March 2008

New Vermicomposter Questions

It seems my recent ‘Reader Questions’ posts have inspired some others to write in. (Keep em coming – I think these posts will really end up helping a lot of newcomers, and I certainly enjoy answering them).

Anyway, today I have some questions from Suzanne, who is new to vermicomposting.

Hi Bentley,
I am planning on setting up a worm bin in my basement soon. I live in Iowa, and it has been quite the winter. (Actually I don’t mind the winter as it is opportunity to snowshoes, ice skate, and watch lots of birds at the feeders…)

Here are some questions: (these are probably already dealt with in previous postings)
1) Can egg shells be put in the worm bin?
2) How about coffee grounds and tea leaves?
3) How about coffee filters and tea bags?
4) If the bin sits on the basement floor, will the radiant cold adversely effect the worms? It will not be any where near freezing, but could be chilly.
5) I also compost outdoors in the summer. Can worms be added to an outdoor bin or do they all migrate to the surrounding turf? I do have pretty active earthworms in the yard and gardens.

Thanks for being available!

Hi Suzanne!
Those are all good questions – especially useful for anyone just getting started with vermicomposting. I’m simply going to respond to each in the same order you asked them.

1) Egg shells can definitely be put in your worm bin – in fact I strongly encourage people to do so if they eat eggs. They add valuable calcium, some grit for the worms gizzards (used to grind up food), and can act as a pH buffer as well (preventing excessively acidic conditions from developing). Calcium apparently plays an important role in the worm reproduction cycle (its exact function escapes me at the moment), so adding shells can actually help to boost reproduction in your bin.

I would recommend letting your shells dry out then grinding them as finely as possible – this way the calcium will be much more readily accessible (whole egg shells will take much longer to break down). I typically put empty shells back in an old egg carton, continuing to stack them inside each other until the carton won’t hold any more. When I have a number of these cartons of shells I will then empty them into a clean, dry bucket then simply crush/grind them (the bottom of a jar or something similar should work just fine).

2) Coffee grounds and tea leaves are excellent additions to a worm bin and will be readily broken down into worm castings provided they are kept nice and moist (I’ve found that coffee ground in particular can dry out quite easily). I wouldn’t recommend adding too much of either material unless you plan to balance them out with something else (lots of bedding, ground up egg shells etc) – you may end up with a pretty acidic bin. I tried collecting large quantities of coffee grounds from a coffee shop and feeding them to the worms, but they were not particularly impressed. If I did this again I would use a much larger system and would make sure to lessen the amount added at any one time, or would at least mix it with other materials (eg fall leaves) before adding it to the bin.

3) Coffee filters and tea bags are very biodegradeable so you can certainly add these. I simply grab the filter full of coffee grounds out of our coffee maker and add it to whatever waste-holding container I have on the go at the moment (I generally store waste materials in a separate container or bag before adding to worm bin). Same with tea bags – we don’t drink all that much tea to be totally honest, but whenever we do use tea bags I am always eager to add them to my waste stash.

4) Assuming you are using red worms (Eisenia fetida) or european nightcrawlers (Eisenia hortensis), they should handle cooler temperatures just fine. The composting process in general may slow down considerably however if temperatures in your bin drop down below 10 C (50 F), so you may not be able to produce compost as fast as you like (or deal with as much food waste). The ideal composting temp range for red worms is 20-30 C (68-86 F), but apparently the ideal temp range for reproduction is somewhat lower (in the range of 15-20 C).

5) Composting worms are an excellent addition to a backyard composter, and assuming you maintain conditions that are to their liking (not very difficult) they will be more than happy to stay put. You will need to make sure the contents of your composter stay very moist (during the summer months many compost bins tend to dry out quite readily), relatively cool (if adding worms you may want to locate your composter in a shady area, especially if it’s one of those solid black plastic ones), and of course there also needs to be a decent amount of waste materials for them to feed on. I have a thriving outdoor worm bin, and also added some worms to another backyard compost bin with great success (it is now full of red worms as well). I think one of the main stumbling blocks for people is maintaining moisture levels. If conditions become dry the worms will migrate or die. They won’t however move down into the soil in large numbers – they are adapted for live in compost heaps and manure piles.

Thanks for the questions, Suzanne – hope I’ve helped!


[tags]worm bin, worm bins, red worms, composting worms, red wigglers, composter, composting, vermicomposting, worm composting, compost bin, food waste[/tags]

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Disappearing Worms

This question comes from Wendi, who is wondering where all her worms went.

I’m really enjoying your website/blog and find it very informative.
I’ve looked for info on worms “leaving the bin/possibly dying” and am
having trouble finding a thorough answer. I have an outdoor bin that I
prepared last year with fresh damp bedding (newspaper strips
w/cardboard on top), added worms, and tried to follow feeding and
care recommendations, but my worms were gone within a few weeks. I
was adding kitchen scraps weekly, and figured out that the pieces
were probably too big since nothing was being eaten. There were no
signs of worms within a couple of weeks. What did I do wrong? Did I
starve them? Did they escape out the small drainage holes in the
bottom? How did they leave so fast and completely? I would really
appreciate the help – I love the idea of vermicomposting and want to
be successful at it!

Hi Wendi!
Sorry to hear about your worms. That certainly doesn’t sound like the most enjoyable introduction to vermicomposting!
I think the very first question I would ask is, what type of worms were you using? Were they a species adapted for worm composting (such as ‘Red Worms’) or were they garden worms? I have a sneaking suspicion that they would have been the right kind of worms, given the fact that you’ve been reading up on vermicomposting, but you never know.
For the benefit of anyone new to worm composting, it is important to know that not just any worm will do well in a worm bin. The typical species of worms you find on your lawn (after rain) and in your garden are adapted for soil, not rich organic wastes – nor are they well adapted for crowded, warm conditions.

You also mentioned adding the worms to the moist bedding, THEN starting to add food scraps. If this is indeed the case, your worms likely ventured elsewhere in search for food. When setting up a new system, I recommend mixing a lot of food scraps in with your bedding then letting the system sit for 1-2 weeks before you even add any worms. This allows time for colonization of lots of microorganisms (the main source of nutrition for the worms), thus offering the worms a nice tasty buffet when they arrive. I think one of the most common problems with the usual recommend way of setting up a worm bin is that the worms end up introduced to a basically sterile environment – new bedding and fresh food scraps don’t really offer anything similar to the worms preferred habitat.

As for escaping out the drainage holes in the bottom, that seems quite likely. You’d be amazed how small a hole worms can squeeze through when they want to. When I’ve kept outdoor plastic bins (with drainage holes), I’ve always had worms sitting underneath the bin (if conditions are really favourable inside you won’t see too many bothering to venture out though).

One other possibility is that unfavourable conditions developed in the bin and the worms decided to head elsewhere. Perhaps you added too much food (less of an issue when you mix with bedding and let it sit for awhile) – although this seems very unlikely given the fact that you were only adding food weekly.

My recommendation would be to add a bunch more bedding and food waste this year then let your system sit for a good 2-3 weeks (make sure to add water if it seems like the system is drying out) before adding another batch of worms. Once they have been added, don’t add any more food for another 1-2 weeks, and even then start out slowly – only adding food as it disappears from the bin.

Hope this helps.
Good luck!


[tags]worm bins, worm bin, worm composting, vermicomposting, composter, compost, red worms, red wigglers, compost worms, earthworms, earth worms[/tags]

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Cocoons or Mites?

Hi everyone! I’m happy to report that I’m finally starting to get back into the swing of things here on the blog! I thought I might kick things off with one or two reader questions. Our first question come from Apple, who is wondering about some strange creatures found in her worm bin. Here is what she had to say:

i just subscribed to your site, and i’m having a great time reading
it. i just set up my first indoor worm bin, so it’s great have a
resource to find out about other compost bins.

so far my bin has been great, i’m trying to keep it moisture balanced
and not over-fed. i’ve only had it for one month. my question is
this – i was inspecting the walls below the bedding line around the
top of the food line and i’m noticing two different things happening.
1. i’m seeing itsy bitsy teeny tiny wiggling whiteish yellowy worms.
are these hatched babies? they are smaller than a few millimeters
long and thinner than a fingernail sliver. they appear to hang out
around soft foods, boiled artichoke leaves, for example.

after seeing your picture of mites, i’m not sure if what i’m seeing
are cocoons or mites. they are round, seedlike, and are mostly in
the bedding and on the food, but a few of them seem to move a bit.
i’m not sure if they’re just caught on some moisture and are sliding
around, or if they are mites crawling.

are the tiny wigglers normal? or might i be housing another organism
in the bin? do you think they’re safe for my worms if they’re not
their own babies?

thanks so much for reading, and any advice you’re able to offer.

Hi Apple, I’m glad to hear that you have found the site useful!
The tiny worms you have described sound like White Worms, also known as ‘Pot Worms’. These small worms are closely related to earthworms (including the ‘composting worms’) and tend to spring up, seemingly out of nowhere, when conditions get a little acidic in the bin. I’ve had huge population explosions of white worms when I’ve added too much starchy material (rice) and it has gone sour on me (anaerobic fermentation). The worms themselves are completely harmless but they MAY indicate that your bin has become somewhat acidic. You might want to mix in some more shredded cardboard (or whatever bedding you are using) along with some crushed egg shells (if you happen to have some).
Here is a great picture of some white worms (on Happy D Ranch Website) you can use for comparison.

As for your seed-like creatures, I suspect they are indeed mites. The round white mite pictured in my last post (and in various other posts written on the blog) can easily be mistaken for something inanimate since they move very little and look like little eggs. This species seems to appear when there is an abundance of water-rich food scraps in the worm bin – especially things like melons, cantaloupe, cucumbers etc (cucumber family in general).
Again, certainly nothing to worry about, although massive population explosions could be an indication of overfeeding (but it sounds as though you’ve been really careful with how much food you’ve added).

Hope this helps! Thanks for the questions.


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