Winter Worm Garden

A long (but really interesting) email question from Michael:

Hey there, I started my own worm garden for an experiment
back in march of this year … wanted to see if i could do it and see
if it was viable so i could sell the extra worms { have a few paylakes
waiting on me to produce enough to sell to them} i started with a
dozen worms just to try .. they are in a 2 ft by 2 ft box .. give or
take a few inches and its about 8 inches deep .. they have reproduced
but it doesnt seem alot .. probably up to 20 or 30 worms now .. wish
there were more but its only been 7 months.. anyway .. im interested
in knowing if they will survive the winter here in ohio .. i live in
the cincinnati area. so weather is iffy … either rainy and 30ish or
sunny and teens to twenties in winter..gets really cold in late jan.
and feb 0-10 ish is this box big enough for them or do i need to get
a bigger box .. they are outdoors and i dont want them to die .. have
quite a few worm eggs in there now too..and would it help getting a
pound or two more worms .. i have access to as large of boxes that i
need .. just not sure what to but in a large box for bedding .. i have
5 acres off wooded land and plenty of grass,twigs,and leaves ..if they
can eat that? plenty of left over food scraps … .. but when it gets
could will this stuff freeze up or will decomposition keep it warm
enough for the worms, i can also get hay or straw if this would help
and im looking at bringing home a 4 ft tall three foot wide box with
lid from work .. how many worms should i put in something this large
to get them to reproduce ..and is now a good time to buy so the have
time to reproduce some before spring? want to try and have some for
sale by march{ will have this experiment goin on for 1 year lol …
would love to sell something for an anniversary present.{ i am using
redworms} thank you very much ..

My Audio Response

My Written Response

Hi Michael,
Thanks for writing in – lots of interesting tidbits there!
Based on the fact that you bought “a dozen” worms, I get the feeling you purchased them from a bait shop, and suspect you may have Canadian Nightcrawlers (Lumbricus terrestris) – a large soil worm commonly used for fishing. If your system was indoors and you ended up with 20-30 worms I might think differently (since Canadians won’t breed readily in smaller indoor beds – the worms, that is! haha), but the fact that the system IS outside and likely in contact with the soil (you’ve referred to it as a ‘garden’), so that would seem plausible.

Just so you know, even the slowest of composting worms would produce a MUCH larger population than that in 7 months! Quite some time ago I started up an experiment called “Four Worm Reproduction Experiment” that basically involved starting a worm bin with 4 Red Worms and seeing how quickly they reproduced. I totally neglected the system, yet after 5 months or so (when I did a tally of the worms) there had been a 25-fold increase in numbers! Imagine if I had actually taken good care of them?

Bottom-line, the good news is that you definitely will be able to raise worms a LOT more quickly than that – but you really do need to get a hold of one of the composting species (Red Worms or European Nightcrawlers are both a good choice for cooler climates, but the Reds will most likely breed more quickly for you). If you are planning to raise these worms for sale as fishing bait, you may want to go with Euros since they are larger (although, as I have written previously, Red Worms can be a great fishing worm as well).

Moving on to the topic of winter worm composting…

You live in Cincinnati, so perhaps you already know that Red Wigglers are “the Cadillac of Worms”! (rather obscure joke – sorry! That was a radio jingle on the show “WKRP in Cincinnati”).

Seriously though, you are certainly well south of me (in Southern Ontario, Canada) so your winter won’t be as severe – and yes, you certainly can keep worms alive over the winter. Keeping a totally active worm composting system is a different matter altogether, although that could certainly be done as well (been there, done that – bought the T-shirt! haha).

Not sure if I will be too late in telling you this, but one of the best ways to protect your worm bed will be be piling up a lot of fall leaves over it – sounds like you are in a prime location to collect them (hopefully you haven’t bagged them all up and sent them away). You mentioned being able to get straw/hay as well – fantastic! These are excellent insulation/food materials. The hay in particular would serve a double function of food and insulation since it is richer in nitrogen – it will be especially important in the spring as the bed warms up and the worms start to get active again.

If you want to insulate a bed with elevated sides (such as the bin with 4 ft walls you mention), I would highly recommend stacking straw bales all around the outside. If you have a bed that is low-lying, this won’t really be necessary – just heap everything up over top.

Using some sort of a tarp over top will provide a great final layer of insulation (especially if it is a huge tarp that can be folded multiple times) and will act as an important wind break. If you also get lots of snow, piling it over top of the tarp will provide you with one final layer of insulation.

I suspect that you would be ok setting up the system now, but do so ASAP and prepare the bed before adding the worms. Again, we are talking about composting worms here, so you will want to set this up like a giant vermicomposting system (bedding mixed with food). If you have access to any aged manure, this would work really well mixed with shredded cardboard and leaves/straw, along with the food waste you mentioned. Fill your bed with this then let it sit for a week or two before adding the worms. Make sure you get yourself some sort of a compost thermometer as well – you definitely don’t want to end up cooking your worms! Speaking of which, to answer your question – yes, microbial heating can be enough to keep the worms warm BUT you will need a “critical mass” and really good insulation if you have any hopes of sustaining the warm conditions.

If you really DO want to create an active winter worm bed, you will probably want a system somewhat larger than the one you mentioned, and again, using bales of straw to create walls can work really well. Be sure to check out my Winter Worm Composting posts on the ‘Hot Topics‘ page. The posts about my big winter worm bed should help to provide you with some ideas.

Anyway – I hope this helps, Michael.
Good luck!

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  1. HEY! Michael,
    I grew up in Cincinnati!
    Haave some Skyline for PLEASE!

    • michael
    • November 13, 2009

    can red worms and the euros be in the same bin? and are the euros slow breeders?

    • Bentley
    • November 13, 2009

    Hi Michael,
    Euros and Reds CAN be in the same system, but if you goal is raising worms for sale I would personally recommend not doing so. The Euros can indeed be slower to reproduce and grow and the added competition with the more active Reds will likely only serve to impede their progress. Further, if you DO plan to raise both separately – make sure you keep their systems a good distance apart, since the Reds may end up invading the Euro system(s) otherwise.

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