Before I started my own worm composting at an apartment, I wandered for years if it was really possible. I read about it. I asked around but wasn’t really ready to start until we moved to an apartment with a balcony. Having it inside a tiny apartment without a balcony was scary. Now, 5 years in, I have no doubts, it is possible, it is very easy, and it is definitely worth it! Worm composting is also frequently called vermicomposting.
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What will we cover
- Can I really do worm composting at my apartment?
- Why would I do worm composting at my apartment?
- Cons of worm composting at an apartment
- Interesting facts about worms
- What do I need
- Where to place the worm bin
- How to start the bin and bring in the worms
- What foods can you use
- How to feed the worms
- The truth about the brown material
- Harvesting humus and changing the tray
- Visitors in the bin
- Worms are escaping
Can I REALLY do worm composting at my apartment?
The definite answer is YES! I have been doing this for over 5 years now. But before, I was scared too. I was worried it would smell, I worried it would be difficult and a lot of work. Honestly, I was a bit concerned about having a bunch of worms in my house.
BUT I can assure you if you do this right, it really is easy, and low maintenance. In the beginning, it will require a little bit of education, a little bit of work and money to get started. In the first few months, you will need to pay a bit more attention to the worms until they get settled. The most work is to harvest the soil, which is only every 3-4 months. After the family of worms is established, it really is not much work, or worry at all.
Now, after 5 years, I look into my bin only when I have enough food waste to feed them, which might be once a week, or once every 5 days. In the summer I water them every day or every other day. I don’t worry about them other than that.
Why would I do worm composting at my apartment?
The main reason to start composting your food waste is to avoid sending food waste to landfills. You might think it’s not a big deal because it will degrade over time in a landfill. BUT the process that occurs in a landfill is different than the decomposition in nature, and it is not eco-friendly at all.
When the waste first arrives in a landfill, it undergoes aerobic decomposition (with oxygen), in this stage little methane is produced. Later, anaerobic conditions (without oxygen) are established and methane-producing bacteria begin to decompose the waste and release methane into the environment.
Food waste makes up more than 50% of our house waste. If any of us didn’t send it to landfills, there would be so much less material in the landfills. Less methane would be released to the atmosphere, and we could positively affect climate change by this action.
The second reason is, you are creating a very rich and quality soil called humus. Humus can be later used in your house plants. You can give it to a relative or friend who has a garden. Humus improves plant growth, suppresses disease in plants, increases soil activity, and it benefits the environment by reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.
It´s easy and cheap
Another reason is that after the setup, which might be a little work and require some initial investment, there really is little maintenance and no cost.
NO more smelly trash, much less trash
When you stop putting food in your trash bag, the trash stops smelling. And, you will generate so much less trash. It is unbelievable, with recycling and vermicomposting, we use one small trash bag a week. So I don’t worry about trash much either now.
No worries about predators at the balcony
There is a big advantage of having the worm composting bin at an apartment over having it in the outside garden or yard. Worm bins kept outside can attract mice or other predators, because of the food you put in it. If you have it on the balcony, you don’t need to worry about any predators attacking your bin.
When you follow the instructions of the worm care, there is no smell. The smell of a healthy worm bin is like wet soil. If there is a bad smell, you are doing something wrong and you need to correct that. After you have corrected the mistake, the smell will be gone. There might be a bit of smell if you leave the green material uncovered, so by adding more brown materials, you avoid smells. I explain more about green and brown materials later on.
Cons of worm composting at an apartment
More care in extreme weather conditions
I really don’t think there are any cons to vermicomposting. But to be objective, in climates with extreme temperatures, the worm bin might need a bit more care.
In the summer this means, watering the worm bin, so the worms don’t get cooked. The worm bin creates heat by itself, so adding to the outside temperature, it can get really warm. We even put a frozen water bottle in the bin in the morning when it’s very hot outside.
In the winter, we don’t get extremely cold weather, so we have no worries in the winter. But in extremely cold climates, the bin might need extra insulation, so it doesn’t freeze.
Fruit Flies (completely preventable)
From time to time, I will have a few fruit flies around my food waste container. This is completely preventable by doing two things. First, have a container with a lid (I don’t have that). Second, taking the waste to the worms twice a week instead of once.
Interesting facts about worms
The most used kind of worms for composting is red worm, also called red wigglers.
- They can live up to 5 years!!!
- They can eat half their weight worth of food a day!
- Even though the are hermaphroditic (having both male and female sexual organs) they still need two to reproduce.
- In good conditions, the family can double in size every three months.
- Natural predators for worms are birds, moles, hedgehogs, or slugs.
- Worms love a humid environment, 50-90% humidity is the best.
- They feed on the decomposed organic matter, not fresh food.
- They do not have eyes and are very light-sensitive, they will hide when you open the lid.
- The largest redworm ever found was in South Africa and measured 22 feet (almost 7 meters).
What do I need
To set up your worm composting at your apartment, you will need only a few things.
Vermicomposter, worm bim
Of course, you need the vermicomposter, also called the worm bin. First, you need to decide whether you will buy the bin or make it yourself. You can find great and even cool looking bins to buy on the internet if you don’t want to spend the time building the bin.
But if you are up for a challenge, it is easy to make. You can find instructions easily on the internet. You will need just a few materials like some wooden boards, steel mesh, some screws, etc. Or you can use a big plastic container, where you will need to make some holes.
Container for food scraps
Apart from the worm bin, you will need a container for gathering the food scraps from your kitchen. I am using a very simple container, with no lid. Just a container I had at home and didn’t use for anything. If I were you, I would definitely get something with a lid, it will be more visually appealing and will prevent fruit flies from appearing. I have a few flies from time to time, but when they appear, I take the waste to the worms, and they are gone.
Of course, you will need the worms. You can buy worms on the internet. Sometimes maybe on a farmers’ market or a specialized garden store. Or maybe you know someone who has worms and they can give you a few hundred to you start off.
Where to place the worm bin
As this article is about vermicomposting at an apartment, there are not many options to place the bin. The first choice will be on the balcony. Try to place the bin at the part where there is the most shade during the day. Hopefully, the bin is in the shade the whole day. This might not be possible, so just pick the place that will have the least sunshine during the day. You can cover the bin with something to lessen the direct sun. If the summer is very hot, we will cover the bin with whatever we might find to decrease the sun and heat on the composter.
You could have your vermicomposter inside the apartment as well, I would suggest a room that is not a bedroom. Place the bin in the kitchen if you have a big one. I think it is better for store-bought composter to reside inside the house, as homemade one could leak liquids if it’s not very well made.
How to start the bin and bring in the worms
Prepare worm bed
To start your bin, you actually need a bit of time to prepare a nice bed for the worms, before you get the worms. You should plan for 10 or 14 days to prepare the bin. In the lowest tray of the bin, put the brown matter to the bottom: soil, leaves, cardboard, and water it. Put some green matter on top of the brown layer. And cover with the brown matter again. Cover it until you are not able to see the green matter. Water it again and then wait a few days so that the green matter decomposes a bit.
I explain more about green and brown matter just few lines down from here.
Bring the worms
After 10-14 days, bring in the worm. They have their home ready, there is the base of brown material where they might spend time and hide. And there is food for them. Put the worms in and you can add more fresh food and as always cover with brown material. Cover with lid and leave them to their job. Check-in in a few days and start a regular feeding schedule.
What foods can you use
To feed the worm, you will need a supply of food scraps, the so-called green material, rich in nitrogen, and the brown material, carbon-rich material.
For the green materials, you can use almost everything from your kitchen. Most fruit and vegetable peelings and scraps, fruit or veggies that have gone bad, coffee grinds, tea leaves, eggshells, trimming from your house plants.
For the brown material, you can use dried leaves, straw, wood chips, shredded newspaper, cardboard, other kinds of shredded paper.
What we do is, a few times a year, maybe every 2 months, we go for a walk around the neighborhood. We take a big bag each, and we fill it with dried leaves. We use it for the next few months as brown material.
What you should NOT put in the worm bin is anything that has salt, oil, or any kind of dressings on it. Do not put any citrus fruits or its peels (too acidic), or too much tomato in the bin, or anything too spicy or acidic. No foods of the animal original, no meats, cheese, etc. The only food of animal origin that you can put in the bin are the eggshells.
I do not put bread or any cooked food either, because it had salt and oils usually, but there are people who do put some cooked foods like bread, or pasta.
How to feed the worms
Layers of green and brown material
To feed the worms, you will need to layer green and brown material. Put a few days worth of food scraps on the bottom, cover with brown material. I cover until I can’t see the green matter. Then water a bit to humify the brown material. Don’t overwater the bin. Repeat every few days.
In the beginning, I was feeding probably every 3 days with only a bit of green food. I did it this way until I felt like the system was stable. First months, I was much more careful with what I put in the bin, I only allowed for safe foods. I also reviewed how humid the bin was, not too dry, not too wet. It must be wet on touch, but worms breathe through their skin, so too much water could suffocate them.
For a new family, I recommend more frequent feedings with less food. When you want to add new food, review if the worms are already feeding on the food you put in the last time. This way you avoid overfeeding a young system. Over time you will be able to put more and more food as the family will grow in numbers.
In the beginning, you won’t be able to put in all your food scraps. Be patient, soon enough, the family will grow and will be able to eat all the scraps you have.
Now, with a mature family, I chose to do the feeding once a week so that I have a lot of material, then I cover with brown material and I am done with it for a week. I feel this way, I need less brown material, so less walks around the block to get the leaves.
Prepare the scraps
In order to help the worms to work on the food scraps faster, cut the green material in small pieces. What I do is, before I put the scraps into my food waste bin, I cut them. That way, I don’t need to touch it later, when it might be already gone bad.
This is not compulsory, but it will take the worms much less time to decompose everything. I feel like this also helps the tray to last longer, more material going in before needing to harvest. If you cut their food, you will be able to keep the worms in the same tray for months.
The process is actually incredible! You won’t believe how much food will go into that bin and just magically disappear. I change the trays and harvest humus, probably only 3 times a year. This is a comfortable frequency for me, not too much work, and a good supply of more than 60 pounds of soil each harvest. I have big trays, so much goes in.
The truth about the brown material
In every manual for worm care, you will read how important the brown material is. This is very true, brow material is important for a healthy worm family. I would say, for the first 6 months, until the worms have established, it is crucial. But after the worm family has established well, you are able to skip the brown material sometimes. I still think it is healthy and important for the worms, but it is not indispensable.
When I don’t have the brown material on hand, I will feed for a few times without it with no problem. I just use green material. I will try to get some brown material as soon as possible, but I will not stress about it. The worms can handle it. As the green material is more humid, I might not water them when feeding, in order to keep a good level of humidity.
As another example, I have a friend who after establishing the family, doesn’t use almost any brown material. Her worms are fine. I would rather use at least some brown material, but she doesn’t. Her bin doesn’t smell and it’s healthy.
Harvesting humus and changing the tray
Congratulations, you have made it this far! Your first tray is full and you want to harvest the humus and move the worms to the new tray. This might be the most work that you have to do after the bin is all set up.
I will explain one of the methods to harvest the humus, there are more methods, but I only use this one, so I am an expert on it. My trays have steel mesh on the bottom, so my worms basically move by themselves. If you have a different setup, you might need to do it differently.
This process will actually take you some time, as you will need to start preparing for it a few weeks, maybe 6 to 8, before the move. The first step is just to place a new tray on top of the old bin. And start feeding to the new bin. The surface of the soil in the old bin and the food in the new bin need to always touch. Check during every feeding that the two surfaces are touching. You can add some extra brown material to the new bin to make their new home extra comfy, add soil or leaves, just be careful not to plug the webbing, so the worms have holes in order to climb up.
Feeding to the new tray
The worms will climb up from the old tray to the new tray within a few weeks. As you continue feeding the new bin, more and more worms will just climb to feed upstairs. You feed them in the new tray until you have a nice bed for them. You need them to have a nice layer of material so they can hide and feed in the new tray. Similar to when you started the first tray.
After you have removed the lower tray, which will be surprisingly heavy, after months of food scraps, you can harvest the humus. I usually put on gloves, and take the soil out by hand, reviewing the humus and taking out the worms that didn’t move. If you allowed for sufficient time, there won’t be so many worms in the lower tray, but still, there will be some. I like to remove them because if the soil is placed in a pot for inside plants, after a time they might not have enough food in there and die.
I place the soil in a bag for later use. Until you use it, keep it humid, water it regularly so it does not dry up. After you are done with soil extraction, clean the old bin and let it dry, and ready for the next use in a few months.
Visitors in the bin
After you have your worm for a while, you will definitely have some visitors in the bin. Some are good, some might be bad. The first time this happened to me, I was concerned, I thought I did something wrong. Then I realized it was actually good for my worm family. You are creating a whole living system at your balcony, it is normal to have more than the worms in the tray.
Many insects that visit the bin will be either beneficial or benign to you family. The benificial insects will help break down the organic matter that you feed the worms. The most common beneficial visitors are sowbugs, springtail, earwig, soldier fly larvae, and millipedes.
The benign insects are roly-polies, pot worms, beetles, and fruit flies. Some of them might be bothersome, but they are no danger to you, or to the worm family.
A healthy bin should not smell and not attract the flies, so if you have them, you might want to make some changes in the feeding of the bin.
The flies are not malignant to your bin, but they are very bothersome and they might spread disease, so better to avoid them. You might have them because you don’t cover the green matter enough with the brown matter. Put more brown material every time you feed and the problem should disappear soon. The other reason you might have flies is you put meat, dairy, or very greasy food to the bin.
Some will say ants are bothersome but harmless. Some will say they are bad because they might attack the worms in case the resources are scarce. I read that if you have ants, it is a sign that the bin is dry, water more and see if that helps, or try to move the bin to other place if you can.
We live on the ninth floor, we have never had ants, so I could not observe their behavior in the bin.
Centipedes can use their venom to kill and feed on worms. Earthworm mites will compete with worms for food and will drive the worms down away from the food. Slugs and snails are not harmful to the worms, but they can lay eggs in the bin and infest it. If you see any of these, pick them out and throw them away.
Worms are escaping
If you find a big number of worms outside the bin, that is a sign that the bin is not healthy. The worms will never willingly leave their cozy and dark home and wonder to the sun unless there is something wrong with their bedding. You might see an occasional adventurer that escaped, that is fine, but when you see big quantities leaving, you should be concerned.
I mentioned before that the worms breathe through their skin. If they are trying to escape, they might be suffocating in too wet bedding. The other reason they might be suffocating is there is poor ventilation of the bin.
Have you fed the worms enough? Yes, starvation can make the worms try to find a better place to live. On the other hand, maybe you have overfed them, they can’t eat the food fast enough and it’s maybe throwing off the pH, as there are large amounts of undigested food in the bin.
The pH of the bedding might be a problem even if you are not overfeeding. Stop feeding acidic foods like tomatoes, onions, pineapples, citrus fruits. Avoid meat, dairy, and oily foods as well. To improve the pH you can add eggshells to the bin.
I think you might have noticed that I love worm composting at my apartment, I can’t imagine not doing it anymore. I love to talk about it, educate about it, and learn new things as well. All in all, I think, it is well worth the little effort that it requires to take care of the bin, contrasted with the many advantages it provides. This might be one of your new eco-friendly actions, and it is a big one, you will notice it in your trash fast.
If you want to learn more about what does it mean to be eco-friendly, check out this article where I cover the product stages, materials, certifications, steps to take, and much more.