Worm composting bin zen (and more free classes!) According to John Inch, pet worms will run away SLOWLY if they’re not happy with the home you provided

Inside look into the top layer of a commercially produced worm compost bin. Photo by Tami Jackson

By Tami Jackson

While most people know you can cast a fishing line with a worm dangling on the end of a hook, fewer realize that worm castings (or worm dung) offers one of the richest natural fertilizers to be found, anywhere, and you can grow worms for their finest fertilizer on your own back porch. Some gardeners are so obsessed by the quality of worm bin harvest they put their noses to the “soil” and insist that worm castings smell just like forest loam.

John Inch, who works for the City of Tacoma, taught the worm bin class at EnviroHouse, located at Tacoma’s Recovery & Transfer Center, 3510 Mullen, on Saturday, Sept. 9. With all his instruction, it became clear that keeping worms as pets to compost human food-waste is not an easy task. It involves a whole lot of thought and planning and if worms don’t have their hunger and moisture needs met, they will pack their proverbial knapsacks, climb up the worm bin’s internal wall toward the air vents and make their eventual escape.

An effective worm bin creates something like a terrarium environment and involves the container, a lid, air holes and some kind of damp bedding (like wet leaves or newspapers). Inch said worm castings provide the perfect fertilizer for houseplants and more.

Like the worm bin class, EnviroHouse presents many Earth-wise classes that Pierce County residents can capitalize on for absolutely free, including the following Saturday classes that begin at 10:30 a.m.: “Winter Planting, Cover Crops & Much,” Sept. 16; “Simple Household DIY Repairs & Tools,” Sept. 23; “Green Interior Design for Healthy Homes,” Sept. 30; “Pruning and Care of Landscape Trees,” Oct. 7 and “Heat Pumps – Ductless & Whole House,” Oct. 14. To register for any of these classes and to find more offerings, visit cityoftacoma.org/EnviroHouse.

During the worm composting bin class, Inch said folks don’t want to dig up a bunch of night crawlers to put into their worm bins. Night crawlers live too deep in the soil to live happily inside a container and it’s not an “inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigolds” that you need inside your worm bins either. The species of worm that are most effectively kept in containers for their composting genius are of the Red Wiggler variety. Red Wigglers can be found under wet leaves during the fall but they can also be purchased in large quantities from places like Dinkelman Worm Farm, in Enumclaw (dinkelmanwormfarm.com) or Wiser Worm Farm down in Olympia (wiserwormfarm.com). Yet there are many other places to order Red Wigglers from online as well.

According to Inch, who explained that dairy products, salad dressings and cheeses are things to avoid feeding your skinny pets, whose faces look just like their tail-ends, you should instead feed your worms fruits, egg shells and vegetables, mostly. “I recommend that you don’t put that whole tomato in there, they’ll just stare at it for a long time,” he said before explaining that worms don’t have teeth, so large pieces of food require the wigglers to wait until the tomato gets soft from rotting before they can eat it. Small food pieces prove much easier for the worms to metabolize.

Inch also explained that worms are sensitive to temperatures. “They’re a lot like us,” he said. “Once the temperature drops below 40 degrees, it’s too cold.” Unfortunately, Inch said he’s learned the hard way that worms need extra insulation to survive the winter and they need protection from sun as well – or just like people, they can freeze or become dehydrated and die.

During his lecture, Inch was quite animated and made lots of sound effects so he was very entertaining to learn from. He also made topic-appropriate jokes and said to motivate worms to move from one location in the worm bin to another, he’s employed every tactic from interrogation to cultivator toys. Moving the worms is an important part of worm farming because the gardener needs to collect the worm’s castings and another byproduct called “worm tea” that some gardeners use to water their plants with.

According to TastefulGarden.com: “The humic acid in Worm Castings stimulate plant growth, even in very low concentrations.” Also, the humus in the worm castings extracts toxins and harmful fungi and bacteria from the soil. Worm castings help balance the soil’s pH levels, which enables plants to absorb more nutrients.

Based on the couple of plastic worm composting bin models that Inch showed the class, some designs make achieving that worm farming task of collecting the castings easier than others and when choosing the type of paper to shred: “We don’t like to use glossy paper for our worms,” Inch said. He also warned against using shredded paper with any petroleum-based ink on it because that can be toxic to worms. Instead, Ink recommended shredding newspapers  since most hard copies use soy or water-based inks.

“Once you get the paper wet, then squeeze out as much moisture as you can,” he said, explaining that the worm bin needs to be damp like a bath towel after someone has taken a shower; not wet enough to drip water.

True to every class that the EnviroHouse sponsors, lots of handouts were provided and the materials included instructions for topics that ranged from “how to build a compost sifter” to “how to make your own worm composting bin out of untreated lumber.” To download similar instructions, see: seattletilth.org/learn/resources-1/compost/WormBinPlans.pdf.

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