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Thursday, April 21, 2011 08:21 am

Worm your way to great soil with composting

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Years ago friend of mine spent a fall day driving around Springfield collecting bags of leaves. Sounds crazy when most homeowners can’t wait to get rid of the leaves that pile up on their yards, but she turned these leaves into “black gold.” She put the leaves in a garden area that was mostly clay soil. A couple of years later she had beautiful, workable soil, perfect for a vegetable garden.

Gardeners refer to compost as “black gold” because it is a great material for garden soil. Adding compost to clay soil makes it easier to work and plant. The addition of compost to sandy soils improves the water holding capacity. Many gardeners enjoy turning leaves, lawn clippings, shredded twigs and vegetable and food waste into something that can be reapplied to the landscape.

A compost pile can be started any time of the year. Compost bin structures come in many shapes and sizes. A basic handmade compost bin is about three feet by three feet by three feet, but can be as large as five feet by five feet by five feet. This type of a bin can be made out of wood pallets, lumber, hardware cloth and concrete blocks. There are many types of commercial bin systems available through local garden centers and mail order catalogs.

Compost bin structures can be viewed at the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener Demonstration gardens on the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

Another type of composting is vermicomposting, using worms to eat decaying food waste and produce vermicompost (worm poop also called worm castings), a nutrient-rich soil amendment.

Worms are nature’s best composters. Worms are quiet, well-behaved, don’t need a regular feeding schedule and they don’t need a worm-sitter when you go on vacation. Worm bins are usually kept indoors, however they can be placed in an outdoor bin if they don’t’ get too hot or too cold. Worms are happiest at temperatures between 55 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Done correctly, vermicomposting is clean and odorless. The worms are kept in a bin with shredded paper and fed with food waste.

The most common worm used for vermicomposting is Eisenia foetida, commonly called redworms, red wigglers or brandling worms. The redworms reproduce quickly in captivity. Nightcrawlers and earthworms from garden soil will not survive in captivity.

So what is on the menu for a redworm? They eat all kinds of food and yard wastes including vegetable and fruit waste, coffee grounds and tea bags. Clean, crushed eggshells add grit and calcium for the worms. Avoid bones, dairy products, meats, garlic, onion, spicy foods, oily foods and domestic animal manure. While the worms will eat most of these products, don’t add them because they will smell. Under ideal conditions, redworms can eat half to all their weight in food scraps and bedding each day.

Bedding for bins can be made of shredded newspaper (non-glossy, non-colored), paper and cardboard. The bedding needs to be moist. It should be as damp as a wrung-out sponge.

Add food wastes to the bin by burying it under about three inches of bedding. Continue adding food scraps for two to three months or until you notice the bedding material has disappeared. This is when the vermicompost can be harvested.

Many types of containers will work as long as they will provide darkness, warmth and shelter for the worms. The best material is wood or plastic. Plastic containers tend to be easier to maintain and less messy, however plastic may keep the compost too moist. Wood is more absorbent and a better insulator for worms, but is heavier and more expensive. A 12-gallon storage tub no more than 12 inches deep is ideal. This size of bin will hold about one pound of worms which equal to about 1,000 worms. This amount of worms can eat about half a pound of food scraps per day.

Worms are fascinating creatures to watch. Most vermicomposters will admit that their worms are their pets. Learn how to make your own worm bin and get started vermicomposting.

For more information on composting, visit the University of Illinois Extension Composting for the homeowner website, http://web.extension.uiuc.edu/homecompost/.

Contact Jennifer Fishburn at fishburn@illinois.edu.
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