March 2012

Standing Water in Corners of Worm Bin

Question from Roxanne:

I have tried to find the answer to my problem on the website but I am
worried about my worm bin having standing water in the corners. I am
afraid the worms will die with so much water. Do I need to drain it
some how or put a lot of bedding on top? Thanks!

Hi Roxanne,
You are right – it’s definitely a good idea to take care of this sort of thing! Sloppy, water-logged bins are definitely not ideal environments for your worms – nor are they effective vermicomposting systems in the slightest (this is an aerobic process).

Here are a few strategies for you to consider:

1) Create Corner Wicks – one thing I used to do when I had wet bins was pull back materials from the corners and shove LOTS of dry, absorbent bedding material down, all the way to the bottom. It’s important for it to be tightly packed so the moisture will be drawn all the way up – but at the same time, if you can do it with shredded material (vs one big piece) that may be better since it will continue to help air get down to the bottom of the bin. Similarly, just mixing in lots of dry bedding can be a great alternative or even partner strategy.

2) Maintain a Thick Layer of Dry Bedding – this one might be more of a maintenance strategy, best started before you encounter wet bin issues, but I figure it’s worth mentioning anyway. If you are keeping a really thick layer of bedding over top of the composting zone at all times it will help to absorb excess moisture, and will also help to ensure that the worm habitat zone always has lots of absorbent material, and likely decent air flow. Ideal materials include shredded cardboard and/or newsprint.

3) Keep the Lid Off – I know not everyone will be thrilled with the idea of leaving the lid off their worm bin, but I’ve got to tell you that this is one of the easiest ways to create a well-balanced vermicomposting system. Not only will excess moisture be able to escape, but all that added air flow will help to provide a lot more oxygen down where it’s needed, and remove any harmful gases (eg ammonia) that may start to build up from time to time. If you do this with a really wet bin, I recommend first mixing in plenty of dry bedding, continuing to gently mix the contents up from time to time (a small hand fork works great), and again, maintaining a nice thick layer of dry bedding over top (this acts as a sort of a lid). Letting a big solid gob of wet vermicomposting habitat dry out on its own is definitely NOT the way to go – it will take forever to dry, for one thing, but you will also likely end up big solid block of wormless material.


Hope this helps!
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Worm Factory Questions

Some questions from Becky:

1. I have the original worm factory with 16″ trays. How may worms can
I keep in a tray?

2. How much bedding should I expect the worms to consume before
feeding again or adding another tray? I am using office paper from the
shredder.

3. How wet should the trays really be with red wigglers? My
“processing area” between layers of bedding are much darker and dryer
than in your photos. Like damp coffee grounds.

4. White mites. Have found clusters on individual dead worms 3x in 2
weeks and removed them from the bin. How many are normal and how
should I deal with them?

Thanks for everything!
Becky

Hi Becky,
Let me start by saying that my answers are simply based on my own experiences/preferences and reading on the subject – not necessarily what the kind folks at Nature’s Footprint would recommend. You may want to consult with them as well.


1) I definitely wouldn’t think in terms of a specific number of worms per tray. Red Worms are pretty good at self-regulating their numbers so they will grow to whatever capacity they feel comfortable with and then slow down reproduction and/or move to other trays etc. My preferred approach is to do one tray at a time, gradually moving up as trays become filled and fairly well processed – so my focus is more on the amount of processed material (and overall volume of material) than on the number of worms. With my own Worm Factory (360 model) the most trays I’ve had at once is actually only two – although others who are adding materials more regularly than I am will probably move up a bit more quickly than myself.


2) Again, this isn’t quite the perspective from which I would be focusing on the system. There are so many factors at play here, so it would be incredibly difficult to say “after x lb of bedding/food is consumed, you will be ready to add another tray”. I might say something more along the lines of “once a tray is about 1/2 or 3/4 filled with fairly well processed material, add another tray” – but again, this certainly isn’t set in stone by any means. I recommend always keeping your active trays well stocked with bedding, except for those you are trying to finish off (ie the lowermost tray). If you make sure there is always a good supply present, you will have no need to worry about adding specific quantities on a regular basis etc.

Regarding how often to feed – my recommendation is ALWAYS, “let the worms be your guide”. If you feed based on expected processing ability (especially if using optimistic/unrealistic projections), you’re almost always going to end up disappointed and likely with some serious issues in your bin. I’ve come to develop a certain “feel” for when I can feed again – but of course this is pretty vague and wishy-washy, so it’s not going to be of any use to a new vermicomposter. Try holding off on feeding until the vast majority of the food material is no longer recognizable – don’t worry so much about the bedding since it will be processed much more slowly – like I said, just make sure to maintain a decent amount of it in your working trays at all times.


3) My preference is to keep the contents nice a moist – but not so moist that any significant quantity of leachate is accumulating in the reservoir. If you picked the material up, liquid wouldn’t drip out – but if you squeezed it a fair amount likely would. Red Worms LOVE wet – but still oxygenated – conditions. If they seem to be thriving in your bin, I wouldn’t be too concerned (although your mention of dead worms is a bit of a red flag – will talk more about this in the next response).


4) It’s very common for new vermicomposters to link the presence of certain organisms in their worm bins with various “bad” things that are happening with the worms. eg “worms are dying, there are lots of mites…therefore, mites must be responsible for worms dying”
I really, really try hard to help people see things differently (I jokingly refer to myself as a “critter advocate”), since most often it’s a case of “barking up the wrong tree”!

Focus instead on the worm bin environment/habitat – and specifically, on the key requirements of the worms. They need oxygen (and on a closely related note, good air flow), moisture, darkness, and a well-balanced habitat (lots of carbon-rich bedding material, and not TOO much nitrogen-rich material). If you meet all their requirements, you very rarely need to be concerned with other critters in the system.

Like I said above, the fact that you are finding dead worms in your bin is a red flag for me – tells me something is definitely going wrong in your bin. I almost never find dead worms – but when I do (as was the case in my first “Euros vs Reds Head to Head Challenge” bin! DOH!) there is something really “off”. When the balance shifts away from favorable Red Worm conditions it is VERY common to see other organisms expand in numbers and appear to be “taking over”, “causing harm” etc. White mites are definitely one of those creatures – they are opportunistic scavengers, and they even seem to feed on worms that are not quite dead yet (kinda like the vultures of the vermicomposting world – but with a flair for rotten vegetarian meals as well! lol). I can remember some of my early vermicomposting experiments in university (back when I was still a bit wet behind the ears), where I attempted to feed Red Worms all manner of food materials – often adding far too much at once. Let me assure you, I saw a lot of worm carnage back then, and a LOT of white mites!

Bottom-line, get your system back in balance and you should see a reduction in the number of these mites. In your case, it may be a matter of feeding a bit less and improving the air flow – although, without more details about your bin, it’s hard to say for sure.


Hope this helps!
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Springtails – Helpful? Harmful? No impact?

Springtails

A recent comment on the Red Worm Composting Facebook fan page (expressing frustration due to the presence of springtails in a worm bin) reminded me that I really should get things rolling with my planned follow-up to the “Waste Optimization Challenge“. As you may recall, my goal is to determine what sort of impact (if any) the presence of springtails has on the vermicomposting process.

I’ve decided to scale things down a fair bit (in comparison to the Optimization Challenge) by using ice cream tubs instead of Rubbermaid tubs. As per usual I AM still keeping things very simple, though. I’ll only have two bins – one with springtails, one (hopefully) without them.

Today I did the initial set-up of the bins. I filled them with approximately the same amount of moistened shredded cardboard bedding. Each bin then received 100 g (0.22 lb) of boiled coleslaw mix. The aim here was to add something “optimized” – but I didn’t feel like waiting around for my frozen carrot strips to thaw out enough so I could work with them. Not 100% sure yet what my food source with be moving forward, but I will definitely keep it consistent (each bin will get exactly the same thing).


I am going to let the tubs sit for a period of time before adding worms (both bins) and springtails (one of the bins). I haven’t yet decided on the number of worms to add to each bin, but it will likely be in the range of 10-30. As for springtails, there is no way I’m going to attempt to count these guys so I will have to settle for “lots and lots” being added to that treatment.

Once the initial habitat is well-established (with worms and springtails added) I will likely try different food materials (optimized and not optimized) to see if there are any differences there. One of my hunches has always been that springtails help with materials that the worms won’t feed on right away, so I definitely want to see if this is indeed the case.

Should be interesting. Will keep you posted!
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All Angels Academy Interview

About a month ago I was contacted by Denise Albiza, a middle-school science teacher (grades 5-8) at All Angels Academy (Episcopal) in Miami Springs Florida. She was wondering if I might be able be an online “guest speaker” for her students as part of their first-day-of-spring celebration (earlier this week).

Although I don’t generally give vermicomposting presentations (not my preferred approach), the idea of talking – here in Ontario, Canada – to a class in southern Florida seemed pretty cool!

Well…unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as planned.

The idea was to do an interesting interview using a Facebook/Skype video chat app – Denise even learned how she could record it (so it could be shared later) – but somehow I managed to mess things up (I couldn’t get the app to work – or so I thought, and well…yeah…long story! Ugggh!)
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Denise was a sport about it, and we DID still have a written chat (via Facebook), but unfortunately we were not able to get through all the questions the kids had come up with for me. They seemed very appreciative, regardless (recorded a very sweet video “thank-you” and posted it on my Compost Guy Facebook wall) – but, I ended up feeling guilty about the whole thing.

Anyway, I figured I should AT LEAST provide the students with written responses to all their questions, and decided to do so here on the blog since it might be interesting/helpful for others as well.





1) Do you keep your worms inside or outside?


I have worms both inside and outside. The great thing about worm composting is that it can be done on any scale, indoors or outdoors. For those who live in regions with cold winters, it means they can still compost all year round.

The vast majority of my worms are outside in big beds, since I have a lot more space out in my yard. During my winter (I’m in Ontario Canada) I try to keep one big bed active during the cold weather, while the rest of them get protected and basically “go to sleep” until spring. We’ve had a very mild winter and early spring this year, so all my outdoor beds are completely active (and thriving) again.





2) Have you ever mixed worm kinds? For example Red Wigglers with European Night Crawlers.


I have had systems containing Red Wigglers and European Nightcrawlers, but now prefer to keep these worms separate. Although they are closely related, the Red Worms tend to reproduce and grow more quickly than the ENCs (although, there have been some interesting/unexpected results in my “Euros vs Reds Head to Head Challenge” thus far!) so they may eventually outcompete them over time.

The two worms also seem to thrive in different kids of systems. Euros seem to like deeper, high-moisture bins and don’t seem to do well in really well-aerated, drier systems while Reds seem to thrive in a wider range of habitats.

I’ve tried Euros in a Worm Inn (flow-through system), for example, and found that they just wanted to dive down to the bottom (essentially defeating the purpose of having this type of system) – whereas Reds do very well in them.





3) What other kinds of worms have you experimented with?


I have also kept “Blue Worms” (Perionyx excavatus) previously. These are another composting species that do very well in warmer regions – even better than the Red Worms in fact. Their disadvantage is that they often tend wander from their beds/bins – especially during wet/stormy weather – and they are NOT at all cold tolerant, so not well suited for those raising worms in colder climates.

Distinguishing characteristics of these worms include rapid, somewhat jerky movement (which, as I’ve written previously, kinda creeps me out! haha), a clitellum positioned much closer to the anterior (head-end) tip, a body without any striping, often with a bluish sheen to it, and a thin pointed tail (“Spike Tails” is actually one of their common names).

These worms can often invade Red Worm beds on worm farms in warmer regions, so it’s not uncommon to find some in batches of Reds. Unfortunately, some worm suppliers will even sell (knowingly or unknowingly – hard to say for sure) batches of “Red Worms” that are almost entirely Blue Worms. Signs that you MAY have the wrong worms include: really crazy roaming behavior (eg. worms out of the bin and all over your walls etc), vanishing worm population when temps drop down below 50 F or so, and/or some of those other characteristics listed above.





4) How many worms do you have?


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Well…I just did a count the other day! (lol)
Seriously though, that’s a really tough question to answer with any certainty. Needless to say, I have thousands and thousands, and thousands of worms. Probably not millions…yet!





5) Why do you think you like worms so much?


I’ve been really fascinated with nature for as long as I can remember, so I’ve always been interested in lots of different animals, including many of the “creepy crawly” ones.

My BIG fascination with Red Worms, though, has a lot to do with their ability to turn what some people call “garbage” into something almost “magical” – a rich compost that’s so incredibly beneficial for the health of soil and the plants growing in it.

Some people are (understanably) “creeped out” by the thought of keeping worms – especially in their homes – but I am always amazed by the number of people who look at them differently once they see what they can do.





6) We have issues with fruit flies- do you have fruit flies in your worm bins? What do you do about it?


Fruit flies are (unfortunately) the ONE “problem” that pretty well every vermicomposter ends up with at one time or another. I get them even now – 12 years after I started vermicomposting.

To deal with them I use what what’s referred to as a multi-pronged strategy – since there is no single method that guarantees you will get rid of them.

A) Fruit flies are often the result of adding too much food at once and/or adding foods that aren’t yet ready for the worms. So the first thing you want to do is get rid of excess food from your bin – especially the bulky stuff.

B) Stop adding food wastes altogether – this is the food source for the fruit fly larvae. Try to hold off feeding until there is no longer any sign of the adults.

C) Add lots of bedding materials – these can help to prevent the flying adults from moving around too much – also provides the worms with a food source that the fruit fly larvae won’t want to feed on.

D) Use a vaccuum to suck up as many adults as you can. This sounds very funny I’m sure, but it’s a really effective way to get rid of the breeding adults. If you do this every day (during a bad outbreak) along with the other strategies, it will help a LOT.

E) Set up apple cider vinegar traps. Add a small amount of apple cider vinegar to a jar, with just a drop of dish detergent (gets rid of surface tension), cover with plastic wrap, and then poke small holes in it. Swirl around the cider vinegar then place near your worm bin. Set up a few of these – they should trap quite a few adults.

Moving forward, I recommend feeding less, doing more to optimize the worm food (chop it up, freeze it etc before adding to bin), and keeping a really thick layer of bedding materials over top of the composting zone.





7) What is your preferred method of harvesting your compost?


I prefer to use my version of the old fashioned “light harvesting method” (what I’ve jokingly referred to as the “Turbo Light Harvesting Method“). Worms are repelled by bright light so you can use this to your advantage when it comes time to separate the compost from the worms.

Basically, you just dump the material out – ideally into a large, shallow container – shine a bright light over top (the sun works even better), and gradually remove material from the top, allow the worms time to move downwards

It’s important that the compost be dry enough before you begin, since it is very hard to scrape it off when it’s wet. So, you may need to let it sit out for a number of days before beginning the harvest. Make sure you break it up a lot as it dries since this will not only speed up the process but will also help to prevent the formation of a solid block of material (VERY hard stuff once dried out).

Eventually, after scraping away for awhile, you should end up with most of your worms down at the bottom. They can be added to a new system.

One other approach you may want to try if you are using a typical plastic, enclosed tub system is “David’s Tub Harvesting Method“.





8 ) What other kinds of worms can be used for composting?


There really aren’t that many different kinds of composting worms (commonly used). Apart from Red Worms, the main ones include European Nightcrawlers, African Nightcrawlers, and Blue Worms. Red Worms are definitely the best all-around choice (in my humble opinion) though. They are very easy to work with, and tolerate a wide range of conditions.

When you live in a sub tropical or tropical climate, African Nightcrawlers or Blue Worms may be a better choice, though, since they will process wastes much faster than Red Worms in warm conditions – and, not surprisingly they can tolerate hotter conditions.

One other variety commonly used to process waste materials is the Alabama Jumper, but it tends to be more of a “soil worm” than the others (mentioned above), so it is typically put to use in different ways (soil remediation etc).





9) Who buys your worms?


The COOLEST people in the world!!! lol
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In all seriousness, most of the people who buy my worms are those who want to start vermicomposting (composting with worms), but somtimes people also want to raise worms for fishing or to feed various kinds of animals (fish, birds, turtles, frogs etc).


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WF-360 Vermicompost

I decided to check up on the tub of vermicompost harvested from my Worm Factory 360 bin (see “Worm Factory 360 | 3-02-12“). It’s been sitting now for about two and a half weeks, so I was interested to see if any baby worms had hatched out from the cocoons, and just generally, what the material looked like.

The bin seems to work perfectly in terms of keeping the material quite moist, while still providing some air flow. The vermicompost looks and smells great, and I’ve actually decided to put some of it to good use (more on what I’m doing with the rest of it in a minute).

Some of you long-time RWC readers may recall my post about the “Valentine’s Day Philodendron” from April 2010. For those who don’t, here’s the scoop…a number of years ago, I bought a beautiful philodendron for my wife on Valentine’s Day. At the time it had red heart-shaped blooms, and – me being me – it just seemed a lot more appropriate than your run-of-the-mill cut flowers (never been a fan of these!).

Unfortunately, trying to keep plants in our home is challenging at the best of times. We don’t have a lot of good spots that receive enough outdoor light – and those spots that do are accessible to our plant-munching cat, Monty. Anyway – long-story-short, this philodendron has REALLY suffered over the years. As you can see in my video/post (linked above), I did make an effort to revive it at one point – but that experiment ended up falling off the rails (surprise, surprise! lol) before too long.

I am absolutely AMAZED that it’s managed to survive at all. It has spent the last 4 or 5 months sitting in our laundry sink in the basement where very little natural light reaches it. I’ll take it as a sign of the fact that “love conquers all”!!
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Anyway, the poor plant is in really rough shape, and I want to see if I can revive it with the help of some of this WF-360 vermicompost and by putting it in a slightly better location (I noticed that my basement shelving unit actually gets a fair bit more light than the laundry sink).

My very first experience with the “magic” of vermicompost as a plant growth promoter involved adding some (from an active worm bin) to the pot of another variety of philodendron – and watching as the plant basically exploded with growth. I’m hopeful I can AT LEAST get this particular one well on its way down the road to recovery!

The level of soil in the pot had gone down considerably over time, so I figured the best approach was to simply top it up with some of the vermicompost. Any cocoons and baby worms I noticed were placed back in the storage tub.

This may end up being a case of “too little too late” unfortunately, but I figured it was at least worth a try! I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted.


As for the rest of the vermicompost – I want to remove as many baby worms from it as I can before using any more of it. Normally, I wouldn’t worry too much about this myself since I have lots of Red Worm habitat out in my yard (so any lost worms would like find a home pretty easily), but I know plenty of people are concerned about losing worms/cocoons in vermicompost. The idea here is to lure all the worms up to a zone where I’m putting a small amount of food waste (in this case some carrots strips that have been in the freezer) and then scooping them out.

All I did was dig a shallow trough, laid in the carrot strips, then covered with some vermicompost.

Hopefully the presence of the waste will also stimulate the hatching of the remaining viable cocoons in the vermicompost as well.

Should be interesting!
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Winter Vermicomposting Wrap-Up

Not sure what’s going on with the weather this year, but here in the middle of March we’re getting daily highs comparable to the middle of May (not sure if I should be happy or scared! LOL). This past weekend I decided I’d better convert my “winter windrow” bed into a regular outdoor worm bed so as to avoid having it completely overheat on me!

This was a pretty simple process, really – all I did was remove the tarp and cover the bed with a bunch of straw. Apart from helping to release heat, I think the added air flow (and occasional watering when we get rain) will also help to improve the quality of the habitat for the worms.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Mother Nature has a cold weather surprise or two in store for us during the next month or so, but I’m not particularly worried. We’re certainly past any chance for extended winter-like conditions.

Maybe next winter I’ll actually get the chance to test out the effectiveness of this system!
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Where Did My Worms Go?

A question from Karen

I just checked my worm bin – been going for about a month – and the food scraps are molding and I see some flies and only a couple of worms. What is wrong? Where did my worms go? I started with a full order. Do I have to start over?


Hi Karen,

If the worms have mostly disappeared on you it likely means you have not provided them with ideal living conditions. Very often with new vermicomposters there is a tendency to add too much food and/or not enough bedding, which can lead to the deterioration of the worm habitat before too long – especially if you continue to add more food.

If food scraps are ending up covered with a lot mold when there are plenty of worms in the system (not sure if this was the case with you, but worth mentioning anyway) it typically means too much has been added at once and/or it has not been optimized for being processed by the worms. Finely chopping everything up, freezing it, letting it age for a period of time (mixed with bedding) in a separate container, and mixing with “living materials” (earthy-smelling mostly-decomposed stuff like leaf mold, compost etc) can all help.

Air flow is another important consideration – especially if there isn’t enough bedding in a vermicomposting system (since bedding tends to encourage more air movement) and you are using some sort of enclosed plastic bin. Apart from the fact that the worms need oxygen, the flow of air into and out from the system can help to prevent any toxic gases (such as ammonia) from building up.

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Now, regarding what to do with your current system. My recommendation would definitely be to add more bedding materials and simply let it sit without any further addition of food waste. You might be surprised by how quickly the worm population can bounce back when left to its own devices. If you are really keen to hit the ground running with more worms, I’d suggest starting up a separate system, making sure to put a bit more time and effort into creating an optimal habitat for the composting worms.

If you are not already on the email list, I suggest signing up so you can download the free RWC Vermicomposting Guide and receive my “Worm Briefs”. These should help you to stay on track moving forward.

Hope this helps!
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