Leaves & Yard Waste as Worm Food

Here is a question from Armand:

Hi. I am looking into getting some worms, primarily to do
something useful with the piles of yard waste I generate. I mulch to
no end but I still end up with piles of leaves in the end. I think
some worms may help me out if I start to compost them. she thinks
worms are very interesting. So the question is: would worms eat up my
leaves & how much should I buy? Currently I have about 3 cubic yards
of yard waste. Thanks

Hi Armand,
This is a great question since it addresses something a lot of people are likely wondering about – namely, “can I use composting worms in a regular composter to process my regular waste materials?”. I talk so much about “worm bins” (and Worm Inns – haha), and don’t really discuss the use of Red Worms in a normal composter all that much.

The good news is that composting worms can be VERY effective in a backyard composting system – and in fact, I would highly recommend that people add them to these systems since they can help to greatly speed up the process.

There are some important things to keep in mind though. You need to stick to the fundamentals of worm composting (thereby providing at least the minimum requirements of the worms) in order to be successful. You can’t just pile up a bunch of leaves and grass and weeds, then toss in some worms. First and foremost, I would recommend creating a high quality worm composting “habitat”. In order to do this you will need some absorbent bedding materials and some “food” materials.

If you happen to be able to get some well-aged livestock manure (preferably from a farm – not a garden center), this would be the ultimate material to get started. Alternatively, you could mix up some “homemade manure” instead, with perhaps a bit more emphasis on the bedding materials (than suggested in the video and my other homemade manure posts). Once you have a good food-rich (and well moistened) environment for the worms, you can basically toss in whatever you want (within reason, of course). Fall leaves are excellent once moistened and starting to rot. A really great mix is mulched leaves and grass clippings – just lay the leaves out on the grass and run over them with the lawn mower. I would also continue to add water-rich food wastes to a composter containing Red Worms since these materials will not only provide food but they’ll also help to keep things moist.

With backyard systems, one of the things you will definitely want to avoid is adding too much material all at once, since you don’t want the system to overheat and kill off your worms. If you DO have a large volume of material, I recommend doing some “pre-composting” (hot composting for a short period of time) before starting to add the material to the system with the worms.

In terms of how many worms to buy – with outdoor systems there really isn’t any minimum in my mind since it’s not a big deal for everything to sit and decay before the worm population becomes well established. Unless you are pretty savvy with setting up a good composting worm habitat, I would actually likely recommend starting small – since adding a lot of worms to an improperly prepared outdoor system can often result in a lot of worms leaving in a hurry (meaning that most of your money spent has been wasted). A great way to stock an outdoor system is to buy worms that come with their own habitat material – this way they are more likely to settle in and stay put. You might think about putting an ad in a local classified site (Kijiji, Craigslist etc) to see if you can get a small amount of worm-rich material from someone in your area (who is also keeping composting worms).

Anyway – I hope this helps!

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    • John in Huntington Beach
    • April 16, 2010

    Five or six months ago, I went from a multi-tray worm tower to a compost environment for my worms. They love it!!

    I started accidentally when I noticed that I was building a red worm population in the cool side of my two-section compost system. So I began to bury our kitchen waste in the cool side. The grass clippings, leaves, brewers spent grain and other uncomposted material continues to go in the hot side. The hot side is kept moist but not as moist as the cool side.

    Lately when I open a hole to add food waste to the cool side, the pile is just loaded with worms and cocoons. It looks like a living plate of spaghetti!

    When the hot side cools down a bit, the worms mosey over and work through that pile. When I had fresh material and the pile goes to the 140-160 (F) range, they high-tail it for cooler climes. They know how to find the best place for them so I don’t have to.

  1. Hey John,
    You got any pictures of that?

    • Pete from California north coast
    • April 20, 2010

    I am experimenting with worms in my compost. Last fall I built 3 compost cages 3′ diameter out of 1/2″ hardware cloth. I also created a large compost pile on the ground and covered in many layers of free burlap coffee-bean sacks. These piles were approx. 40% VERY aged horse manure with worms and ( I believe) cocoons. I added about 25% used coffee grounds and the balance was mainly straw and leaves.
    My compost cages heated up for awhile and were turned 3 times. The compost pile sat undisturbed. We have had over 45″ of rain this season. When I turned my soggy compost in march I noticed a very active worm population with many juveniles…. so I built a worm cage by lining a wire compost-cage with 4 layers of burlap. I used my undisturbed pile that was amazingly rich with wigglers, earthworms and also nightcrawlers. After adding about a foot of wormy compost, I sat a previously built and established worm bin ( made out of a plastic milk crate lined in burlap) into the center of the bin. I added another milk crate on top with lots of cardboard and kitchen scraps. I then backfilled my cage with the ramainder of the wormy compost. I then dumped a 22 gal tote full of worms on top, covered with 6 layers of burlap, and then added a burlap sack of damp straw as a topper.
    I have uncovered the top once to feed about 5lbs of kitchen scraps.There were many worms in the burlap.
    I hope to keep the cage damp in the summer with a 1/4″ misting hose. I live in a VERY temperate climate. With a little luck and “blind faith” I hope to tumble the worms into a new pile next fall! I will build my second worm cage soon. I will try and post pics.
    Pete ( first year worm farmer)

    • John in Huntington Beach
    • April 20, 2010

    Mark…I don’t have pictures but will try to get a few for you (and for me). May camera is not the best for close-ups but is digital so I can experiment without going broke.

    Our household has gone from two to three (adults) and the increase in veggie food scraps is remarkable. The vermicompost pile seems to be taking the increase in stride. I continue to be amazed at the quantity of worms. Like Pete, I now keep a cover directly on the top of the pile and find the worms like to come right up to it. Early on, I had a large piece of cardboard on top of the cage to keep the rain off and the sun from beating down on the pile. I use wet newspaper and wish I had a supply of free burlap.

    Have fully dismantled my worm tower and will try to find a good home for it.

    • Bentley
    • April 22, 2010

    John and Paul – thanks for sharing! Very interesting stuff – I certainly hope to hear more from both of you about what you are doing!


    • mary jo hagan
    • December 6, 2015

    Finally bought a good home composter. I wondered if I could add worms directly to this compost as it’s breaking down. After reading your article I believe with some aged horse manure I actually could-and should-get a worm population growing there. But, would they live through a Missouri winter? Next I’ll try to find some worms. That part sounds like fun! Thanks, MJH

    • Bentley
    • January 7, 2016

    Hi Mary Jo
    A typical backyard composter with a pit underneath can work very well, and should be able to keep your worms alive over the winter (especially if you add lots of bulky material in the fall and mound dirt up around the base.

    • Ryan
    • April 16, 2020

    I have about 16 left-over leaf bags that I raked up from my home last year. The majority of it is Oak, but there is some maple and other hardwood leaves in some of the bags.

    I had hoped it might be as easy as just “tossin’ some worms into the bags and watering and keeping it cool” but it doesn’t look like tha’ts realistic.

    I’m planning to start a garden in my backard this year and hope to get a hold of a rototiller before memorial day weekend (my planned day for planting). I’m going to get some red wigglers to speed up the mulching process of my leaves and kitchen scraps.

    I think my options after mulching the leaves with my lawnmower are as follows:
    1. Line up the pile of mulched leaves over the area I plan to rototiller (I bet it will only be a few inches deep), keep it moist, shred the leaf bags and add them to help as bedding.
    2. Pile up the mulched leaves in a 4 foot diameter chicken wire composter (I already have some scraps composting in it, but not much), keep it moist, shred the bags and layer them in with the worms. (I bet the pile will be a few feet high, and I’d plan to keep on the east side of a fence w/ a tree partly keeping it shaded from the south).
    3. Repack the mulched leaves back into the leaf bags, adding some of the left-over shredded bags as bedding material, and try to keep them wet and up near the fence on the east side, although not as well shaded as the big compost bin. (if I do this should I punch some holes in the sides or leave the tops open to help with aeration?

    Any suggestions are greatly appreciated!

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