Building a Worm Plunger

It’s hard to ignore the collective change in behaviour when it comes to our recycling and composting habits. At last we’re beginning to see waste from a different perspective - the ‘wasteful’ one - and we are now considering the cycle of our unnecessary rubbish. Like the one use plastic bag to hold some groceries, or the coffee cup that we thought was recyclable, and in particular, the organic matter that should always head towards a composting unit.

Composting has always been limited by our behavioural habits. With the exception of a few, most will chose whatever option is the easiest and that takes the mess the furthest from our minds. Conventional home composting is often seen as too unsightly, too messy or too inefficient to consider. The smaller the scale, the more that these functionality problems are pronounced.

For one, even the smallest composting bins are large, hulking objects. Not only will they take up valuable garden real estate - that fewer people have - but in a world of increasing garden vanity, a tower of black plastic is never the object of desire we want it to be, yet alone fit in most peoples’ yards. Another issue is that they are easily infiltrated by pests.  A lot of compost bins are open at the bottom, which means that any motivated rat with a little initiative need only to dig a couple of centimetres to reach a sumptuous vegetarian buffet.

Yet another is that despite their size, they are ironically too small to be efficient. In terms of composting it takes 1m3 to make perfect compost. That volume of waste creates an internal temperature of around 60 degrees Celcius, which is then hot enough to convert the waste (and the most noxious of weeds) into pure compost. Anything less and you’ve got pumpkins, tomatoes - both totally fine, thanks very much - and a host of other less desirable species sprouting through the garden.

The final problem of composting is “how the hell can I get to the actual compost?!” It’s typically in the middle or at the bottom of a pile (or semi composted waste), and it usually feels more like dumpster diving than gardening. This is the final hurdle for many, and often the one too many

When it comes to worm farming - our more favoured and faster composting process - household units also prove too small, particularly when conditions begin to heat up. Those black plastic towers become inhospitable waste furnaces rather than a cosy home for your garden pets. For any worm farmer that has baked their worms on a hot summer’s day, it is neither a sight nor smell that you want to experience again. Worms need to be insulated, away from dramatic fluctuations of temperatures, which is exactly why they live underground.

Taking it underground - using a worm plunger - helps to alleviate a number of issues. While the  system may be smaller than a conventional worm farm, it is more discreet, more impenetrable, more efficient and administers its benefits in situ. A worm plunger is nothing more than a baseless bucket buried underground to which we directly add our food scraps. But for us it is the most functional way to dispose of waste and turn it into something useful.   

The added benefit of being underground is that temperatures are normalised so worms will be at their most productive.  Once it is full of castings - the bi product of a worm feasting - you can either remove and spread the worm castings around your patch or simply slide the plunger out of the ground and move the infrastructure to another part of the garden.

1. Start by finding a suitable place in your patch to colonise.  The worms will drastically improve the soil quality in the area so try a particularly unproductive area in need of reinvigoration or if you don’t have any in-ground space, you can pop it in your planter box. For those with larger composting bins, this unit can be thought of as an overflow when it is full.

2. Once you’ve identified the spot, dig a hole to the depth and width of the bucket you’re using. Make sure to use a good quality plastic bucket, rather than a cheap, brittle one that just will add to landfill. Even better if you can repurpose one that has finished the first part of its life. The bucket will need a lid to seal up your pit.

3. Time to prepare the bucket. Start by drilling a generous amount of holes into the sides of the units, using anything from a 4-8mm drill piece. These will be entry ways for the occupants of this underground city.  Studies of urban transportation systems have shown that improving service is the only way to increase usage of public transport, so make sure there are enough holes that no worm has to queue for too long.

4. Now cut off the base of the bucket, using a hacksaw. The smaller teeth makes their less chance of cracking the plastic as you do so.

5. Place the bucket in the hole and backfill the area around it.  There will inevitably be leftover soil, so find a home for it elsewhere in the garden.

6. Transfer a small amount of existing compost into the bottom of the new system. Worms need something to nestle in to and until they build up some good soil we need a safe amount to retreat into when they are not eating your waste. Then add in some red or tiger worms, these are composting worms with the large appetites necessary to break down your food waste quickly. Earthworms and other composting critters will find their way to the feast, but the process will be speedier with these guys around. Then cover over with some wetted newspaper for more insulation.

7. Once the worms are in place and settled (this takes a couple of days), it is time to begin your composting operation in earnest.  Almost all vegetarian food scraps can go into the plunger except for citrus peels and onions. The more worms there are the bigger their meals. Bon appetite! 

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