If you’re like most gardeners, you probably compost your vegetable scraps and other organic matter to create nutrient-rich soil for your plants.
But sometimes those scraps can attract unwanted guests – namely, worms!
Other times, you might be composting specifically because you want the worms in there. Vermicomposting is an effective and eco-friendly way to get rid of food waste by using worms (specifically, red wigglers) to break it down.
Whether you want the worms in the compost or not, here are some simple ways to get them out of your compost pile without harming any of the beneficial critters.
Why Are There Worms in the Compost?
First, let’s talk about why there are worms in the compost to begin with.
We’ll break things down by talking about each type of worm that you might find in your compost.
If you have red wigglers in your compost bin, chances are, you do actually want them to be there!
Red wigglers are worms that you can buy at the store specifically for the purpose of vermicomposting. Vermicomposting, or composting with worms, is something you can do (usually indoors) to create compost without having to turn and aerate it.
The worms take care of everything for you, breaking down food scraps and other compostable ingredients into nutrient-rich soil that you can use for your garden.
Composting with worms dramatically speeds up the composting process, but once you’re done composting and are ready to use the soil in your garden, here’s the thing – the worms don’t just automatically go away.
The worm bin will eventually fill up with compost, also known, in this setting, as worm castings, and while you can add more trays or get a larger bin, you’ll just be putting off the inevitable. You’ve got to remove the worms eventually!
You can harvest the compost at the start or end of the growing season, whenever it is getting full, or as needed, but when you do this, you ‘ll need to separate the worm castings from the worms (at least, if you want to keep your vermicomposting bin going in the future, if you need!).
Most people harvest worm castings at least once every three to four months.
There are a few ways you can get red wigglers out of your compost – it should only take an hour at most.
If you’re composting outdoors, you might notice small, thread-like worms weaving their way through the pile. Some people assume these are baby red wigglers, but in fact, they are an entirely different breed of worm. These are pot worms.
Pot worms are not harmful to your compost – they are just another type of worm that eats up waste and aerates the soil.
They won’t harm your bin, but it’s important to note that they thrive in conditions that red wigglers and other species of worms are not fond of.
If you have lots of pot worms in your compost bin, this could be an indication that the conditions are not ideal. You will need to change the conditions of the compost in order to do this, since finding pot worms indicates that other types of beneficial worms aren’t thriving as they should.
Now, if you know that the worms in your compost are definitely not red wigglers or pot worms, but you’re still seeing lots of wiggling creepy crawlies, there is a chance that you have maggots in your compost bin.
Most of the time, these maggots are black soldier fly larvae. They have a fat appearance, usually white to brown in color, but the color can change depending on what they’ve been eating. They look somewhat like worms but are not nearly as long or slender.
Despite being somewhat gross to look at, these worms aren’t harmful for the garden. Black soldier fly larvae are attracted to compost piles that have lots of food material to feed on as well as a relatively moist environment.
If you overfeed your compost pile with nitrogen-rich (green) ingredients and don’t give it enough carbon-rich ingredients (brown), you may wind up with black soldier fly larvae. The same goes for people who don’t turn their compost piles as often as they should.
How to Get Worms out of Compost Easily
Depending on what type of worms you’re dealing with in your compost bin, there are a few tips you can follow to get them out – and keep them out for good.
Removing Red Wigglers from a Vermicomposting Bin
If you’re removing red wigglers from your vermicomposting bin so you can use the worm castings in your garden, you’ll need to be careful.
The goal here is to avoid harming the worms so they can continue composting in your bin for many days to come. You also need to leave some bedding behind so your worms have a place to live.
How easy this is to do will depend largely on the type of bin you have. If you have a tray-based composting bin, your work should only take you ten or fifteen minutes.
You can also make kmounds to get rid of your red wigglers, which will take a day or so, but not a day of active work. You can also use a screen, which should take about 30 to 60 minutes.
The easiest way to get the worms out of the compost is to attract them with food. If you’re using a tray-based composting system, start feeding only in the top tray. Most, if not all, of the worms in the layer trays will climb up to get the food.
If there are still too many worms in the lower trays, that could be a sign that there is some undigested food beneath.
Once the worms have all moved out of the lower trays, you can dump them out and use the completed compost in the garden.
If you don’t have a tray-based composting system, feed the composting worms in just one isolated corner of the bin for a few weeks. They’ll figure out that they need to head to that spot to get food.
Then, to bag up the worms and get them out, all you need to do is put bedding and a bit more food in a burlap sack. Bury it in the bin.
Again, after a few weeks, you can remove the bag of worms and the rest of the bin, though not completely free of worms, will have mostly just worm castings.
If you have way more red wigglers in your composting bin than you should, the food technique might not be quite as effective as it should be – there might still be some worms mixed in.
You may have to try out a different separation method. You can always remove the worms into the garden to give them another chance. Although red wigglers aren’t ideal for the garden, they certainly won’t harm at all.
Remove Them By Hand
One way to get any kind of worms – red wigglers, pot worms, or anything else, for that matter – out of the compost is to handpick them. Sure, this is laborious and time-consuming – but it does work!
If you’re removing red wigglers from a vermicomposting bin, choose an indoor location that has good lighting and is out of the direct sunlight.
Dump the contents of the compost bin onto a tarp. Shape the bedding into some mounds, then let them sit for a few minutes. The worms will dig down deeper into the mounds to avoid being exposed to the elements.
Let these mounds sit for a few minutes, then brush the material off. This will be your completed compost. You may have to repeat this process a few times to get all of the worms out.
Turn the Pile Frequently
Turn your pile frequently to make sure it’s being properly aerated. Although worms can be found in even the most well-aerated compost pile, a pile that hasn’t been aerated isn’t the healthiest and may be subjected to damage from other types of pests.
Worms often congregate in a compost pile because the temperature is not ideal. Usually, this happens when you haven’t been turning the pill regularly.
If temperature and aeration are issues, you might move more worms at the sides or bottom of the bin or pile. Aerate to distribute the hotter materials around the bin.
If there are lots of worms in your compost pile, no matter the species, that’s a sign that your pile might be a bit too wet.
Skip watering for a week or so. This will allow your pile to dry out enough for you to get ahead of the worms. You’ll know that moisture is an issue if the worms are all hanging out right at the top of the compost pile.
Another way you can reduce the moisture is to add some dry, carbon-rich brown ingredients. These are much drier than nitrogen-rich ingredients and can help balance out the excess mixture.
Cover With a Tarp
If you have an outdoor compost pile that is exposed to the elements, you might want to cover it up for a few days to a week.
Covering the pile with a tarp will ensure that the compost isn’t getting too wet. It may force the worms to come out, too.
Change the pH Balance
Too many worms in the compost pile might also serve as an indication that the pH in the pile is out of whack. You can add some lime or phosphorus to it by sprinkling wood ashes in, adding powdered lime, or crushing up some eggshells to put inside.
You should notice the population of worms decline rapidly after that.
This technique works particularly well if it’s maggots that you’re dealing with in the compost. You need to be careful about adding too much lime, since it can cause the pH balance of your compost to be too high, but it’s an effective way to get rid of maggots.
Keep Flies Out
Finally, make sure you are keeping flies out of the compost bin. Although flies don’t have anything to do with actual worms in the compost bin, if it’s black soldier fly larvae you’re dealing with, you’ll need to find a way to keep them out.
A compost pile needs good airflow but you don’t need to provide massive holes for the flies to enter and exit the pile.
You can cover the air holes with a mesh screen. This should stop flies from laying their eggs in the compost, leading to black soldier fly larvae.
Put a Piece of Bread in the Pile
Have any stale bread on your hands? If so, soak it in some milk and put it on the compost pile.
While you won’t necessarily get all of the worms out of the compost bin this way, you’ll likely notice that most of the worms pile to the slice of bread and congregate there. You can remove the bread and throw it out, getting rid of moths of the worms at the same time.
Leave Them Be!
Of course, you can always let the worms just do their thing in the compost, too. There’s nothing wrong with leaving worms right where they are – even black soldier fly larvae (not actual worms, remember!) aren’t harmful to your compost. They’re just a little gross to look at!
If you have a compost bin and are having trouble getting the worms out, try one of these methods. All three work well and won’t harm the worms.
In some cases, you may just want to leave the worms where they are and let them do their thing!
As an added bonus, they may help aerate your compost pile and speed up the decomposition process. Consider just leaving them be.
If you’re trying to separate red wigglers from a vermicomposting bin because you are ready to use the compost in your garden, try to get out as many as you can – but don’t panic if some wind up in your garden. They certainly won’t hurt anything!
Have you had success with any other methods for getting rid of composting worms? Let us know in the comments below.
Rebekah is a high-school English teacher n New York, where she lives on a 22 acre homestead. She raises and grows chickens, bees, and veggies such as zucchini (among other things).