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Picture of 5 dollar, 1/2 hour Worm Composting Bin(s)
No flashing lights, bikes, magnets or iPods here. Just worms in a box. Eating.

Update: Due to popular demand for information about how to care for worm bins, I'm thinking about writing a small book about the subject. Please let me know if you'd be interested in having a little worm bin manual! (Yes, I know there is another such book. I'd like to do one in a slightly different style.)

Years ago, when I was poor and under-employed, I craved a worm bin (aka vermicomposter, aka worm composter), famous for the fastest compost in the West. I did research on the web, and found that commercial bins were expensive, as much as US$200 for an Australian multi-tray "worm farm", which was way too big for my apartment-dwelling self anyway.

That winter, I visited my sister in Oregon nursery country, and she had the brilliant idea to use nursery flats as trays. Guess what some of the commercial bins are made from? One U.S.-made bin got started that way, and has since done some customizing, using their own molds. 

I've seen simpler versions of worm bins, a 5 gallon bucket, or a stack big Rubbermaid tubs with a lid. They probably work as well, at least until you want to harvest your worm castings, which you must sift out of the newer bedding and food scraps; not to mention fill a perfectly good tub with a ragged pattern of holes.

The tray version seen here allows you to segregate old from new, in just a few minutes. It also makes trips between "floors" much shorter for the worms. Less crawling, more eating. And pooping. Worm poop is good.

Mine has a couple of issues I have not gotten around to solving, more on that in the last couple of steps.

Update, Sept. '07: After all these years, I finally realized how easy it would be to separate the liquid from the food and castings. The castings I had been getting were thick mud.

Enter the filter! I lined the next to bottom tray with heavy shade cloth, usually used overhead for shading plants, etc. You'll see it in the shade plant section of the nursery where you go to get your flats. I'll post photos later.

Onward to the building part...

Update, : May 28, 2008 See step 7 for some info on how I harvest the castings.

Update March '09: There seems to be a steady stream of questions about how to maintain worm bins. People seem to want more detail than I have provided here, so I'm thinking about writing a small book. 

Update March '12: No book has been written yet, but I'm seriously considering making an ebook/iBook. If you're interested, please let me know, it will help me determine the interest level.

Please let me know, preferably via comment or private message, what delivery method you'd prefer. Paper book?, e-book? I kind of like the image of an intrepid composter outside, muddy hands clutching a Kindle. ;-)

 
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Step 1: Get your stuff together

Picture of Get your stuff together
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I bought 5 nursery flats (the trays that hold a bunch of small, square pots. They are also used to grow ground cover and grasses in. (you buy the whole flat of plants). [people outside the US, please let me know what's used in your country].

A gruff old country nursery man sold me the flats for seventy-five cents each.

You'll need:

- 3-5 (or more if you eat a lot of vegetables) nursery flats

- a piece of heavy 3-5 mil plastic sheeting, big enough to line one tray with a couple of inches coming out over the top edge. This will be the bottom tray. Another piece to lay over the top as a lid is optional. Better yet, a piece of screen to keep pesky flies out.

- shredded or torn paper for bedding. I first used newspaper, then got a big bag of "cross-cut" shredded office paper from the Accounting dept. It works great, and I don't have to tear paper or put it through a home shredder any more.

- Alernate bedding material: Coffee Chaff! It's the outer skin on coffee beans that literally flakes off during the bean roasting process. I've been using it exclusively for over a year now, and it works great. No word from the worms as to whether or not they are getting a buzz, or having trouble sleeping. 

I like this material better because it's a by-product with few "higher" uses; whereas paper can be made into more paper, rather than getting down-cycled into a soil amendment.

- 1 small stick for spreading bedding and food scraps.

- about a pound (a little less will do fine) of red wriggler worms. Start with less if you like, it will just take a little longer to develop a population large enough to fill your trays. Of course, your needs will vary depending on the volume of scraps you generate.

- optional lid to keep varmints and light out. I used a scrap of wood.

- food scraps, vegetable matter only! No fats, which can clog the breathing pores on worm bodies.

Step 2: The foundation

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Choose one tray, line it with the plastic sheet.
I folded the corners as if I was wrapping a gift box inside out. Origami folders will know exactly what to do.
The important thing is that the plastic is folded fairly neatly, so it does not bunch up and prevent the tray above from sitting down straight and comfortable.

Add shredded paper, enough to fill it about 1/4 full. If you're ready to add worms, dampen the paper lightly. Worm literature says, "like a wrung out sponge". Not soggy and dripping, yet damp enought that sensitive wormy skin is not instantly dessicated.

I usually don't put any food in the basement layer, as the worms seem to like this as their living room and bedroom. They tend to go up to higher layers to feed, and congregate in the bottom, where most of the castings (aka worm poop; compost) end up.

Step 3: Second verse, same as the first

Picture of Second verse, same as the first
Only different. No plastic liner this time, set the second tray on top of the first, taking care to make sure it's nested all the way. The natural tendency of the trays is to curve a bit, sometimes it takes a bit of coaxing to get it seated snugly.

It usually works best to put one end in first, then lay down the other. Jiggle and fiddle as necessary.
This is important, as you don't want any leaks, or fugitive worms that may meet an untimely end underfoot, in a bird's beak or squashed at the next feeding time.

This image shows the almost finished product. Note the not so carefully trimmed plastic liner obscuring the foundation tray. On the ends, you can see the ribs that hold the trays up, leaving an inch or so of space between the bottom grids. That's where the food, bedding and worms go.

Step 4: Ready for worm move-in

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Worms, not just any worms, red wrigglers are recommended. These are a few of mine in the bottom of my bin, just after cleaning out the castings (worm poop), that goes for about US$10 a pound in gardening stores.

They are available to buy, for an equally costly ~$20 a pound. Given my Scottish ancestry and small bank account at the time, I decided to go foraging on my own. There's a horse racing track nearby, and the manager gave me permission to dig around in their old manure piles. I felt a little, er, sheepish, but swallowed my pride and commenced to digging my own pound or so of worms. That was almost ten years ago, and their descendents are happily munching away on my lettuce scraps, banana peels, and mango seeds. Yep, the seeds, which eventually soften up and become cozy little hideaways inside.

Step 5: Care and feeding

There are more complete care and feeding descriptions elsewhere, I'll be back later to tell what I know.
Meanwhile, if you have a good source for trays, worms or other information, please post it here.

Step 6: The Harvest

Harvesting: Someone asked about harvesting the castings, and I probably did not address that step. Here is a brief description of how I do it. Eventually, I'll post some photos.

I confess to not having read this instructable recently, apologies for any redundancies.

The tray full of castings is usually the bottom one, where most of the worms stay. I usually rotate the trays, put that one on top, and move the entire bin outside.

The worms can't take being in the light, so they head downstairs, encouraged by my gentle stirring once or twice an hour, sometimes once or twice a week. Eventually, they all move lower, though it's a good idea to poke through any clumps. I suppose if you are more patient that I am, they'll all go on their own, with less work for you. I'm a little paranoid about ejecting my trusty friends from their comfy abode, so I am pretty thorough about sifting through the muck to get all the worms I can back into safer territory.

The harvest, and being able to keep the newer and older food separated are for me, the two main advantages to using the tray system rather than having one big tub.

Step 7: Cottage Industry?

I've read about a co-op in India that collects vegetable scraps and makes compost, then sells it as a soil amendment. Given that worm composting is said to be the fastest way to make compost, I wonder if this idea would be useful in rural areas as a "cash crop" that just about anyone can do. What do you think?
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azbookworm2 years ago
If you haven't already, do the book. I would prefer an e-book because it's faster to get. I'm not all that patient when it comes to getting info !
wisk7784 years ago
Way back when (2006) I posted a question about using non native worms because I was woried about them should they escape into the local landscape 9 (my property borders forest land). Your suggestion to start the bin in direct contact with the ground and "see what critters crawl up into it" was very good. It attracted worms and sow bugs (AKA wood lice- from the forest land) and they started right to work but it took a couple of months to breed to the volume necessary for the compost created by my family of 5. It has been going for three years and is still going strong. Many Thanks.
Marcos (author)  wisk7783 years ago
My apologies for the delayed response.

That's great and gratifying news that you were able to enlist your native worms and bugs in your cause! Sow bugs have found my bin as well, even though it's inside my garden shed. They're good decomposers too, and seem to co-exist happily with the worms.
Narges198729 days ago

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radioeyes9 years ago
Mulch is pretty cheap these days in most states, so you'd have to scale your worm production up an awful low. In drier areas like Nevada or Arizona it might go for a little more, which puts it in a more reasonable venture. Also, marketing is good: if you advertise it as "100% natural, high nitrogen, red wriggler-produced soil enricher," you might attract the local gardening nut who's afraid or artificial stuff like Miracle-Gro.
Marcos (author)  radioeyes9 years ago
I should have said for 3rd world use, mainly. That said, I've seen bags of worm castings in garden stores for what I thought were high prices, for a few pounds of material.
I live in Tucson, AZ, & last summer I paid $10 for a small bag of worm castings. By small I mean about 8 oz. Good, organic mulch is equally expensive.
Marcos (author)  Marcos9 years ago
...also, worm castings (and compost in general, as far as I know) are generally thought to be fertilizer, to be mixed into the soil, rather than mulch.
reighmey152 years ago
i say do the book and do you recomend this for florida or somthing else
Marcos (author) 3 years ago
Please reply to this comment if you'd like to see a small ebook/iBook (and would pay a small sum for it).

Thanks
I would definitely be interested in an ebook/ibook . Preferably for kindle, and maybe around $4? Like the articles and your polite commentary. Keep up the good work!
grruhrick6 years ago
http://grr-uh-rick.tumblr.com/]This was a very informative instructable. Here's the bin that I made... It's working out pretty well, and it's been running for about 2 months. It's amazing how all these little organisms just appear out of nowhere.
Marcos (author)  grruhrick6 years ago
Thanks, though I see no sign of a worm bin there other than a brief mention of it in text. You're not really going to make everyone sift through your un-searchable site are you?? ;-)

Why not just add an image to a comment on this Instructable?
Marcos (author)  Marcos3 years ago
I just checked today, and the account seems to be gone. Rats.
If anyone else has made their own bin from this 'ible, please post links and photos here!
Thank you so much for this! I have been wanting a worm bin and couldn't understand why they were all so expensive. This is the perfect solution! I can't wait to get started. Where do you place your worm bin trays, out of the direct sun? Are they sensitive to temps?
I think you should absolutely write your book!
Marcos (author)  Kelly Williams6 years ago
You're welcome, Kelly. Yes, do keep them out of direct sunlight!! I keep mine on the floor of my garden shed, which has a cement paver floor. I insulate it with a section or two of newspaper, or just set the bin on a couple of strips of wood to keep it off the floor. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so the temperature rarely gets really hot or cold. My sister had a bin in her garage in Oregon, and it was too cold for the worms during the Winter. I called a nursery flat manufacturer, and it turns out he is the supplier for one of the commercial worm bin makers. He has an agreement with the guy not to sell flats for use in worm bins, though he does sell to people who grow worms for sale.
NikNice Marcos4 years ago
I live in The Bay too!!! Should I keep mine on cement or can I put it in the dirt???
If you are local I would LOVE the name of the place to get the nursery bins as well! I do not yet know how to dens a personal message, can you send me one?
Marcos (author)  NikNice4 years ago
Er, I don't live in the Bay, but I do live in the Bay Area.  ;-)

I got my flats in Oregon, where they are made, but you should be able to find them. I'd start with your local nursery first. If they sell ground cover in flats, they may have some with the smaller holes. 

Since worms are cold-blooded, you'll want to make sure they don't get too cold. I keep mine in a shed, which has a cement paver floor, but I raised the bin up on a couple of pieces of wood (like paint stirring sticks) to keep it off of the cold floor.
These trays are similar to those used by bakers to stack loaves in, and also greengrocers for the display of fruit and vegetables. I'm in Australia.
Marcos (author)  Kelly Williams6 years ago
Thanks for the encouragement. That's one vote so far. Anyone else? I'm about half serious about it, esp. since the book is half written in this instructable! ;-)
Hi, I just made my own bin last week using empty baby-wipe containers. Used 2: placing one with some drainage holes inside the other one. Worms have been doing well there for the 2nd week. I am using a combination of backyard warms (about 120 of them) and red wigllers (60). So far so good :)
Oh cool! I wondered if I could but my multitude of backyard worms to work!
Marcos (author)  Kelly Williams6 years ago
You're welcome. It's great to have this project still being appreciated after several years. (hm, I wonder if the I-robot will notice if I enter into the laser cutter contest? ;-)~ I keep my worm bin on the floor of my garden shed, where the worms have been doing fine for 10 years. They are sensitive to both heat and cold extremes. Definitely keep them out of direct sunlight, especially since they are in a black box! I've been thinking that I should write a little book about making a worm bin, and care and feeding of the worms. What do you think, Instructables makers?
bac5126 years ago
while I haven't done this project yet, I would suggest going to the hardware or paint store and buying a plastic drop cloth, make sure ya get one of the thicker ones though, and not the really cheap ones....
DIY-Guy bac5124 years ago
Sometimes a plastic shower curtain is available at so-called "dollar stores" or "99 cent" stores. That would be in the u. s. of A., dunno about other places.
manatees6 years ago
is it okay to use a nursery flat that has a closed bottom for the base?
Marcos (author)  manatees6 years ago
Sure, that's the preferred way. Then you can put a plastic valve in one corner so you can drain off the liquid easily. I usually pour mine on plants in the yard immediately after I drain it. The closed bottom flats can be hard to come by for those who don't live in agricultural areas. Please let us know where you get yours. I called the manufacturer of the the flats I used, and it turns out he's making the flats that one of the (expensive) commercial worm bin companies uses. His contract states that he can't sell flats to anyone else for use as worm bins! Anyway, if you have a choice, get the flats that are deeper than the ones I used; mine work fine, but you'll have more capacity if you can get the deeper ones.
DIY-Guy Marcos4 years ago
Would it be unethical to buy the flats for a crop of fast growing flowers, and then recycle the flats? Since they would be purchased for the purpose of growing flowers.... :)
RisingSun5 years ago
A few people have commented that Red Wrigglers are an invasive species and you should avoid introducing them into your garden. Although freezing your compost to kill the worms and worm eggs is completely harmless otherwise to your soil in the case of red wrigglers it's not really a necessary step. Some information I found: "The worm predominantly sold for composting is the red wiggler or red tiger worm, Eisenia fetida. It has a rusty brown color with alternating yellow and maroon bands down the length of its body; a pigmentless membrane separates each segment. It grows up to three inches long and is highly prolific. Though the worm has established itself in the wild here, so far it has not been identified as a problem species. Another popular compost species, the red worm, Lumbricus rubellus, is causing trouble, however, and should be avoided. It also grows up to three inches long and has a history of being confused with E. fetida. This worm is dark red to maroon, has a light yellow underside, and lacks striping between segments. " Hope that helps to clear things up. :-)
They also have a company called terracycle who do just about the same thing as in India except they make worm tea and make several other recycled products for the home and garden check out there website at
Ctrl+Vhttp://www.terracycle.net/
kidbullitt6 years ago
my brother the fisherman... hahahaha
LynnieC6 years ago
I saved the round, stackable dehydrator trays after my first dehydrator motor went out. You can buy the plastic screens that fit the trays perfectly if you want a smaller screen. The bottom is already solid eliminating the need to line with plastic. It comes with a lid that is flat. Perfect idea to recycle something that otherwise would be thrown out.
LynnieC LynnieC6 years ago
-The holes are triangular and large enough for my worms to pass up and down on the various levels. - The edges are smooth...to make my trays deeper (because each dyhydrator tray is only about 2 inches deep) I actually cut the bottoms out of every other tray, used my dremmel to smooth the edges and glued the empty ring on top of the tray with the aerated bottom to make three levels. -The dehydrator I have has the motor/wires/electrical unit in the top and that I discarded when I burnt up the motor. There are no electrical wires at all in my worm farm. -And no...it is not more efficient to replace the motor...it was just as cheap to buy a new one and save the extra trays for rotation of dehydrating when I had my children at home...they are grown and gone and it was nice to find a use for the extra trays I had taking up space in my pantry. -Finally, I want to thank you for your web site as it was the only one that actually gave the "details" as to what it takes to have a worm farm. This is so fun! :0)
Marcos (author)  LynnieC6 years ago
It sounds like that could work. If: - the holes are big enough for adult worms to get through. about 3/16" (a little under 3mm) or larger. - the edges of the holes are not sharp. No sliced worms please. - The holes for any screws or electrical wires in the solid bottom don't leak worm juice. And it might be more efficient to replace the motor on the dehydrator and keep using it! ;-)
Ingerson9 years ago
It's possible to make a wormery using a concrete slab and old car tires. Place slab on an even surface, put an old newspaper flat on it and place a tire on it. Scrunch up some paper and cardbaord and stuff it inside the tire. Then add some veg peelings/egg shells/untreated cardboard to it and then add worms. Apparently tiger worms work best in wormeries. As you tire fills up, add another one on top. Keep a board on the top to keep flies away from the rotting veg and when it is 4 tires high slide the bottom tire out and use as the contents as compost. Worms aren't too keen on onions or citrus fruit or meats but love all other vegetable/garden waste. Also egg boxes, hair (human or pet), egg shells, vacuum cleaner contents (as long as it is mainly dust and hair), newspaper. Have a look at http://www.wigglywigglers.co.uk/shop/foundcategory.lasso?category_id=1&-session=shopper:8BB81E13118e220B26Yjrg4C2114
as that is where I got my worms and supplies from.

Marcos (author)  Ingerson9 years ago
My worms do have stripes, I wonder if they are named differently in the UK. The tire method sounds like the industrial strength way. Great for larger volume than I produce. I'd leave the bottom out though. My conventional composter has no bottom, just sits on the dirt. The pile has lots of pill bugs and small beetles, both good decomposers, in it. And yes, worms too. Thanks to all for the positive comments and feedback.
Red wiggler compost worms (Eisenia fetida) are also sometimes called red worms, redworms, manure worms, brandling worms, red wrigglers, and tiger worms. They're all the same species. They are by far the most common compost worms.

The only other species in common use is the European Nightcrawler, Eisenia hortensis. African Nightcrawlers, Eudrillus eugeniae, are also starting to become a bit popular.
"You need to be adding more fibre such as egg cartons and inside of kitchen rolls, or even newspaper. Aim for about a quarter of your waste being this type of material."
Howdy, nice alternative to the store-bought multi-level bins. Those things can be pricey!

I've been vermicomposting for about 5 years now, and I prefer to use a simple wooden box with about 3 square feet of surface area. I find that wood works a bit better than plastic or styrofoam. Wood breathes better, and also absorbs any excess moisture (helps keep the bin from getting wet and smelly).

I have photos up on my blog of the hemlock worm bins I build (sorry, no step-by-step on instructables, yet):
http://vermontworms.com/red-wiggler-compost-worm-bin/

Whatever material you use, enjoy vermicomposting. It's pretty neat to see your bin slowly filling up with the richest compost around!
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