As gardeners, we hear a great deal about composting and its benefits. But what if you have a small yard, or no yard at all — in other words, no place to make a compost pile? In that case — or even if you have acres on which to roam — worms are the answer.
Several years ago, when I lived in Seattle, I had a worm bin in my basement. At that residence, I could garden only in containers, plus one small flower bed next to the house. But I was able to harvest lots of wonderful compost by feeding the worms my kitchen scraps.
Never fear — it does not stink, mostly because meat and dairy products are not part of the worms' diet.
Worms for a worm bin are not regular earthworms; they don't and can't live in regular garden soil. Instead, they are Southern natives, often referred to as "trash dwellers," because they live only in the very top layer of soil, where the climate does not include cold winters such as ours. My current worms are descendants of the original pound of them I bought while living in Seattle.
A worm bin can be any size — even a 5-gallon bucket will do — and made of wood or plastic. In any case, it must have drain holes in the bottom. I've used various large, plastic tubs with lids, such as those made by Rubbermaid or Sterilite. Punch or drill holes in the bottom, and if you keep it indoors, set it in a tray of some sort to catch any drainage.
My preference for bedding is coco fiber, which can be purchased in blocks from a garden store. When you buy it, it is super compressed and dry, like those little expandable peat pots, so it must be soaked before putting it in the worm bin. Some people use moistened, shredded newspaper, straw or leaves, but I find that coco fiber also is a great soil conditioner and never gets slimy. Worms like their bedding moist but not wet.
Keep your kitchen waste in a covered container under the sink. Remember that worms don't have teeth, so the softer and more rotted it is, the better they like it. I find that worms especially love soft fruits such as melons and avocados. You can also add stale bread or cereal, leftover pasta, leaves from produce, banana peels and coffee grounds, to name just a few, to your kitchen scrap container. No meat, dairy or pet manure, though.
When you acquire some food in your kitchen scrap container, just dig a hole in the worm bedding, add the food, and cover it up again. Don't let the bin freeze in the winter or stand in the sun and overheat in the summer. In winter, I move my bin near where the clothes dryer vents outdoors. Activity will slow down in winter, but when spring warms things up, you will see lots of baby worms in your bin.
A couple of times a year, dump the entire contents of the bin upside down on a large sheet of plastic. The worms will immediately go to the bottom of the pile to escape light. This allows you to "harvest" the dark, nitrogen-rich material they have been making and use it for your plants. Then put the worms back into fresh bedding and start the process again. You'll soon have plenty of worms to share with friends, too.
For a source of worms, contact Rhianna Simes, coordinator of the Oregon State University Land Steward program in Jackson County. You can reach her at email@example.com.
If you want to read about vermiculture, I think the best book is "Worms Eat My Garbage," by Mary Appelhof.
Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.