Although many people new to worm composting assume that you can use any old worm in your worm bin, this assumption couldn't be further from the truth. It takes a special worm to convert your kitchen food scraps into a nutrient-dense humus material for enriching your garden and flowerbed soil. Often called the king of compost worms, the worm species known as the red wriggler can work wonders on your organic kitchen waste.
The red wiggler goes by many other names, including red wriggler, red worm, striped tiger worm and manure worm. Known in the scientific world as Eisenia fetida, the red wiggler is reddish brown in color and possesses distinctive, alternating yellow and dark red bands that encircle its body. The red wiggler typically grows no more than about 3 inches in length.
In the wild, the red wiggler chooses to live in the layers of decomposing matter that lay across the top of the earth. In fact, if you are on a tight budget and have a livestock farming friend, you could easily harvest your red wigglers for free by looking for them in piles of old cow or horse manure. When exposed to direct sunlight, the red wiggler lives up to its name, undulating and wiggling furiously until it is able to get back under cover of darkness. You can typically purchase red wigglers from online worm farms or select garden centers.
Red wigglers are notoriously easy keepers, requiring little beyond regular food to thrive. Keep your red worms in a plastic or wooden bin. As a general rule, 1 lb. red wigglers (approximately 1000 worms) can consume approximately 3 to 4 lb. food each week. Allow approximately 1 square foot of surface area for each pound of weekly food waste you plan to give your red wigglers. Fill your worm bin with shredded newspaper or dead leaves that are about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Bury food scraps, such as fruit and vegetable waste, beneath several inches of damp bedding once or twice each week.
Temperature plays a key role in determining the health of your red worm population. According to Janet Hogan Taylor, co-author of "The Worm Book," the temperature of your red wiggler worm bin should be between 55 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. For best temperature regulation, keep your red worm bin indoors in a dark area, such as your basement or garage. If you opt to keep your red wigglers outside, be prepared to monitor moisture levels during the summer and to provide additional insulation for your bin during the winter.
In a classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the red wiggler has an evil twin capable of damaging parts of America's ecosystem. Called Lumbricus rubellus, this compost worm species bears a remarkable resemblance to the red wiggler, differing only in its yellow underbody and lack of clearly distinguishable stripes. In an article published in the Spring 2004 issue of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden's "Plants and Gardens News," associate editor Niall Dunne states that L. rubellus has contributed to the decline of rare native plants and salamanders in the United States. If you purchase red wigglers, clarify with the seller that all the worms are E. fetida.