Building a Low-Cost Worm Composting System on the Balcony

by L Matthews on May 20, 2013

red wiggler wormsSince moving into a small apartment from a house with a back garden where I set up a composting bin I’ve been playing the sad game of ‘where to put the compost?’ I eat a lot of produce, as does my pooch, and I really abhor having to throw perfectly good organic matter away to head to landfill so I began storing the tops and tails of carrots, used teabags, coffee grounds and onion skins, etc., in tupperware in my freezer. I quickly ran out of tupperware and freezer space and was sad to see that balcony worm composting systems are around 50-20050-. Not for this newly single freelancer with all those pesky bills to pay and clients avoiding their invoices! What to do.

Luckily, I have friends with benefits… like hand tools. Welcome to East Van-living, where you pop over for mimosas and vegan puff pancakes with coconut bacon and come away with a stack of seed packets and an electric drill.

Can’t afford a deluxe worm skyscraper? Don’t have a back garden and a big ol’ compost bin? Don’t worry, head on over to, ah, London Drugs, Welks, Canadian Tire or one of those other weird and wonderful stores and get yourself a rubbermaid bin for $9. Shallow and wide is best but just make sure it is opaque or be prepared to cover it so your worms are protected from the light. Rubbermaid bins are great because the plastic won’t crack when you drill into it, which you’re about to do. Let’s make a wormery!

rubbermaid bin worm composter1. First up, drill yourself some holes in the sides of your bin. These are for letting air in for your lovely worms when they arrive. Be careful as the plastic can cause the drill bit to slip. This is the perfect post-mimosa activity… ahem. Drill about five holes (mine were about a 0.75cm diameter) near the lip of the bin on each side and then six or seven holes in the lid.

worm composting rubbermaid bin with holesIf you want to get fancy you can also drill holes in the bottom of the bin and even insert a tap of some kind so that you get delicious worm juice to fertilise your plants. I am not that fancy, yet.

worm composter bedding cardboard2. Make a nice bed for your worms. Not only are these fussy little compost-munching dudes all about being kept in the dark, they also want a snuggly bed so shred some newspaper, cardboard and, in my case, old beer totes and Amy’s cheeseless pizza boxes, and have a layer of about two inches thick across the bottom of the bin. Take advantage of your shredding frenzy and create a second pile of the same amount (or more!) for later.

kitchen composting with worms3. Add in your first layer of kitchen scraps. It pays to learn a little about worms’ favourite foods at this point. They like cardboard and leaves and chopped up bits of vegetables. They can tolerate teabags and coffee grounds, aged animal manures (from backyard chickens etc.) as well as rice, potatoes, bread and egg shells.

worm composting kitchen scrapsThese things they are not so fond of: citrus fruits (so only add these sparingly), oils and grease, meat and dairy, non biodegradable things, harsh chemicals (especially antimicrobial ones!) or human or pet waste. Luckily, there will be no meat or dairy getting anywhere near this vegan worm bin but if you aren’t vegan, or share a bin with nonvegans, make sure not to include these things. Even my worms are vegan yo!

worm composting soak your cardboard4. Add your second layer of cardboard and paper to cover the food waste and then give it a good soaking. You are making tasty soup for your worms and it’s going to take about a week to cook. The reason for this is that worms do not just munch on the ends of carrots straight from your refrigerator, they eat food waste only after it has already been broken down a little by microbes. Let your bin sit on your balcony, sealed of course, for about a week and the contents will get to a stage where it is simply delicious for those red wigglers.

5. Order your worms or, in my case, arrange to worm-nap some critters from a friend. The simply marvellous has a wealth of info on wormeries and also sells worms in Canada and the US. One thing I really like about them is that they don’t just pile a bunch of worms into a box and ship it to you, assuming that some will die and that it’s best to get as many worms in a bin as possible. No, instead, they genuinely seem to care about their worms and recommend a minimum amount for your new bin so that the worms can decide for themselves how big a population is sustainable. It’s like radical social reform is happening, on my balcony.

Having said that, I’m not ordering my worms from them as, aside from hand drill-owning friends, I also have a friend with worms (in a good way) so I’m getting myself some locally grown worms. Be warned that you cannot just dig up some earthworms from a friend’s garden because those dudes just don’t have what it takes for high-rise living.

worm types for compostingThe worms you want are called Dave, Jeff, Benji and Conrad… oh, wait, no they’re called Eisenia fetida / andrei. These guys like to hang out in large (writhing) groups whereas earthworms are more of the antisocial stay-at-home-in-their-dark-burrow types (you fussy scientists might like to learn the words ‘anecic’ and ‘epigeic’ – the latter are social worms, the former not so much. Putting a load of earthworms in a balcony wormery is like storming a university dorm and dragging out all of the shy bookworms and nerdy internet-dwellers who have hidden all semester and throwing them into a very small elevator with a ton of cake and saying “wooohoooo! paaaaarteeeeeeh!” You’ll get disappointed looks for a while, someone will cry and it’ll turn into battle royale before you’ve even tooted that kazoo. Get the right worms.

6. Ah. I haven’t reached this stage yet, so suffice it to say, my bin is sitting on my balcony, doing its thing as I get ready to go to Vida Vegan Con in Portland later this week (toot that kazoo). When I return, I shall acquire my worms and bring them to their new home, whereupon I shall add in a little layer of existing compost to my newly created balcony wormery so they feel instantly at home. Then, fellow wormers, I shall enjoy never throwing organic waste away again. Worm juice galore to fertilise all the kale in my burgeoning balcony container garden!

NB: I’m of the opinion that a wormery is consistent with vegan living but what do you guys think? Is this exploitation? I try to walk the line of compassion, environmental awareness and living lightly so it works for me… just like having a rescue dog who is vegan. Let me know if you’re of a different opinion, or if you agree, and why!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Shishkoff May 26, 2013 at 19:42

Good q on the vegan-ness of keeping worms… I don’t know if the dog analogy quite fits, because they’re truly dependent on us, and a vegan would adopt a dog as a rescue… In this case, if you’re getting worms from another bin, you’re clearly taking free-living worms from their home, and keeping them in captivity, no? And worse: if you were to ‘buy’ them, you’re supporting an animal breeder and exploiter..?!

I see that as the ‘facts’ of the matter…do with it what you will. 😉

I had one of these back in the late 90’s, but since then i’ve decided to simply find a neighbor with an outdoor compost, and would wander over there every week and drop off my scraps. Luckily, Victoria now has curbside compost pick-up, so it’s super-easy!! (Although i’m worried the city will kick us off the program, i keep having to pull out plastic bags and even styrofoam trays the landlords upstairs keep tossing in it…!!!!)

Ana September 15, 2014 at 05:02

Hello the link to the McCrawls Redworms isn’t working. I’d like to check this out if it is local to Orange. Also, I’m wrdoenin if you will do a site visit’. I met you at the Farmer’s Market and bought the 360 from you a number of months ago, and finally set it up just last month. However, I think there is too much bedding and not enough worms and was wrdoening if you would check out my worm bin set-up and give some advice.Thanks, Casey Silva

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