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How To Raise Worms

Why raise earthworms?

Raising earthworms is one of the easiest ways you can go green and reduce the amount of trash entering our landfills and water systems. Instead of throwing your kitchen scraps in the garbage can or down the sink disposal simply feed them to your worms!  And if you enjoy gardening this is a great way to save money -- your worms will produce fertilizer for life!  Earthworms can produce more compost, in a shorter time, with less effort, than any other tool known to the gardener or farmer. The compost which is produced by earthworms is of the highest grade, containing not only greater amounts of mineral nutrients in soluble form, but also containing a high percentage of castings that help to form soil aggregates, leading to a permanent improvement in soil structure.  Are you a fisherman, too? Why pay $4.00 for a dozen worms when you can raise them yourself?  Whatever your reason for raising earthworms, you will enjoy watching your critters grow, reproduce and recycle!

 

A healthy red wiggler bin


Which types of earthworms are used for composting?

There are three types of composting worms and one type of garden worm available here at Worms4Earth.com,  I will list the three types of composting worms in this section. You can read about the garden worms further down the page.

The Red Wiggler

Red wigglers stand out as the best choice for efficiently composting your kitchen scraps and paper waste.  They have a voracious appetite, thrive in a densely populated area, and are tolerant of a wide range of environmental conditions. They are not easily disturbed by the turning and raking of bedding that is necessary when adding food scraps or checking the progress of decomposition in your earthworm bin. These qualities translate into the perfect species for the earthworm farming beginner.  The Red wiggler is identified by its deep red coloring, thin banding, and yellow-tipped tail-end. Their diminutive size makes them ideal for smaller habitats, yet this should not diminish the fact that Red wigglers are also very successful working in large scale composting operations.  These earthworms form no permanent burrows and live on the soil surface and uppermost layers of your compost bin.  They feed in organic surface debris and are well adapted to rapidly changing conditions of a compost bin.    Although this hardy worm will survive temperatures close to 40°F, they prefer bedding temperatures between 68°F and 80°F. The Red Wiggler grows to a length of 3-4 inches, but don't let it's diminutive size fool you - these little guys process large amounts of organic material. You'll be able to compost your kitchen scraps 10 times faster when compared to composting without them.

These bed run worms are shipped in breathable bags and will come in various sizes, from juvenile to breeder. There are between 800 - 1,000 worms per pound.

Add Red Wigglers to your indoor compost bin or outdoor compost pile.. 

A typical red wiggler bin

Freshwater aquarium fish love Red Wigglers


The European Nightcrawler

The European nightcrawler is a superb choice to use for fishing bait.  They grow relatively quickly, are less sensitive to cold weather, and stay firm on the hook.  Do you have memories of using a Canadian nightcrawler that went limp and soggy on your hook after a only few minutes?  The European will stay alive while submerged for much longer than other earthworms. And, although it does not grow as long as the African nightcrawlers, it has plenty of width to fit on larger hooks when fishing for bass or catfish.

The European nightcrawler is also tops in the worm casting business.  Raised extensively in Holland, it has been exported around the world and has become a favorite within the earthworm casting industry because of its tolerance to a wider range of temperatures.  It can be identified by its very distinctive striped banding and wide girth. Although smaller in total size than the African nightcrawler, the quality of its castings are not affected by the size difference. You can feed them either kitchen scraps or grain meal. The European nightcrawler is more tolerant of lower temperatures than the Africans; however, they will still perish if exposed to freezing temperatures

The European Nightcrawler can grow up to 5 inches and is THE BEST BAIT WORM available. Its thick skin gives it the ability to live longer on the hook than any worm sold today (even in brackish and saltwater).

Add Europeans to your indoor compost bin or outdoor compost pile.  

European nightcrawlers from a bin


The African Nightcrawler

The African nightcrawlers, one of the kings of the earthworm castings industry, are known for the large quantities of castings they can produce in a short amount of time.  It can be identified by its brown-purple coloring with a green iridescent sheen. This earthworm is the largest composting earthworm on the market and can grow over 7 inches in length. You can feed them either kitchen scraps or grain meal. However, there are a few drawbacks that you must consider if you choose the African nightcrawler. This earthworm is a tropical species and has evolved to live in warmer climates; its environmental necessity for temperatures over 65°F may dictate the need to be raised indoors where temperatures can be controlled.  The other drawback is that, due to their size, they will require more frequent bedding changes.  The African nightcrawler consumes feed and produces castings quickly which will require you to add fresh bedding more often when housed in smaller habitats.

The African nightcrawler should be your earthworm of choice when large size is what you desire.  However, it is imperative that you have the ability to keep their habitat at a controlled temperature between 65°F and 85°F such as a basement, spare room, or temperature controlled garage.  Water survivability is generally good except for very cold waters such as spring-fed rivers and streams and northern waters.

When raising earthworms for fishing bait I recommend feeding them milled grains specifically formulated for feeding earthworms.  Check with your local feed store; if they do not carry in stock they should be able to order it for you.

The African Nightcrawlers are shipped 3-4 inches long and are breeder size. There are approximately 250 worms per pound.

Add African Nightcrawlers to your indoor compost bin or outdoor compost pile.


African nightcrawlers size comparison



Which type of earthworms for my garden?

The Alabama Jumper

You can add the Alabama jumper directly into your yard or garden. Alabama Jumpers can thrive in just about any kind of soil, including packed clay, and will aerate and fertilize your yard and garden. These worms are very active and can burrow through the thickest soils with ease. They have thick skin and are very powerful -- true to their name, they will literally jump out of your hand.  

Alabama Jumpers jumping


Alabama Jumpers, like other earthworms, have only three basic life requirements: food, water, and protection from harmful agents. Of the three, it is probably the lack of sufficient food is what retards the earthworms population in most gardens and croplands.

Assuming that soil factors are favorable, an Alabama Jumper population will grow only insofar as additional organic matter is incorporated into the soil. This may come in the form of compost, manure, decaying plants, or organic wastes of a wide variety. It may be added to the soil and tilled in, or grown in the soil and then plowed under. Any way it is added, organic matter is essential to encouraging greater numbers of earthworms in the soil. In addition once an earthworm population has been increased, enough organic matter must be supplied periodically in order to maintain that increase.

Ensure that you have plenty of leaves, hay, or any organic material in place before adding these worms so that these critters have a good food supply. Ensure your soil is moist then add worms right before the sun goes down.  Distrubute your worms evenly and cover with soil.


Adding Alabama Jumpers to soil


Where can I raise worms?

Earthworms need only a few requirements in which to successfully live and breed. These requirements are moisture, darkness, and food. These conditions can be found in any outdoor compost pile, which is definitely the easiest type of worm system to maintain. But, because these requirements are so easily produced, many people choose to build a bin they can keep indoors, which also has its advantages.

Worm Bins

Worm Factory 4 TrayMany people who are new to raising earthworms begin raising them in a Do-It-Yourself plastic storage bin or a manufactured worm bin system. The convenience of portability along with the fact that most folks will not be raising populations in the tens of thousands makes the indoor worm bin system an easy project.  And for those Earthworm mixing the earthwho are contemplating raising worms on a large scale, the worm bin is a smart way to learn how to raise them in a controlled environment before making a big investment. Because the extremes of heat and cold climates can be harmful to earthworms, raising them indoors ensures that their environment will always be climate controlled.  You can put the bin in your garage (if cool), basement, closet, spare bedroom or your porch. If you decide to keep your bin outside, keep it away from direct sunlight.  For those of you living in the south, putting your bin outside may be too hot during the summer months -- the combination of heat and humidity definitely becomes a factor when raising earthworms in a plastic bin that isn't designed to insulate against that kind of weather.

Check out the Get Started web page to learn how to build your own do-it-yourself bin. If you don't want to build your own, I also offer an excellent product made from recycled plastic right here in the U.S.A.  It is called the Worm Factory Worm Bin and it is an upward migration, multi-tiered system.  For more info, check out the Worm Factory Worm Bin web page.

Good To KnowIf you decide to keep your worm bin in the garage keep in mind that worms will bake in a closed garage with no air conditioning.   I can tell you from personal experience that earthworms will not do well in a plastic storage container sitting in a hot garage with temperatures exceeding 100° F in the middle of the summer. Plastic bins are not insulated so the hot ambient air temperature will easily transfer to the contents of your bin.  If you don't have a basement, keep them in a utility or spare bedroom.

Compost Pile

Hey all of you gardeners out there -- did you know that earthworms are the most efficient composters in nature? Your pile will be composted ten times faster with earthworms than without them. One of the advantages of a maintaining a garden compost pile is that the finished vermicompost is conveniently close to your fruits and vegetables. Making a compost pile is easy -- just get yourself some chicken wire and make a simple enclosure (this is optional), find a nice shady spot, rake up some dead leaf or grass mulch and add some kitchen scraps.  Water thoroughly and add earthworms in a week or two.  You can add any of the three types of composting worms listed above to your compost pile. You'll even discover that your compost pile will begin to attract a lot of the native species of worms you have in your yard (this only applies to areas that have native species -- some places may not have earthworms such as New Mexico and Arizona).  To add them to your pile simply dig a hole in the top of your pile, place your worms in the hole, and cover them up. You'll want to keep your pile watered, but not soggy as this could make you pile heat up too fast.

Good To Know When you turn your pile use a pitch fork if you have one.   You will always run the risk of injuring or killing a few worms when you turn your pile, but a pitch fork is less intrusive than a shovel and will keep your losses to a minimum.

What size bin do I use?

You will want a bin that gives enough space to house your worms and bedding. For do-it-yourselfers, an 18 gallon (give or take 2 gallons) bin is a good size to start with.  Starting with 3 pounds of worms gives you a good amount to process your kitchen scraps. This amount also allows enough room for your earthworms to reproduce as your worm bin can hold upwards to around 9 pounds of worms.

Use only opaque bins. See-through bins will stress your earthworms as they will continually dig toward the center of your bin trying to get away from light.

If you choose to go with a Worm Factory you will need to assess how many trays and how many pounds of worms you want to begin with. If you have any questions please to not hesitate to contact Worms4Earth!

What kind of bedding do I use for my bins?

There are several types of bedding that you can use.  I'll outline the most popular types and list some pros and cons of each type.

Shredded Paper

Red wiggler in paper bedding A readily available source of bedding is newspaper. You will need to shred the paper before putting it in your bin.  You can hand shred it or use machine shredded paper. In my opinion, though, hand shredding is better as it doesn't clump or get matted together. If you choose to hand shred your paper make sure the strips are no greater that 2-3 inches wide.  You will also need to moisten the paper before adding it to your bin.  You can mist it with a spray bottle or soak it and wring out so it isn't soggy.  One of the advantages of paper is that worms can survive in it without adding any kitchen scraps. But, although they won't starve to death eating just paper, a paper-only diet will produce very small worms.

Pros:  Readily available, clean, no dust, odorless, easily prepared (if machine shredded).
Cons: Tends to matte, making it difficult to bury waste, preparation time (if hand shredded).

Peat or Sphagnum Moss

Peat/Sphagnum Moss This has long been the composter's choice for raising earthworms.  It has excellent moisture retention and is readily available from your local garden or home improvement store.  You will need to moisten the peat before adding to your bin.  Soak until completely saturated, then squeeze until just damp like a sponge.  And... although worms will consume peat, you must add other food such as kitchen scraps or paper because peat has no nutritive value.

Pros: Readily available, retains moisture.
Cons: Recognized as being environmentally unsustainable, can be acidic.

Good To Know Because peat can to be slightly acidic, I recommend soaking your peat for 24 hours before putting in your worm bin OR adding a cup of lime to the water if you don't want to soak for that long (the calcium in the lime raises the pH).  You can also add a 1-2 teaspoons of lime to the kitchen scraps each time you add food to your bin.  Crushed eggshells will also raise the pH.

Good To KnowIf you choose to add lime to your bin, make sure you don't buy slaked/hydrated lime. Slaked and hydrated are toxic and will burn your earthworms.  Slaked/hydrated lime is used in making mortar and cement.

Manure

Manure can be used as either bedding or food and is generally used for outdoor worm beds and compost piles.  You can use rabbit manure, composted cow or horse manure to top off your bin if you use peat as bedding. Rabbit manure is especially attractive for worm farmers because it is a "cold" manure -- it does not need to sit for weeks composting before adding to your worm bin. The manure already contains loads of microorganisms that earthworms thrive on. Earthworms LOVE manure and thrive on the nutrients available within it.  Manure is a natural habitat for composting worms and contain many of the organisms vital to an earthworm's growth.

Pros: Highly nutritional, often free when obtained from local stables or farms.
Cons: Fresh cow and horse manure will heat up when fresh and needs to compost several weeks before use. May contain de-worming drugs.

Good To KnowThere is one potential downside to using horse and cow manure;  if the animals were given de-worming drugs this could be fatal to your worms.  Any amount of de-worming drug the animal's body did not absorb will be present in their stool.  A good rule of thumb is to only use composted manure that is at least two months old.

Coconut Coir

Coconut Fiber Coconut fiber, or coir, is a renewable material that comes primarily from India and Sri Lanka. It is becoming more popular with organic composters as well as the hydroponic growing industry.   It may be a bit pricier that some other bedding material, but you will be satisfied to know that you are using a renewable of bedding when compared to peat moss. But, just like peat, your worms cannot survive in coconut fiber alone.

Pros: Clean, odorless, mixes well with other bedding, retains moisture well, renewable source.
Cons: More expensive than other bedding material, more difficult to obtain.

Good To KnowIt is always a good idea to "turn" or "fluff" your bedding at least once a week.  You can do this by digging down to the bottom and bringing the bedding to the top.   This ensures that plenty of air is in contact with the contents of your bin.  You want your bedding to have plenty of oxygen so decomposition remains accelerated, plus it makes it easier for your worms to crawl through it.

Feeding - What, How, and How Much?

What do I feed earthworms?

The earthworm is an eating machine. It literally eats the earth as it burrows through it. Material that is too large to ingest will be pushed aside with its "head" (prostomium). Worms don't have teeth, so the material they eat is first moistened in their mouth then passed into their gizzard which acts like teeth and grinds the food. The food is then passed to their intestines which absorb the nutrients contained within. Whatever the worm doesn't digest is then passed out of their bodies as nitrogen rich worm castings.

Good To KnowAn important fact to know about feeding your earthworms is that they thrive on the microscopic organisms that live on the decomposing organic matter they ingest.  These organisms include a variety of algae, fungi and bacteria that are essential for the worm's growth.


When it comes to kitchen scraps, worms will consume just about everything you do, with the exception of a few.  I outlined below the biggest "don'ts" -- anything that is not listed should be ok to add to your bin or compost pile.  If you are unsure, the best rule of thumb is don't use it.

Do Not Feed Worms the Following:

  • Meat and Bones - Decaying meat produces offensive odor. May attract flies, rodents, ants and other non-desired pests. Bones will not be processed by worms.
  • Salty snack food or Fast food - Big Macs, potato chips, french fries and olives are a few examples.  You can soak salty foods overnight, pour off the water, then feed to your earthworms.
  • Pet feces - Dog or cat feces do not belong in your worm bin as they are not properly processed manure. May contain viral or bacterial toxins.
  • Green grass - A big mass of yard clippings will decompose thermophilically and will create high temperatures that are harmful.
  • Alcohol - Very toxic.
  • Excess citrus fruit - Citrus fruit contains a substance called limonene that can be toxic to earthworms in large quantities.  You can throw in some orange peels -- just not 15 oranges at once!
  • Old pressure-treated wood - The active ingredient is cyanide which is toxic to worms in small quantities.

How Do I Feed Earthworms?

When you feed them your kitchen scraps don't distribute the food evenly throughout the bin. Instead, put the food in the corner about halfway down into the bin. Then cover and check back in a week. You will notice that a lot of your worms will have gathered in the area you put the food! When the food is almost gone you can repeat in the opposite corner of the bin.
Good To KnowTo speed the composting process you can chop up or boil your kitchen scraps.  Raw veggies like broccoli and carrots take time to break down -- chopping or boiling sraps create greater surface area as well as soften and break down fibrous material, making the food more readily available to your worms.

How to feed your worm bin with kitchen scraps


How much do I feed earthworms?

Just as important as what to feed your worms is how much.  If you have researched the internet you will find a ton of data stating that worms will eat half of their body weight daily.  This is a half-truth -- as worms crawl throughout the soil they can ingest half of their body weight a day, but not all of what they consume will necessarily be from the kitchen scaps you are feeding them.  A simple way to determine how much to give them is to make a fist -- note how big your fist is and put that much food in your bin.  Check back in a week, note how much is left and add more when needed. You will soon get a feel for how much your worms are consuming and will be able to add more food accordingly.

Good To KnowA quick note about overfeeding -- too much kitchen food packed together may become anaerobic and heat up your bin.  If you notice that your worms seem to be trying to escape your bedding may be too hot.  To cool it down, remove some of the decomposing food.  Remember, the smaller your kitchen scraps are, the faster they will be consumed. Another clue that you have too much kitchen scraps is if it begins to stink.  If your bin becomes smelly simply remove some of the scraps, or redistribute half to the other side of your bin.

Raising Bait Worms

If you are raising larger worms such as European or African Nightcrawlers for fishing bait, you will want to approach growing your earthworms like a farmer.  Simply feeding them your kitchen scraps won't be enough to get them as big and fat as you'll want.  You'll need to feed them a steady diet of food such as manure and grains.  I recommend seeing if your local feed store carries Flint River Mills Cricket and Worm Feed or Purina Worm Chow.  If they don't carry it or can't order you any, try the Rabbit Chow.  Remember, raising big fat bait worms will take more focus on your part when compared to just raising them for composting.

Good To Know Be careful when it come to giving your worms grain-based feed. If it is corn based you could potentially harm your worms due to the high sugar content which may turn into alcohol through the fermentation process.


Harvesting the Worm Castings

When to Harvest the Castings

Separate bedding into several smaller piles After a measure of time that can be from between 1 to several months (depending on worm population density) you will notice that most of the original bedding has been converted into a rich, dark earthy material.  This dark material is the worm castings, also known as vermipost. When most of the original bedding has been consumed it is time to move your worms into a fresh bin of bedding.

How to Harvest the Castings

So now that it is time to harvest your worm castings you will need a tarp or sheet of plastic large enough to pour the contents of your bin upon. Choose and area with a good amount of indirect light, empty your bin onto the tarp, then separate the big pile into several smaller piles. Give the worms about an hour to crawl to the bottom of the each pile (if you do this under direct sunlight cut you wait time in half).  Then carefully scoop up the "wormless" vermipost and place its own container.  Now take your exposed worms and put them in a freshly bedded bin.  It may be a little cumbersome at first, but you will get faster with practice.

The Pile Method


The Sift Method


What is Worm Tea?

Worm tea is a solution made from worm castings and water. Think of what happens when you make tea with a tea bag; when you place a tea bag in water, the properties of the tea leaves leach into the water. The same hold true with worm castings.  When you soak worm castings in water the castings are diluted and the beneficial micronutrients and microorganisms contained within are transferred to the water.  This solution gives your plants and an instant boost of energy and nutrition.  Not only can you feed the roots, you can use a spray bottle and feed the leaves as well.  As the worm tea soaks into the soil, the nutrients and beneficial organisms are evenly dispersed into the soil and substrate. Your soil is now is teeming with molecules that your plants need to sustain healthy and productive life cycles!

Summary

Raising earthworms takes a bit of patience and care.  Remember, they are living creatures that require cool, moist bedding and food they can digest.  If you follow the tips I've given you, you shouldn't have any problems. The biggest mistake that beginners tend to make is overfeeding.  If you're unsure, give a little less, pay attention, and feed them more when necessary.