Vermicomposting is a resourceful way to recycle your food waste into compost. Many people use compost in gardens, houseplants, and other horticultural projects. The question that many beginners wonder is how long it takes for their worms to break down the waste into that valuable garden gold.
So how long does vermicomposting take? The average time it takes to complete the vermicomposting process is 3-6 months. More specifically, it takes 2 pounds of worms 24 hours to compost 1 pound of waste.
Before the long wait, however, there are several things to do to prepare the worm colony correctly and ensure its success. First comes the right worms, setting up their new home, and providing the right resources for the worms.
Check out Garden In Minutes' super-simple TOOL-FREE, Cypress Raised Garden Bed Kits (link to Garden In Minutes website).
Learn all about vermicomposting. Read Worms at Work: Harnessing the Awesome Power of Worms with Vermiculture and Vermicomposting (link to Amazon)
Is it Possible to Speed Up the Vermicomposting Process?
Vermicomposting can be very rewarding; it can be a fun project for kids to observe and a good way to dispose of kitchen scraps. It’s also a thrifty way to avoid spending money on expensive fertilizers for plants because it costs very little to set up, and virtually nothing to keep up. The process takes some time, but once the first few batches come out, the wait will get easier!
There are some differences in the amount of time it takes for a worm bin to break down food into vermicompost. Factors include the original amount of worms introduced into the bin, when they begin multiplying, the overall balance of the bin, and what kinds of foods are provided.
For those who need their compost fast, it may be necessary to speed up the vermicomposting process. Although it isn’t possible to kick the worms into overdrive, it may help to make their job a bit easier. There are several ways to do this.
Here are some ways that may speed up the process:
Cut Up Food Into Smaller Bits
Instead of throwing in an entire banana peel, try chopping it up into smaller pieces. These smaller bits should be no bigger than an inch long for thin foods like fruit peels, but whole chunks should be cut into square centimeters. Smaller bits break down faster, making it easier for the worms to get to work sooner.
Turn the Bedding
The compost contains microbes that help to break down the waste into soil. These microbes require oxygen to do their work, and turning the bedding provides the oxygen that these little critters need to break down waste efficiently. Don’t worry, microbes are in all soil, not just the bin in your house!
Keep it Hydrated
Keeping the bin moist is imperative to the well-being of the worms. Without moisture, the compost could dry out, making it difficult for the worms to move around and make quick work of their food. In fact, if the bin is too dry, the worms can begin to die.
Adding small amounts of water or foods with liquid in them frequently is a great way to keep the bedding hydrated. Try not to overpour as too much moisture is a bad thing as well. Worms can drown and too much water in the bottom of the bin can be dangerous for a flourishing colony.
Maintain the Right Balance
It’s important to add a variety of food to the vermicomposting bin; if too much of one kind of waste is added over a prolonged period of time, the worms will suffer the consequences.
To avoid this problem, add a variety of materials. A mixture of foods of differing compositions, including kitchen scraps and organic paper waste, will ensure that the worms have a healthy mixture of food to process, avoiding any kind of saturation from one or two specific foods.
How to Set Up the Compost Bin for Optimal Composting Efficiency
There are many important components of the vermicomposting colony. Using the correct materials, providing the right amount of moisture, and feeding the worms the right foods are all keys to achieving the fastest vermicomposting period.
Here are some materials you will need:
- Worm bin of almost any kind; plastic totes are common for DIY projects. You can also purchase manufactured worm bins. Click here for our top recommendations.
- Shredded paper or leaves for the bedding; enough to fill the bin
- Crushed eggshells/lime/soil to maintain low acidity
- Non-chlorinated water preferably not from tap; let tap water sit for 12 hours before using
- Worms! Red wigglers are the variety used in vermicomposting
It is important to use water that is not chlorinated or heavy in metals. These harsh additives can burn the worms, who will then try to escape their enclosure. Once all the materials are gathered, setup can commence!
How to Set it Up: Step by Step
Here are the steps for setting up a worm compost bin:
- Find a good place for the bin. This can be anywhere in the house: kitchen, closet, pantry, or anywhere where there is not bright, direct light. Worms are sensitive to light, so keeping them in a warm, relatively dark place is crucial. Kitchens with very bright lighting should be avoided. Click here to learn more about choosing an ideal location.
- Add the bedding. Bedding should consist of dry leaves or shredded paper & cardboard. Avoid paper heavy with dyes or anything containing foil or other inorganic materials.
- Add water. Water should be sufficient to moisten the bedding without any standing water in the bottom.
- Mix the materials. Mix up the water and bedding in order to create a sort of mushy material. Bedding should be about as moist as a wrung-out kitchen sponge.
- Add the crushed eggshells/lime/soil. Add a small amount of this material to the mixture and gently work in. This step should be repeated weekly; it will prevent the bedding from becoming too acidic and burning the worms.
- Add the worms. Introduce the worms to their new environment! It’s best to add just a pound of worms at first; once the worms get to work, it’s ok to add a bit more. Click here to read more about how many worms are needed for vermicomposting. The worms will reproduce if conditions are right, so don’t go crazy adding more worms. If their population dwindles, it may be best to check the conditions of the enclosure.
If maintained properly, a vermicomposting bin should not omit any odors or need much of anything at all except food and organic bedding matter.
Feeding the Worms
Feeding the worms the right kinds of food will ensure that they are working to their fullest potential. Otherwise, if given foods that are difficult or impossible to break down, the balance of the bin is unsettled, and this can slow down the process. Be sure to feed them only what they are able to eat.
When feeding the worms, ensure that the only food provided is only natural foods. Think of foods for an uneasy stomach; omit any foods that could easily upset a stomach. Chances are, they upset the acidic balance of the bin.
Here are some foods to avoid feeding the worms:
- Spicy/hot foods
- Overly processed foods
- Chemicals such as soaps, solvents, and pigments
In contrast, there are foods that the worms will be happy to receive. Natural foods, such as those considered basic ingredients, and additional papers/leaves should be added to maintain a good balance of bedding and food.
Here are some foods that are good to feed to your worms:
- Vegetable scraps
- Fruits scraps (other than citrus)
- Teabags & coffee filters
- Plant clippings
- Pieces of bread
Ideally, worms can be fed around a pound of waste a day, given that there are at least two pounds of them at any given time in the bin. Worms need to be fed regularly in order to maintain their population. If you notice that you have a large number of small worms, improper feeding may be the issue.
When putting food into the worm bin, ensure that it is buried at least two inches below the surface of the bedding. Try not to bury food in the same spot twice in a row. This will ensure that the food breaks down enough for the worms to eat. They will move around in the bin to follow the food as you rotate locations.
Worm Reproduction in the Vermicompost Bin
A common inquiry about vermicomposting bins is about worm reproduction. Nobody wants to buy more worms than they need, so it’s good to know when the worms will start to reproduce. As a general rule of most living organisms, larger populations reproduce more quickly. This definitely applies to red wigglers as well.
It takes about 60 days for a worm to mature enough to mate. Worms are hermaphrodites, meaning they have both female and male parts, so any two worms can reproduce. Naturally, more worms will produce more offspring, but keeping a healthy population will ensure that there is a constant supply of offspring.
Worms will reproduce according to their environment. So, if their environment is healthy, reproduction from setup will take around two months but may happen sooner if conditions are particularly ideal. Remember that no two bins are the same, and worms can differ as well. It all depends on the balance of food, bedding, and moisture.
Having a strong, healthy population of worms will ensure that the vermicompost cycle is at its ideal efficiency. More worms mean quicker processing, but too many worms can cause issues in the worm bin of there is not enough food to support them. Get a feel for how much food to add and how long it takes for that amount to be processed.
Producing “Good” Worm Castings/Compost
If your worms are producing good castings, then they are also probably also producing them at a speed that is natural and healthy for them. Bad castings are a sign of issues in your worm bin, so be on the look out.
An example of “good” worm compost is dark in color, evenly textured, and omits an “earthy-rich” smell. It should not give off a foul odor; this is a sign of too much moisture in the bin. The castings should not be wet or sludgy either. The most apparent sign of bad castings, however, is that it is full of unprocessed materials.
Having unprocessed materials underneath more processed castings is a sign that there was too much moisture in the bin for the worms to process the materials near the bottom. If your bin doesn’t seem right, try turning it or other methods of aeration. Poking big holes in the compost might help to get some air to the bottom. I have found that mixing in dry shredded cardboard is an excellent way to moderate the moisture level when a bin is too wet.
Overfeeding and adding too much moisture are both common causes of bad casting. If either of these things is an issue, it may be best to refrain from adding much of anything for around a week, then reanalyzing the vermicompost. And don’t worry, your worms can go longer without food than you may realize if necessary.
How to Know When to Harvest
There are some key indicators to knowing when to harvest the vermicompost from the worm bin. In this smaller setup, some digging around may be necessary, as the worms will sometimes avoid foods in order to get to foods they like near the surface. This sends the rejected food to the bottom of the bin to decompose on its own. This is not what we want. The food will become moldy and begin to rot in this anaerobic environment which could result in bad odors.
When inspecting the vermicompost, first look on the top. Is it well-turned? Are there signs of activity here? If the surface is frequented by the worms and does not have a sort of slimy sheen over the top, look a bit deeper. The sheen means that there is not sufficient activity here yet, and the worms may need some care.
Begin digging a bit deeper. If the material from 2 inches down is nice and dark, without any odors or residue, then it’s time to check the bottom of the bin.
This is where the rejected food will be. If there are still large chunks of food in the bottom of the bin, it’s best to wait a few days without adding food, up to about a week. This gives the worms a chance to attempt to break down the remaining food as it’s sat on the bottom softening for some time. But it is important that you rotate that food back toward the top since this is where the red wigglers feed.
If the material all the way through is nice and dark, showing signs of good vermicompost, then it’s time to dig in and retrieve the goods! However, if the bottom of the bin is soupy and littered with unprocessed foods from weeks ago, it may be time to dig out the worms and their bedding and start over with some fresh bedding below.
Harvesting the Vermicompost When It is Ready
Although manufacturers somehow manage to separate actual tons of vermicompost from their worms, doing this at home can be quite a time-consuming project. There really is no “best way” to do this. The most practical method, however, it the “dump-and-sort” method. This is best done when there is no unprocessed material left in the bin to break down.
This method is exactly as it sounds. Here’s how to do it:
- Find a place to dump your bin. A kitchen may not be the best place to do this; however, if there is a large surface that can be covered in plastic or newspaper, a kitchen will do.
- Set aside adequate time. This process takes a little while.
- Collect the vermicompost, worms and all, from the bin. Place it in bowl-sized piles on the plastic and wait around 20 minutes.
- Begin removing the top layers of vermicompost a handful at a time. By this point, the worms should be collected near the bottom of the piles. Grab material off the top of the piles, placing worms back into the bin.
- Replace worms with some of the old material along with new bedding. Put some of the old vermicompost back into the bin with the new bedding material. Consider this a microbe transplant of sorts; this will help to kick-start the process over again. Make sure to mix it all up together!
Vermicomposting and Horticulture: What to Do With Your Bounty
Vermicompost is a very good way to fertilize plants, giving them valuable nutrients and making nutrients already in the soil more bioavailable to plants. Gardeners will often use vermicompost in their gardens to give their crops a huge nutrient boost that will allow the crops to produce optimal food for harvest.
Similarly, horticulturists may use vermicompost in houseplants. As vermicompost cannot burn houseplants, unlike store-bought fertilizers, it makes for a much easier and safer way to feed houseplants. Vermicompost may even be used as a nutrient base in some hydroponic growing applications.
Just one word of warning: you can overdo it with nutrients for houseplants. Please read this article for better insight.
Some common methods of vermicompost application are:
- Compost tea. This method involves adding one or two inches of the vermicompost directly into a watering can or another receptacle, filling the rest with water, and waiting a day or two in order for the compost tea to “steep.” The “tea” is then used to water plants as usual. This is a great way to fertilize plants rapidly. Note: the liquid at the bottom of your bin is not worm tea. This is a common misconception.
- Direct application. Although it results in slower absorption, this method is best used to replace slow-release fertilizer. To apply vermicompost directly to the soil, it’s best to dig about an inch into the soil surrounding the plant, then apply the vermicompost and replace the topsoil. Water in well to kickstart the slow-release process.
- Seed Starter. Using vermicompost as a seed starter is a great way to get the little guys going. To use, simply mix into the seed starting material, or apply outdoors to trenches where seeds have been planted.
Vermicompost is also touted as being super useful as a pest repellent. Regular application every other month is said to help repel whiteflies, aphids, mealybugs, and a variety of other common garden pests. Keep in mind that overapplication can attract houseflies; after all, vermicompost is basically worm poop.
The length of time that it takes for your worms to create castings in the vermicomposting process will depend on many factors but 3-6 months is a good rule of thumb. The number of worms in your bin, the amount of food you are providing them, and the environment in which they are composting all play a role. Choose a good location, feed them appropriate amounts, and make sure that they are eating. If they aren’t, something is out of balance. Check your moisture levels, make sure you have enough air holes, and be mindful of the food you are putting in the bin. Too many people try to use their worm bin as a trash can and that results in odors that can bring pests and rodents trying to get into your bin.
We’ve compiled a list of the best worm bins on the market for every situation. Whether you are looking for the best bin for an apartment, in search of something kid-friendly, or just focused on producing as much vermicompost as possible, we’ve got a bin selected for you. Click Here To See Our Top Recommended Worm Bins.