Cheap and Free ways to start vermicomposting

plumiebear(z9? CA)September 30, 2010

This is a slightly different twist on pjames' Cheap and Friendly Vermicomposting thread. I think the original intent of that discussion was to get folks started with cocoons that could be mailed for ~$1. For those of us who are not good at spotting cocoons, we can ship a cup or two of 1/8" screened vermicompost from a high worm density bin (total package weighing less than a pound) for ~$5. There are sure to be enough cocoons in such material to start a small worm bin. However, when it starts to cost more than $10 or takes multiple shipments to get one person started, it sort of defeats the whole concept. Again, this is not meant to derail pjames' "pay it forward" vibe. I'm both a beneficiary and a participant in that movement. This is just a summary of ideas for people to consider.

I'm sure this topic has been brought up repeatedly through the years in this forum, but times change and sometimes new methods become available. I'll start with ideas for ways to find free composting worms and then throw in a few sources that cost less than $20. Feel free to add other ideas and make suggestions on how to improve ones already listed. Stories of success or failure are also welcome.

Obviously the ideas listed here will require more effort and time. Remember to use email & phone calls before wasting gas to drive around chasing leads. If you do NOT "have more time than money", then consider putting aside a dollar a day in a can/envelope/piggy bank. You'll have enough to order a full pound of worms in a month. The waiting time could be used to prepare the worm bin and get a good microbial ecosystem going in the bedding.

Friends & neighbors who have compost bins: Ask if they would allow you to dig to the bottom of their compost bin/pile and collect some composting worms. Be sure you know how to tell the difference between a burrowing worm and a composting worm. The former will not be happy in a worm bin.

Farms or horse stables: Ask if they have any old manure piles (horse, cow, rabbits, llamas, etc.) and if they would allow you to dig around to look for worms. If you find them, ask if you could also take some of the old manure.

Freecycle & Craigslist: Ask members of these two online communities if anyone can spare you a "cup of worms". Make a good case for why you want to compost with worms and why you can't afford to buy the worms. Post a photo of a prepared worm bin if have a good home, just need some worms.

Bait worms: Again, you will need to know how to identify the worms. Traditional Canadian nightcrawlers will not work in a worm bin. By most accounts, Walmart now sells E. hortensis (European nightcrawlers). $3 for 30 worms. They may or may not be refrigerated. Some may not be in great shape, but usually at least a dozen will survive longer than a week. Someone on another forum counted over 100 cocoons from 25 bait worms in 1 month. I'm guessing he'll have over a pound in 6 months and 4 lbs. after a year.

$1 bag of composted steer manure: This one is a bit of a crap shoot. I had one of these bags sitting in my garden for months. It was opened, only 3/4 full and had gotten wet. It had quite a number of red worms. I bought another bag recently, but it was dry and had no worms. I've put it on the ground in a shady spot and will keep it moist. I don't know if there are already cocoons in the bag or if "wild" E. fetida will find their way into the bag. I'll have to wait and see.

$18 for 1/2 lb. E. fetida: I don't know how reliable this worm seller is, but this is the cheapest shipped price I've seen for a good quantity of worms.

1/2 lb. 'Starter Pack' Red Worms Bedrun - $19.95 This worm seller has a good reputation. You can call them to confirm, but my understanding is the worms come packed in a good quantity of their vermicompost bedding (including cocoons and babies). The worms are weighed "naked" before being added back to their bedding.

Remember when you are starting small that a small bin will allow the worms to more easily find each other to mate. Mason jars with cotton cloth for lids, plastic containers with plenty of air holes, anything from between a quart and a gallon in size. Absolutely no direct sunlight! Put clear containers in a paper bag or cardboard box. Feed by the teaspoon...once a week. Keep moist. Fill ~75% with damp egg carton/cardboard bedding and literally a pinch of garden soil or sand. Add some old leaves if you have them.

Happy hunting and good luck.


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Andrew ... thanks for the synopsis of economic start up methods.

There are some differences in requirements/challenges/expectations/methods between in-ground 'beds' and man-made 'bins'.

My in-ground bin started with worms harvested from my compost pile and horse manure pile. So I can verify those sources. My sister started her in-ground pit with 'red wriggler' bait worms from WalMart. In both of our cases, the population increase has been amazing.

What you said about bagged steer manure is interesting. I've been feeding my worm pit a combo of steer,kitchen scraps, and paper products and the rapid populatin increase might be, in part, due to cacoons in the steer manure.

    Bookmark   October 1, 2010 at 2:10PM
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Andrew..I applaud your coverage. I can not think of another cheap source of worms other than talking to a coworker over coffee and find they are into vermicomposting. (Which is rare indeed.)

Personally I think anybody considering worms should consider a couple thoughts. 1. Are they in it to get rid of stuff that might be filling landfills (the 'save the planet' idea) 2 Do they want vermicompost/castings for their own organic gardening efforts. or 3. Are they into the fishing/commercial aspect by either growing their own bait or selling bait/worms for composting to to others. or like me, a combination of the above who really has no idea of direction...

The answer to the question should clarify the approach. If they want a flow thru or a simple bin. Outside or inside. Haphazard or controlled. Which brings me to my next thread.... I have been asked what is the best way to utilize the cocoons you have sent me?

    Bookmark   October 1, 2010 at 6:13PM
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eaglesgarden(6b - se PA)

My reasons for composting are:

First, to help my own gardening efforts. Not so much for the sake of saving the planet (although that's nice too), but for the sake of saving some money! Having dual control of the finances with my wife, we at times disagree about where the money should be spent. If I can get fertilizer for no expenditure of money, then I get as much room in the yard as necessary for my gardening adventures. Vermicomposting is just another extension of this system - but she'd prefer it be outside. So, an outdoor space is to be dedicated to worming!

Second, for school the vermicomposting (and standard composting) are in an effort to teach students the beauty of the carbon cycle in a much more elegant and convincing way. We currently have a small veggie garden, and adding the composting piece is just the next logical step. Having vermicomposting available will enable the students to study composting up close, even in the winter months. Who knows, maybe some students will like the idea enough to actually do it themselves at home. And maybe they will see how easy a "Victory" garden can actually be, and more importantly (at least for me) how much better the veggies taste straight out of your own garden, when you grew them yourself!

    Bookmark   October 2, 2010 at 9:08AM
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I wonder if I start vermicomposting and add orchard waste, leaves and fallen fruit, would I get double benefit? In addition to composting might it help in pest control for the orchard. Normally it is suggested to clean up and dispose of fruits and leaves to reduce infestations. Would the pest insects, fungus etc return from the compost to reinfest my trees?

    Bookmark   December 4, 2010 at 2:11AM
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There has been research to show that passing stuff (even pathogen containing material like human waste) through worms or by hot composting will or can 'detoxify' the material. Would I trust that completely? Not me.

I figure some material is not going to be composted completely. However, that being said, I would not hesitate to use all the orchard waste I had for worm food.

My present system is to put all my compostable garbage into a bin. I use a tumbler so it is well mixed. As I need worm food, I pull a bucketful out of that bin and feed my worms.

I will use any of that vermicompost or castings on food crops for my own consumption.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2010 at 5:12PM
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plumiebear(z9? CA)

"Would the pest insects, fungus etc return from the compost to reinfest my trees?"

Dan, my policy has been to let my county yard waste recycling system process leaves, branches & trimmings from diseased plants. You could try hot composting such material first if you don't have a local recycling program. I may try spraying with vermicompost tea next year to see if that helps prevent certain diseases and pests.


    Bookmark   December 6, 2010 at 4:00PM
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ellicottcitycathy(7a/baltimore suburb)

I was lucky to start last spring with some local worm composters that I found on craigslist. They sold me some worms and a bin for a very reasonable price (one was $35 and one was $20). Not free, but almost.

My worms must be very happy, all they do is eat and reproduce to their hearts content. Now I have four bins and I've set up three other teachers at school with bins as well. Now that my kids are older, I'm recycling the old RM totes that we used for toys.

If you can drive over and pick them up then I'm happy to set up any newbies with worms in the DC/Balt area. Just send an email.

    Bookmark   December 20, 2010 at 10:54AM
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My mother in law teaches middle school kids up on the Navajo reservation, and has a small grant from Target to do composting. She said she knows a woman who will sell her a worm farm for $200, and I said, "oh no, I will give you half my worms for free. Scrounge a rubbermade tub and you're good to go." I'm gonna get her so set up with happy squirm in vermicompost for the cocoons and microherd, partially finished compost from another bin, and plenty of shredded cardboard, which they seem to love to make babies in, all in a 5 gallon bucket for the ride up to the land of the Navajo. I'm sure they'll be happy to free of the constant threat of being fed to my chickens.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2010 at 3:53AM
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The cheapest worm farm is the traditional tire stack.

Here is a link that might be useful: Stacked Tire Worm Farms

    Bookmark   December 22, 2010 at 1:20AM
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