Aerobic Compost Tea, Worm Tea, and Leachate—A Clarification

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In the course of preparing for our Texas Master Gardener Worm Bin Workshop, I came across a lot of inconsistent information. Among the most confusing issues was that many sources both online and in print seem to confuse the terms referring to leachate and worm tea. The same sources also seem to blow it again when talking about worm tea versus aerobic compost tea. It’s easy to find yourself hopelessly confused!

In this article, I hope to demystify the subject a bit and provide clarity on a confusing topic.


Myh Worm bin


Let’s start with leachate, the liquid that comes off the worm bin.

What is Leachate?

One of the most contentious issues in worm composting is what to do with the leachate. The most common definition of leachate is any liquid that, in the course of passing through matter, extracts soluble or suspended solids, or any other component of the material through which it has passed.

Leachate is a widely used term in the environmental sciences industries, where it has the specific negative meaning of a liquid that has dissolved environmentally harmful substances that may come to enter the environment. But for the purposes of this article, we are defining leachate as the raw liquid runoff (or seepage) that settles in or below the vermicompost or worm castings in a worm bin.

The controversy stems, in large part, from the debate over aerated compost tea versus non-aerated compost tea. Fans of aerated compost tea do not like the fact that worm bin leachate is anaerobic, which they believe encourages the growth of microorganisms unfavorable to plants. They like to point out that worm bin leachate is not aerated compost tea.

This is completely true, but I am not so convinced that this is a big problem. Those critical of using this “worm juice” do make valid points, and I, too, recommend using leachate with care, but I did find two peer-reviewed studies showing the benefits of unaerated worm compost leachate: “Vermicomposting Leachate (Worm Tea) as Liquid Fertilizer for Maize” and “Vermicompost Leachate Alleviates Deficiency of Phosphorus and Potassium in Tomato Seedlings.” I also found several Extension Service publications that tout the use of worm bin leachate.

It is not at all unusual for folks to be a little hazy on what to do with their “worm juice.” One lady I spoke with the other day said, “We just changed our bins to add a drainage system. I just pulled the cork out and got nearly two cups of worm juice. My husband is trying to convince me that I should go ahead and feed it to my house plants, but I’m worried that adding this cocktail to my basically inert potting soil might stir up problems. Is it safe to use this stuff as a fertilizer?”

Another person said, “I get this dark liquid from my worm bins. I’m thinking most of the juice came from the castings and might have some great stuff in it, and not a lot of rotten stuff, and that’s why I kind of want to give it to the plants. Is that a bad idea? I just want to know what the heck to do with it. It’s winter here, so I can’t put it on my garden beds outside. I really don’t want to waste it, though! What do people do with it? Do you put it on your house plants, and have you gotten a good reaction from it?”

These are excellent questions. I’ve talked and written about this topic a number of times, but it’s definitely one that continues to confuse people and deserves to be revisited from time to time.

Unfortunately, there seems to be misleading information provided by some worm bin manufacturers (and website owners). The terms “worm tea,” “worm compost tea,” “castings tea,” or “vermicompost tea” should actually refer to the liquid fertilizer created by steeping (soaking) quality castings/compost in water (often aerated) for a period of time.

The problem is that many people refer to the liquid that drains out from a worm bin as “worm tea.” This is incorrect. The proper term for this is actually “leachate.”

Obviously, we’re only talking about semantics here, so it may seem that I’m splitting hairs, but keeping the distinction between these terms is actually quite important.

While leachate can certainly have value as a liquid fertilizer (especially when drained from a mature worm bin and diluted), it should be treated with a lot more caution than good-quality worm tea.

As water passes down through a worm bin, it can pick up all sorts of unstable metabolites (various products/intermediates of the decomposition process). If, for example, you have some fairly anaerobic zones in your worm bin, you can end up with various phytotoxins (toxins that can harm plants and humans). Some of these toxins are created by bacteria.

Every worm bin has good and bad microbes. This is perfectly fine and is even expected—provided, of course, that the good ones outnumber the bad ones.

Some leachate can contain harmful pathogens because it has not been processed through the worms’ intestinal tracts. It is often recommended that it should not be used on garden plants you plan to serve to your friends and family.

During decomposition, waste releases liquid from its cell structures as it breaks down. This leachate seeps down through the worm composter into the collection area. The leachate should be drained regularly, and if you are getting more than 2-4 ounces of liquid in a week, the worm composter is probably too wet!

If your composter has a spigot attached, I would recommend leaving the spigot open with a container underneath to catch the leachate. This will prevent it from building up in your system. Just keep an eye on it to make sure your container doesn’t overflow!

If, like me, you have a homemade worm bin, you can keep a drip pan underneath to catch the leachate.


worm castings


Finished composts are much better to use for brewing worm tea because they are much more uniform in composition, and the vast majority (if not all) the potentially harmful compounds have been converted into something more stabilized.

The microbial community present in these materials tends to be more beneficial, as well.

I’m not trying to scare you here, and I am not implying that leachate is “poison” and should never be used. I’m simply saying that while leachate can have value as a liquid fertilizer, it should be treated with caution. For every story extolling the benefits of using leachate, there is one lamenting problems from having used it.

If you decide you want to use leachate, I recommend taking some extra steps:

1. Do not use it if it smells bad! It should smell like earth (and not gross) when it comes out of the worm composter. If it smells bad, pour it out on an area like a roadway or driveway where it cannot harm living plants or animals.
2. Dilute it at a ratio of 10 parts water to 1 part leachate (10:1).
3. Aerate it with an air pump if available.
4. Use it outdoors on shrubs, ornamentals, or flowering plants only. Do not use on plants you intend to eat.

What Is Worm Tea?

Now let’s move on to the next confusing liquid: worm tea. Worm tea is about what it sounds like—worm castings steeped in water for a certain amount of time.

“Fresh earthworm castings contain more organic material—nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium—than soil itself,” according to Texas Agrilife Extension Service. Worm castings and the tea you make from them also ward off root-knot nematodes—a parasitic creature that causes deformed roots and drains nutrients out of plants. Plants like strawberries that tend to attract fungal spores will also benefit. Castings contain anti-fungal chemicals that help kill the spores of black spot and powdery mildew.


Worm tea


Making simple worm tea is really nothing more than steeping—much like making any other tea you would drink yourself. It is very easy, and it is good for your plants, too.

In the process of steeping, water is added to the earthworm castings to simply extract the microbes from the castings into the water. The resulting liquid solution is then applied to plants or soil in various ways.

Many bottled teas you see on the shelf use this method.

To make your own, just take a bunch of worm castings and put them in the bottom third of a bucket. Fill the rest of the bucket with rainwater or non-chlorinated water (or tap water left out in the sunlight for 24 hours if you must). Let the mixture steep for 24 hours. Strain out the solids, dilute with water at a 1:1 ratio, and apply directly to your plants or soil.

What is Aerobic Compost Tea?


aerobic worm tea


Aerobic compost tea is also known as aerobic worm tea, and it is known mostly for its ability to boost microbiological activity in soil by adding beneficial bacteria, fungi, acinomycetes, and protozoa to the soil. It is brewed either by soaking a porous bag full of worm castings in water or by simply dumping the castings into a container of clean, chemical-free water. Molasses, corn syrup, or another microbial food source is then added to the water as a catalyst to stimulate growth of the microbes. And finally, an air-pumping system is installed to create an aerobic (or oxygenated) environment for the multiplying microorganisms.

Aerobic compost tea is beneficial in many ways. The microbes delivered in aerobic compost tea help plants by out-competing anaerobic and other pathogenic organisms within the soil. These beneficial microorganisms can also move in to occupy infected sites on plants’ root and leaf surfaces. Brewing aerobic compost tea speeds up the growth rate of microbes such as bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes, and multiplies their numbers exponentially. As a result, this method populates your garden with beneficial microbes more rapidly than applying worm castings alone.

When you spray or pour the tea on the soil, you are not only feeding the plant, but also increasing the number of beneficial microbes in the soil, thus crowding out the bad ones. It has been proven that the tea, along with the castings, can significantly increase plant growth, as well as crop yields, in the short term (a season) and especially in the long term over a period of several seasons.

Along with these great benefits come a boost in the plant’s own immune system, enabling it to resist parasites like the infamous aphid, tomato cyst eelworms, and root-knot nematodes. Plants produce certain hormones that insects find distasteful, so they are repelled. Aerobic compost tea also helps a plant to resist diseases such as Pythium and Rhizoctonia.

When either worm tea or the more effective aerobic compost tea is sprayed on leaves and foliage, detrimental and disease-causing microbes are again outnumbered and cannot grow their numbers to dominate any single plant. The teas also aid the plant in creating the “cuticle,” a waxy layer on top of the epidermis, or plant skin. This waxy surface protects the leaves from severe elements and reduces attacks by certain harmful microorganisms and insects.

Making Your Own Compost Tea

Making any type of organic compost tea involves a few key steps:

  1. Choosing the right compost
  2. Choosing the right nutrients
  3. Brewing and applying the tea correctly

Please note that the instructions below are only meant to give you some background about tea making, not a step-by-step guide on how to make the teas. We provide information on that elsewhere on the site, such as in this article by David the Good:

Read More: “Compost Tea: An Easy Way to Stretch Compost”

The compost used in making tea is like the starter you use in making yogurt. The compost inoculates the tea with organisms. Thus, you want the compost you begin with to have a good diversity of beneficial organisms. Worm castings are super for this purpose!

Keep in mind that different plants differ in their soil preferences. Some need a bacteria-dominated soil, others want a fungi-dominated soil, and still others like a soil that’s somewhere in between.

When making an organic compost with more fungi, mix in larger amounts of cardboard, paper, sawdust, wood shavings, and heavy stalk plant material as you prepare the compost. For bacterial dominance, use food waste and green plant waste. Whatever compost you use, be sure it is finished, well-stabilized compost, and that it’s fairly fresh. Again, worm castings are ideal for this.

As I mentioned above, I really like to use rainwater whenever I can, but you can always use dechlorinated water. One old-timer I talked to said he only ever uses pond water to make his compost teas. I have seen his garden, and I can tell you it looks to me like using pond water is a good way to go!

The nutrients you introduce while brewing also influence the finished tea.

To encourage the development of fungi in the tea, you can mix two parts humic acid; two parts yucca, saponin, or aloe vera; and one part fish hydrolyzate or other proteins into the water.

For bacterial dominance, you can feed one liquid ounce blackstrap molasses per gallon of tea and and an equal amount of cold-water kelp. For the molasses, you can also substitute brown sugar, honey, or maple syrup if you like.


Raised bed results


Go to the library or search online for information on leachate, worm tea, and aerobic compost tea and you will find many sources of conflicting information, mainly over the terminology involved in determining what is actually leachate and what is a worm tea (be it aerobic or simple tea). The main thing to remember is that while any form of worm tea may not sound too appetizing to you and me, our plants will really love it.

Worm tea lets you fertilize without adding bulk to your soil, and water your garden with something really healthy for your plants. Trust me here, your garden will practically jump up and shout “Hallelujah!” when fertilized with either worm tea or aerobic compost tea, and you will be amazed at the growth, flowering, and fruiting that results.

Spray your plants liberally on the leaves, stems, and surrounding soil. Use teas on clay soil to begin its transformation to humus. Use them on your flowers indoors and out, and on your other house plants to feed and nourish both the plants and the soil.

Read More: “Fertilizing Container Gardens: A Beginner’s Guide”

Use teas on your compost pile to introduce the microbial activity and hasten the compost pile’s beneficial breaking-down process. Inoculate the ground surrounding your fruit trees. Use them on manure piles that stink and marvel at how fast the stink and flies go away! A properly brewed worm tea is child, pet, and wildlife friendly.

A few things to keep in mind:

Foliar Spray/Wash: It’s best to spray all surfaces of your plants in the early morning or late afternoon when the suns angle is low and less intense. When possible, do your foliar spraying on clear days, since rain may wash away some of the microbial activity.
Soil Inoculant/Drenching: Always apply teas out of direct, intense sunlight. Use them pure or dilute them (10:1 is a suggested maximum dilution rate). Dilution ratios vary for different application techniques and equipment. An ideal time to apply is during periods of mist or fog, but not heavy rain. Alternately, irrigate a little before your application to ensure the microbes will survive and can travel more quickly and safely to their new job locations. Always use nonchlorinated water.
Smell: If a tea stinks, do not use it on your vegetables, as it is demonstrating anaerobic properties and may contain pathogens. Some suggest you use this stinky mix on an undesirable weed bed!

In Summary

Leachate–The correct word for the dark liquid that comes out of the bottom of your worm bin. If your bin is maintained correctly, you should have very little leachate and what you do have can be used safely (in 1:10 diluted form) on your ornamental plants. Sometimes leachate is incorrectly referred to as “worm tea.” Some sites refer to it as “worm wee,” but even that is technically incorrect.

Simple Worm Tea–A mix of worm castings and water. Useful if you don’t have an air pump but still want some liquid fertilizer from your worm bin.

Aerobic Compost Tea–An aerated mixture of worm castings, nonchlorinated water, and molasses or another microbial food source. It contains an active culture of microorganisms and should be used immediately, otherwise the benefit of aeration is all but lost.

I really hope that this article helps clear things up. I know that many of you may not agree with the terminology I have used in this article, but I think that using the above will help to demystify an area of gardening that can be of great benefit to all of us!

(This article was originally published October 2, 2015.)


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Compost Tea: An Easy Way to Stretch Your Compost

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Don’t Kill Yourself Making Compost!

Long ago, I used to spend a lot of time making big piles of greens and browns—carefully mixed, watered, turned, and sifted…. And yet I never had enough compost to go around.

I’m sure you know the feeling!

I still make piles, since I like to have fine compost for sprinkling on new garden beds and making my own potting mixes; however, I no longer rely on finished compost for the majority of my fertilizing.

Instead, I’ve got a much easier system: compost tea.

Read More: “How to Make Composting Easy”

Watch Me Make Compost Tea

This is my favorite way to make free fertilizer. I use moringa leaves, manure, urine, compost, weeds, and other nitrogen-rich materials. I put them in a big barrel, top it off with water, and then let it rot on down into liquid fertilizer for my gardens. I’ll also add a cup or two of Epsom salts if I have them available for the extra magnesium and sulfur.

After a couple of weeks of sitting in the sun and rotting, you’ve got a compost tea with some serious fertilizing power. Take a look:

How to Use Compost Tea

I’ve fed big plots of corn and other crops effectively with very little trouble and very little material after discovering how well this anaerobic composting method works. It’s similar to Bokashi composting, but without having to buy Bokashi starter. Just let nature take its course, and you’ll have a rich, green garden like I do.

Warning: You don’t want to pour this stuff on your greens or on other crops you’re going to eat right away, as it is most definitely not safe for consumption!

I cover this method in my popular book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting, and I’ve had people write in and share their own successful experiments with the “big stinky barrel o’ fertility” method. Give it a try. Aside from the smell, I think you’ll like it.

A Quick Update

Here’s another video I made that offers specifics about my anaerobic compost tea recipe … even more stinky goodness from my “tea pot”! Won’t you be my neighbor?

(This article was originally published July 8, 2016.)

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‘7 Ways to Feed Your Garden for Free’

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Last year, David the Good filmed a fun (and funny) presentation for The Grow Network’s Home Grown Food Summit on how you can keep your garden fed and maximize the nutrition in your food without spending a dime.

Well, we’re a Community of sustainability-minded DIYers who like to find ways to turn trash into garden treasure, so is it any wonder that David’s video on “7 Ways to Feed Your Garden for Free” ended up being one of the event’s most popular presentations? (Plus, you know, David is just a likeable, funny guy, so that probably helped, too. 🙂 )

Read More: “Homemade Fertilizers—15 Simple and Inexpensive Options”

Anyway, David posted this video on YouTube on February 4, aaaaaand it’s already got more than 10,000 views. Translation? You should watch it now, too! 🙂

Here it is:

As David says, “The presentation clocks in at about 45 minutes long and should be a great inspiration for your spring gardening plans.”

Amen to that!

Then, let your TGN Community know in the comments: What are some other ways you like to feed your garden for free?


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The Laws of Nature: A Touchstone for Gardening

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As a rule, when we grow plants, we follow some known practices. The practices may be based on our own experience, on the wisdom of our parents and grandparents, or on scientific research. Whatever the source, it is useful to examine the practices through the lens of the Laws of Nature, sometimes referred to as ecological principles.

The Laws of Nature are broad and substantive statements for how nature functions.

So the question becomes, “Are our plant-growing practices in harmony with or in conflict with the Laws of Nature?”

What other criteria would we use for how we treat our lands, the soils, and all ecosystems, if not the Laws of Nature?

I think of this as a pyramid, with practices on the top, undergirded by Laws of Nature criteria. Then, the practices and Laws are undergirded by our personal land-use ethics.

9 Laws of Nature

Below, I’ve listed nine Laws of Nature.

This list is not fully inclusive; some may seem to be more pertinent than others; and someone else may choose to describe them in a different manner. Nevertheless, they are all statements that hold true, with rare exceptions.

In my garden, if a practice violates a Law of Nature, I look for a substitute practice that is in harmony with the Law.

This broad topic has deep implications and is worthy of further study. The more we understand and apply these Laws, the more we can grow healthier crops, become healthier ourselves, and more fully appreciate the magnificence of nature.

Calvin Bey - Harmony Gardens

#1: Everything in Nature Is Connected

It’s like a huge spider web. Every spot on the web is connected to the whole web. All the factors effecting growth and development—from the minerals in the air to the plant’s physiological processes to the soil microbes to hundreds of additional factors—are all part of the whole.

The implications of this concept are significant.

For example, apply too much nitrogen and the plants get a pretty green color, but at the same time produce an excessive amount of simple carbohydrates, which are ideal foods for the ever-present aphids.

Chemicals and other toxins that reduce soil microorganisms have impacts on soil mineralization and soil digestion processes, which all affect quality and quantity of production. For example, if your soil has a shortage of available calcium, a tomato plant is not likely to set fruit.

Laws of Nature - Mile-High Corn - Calvin Bey

#2: Plants Are Designed to be Healthy

Like humans and other living organisms, plants have an immune system that makes them resistant to insects and diseases that are native to their environment. Plants become weak and sick when they become stressed because of environmental factors, inadequate nutrition, and/or exposure to toxins.

Chemical pesticides and fertilizers create plant and soil conditions that are not conducive to the desirable bacteria and fungi in the soil. The soil microbiome is part of the plant’s defense mechanism.

#3: Insects and Disease Are the Appropriate Response to the Existing Conditions

Insect problems and disease are the result of plant weakness, not the cause of plant weakness. When we improve the conditions, we improve plant resistance. Diseases are nature’s demolition crew and insects are nature’s garbage collectors. Both are appropriate when plants are stressed. Unhealthy plants actually send signals to the insects so they can perform their meaningful designed role.

#4: Mineral Nutrition Supports Plant Immunity

When plant growth is supported with proper mineral nutrition, plants will create higher-order compounds—for example, plant secondary metabolites like essential oils. This and other enzyme developments can lead to optimum levels of health and immunity.

The thousands of enzymes needed in metabolic processes each require a mineral “enzyme cofactor” to function. Without the mineral cofactors, enzyme pathways collapse and plants accumulate soluble compounds in plant sap, leading to pest infestations as plant health begins to fall apart.

#5: Microbial Metabolites Are More Efficient Than Simple Ions as a Source of Nutrition

The ultimate level of plant nutrition and immunity exists when plants can absorb the majority of their nutritional requirements as microbial metabolites. In this model, the soil microbial community serves as the plant’s digestive system. A complex community of soil microorganisms digest and break down organic residues and plant root exudates. In this digestive process, minerals are extracted from the soil mineral matrix and released in a bioavailable form that plants absorb and utilize very efficiently.

Laws of Nature - Strawberry Harvest - Calvin Bey

#6: When Fruit Quality Improves, Yields Increase

When management emphasis is placed on plant nutrition to improve quality, the immunity of the crop increases, creating higher yields, longer produce shelf-life, improved flavor, and reduced dependence on pesticides.

This fundamentally different approach to plant nutrition can lead to yield increases ranging from 10–30 percent. Yield increases come in not only bushels per acre, but also in higher test weights, increased protein production, and increased nutrition per acre.

#7: Healthy Plants Create Healthy Soil—an Investment in Their Own Future

It is commonly understood that healthy soils create healthy plants. The reverse is also true.

Healthy plants create healthy soils.

Healthy plants with high levels of energy can, at times, send as much as 70 percent of their total photosynthates (manifested as sugars, amino acids, and other compounds) into the roots, and then out through the roots and into the soil. Those root exudates are the fuel that feed the soil microbial community and lead to the rapid formation of organic matter.

This process, called carbon induction, is the fastest and most efficient way to sequester carbon and build soil organic matter.

It is an advantage to the plants to invest in soil building. Root exudates rapidly build humic substances. Humic compounds last in the soils for many years. In the end, the entire process ends up rapidly building soil health. It’s another win-win for nature.

#8: Genetic Variability in Plants Serves as a Buffering System

Plant variability allows for selective fitting of plant genetics to specific qualitative differences in the environment. It’s like an insurance plan, with the goal of increased probability of improved plant survival and growth. There are positive synergistic effects, above and below ground, that result from creating diversity through the mixing of species.

#9: Weeds Are a Barometer of Soil Health

We know that different crops have different soil, mineral, and soil biology requirements. So, too, with weeds. When compared to healthy domesticated crops, weeds are usually pioneering (first to enter) species that thrive in soils with imbalanced microbial and nutritional profiles. As soil health improves, crops will improve and weeds will lose their vigor. The weeds are no longer needed to correct the soil imbalances.

Laws of Nature - Harvest Basket - Calvin Bey

Take-Home Lessons

To sum up how nature functions in nine Laws certainly does not do justice to the topic nor does it show the magnificence of nature. Still, despite the inadequacies, the nine Laws are sufficient to provide guidance as to which gardening practices fit the Laws of Nature model.

The following list of gardening practices, which I use in my natural/organic garden in Northwest Arkansas, respect the Laws of Nature. Furthermore, the practices fit my personal land-ethics values.

I do these things to eat healthy food, to teach others, and especially for the children and future generations.

I hope you will consider joining in the transformation.

  1. Use no or at least minimum tillage. Never use a roto-tiller. Besides destroying the natural soil structure, roto-tillers will seriously damage the beneficial fungi in all kinds of soil situations.
  2. Keep the soil covered with a vegetable crop, cover crop, or some type of organic mulch at all times. This practice will promote soil microbial life.
  3. Keep something growing on the beds for as long as possible throughout the year. Where you can, grow crops specifically for deep-root penetration and/or high carbon production.
  4. Wherever possible, encourage diversity of species. Use companion planting where you can.
  5. Use organic fertilizers, compost (sparingly), bio-pesticides (if needed), filtered or structured water, foliar fertilizer sprays, natural biologicals for organic matter decomposition, and natural amendments (like paramagnetic rock) for plant fortification.
  6. Among all things, “communicate” with your garden through positive intentions. Remember: “Thoughts become actions. Choose the good ones.”

Thanks to John Kempf of Advancing Eco-Agriculture (www.advancingecoag) for some of the ideas included in this article.

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Growing Gardens Under Oak Trees?

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Growing gardens under oak trees? Jennifer asks if it can be done:

Dear David,

I have 10 very mature oaks in my front yard. At the base of one of 
the oaks I have started my food forest experiment. I dumped a layer 
of compost, a variety of seeds (squash, beans, herbs, morning glories, 
echinacea, passionflower and i forgot what else lol!), and light mulch 
because of the oak roots, it is growing good so far. So we talked about 
before i would begin to stop raking leaves and let the leaf litter collect.  
I would then have a self mulching landscape. From my understanding 
not much will be able to grow as ground cover since the leaves will 
ultimately smother them out. I know i can grow vines that travel up though.  
Also any fruit trees or bushes will be of low yield since they would only 
receive dappled light. Is the solution to just plant more?? Please tell me 
if what all I am saying is true? Also I am thinking this is a mesic oak 
hammock since we are on a lake but our house is not in a flood zone 
because we sit up in the hammock zone. Hope that helps.



I like her approach. Compost and a big mix of seeds. My kind of growing.

There are two issues here that I can see. Let’s tackle them both

1: Too Much Shade

Oaks are hard to garden under, but I hate to remove them. I explore this conundrum and my thoughts on it in my book Compost Everything in the chapter on “Stupid Worthless Trees.”

I was joking when I called them stupid worthless trees, but that’s the way many people view big, “non-productive” trees. An oak or a maple or a sweetgum is viewed as worthless by many food growers because they aren’t good sources of food. Sure, you can eat acorns or tap maples, but the work involved with processing makes them a less-than-desirable source of food.

Jennifer has a different approach. She’s letting them drop leaves and feed the soil, which large trees are great at doing. They also support other species such as birds and mushrooms—sometimes even edible mushrooms—so they’re vital parts of the ecosystem.


This edible Lactarius indigo was discovered beneath an oak tree.

The problem is the shade they create. Gardening under oaks isn’t easy unless you’re growing shade-tolerant plants. I grew grape mahonias, pineapples and gingers under mine back in North Florida. Around the edges of oaks you can also grow citrus and other fruit trees provided they get enough light. It takes a lot of solar energy to get fruit-producing vegetables like squash, tomatoes, peppers, beans, etc., to make much worth eating.

Throwing down a lot of seeds is a good idea, though—Jennifer may discover some species which are more tolerant than others of the shade.

Sometimes you can strategically remove limbs and open up the canopy to keep things growing underneath.

Planting a big variety is a good idea. The area may not be as productive as it would be without the canopy, but the oaks will buffer the overnight lows during the winter and can help you push the zone, so there are benefits.

Research shade plants for your area, test lots of species, then see what flies.

2: Leaves Covering Everything

If you are starting plants from seeds, having a lot of leaves drop can crush out young seedlings and make it hard to get things started; however, if you plant seeds when leaf drop is minimal, the plants should get established before the leaves get too thick. Older plants will be fine and the leaves will feed their roots as they grow.


One of the things I love about mature trees is how many leaves they drop. Leaves are great food for the soil and your compost pile. Perennial vegetables are easier underneath oaks, which is one reason I loved ginger. It likes the shade and will grow through leaves without trouble.

Something worth doing: travel to local parks with natural woodlands and observe what is growing beneath the oaks in wild areas. See if you can mimic what is happening in your own yard. Look for species that are edible. Smilax? Try growing its cousin asparagus.

Beautyberries? Sure, plant some of those!

Violets? They’re a good edible.

Wild blackberries? Plant some cultivated types.

See if you can find patterns in nature and then put those patterns to work in your oak gardens. I learned this concept from the late Toby Hemenway and it has worked wonderfully.

It’s not easy to grow a garden under oak trees, but it’s not impossible. Keep planting and follow your intuition and your observations.

And have fun.

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Reusing Food Waste: The Perks, Tips, and Tricks

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You’ve been eating healthfully and sustainably as an apartment homesteader, and it’s been kind to your budget. But when most of the waste you produce is in the form of food scraps, you need to be reusing food waste rather than disposing of those food bits.

The first way that comes to mind for most people is to turn food waste into compost for your garden. Small-space composting can be an easy and cost-effective way to use your food waste.

But beyond composting, did you know you can both regrow plants from your scraps (buy once, grow forever) and eat those scraps in crafty recipes?

Check out my favorite tips and recipes below—along with a list of even more clever ways to put your food waste to good use.

Composting in Your Apartment

Everyone can compost, even in the small space of the apartment homestead.

You can use a five-gallon bucket with a lid—easily attained at any hardware store—or a regular plastic garbage bin with a lid.

Don’t let the “lack of space” excuse keep you from composting your food waste to help feed your future garden. There are cheap and easy compost containers that will fit under your kitchen sink or in a closet, or that you can make decorative to help inspire other apartment homesteaders to start their own sustainability journey.

If you’re worried about the usual culprits (bugs, using it quickly enough, and the obvious lack of space) that make composting in your apartment homestead difficult, check out this blog on The Grow Network: 5 Cheap and Easy Solutions For Small-Space Composting.

Regrow From Scraps

If composting isn’t your thing just yet, why not start a whole garden of vegetables and fruit from your organic produce scraps?

From herbs and onions to leafy greens and lemon trees, you can regrow the produce you eat regularly with results that are both amazing for your homesteading prowess and kind to your homestead budget.


One of my favorite herbs to regrow is basil. I love fresh basil. I add it to Italian dishes or infuse water with it and fresh lemon slices.

You can regrow basil by simply stripping the leaves, leaving only a small stem. Place the basil in a jar of water with the stem submerged, and set it in a sunny but cool area in your apartment homestead. Change the water every other day and plant in a four-inch pot when the stems grow to approximately two inches in length.


Another easy plant to regrow is peppers. Simply save the seeds from a pepper you love and replant in a pot. Place the pot in a sunny area, and you’ll enjoy peppers (and hopefully fresh salsa!) again and again.


You can also save your tomato seeds. Rinse them and allow to dry, then plant them in a soil-filled pot. If you have a garden box, transfer your tomato plants there once the sprouts are a few inches tall. Otherwise, keep them potted and enjoy fresh tomatoes from your patio garden.

Here are some other things you can regrow from food scraps in your apartment homestead:

  • Avocado
  • Bok Choy
  • Cabbage
  • Carrot Greens
  • Celery
  • Cilantro
  • Garlic Sprouts
  • Ginger
  • Green Onions
  • Leeks
  • Scallions
  • Lemongrass
  • Mushrooms
  • Onions
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Fennel

Reusing Food Waste in the Kitchen: Recipes Using ‘Throwaway’ Scraps

There are so many ways to eat the kitchen scraps you would normally throw away! Just rethink “scraps” into more food! Check out these recipes for a few ideas.


Use your celery tops, onion skins, carrot peels, and other veggies to make vegetable broth. Add all vegetables to a large pot, add enough water to completely cover everything, bring to a boil, and let simmer for six to eight hours. Strain and store broth in the fridge.

Almond Flour

Do you make your own almond milk? Grind up the leftover almonds and toast/dry in your oven to make almond flour. Use almond flour to make grain-free muffins, breads, or other baked goods.

One of my favorite recipes using almond flour is Almond Flour Cinnamon Rolls—they’re also gluten free (which means you can kick the nasty pesticide-heavy wheat out of your diet and still enjoy your sweets):

Almond Flour Cinnamon Rolls

2 cups almond flour
4 Tbsp. ground flax seed
1/2 Tbsp. baking soda
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. sea salt
2 eggs
1 Tbsp. unsweetened coconut milk
2 Tbsp. unsweetened applesauce
1 Tbsp. honey (in dough); 1/4 cup honey (in filling)
1 tsp. cinnamon (in dough); 2 Tbsp. cinnamon (in filling)

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Mix together almond flour, ground flax seed, baking soda, baking powder, and sea salt. Mix in eggs and coconut milk. Then, mix in applesauce, 1 Tbsp. honey, and 1 tsp. cinnamon.

Form dough into a ball, cover, and chill in the fridge for 20 minutes.

Lay a piece of wax paper down on the counter and grease with olive oil. Place the dough onto the wax paper, and roll out the dough into a thin circle.

Drizzle honey over the dough and shake the rest of the cinnamon over the top.

Cut dough into 2-inch strips. Using your knife (the dough will be sticky), roll each strip up and place in a baking pan.

Bake for around 25 minutes or until rolls are golden brown.

Potato Skins

You can turn potato skins you’d normally throw away into a salty snack you’ll crave.

Potato Skin Chips

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Toss leftover potato peels with olive oil and the seasonings you like.

Place on a baking sheet and roast for 15–20 minutes, stirring halfway through.

Sprinkle with cheese and scallions or green onions.

Apple Peels

If you make your own apple sauce, you probably have apple peels for days. The following recipe offers a perfect way to use them up:

Apple Honey Tea

The peels from 6 apples
3–4 cups water
1/2 tsp. cinnamon or 1 cinnamon stick
1 Tbsp. honey
1 Tbsp. lemon juice

Place apple peels in a sauce pan, cover with water, and add lemon juice and cinnamon. Boil for 10–15 minutes. When the liquid has become apple-colored, strain out the apple peels, add honey, and serve.

Kale Stems

Kale stems can be too tough to eat raw.

Dry the stems and grind them into Super Green Kale Powder to add to shakes or salads.

Get Clever With Your Food Scraps

Not into the food scrap recipes? Here are a bunch of other ways to use your food scraps. Get creative!

  • Infuse liquor with citrus peels for a yummy adult beverage.
  • Sharpen the blades of your garbage disposal by running eggshells through it.
  • Add crushed eggshells to your garden soil to give it a calcium boost.
  • Run citrus peels through the garbage disposal to get rid of nasty odors.
  • Use carrot peels to make carrot oil—an awesome addition to your natural, chemical-free beauty routine.
  • Add citrus peels to white vinegar to use in cleaning. Infuse the vinegar with the citrus peels by letting them sit together for two weeks before straining the peels and transferring the citrusy vinegar to a spray bottle.
  • Make citrus air fresheners.
  • Use banana peels to shine your shoes.
  • Use spent coffee grounds in your garden as pest repellent, fertilizer, or an ingredient in compost.
  • You can also use your coffee grounds to help absorb food odors in the fridge. Put old grounds in a container and place it in the fridge to get rid of musty food smells.
  • Coffee grounds can even be used to exfoliate and rejuvenate your skin!

Whichever ways you choose to use rather than toss your food “waste,” remember that the choice to go that extra step is a leaping bound on your journey toward personal sustainability in your apartment homestead.

(And when you’re ready to take another step and really say “goodbye” to unsustainable living, you’ll want to check out the next post in the Apartment Homesteader series, on growing your own medicine—or being your own Apartment Apothecary! Stay tuned!)



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Improve Soil Fertility With Autumn’s Gift

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Mother Nature’s Approach

Imagine a deep, remote forest. Wildlife is abundant. Birds are singing. Mushrooms are growing on trees, and the forest floor is covered with fallen leaves of every color. You bend over and scoop up a handful of leaves to find incredible soil fertility in the form of dark, moist, healthy earth.

Mother Nature is truly amazing—when left alone, that is.

Plant life here has thrived for hundreds of thousands of years. Everything is recycled. There is no such thing as “waste” in nature. Fallen leaves get broken down and decomposed, which then creates the nutrient-rich and healthy soil that growing plants crave.

Now, enter humans. Look at how technologically advanced and stoic we are! Surely, we are smarter than primitive nature, right?

The Human Approach

Modern agriculture has made it possible for us to grow lots of beautiful-looking food in rows on farms. We have created machines that allow us to grow food more efficiently—so efficiently, in fact, that our grocery stores incorporate a 75 percent pricing upcharge to offset the huge amount of fruits and vegetables they will end up throwing out.

We have developed agricultural technology and run with it …

… Unfortunately, though, it appears that we didn’t first tie our shoes!

If you look at farm fields that have been worked for decades, you’ll see dry, cracked dirt. That hardly looks like the healthy, nutrient-dense soil we find in the forests that Mother Nature takes care of.

You may be saying to yourself: “And why is this a problem? You just told me that we have made food production efficient and bountiful. What gives?”

Well, you see, farmers have gotten themselves into quite the conundrum over the last couple of decades. It’s not their fault, really, as they are just following recent tradition.

The reason we are still able to grow food despite unhealthy soil is because the food has been grown artificially.

Farmers spray their crops with synthetic fertilizers that directly feed the plant, not the soil. And since the farmer fails to feed the soil, the ONLY way he can continue to grow crops is by spraying more and more synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides on the crops.

(Incidentally, the advent of genetically modified crops makes it easier for farmers to use pesticides and herbicides that kill everything but the prized crop, leaving it to flourish. On the surface, it sounds like a good thing. But while these GMO plants might be immune to the poisons that are sprayed on them, we certainly are not!)

At this point, many people often ask: “Does that mean Miracle-Gro in my garden is bad?”

Miracle-Gro is simply a supplemental fertilizer (not a pesticide or herbicide) that feeds plants synthetically but does nothing for soil fertility. Think of it like this: Miracle Grow is to plants what vitamins are to humans. They serve as a good supplement to our diet, but should never be the main source of nutrition.

The Soil is Alive!

Just as the ocean is teeming with life under the surface, so, too, is the soil!

Healthy soil comprises a complex network of symbiotic micro-organisms and insects that help break down decomposing plant material and turn it into bioavailable nutrients that growing plants can absorb.

As you might imagine, abundant soil fertility creates healthy, nutrient-dense plants.

So, when we think about growing vibrant plants, we really ought to think first about growing and regenerating the soil.

The Two Phases of Healthy Soil

Each year, soil goes through two distinct phases:

  • Energy Absorption: This occurs in the fall and winter seasons
  • Energy Release: This occurs in the spring and summer seasons

In fall and winter, properly fed soil replenishes its energy reserves for the next growing season. In the spring and summer, it releasing energy into plants so that they can grow.

Three Rules for Soil Fertility

Now that we understand why soil fertility is so important, let’s talk about how to restore and replenish it.

As I mentioned above, healthy soil is teeming with life. Comprising millions of beneficial bacteria, microbes, insects, and fungi, it is an underground ecosystem that thrives when we follow three simple rules:

  • Tilling Is Killing: When we think about modern agriculture, we often visualize the process of tilling the soil. However, farmers are known to severely over-till the soil, which disrupts the living network of underground organisms. It is the equivalent of taking a fleet of bulldozers through the forest. If you must till, a shallow till of two to three inches is actually optimum. Otherwise, consider a no-till garden.
  • No Bare Soil: Soil likes to be covered up. You can use hay, wood chips, or shredded dry leaves to blanket the top of the soil. This prevents it from drying out. Also, as the material breaks down, it provides food for the soil (such as occurs in our remote forest example).
  • Amend the Soil: Each growing season, plants absorb energy and nutrients from the soil. The best time to replenish the soil is in the fall after harvesting your crops. Simply add compost on top of the soil, and then blanket the top of the soil again. Luckily for us, we can accomplish this last step using a material that’s free, abundant, and right outside our back door!

Don’t Bag Those Leaves!

Fallen leaves are one of nature’s gracious gifts to us.

Over the winter, they help insulate your plant beds and provide shelter for invertebrates such as insects, worms, and roly poly bugs (which, incidentally, are crustaceans!).

Fallen leaves are the building blocks of soil. As they break down via the help of invertebrates and soil fungi, they help create incredibly rich soil fertility. This allows for a cascade of biological processes, including nutrient cycling.

Leaf litter also fosters an environment that encourages the development of mycorrhizal fungi. You won’t see the vast majority of these miracle workers, as they often are too small to be visible to the naked eye. But don’t take them for granted. Soil fungi form symbiotic relationships with virtually every plant on Earth by exchanging nutrients and making them more bioavailable. (That is a whole other amazing topic for discussion.)

It’s basically everything you saw in the movie Avatar. Plants can communicate and pass food to each other via a connected underground fungal network. This network connects plants of all shapes and sizes to one another so they can cooperate as enormous interconnected systems.

But without the decaying matter that leaves provide, none of these intricate processes can happen.

Thank goodness for fall and its multicolored bounty—and for neighbors who are graciously raking, bagging, and giving away this precious resource!

Take advantage of their kindness and use these leaves in your garden. In short order, your plants will be thriving in the same dark, moist, healthy soil that exists deep in the heart of the forest.

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5 Cheap and Easy Solutions For Small-Space Composting

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Whether you live in an apartment, condo, or tiny house, here are some easy and practical ways to combat your small-space composting dilemma.

Growing your own food is important to your overall health, as well as the planet’s. You want to do as much as you can, but you live in an apartment or condo with rules about what you can and cannot do on your balcony or patio. You barely have enough room to grow anything much less have some sort of compost pile.

There are a number of challenges you face as a Small-Space Composter


You barely have enough room for growing your own food. Where in the world are you going to put a compost been?

Ease of set up and easy-to-use.

A compost pile is daunting. You want the composting solution to be easy-to-set-up and easy-to-use.

Won’t attract bugs.

There is nothing worse than bugs in a small space. No bugs in the compost bin!

Works as fast as possible

Do you want to use the compost as soon as possible? There are solutions for that, too!

Small-Space Composting Solutions

There are many solutions for your small space composting. It all depends on what is important to you from the above list. What is your priority?

Here are some solutions to consider for your small-space situation:

Worm Bin

The easiest way to compost indoors cheaply, easily, and quickly is to use a worm bin. Vermiculture (or worm composting) produces worm castings that make worm tea that is perfect for feeding the soil of your container plants.

Read more about vermiculture is small spaces here.

Plastic Storage Bins

These are an excellent choice because they’re fairly inexpensive and easy-to-find. They come in a variety of sizes so that you can get the right size bin for your space. Ten to eighteen gallons is a good size. You can even stack the bins to save space. Make sure you drill aeration holes near the top to allow air into your bin.

Five-gallon buckets

Another option is very inexpensive and stackable. You can find 5-gallon buckets with lids at home centers and big-box stores. Also, large kitty litter containers work great, too! Be sure to drill aeration holes near the top of the bucket.


Old wooden boxes or wine crates can be turned into an indoor composter. Add a plastic bag stapled to the inside and cover with hinges or painters’ canvas.

Bokashi (Japanese term meaning “Fermented Organic Matter”)

The Bokashi method is easy and composts everything—from kitchen scraps to meat and dairy. You mix an inoculated bran filled with microbes into the Bokashi bucket and tightly cover it. When the bucket is full, seal it shut and set it to the side for 10 to 12 days. Every other day, drain the bucket (which also makes a nice compost tea). You’ll have a pre-compost, which can be put in worm bins or leave it for a month to let it break down further.

Where do you put a compost bin?

  • Under the Sink
  • Under a plant stand
  • In a hall closet
  • Out in the open (it’s a great conversation starter!)

How much do you put in?

Two types of material make composting work. They are nitrogen materials, such as food scraps and grass clippings, and carbon materials, such as leaves, shredded paper, and corrugated cardboard.

What to put in your compost bin:

  • Fruit & Veggie scraps
  • Coffee grounds
  • Tea bags (If the bag is slippery, don’t put it in your compost)
  • Shredded paper
  • Trimmings from houseplants
  • Hair (yours and your pets)
  • Toilet paper rolls torn into small pieces
  • Dryer lint

What not to put in your bin

An indoor compost bin, doesn’t heat up as much as a hot outdoor bin, so there is less microbial action happening (except for the Bokashi method). This means that the kitchen scraps won’t break down very quickly, especially if you add in:

  • meat
  • dairy
  • fats
  • large chunks of anything

It’s also probably a good idea to avoid composting very smelly items, such as onion peels. You may smell it in the rest of your house. Try to avoid watery items, such as melons or squash. They might make your bin too soggy.

Tips for Success

If you want to be successful with indoor composting and get a bit of compost, too, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Have shredded paper or dry leaves handy. Every time you add food scraps or coffee grounds, plop in a handful of the shredded paper or leaves. This will keep your bin from getting too wet. Note: Junk mail works perfectly for this purpose as long as it is not the slick-coated advertisements.
  • The contents of your bin need to be turned often. Turning the contents of your bin warms it up and microbes very happy. It also mixes the contents, so they don’t get too wet or too dry. Move everything around with a hand trowel. An advantage to the round bucket method is that you can roll it back and forth a few times to mix it.
  • No matter what kind of bin you have, add small pieces. Pulp from your juicer will breakdown much faster than chunks of vegetables. Chop up your food scraps or put them through a blender, and be sure to shred your paper or cardboard.

It is possible to compost in small spaces, such as apartments, condos, or tiny houses. After a while, you’ll get a feel for what works and what doesn’t with your chosen composting method. It will be a great feeling to know that you’re saving waste from the landfill and making compost for your container garden.

What is your favorite composting method? The comments are waiting for you.


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Small-Space Vermiculture, Step-by-Step

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According to the EPA, 20 to 30 percent of what is thrown away should be composted. If you’re the type of person who hates to throw out kitchen scraps, but don’t have room for a compost pile in your small apartment, small-space vermiculture is for you!

What is vermiculture?

Vermiculture, or Vermicomposting is the breakdown of organic material by vermis, which is the Latin word for “Worms.” The worms take that waste and turn it into nutrient-rich “castings” or worm poo that helps build the soil. It is the most efficient way to compost most of your household waste.

Steps to your Vermicomposting happiness

Let’s bypass the trash collector and have your worms “eat” your garbage!

Make your worm bin

Start out with a cheap bin to get started. A $10 system works just as well. A 5-gallon bucket, large kitty litter bucket, or 16 in. X 24 in. X 8 in. (or 10-gallon) plastic bin will work just fine.

Next prepare the bedding

Shred about 50 sheets of newspaper into 1/2 in. to 1 in. strips. Avoid color print. It is toxic to worms.

Place the shredded newspaper into the bin. Add water to the newspaper until the bedding feels moist like a damp sponge. Add more dry strips if it gets too wet.

Sprinkle two to four cups of potting soil or soil from your yard into the bin. This introduces the beneficial microorganisms.

Get Your worms

Red Wigglers, or Eisenia fetida, are the worms you want for your worm bin. You don’t want Earthworms because they are large soil movers, and don’t do well in worm bins.

Get worms from a local source (if possible), because they are acclimatized to conditions in your area. Ask around, look on Craigslist, aquaponics or hydroponic stores, or ask other vermicomposters in your area.

How many worms do you need?

Say you bought a pound of worms. A pound of worms will eat half to their full eight every day. They are the best recyclers in the world! Think about how much waste you have.

Feed your new friends

Worms are vegan, but they can eat quite a bit. You’ll want to feed them a balanced diet, not just coffee grounds! As your bin gets going, you’ll feed those worms about half-a-pound to a pound of food in 24 hours.

Fun Fact: The worms don’t actually eat the scraps. They eat the bacteria that is breaking down the food scraps.

What to feed?

Feed your worms veggie and fruit scraps, crushed eggshells, coffee grounds, tea and tea bags (the ones that aren’t shiny), such as peels, rinds, cores, etc. Cut or break the food up into smaller pieces. If you run it through a blender, that would be even better! For instance, juicing pulp is fantastic!

What not to feed?

Limit or eliminate citrus fruits and onion peels in your worm bin. Also, do not add meats, bones, oils or dairy products.

How to feed your worms?

  1. Feed your 1 lbs. of worms about three times their weight each week. So, for one pound of worms, you’ll feed 3-lbs of food each week, or slightly less than half-a-pound.
  2. Bury the food in the bin.
  3. Lift up the bedding. Add the food scraps. Then, cover the food with the bedding again.

Check the bin every week to make sure the worms are eating all of the food. Adjust the amount accordingly.

Harvesting the black gold

There are many methods to harvest the worm castings. These two techniques  work great.

  1. Try a melon. Place a piece of melon in one area of your bin. The worms really love musk melon or watermelon, because they don’t get it very often. Put that little piece of melon in the corner of the bin, and the worms will herd over there. Then, scoop out the castings from the other side of the bin.
  2. Vertical migration system. The whole point of a vertical migration system is to let a layer finish out and put a new layer on top with new paper and new food. The worms migrate up into a new layer where the food is. They don’t want to live in the lower layers that is filled with their poop. Essentially the system separates the casting for you, but in a much slower way. The lower bins still may have a few worms, but you can hand pick them. It’s not bad to get worms in your finished compost either. They’re going to end up living in the soil in your garden.

Tips for success

  • Place a full sheet of dry newspaper on top of the bedding. This will help maintain the moisture of the bin. It also keeps odor problems in the bin and prevents fruit flies.
  • If you find fruit flies or the bin is too wet, replace that top layer of dry newspaper.
  • Cover your bin and choose a place for your worms. Worms like it dark and between 55°F and 75°F. Under a sink, in a closet, or wherever is convenient for you, so you remember to feed and check on them.
  • Castings are high in nutrients and micronutrients, so make worm tea in a 5-gallon bucket. Or add it to your potted plants for a healthy boost.
  • We don’t always produce a pound of kitchen scraps in a day, or we’re on vacation or busy. You don’t need to micromanage your worms. You don’t have to feed them a pound of food every day.
  • Sometimes we produce more than a pound of kitchen scraps, or your worms aren’t eating as fast. If this happens, simple put the scraps in a container or baggie and put that in the refrigerator until it’s time for a feeding.
  • Worms don’t like light, so be sure to keep your bin in a quiet out-of-the-way place. They like warm, dark places.
  • If your bedding dries up, spray it with a bit of water. Fluff the bedding once-a-week to give the worms some air.
  • If you live in a cold climate and have your bin outside, be sure to bring it inside.
  • Rotting food will produce a strong odor. Stop adding food until your worms have caught up. Adding air by stirring the contents will help.
  • If the worms are crawling out of the bedding or onto the sides or lid, they may need more air, the bedding is too wet, or the bin is too acidic. Did you put too many orange peels in there?

Need other ways to compost in a small space? Check out this article!

Now we want to hear your wormy stories! Do you practice small-space vermiculture? Tell us in the comment below.


EPA. Composting At Home.


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