By: Mary Ellen Ellis
Have you ever thought of raising earthworms? Not as pets, but as a way to create more compost and enrich your garden soil. Worm beds in gardens are not difficult to make and maintain and can help you get more out of your kitchen waste and compost.
What are Worm Beds?
A worm bed is essentially a larger version of a worm bin, an ecosystem for raising and feeding earthworms. Worm bins are easy to find at any gardening store, but they are small and limiting. A worm bed, on the other hand, is a larger space that you can construct in your yard to get more earthworms and more benefits.
Worm bed benefits include having more space to raise worms and, therefore, more space to produce additional compost. Another reason to create a worm bed rather than simply using a small worm bin is that you can start a little side business raising and selling worms for composting or even as bait.
How to Build a Worm Bed
Worm beds can be made in a variety of ways and there are a lot of different worm bed ideas out there, from glass fish aquariums to large plastic bins. To truly make a large worm bed, though, the best way is to create a bed that is dug right into the ground in your yard or garden with wooden planks for sides.
Start by digging a square or rectangular pit, then line the bottom with cardboard or landscape cloth and the sides with wooden boards. Alternatively, you can use bricks or cement blocks.
Shred and moisten newspaper to make bedding and create a thick, fluffy layer of it in the bottom of the bed. Add worms, soil, and food scraps and watch your worms turn it into rich organic soil and compost.
Keep the bed moist and don’t let it dry out or your worms will die. Add more food waste regularly to feed the worms and encourage reproduction.
Keep in mind that if you don’t seal the bottom of the bed, the worms will move from the bed to the soil and back. If you want to keep them strictly in the bed, secure landscaping cloth to the sides. If you use red wigglers instead of earthworms, you will need a lid for your bed. They won’t get away through the soil, preferring to stay in the organic layer, but they may crawl out. Just be sure to drill holes in the top for fresh air.
Before long, you’ll have a thriving community of worms and plenty of rich compost for your garden.
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Read more about Vermicomposting
Vermicompost Right in Your Garden - Make a Worm Bucket
Tommy Lee Walker / Getty Images
I am a big fan of vermicomposting. It can be done indoors or out, and it's still fun, even after all the time I've been composting with worms, to watch my apple cores and coffee grounds turn into amazing, nutrient-rich vermicompost. If you're looking for an even easier way to compost with worms, consider installing a worm bucket right in your garden bed.One of the more work-intensive parts of keeping a worm bin (depending on the style of bin you have) is harvesting the vermicompost. For example, the bin I have is just that: a bin. There are no levels for the worms to move to. When I want to harvest the vermicompost, I can either move the fresh food and bedding to one side of the bin and wait for the worms to make their way over and out of the finished vermicompost, or I can dump the whole thing out on a tarp and sort through it by hand.
But if you use this method, you're essentially cutting out that middle step, because your worms will be doing their composting work right in your vegetable or flower garden bed. Here's how to do it.
A few tips can help your worm bed thrive. You can add specific foods that earthworms love to attract more worms and keep them happy. Whenever you add things to the worm bed, you can leave it on top of the soil or bury it about 3" deep to encourage the worms to feast.
- Earthworms love fruits, such as apple, peaches and melons.
- Add coffee grounds to your worm bed. Coffee grounds are a favorite of earthworms.
- Corn meal is a cheap food source that earthworms love! Turn it over in the soil.
- Keep your worm bed moist. Don't over water. If your worm bed dries out, the worms will die.
- Worms are often within the first 12" of soil.
How to Add Bedding Into the Worm Bin
Brand new Worm Cafe worm farm with fresh bedding to get things started
Worm bedding material needs to be at about 80% moisture level. Hence you should dampen the bedding material before adding it into the worm bin to keep things moist. The bedding material should feel like a damp sponge, moist but not dripping.
I choose to only add materials that I always have available such as newspaper and cardboard. Don’t forget that n ewspaper must be shredded and cardboard cut into smaller pieces before adding in.
Make sure the worm bedding does not matt together in large chunks. This can cause anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition and a foul odor. Once a week you should lightly lift and fluff the bedding material to create air space and to prevent it from compacting.
There should always be a higher carbon to nitrogen ratio (C:N) contained in the worm bin. For worm composting, conditions are generally ideal with a carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratio of between 20:1 and 35:1. Always remember, you can never add too much worm bedding on top. When in doubt, add more paper! When adding worm food into the bin, mix some bedding in to optimize the decomposition rate. Worms live in the dark and will more happily eat food that has been covered up.
Question: I have a ton of black soldier fly larvae in both of my bins. Will they be detrimental to my red wigglers?
Answer: Black Soldier Flies are unusual in the Phoenix metro area because it is so dry here. They won’t hurt the worms, and within two or three weeks they pupate into harmless flies (the live fly has no mouth – the only stage of the insect that eats is the larvae) that die within a day or two.
The larvae are voracious eaters so someone that finds them in the bin should feed much more than normal. If they put buckets or bins in the ground like your set up, they may observe fewer worms in their bucket or bin as the worms will move away from the heat the larvae produce.
The worms are fine and will return when the larvae leave. The larvae don’t bite – if someone wanted to remove them (easiest is with a kitchen strainer) and toss them, that is a fine option too.
Question: I dug into two of the buckets to see how my worms were doing, and they were missing. Not a worm to be found in either bucket. Would you expect the worms to stay in that bucket full of compost, or have they perhaps left their original home and are now crawling around through the rest of my garden, maybe just coming back to the bucket for their meals?
Answer: T he worms go throughout the beds and then there are usually some in the buckets with the scraps. I’m guessing with the intense heat we are having they are burrowing down as deep as they can go.
Question: I have two guinea pigs and feed them alfalfa hay, organic alfalfa pellets, and leafy greens such as romaine lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, and parsley. They produce a lot of waste (approximately 1 quart of waste hay and pellets daily). I read that I can add their waste and their waste hay directly to my raised bed gardens, which I have been doing and have been digging it in with a hand spade. Will red wiggler worms compost the guinea pig waste and waste hay?
Answer: Red Wigglers will eat guinea pig manure as it decomposes – and, they will not eat anything that they don’t like until it decomposes enough for them to eat. A pound of worms will eat about a pound of waste a week. You are likely to be producing a lot more than that, but that’s not harmful either. The worms will eat what they want, and the rest will feed your beds as it has. Your current process is probably producing good results – the worms will make it better.
Question: How often do you have to add water to the compost buckets in Arizona heat?
Answer: The beds get watered 2-3 times a week during the summer and about once a week in the winter. The buckets are in the middle of one of the watering grids in my beds and get watered as well.
Question: Can you add chicken poop to the buckets?
Answer: You can, in small amounts. Too much will overwhelm the worms. Just mix the poop with bedding (anything that was a tree…leaves or shredded cardboard or mulch) and they will do great.
Question: Does the vermicompost seep into the garden through the holes in the bucket or does it need to be scooped out?
Answer: It seeps into the beds. I may move the bins around next season to “spread the wealth”.
Question: How do the composting worms do during the summer? Is there anything special you do to keep them cool during Arizona summers so they don’t die?
Answer: They burrow down into the beds to stay cool. In-bed worm composting in Arizona is a great option for our hot summers.
Question: Do you ever have problems with ants attacking the worms?
Answer: Ants don’t generally attack worms. By making the area a little moister you can discourage ants and make the habitat better for the worms. You can use these ant bait traps.
Question: Will chemical fertilizers hurt the worms?
Answer: In small amounts, probably not, but direct contact or a large amount could. The whole idea of worms is to let them convert organic materials into a natural source of nitrogen. The worms should reduce or eliminate the need for inorganic fertilizers. Chemical fertilizers such as inorganic nitrate salt will reduce the pH but it also kills some of the microbes we like.