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Mushy newspaper clumps in worm bin

Here is a question from Maria:

I love your blog, but haven’t seen this topic covered. I’m
new to worm composting and I’m working on balancing my bedding/food
ratio. After about 8 weeks with my first batch of worms, I had lots
of mushy/soggy newspaper clumps, some compost and some undigested
food, even after I stopped adding food for the last 2 weeks. Any
suggestions for getting rid of these newspaper clumps? Should just
use less bedding? Or would only adding bedding that’s dry do the
trick?

Hi Maria,
To be totally honest, eight weeks is still a relatively short period of time in the life of a worm bin – especially the first eight weeks. Carbon-rich materials like newsprint also take quite a bit longer to break down than most food wastes. There is no doubt that the worms would eventually convert pretty well everything into castings if you left the bin long enough, but this could take quite some time.

Unfortunately, as useful as an enclosed ‘bin’ type of system is for indoor vermicomposting, they are not really the ideal systems for quickly producing good quality vermicompost/castings. You need a lot of air flow, which plastic bins generally don’t provide (in comparison to open systems and various ‘flow-through’ designs). As such, there tend to be lots of zones bordering on (or even completely) anaerobic – i.e. where oxygen is absent. Unless you have good drainage out the bottom, it is almost inevitable that you will have a fair amount of undigested material down in the bottom of the bin, regardless of how long you wait (unless you periodically mix the contents of the bin).

Something else to remember is Carbon-to-Nitrogen ratio. Generally it is the food waste that provides the nitrogen necessary to speed up decomposition of the C-rich materials like bedding. In other words, by completely stopping your feeding for a couple weeks (which is in fact not a bad thing to do every now and again) you may have actually slowed down the process somewhat.

I always recommend adding dry bedding to a worm bin, since one of the key advantages of adding bedding is that it helps to absorb excess moisture (thereby helping to avoid anaerobic conditions). Adding it dry also helps to avoid the clumping you are talking about. Aside from that, I would also recomend breaking up the clumps and mixing them around (just do it carefully, so you don’t disturb the worms too much). The more surface area that is available for microbial colonization and worm grazing, the more readily any material is going to break down.

One final thing to mention – the density of worms in the system will obviously play a major role as well. I have had really high densities of worms in a relatively small system and it was amazing to see how quickly they seemed to plow through everything.

Anyway – hope this helps!
8)

Written by Bentley on February 4th, 2009 with 17 comments.
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17 comments

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Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Dave Pawson
#1. February 4th, 2009, at 2:41 PM.

“I always recommend adding dry bedding to a worm bin, since one of the key advantages of adding bedding is that it helps to absorb excess moisture (thereby helping to avoid anaerobic condi”

What ‘natural’ dry bedding would you recommend? Winter ‘wet’ leaves seems
to be a worker on my (outdoor) setup? Any other suggestions please?

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Bentley
#2. February 4th, 2009, at 3:12 PM.

Hi Dave,
In that particular context I am referring to things like dry shredded newsprint and cardboard.
As far as natural options go, things like coco coir and peat moss are great for absorbing moisture (although keep in mind, peat moss adds acidity and is not super ‘eco-friendly’). They aren’t great for air flow though, so I’d recommend using them with other, bulkier materials (like those mentioned above).
Wet, rotting leaves are a fantastic secondary bedding material – they aren’t the greatest for absorbing excess moisture, but they do add lots of ‘good’ microbes and offer the worms a nice long term food source. I love using leaves in my systems whenever available. Partially decomposed straw is another one that the worms really seem to like, and of course the ultimate would be really well-aged manure (should smell earthy).

Hope this helps

B

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Dave Pawson
#3. February 4th, 2009, at 3:48 PM.

Tks B.

Horse .. muck seems a good idea.
coir (choir :-) isn’t. My worms are cheapskates! Hay (old horse bedding?)
Stuff from mucking out the winter bovines? seems good too.

Thanks. You’ve given me the ideas… Now I need to source them.

regards DaveP

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Bentley
#4. February 4th, 2009, at 3:54 PM.

Hi Dave,
I know you use the term ‘muck’ somewhat differently in the UK, but this brings to mind something sloppy and wet – definitely not what you want to add to a worm bin (especially not if it stinks in any way).
Old horse bedding is great, but just make sure there is no strong ammonia (or manure) odour. The best stuff (whether manure or rotting straw) should have an earthy smell.
I have never been confident in my pronunciation of ‘coir’ – usually just say ‘coco fibre’ when referring to it vocally – haha!
I think it is technically pronounced ‘kwahr” – but don’t quote me on that!
:lol:

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Dave Pawson
#5. February 4th, 2009, at 4:01 PM.

Sorry. Two nations divided by a common language. ‘muck’ is the generic term for
horse/cow manure. Loose end? Spread on the fields in spring as liquid.
More solid waste? Stored for n months? Dry/good as gold for the garden.
In between? Re-cast by the dairy farmers on the fields as fertiliser.
I can’t test for ammonia, but I’d judge by the age as to ammonia content.

I wouldn’t dare use the word ‘coir’ verbally – it’s only through this forum
I’ve ever heard the word!!! Anyway, you have to buy it don’t you?

‘oss muck is a real possibility though :-)

I’m sure those in the US have alternates for the polite version!

regards

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Bentley
#6. February 4th, 2009, at 4:20 PM.

Hi Dave – I’m in Canada, so our language is closer than you might think (we’re in the middle between US and UK as far as spelling etc goes – although I suppose we use more US lingo).
The best test for ammonia is the good ol’ smell test. If it’s earthy smelling and your nasal passage doesn’t get burned, it should be in good shape for use.
:-)

I don’t sell coir currently, but hey there’s an idea!
;-)

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Dave Pawson
#7. February 4th, 2009, at 5:07 PM.

The best test for ammonia is the good ol’ smell test. If it’s earthy smelling and your nasal passage doesn’t get burned, it should be in good shape for use.

Sigh. Helps if you have a sense of smell B? I don’t.
Fortunate… when my grandsons nappy needs changing. Less so when I walk past the
bakery or want to check for ammonia :-0)

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Maria
#8. February 4th, 2009, at 6:29 PM.

Thanks, this is helpful! Especially, the part about not disturbing the worms. I have a Rubbermaid bin with holes, and I was actually stirring (by hand), as I added new compost and bedding, thinking that would improve air flow. Now I know to just add dry bedding and new (rotten!) food and not to mix. I’ll give that a try. Thanks!

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Rich A.
#9. February 5th, 2009, at 3:09 PM.

Main Entry:
coir
Pronunciation:
\?ko?i(-?)r\
Function:
noun
Etymology:
Tamil kayir?u rope
Date:
1582

: a stiff coarse fiber from the outer husk of a coconut

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Rich A.
#10. February 5th, 2009, at 3:10 PM.

Well that cut and paste didn’t go to well.

It is pronounced koy-er. You can hear it at http://www.m-w.com

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Sherry
#11. February 6th, 2009, at 2:02 AM.

Maria,
Be cautious about stirring your bin…..especially if you mix it around after adding food waste. This can create heating in your bin…..greens and browns being mixed in together and creating heat.

That’s not to say you can’t fluff your bedding and stir your bin (I certainly do). Just make sure you do it prior to feeding.

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Bentley
#12. February 6th, 2009, at 5:40 PM.

Thanks Rich! Good to know!
8)

Sherry – thanks for sharing that advice. This is especially important for larger systems. Stirring allows a lot of oxygen to get in, and of course results in a better mixing of everything – both of which can trigger thermophilic composting processes.
If you generally overcompensate with a lot of bedding, your system is relatively small, and/or the bin is located some place cold/cool you probably won’t have to worry as much.

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Dave Pawson
#13. February 6th, 2009, at 5:45 PM.

So (in a larger system), stirring, to an appropriate degree, could be used
to keep the bed warm(er) in winter, using the ‘thermophilic process’?

Just a thought in these February days (worst snow for 18 years we’re told)

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Jeremy
#14. February 7th, 2009, at 3:46 PM.

Hi Bentley and others,

We’ve had a worm bin (simple homemade Rubbermaid with drilled holes around the bottom and sides) for maybe 7 months or so. I don’t seem to do much more than add scraps every so often (most recently I added a rotting pumpkin – without its seeds – a leftover on the porch from Halloween… and the worms are making quick work of it.)

Worms are making my food disappear – and haven’t run into any major smell or fly problems (although there are those white mites every once in a while). However, I haven’t harvested the compost yet.

I’m in Seattle, the weather has begun warming into the high 40′s F, and I’m interested in gathering the black gold! However, my “dirt” is more like a sludge! There really aren’t any food scraps left in the scoops I’ve been sifting through – it’s more just very wet and soggy. I’ve also noticed the bottom drilled holes have been clogged up – which I’m sure contributes to my situation.

Ok, so my first naive and amateur question: is this normal? I’ve had visions of nice, dry, crumbly dirt that I might be collecting. But my reality is very far off.

My second question: If it’s not normal, what should I do? I have a collection of shredded paper and was thinking about just adding a ton or mixing it in to the dirt. Another thought that popped up was to turnover the ‘sludge’ to bring the wettest material to the surface to dry up.

I wanted to check in here first before doing any major boneheaded moves!

Any thoughts or ideas? I appreciate your time and help!

Thanks,
Jeremy

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com vermiman
#15. February 8th, 2009, at 2:11 AM.

Jeremy,

I’d turn the material while adding dry shredded newspaper. You may also try to hold off on the food while to help dry the bedding a bit.

Sludge sounds too wet. Yet dry crumbly material sounds a bit too dry. Somewhere in between should be you target.

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Bentley
#16. February 9th, 2009, at 5:31 PM.

Hi Jeremy,
Vermiman is definitely right – ‘sludge’ is too wet.
Is this normal for a plastic bin though? You betcha!

The vast majority of the traditional Rubbermaid bin (with lid) systems I’ve set up over the years have ended up with some sludge down in the bottom. In fact, there is often a fair amount of undigested cardboard etc as well since conditions were pretty anaerobic (oxygen is required for a high quality composting process).

You might think about drilling some holes in the bottom and putting your bin inside another one with equal dimensions (make sure to prop it up on supports though, otherwise it will get wedged in to the lower bin, offering no drainage value whatsoever).

Mixing can also help, but you find end up fighting a losing battle. You might just want to dump the bin out (transfer the worms to a new system using the garbage bag harvesting method or something similar) and let the compost dry out a fair bit. Once it is exposed to air it should start to take on the qualities of a nice material before too long.

Flow-through systems are the best way to create really nice vermicompost, by the way.

Hope this helps

Bentley

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Jeremy
#17. February 11th, 2009, at 2:28 PM.

Vermiman and Bentley,

Thanks so much for your responses… and I will definitely spend some time following the suggestions you’ve given.

Hope all is well with you and your worms,
Jeremy

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