ask-ruth-pictureDear Ruth,

I want to start composting my kitchen scraps, but I live alone and don’t generate that many scraps. Do you have any suggestions?

Sally in Brevard

Dear Sally,
YES! A few years ago I moved to Asheville from Madison County. In Madison County I had plenty of room, and I wasn’t concerned about attracting raccoons and critters to my compost pile ~ plus I had dogs that patrolled the yard. When I moved to town, I was worried that unwanted creatures would show up for meals at my (potential) compost pile. I couldn’t bear to throw my kitchen scraps in the trash, so I started a worm bin.

Luckily for me, some of my friends set me up with everything I needed. My friend Stacia provided the worms, and my friends Jeff vermicompost& Annie gave me a ready-to-go bin. It was super simple, and the worms went to work right away. Just in case you don’t know this, vermicompost (worm poop) is called black gold! Worm castings are hopping with wonderful microbial activity. Even if you have a big compost pile, you might want to consider a little vermicomposting on the side. Something special happens in the worm’s gut that produces amazing compost.

What you need:

  • A Bin ~ with ½” airholes drilled in the bottom
  • Bedding ~ shredded paper, dead leaves, shredded corrugated cardboard
  • Moisture ~ but not too much
  • Garden Soil ~ 2 handfuls will introduces some grit and microbes to the system
  • Redworms (Eisenia fetida)
  • Kitchen Scraps, or other nitrogen source
  • Blocks or boards ~ elevates the bin to achieve airflow underneath

According to Mary Appelhof, author of Worms Eat My Garbage, your bin should be shallow, rather than deep. Worms tend to feed on the surface. If the matter is too deep, conditions can go anaerobic and the whole process slows way down ~ plus it gets stinky. The worms and microorganisms need oxygen to prosper, and good conditions in your bin will result in a faster turn-around time for compost production.

vermicompost2You can make your bin from exterior-grade plywood (NOT pressure-treated), or you can buy a plastic tub and drill holes in it, or you can purchase something online. Alternatively, you can utilize plastic “chest-of-drawers” (found in box stores) by drilling holes in the bottom of each drawer ~ worms will move up through the drawers toward the fresh material as each drawer of material is composted.

Getting Started: Once you have all your materials together, you need to thoroughly moisten the bedding. The bedding should be damp ~ but not wet ~ and only a few drops of water should be released when you squeeze it. I soaked shredded paper in a bucket of water and then squeezed out the excess water. I fluffed up the moist bedding and spread it out in my bin. Then I added a couple of handfuls of soil, and scrunched it around. Next, I added the worms as evenly as possible. After the worms disappeared into the bedding, I spread my kitchen scraps on top and mixed it into the bedding. Then I closed the top, since (1) worms like darkness, (2) the lid helps maintain moist conditions, and (3) the lid discourages intruders.

Redworms prefers warmish temperatures between 55 to 70 degrees; so most people keep them inside. Basements make great spots for worm bins, though under the kitchen counter is workable too. I have been keeping my worms outside for the last few years. Last winter they were fine until the beginning of March, but that last bit of cold weather finished them off. I looked in my bin and everything seemed strangely quiet. I dug around in the bin and couldn’t find a single worm. Yipes! If your worms are outside James Magee, of Blue Ridge Redworms, suggests that you use plastic garbage bags full of leaves as insulation around, and on top of, your bin.

Harvesting your Black Gold: You need to harvest on a regular basis. The finished compost can begin to get heavy and make it hardvermicompost3 for the worms to move around in the box.

  1. You can push the “finished” compost to one side and add fresh scraps and bedding to the other side. Wait a few days to allow the worms to migrate to the new side, and harvest your compost.
  2. You can dump the contents out and sort through it, separating the worms and fresh matter from the compost.
  3. The simplest ~ Just dump most of it out on your garden. Return about a third of it to the bin, add fresh bedding, and you’re done.

Utilizing the primo compost: Because worm compost is extra wonderful, I usually reserve it for adding to planting holes or to a seed trench. The microbial activity in worm castings will inoculate your soil with beneficial microorganisms, and get your plants off to a great start. Sometimes I use another soil amendment as an extender for spreading a light dusting of worm castings throughout the garden. Scratch worm castings into the soil around existing plantings, or incorporate them into the backfill of new plantings. Vermicompost will not burn plants and can even be used to boost houseplants.

Considerations: Avoid onions, garlic, and citrus; worms don’t like them. James says melons and bread provide a “moist oasis” that worms love. Coffee grounds are one of their favorites. I avoid adding cooked foods and meats to my worm bin. You can use them, but they may stink and attract the attention of critters. Worms don’t have teeth. Some people grind their kitchen waste up in a blender to make it easier for the worms to get to work. I usually crush my eggshells. Definitely don’t give worms any toxic or indigestible material (metals, plastic, chemicals, vegetation with herbicides or pesticides).


Some sources for purchasing redworms:

Blue Ridge Redworms, 828-299-9258, by appointment only

Mary Appelhof’s (author of Worms Eat My Garbage) site: buy worms, bins, books, etc.


Other sources to check out:

Worms Eat My Garbage, by Mary Appelhof (Great book full of info!)

Mary Appelhof’s WormEzine (free newsletter)

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences ~ Kids Pages on worms


To purchase bagged worm castings locally:
Fifth Season, Asheville, NC

Mountain Harvest, Fairview, NC
600 Charlotte Highway, 828.298.9000

New Age Garden Center, Swannanoa, NC

Reems Creek Nursery, Weaverville, NC

I love my worm bin, Sally, and I hope you’ll give it a try!
All my best,

Ask Ruth © 2013 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School

Author: Ruth Gonzalez

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, and local food advocate who wants to see organic farms proliferate and organic gardens in every yard. She also served on the Organic Growers School Board of Directors. In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.