For all its current popularity worm farming is nothing new. “Vermiculure” and “vermicomposting”  have the kind of sophisticated pseudo-scientific ring that leads one to assume we are dealing with cutting edge technology, run by serious minded people in white lab coats. But the plain truth is that people with very dirty hands  have been making their own worm farms for centuries. They loosely called them earthworm farms or fishing worm farms and the object was simply to maintain a good supply of fishing worms for the angler and his friends throughout the year. As the worm compost aspect was of secondary importance to the fisherman, who was really only interested in growing worms, the general arrangement could be pretty crude, but it was usually effective.


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A Basic Method of Raising Fishing Worms

A simple fisherman’s worm farm, consisting of a single compost bin, was traditionally made from a wooden crate or a rectangular brick, concrete or steel trough. It would have a perforated base or slots for drainage. Nowadays, the bin  would usually be made from opaque plastic, such as the one portrayed below, with a lid and would be set up on a few bricks, to assist drainage. It must be kept out of direct sunlight to avoid excessive summer heat and provision would also have to be made to protect the earthworm farm from the winter cold, in areas subject to frosts. In the traditional method, a thin drainage layer of gravel or sand would be put in to cover the holes/ slots in the base and then a bedding of well rotted manure or old compost, mixed thoroughly with wood shavings or shredded newspaper, would be layered down above this to receive a few hundred worms. Enough water would be sprinkled around to keep everything damp, but not saturated. The mix would then be covered with further bedding material and a sheet of damp burlap (also known as sackcloth or hessian) would be draped over the worm farm, to help keep temperatures even and to keep out flying pests.

Single Bin Composter: A Plastic Storage Bin with Lid

a) The bin is of opaque plastic, with a lid, it is at least 8 inches (200mm) deep

b) Drill 1/4 inch (6mm) holes in bottom and sides for air and drainage

c) Put the bin on blocks to allow for drainage and set it up in protected place in shade


Care of the Worms

A few days after the worms have been introduced, the fisherman/ worm farmer should begin to add organic material to feed them. It is important not to add too much food material at any one time, (to any kind of worm farm) – and especially not fresh manure. Besides attracting pests such as mites and springtails, a large biomass will hasten bacterial activity, which can result in a fast exothermic reaction amongst the decomposing organic material, producing high temperatures. This exothermic reaction is normal (and essential) for ordinary garden composting, but can be fatal in worm composting, as the excessive heat build up can easily kill off all the worms. Rather allow some pre-composting of fresh manure before adding it to the worm bin.

Once the worms have become active and started to produce compost, the farmer should stir or rake up the food/ compost mixture every few days (with a fork or with his hand). This is to aerate the composting mix. Worms love the dark, but need plenty of oxygen.  For this reason you should use an opaque bin – never a transparent or translucent one and always provide sufficient air holes. After the raking, add in more food for the worms and cover again with the bedding material and replace the lid – this helps to help keep pests at bay. Never let the bedding become completely dried out – generally there should be enough moisture in normal kitchen waste to keep the compost moist, but don’t hesitate to spray a little water around if you think it is necessary.


Keep the worm environment moist

Always keep the worm environment moist

As long as there are no extremes of temperature and the bedding remains damp, but not saturated, the worms will flourish and proliferate on a regular supply of kitchen scraps. From our perspective, as vermicomposters,, the only problem with this simple single bin unit is that it is not easy to separate the worms from the compost. This fact was never important for the fisherman, who would simply dump both into his bait can . However a more efficient system is required, if we want to “harvest” the compost, while leaving the worms behind to continue the composting process.


Established Ways of Separating the Compost from the Worms

A part solution for this problem would be to make the worm farm in the form of a longish trough and then start the worm composting from just one end of the bin. The idea is to add the worm’s food progressively in stages, moving along the length of the trough – thus feeding the compost worms only at the leading end, and so encouraging them to slowly make their way along the trough, away from the starting point, which would contain no further fresh food for them – The worms would thus slowly migrate along the trough, after the food, leaving behind them the already composted worm castings – the very product we seek.  When they reach the end, simply start the process in the opposite direction, after removing the all the usable compost, which by then should hopefully be more or less free of worms.


The Stacked Tire Worm Farm

If space is a problem, much the same process as described above can be carried out vertically, by progressively building up a stack of used car tires on a well drained base. Waste material, as food, would be added from the top, which would be covered to keep out pests and the stack would be raised, by adding a new tire whenever required. The worms would be most active in the upper feeding layer and migrate upwards towards source, while the worm compost would then be collected by pulling the bottom tire horizontally out of the stack, which with a little effort can be done without disturbing too many worms. You’d have to be strong for this, or use a bar for leverage, as car tires full of damp worm castings are not light!

Car tyres worm farm

You set up the first tire on a perforated board, placed on a few bricks. This is for drainage and will also allow for the upward flow of air through the stack.. Better still, if you wish to collect the worm tea, the tire can be set onto a slightly sloping corrugated metal roof sheet, which will direct the liquid run off into a container. Initially you are now going to treat this first tire as a single bin composter, as described above. However, when the worms are well established and the compost has more or less filled the first tire, add a second tire above the first. It is less messy in the long run if, at this point, you separate the two layers with burlap or even a well perforated plastic sheet, which will allow the upward migration of the worms and some ventilation. To improve the air flow, you can place a few thin slats or rods to open a few small air gaps between the two tires. After this you just continue as before, adding tires above, as you pull out the compost below.

The beauty of this system is that it costs next to nothing and it is easy to expand the scale of the operation, by bringing in more old tires to put up multiple banks of individual worm farms – as many as desired.  Admittedly, the stacks of tires would be a bit unsightly in a suburban home, but this system would be an excellent addition to any school feeding garden in a poor community.


Further information can be seen about the importance of stacked tire worm farming in an ezine article, written by us: stacked tire worm farm