Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Integrating your worm farm into your vegie patch

I've been a bit worried about our worm farm for a while now.

We've had our worm farm for around 5 years and it's served us well for our inner city lifestyle when we had nearly no gardening space. Indeed, the worm farm probably got us turned on to all this home-scale permaculture stuff in the first place, so much so that we started giving them to people as Christmas presents.  So we owe it a great deal.

They are truly a wonderful system particularly for tiny back yards and balconies but since getting our quarter acre on the urban fringe a number of things have been bugging me.

The vegie patch is on the north side the house to get the sun and be near the kitchen, but the worm farm is on the south side of the house to keep it cool.

Not being near the kitchen means that that putting scraps in the worm farm is an additional chore rather than something you do on the way to play in the vegie patch.

Not being near the vegie patch means that harvesting the castings and liquid fertiliser is something you need to find time to do, and have to cart to the vegie patch rather than being automatically fed into your soil when there's rain.

Being out of sight out of mind is not good for any key elements in your system and a good way for it to be neglected. Not what you want for a living system.

Most purchased worm farms are raised above the ground, which means the worms have nowhere to escape to on hot days. Alas the ones I gave to people died of heat, and with yesterday's heat wave mine are really not looking well at all.

After 5 years the colony should be mature, but they're still not able to keep up with our vegie scraps.

This whole business of multiple layers and trays just makes things complex. When is the bottom tray ready? Why is the top tray always full before you're ready to add a new tray etc.

All in all, what had served us well in the city wasn't working for us any more.

It was then that we saw the idea of a worm tower on Milkwood's blog. This makes a lot of sense so we've decided to give it a go. Have a look at their website for more detailed instructions, or better still do one of their courses, but here's what we did.

Step 1 : Buy a 65 cent plastic bucket

Yes, that's right, 65 cents.
 Step 2: Drill it full of holes with a 10mm drillbit, or whatever drill bit you've got lying around that is big enough to allow the worms in and out. If you don't have a drill you can burn holes with a soldering iron, or can use it for target practice with a .22. (My redneck past is coming out, you can never get away from it entirely).
Soak 1 newspaper in water.  Shred the paper, then drill holes in the bucket.

Step 3: Soak some newspaper in water and tear it up. Half fill the bucket.

Step 4: Add some compost worms and a bit of well wetted straw if you've got it.

Step 5: Fill the rest with newspaper

Finished product, croc shoes come pre-drilled.

Step 6: Dig a hole in a place where you want soil fertility.  Plant it in.

Plant it in, nearly up to the rim.
 Step 7: Put an air / light cover on top to keep the critters out (in our case an old bird bath)
Inviting eh?

Step 8: Let the worms settle in, then start feeding them scraps under a thick wad of damp newspaper. (My worms love newspaper, they leave castings all over it)

There's a lot of reasons why we like the idea.  Here's a few.
Traffic flows
  1. The worm farm is near the kitchen and kitchen garden. This means it's integrated into where we spend our time associated with food harvesting, food preparation, planting etc. Dealing with the worm farm is no longer a separate chore, it's just part of what happens in zone 1.
  2. The worms now do the work of improving the fertility of the soil without us lifting a finger. Liquid nutrient leeches into the soil and the worms can go out and spread their castings when they feel like it.
  3. The worm farm is now protected from daily temperature fluctuations.
  4. It's no longer an industrial looking thing, in fact most people wouldn't even know it's there.
  5. It's cheap and easy to replicate. By having multiple worm systems in the vegie patch like this it means if one has problems, the others can keep going. It also means we can scale up to the size needed to handle our vegie waste by adding more 65 cent buckets. 
  6. There's a bird bath in the our system which looks nice, is good for bird habitat and attracting pest predators.
  7. It's about 1/100th the cost of buying a worm farm in the shops.
Now like most things on this blog we're bound to make a few mistakes, so we'll post updates as we learn things along the way. Once we're confident we'll start replicating them.

Most people use a taller system using a bit of PVC pipe for these worm towers. We thought that was a bit expensive, unsightly and too much like hard work (okay, the real reason was we couldn't find any PVC pipe). We thought of using other materials, the cardboard tubes out of carpet rolls for example but the buckets seemed a winner for now. Even better would probably be a food-grade bucket from a local restaurant – they're food grade, but also free instead of a whopping 65 cents.  We might do this for the next ones.

If people do try out this worm tower, we'd love you to make a comment and share what you've learned in making and running yours.  Always good to compare notes.

The Joneses


  1. Oh, in fairness to the old worm farm, when looking for some worms to put in the new system we found some avocado seeds and mango seeds which had germinated and starting to put on some healthy growth. We haven't had much luck germinating these before, so maybe this is the go. The seeds were probably in there for 3-4 months.

  2. this is awesome - multi-function with the birdbath top! Great addition. Go wormies, go!

  3. Just as well we built the new worm tower, our premonition proved right. We checked yesterday morning during the heatwave and about 50 worms had tried to escape the old worm farm and had ended up in the bucket underneath. We thought the worst and that we'd baked our little guys but fortunately we got there just in time. We were able to move the escapees to the new system and cool the existing system down. All is happy again, and hopefully without any loss of our wriggly friends, but my niggling doubts about the old system proved right.

    So a couple of truisms there to build more resilience:

    1. Integrate rather than segregate your systems
    2. Back up your key systems

  4. I have a question for you as I live in northern U.S. where we have long cold winters. Do find with any cold weather loss of worms? Maybe I could bring them inside for the winter here? Or use local worms that hibernate?? Thanks for any information and what a great way to add nutrients to the garden.


  5. Really like you worm tower hack! How is it going two years on? Is it still successful? Have you got any in hindsight tips? I am eyeing a leaky bucket and some tree size black plastic pots thinking they could be worm farms.

  6. I built one of these a while back and then gave up because I didn't add worms - I thought the earthworms would do the job. Now I have just got a tumbling composter which requires you don't add to it along the way so I thought I would start my system up again to use up the kitchen scraps until I need to fill the tumbling composter again. Glad to find your blog, it looks good.

  7. A quick update, we've moved a few times interstate so haven't been able to take the worms with us. They're now happily with some friends.

    A few things we did learn:

    1. The worm buckets seem to fill up pretty quickly, so to use this system you probably need a lot of them scattered around the yard / in different veggie beds, or to have bigger ones.
    2. They do need harvesting and doing so in the ground is a less elegant way of doing so than the commercial systems on the market.

    All up, we're weighing up whether to put them into the new place or not.

    Conversely, we got excited briefly about building worm farms out of broccoli boxes. We did this in our first 12 months in Adelaide and were VERY happy with the results. The worm farm got to a level of maturity in 6 months that our previous one in Sydney took 5 years to get to, so that was great. The problem for us is that in extreme heat the boxes while the boxes were better insulated than the commercial ones made out of plastic, the heat did kill them all, which was tragic.

    We're still casting around for solutions (no pun intended).

    So our latest tips:

    1. In moderate climates (Sydney), conventional systems are probably the go, or build your own out of broccoli boxes for no cost. Put them on the south (shady) side of your house and/or under a tree.
    2. In climates with more than a 2-3 days of high heat, indoors or in the ground is still the go. This can pose a problem for small spaces or when you don't want them inside. Looking for solutions. Will post when we find one.