feeding your worms sweet fruit scraps like banana peels, cantaloupe rinds and apple cores. Try this – instead of tossing your old Jack-o-lantern this fall, place a chunk of pumpkin on top of your worm bin. Leave the pumpkin piece undisturbed for two days, then flip it over. You will discover a mass of happy worms, gorging themselves on fruit and mating to make more worms.
What to Feed Your Worms
Although worms prefer fruit scraps, they also enjoy any sort of old vegetable material, coffee grounds, tea bags, old newspaper, shredded documents, and fall leaves. Avoid salty or acidic foods, since they may damage the worms’ sensitive skin, and also avoid adding any sort of animal products to your bin, including dairy, meats, or pet waste for sanitary reasons, with eggshells being the exception.