The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Happy worms

Worm castings

I've been mulling over our school worm bin project ever since I pronounced it a failure, and I think one of the reasons I found it so easy to throw in the towel is because the worms just weren't happy.  The school food that ended up on our farm seemed to be slightly better than what I was served as a student, but it was still overly processed, starchy, and oily, and the worms were lingering rather than multiplying on such substandard fare.  I didn't realize this at the time --- I just had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I opened the worm bin lid after the first month or so.

Worms in fresh manureAfter the school food stopped coming, I tossed ten gallons of moderately fresh horse manure in the bin, then another ten gallons two weeks later.  The worms quickly migrated up into the manure and their population exploded.  The two and a half week old manure is still full of worms, but its appearance has already changed over to nearly pure castings (the photo at the top of the page), in stark contrast to the three month old food scraps in which I can still pick out the shape of the food.  So this is what a healthy worm bin is supposed to look like!

For future reference, I had tried to pick out the most worm-worthy food to put in the bin, but there just wasn't much of it, and this is what I'd been feeding the worms (in rough order of amount):

Compost wormsYou would have thought that the worms would have at least been pleased with the fruits and vegetables, but the truth is that the only thing they actually seemed to be enjoying was fresh spinach.  The mashed potatoes, especially, caused anaerobic pockets that quickly turned moldy and that the worms fled from.

The moral of the story is that run of the mill food scraps aren't very healthy for worms.  Makes you wonder, though --- if the worms won't eat this food, should our community's children?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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...and for those that really do wonder about school lunches and what the heck we're feeding our kids, there's a really good blog that talks about it:
Comment by Jennifer Mon May 23 09:21:51 2011
I know what you mean. On the other hand, I have to wonder how much worse school lunches really are than those same kids' diets at home. I had to make Mark take over the grocery shopping because the items in peoples' carts disturbed me so much. We're not complete purists, but when someone's grocery cart is completely full of white bread, soda, ice cream, etc., with absolutely nothing vegetable or fruit related, I have to cringe.
Comment by anna Mon May 23 11:22:07 2011
You would cringe at my shopping too. From the regular grocer I really only buy yogurt, beans and pasta, flour, cocoa, sugar and organic apple pie. But that is because I get most of my vegetables as either frozen organic from trader joes or wait till sunday when the farmers market opens. I get my milk and meat from either the farmers market or the organic food store so at this point I go shopping at 3-4 different stores a week just to find decent food that I can almost afford. I find standard grocery fruits and veggies are so pathetic they make me sick.
Comment by Rebecca Mon May 23 13:43:04 2011

You're totally right --- I have no clue what people actually eat just from looking at their cart. That's why I'm a bad shopper. :-)

I also know what you mean about the grocery store produce. We had to buy some broccoli there last week because we were so low on veggies in the garden and I was shocked at how awful it was. I can't figure out if grocery store veggies were always so bad and I never noticed until I was spoiled from homegrown vegetables, or if there's been a real decline in quality.

Comment by anna Mon May 23 14:14:59 2011

I'm curious about your addition of horse manure to your worm bin. I'm wondering if all that food just needed an additional carbon source like straw or wood shavings to balance out all food. In my own compost bin, I try to layer leaves, grass clippings, and even a scoop of soil when I add a lot of food, and this seems to help things break down better. I would expect that the worms would benefit from other filler and bedding as well. I know that you were adding shredded paper, but perhaps it wasn't enough to balance all the food. I have been planning a worm bin for later this summer, so I'm curious if what you think may have been done to make your experiment successful.

Bentley over at has actually had a similar failure from getting food waste from a local restaurant (see But in the process, he has developed the idea of building vermicomposting trenches to handle all of the composting food and additional materials. As the pile breaks down and nutrients are released into the soil, it benefits the nearby plants, which can be planted right next to the trench. Sounds like a very interesting idea! (I am always intrigued by reducing work... you never have to dig and move the compost since it is right where you want it)

Comment by David Tue May 24 23:45:02 2011

The amount of carbon wasn't a problem --- I layered shredded paper above, below, and around the food waste. However, the type of carbon might have been. They seemed to like shredded newspaper better than the other types of paper and cardboard I sometimes had to use.

You might be interested in worm towers as a low work way of getting worm castings into the garden. I've considered giving it a try, but I'm 99% sure I'd just end up with our dog tearing up the whole garden bed to get to the food scraps. :-)

Comment by anna Wed May 25 06:57:38 2011

I tried it out two different times and what I eventually decided was that it was taking up too much of my time to produce such a small amount of compost. I produce about 55 gallons of compost every 3 months via my normal composting methods and it takes me no time and costs me nothing and I don't have to shred paper or cardboard.

But I do still believe in worms. I use them as an indicator of soil health. When I till ground for the first time I notice that the worms are very small and not very energetic. They also are never located in the top inch of the soil, they're usually a few inches down. But when I work the soil in my established beds I find more worms and they are big and fat and they are moving their behinds to get out of my way. So I still love 'em, I just choose not to baby them anymore.

I'm sure many are very happy with vermicomposting, especially those in small apartments. But I have a huge garden and need a lot of compost. So I don't bother with it anymore.

Comment by diggitydog Mon Jun 6 15:17:01 2011
Using worms to compost horse manure and bedding seems to be one of the few cases where I'd recommend them to folks working on a large scale. Since the bedding is mixed in with the manure, there's no need to add extra paper, and the worms seem thrilled with the substrate!
Comment by anna Mon Jun 6 17:31:38 2011
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