Red Worms + Isopods for Turbo Carbon-Processing?

At various points over the years I’ve become interested in the “composting” potential of other worm bin organisms, namely springtails, isopods and millipedes. I’ve always viewed them as important worm allies, and naturally wondered what they might be capable of on their own.

What’s funny is that literally none of my experimental systems in the past have actually worked out for me! It has really only been various “accidental” – more natural – systems where things have started to come together.

My “Uber-Natural” system gave me the first glimpse of what isopods (and to a lesser extent, millipedes) were capable of in terms of processing resistant, carbon-rich materials. More recently, I’ve been utterly blown away by the isopod populations that have been developing in some worm bins that have been receiving fall leaves (and some other bedding materials) almost exclusively for months. And the worms – while maybe not thriving in quite the same way as they would in a typical worm bin – seems to be doing just fine down in the moist lower reaches of the systems.

More and more, I’ve become convinced that this could be a fantastic way to turn resistant bedding materials into a unique type of castings, with very little in the way of actual “food” (N-rich materials) being needed.

Late last week I decided it was finally time to start up a brand new experimental system, better designed to take advantage of the talents of these two organisms.

I started things off with an extra-thick “false bottom” zone using a lot of coarsely-ripped corrugated cardboard. The image below is a bit misleading, but this zone likely occupied 1/3 of the total volume (at least during the set up process – likely some settling and compression that reduced this later). The idea here was to create nice habitat structure, and a longer-term food source for the worms.

To boost that food value right out of the gates, I decided to sprinkle in some dry poultry feed. This is often something I will do with my “set it and forget it” types of systems since it helps to create a zone down in the bottom of the bin that can keep the worms going for a long time without much in the way of assistance from me.

Next, I added my first layer of dry leaves (and other C-rich debris). I have multiple large bags of fall leaves (etc) that have been sitting for quite some time now – plenty of potential fodder for my isopod army! lol

Next came my initial “worm zone” – this was just some worm-rich, compost-y, stuff from the bottom of one of my other bins (where lots of isopods and worms have co-existed). I added a “Cool Whip” container worth (likely about 750 ml) of aged tap water at this point. I knew the worm habitat material would soak up and hold a fair bit of the water, and generally slow the run off down to the bottom of the bin – hopefully helping to get the false bottom cardboard damp more quickly. This is a case where I am definitely not too worried about some pooling in the bottom of the bin. Not only will the cardboard wick a fair amount up over time, but since we’re not really adding food to this system the likelihood of ending up with a foul, anaerobic swamp down in the bottom is a lot lower (I’ve even poured in more water since then – will circle back to this later).

Gathering isopod-rich habitat material was a piece of cake. Like I said earlier, the populations of these things developing in multiple systems has really been blowing my mind. I don’t have any solid data to support this, but I think it is safe to say they breed faster (maybe a LOT faster) than Red Worms! They also tend to get concentrated in the upper zones of my bins where there is a lot of leave litter, so gathering what was undoubtedly “hundreds” (if not more) really only took a matter of seconds. I will have to shoot a video at some point just to demonstrate what I’m talking about.

After the isopod-rich material was added, I added a nice thick layer of the fall leaves and debris. I assumed this would be the last layer (for now)…

…but then I found an interesting supply or organic matter I thought might be fun to test out!

My dad has a big catalpa tree in his yard – and just so you know, some of that other “debris” I keep mentioning includes tough catalpa pods (I will be very interested to see what the isos can do with these). I noticed there were a lot of dead (mostly dried up) catalpa blossoms on his driveway, so I thought it would be interesting to collect a bunch and add them to this new system (and one other system).

This is a material that likely leans slightly more towards “food” than the fall leaves – but one that is much more up the isopods alley than something like kitchen scraps.

With the bin officially topped-up, it was time to put on the lid (with a date reminder for future reference) and leave the critters to do their thang.

I had the opportunity to check up on the system yesterday (July 5th), and was very pleased to see how nicely things are coming along already.

The overall level had dropped already (the upper air holes were visible), and I found loads of isopods milling about in the upper leafy-blossom zone.

Digging around a bit, it looked as though the false bottom zone is getting nicely moistened and the worms have already started moving around a lot. I was actually surprised by how little pooling there seemed to be in the bottom so (as touched on earlier) I actually poured a bit more water directly down into this zone. I like the idea of having a bit of a reservoir down there since it should help to keep the upper reaches of the system nice and humid for the isopods, but without any real risk of creating hazardous conditions for the worms.

Before closing the system back up I topped up the system with more of (my ample supply of) dry fall leaves ‘n’ debris.

I know I tend to always be “excited” about new experimental systems, but I really feel like I am breaking new ground with this one – and am especially eager to find out what happens in this bin over the next 2 to 3 months!

One of the ways I have gone wrong in the past with isopods is by assuming I can just add kitchen scraps the way I typically would with a worm bin. This just doesn’t work – and I always see a major decline in the isopod population over time.

The “secret sauce” for isopod success seems to be:
1) Using almost-exclusively carbon-rich materials, with very little in the way of actual food.
2) Maintaining ample amounts of natural (C-rich) organics, like fall leaves, in the system.
3) Damp (but not wet) conditions.
4) Warmth – this one has been a bit of a surprise for me (since I assumed isopods thrive more in cool-ish conditions), but the populations in my systems exploaded once the warm weather of late spring and early summer arrived.

Stay tuned for more updates! And don’t hesitate to let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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    • Dan Dufore
    • July 6, 2022

    Where would I find isopod rich habitat to start one of these bins. I have a large leaf pile. Would that suffice? Thanks.

    • Jaime
    • July 6, 2022

    This partnership is actually one I’ve been considering for at least a year. I haven’t had all the pieces in place to start my system yet, but I’m excited to do so at some point, and to see where your experiments go.

    • Jim
    • July 6, 2022

    I feel like this is simply a compost pile in a bin. All those critters proliferate in my compost piles after they have cooled down and in balanced populations that work best for the pile.
    One turn with a pitchfork sends hundreds of lil workers scurrying. A properly maintained compost pile is rich with nutrients from such a combination of naturally occurring bugs and microbes.
    Maybe a fun experiment. Millicompost has slightly higher levels of certain nutrients. Their reproduction rates appear slower, 300 eggs a year and 2.5 years to maturity. Maybe I am wrong but if you are not going to feed it household scraps then what exactly is the goal?
    I admit, you can read 5 articles on the internet and get 5 different opinions. So this is my opinion of the article.
    Thank you for the opportunity

    • Andy
    • July 6, 2022

    Very nice experiment. Adding more isopods to a vermicompost system is an excellent idea for higher carbon inputs. I have been trying to do the same for the last few years, boosting the isopods population in my bins. Right now, I am trying to find the right carbon ratio myself. I am using cardboard, shredded paper, and semi-composted sawdust. Plus, I am using a diluted version of JLF(JADAM liquid fertilizer) for the nitrogen side. Maybe I will add leaves to the system for more isopod activity.

    • Matt
    • July 6, 2022

    Looking forward to following this one. While I don’t have an abundant supply of the carbon materials mentioned, it looks to be an interesting experiment.

    • George
    • July 7, 2022

    …and here I’ve been picking those things out of my worm bins! Not any more. Thanks.

    • Bentley
    • July 7, 2022

    DAN – An outdoor leaf heap is probably a good place to start your search – you should be able to find some down in the lower reaches – and the leaves themselves will be great “fuel” for your system! 😉
    JAIME – Sounds great! Let me know how things go once you get the ball rolling.
    JIM – Thanks for playing Devil’s Advocate. Good to get these sorts of opinions to further the discussion. Isopods can absolutely be very helpful in outdoor system – the key difference here is that this is a controlled/optimized environment, not a wild, fluctuating one like what you see in an outdoor system – especially one that heats up a lot. My indoor system is designed specifically to be optimized for isopods, and specifically intended for high carbon inputs. Having an effective way to process these types of wastes quickly, without the need for hot composting could prove very useful. And I believe the resulting compost could be highly valuable. Regular vermicomposting and composting systems receiving food wastes are obviously still highly valuable as well – this is just an interesting alternative, particularly in cases where large quantities of leaves and other resistant plant materials are available. As for isopod wastes vs millipoo – I would definitely love to track down some scientific literature comparing the two. If I had to guess I would say they might be fairly similar. In our case here, though, I feel the worms will play an important role, actually converting the iso feces into something even more valuable. Will be interesting to do some testing with the final product!
    ANDY – Sounds great, Andy! I look forward to seeing how it works for you. One thing I definitely want to test out as well is the addition of rock dust. My friend Sean (who is pretty much a professional isopod breeder by this point lol) has said for best results you should have a good source of calcium for them as well. All those extra minerals etc should boost the value of the end product as well.
    MATT – There are a wide range of high carbon materials that could work really well. Any old dried plant matter, really. Likely the biggest populations of isopods I have ever found in the “wild” have actually been in the drier sections of outdoor, bedded manure heaps.
    GEORGE – You are likely not alone! I don’t tend to see any serious populations of them in my regular vermicomposting systems, but I always welcome their contributions when they are present.

    • Matt
    • July 9, 2022

    I ended up finding a decent group of isopods under an old squash sitting on woodchips near a couple of my bins. Some critter managed to burrow a hole through the squash, so now the insides are accessible. I considered trying to gather up some to put in my bins, but I already find isopods in them. Not ready to set up a seperate isopod bin at this time, but certainly looking toward to updates on your experiment.

    • mjswider
    • July 9, 2022

    Oh, inspired by this post, I did had a grocery bag full of fallen blooms from a jacaranda tree to two of my bins to see what happens. Seems like this could be a good “living material” to boost the microbe population

    • Bentley
    • July 10, 2022

    That’s great, Matt – and that sounds like an interesting material to test out. Just to be clear, though, “Living Materials” are actually stable, decomposed (at least partially) materials rich in beneficial microorganisms. There is obviously some gray area here – how long before fallen organic matter (such as leaves or these dead blooms) technically becomes a living material? There are no hard and fast rules – but something like dead blooms will be less stable (and offer more food value) than more typical living materials. You are likely aware of all this – I am mostly providing this explanation for others reading. I highly recommend the Living Materials guide for anyone wanting to learn more:
    As a related sidenote – the blossoms I added to my systems have developed some obvious fungal growth, clearly demonstrating the food value still left in them. Certainly a lot more stable than something like kitchen scraps – but still worth being a bit more careful with than something like shredded cardboard etc.

    • mjswider
    • July 10, 2022

    Thanks for the clarification Mr. Christie :-). I did use the terms “living materials” inappropriately. I was actually wondering if they blooms would heat up as they decomposed and overheat my bin(s). A true living material, as described in your publication, would not do that. I need to reread the book!

    • Matt
    • December 21, 2022

    Okay, its time for an update on this one Bentley!

    • Matt
    • December 21, 2022

    I guess as far as the jacaranda blooms go, I forgot about them. Whatever bin they went in, they’re gone now . . .

  1. Years ago, I tried an experiment of tossing a few isopods into a worm bin. I learned a few things:

    1) Isopods reproduce like crazy.

    2) They make short work of tough materials rich in cellulose.

    3) They love to leave the bin. Don’t ask me why. The bin was in my garage, and I had them crawling all over the house.

    4) They wreak havoc on a newly planted garden, as they love to eat new shoots as much as they love to eat decaying organic matter. Planting from starts will give you a much better chance of success than planting from seed. Starts will grow faster than the isopods can eat them, and after a while the isopods lose interest.

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