Even before I took up tropical fish again after our move back to Calgary I had started to compost our vegetable and fruit cuttings in an attempt to think globally but act locally. My first attempt at composting (which is still going on) was with an outside box containing about one cubic meter of volume. There are lots of problems with this box, however, such as wading through snowdrifts to get to it and having only about five months a year for the material to decompose. On top of those problems, the mould that grows in the bin irritates my sinuses making emptying it a trial. Then after hearing about using earthworms, and learning that their castings increase the amount of nutrition available to plants, I decided I needed to set up a vermiculture (worm-growing) bin. My first trial was with some worms from various sources such as the CAS Labor Day fish auction, a local gas station, and a friend. But most of the food spoiled instead of being eaten by the worms. So needless to say the worms were not allowed into the house, but stayed outside in the garage. A conversation with a local retailer of vermiculture supplies here in Calgary, also known as The Compost Queen (telephone 282-4765), resulted in the advice that there was not a sufficient number of worms to do the job, and she recommended purchasing either from ½ to 1 pound of worms. Even though I haven’t spent the time counting them, there are about 1000 worms to the pound. Eventually the order went in, and after $40, one pound of worms was received and then went into the bin.
The variety of worms purchased is called red wigglers (Eisenia foetida). Regular earthworms from the garden can not be used because those tend to be burrowing types whereas red wigglers are the type that live on the top of the soil and eat decaying material. They look very similar but seem to be a bit smaller. Another variety of worm that eventually showed up in the box was the white worm, even though they weren’t ordered. Maybe they came from the little bit of soil which had also been put in from the garden. Supposedly they are as efficient as the earthworms in converting foodstuffs to compost.
The worms’ home is a plastic box with a lid from one of the hardware stores. Newspaper and shredded paper were placed on the bottom for bedding and then a little dirt, food, small amount of sand, and then a final covering of bedding on top of that make up the mixture. Usually there is too much moisture in their food so the lid is usually left off, but other worm growers put holes in the bottom of the box for drainage. To keep the temperature above freezing in a partially heated garage, their box is insulated with Styrofoam and it sits on a water bed heater, which controls the temperature with its thermostat.
Their feeding routine consists of grinding up leftovers like banana peels, orange peels, vegetable cuttings etc. in an old blender. Needless to say this is also done in the garage. To make the stuff blendable, water usually has to be added, hence the need to leave the lid off the box. If there is too much compost that week, the rest is thrown onto the outside bin. Another method that I have also used is to allow the food to freeze, then thaw it and add to the worm bin. The freezing helps to break down the food structure. Others say they just dump the cuttings straight into the box.
Harvesting the earthworms consists of picking them out, washing them, then chopping them up and feeding them to the fish. Another method is to take the worms out and put them in cleaner food source such as cornmeal and then after they have vacated their digestive systems they can be fed to the fish. A tip from one of our long time members was to put a piece of bread on the compost and the white worms will bunch up underneath. They can then be pulled out, washed and fed to the fish. These also cause quite a feeding frenzy. The white worms are supposed to be higher in fat so should not be fed to fish as the sole (not soul) food. Therefore these are rotated together with the earthworms, pellets and also flakes.
Maintaining a constant supply of worms and compost requires emptying out the box a couple of times a year and using the castings in the flowerbed. My method is to dump the box out in a pile, then sort through the pile and gather up the worms to go back into the next box.
For more information on this method of composting, there is lots of information on the Internet under vermiculture or worm composting, and there are a few books in the library. Oh, there is one other reason to keep them that I forgot to mention earlier and that is that you would always have a supply of worms for fishing with a hook!
Applehof, Mary, Worms Eat My Garbage, Flower Press, 1982?