How to Make a Cheap and Portable Worm Compost Bin
Black Gold, Tall Clover Tea: Homegrown worm castings and compost are in your grasp
My interest in worms began at an early age when I realized the creatures had special powers; they could make my sister squeal and lure lake fish to my awaiting hook. The night before our fishing safaris, we would water my grandparents’ lawn, and with the finesse of a jewel thief and speed of a mongoose, pluck up night crawlers escaping from their soggy dens. (Don’t be fooled, the slimy critters are fast.)
Nowadays I appreciate them even more as natural alchemists, turning green garbage into gardening gold. A little red wriggler can breakdown a substantial amount of kitchen scraps– an estimated one quarter to one half pound of waste every day for every pound of worm.
I came up a large capacity do-it-yourself worm bin as a cheap and easy way to enjoy the benefits of vermiculture without a lot of building fuss and preparation. The first worm bin examples are smaller versions from my composting past.
The Green Cone food composter is an great urban solution for food wastes. A hole is dug, the basket dropped in and the top cone and lid attached. Vegetarian food scraps are added daily, and some time later, worm castings and compost can be removed and added to the garden. This system works best with two cones. When cone 1 is full, start supplying cone 2 with edibles. By the time cone 2 is full, cone 1’s contents will be ready for use as a soil amendment or light fertilizer. City of Seattle residents can buy the $100 bin for the subsidized price of $25 or two for $40. It’s a rotting good deal. Learn more.
The Cadillac of Worm Composters is a five-layer tower version that’s a little more complicated and requires closer operational attention. It’s a pricey little bugger at $100, featuring a drain spigot for the removal of excess moisture. I use the coffee-colored liquid as a fertilizing compost tea. Unfortunately this plastic stackable unit couldn’t keep up with my volume of leaves, rinds, peels and stalks.
Tah dah! Being cheap is the mother of my invention. Here’s the solution, an $11.99, 33-gallon plastic waste can on wheels with a locking lid. A few added holes, bedding, and worms, and you’re good to go.
Begin by drilling drain holes on the bottom of the can, which allows liquids to escape. (We’re not trying to create primordial soup here.) At the other end, drill quarter-inch holes in the lid (on both sides) to allow for air circulation and venting. Worms need oxygen, too.
Lid off, line the can with shredded newspaper, then toss in ten inches of peat moss (fine compost and coconut coir work, also). Mix shredded paper into the top four inches and then add your red wriggler worms to the mix with a splash of water. Top the whole thing with your veggie leftovers–old lettuce leaves, apple peels or asparagus ends, etc. (My worms eat well.) Add the lid and lock it in place.
My worm bin sits under a huge, shading fir tree, to keep it cool. There, the little guy-gals (they’re hermaphroditic) do their thing.
Every other time you add plant scraps, toss in some shredded paper for good measure and bedding material.
Tips and things to consider for your Worm Bin Wonder
- The bin needs full shade and to be kept cool
- Get starter worms from friends who already have worm bins
- Coffee grounds can be added to the mix
- Red wrigglers can be purchased at nursery, garden centers or online
- Red wrigglers compost food more quickly than regular earthworms
- Don’t add animal products (though crushed egg shells seem okay)
- Add a layer of shredded paper at least once a week
- Make sure the contents don’t dry out (unlikely in most cases)
- A two bin system works well. When one is full, move to the other and alternate harvesting compost.
- Screen finished compost, return worms to bin and begin process again.
- Spread the compost love around the base of your favorite plants
Your roses will nod with approval.
The ferns will kiss your feet (after suggesting a toenail trim is in order)
UPDATE: Your Worm Bin in Winter
Option 1: Store in non-freezing out building
- Roll the can into a garage or storage shed where temperatures remain above freezing
- Because the can drains, slip a large plastic yard bag over the can about one foot up the side and tape to can.
- Remove bag and drain liquid as it accumulates
- Or place over drain hole
Option 2: Insulate outdoors
- Dig a hole in a garden compost pile
- Set the worm bin inside
- Cover to top rim with leaves or compost
- Cover lid with a couple layers of burlap
- I use green coffee bean bags (The Roasterie is just down the road from me.)
- Decomposition creates warmth and the insulation helps retain it
- City of Seattle: food waste composting
- Washington State University: Everything you ever wanted to know about worm composting
- All about the earthworm and its physiology
Great worm bin tutorial! I have two little worm bins made from stacked Rubbermaids, but I produce too many food scraps for them. Does the trash can get enough air?
Morgan, that’s a really good question. I’m thinking I may add some more air holes just to make sure or enlarge the holes I already have to say a half inch each. So far things look fine, but our weather has been ridiculously cool. As things heat up I’ll keep an eye on it and let you know.
riveting — just like i thought this morning when you told me about it on the phone! RIVETING!!!!
I’m composting for the first time ever this spring, but not with worms. I think I need to read up on this!
Tom, you are awesome! Brilliant idea, love, love it! I must remember the shredded paper once a week…I realise we have not been adding enough other stuff to our compost. Thankyou….you are the composting King!
Tom–what do you do with your can in the winter?
Chandler that’s another great question. I dig a hole in my regular garden compost pile and fit the can into it and cover to surround it with dried leaves and cover the top with with double burlap coffee bags. I’ll draw a diagram and post it tomorrow.
Very interesting, Tom. I’ve never been phobic about worms, but I chuckled at your reference on your special powers. I love that part of your farm where the compost bin is … it looks sooo green and magical. Love the fern, too. We have many (and several varieties) all around our house and in the woods. Hubby cuts around them when he mows the grass. 😉
Tom – great job simplifying – I’ve got to figure out how to keep them cool.
Do you know if you can you use worms for composting in the hot and cold extremes in the Midwest?
Patrick, I think the green cone type worm composter might be the way to go in the extreme temps of the Midwest. My garbage can example would likely heat up too fast and freeze too readily in your climate. In ground types would insulate much better for you.
I did something similar to the 33-gallon plastic waste can except I used a VERY LARGE plastic pot from Home Depot that had a lot of VEry large drainage holes at the bottom. ( I’m not very good with a drill and I value my fingers for some strange reason. 🙂 )
I also did not buy worms. I found that if a container has large enough holes at the bottom, the “wild” earthworms tend to gravitate to the goodies and stay put until all the goodies were gone. Last winter I started 3 pots and the worms I found in spring in those pots were as fat as my fingers and the decomposed matter was sweet and fluffy.
Anupa, I like your system even better, I think I may have to get it a try. Did your pot have a “top” or did you just add things and the worms took care of them?
No top. Just dumped everything in and kept it in an open sunny spot in winter and shaded spot in spring/summer.
No special treatment at all. Just dumped everything in (Shredded paper, veggie scraps, a little leaf matter, etc) and went about my business and left the worm to do their thing.
I did throw in about a 2 ” layer of compost when the veggie scarps started to attract flies. 🙂
I am not a handy woman type , preferring to call my sweet handyman for anything including changing light bulbs; but this is a very useful tutorial that I may use in lebanon in our mountain home (to show the caretaker , of course)
You’ve sold me, time to start a worm bin. I’m wondering how the open top concept would work with our marauding racoons, I’m thinking not well. Love the garbage can idea! Sandi on AI.
Wait– do you own the $100 composting bin or was that just an example? Boz and Gracie must eat a lot of fruits and vegetables.
Renae, yes I do have that compost bin, because Boz and Gracie do eat a lot of fruit and vegetables 😉
Thanks for the excellent tutorial on this subject. My homeschooler wants to know everything about worms and I was planning on reading M. Applehof’s book with her and building a box. Soon into the first chapter of the book, I realised there was no way she’d sit through this book. Now we have your tutorial to use as our curriculum, if you don’t mind. 🙂 Molding young American’s minds… Is just another talent you can add to your resume. 🙂
Best wishes for the upcoming gardening season,
Hi there…..i came across your blog while “blog hopping” & see we are both in the NW! I host a garden party on Thursday’s & would love to have you link up sometime! xoxo, tracie
Thanks for the great idea! I have never composted before and am trying to decide the best way to approach it for my yard and needs. When I was growing up I remember my Grandpa had a “worm pile” at the edge of his woods where they threw kitchen scraps. My Dad would take me there to get worms when we went fishing.