Seedybeans Blog

Celebrating the Humble Harvests of High Desert Homesteading

Backyard or schoolyard composting with worms

(This post is photo free as per the challenging malfunction of uploading for some strange reason.  Please enjoy anyway and maybe some day I will add pretty pictures when all is right again)

 Yes, compost IS the most natural thing in the world.  It will happen with very little inputs from us if we leave it alone—- BUT it will happen much slower than we may want and if we introduce critters to help us, like worms, we need to care for them so they have what they need to do their work for us.

Here in New Mexico I have seen a lot of compost piles, mostly functional, but often VERY dry & carbon rich, taking years for folks to actually be able to use their compost.  Another problem with dry compost piles is that they become habitat for mice and then of course snakes and attract unwanted visitors like skunks raccoons, etc.. 

There is often the other extremes too, where people buy expensive worm hotels or compost tumblers and simply don’t tend to them often enough for them to work and thus get discarded or donated to someone who has more time to tend to these things.

Very rarely have I see home gardeners make aerobic piles at home because the require lots of turning to keep the heat necessarily for aerobic decomposition.  Often we don’t have the nitrogen, in the form of green matter, food waste or manure at home that one needs to create a really hot and steamy pile.  If you do however, or feel dedicated to gathering the materials for such an endeavor, I highly recommend it and love the rich results.

After all I have seen and composting in many a school and backyard, I would like to humbly recommend the mighty worm to do the work.  Vermicomposting as it is techniquely called is my favorite system, as it is simple, easy and takes little input, seriously does compost your food waste year round into beautiful rich useable compost. 

Steps involved to making a Vermicompost System

Creating the space-First things first– you must provide habitat for the worms to live and eat your garbage.   If you want to do an indoor worm bin in a big Tupperware or wooden container it works wonderfully, but I will direct you to this really clear video on U Tube to tell you exactly how to do that.  It works great for classrooms and apartments and keeps the worms nice and warm.  U Tube Worm Bin Info

If you choose to compost outside read on, but remember DO NOT use a totally contained space for the worms outside in the winter— If they get below 50 degrees they will freeze.  If however they are in a pile that is open on the ground, they can burrow up to 6 ft.  This means they are a lot less active, but rarely disappear all together. 

The most common and least expensive outdoor container is a square made from 4 straw bales, creating walls but you are composting directly on the ground.  They cost about $5 each from the Feed Bin and can be purchased at any feed store around town.   Straw is good because worms eat it, it provides insulation while providing airflow, and are cheap and local.  Once you have them you will want to find a shady spot to put them in, under a tree, or behind the north side of building.  This keeps the pile cooler and thus you will need to water it less frequently.  Full sun will work, but remember worms live in total darkness and like the cool temperatures of the earth.  If the pile is to hot, it will dry out at least at the top and most likely the worms will dig pretty deep and you will need to water it often.  It had a pile at Monte del Sol School that got generous sun, so I put mini sprinklers on it that cam eon once a day for 30 minutes.  This worked wonderfully, especially because of the volume of the pile, but may be over kill for your system.   Once you have your spot you can add your worms, organic waste, bedding and moisture.

Where to get worms?-  Now getting the worms does cost a little, about $20 for a sack of them, which is plenty for the beginnings of any schoolyard or backyard pile!!!  You can get them from Sam McCarthy at the Santa Fe farmers market and a little chat with him and you need not read further, but this is pretty much written from what he taught me.  You could also call him 986-3415.  If you can’t find him, many folks have worms and if they are given the right conditions, they reproduce like crazy so most people who have them, can spare a few.  A zip lock sandwich bag with a few generous handfuls should be plenty to start you off. 

Food-  Most food scraps from your kitchen a worm can eat just fine, old lentil soup, left over peanut butter and jelly, carrot tops, tea bags… you get the point.  Instead of providing a list, of everything you CAN put in, I will simply say, size does matter– The smaller the food pieces are, the more palatable for your little toothless worms.  If you have kids you can have them break the waste into little pieces, tearing orange peels to shreds or old cabbage leaves can be great fun and takes little skill.  Some people even put their compost in the food processor before feeding it to the worms, which is kind, but not necessary.  I pull up some cabbage stalks this Sept and threw them in the pile and there they remind, looking the same as they day I put them there, thick as my arm and barely nibbled.  I am sure the worms will get to them someday, but it might be a while.

More Importantly What NOT to put in your worm bin.

Meat        Bones        Fats

This is mainly because bigger animals like these things better than worms and will be attracted to your pile quickly if these things are added.  Worms can a will actually eat meat so if some slips in there, no need to panic, it isn’t just ideal because of kids, smells and the like.  A worm can digest oils and cheese, though not easily so it is more likely they will can mold, rot and stink, so better to avoid it. 


People ask about eggshells and I have found they are too hard for worms to eat whole.  They can be crushed and added and will provide grit for the worms, necessary to help digest things in their gizzards.  If you collect them separately, they dry and crush very easily and are not only for the worms but also for your garden.

Avocado pits, citrus rinds and corncobs & husks

In excess you will want to keep these out of your pile.  They will all break down, but much slower than the rest of your pile so find another way to dispose of them.  Or you could put them in, and when harvest comes use them as a teaching tool to show the kids what takes while to break down.

Plastic, metal, trash, etc

You all know if it didn’t come from the ground, it isn’t gonna go back into it. 

Grit-Tiny solid particles help the breaking down of food in a worm’s gizzard.  It doesn’t seem necessary to go out of your way to add this, but if you know they are not getting anything like it, you may want to.  When I worked at the Santa Fe Children’s Museum, we added cornmeal to the worm bin, as we weren’t adding much else.  Other things like, soil, ground eggshells, coffee grounds and powdered limestone will all work well.

Bedding– Bedding is where the worms sleep of course, and work and live.  They also eat there bedding for a balance diet of carbon and nitrogen.  What bedding also does it holds moisture, provides an airy environment and covers them up from the light of the world.  You always want to open up the bedding, add the food and cover them back up with bedding so they are never exposed to too much light.  If you have the straw bales, straw will do.  You can buy an extra bale to tear from and add as you go.  If you are at a school, shredded paper might be a serious by product you need help getting rid of, and perfect for worms.  You can also have your students tear up newspaper, cardboard (a little challenging) and egg cartons.  It can be time consuming, but lots of fun.  You can also use saw dust, wood chips, newspaper, manure, old leaves and grass clippings though of course making sure none have any chemical residue in them.  Before you add the bedding, it is good to moisten it, or you can just spray the pile down when making it.  Water is key for a healthy habitat, so your bedding should always feel moist to the touch.

Moisture-Yes we don’t have much of it here in NM and though you must have access to water near your worm bin.  Water is imperative for a worm, as it breathes through it’s skin which must be moist at all times.  (That is why a worm wriggles in your hand—it is getting hot and dry and struggling for breath.)  Luckily you do not need to water worm pile as much as aerobic piles, and depending on how much sun it is getting, it may stay pretty moist if in the shade.  Most food scraps have moisture in them, but the bedding itself will suck it up.  You want your pile to appear moist but you never want to actually see water.  It should feel cool a moist is if pick it, up, though you probably won’t want to do that too often.  My pile is under a tree and whenever I take out the compost, I wash the bucket with water (rain water is ideal, but tap will do).  I dump the whole bucket of water in, right on top of my food deposit and cover it back up with dirt and bedding.  I also dump tea and coffee into my compost bucket in the kitchen if I don’t finish drinking it.  When I am out in the garden I may spray down the pile, but I think I only intentionally watered it for more than a few minutes, maybe twice this summer.  In the winter I don’t water at all beyond the rinse, as I worry too much water would freeze and create a bad situation for the worms.  Hopefully you will be digging in and adding food at least once a week.  When you are in there, take a good look for moisture.  If you don’t find worms and things look flaky and dry, you know what to do.  It is hard to describe, but you will get the hang of it with observation.

On another moisture note—Sam- the worm guy- told me if the worm bin were too dry you would know because you will have mice nesting there, especially in the winter.  He said, “ If it is moist enough for a worm, it is too moist for a mouse.”

Temperature—Like I mentioned earlier, worms are happiest around 50 degrees.  In the winter you will see less action and may have to dig deeper to find them, but they will stay alive with food, moisture and some insulation.  Straw bales are especially good for this.  If you don’t see them, keep feeding; they have probably just burrowed down for the cold spell. 

Now with all that info you should feel at least interested, if not inspired to start your own pile.  It really is so simple.  After this long article I will admit to you that my worm pile is really just that, a pile, no straw bales or nothing.  What started as a shallow hole in ground is now just a moving mountain of worms.  I just dig in an open up a spot, add food and water and cover it back up.  The worms go right to it.  It has been there for two years and I keep meaning to move a harvest it, but it is all so effort less, I haven’t bothered yet.  I think I started with a handful of worms and haven’t added any since; in fact I give them away.  So really you need close to nothing to have a worm pile, just a little space, some food and water and interest in throwing out less garbage.


Worms Eat My Garbage By Mary Appelhof- The basic worm book

The Worm Café- Binet Payne- A great book for school yard vermicomposting with half the book dedicated to curriculum.

Let it Rot- Stu Campbell- Really helpful book on composting in all forms

All a must have in my library



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