I once inadvertently drank worm compost tea. To avoid this situation, never put the liquid from the bottom of a worm bin in a bottle. I had two bottles on the table while teaching that fateful night. Trying not to lose eye contact with my class, I grabbed the wrong one and took a glug, fortunately with no ill effect.
Vermiculture, as worm composting is called, is the easiest way to recycle your kitchen waste during the winter. The vermicompost, or castings, make a great soil amendment for your garden. The juice at the bottom of the bin is merely a byproduct. Now that temperatures are dropping, think about setting up a worm box indoors or in the garage. It’s much more appealing than slogging out to the compost pile once there’s snow on the ground.
The best worms for composting indoors are red wigglers, Eisenia fetida. My first worm bin was inside my front door because red wigglers prefer to go about their job at room temperature. They also don’t mind living in close proximity to one another. I had no nasty odors or fungus gnats. Visitors didn’t even know the bin was there.
I have to admit, my worms were more like pets than workhorses expected to process everything left over from meals. Their diet consisted primarily of coffee grounds and vegetable scraps. They received no chunks of stale bread, citrus or banana peels. Bread gets moldy, citrus rinds take forever to decompose and banana peels have been implicated as the source of fruit flies.
You can build your own worm bin using a tote with instructions from the UAF Cooperative Extension Service publication, “Worms in a Tote,” which is available online at http://bit.ly/17xNRcO.
For bedding I prefer to use strips of newspaper mixed with a cup or two of moistened coir. Coir is coconut fiber available at garden centers. Soak both newspaper strips and coir in water and then squeeze it out. Try to fluff it up when adding to the bin. Hide your food scraps inside the bedding when it is new and place a damp piece of newspaper over the top.
Earthworms, including red wigglers, are not indigenous to Alaska. When you add castings to your garden, you also likely add earthworm eggs and cocoons. It is well documented that non-native earthworms can wreak havoc with natural ecosystems in other parts of the country. What happens in Alaska? Matt Bowser, with U.S. Fish & Wildlife on the Kenai Peninsula, directed me to University of Alaska Museum of the North records showing three species of earthworms that survive the winter outside in Fairbanks. They do not include Eisenia fetida, the red wiggler. According to Bowser, Eisenia fetida, its eggs and cocoons are killed at 30 degrees.
Finding a source of red wigglers at this time of year might prove a bit difficult now that the Tanana Valley Farmers Market has closed. Let me know if you have trouble, but try the internet. Red wigglers are often available on Craigslist in the farm and garden section.
Julie Riley is the Tanana District horticulture agent for Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She can be reached at (907)474-2423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.