When Is Rotten Food TOO Rotten?

A good question from Rich:

I put scaps into 5 gallon bucket and when ready mix with
bedding. This could be a month or later. at what point are the scaps
too rotted and how can I tell. Thanks for such a great website. I love
composting wih worms.

That is a really intriguing question, Rich – and I’m pretty sure you are the first person to ask me!

Let me start by saying that I am the KING of leaving rotting scraps – and newly set up bins containing bedding and scraps – to sit before unleashing the worms on them! A prime example of this was when I set up the bins for my YouTube videos (featuring the ‘basic’ and ‘deluxe’ worm bins). I seem to recall leaving them for at least a month before adding any worms.
Did I happen to mention that I’m a chronic procrastinator?

All joking aside – here’s the deal…

Obviously, the longer you leave these materials, the less value they are going to offer the worms – same goes for something like manure sitting outside in a pile, since eventually it’s basically just going to be rich soil. Water-rich food wastes sitting in some sort of container with no drainage and no absorbent bedding materials to wick up excess moisture are going to get nasty pretty quickly, and if you left them indefinitely would likely just turn into a horrifying sludge. If you added worms to this (or added it to a worm bin) it wouldn’t be pretty.

I’m the type of person who would STILL be trying to figure out how to make the stuff into worm food though – I would mix it with a LOT of dry absorbent bedding and would then leave it to sit for a while longer before attempting to use it.

Generally speaking, waste materials that have been left to sit with adequate bedding (i.e. lots of aeration and moisture absorption) will decompose aerobically and will be fine to use for worms at any time. You’ll likely see a proliferation of various types of fungi (molds etc), and eventually there won’t be much in the way of actual food waste left. Nevertheless, if you moisten and mix up the remaining materials it can still be used as a good food source.

I actually have a bin that’s been sitting with bedding and food waste for several weeks now – I think I’ll make a video showing what it looks like, and how I get it back in good shape to receive worms (thanks for the inspiration Rich!).

Hope this helps!

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    • Duff in VT
    • May 5, 2009

    Bentley said “A prime example of this was when I set up the bins for my YouTube videos (featuring the ‘basic’ and ‘deluxe’ worm bins).”

    I have watched the videos. I see you putting big pieces of food in there, big hunks of apples, etc. Then I read where other people put all their food through a blender. What gives? My own thought was that the bins would be pretty easy to keep, but now I see this blending and think I will be a poor hostess to my worms if I just bury the scraps without any prep ! We have old apple trees on the property and I thought I could freeze a bunch of the apples and just defrost and pop one in if I should run low on kitchen scraps next winter…. do I really have to make apple sauce out of it? I don’t even do that for the family LOL !!

  1. Duff,
    The answer to this is …it depends. When I started reading about VC, I did not think worms would eat my garbage. After a few weeks, I really became interested in the science of it. My hobby has turned into projects. If your bin(s) are outside, like mine, my main concern is temperature. Right now in the spring I’ll use pre composted feedstock. When the feedstock decomposes, it gives of heat energy. So to keep the heat down I wait for the heat energy to expire. The opposite is true for winter to help keep the bin warm.
    With that being said, please do some research and let us know.

    • Lorna
    • May 7, 2009

    I’ve been composting with worms for years and years, and it’s REALLY difficult to do it wrong. Even if you have a bin that goes sour, you can just drag out all nasty goo and mix it with paper shreddings or that wood chip bedding stuff out of a horse stall or bunny cage and it will be fine in a few weeks. It’s fun to fuss over them, but if you forget about them for a couple of months, they most likely won’t even notice you’re gone. A friend of mine had a bin that was filled with water by accident and then frozen SOLID over the next winter and by spring was loaded with worms. They’re tough.

    The only thing I’ve seen go really wrong was adding too much citrus because the acid melted the worms – it was pretty gross.

  2. Duff –

    My worms love apples. My kids have a bad habit of taking a few bites out of an apple and then they’re done. I try to stick the apples in the fridge and pull them out for later – for the kids, I mean – but no way are the kids going to take a blemished apple. So my worms get the apple leftovers, which sometimes are close to being full apples. I don’t blend them or anything. Sometimes I let my collecting bins for food go a little too funky, and so sometimes the apples are pretty soft and mushy by the time the worms get them, but I think that probably makes the apples a little easier for the worms to handle. We go through a whole lot of apples around here, and my worms didn’t really adore them the way they seem to now, but now anytime I go check the worms and find half an apple, if I lift it up, I’m going to find the underside of the apple teeming with worms.

    So like Lorna said, there’s virtually no way to do it wrong, and if you choose not to puree your worm food, they’ll be none the worse for it, and they’ll chow down quite happily on the big pieces too. (You should see my worms tear through a cantaloupe rind! But they seem to like apples nearly as much as melon, now.)

    • Conrad
    • May 7, 2009

    Can you give us a hint as to what you would need to do to get old scraps ready for worms?
    I have a bucket that has been sitting in the garage for a while, I was about to give it to my worms, but since I read this, I thought otherwise. I might just save it for the regular compost bin I am going to start once we move.

  3. I agree with Lorna and Pamela: it’s really, really hard to fail at VCing. The hardest lesson for me has been learning to be patient and to leave them alone. And on the question of “what’s too rotten” I think it’s hard to be “too rotten.” Worms don’t have teeth and it’s my understanding that rather than eating the apple they’re eating the microbes ON the apple. In other words, they’re eating the rotten part.

    • Cathy
    • June 9, 2009

    I am just starting out with a worm bin (I bought a worm factory 3-level bin). There are really great instructions on the first set-up and it talks about when to add another bin (when the stuff in the first bin reaches up to where a second bin would be), but I don’t understand how to do the layers. I added the dirt/compost, the worms (from a friend with a bin, so it came with a lot of castings, too), food, shredded paper, and then a few sheets of newspaper (moist) on top. I am not sure how to layer. I’ve only lifted all of the top up and put food where the other food was already. Am I supposed to do that, or am I supposed to add a new layer of shredded paper before each food addition? If I do that it seems like there won’t be enough food in the layers. The layering part isn’t clear in the instructions. How should I do this to keep the bin healthy? Thanks in advance!

  4. Layers, schmayers. The worms don’t care. They’ll wiggle around to get their food and rearrange the layers. Keeping the bin dark and moist is much more important than worrying about layers. That’s my 2 cents!

    • Carol
    • June 20, 2009

    I received a Worm Factory 5 bin for Xmas. Started my worms mid-January. I keep the bins in my garage. Due the first quarter of the year, it was pretty cold (45-50) in the garage. The bin seemed to stay pretty wet. I had the same problem as others with worms migrating into the liquid collection pan. Every time I check the bin, I was picking live worms out of the collection pan and putting them back “upstairs”. At one point I was quite discouraged with my worm attrition rate, but just resolved to get it right.

    My solution has been to 1) shred up lots of paper (old mail, etc no plastic windows) then 2) spread a piece of plastic on the garage floor; 3) dump the working bin out onto the plastic and mix in the shredded paper. 4) I line the working bin with a couple of new sheets of dry newspaper and scoop the new mixture back into the bin. Any clumps of the newspaper sheets from the dumped bin I bury in the center of the working bin. It has taken until now 6/19 to completely fill one bin. The last time I remixed the bin I started a second bin on top but only put shredded paper in it, no newspaper layers between. I tossed some food in and the worms are migrating back and forth between the two bins. I did notice this evening that it is getting moist and dense, so will be doing another remix tomorrow. Drained the liquid from the collection tray tonight, but may have clogged it with some dead worms. Some still migrate down there, but I think they are actually trying to get away from the moisture in the working tray and end getting stuck in the collection tray. I love the idea of a ladder (LOL), but not sure how to get them to use it.

    I don’t generally worry about placement of the food too much. I’ve put some pretty snarky stuff in there. I do try to drain any liquids off before dumping the food in. I also put stale cereal and cookies in there. I let my egg shells dry and then crush them before sprinkling on the top of the working tray. Generally I just put the food in a different corner of the top bin each time that I add some. When I do the above bin maintenance, then anything not eaten will get mixed with the rest and compost. Now that the weather is getting warmer, I am having a little bit of a problem with fruit flies, so will start burying the food.

    I still have some dead bodies (I’m suspecting suicide), but the population now seems to be growing and looks much healthier. So everybody keep your chin up and just figure out what works for you!!

    • Raymond e st. pierre
    • September 20, 2010

    love this web site.have it as a favorite. we will be going to europe on vacation.for 3 weeks .is it ok to leave my european nightcrawlers alone that long.I will feed them very good before we leave.that very day in fact.they are indoors in a wooden bin I built.temp and ph will be fine raising them for fishing.but growing so fond of them I will hate to kill them.may sound odd .but this is the way I feel.have you ever heard any one say that lol lol with regards Raymond e st. pierre

    • Bentley
    • September 21, 2010

    Hi Raymond,
    Thanks for the kind words. Generally, my recommendation when people are going away is not to worry about it too much. Believe it or not, adding a lot of food right before you go away may be a recipe for disaster.
    I would likely add SOME food – but would focus on materials that take awhile to break down like broccoli and carrots (should cook them a bit) and add them basically whole. Most of my focus however would be on bedding types of materials – if you happen to have fall leaves where you are, adding some of these might not be a bad idea. Shredded corrugated cardboard is also a very safe material – the worms will munch on it, but you can be sure that it won’t cause any issues.

    In all honesty, I’ve left bins alone for more than 3 weeks when I HAVE been in town (haha), and they always seem to be thriving when I open them up (full open systems are another matter since they dry up fairly easily) so believe me when I say it’s much easier to kill worms via overfeeding than via starvation!

  5. I have a problem! Friends of mine were encouraged by me taking about my solar cone and started piling all their food scraps/waste into a giant gabage can. It’s almost full and starting to rot. With spring coming they are concerned. I’m trying to help them fingure out a solution. Any suggestions?

    • cathy
    • September 30, 2014

    Hey, i bought the big double side by side plastic black composting bins from costco and put all veggie waste and remnants from my juicer in it. It has gone really sour and sticks is soaking wet and black. can i just add some dirt to save it? please help!

    • Phil de Canillas
    • December 3, 2019

    Add lots of shredded brown cardboard, preferably not printed on.
    Leave it dry and mix with your compost, check it after a couple of hours and if it is still too wet, add more dry, shredded cardboard.
    Perhaps add a compost accelerator and turn the compost every other day until the compost is drier with less smell.

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