Composting with a PVC worm tube

Photo courtesy of Erin Medvecz
Photo courtesy of Erin Medvecz

I was sitting out on the deck one day and noticed my neighbor, Erin, bringing food scraps to a long pipe in her backyard. I knew it had to be composting, but I hadn't seen it done in a tube before. Erin is a college student majoring in Environmental Studies, so I knew she'd have awesome insight into composting. I picked her brain for the infos.

The process is called "Worm Tube Composting," a kind of vermicomposting.

Here is what Erin had to say:

I wanted to start a compost, but the traditional techniques seemed very involved. I wanted something simple, easy, and effective. I then heard about worm tube composting. It's so simple: no turning or spreading is needed, and the worms do all the work for you!

Here's how it works:

A three-foot section of PVC pipe is installed in the garden. Food scraps are put into the tube, and then worm castings (feces) act as the composting agent. The worms crawl into the tube via drilled holes, eat the food, and then spread the compost in a four-foot diameter as they go.

But if you're familiar with composting, you know that not every food item can go into it. No onions, avocados, citrus, or cooked food.

Here are Erin's tips:

I basically just put in vegetable and fruit scraps. Every time I go out to put in more scraps (every day to every few days), I can see the level of food going down. Also, because worms still function in the winter, this compost works all year round. Although in the winter, the worms will take longer to break down the food.

Here's the nitty-gritty on actually making this bad boy. You'll need:

  • A PVC tube of either four or six inches in diameter
  • Earthworms
  • Food scraps

Cut the pipe with a hack saw so that it is between three and three and a half feet long. Drill a bunch of one and ¼ inch diameter holes in the bottom 18 inches of the tube. Sand the edges and feel free to decorate the tube with acrylic paints.

Erin chose an abandoned garden lot in her backyard that she is planning to use as a garden next year. Before you dig, call your local 811 so you don't accidentally break a line. Then dig a hole for the worm tube.

Dig the hole deep enough so that the bottom 30 inches of the tube are in the ground, and another 12 inches above the holes, which will prevent any mild compost smell from attracting local critters.

Once the tube is in the ground, place a flower pot over the top to keep out the above-ground critters. To get the compost started, Erin bought some red worms at a gas station, and put them in the tube with shredded newspaper and some food scraps.

That's all it takes! Thanks to my awesome neighbor Erin for lending me her composting expertise. Has anyone else found luck with this method of worm fun?

  1. Seems cool and simple. Just so I'm clear, you just throw scraps in it and the worms spread the compost love around? You don't need to dig it up or pull out the tubes or anything? If so this sounds *amazing* and perfect for my uber wormy backyard!

    3 agree
    • The compost/castings get distributed in a four-foot diameter to fertilize the soil around the tube.

      5 agree
    • My understanding is that you can use lawn clippings, but there are special considerations such as the amount you use and what chemicals are put on the grass. Here's a little more info.

      1 agrees
  2. Can this be done next to a tree? Seems like great fertilizer but I don't know if I should have my compost/deteriorating things too close to a tree (I'm thinking my pomegranate.)

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  3. Well that is pretty amazing right there. Gonna make that happen in several spots in the old backyard, I think.

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  4. This is awesome! I want to compost, but with looking after the house and our small menagerie, I know I'll get lazy about actually turning it and spreading it. Hooray for easy composting!

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    • In the fall I made a huge version of this with a 60gallon barrel. I surrounded it with fire pit bricks and have a steel lid. I'm hoping it will attract worms in the spring time but if not I can add them.

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  5. A couple of caveats:

    1) Make sure that you aren't introducing an invasive species. There were no earthworms across much of northern North America prior to the arrival of European settlers. They were wiped out in the last Ice Age in areas that were covered by glaciation.

    This means that the Maple-Beech forest ecosystem of North Eastern North America evolved without earthworms. Sugar Maples for example, need a rich layer of duff (partially decomposed leaves) in order for their seeds to sprout and do well. In areas where earthworms have been introduced, they eat the duff, and it helps invasive species like Norway Maples outcompete the native trees. Our spring ephemeral wild flowers are having similar problems.

    2) Red Wigglers don't tolerate the cold well, so if your live in a northern climate they may not survive the winter.

    All in all, two good reasons for me to keep the worms in my vermicomposting bin.

    13 agree
  6. *Blinks* You can't use onions, avocados, citrus, cooked food? Hm. I guess I grew up with less formal composting, because my parents just tossed everything on a pile out in the woods. Maybe they didn't care because our compost pile was more of a way to dispose of biodegradable materials rather than a way to create nutritious garden soil. Does anyone know why onions, etc, are not OK?

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    • My parents' compost pile was exactly that, too: a pile of food and yard waste in the woods. I would like to know the answer to this, too!

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      • I have never heard of not composting onions or citrus, I HAVE read not to compost dairy, meat, or bones. I have always put onions, citrus, and the peels of all in my compost – I may be wrong but mine have always broken down fine.

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        • It isn't that these foods won't break down, it is that the worms don't care for them for a variety of reasons. You can add those items to a regular compost pile but the worms, don't like onions, garlic, citrus, tomato and avocado.

          I have been vermicomposting for over 20 years, I also put in my shredded confidential mail, minus the plastic window in the envelope.

          As with anything if you want to attract a species and have it thrive, you feed it by its preference! :)

          2 agree
    • huh, maybe that's one reason why my traditional compost bin isn't doing too well. Aside from the fact that I can't seem to get the green:brown matter ratio right. I think I will scrap the compost bin (AH! hahahaha pun intended!) and try this in my flower bed!

      1 agrees
    • It's the worms. They are pickier and have more requirements than regular composting. But the trade off is that they do the rest of the work for you. ;)

      5 agree
      • Is it just because they're in a small space? Our anything-goes compost pile never seemed to have a shortage of worms.

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      • regular house flies LOVE cooked food bits- my roommate and I had a trashcan and composted everything in it. In mid July the can was very hot, and when my roommate took of the lid- MAGGOTS EVERYWHERE in the trashcan. Revolting heaving mass of moving rice. Bleck!

        BUT!!
        When the maggots had escaped or died, all that was left the next spring was *really* rich and black soil- the only things that hadn't been devoured were at the bottom of the can- a watermelon rind and I think an orange.

        1 agrees
    • Onions because they are either acidic or alkaline (I can't remember which) and cooked food so it doesn't attract pests. I was thinking about tiger worms as I hear they compost dog waste but you are not supposed to use the compost for veg but it works great on flowers apparently. :-)

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    • Citrus is a BIG no-no due to acidifying the mixture too much. I have no idea why not avocado or onion, never heard that one before. Check out Mother Earth News for specific info.

      Dairy and meat draw in rodents, this is why compost piles in close confines (close neighborhoods) are a BAD idea. Wet your piles and turn/mix them regularly to help them along.

      1 agrees
  7. I wonder if you put the holes only on two sides… if you could alter your diameter to more of a rectangle/oval…
    I have a flower bed that needs health and maybe this would make it possible to grow something mice in it… It doesn't get much sun

    2 agree
  8. So do you put this in the garden or dig up ground around the tube and put it in the garden? Also, how long does it take to have fertile soil in that 4 ft diamater? One more thing, how much of tube is sticking our of the ground? THANK YOU for sharing this aweaome idea!

    8 agree
  9. OMG – what a surprise to Google and topic and find a useful article by someone you know. Nice work Catherine.

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    • HA! What a coincidence. Thanks, Dawn! I'm glad it could be helpful. :)

      1 agrees
  10. New to this…do I have to "add" worms or do they just find it? Where does a gal get the worms?

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    • just pull up the tube and move it to another location……….

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  11. I have put a lot of these in our school garden but buried them in to the last 5 or 5 inches sticking out the top. I have also small air holes around the top, just below the lid. They need to be put in a spot with good drainage or they will fill up with water according to the natural water table. Otherwise a great idea and seems to work well. You need a few if you have a fair bit of compost.

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  12. My father's been composting for years and he's been talking just two days ago how even after a full year avocado peel and corn cobs came out intact.

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  13. Has anyone tried this in SW Florida? I had a worm bin, which did very well on our lanai. However, I was advised not to put red wigglers directly into the garden, because they would not survive :(

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  14. Can you clarify how deep to bury the pipe? It says to cut it to 3-3.5 feet, but to then "Dig the hole deep enough so that the bottom 30 inches of the tube are in the ground, and another 12 inches above the holes," but 3 feet is 36 inches.

    3 agree
  15. Here's a picky question.

    Is it four feet in *diamter* or a four foot *radius*? That is, does it only spread out two feet in any direction from the post (diameter), or does it spread out four feet from the post (radius)?

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  16. Hi,

    I'm wondering if I can place this in my vegetable garden bed? Will the worms eat my growing vegetables?

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    • No perfect for the vegetable patch The worms wont eat your veggies only compost matter,
      dont add onions, citrus, dairy, meat are a no go
      make layers in the tube so veggie scraps and then brown matter like torn up carboard, paper, break up small twigs, egg shells, old sawdust Then add more veggie scraps, like a compost lasagna
      U will end up with beautiful rich compost soil. The veggies will love
      Need compost worms

      0 agree
  17. What about ants? Do you have trouble keeping them out of the tube?

    0 agree

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