What To Do With Worms While On Vacation

Sheesh – with the amount I’ve been posting lately, you’d think that I was on vacation!

Anyway – great question from Peter!

I am going out of town for three weeks. What is the best way
to provide enough food for the time when I will be gone? I don’t want
them to starve.

Hi Peter,
Here is a very important rule to remember when it comes to vermicomposting:

It is MUCH MUCH easier to kill your worms by overfeeding than it is to starve them to death.

I have literally left vermicomposting systems to sit for months at a time with hardly any attention, let alone feeding, and the worms have been fine. In extreme cases you might see smaller worms and less of them, but generally you’ll still have a good number of worms and cocoons left. If your system has good air flow you will definitely run a greater risk of having your system dry out completely on you than actually starving your worms.

With that said, I should mention that there are different stages of maturity in a vermicomposting system, and if your system is almost ready to be harvested (much of the bedding is gone – lots of vermicompost present) the expected lifespan of your system, and thus your worms, will be less. On the other end of the scale, if your system is brand new and you’ve set it up the way I recommend – with lots of ‘food’ and bedding left to age before the worms are added – your worms would be totally fine for a long time. Once the regular food is gone, the bedding actually becomes an important food source and will be consumed completely.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad idea to add some food pockets and some fresh bedding to your bin before you go away, but don’t overdue it. The last thing you want is a bin meltdown while you are gone!

If it is a stackable system (with lots of air flow) it will be really important to make sure it is very moist before you leave. You may even want to get someone to check on it while you are away, just to make sure it doesn’t dry up on you.

I should also mention that highly optimized (professional) systems with very high densities of worms shouldn’t just be left without food for extended periods, but most home vermicomposting systems don’t fall into this category. One way to accuratly gauge their need for food is to see how long it takes them to process the wastes you are adding. Is it always completely gone within a day or two? If so, you may need to provide a bit more food before your go. If on the other hand it takes a little while for food to completely disappear, your worms will almost certainly be fine!

Try adding some food wastes that take longer to break down – aside from carbon-rich bedding materials, wastes like broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots can be quite slow to break down – thus offering a food source for longer periods of time.

Anyway – hope this helps!

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    • John Augenstein
    • August 24, 2008

    I have found (through experience) a fairly safe way to heavy feed a worm bin, maintain moisture levels and not have to mess with it for two to three weeks. This will require having or having access to a good old fashioned pile, bin or tumbler of yard scrap compost that is currently active. You will need to aquire enough compost that is about 1/2 to 3/4 of the way broken down to put a 2 or 3 inch layer over your bin. If the compost is being properly taken care of, it will have about the same moisture level as you keep in your bin and will be full of all kinds of good worm feeding organisms. Cut a piece of black plastic (heavy duty trash bag works) that will fit down inside the bin with a slight gap between the plastic edge and the bin wall (1/2″ or so) and lay it directly on top of the compost. This will stop evaporation and keep the bin from drying out for quite a while (4 or 5 weeks).
    Handling the compost will have mixed air into it providing fresh oxygen which will keep it from going anaerobic. My longest test of this was a three inch layer for eight weeks using the “lift the plastic and smell it” method with the final result being the worms (eisinia fetida) completely converted the compost to vermicompost before it could do anything unspeakable. I want to emphasize: the compost must be at a good moisture level and at least 50% broken down. This is a “food rich bedding” rather than “food”. Do not use a plastic cover with material that has not been pre-composted. Fresh kitchen scraps (lettuce, squash, cucumber, tomato, any fruit) is anywhere from 60% to 90% water and you need evaporation to keep your system from going soggy as these materials begin to break down and release that water. If you use this method, I would suggest you make a trial run before you go off on vacation. Best of luck.
    John in New Mexico

    • Bentley
    • August 27, 2008

    Wow – great info, John! Thanks for sharing!

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