February 2009

Donating Composting Worms

Hi everyone. It’s been awhile since I added anything to the “Share Board”. Remember – if there is anything you’d like to share with the rest of our readers (information, requests, opportunities etc) that relates to vermicomposting, and is non-commercial (feel free to submit these too and I’ll let you know if they are appropriate), I will be happy to add them.

A little while ago I wrote a response to a couple of people wondering what to do with all their extra worms (a hypothetical situation, should their worm bins end up doing really well).

I recently received an email from Kristine P., letting me know that she would be more than happy to take extra worms off anyone’s hands. Here is what she wrote:

I work for a non profit organization that could GREATLY benefit from
donated worms! Could you please contact me for more info? Or send my
contact info to someone who might help?
Thanks so much!

I asked Kristine if it was ok to post this on the Share Board and she encouraged me to do so, mentioning that if anyone DOES have worms they can donate, they should contact:

Monica Jeske
Education Manager
Friends of Boerner Botanical Gardens

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Keeping Red Worms Outside

I recently received some questions related to keeping Red Worms outdoors

The first one comes from April:

Can the red composting worms live outside? What are the
temperature ranges that they can tolerate?
Thank you.

Hi April,
The short answer is YES, absolutely. Be sure to check out my winter worm composting series to learn more about my outdoor (cold weather) system. Red Worms (Eisenia fetida) are a very cold-hardy worm. When I was transferring material (and worms) from my previous winter composting bin to the new one this year, I literally found worms encased in frozen compost – still wiggling away (a little more slowly, mind you).

Basically you are probably ok with temperatures between 0 and 35 C (32-95 F), and maybe even warmer depending on the situation (I have a friend who has kept them alive at temps of 100 F). Remember, we are talking about temperatures in the worm’s habitat – NOT necessarily ambient temps. Even it’s 100 F outside, you should be able to keep the inside of a vermicomposting system a fair bit cooler using various strategies.

Next, we have a question from Gayle:

I have worms in an inside bin. i seem to have way more
waste than my 1 # of worms can handle. I want to convert my inside
worms to outside, and make an outside compost. i had hesitated to do
this originally, because I didn’t have much garden waste except
deadheaded flowers etc. I now have winter garden leaves etc to make
compost. so, bottom line, if I put my worms outside will i kill them?
the spot I am considering to start is an old unused sand box that has
a layer of garden dirt. i live in Texas. we are for the most part
done w/ winter. lows maybe rarely in the 30’s. thanks

Hi Gayle,
You can indeed move composting worms outdoors – especially given your climate (ie no extra protection will be needed – assuming we are talking about Red Worms here). Garden waste actually isn’t the best worm food for the most part, so don’t worry about not having too much of that. Fall leaves are great though – they fall (no pun intended) somewhere between food and ‘bedding’, and the worms love them. I’d recommend adding ALL your fruit/veg food waste as well (you mentioned producing way more than the worms could eat inside).

Regarding the type of system to set up – there are lots of options. Your sandbox idea is a really good one – I’m a little biased though, since I did the exact same thing last summer. haha

I actually created a ‘vermicomposting trench’ – something I would highly recommend in your case since it’s going to get REALLY hot there in the summer. This will help the worms to stay cool. I’d recommend you check out my ‘Vermicomposting Trench Wrap-Up‘ post – you’ll find links to all my related articles about this topic there.

Hope this helps!

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Worm Feeding Schedule

Some good questions from Mike:

Hi Bentley, I have a couple of questions for you.
1. When do I know its time to add food scraps to the bin?
2. Should I let the scraps sit for a week or so before I do add them
to the bin?
3. I plan on being out of town for 3 weeks and will not have any way
of feeding the worms, any suggestions on what I can do?
Thank You

Hi Mike,

1) I always recommend “letting the worms be your guide” when it comes to feeding. You definitely don’t need to wait until all the food is gone (better if you DON’T do this in fact), but you also don’t want it to start piling up. If the worms seem to be actively feeding on your food pockets (where you bury food scraps) and you have some more room to add more, it shouldn’t hurt to add some more food. One thing to keep in mind here though – it is next to IMPOSSIBLE to starve your worms. They will start processing the bedding materials more quickly if there is absolutely no quality food (such as rotting food waste) in the bin.

2) I like letting scraps sit before adding them, but it’s up to you. If they already have some food in there it’s not that big a deal to add fresh stuff, assuming you aren’t in a rush to get your scraps processed. In fact, adding fresh material can be a nice way to add ‘slow-release’ food to your system, which brings us to #3…

3) Don’t sweat it – your worms will be totally fine! I’d recommend adding more bedding and more food (without overdoing it), including some fairly fresh stuff as mentioned in the previous response. I should however mention that worm densities can be a factor here. Generally, I am referring here to a typical home worm bin. If you have a LOT of hungry worms you may actually need to get someone to feed them while you are away.

This reminds me of a funny situation I found myself in last spring. I had to go away for several weeks and I received a 5 lb shipment of worms on the day I left!!! Luckily I had set up a fairly large system (using my usual methods, described in my videos) ahead of time, but still I was really worried since it was a lot more worms than I should have put in a bin of that size. I had visions of a mass exodus of worms from the bin while I was away, and me coming home to find them everywhere in the house!

As it turns out, when I returned, the volume of the material in the bin was greatly reduced, there was no recognizable ‘food’ left, and the worms seemed happy as can be. In fact it looked as though they had been reproducing like crazy while I was gone as well – the material in the bin was loaded with cocoons.

Anyway, bottom-line, don’t worry about it too much. Make sure you leave them with some food and bedding when you go way, but there’s no need to overdo it.

Hope this helps

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5 Tray Worm Bin Advice

Here’s a question from Kevin:

I received as a gift a 5- tray worm farm. i have 2 lbs of
worms. I filled the first tray with coir and potting soil. now i am
ready to start my second tray. what should i put as bedding. i don’t
want to buy potting soil every tray. please give me some advice.

Hi Kevin,

To be totally honest, I’m amazed you’ve been able to keep 2 lb of worms in a single tray with coir and potting soil. I’ll assume you have also been adding food scraps as well.

Potting soil generally isn’t a great material to add to a worm bin – although it is often a lot better than garden soil. This is because it typically consists of mostly peat moss (whereas garden soil has a lot more mineral particles and thus tends to be a lot heavier and more dense, thus impeding air flow in a worm bin).

One of the risks of using commercial potting soil, by the way, is that it can contain inorganic fertilizer salts which can harm or even kill your worms. If it is old stuff that’s been exposed to many waterings (without any fertilizer being added of course), then it should be ok.

Coir can be a decent worm bedding, but it can also be pretty expensive. Aside from that – in my experience, worms don’t exactly love it either. Your best bet with coir is to moisten it well and mix it with food waste (partially decomposed preferably) and let it sit for a bit before introducing the worms.

Ok – now assuming your first tray has gradually filled up over time and it is time to move up to the next tray, the good news is that you definitely do NOT need to use either of the bedding materials you’ve been using. There are even better (free) options in my humble opinion. Shredded newsprint or shredded cardboard (corrugated and/or egg carton cardboard work best) are great choices.

What you will want to do is moisten the new bedding, then mix it with a fair amount of food waste (again, partially-decomposed stuff works best) – perhaps a ratio of 2:1, bedding:food volume. Simply add this material to the new tray then wait. As it decomposes further, the worms should start to move up into that tray – especially if the first tray has little in the way of good food for the worms by that time.

Hope this helps!

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Heating a Small Worm Bin in the Winter

Worm Bin Heater

As all my loyal readers will know, I’m very interested in the topic of winter vermicomposting (and winter composting in general) – and it’s something I’ve been doing myself for the last few years. That being said, I’ve always advocated the use of large-scale systems during the winter, since they will generate and hold warmth a LOT more easily than a typical worm bin ever could. Of course, I’ve always been thinking in terms of natural heating – the warmth generated via microbial (aerobic) respiration during the decomposition of organic wastes.

In all honesty, it would be next to impossible to keep a normal-sized worm bin active (or the worms alive, for that matter) if kept outside in temperatures that are consistently below the freezing mark – when relying on natural heating that is!

But who says you have to heat the system naturally??!

Not Mark Glatting – someone who has recently jumped into the wonderful world of vermicomposting. You see, Mark likes to think outside the box – or the bin, I should say!

He’s come up with a really nifty way to keep his worm bin cozy during the long winter months. Mark decided he was going to keep his new worm bin out in his garage this winter – where temperatures have regularly dropped below the freezing mark – and decided to create a simple system to ensure that his bin stayed relatively warm.

MacGyver would have been proud!

Bin warmth is maintained thanks to the circulation of warm water through the system. All that’s needed is a bucket full of water, an aquarium heater, a fountain pump, a thermometer, and some tubing.

Here is Mark’s brief summary of his concept:

My goal here was maintain a sustainable habitat under the harshest conditions that I could not control…the weather. I felt that if I could do that I would be a success. The purpose of this experiment was to see if I could keep the bin from freezing. The bin is in my unheated garage. My materials consisted of a five gallon bucket,an aquarium heater, a fountain pump, 13 feet of 3/8 tubing (not PVC) and a thermometer. The tubing I coiled around the inside of the bin so the cool water would always circulate back into the bucket. I also put a brick in the bucket to displace some of the water so I do not have to cycle 5 gallons of water but four. It is easier to heat 4 gallons than 5. My project worked! The bin did not freeze nor sour after 3 weeks.

…and some additional information:

The heating system itself is very simple. As you said some insulation would help a great deal. I did not take temperature readings inside the bin. I was looking for frost and to see if it would turn sour. The aquarium heater came from Wal-Mart, it is rated at 200 watts and has a thermostat.The fountain pump came from Wal-Mart as well, but I don’t know how many watts it is. One thing I considered was to have the bucket higher than the bin using gravity as a tool to make the pump not work so hard (water flows down hill).
I have a two car garage that has no insulation at all, is not heated and it did get below freezing in the garage a number of times.I probably spent $50.00 US for the whole thing. I am not sure how much electric I used, the system itself can be used in case of an emergency. If we were expecting bitter cold I would fire it up.Remember the heater has a thermostat

Worm Bin Heater

I think Mark’s idea is fantastic, and I was really pleased when he enthusiastically granted me permission to share it with everyone here. A lot of people have asked me whether or not it was possible to keep a small bin active during cold weather, and up until now I’ve just assumed it would be more trouble than it’s worth.

In my mind, Mark’s system changes that. This is something that would be very inexpensive to set up, and – given the low wattage of the heater – almost certainly pretty cheap to maintain. I suggested that one could increase the effectiveness of the system even more if the worm bin sat in a larger box filled with straw, or some other type of insulation material (even scrunched newpaper would probably work well).

Did I mention that Mark is planning to come up with a system to keep his system cool in the summer?
Stay tuned!

[UPDATE]: I received an email from Mark, letting me know that credit for the worm bin warming system should actually go to his wife Letty. My apologies, Letty!

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How Many Worms Do I Need?

Here is a question from Denise:

I watched you video on how to make a bin and I am excited to try this
new way of composting our kitchen leftovers. We easily have 1+ pounds
of scraps a day……what size rubbermaid bins would be good to start
with and how many pounds of worms……will the colony of worms grow
fast….and need to be moved to another bin? What is fast? months or


Hi Denise,
Those are good questions. I would say that with that amount of waste, you should probably start with at least two pounds of worms, assuming you want to deal with all that waste from the start (more on that in a minute). That being said, I should mention that this is in no way set-in-stone advice. Every worm bin is different, and there are a LOT of different variables at work here. Just for example – let’s say that you keep your bin in your garage where temperatures are quite cool (eg 50-60F). The processing speed of the system at these temperatures will definitely be much slower than they would be if the temperature was 75 F.

How you handle the waste is another important consideration. If you just throw it in fresh, with little or no chopping etc, having 5 lbs of worms in the system probably wouldn’t even help. Helping the worms/microbes along as much as possible is one of the keys of effective vermicomposting. Freezing/cooking/chopping/blending/aging etc are great ways to get things moving more quickly.

Another important consideration is the fact that worms will rarely be processing at their maximum efficiency right off the bat – generally, they’ll need some time to get used to their new system and settle in. As such, it is really important to be very conservative with your feeding early on, at least until it is clear they are consuming the food materials quickly. Basically it just comes down to letting the worms be your guides (rather than simply relying on guidelines provided by people like me – haha)

As for the size of bin you should use, let me share with you my personal favorite. I think the best all-around Rubbermaid bin is the ~ 12.5 Gal (24″ long x 16″ wide x 8.75″ deep) Roughneck tote. It is large enough to easily house up to 3 or 4 lbs of worms, yet it’s not so huge as to take up a lot of space in your house. I love the relatively shallow 8.75″ depth – this helps to ensure that the lower reaches of the tub don’t end up sloppy and anaerobic. I generally use these tubs without a lid (further helping to ensure good air flow), but not everyone is going to want to do this obviously.

If you put 1-2 lb of worms in a bin like this they will grow fast to take advantage of available space/resources (assuming they are taken care of), but the population growth will slow down once conditions become crowded for them. At this point, you can start up a new system, and simply move half of the contents over to this new bin -OR start up an outdoor system (eg. vermi-trench), give them away etc. Check out this post for ideas – What Do I Do With All My Extra Worms??.

Hope this helps!

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Worm Inn Journal – 02-10-09

Worm Inn

I am long overdue for a Worm Inn update!

I guess there really hasn’t been all that much in the way of exciting news to share with you. I still haven’t started harvesting vermicompost from my first system, and will likely wait for at least a little while longer before doing so. That being said, there are a couple things worth mentioning.

I’ve noticed something unusual in my Euro Inn – the worms have disappeared!

Believe it nor not, this is actually quite interesting – and may be an indication that Euros aren’t the ideal worm species for a system like this. Of course, they haven’t really “disappeared” – they are simply hanging out lower in the system than the Reds in my other Inn.

ENCs tend to like going down deep where there is more moisture. The problem is that it will likely be more difficult to harvest castings from the bottom (without getting a bunch of worms) because of this. I’m certainly not ready to throw in the towel just yet, however. I’ll give the system a few more months before I draw any official conclusions.

Thanks to a tip from Worm Inn creator, Robyn Crispe, I am testing out a new (for me) way to deal with a minor fungus gnat invasion in my Red Worm Inn – coffee grounds!
What’s interesting is that one of my readers suggested this a long time ago (I even wrote about it in this fungus gnat post), but I totally forgot to try it out.

For the past week or so I have been adding all our coffee grounds to this system, rather than adding them to my food scrap hold as I would normally do. Luckily we brew up a pot each morning so it won’t take long to get a decent accumulation of the grounds in the Inn. It is hard to say for sure if the approach has been effective or not – there definitely seems to be few adults flying out now, but I’ll have to give it a bit more time. The worms seem to be loving it anyway! There are lots of them up in the zone where the grounds have been added.

If anyone else has fungus gnats, and also happens to be a coffee drinker, please give this a shot. I’d love to hear how this works out for you.

One important thing to mention though – MAKE SURE YOU HAVE FUNGUS GNATS, NOT FRUIT FLIES!
In my experience, fruit flies actually thrive in bins with a lot of coffee grounds, so you’ll want to be careful with this if you aren’t 100% sure of the difference between these two pests.

Fruit flies (FFs) and fungus gnats (FGs) are about the same size, but fruit flies have a thicker (chubbier? haha) look about them. FFs also tend to be lighter in colour (more of a brownish, rather than black), with larger coloured eyes – essentially looking like a mini house fly. FGs look more like mini mosquitos.

Anyway – I’ll be sure to keep you posted on the coffee grounds technique (and of course any other Worm Inn developments worthy of mention).

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