Handling Worm Poop Over the Winter
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Q. Christopher in Fribourg, Switzerland writes: "I have a question I've been wanting to ask you for some time. I have two worm bins and never know what to do with the compost that they produce during the Fall and Winter. No matter where I seem to store it, on the balcony or in the basement, it begins to develop a nasty smell rather quickly. Should I just find a place in the garden where I can pile it up during the cold season? Will it leech nutrients if stored in this way? Is it safe to use smelly compost? The same questions apply for the compost tea that is produced."
A. This is a situation I know well as my stackable worm bin has proven to be hugely productive over the years it's been sitting on our insulated enclosed porch; and while things do seem to slow down a bit in winter, you still have to harvest the finished material to make room for fresh garbage—and to make sure that your worms have enough new food to eat.
But before answering, I wanted to learn more about Christopher's part of Switzerland (which is in the Western portion) and especially its weather. But on the way, I saw a short article about a wonderful 'tourist attraction' that strongly implies that this is a very sustainable city.
Titled "Ride the Funnicular", it describes a "cable railway that links the upper part of the city to the lower part. It has been running since 1899 and is powered solely by the town's wastewater. The two cars counterbalance one another through their ascent and descent; and as they make the journey along the steep slope, offer a clear view of Old Town. Runs every 6 minutes based on demand."
Hold my room, Chris—I'm on my way! I would specify 'in the Spring', but winters are milder in Fribourg than you might think. The normal winter lows are 27 degrees F., and it rarely drops below 18, which is about the same (or slightly warmer) than my Lehigh Valley here in PA.
Anyway, here are the options for winter worm-ranchers everywhere.
No matter what, try and wait for a warm spell; Fahrenheits in the 40s or above; to try and keep any worms that are still rooting around in your finished material happy for a while after they go out to the garden or compost or whatever.
#1 choice: Incorporate the finished worm castings into one or more compost bins. This is my choice of choices for the truly cold months of January and February, and works especially well if you have professionally made bins with locking lids; not so much to keep vermin out but to keep the contents warm enough for any live worms to get into the center, where it may be warm enough to keep them actively working. No matter what, have some extra shredded leaves on hand and use them to cover the worm castings (aka worm poop).
#1a: Same goes for worm tea; perhaps even more so. If you have bins that are not open to the weather, the contents can get a little dry, and what better way to provide moisture than the nutrient-rich liquid from a worm bin? And I would do the same with piles that are open to the elements, especially if you can then cover the pile with some shredded leaves. If you want to go all out, keep a bag of shredded leaves inside a garage or other warm area and use those; their warm ambient temperature should get any hitchhiking worms off to an active start.
#2: Houseplants. First, let's make this clear: Most houseplants should NOT be fed over the winter, because they are dormant and so the food is wasted at best. But some houseplants, like Meyer lemons and other citrus that goes outdoors in the summer and inside for the winter, ARE actively growing in the off-season and would love a natural feeding. I would recommend a one-time feeding of an inch or two of castings on the surface of their soil or watering them with worm tea every two weeks or so; diluted about 50/50 with clean water.
#2a: Springtime starts of tomatoes, peppers and such. For many years (okay—decades!) I didn't really feed the baby tomato and pepper plants I was starting from seed and all went well. Then I decided to switch it up and give them some gentle liquid feedings along the way and all went better (except for the Terrible Tomato Tragedy of 2018, which did not involve feeding and of which we will not speak again).
So, if you start your own seeds, water them with diluted worm tea weekly beginning about three to four weeks from the time they appear above the soil.
#3: Just toss worm liquids and solids onto your garden beds and hope for the best. Cover with shredded leaves if you can.
#4: Experiment with refrigeration. Scoop your finished material into quart-sized lidded containers ( like the ones used for take-out Hot and Sour soup), punch a few small holes into the tops of the lids and put the containers in the warmest part of your fridge. This should at least buy you time to get to the next non-freezing stretch of weather.
And finally: Do not use castings or tea directly on plants if it's even a little bit stinky. But do mix any stinky stuff into your outdoor compost.