New Vermicomposter Questions

Here are some questions from Nikki:

Hello,
I am new to composting, and decided on redworm indoor composting. I have had my bin now for about a month. My worms seem to be doing very well, however I’m concerned I could be feeding to soon. I have been adding about a quart size baggie of scraps and additional bedding each week going corner to corner.
Today I dug around and noticed that I have worms (even new worms) in each corner along with remaining food. My bin doesn’t smell or offer any signs of overfeeding I’m just wondering if I should leave it be for a week or so before adding more food. I have dirt, bedding, food, and worms all mixed together from top to bottom. I thought they would eat from bottom to top leaving compost on bottom as they ate upwards.
I set my bin up with a solid thin layer of wet newspaper, bedding(wet), food in corner, more bedding(wet), then worms (dirt bedding and all they came in) (which I think was way more bedding than worms) then I added a top solid thin layer of wet newspaper. I “water” freqently to keep the moisture level consistant.
Everything seems all mixed up now. I have read that the worm compost is toxic to the worms, and I’m worried that there will be to much for them before they eat all the bedding and food.
Any suggestions ? or does it sound like my bin is going the way it should ? I don’t want to over feed or cause a harmful environment for my worms.

Hi Nikki,
Definitely some great beginner questions there – I’m sure a lot of people are wondering the same things! First and foremost, let me say that your approach seems to have been very good thus far – so good job!

There are a few things that could be playing a role in the apparently slow processing of these wastes. For starters, it should be expected that a new system will take some time before really moving along nicely. A month is a decent amount of time, but if the first 2-3 weeks were really slow, it wouldn’t be too surprising that you still aren’t making much progress.

The quantity and quality of worms is also an important factor. Not sure how many you started with, but it was a fairly small number and/or they weren’t in good shape when you received them, this could lead to delays as well.

A very important factor can be how the waste materials are handled. Not all wastes are created equal – some require more processing than others (if you expect to see a fairly uniform consumption speed). I recommend letting wastes age to help start the break down process – you might also think about freezing/cooking/chopping/blending as ways to break down the structural integrity of the materials, so as to help microbes colonize much more quickly. My general approach is to store materials in a scrap holder for a period of time (until full) then toss in my deep freezer, then thaw and chop/mix with dry bedding materials (shredded cardboard). Check out my “Homemade Manure” video to see what I mean. You need to be a bit careful with all the water released when you do this though (which is why I mix with a lot of bedding). Speaking of which, I generally don’t recommend adding water at all to enclosed plastic bin systems – unless of course you have really good drainage. You didn’t mention what type of system you are using, but I thought it would be a good idea to mention that for all those who are using regular plastic “worm bins”.

As far as worm compost being toxic – let me share my thoughts on this. Be assured that worms CAN live perfectly fine in habitats containing a very high percentage of their own wastes (castings). In other words, the claim that worm castings are “toxic” is definitely misleading! Real issues CAN however crop up if you continue to add food waste to a worm bin, and stop adding bedding on a regular basis. Eventually, you will indeed end up with a pretty unfriendly habitat for the worms, and you may even manage to kill them off. Bottom-line, this is definitely NOT something you have to worry about, based on the age of your system, and the fact that you are being so diligent with your bedding additions.

All in all, Nikki, I am really impressed with how patient you’ve been, and the just generally the approach you are taking. A LOT of newcomers are much more impatient and end up overfeeding their systems. I always recommend letting the worms “be your guide”, and to implement some of the waste-handling strategies outlined above. The worms should definitely work more quickly on the materials when you help the process along and when the population size increases.

One other brief thing to mention as well. Temperature can have a major impact on processing speed. If you bin happens to be in a cool location (outside or in a garage, in some northern location for example) this MAY be contributing. That being said, I also want to caution people about overheating a system as well (which can happen very easily). Please don’t leave plastic bins out in the sun for any length of time – even if the air temps are relatively cool, the system itself can absorb the solar energy and become a vermi-oven faster than you might realize.

Anyway – hopefully this has helped!
8)

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Comments

  1. This post was very helpful to this newbie. I believe I may be overfeeding my system and have not been adding new bedding. SOmehow, I missed that when I was reading about starting the bin. I believe this may be why I have fruit flies and my bin is a little stinky when we open it. So, I will be adding more bedding and chopping up the foodI put in there. Thank you.

    • Terri
    • April 20, 2010

    Hi! My bin is even newer: 1-1/2 weeks. Your blog is super helpful. I’ve already found answers to some of my questions just by searching.

    My question today is, how much is too much handling for the worms? I keep wanting to check on things, so I dig around in there. I even interrupted a pair mating the other night! *blush*

    I started with only 2 dozen wigglers from a bait store, so it’s usually hard to find very many of them, so I end up digging around a lot. Then they start crawling up the sides, and I interpret this as meaning I’m stressing them out, so I put them away. I should mention I have them in a 5-gallon bucket that I drilled holes in. Thanks!

    • Bruce Westfall
    • April 21, 2010

    “Vermi-Oven”

    That sounds like a horror movie my poor worms would rather not see. There needs to be a worm friendly rating system for this page!

    Good thing they can’t click or type…

    • George Sara
    • April 21, 2010

    My Worm Inn (cammo) is three days old and I use these suggestions each time I start a new bin. So far everyone is alive. Gradually adding worms each day from my Can O Worms. Home made manure seems to be the ticket. RWC has been invaluable.

  2. Teri,
    I have quite a few 5 gallon buckets set up in a stack type system. If you only have a few dozen you should be feeding very rarely. Leave them alone and “forget” about the worms. In another month or so, check up on them (if you can leave them alone for that long) and you should be able to start slowly adding food. You can see mine here.

    • Terri
    • April 22, 2010

    A MONTH!? Seriously? wow.

    I looked at your pix, you have quite the system going! Much the direction I’d like to head. So you seem to know what you’re talking about.

    Darn it, I just gave them half a cucumber (spongy & moldy), a pear core, and two eggshells–all pulverized in the food processor. Will they be OK? and it’s only been about 4 days since I last fed. But I didn’t really see too much of the previous food. Although, the way I pulverize everything, I guess I really wouldn’t…

    Thanks for the help!

    • Bentley
    • April 22, 2010

    TERRI- Digging around a bit is not a big deal, but you might want to avoid doing this multiple times every day since it will likely stress the worms out. It is hard to come up with any rules for “too much handling”, since there are so many different things that can contribute. I would say that if you’ve had the worms shipped to you and you are just getting started, it is not a bad idea to just let the worms mellow out for awhile. Open up the bin and make sure they are ok etc, but try not to do too much vigorous digging around. You mentioned getting worms from the bait shop – did you make sure to get the right ones (Red Worms)?
    ———–
    BRUCE – Haha! I hear ya – that does sound pretty bad, doesn’t it?
    ———–
    GEORGE – That’s great. Glad everything is working out for you thus far!
    ———–
    PATRICK – Great advice. Not enough vermicomposters follow those sorts of guidelines, I’m afraid! I always say “let the worms be your guide”, but many people seem set on following misleading “worms eat half their weight per day” rules blindly.
    ————
    TERRI – As long as you have a LOT of bedding in your system (lots of space for the worms to spread out in) and plenty of air flow, they should be ok. Just don’t add any more food for awhile. Yeah, 24 worms is very few! I’ve done my “4 worm reproduction experiments” with fewer worms (obviously – haha), but I generally haven’t fed much to those systems.

  3. Terri, as Bentley says, let the worms be your guide. 5 gallon buckets don’t have a lot of space for the worms to get away from heated food stock if you overfeed. Plenty of bedding, cardboard, paper, etc. will make this easier on the worms as they can dive down away from too much food. My buckets have been active for a little over a year. I read and read and read on what, how and how much to feed. The mushier food should be gone sooner than more solid foods. There’s more surface area for the bacteria to attack and more surface area means faster worm food. It’s the same concept behind crushed ice vs. ice cubes. The crushed ice melts faster and cools faster due to more surface area.
    Our co-op gardening friends started their worms about the same time we did. They really ignore their worms and they have about 1/3 to 1/2 of the volume of worms/bin as us so you have to actually feed the worms :). Feeding a 5 gallon set up – watch the food you layer on top. As most or all of it is gone put another small layer of food. I cover the top layer with ripped up cardboard cereal boxes and sheets of paper that would be recycled eventually and add the food under this layer. I rarely add water since most comes from the added food. My system(s) don’t handle our daily kitchen flow(yet) but that is a goal of mine. Nothing wrong with starting small, just remember smaller = slower.

    • Terri
    • April 22, 2010

    Yep, I got the right kind from the bait shop, asked for “Red Wigglers” and what he handed me was labeled “Red Worms.” (He tried to sell me some nightcrawlers as well, I said no thanks.) Maybe next time hubby is buying live bait I’ll ask him to pick me up some more red worms.

    I have added bedding a couple times. It did get warm & steamy in there for a few days once, with a little condensation forming on the inside of the bucket. It’s cooled off now, but it sounds like that’ll be part of the cycle.

    I’ve been digging around in there pretty much once a day, when I get home from work, because I wanna check on them. 🙂 I’m afraid it does get a little vigorous at times, because with so few in there it’s hard to find them! I will back off.

    Thanks guys!

    • Terri
    • April 23, 2010

    Update–last night, instead of digging in the bin, I just lifted the lid and peeked inside using my husband’s headlamp set on red light. (He bought it for fishing)

    Had to really look closely, but I managed to see four different worms hanging out at the surface, just doing their wormy thing. One looked like it was chowing down on a bit of food. They looked MUCH more mellow than when I’m chasing them & trying to grab them, LOL! It was actually pretty gratifying.

    • larry duke
    • April 24, 2010

    I decided to give up my plastic bins and follow the mark from kansas approach.I am in the process of building it 4 ft.by 8 ft.I am also adding blue foam for insulation.my experiment may get a little bit interesting,since i live in north florida.not sure how many worms i will need to start with.I also want to experiment with solar power .So Bentley,let me know if you have any suggestions.

    • Bentley
    • April 26, 2010

    All sounds cool, Larry – please keep us posted!
    8)

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