Worm Ball Composting

Did you know that earthworms communicate through touch? According to a study in Belgium, worms are communal, they don’t act singularly. So, when they are presented with a problem, like cold temperatures, predators nearby, or a dramatic change in their environment, they gravitate towards each other finding solace in a unique herd mentality. Once a decision is made, they will move en mass to their agreed upon destination.

Worm ball composting is a technique I learned from my friend, Dawa Sherpa, who, for years, farmed worms in his compost in Nepal. I used to have a worm compost bin that was separate from my regular compost, until Dawa showed me how to simply combine the two, creating a fast-and-furious compost system aided by the thousands of worms we added to our three compost bins.

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The key is to have a closed system, so the worms don’t get out. Our red worms are now stuck inside our black bins, because the “floor” of the bins is gravel and they have plenty of organic matter to digest in the bins. We used to have “native” worms in our bins, but interestingly enough, I don’t see many of the native worms in there anymore. The red worms process much more matter in a day, so we’re happy to see their population growing.

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So, what’s a worm ball? It’s what worms do when they’re scared and want to run away from predators. Worm balls are the key to separating out the beautiful composted/worm tailings from the worms themselves. Here are the steps to harvesting your beautiful compost and saving the worms therein:

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A little hill of compost is the trick to getting worms to head for the center.

  1. First, grab a tarp and put it out in the sun.
  2. Dump a bucket of your worm-laden compost in on the tarp and make a dome shaped pile.
  3. Place another empty bucket next to you with a handful of compost in it. This will be your worm bucket.
  4. Take the compost from the sides of your hill and pile it on top, continuing to make it a hill shape. The worms will flee away from the sun to the inner part of your hill. They naturally feel the vibration of your hands moving the dirt on the outside of the hill and they crawl hellbent for the center.
  5. As you collect compost from the outside of the hill and sift through it, place all worms that you find into your worm bucket. Place all compost into your other empty bucket. This is the gold you can save to fertilize your gardens.
  6. As you work through all of the compost on the sides of the hill, you’ll end up with a big worm ball in the center. Take the ball and place it in your worm bucket which you can then return to your worm composter so they continue to eat through your organics. Be sure to have some of their favorite fodder left there for them and enough moisture in your compost bin to help them work their way back inside your compost pile.

    Here’s a video of a handful of worms found in the center of my compost hill:

    If you run across any eggs, be sure to put them back into your compost bin. Here’s what the eggs look like:

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    And this is what they look like in the compost:

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Do you have any worm stories to share?

11 thoughts on “Worm Ball Composting

  1. If you are starting a wormery from scratch you can buy worms from a fishing tackle shop. That’s what I did when I first moved here and the ground was like concrete and after turning over a huge area I didn’t see a single worm.

    The common idea around here is to keep the base of the compost bin open so worms can come and go as they please. In the summer my bin lid is often so full of worms the wife won’t even go near it to put scraps in. B-)

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    • Ok, so you use native worms, not the red worms that are known to eat something like two to three times their body weight in organics each day. But here’s the question: How do you separate the compost from the worms when you want to take the compost out of the compost bin and put it on the garden? Do you just take the worms with the compost and sprinkle it all around, losing your precious worms to the garden? Or, do you have a method for separating the little squirmies from the black gold? And if so, how do you do it? That’s where Dawa’s worm ball method comes into play.

      I love it that your wife is afraid of the worms just on the inside of the bin lid! They do tend to congregate around the plastic edges of our bins, too. Maybe it’s to steer clear of the burrowing mice? (Ha ha ha ha! Now that would really keep her from dumping scraps in!)

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      • Typo be honest I don’t separate them. I’ve not had a need to so far. Maybe it’s because my compost bin is very slow. I dig from the bottom and the worms are not there by that point. I’m not sure.

        And I think they are red worms (blood worms as they are known here). They are a real deep red colour. Not the normal brown ones.

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        • Ok, fascinating! I think it makes sense that if the compost is fully cured and composted, they’d move up to the top where all the new food is. My worms tend to be all over the compost, even when it’s beautiful and black and ready for the garden. Not sure why. I, too, harvest from the bottom. Perhaps there are still some organics in there that could use a little more processing. But I can’t wait to get it onto the garden beds in the middle of our wet winters so it can continue to break down a bit into the soil, amending it, before I plant in spring. I do my best to keep all worms in the worm composting factory, so they can keep doing what they do best. Thanks so much for your insights! (I love talking worms.)

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          • It could well be that I over cook my compost. It tends to sit until I need it rather than when it’s ready. Last year I didn’t take any until really late on so I managed to take a huge amount of compost out. And you could see how far it had been churned.

            I have considered making a wormery, but I’m not sure it would work with my normal day to day activities. I just don’t have enough biomatter to keep it up until I start cutting grass in the summer.

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    • Margaret, I wish you luck with your wrigglers. This method of worm composting has been our best and fastest compost provider ever. Mind you, our winters are pretty mild, with temperatures not getting below freezing for more than a few days. I try to throw extra chicken manure into the composter during that time so a portion of the worm composter stays warm throughout our cold spells and the worms can find a cozy spot in the composter to hang out.

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  2. I’ve got a compost bin that’s allowing native worms to move in through the open bottom. Right now it’s too cold, nobody is in there and the food scraps are often almost frozen. But when the sun comes out the whole bucket gets really warm because it’s black and all of the sudden the whole food scraps pile is living. I love composting. It’s so much fun to see who is now sneaking around in it. We’ve got lots of different worms, flies, spiders and three types of birds are coming with their whole families to snack through the small openings on the bin’s side.
    It makes me really happy to see how many creatures we’re feeding with our food left overs. Before we started this, all our food scraps went to a landfill and I guess it’s still in there because nothing is composting in landfills. Composting rocks!

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    • Thanks, Inge! I love your holistic approach to composting, welcoming all creatures great and small to your bio-project. That’s how I see it too. The natural processes are wonderful to be a part of, so long as we don’t attract rats and raccoons. They’ve been a challenge for our chickens.

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  3. Pingback: Worm Ball Composting | Pioneering The Simple Life – WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

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