BLUE SPRINGS, Mo. – If you’re intimidated by the idea of building and maintaining a backyard compost pile, an indoor alternative is to feed your fruit and vegetable scraps to worms.

Vermicomposting, or composting with worms, can reduce food wastes by up to two-thirds without the work and unsightliness of a compost pile. “Previously reserved for apartment dwellers without backyards, vermicomposting is gaining in popularity with homeowners,” said Marlin Bates, a University of Missouri Extension horticulture specialist.

Red wigglers (Eisenia foetida) are the most popular worms for vermicomposting. They prefer dark, moist conditions with good air circulation and temperatures between 55 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. You can order red wigglers from gardening catalogs, worm farms and ads in garden magazines.

You also can buy bins for vermicomposting, but homemade versions can be just as good, Bates said.

Whether using wood or plastic, there are three key things to consider when assembling your bin:

1. Size: Collect and weigh compostable kitchen scraps for one week. For each pound of refuse per week, you will need one square foot of surface area in the bin. Bins should only be 8- to 12-inches deep. Materials tend to pack down in taller bins, which results in areas with reduced oxygen.

2. Placement: For convenience, many place their bins under the kitchen sink. Any location that meets the temperature requirements will work. This could be in the basement, garage or even in the earth.

3. Materials: Do not use materials that have been used for chemical or pesticide storage. Always clean materials thoroughly before using for vermicomposting. Wood bins absorb moisture, which reduces temperature fluctuations and helps keep moisture levels inside the bin at optimal levels. Plastic bins do not breathe as readily, so you will need to pay extra attention to make sure the contents aren’t too wet.

“To begin filling the bin, you will need to provide bedding and food for the worms,” Bates said. Common bedding materials include shredded newspapers, printer paper, cardboard, leaves, straw and other compostable material that can soak up water. Using bedding material from several sources creates a favorable environment for the worms.

Soak the bedding in water for about 24 hours, then squeeze to remove excess water. Fill the bin about two-thirds full with fluffed bedding. “Allow the bin to settle for several days before adding the worms,” Bates said. “During this time, begin collecting kitchen refuse.”

When you have gathered enough refuse to spread over the entire bin, add the worms (approximately 500 per cubic foot of bin space) and the refuse to the bin. The worms will quickly work their way into the bedding and begin coming up for food as needed. Keep in mind that they like dark environments, so cover your kitchen waste with additional bedding to keep the light out. If pets or other animals will have access to the bin, make sure the lid is secure.

For information on building bins for vermicomposting and other forms of composting, see MU Extension guide G6957, “How to Build a Compost Bin.”