Worm Composting: Hawaii’s Answer to Fertility in the Garden


worm compost

The word is out.  Composting is in style.  Turning your food waste into compost gold is what all the hip kids are up to these days.  How about you? Do you compost? How about composting with worms?

Using worms to compost your kitchen waste is a really efficient way to turn a waste product into a resource.  This is especially important here in Hawai’i where we are faced with rubbish dumps that are over capacity and tropical soils that have trouble holding nutrients.

But why would we want to use wriggly, yucky worms to do our composting?  Why not just make a compost pile? You can do that, but let me tell you why you might want to think about worms to do the job for you instead.

Benefits of Worm Compost

Worm Composting, aka Vermicomposting, has a number of benefits over traditional compost.  It is definitely something every gardener should think about doing if they’re serious about growing an abundance of healthy food that is dense packed full of nutrients.

  • No more smelly trash between trash pickups
  • Simple to setup
  • Great Seed Starting Soil
  • Super nutritious for plants
  • Worm by product to double as chicken feed
  • Worms can be sold for profit
  • Can be done in a small space

These are just some of the benefits to worm composting.  I use worm compost as part of a seed starting mix that I combine with black cinder, sifted compost and peat moss or coco coir.  

Bagged seed starting mix can cost more than just buying produce at the store.  Finding affordable options is a must for any regenerative backyard grower.

Types of Worm Composting Setups

There are as many ways to compost worms as there are gardeners.  Everyone has a way that works for them. You can either DIY this project or purchase a commercial worm compost system, it’s up to you.  Whatever system you choose to use, be sure to put it in a spot that will be easy to visit and is out of direct sun, preferably a cooler, shadier spot in the garden.

DIY Methods

Gardeners have come up with a variety of ways to setup their worm composting systems.  I have seen an old bathtub, worm tower in pvc pipe, plastic storage bins, 5 gallon buckets, tupperware, almost anything can work for worm compost systems.

My favorite DIY worm compost setup is actually a homemade knock off of a commercial worm composting system that works amazingly.  It’s called a Flow-Thru Worm Composter. I have been using this system for the past year and LOVE IT!

The main problem with worm composting is separating the worms from the finished compost, but with the Flow Thru Worm Composter, the finished compost settles at the bottom while the worms stay at the top where the fresh compost is.  Other worm composting methods have tried to achieve this, this method actually does.

COMMERCIAL Methods

For those of you who aren’t the DIY types, there are plenty of commercial options that are great.  They tend to be a little on the pricey side for what they are in my opinion, but you won’t go wrong using one of these.  Again, I have used both of these worm composters in the past and they worked just fine.

wormfactory

Worm FactoryOpens in a new tab. – The Worm Factory works off a simple design.  It is a series of trays stacked on top of each other with a plastic screen on the bottom to allow works to flow through one layer to the next.  

As the compost ages and gets broken down more, the worms travel up in search of fresh food, leaving beautiful worm castings behind.  Simply remove the upper trays until you come to the tray with finished compost and use as needed. Depending on how many worms you hae, you can have fresh worm castings in a month’s time.

flowthruworms

Flow Thru Worm CompostOpens in a new tab. – There are several companies that use the Flow Thru Worm Compost System for their design.  I really like this one, it is much simpler to manage than the worm factory.

It looks like a small trash can with a tapered bottom.  The idea is that as the food waste turns to worm castings, they fall to the bottom where the container compresses the material, keeping the worms in the upper layers where the fresh food waste is, not in the worm castings where you have to sort through them.

When the castings are ready, all you have to do is remove the bottom tray (which is very simple).  No need to sift through the worms because there are none. The worms are where they belong, in the upper reaches of the bin.  The system also comes with a way to siphon of valuable worm juice to spray on your plants.

Where to Find Compost Worms in Hawaii

Once we have our bin to house our food scraps, we need to find the worms.  This is a little more difficult in Hawai’i than it is on the mainland.

There are a few commercial companies that sell worms.  I have found Hawaii Rainbow WormsOpens in a new tab. located in Hilo and Kauai WormsOpens in a new tab. on Kauai.  Craigslist is also a good place to find locals that have worms available for sale.

In the tropics, it’s the perionyx excavatus or blue worm. While they use the red worm, eisenia fetida in colder climates. Don’t worry though, you cannot import worms, so the worms that you find will be ones that are locally adapted to Hawai’i, they may just look a little different if you are used to worms on the mainland.

I like to find my worms by laying cardboard over the ground for 2 weeks.  After 2 weeks I simply lift the cardboard to find hundreds of compost worms wriggling around.  With enough cardboard, you should have no problem stocking your worm compost bins yourself.

How many do you need?  You need at least a pound of worms per pound of food waste per day.  If you are a big cook or have a large family, 3-4 pounds of worms will get you off to a good start.  If you are single or cook less, you can get by with a pound of worms to start.

What to Feed Your Worms

To start your bin, you want to have equal parts worms, food scraps and moist, shredded paper material.  I also like to prime the bin with a little finished compost as well, just to get the ball rolling.

I’ll start by laying moist shredded paper on the bottom, laying my food scraps on top of it, then adding moist shredded paper over the top like a warm blanket.  When getting the paper moist, imagine it only being wet enough to squeeze a drop or two of water out as if you were going to wring it.

Compost worms can eat almost anything besides citrus peels, meat and oils.  They love leafy greens, fruit, grains, yogurt and crushed eggshells. The more fine the better, but they’ll break it all down over time.

If the bin begins to attract flies, you may be adding to much food waste for the worms to eat at one time.  Either add less or get more worms. Too much moisture in the paper can be a problem as well. However, once the system gets going, issues with flies and such tend to disappear.  The worms are that efficient at getting the job done.

If you live in a drier climate, too little moisture may be your problem.  In this case, you may have to add water in the form of a regular mist of water every few hours or so.  

It may be tricky to get the balance right at the beginning, but keep at it, once it starts to function well it tends to stay that way, it’s just a little harder getting it all started sometimes.

Related: Can You Put Sawdust In A Worm Bin?Opens in a new tab.

Worm Compost Can Play a Pivotal Role in Hawai’i’s Food Supply 

If every household had a garden, less would be wasted.  Every scrap of resource would be saved to feed back into the garden.  Backyard food gardeners can literally save the world, if there were enough of us.

Localizing our waste management to our own homestead can lessen the burden placed on centralized waste management systems.  Dumps are overfilling, yet we keep throwing away. It is utter nonsense.

Worms can be used to manage food waste on hundred acre farms or apartment gardens.  They can provide much need fertility that you make YOURSELF. They can even be a source of protein for your chickens that you in turn can eat through the form of meat or eggs.

Worms deserve their place in every home across the islands.  Everyone has something in their home to start worm composting, all we have to do is act.  So what are you waiting for? Act today.

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Sean Jennings

Sean has been living simply Off-Grid in Hawai'i for over 18 years. He lives debt free on Hawai'i Island with his family and over 40 chickens. When he's not tinkering around the homestead, he's off exploring the shorelines for fish & surf.

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