How To Build a Worm Tower

Update by Bill Wilson – May 2015

Worm towers are just one of many techniques that permaculture designers might use in an overall plan for a home, farmstead or larger piece of property.  Permaculture is an amazing study into creating living systems that don’t pollute, utilize wastes, create multiple yields, minimize work and leave a place in much better condition for future generations.  Join us sometime for a deep and inspiring look into Permaculture.
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The empty insides of an installed worm tower.

How to Use
Above is the empty worm tower as it was installed into the ground at Midwest Permaculture in Stelle, IL.  We then put in some wet straw for bedding, a handful of composting worms (red wigglers) and a days worth of kitchen scraps. For the next couple of weeks we added our daily kitchen scraps until it was full.  Thereafter, the contents would slowing sink down as the worms enjoyed their feast, turning scraps into pure worm castings.  About once a week there would be enough room to add another days worth of kitchen scraps.  If someone had 7 towers they could top-off one per day.

The beauty of the system?  No muss…no fuss…no smell…no slimy buckets…no flys… no compost juice to drain.  Just insert kitchen scraps and walk away.  The plants growing around the worm tower love the nutrients.  The worms love their new home. We harvest the worm castings once a year is the spring. The only maintenance is to be sure the area stays moist in dry times (can’t let the worms dry out).

Building
If you’d like to make your own tower here are some instructions
Feel free to print and share with others.

Worm Tower Instructions

Winter?
We’ve used the worm tower for several years in our Northern Illinois climate and during the winter everything slows down including our worms.  But our little guys have made it through each winter by burrowing down below the frost line which is why the tower should be long (deep) and be kept full over the winter months. We also keep the area around and on top of the tower covered with leaves or straw to minimize freezing depth.  

Kept it full through the winter for food and insulation.

Harvesting the Castings
We pull out the castings from the bottom each spring by removing the top 1/3’rd of the contents of the tube which is where the worms have now migrated to get their fresh food.  The bottom 2/3’s holds the previous year castings. Because small roots have moved in from the surrounding perennial plants we use a trowel around the edges to loosen things up and then remove the castings with our hands. We now have a small bucket of worm castings to spread on to the surface of any gardening bed for added fertility or we may use the castings in planting trays for our starters.

Once spring arrives, the top of the tower practically disappears in our garden bed at Midwest Permaculture. What’s not to like?

What we like about the worm tower is how easy it is to make and use.   This is a simple and clean way to dispose of kitchen scraps while feeding our gardens at the same time.

Here is the video that got us started with our own worm towers. It’s only 2 minutes and it has some good graphics.

 

And by the way, is there any reason that drilling a bunch of holes in an old 5-gallon bucket and sinking that into the ground would not work as well?  One would just want to be sure it is mulched heavily over winter to prevent freezing the worms.  And the lid is bigger (a bit more unsightly?) but one could put a nice potted plant on top for looks! 

Have fun!!!

54 Responses to How To Build a Worm Tower

  1. I love worm towers! we are constructing a large kitchen garden in front of our house and we will SURELY incorporate several worm towers. THANK YOU for these easy-to-follow instructions!

  2. Great article! One spelling error…( food waste and in tern, fertilize the garden bed. )tern should be turn.

    Thank you for sharing!

  3. Great idea. Raised red worms in my basement for ten years and ate all my ” waste” from the kitchen during that time. Got to be to much trouble and then had to remodel basement for more room so gave the farms to my neighbor and they have kept them going for the last three years. My question is how do you remove the castings from your sunken pipe once a year as recommended in the article?
    I think I will try this and get some worms back from my neighbor to get it going.

    • It’s pretty easy to just reach your arm in and pull the castings out. I’ve myself had a project where I’ve buried my rubbermaid worm bin in the ground for the winter, and then pull it out in the spring. It operates like a normal worm bin when it’s warmer and goes dormant when it’s cold.

  4. I bought an above ground worm tower … pricey, but worth it. I have been extracting loads of vermicompost to use in my garden. It’s been wonderful.

    After reading this post though I can see the incredible value, especially during the cold months when digging through frozen dirt would be an issue or while your plants are growing … what a wonderful idea!

    Definitely sharing this.

  5. Just wondering if this would in Canada where the winters are 5-6 months long and temps. can be as cold as -20F and colder?
    Thanks

    • Some variation on this might work. I would make sure that it is at least down to the frost line and/or very well insulated. With the insulation you could also add compost that heats up (which you usually don’t want to add). Perhaps have it be a double tube with straw on the outside and the compost in the middle? You’d still need holes so that the worms can get into the soil.

  6. I am new to composting with wigglers.. So far so good with my Rubbermaid buckets.
    My question is in the towers, the worms move out of the tower thru the holes and then back in to feed?

    So I could put these in my garden and then wouldn’t need to deal with the buckets on the back porch? That would be nice!

    • I built one before winter with a 60 gallon plastic barrel. I have been adding kitchen waste to it all winter and it isn’t full yet.

      I’m hoping that in the spring time it he level drops substantially and at that time I can add worms if necessary.

      How has yours been? Have you had to empty it? Have you added worms?

      Right now I am just hoping it works good because if not I will have a 60 gallon barrel that will really stink if nothing happens with it!

  7. How will this composting idea work in Texas? Do you have any data on its use in the N. Tx area? I love the idea but sometimes what works in other areas does not translate to our heat prone areas. I would like feedback from any gardeners in my area who have had success with this method. Thank you, MH

    • We don’t have any information about how this might work in TX. I would be most worried about them drying out but being in the ground provides a great deal of protection from heat or cold. Why not try one out and let us know?

  8. I kept a worm box made out of wood sunk into the ground 2 feet made it to fit a bale of straw and threw food scraps by lifting a section of straw. It held the moisture pretty good, but I like this tower idea because the cold in Wisconsin gets bad enough to sink lower than two feet. This winter was brutal. I think I’ll try a small drum if I can locate one. Thanks for this info. I hope to visit some time this summer.

    • Grew up in Madison, WI; now live @ stateline WI/IL. As a child, frost line depths in Madison area were 31″-36″ (that was back when typical Feb temps were -20F for three weeks at a time, and when the 24″-30″ snows were common). The deal with frostline is SNOW or the lack of it. When snow remains on the ground, frost lines are less deep; and when snow is largely absent during the coldest parts of winter, the frost line can deepen to 40″ and more. There is the matter of whether your site is on the sunny side of your house during winter or the N side that may be more shaded.

  9. I’ve got one in my garden here in the desert southwest of southern Arizona. I just need to find some worms to put in it. I

    • Vermilion Womery has them for sale in Oracle. Pet Smart sells Red Worms about 150 count for 4.00. 5 years ago we started out with two containers and now have over 10,000 worms in our worm bins.

  10. I am an avid indoor vermicomposter and use red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) in my multiple bins. I have been considering creating an outdoor set up but I have also red that the wigglers are non native invasives. From most of the research I have done it seems they only have a damaging effect on hardwood forests. Do you have any evidence that they would make a damaging effect in a garden?

  11. I love this idea. But I wonder if anyone has thoughts about materials other than PVC. I would prefer not to buy any PVC unless absolutely necessary. And wouldn’t it leach?

    • If PVC gets hot (and it will when composting stuff, especially in the summer) it can release Chloride, So please look for HDPE (or other food graded plastic.) You can buy HDPE pipes at construction stores. They are used for drinkingwater systems (where PVC is banned, at least over here in Holland). For this reason we use only HDPE tubes and barrels for our gardentowers / groenteraketten.

      Otherwise: great idea, the simpler the better I say!

      • My concern would be that a long time use of PVC might result in a release of some of the toxic compounds used in its manufacture as the pipe warms up. Specifically DBTI and TBTI (dibutyl tin oxide and tri-butyl tin oxide) both biocides and carcinogens used as catalysts to make PVC. Additionally PVC gets very brittle when cold and can shatter if it freezes with water in it. Found that out when using it for rainwater collection totes. High density polyethylene containers are a better choice although they to will break down in UV light in time.

    • Hi Jan…
      The pipe we used is 28-30 inches long. So far our worms have made it through every winter so I am assuming that they go to the very bottom. Be sure your tube in deep enough for that. Then regarding how much they will hold it totally depends upon how many kitchen scraps you generate, so you may get by with one or maybe you will need three of them. Ours is always full and as the worms eat it down, we add more to it. If we have extra material (which we do with a family of 4) we have other compost bins we use it in.
      Hope this helps….Bill Wilson

  12. Would it work to build a much larger version of it with a 45 gallon drum so that all kitchen waste, grass clippings, garden waste, and even paper could go in it?

  13. Would the material break down/be eaten by the worms fast enough that 45 gallons would be big enough? My goal is to reduce waste that I have to place on the curb so I want to let the worms do as much as possible. I’m not really interested in harvesting any compost, just getting rid of the organic material which will reduce my total garbage significantly. Thanks for the first answer!

    • You have to add worms, they are a special kind. Worms from the ground won’t work the same way. Red wigglers are what you need…

      • Why do you think native worms won’t work? I’d rather let nature take its course, in case there are times I can’t be keeping the tower ‘fed’. In this case, I’d like native worms to come back when I’d start back up. And it would be 1 less thing to manage. I’m ok with the process being slower.

        • I’m inclined to go the “native” worm route as well. I already mulch garden and have so many worms that I could probably sell them as bait if I didn’t cherish them as my little helpers. They make short work of my spoiled hay so I suspect they would quickly find a bucket banquet. Also I have heard that red wrigglers don’t like real cold weather (not sure about heat).

          BTW, what is the reason for having the top be so high? Ease of access as plants grow? Not get lost in garden? Winter snow?

          Also, would it be OK to just use a lidded bucket? The screening might add ventilation, I guess, but is ventilation necessary?

          • To my knowledge there are not any native worm species in North America. The worms for these systems are Eisenia fetida, red wiggler worms. They live in a plant litter layer and are better for compost as opposed to the worms you might find in your soil.

            The top was high because that was the container we had that fit the tube. If you’ve got something else try it and see how it works. The bucket might work but the worms do better with more ventilation. They start to crawl out if the situation is not to their liking, keep an eye out for that to see if the lid is not working.

  14. I built my extra large worm tower with a 60 gallon barrel. I drilled 3/8″ holes in the bottom and the sides about 1/3 up the sides. I buried it so that only 10″ are sticking out of the ground. I got a cement ring to go around the top part and on top of that is stacked 2 rows of fire pit bricks so it looks like a fire pit in the corner of the yard. I have a steel lid that keeps it shut tight and makes it easy to add scraps to it. I built it pretty late in the year so I didn’t add worms before winter. I have been adding kitchen scraps and also the cardboard tubes from toilet paper. The bin should be big enough to handle a winters worth of waste and in the summer I can add worms if necessary.

    • Sounds great! I’ve had success (admittedly in some mild winters) by digging a pit, putting my bin there and covering it with straw bales. I’m also managing a farm where they installed a 4′ x 6′ worm bin that goes down 4′ into the ground. We’ll see this spring how well it’s worked!

  15. Nice thing about this is that by the time we get our yard done the worm population should be established and the soil will be nice for planting.

  16. I’m new to composting of any kind and just hoping that my oversized 60 gallon worm tower will work as planned. As said right now it is almost full and is a frozen lump. When it thaws will the level drop quite a bit?

    • Once it thaws the level will drop. You’ll need to keep feeding them throughout the growing season. If you don’t continue to feed them they will eventually stop making deposits.

  17. I will continue to throw in kitchen scraps all year long. Just hoping the worms will chomp them down as fast as I throw them in.

    • The worms definitely need to stay moist. The desert may not be the best place for this type of thing. You could do it if you could create the right environment but it may take more effort than it’s worth. Perhaps a worm bin would be more appropriate?

  18. My bin was full. I shovelled it out into the garden and noticed very little decomposition and saw only 1 worm in the entire 60 gallon barrel.

    I’m going to try it again and if it dosent work I will just consider my bin a “holding area” to throw waste until it is full. Then I can just dig a hole in the garden 1 or 2 times a year and let it trench compost.

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