Yard Waste as Worm Food

Here is a question from Natalie:

Greetings Bentley! My husband and I are starting a
vegetable garden on our 1/2 acre of land this year to help with food
costs (don’t you love this economy?) and we wanted to start our own
composting. Both of our parents are composters, my in-laws in the
rotating bins and my parents in a big pile; however both of our
parents have more land on which to hide their composting sites. My
mom suggested vermicomposting because of our limited space. She
vermicomposted in her greenhouse when she was a teenager.

We searched through the internet and found the prices of most of the
bins to be above our means until I found your video on YouTube and
then browsed through your site. It has been very helpful and we have
set up our own bin system for less than $10. Thanks for saving a pair
of newlyweds some money!!

Anyway, I was wondering if any yard items were okay for the worms.
For example, we’ve been pruning shrubs, cutting back growth, and
pulling weeds and want to be able to use those. Can the worms handle
these materials or are they too hardy? Do we just need to use the
grasses and leaves or can we chip the wood into sawdust and use that
too? Are there any plants we need to stay away from? Any help would
be greatly appreciated. 🙂

Hi Natalie,
I love hearing about people taking matters into their own hands like this! You are absolutely right about the value of growing your own food these days (with the poor economy – not to mention plenty of other good reasons), as well as not needing to spend a fortune to get started. In my humble opinion, the most expensive investment with vermicomposting should be the worms themselves, not a fancy worm bin – at least for anyone who really wants to get started with limited funds.

Ok, moving on to your question (an excellent one, by the way)…

There are definitely some things to keep in mind with yard waste. When it comes down to it, you really need to think in terms of decomposition potential. Ideally, worm ‘food’ should break down relatively quickly, should have a pretty high moisture content, and should have a favorable carbon-to-nitrogen ratio – generally somewhere between 20:1 and 40:1.

Obviously, there aren’t going to be too many waste materials that posses ALL of these properties, and that’s where mixing of different materials becomes important.

Soft green wastes, like grass clippings, weeds etc can work well as worm food, but it is best to moisten them, mix them with ‘brown’ materials like fall leaves or shredded cardboard, and let them rot for a bit. If you have an established outdoor worm composting system already, you will probably be fine just adding these at the top of the bin (good ventilation will be important though).

Woody, tough materials are not great as worm foods since the worms can’t derive much nutrition from them (not enough microbes are able to colonize them quickly enough). I would recommend chopping them up as much as possible and simply heaping them (or putting them in a regular composter) for awhile. Mixing with other waste materials such as grass clippings, fall leaves and manure can help as well. After a month or two they will probably be sufficiently decomposed to offer food value (but likely only if they were mixed with other materials).

Be careful with toxic plants like Jimson Weed and Poison Ivy etc – I definitely wouldn’t ever add these directly to a worm bed. If you hot compost them for a few weeks the toxins will likely be broken down completely, but you may still want to avoid using them just to be on the safe side.

Getting back to the ‘green wastes’ – it is also important to consider what the compost is going to be used for. I’m pretty mellow about weed seeds and diseased plants being added to my vermicomposting systems, but you certainly would not want to take chances with either of these if you have some ‘high end’ use in mind for your compost (selling, using on your prized flower beds etc).

Anyway – I hope this helps, Natalie!
I am actually going to be posting an article about using worms in your backyard composter this week, so you might want to keep your eyes peeled for that one as well.

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    • jef
    • April 15, 2009

    Bently, I am also a newbe at this and planning to use my compost as bedding along with shreded cardboard and newspapper. My question is this, as someone that has never raised worms befor, is it smart starting out with cocoons or should I start with bed run worms? I found a site I can order cocoons for a nice price which I thought would get me more worms at fraction of the price, 2-3 weeks down the road. What would your suggestion and anyone elses comments be.
    Also your web site is fantastic. I found it less than a week ago and can’t get enough. I’ve read almost the whole site. Keep up the great work.
    Thanks Jef

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