Worm bins are a simple way to compost food scraps. Learn about some of the nuances and worm bin problems facing beginners and how to fix them.
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A Lifelong Composter Speculates About Worm Composting
I’ve been composting since I was little, when my mom had me dump kitchen scraps onto our compost heap. It’s a simple process, so when the idea of vermicomposting came up—composting with worms—I figured it couldn’t be that hard!
Worm castings are a great soil amendment.
Also, during the cold winter, I’d rather walk down to the garage where the worm bin is, then walk outside to the compost pile!
My brother is a high school teacher who’s had a worm bin in his classroom for years. So when he drew my name for Christmas many years ago, he knew exactly what to get me!
The following is my account of receiving this gift and the worm bin problems that ensued for me as a beginner. There isn’t a lot of information out there about these problems, so they caught me off guard. If I was less determined, the problems might have discouraged me!
I’m glad I was able to solve these problems pretty quickly.
I’ve now been composting with worms for almost ten years and haven’t had any problems since this first experience. Get my instructions for building a worm bin.
Would you like to yield delicious harvests while partnering with nature? Check out my mini guide, The Permaculture Inspired Vegetable Garden.
My First Worm Bin
Worm bins can be built from a variety of materials or containers. However, my brother took an 18 gallon plastic tote with a lid (like this one), drilled 2 holes per side, and called it a worm bin. Man, I’m glad I didn’t have to do that myself, LOL!
Filling the Worm Bin Container
It was now time to add bedding and food to the bin. I shredded a bunch of newspaper and cardboard and used a spray bottle to moisten it down with water.
You don’t want it dripping wet, but if the newspaper/cardboard isn’t moistened enough, it will wick moisture from everything around it, including the poor wormies, which could become dehydrated and in extreme cases, die. No pressure!
Getting the moisture right is definitely one of the biggest worm bin problems.
Next, I added the peel and remnants from a winter squash. I thought the worms would enjoy the high sugar content of squash peels since they hadn’t eaten for 4 days during their shipment to me.
Worms can eat most fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells, and coffee grounds. They don’t prefer citrus fruit, onions, or hot peppers.
Just Add Worms
Since my brother lives 500 miles away, he shipped me some red wiggler worms.
They ship in bone dry peat moss to absorb all moisture during shipment. This helps keep the worms from freezing in the winter…The worms can lose up to 70% of their body mass and weight during a 3-5 day trip through the mail.”
When they arrive, the directions are to immediately pour 1/2 a cup of water on them to begin the rehydration process. Talk about travel stress!
Put the lid on and turn a light on in the room (at first) or they might try to escape before establishing themselves in the bin you’ve made!
The New Worm Parent Worries
I hadn’t been super motivated to have a worm bin prior to this point because I worried about the worm bin problems that might ensue. I worried about bad smells or fruit flies in the house.
My old standby, the outdoor compost bin, is very forgiving!
With the new worm bin, I worried:
- Too much water or not enough?
- Did I add too much food or not enough?
- What about bedding?
- Are the air holes sufficient for air exchange?
My Paranoia Led to Real Worm Bin Problems!
Weird things started to happen, and I soon realized that I was worried for a reason!
The day after starting the bin, I was harvesting collard greens in the garden, so I threw a few in the bin.
Too many food scraps leads to a number of problems.
#1 Worm Bin Problem: Bad Smells
After the addition of collard greens, though, the entire house smelled like rotten cabbage for a week…because there WAS rotten cabbage in the house. Evidently I gave them too much food, too fast. They couldn’t eat it, so it was just rotting away in there.
What I Did: I threw in a bucket of brown leaves and the problem seemed to go away.
Best Strategy: Nowadays, my fool-proof solution for avoiding this problem entirely, is to fill the entire void in the bin with shredded office paper. EVERY TIME I add more food scraps, I add more office paper on top. I moisten it with a spray bottle to give it that wrung-out sponge feel.
However, my issues with this first worm bin were just getting started.
#2 Worm Bin Problem: Fruit Flies
I started to get a few fruit flies…but at least no smell! I thought that would all go away after the worms devoured that apple core I thew in. No dice. Here’s how I dealt with the fruit flies. Hint: It involves apple cider vinegar!
#3 Worm Bin Problem: Mites
Then I noticed the sides of the bin, the underside of the lid, and the top of the pile were all covered in tiny, white specks. After some research, I discovered that these are mites. They’re mostly harmless, but show up when there’s been too much moist food added to the bin at once.
These guys compete with the worms for food.
Best Strategy: The solution is to not add food scraps for a couple of weeks.
This allows everything to balance out. The mites die back as the excess food and moisture goes away. The worms adapt to their new home and start eating more food, which means eventually you’ll be able to add about one pail of food scraps to your bin per week.
So, I returned to my regular outdoor composting for awhile. I just throw all of the food scraps into my regular compost pail which goes outside to the regular compost bin.
I learned a lot by dealing with this debacle of too much food, too much moisture, fruit flies, and mites. This should help you deal with some of the worm bin problems you might have with your new worm bin.
If it seems annoying, please don’t give up!
I’ve been composting with the same worms for almost ten years now, and it’s so easy that I don’t have to think about it at all. I haven’t had any problems since I cleared up these newbie problems.
Have you experienced worm bin problems? What did you do to remedy them?
Loved the detailed explanation. Thank you. Would be great for someone in a condo or apartment,
I shred my newspaper, like you did, and put it in a five gallon bucket with water. I grab handfuls of wet newspaper and squeeze the water out and fluff the ball of newspaper back out. I fill the bin up to the air holes with the wet newspaper. I dump the worms on top and let them work their way down. When I put food scraps in I bury them in the middle of the pile. If I notice it is getting too wet I will shred more newspaper and throw it in dry. Sometimes I will wrap the food scraps in dry newspaper and bury that in the middle. Right now I have the bin in our attached garage, when I had it in the basement there were fruit flies. When the temps warm up I will put the bin in the backyard in the shade. I think worms are the ultimate “set it and forget it” pets because you really can leave them be for extended periods of time and they “give back” by supplying you with fertilizer. The book “Worms eat my garbage” is a good read, with plenty of good tips. Also I had success growing an avocado plant from a seed that I buried in the worm bin
Amy Stross says
Maria, thanks for sharing your method. Maybe I need to add more newspaper, and be sure any food is buried. I’ll have to check out that book!
I love worm bins! When I lived in Ohio, I had a HUGE outdoor bin that I insulted with hay. Never had any problems. Recently, after moving to South Carolina, I had a bin in my garage and it got infested with grubs. Supposedly too much food. I tried reducing food, cleaning out and starting over and grubs kept coming back and — worse baby grubs all over my in my garage. Maybe I’ll try again and create an insulated bin outdoors. I do miss that black gold!
The “grubs” were more than likely soldier fly larva.
When we first moved into our apartment, one of my first concerns was: how to compost? I mentioned a worm bin to my husband as the most reasonable solution -to which he recoiled in disgust. And besides, he said, worms are animals, and animals in the apartment are pets, and that would be a violation of the “no pets” clause in our lease.
I found a community garden just down the road where my compost was more than welcome, much to my husband’s relief. But I’d love to have a worm bin sometime in the future…
Guess my 2 cents’ worth may help . . .
For two years, ending last Summer, I managed a community garden. Some wanted a vermicompost operation, and a guy from somewhere donated a four story dinky-size backyard worm thingy, with about two hundred red wrigglers, starving for lack of feed.
That was so small it wasn’t funny, so I borrowed a double wall dog house and filled the bottom with about 6 inches of torn, wet corregated card board, waste kitchen scraps from the attached commercial kitchen(A homeless people support group owns the property), some of my natural compost soil, fine native sand, and enough water to suit the worms movement, breeding and digestion(Fine sand in their gut speeds digestion).
By two months the large dog house was filed to the top with castings, so I temporarily moved the active worm top layer to a spot behind and on the ground by the 10 x 12′ compost soil operation. Then I added a layer of torn, wet corrugated cardboard, fine sand, a little compost soil, kitchen wastes, garden plant wastes, weeds, and torn, soaked newspaper.
The now several thousand worms devoured the new feast and in the meantime three 4 x 4 x 2′ plywood boxes on pallets arrived for a three-bin vermicompost setup. I lined the first with soaked, un-torn corrugated cardboard to provide closure to any openings the worms might run off through, spread soaked, torn c-cardboard about 3 inches thick on the bottom, added kitchen wastes mixed with fine sand and compost soil, then spread the worms over the top, covering with mown grass. By two months, again there was a filled bin of castings, and the worms died off for lack of feed.
I was the only active gardener, so I left.
A note: as I have made hot compost for 20+ years, and lots of it, I build the 5′ x whatever length x about 4-6 feet wide pile on well-drained ground. Excess water is never an issue. Being as I am lazy, first I place about 6″ of brush cut to 8 – 12″ long on the ground. Then a layer about 6″ thick of “brown” material, then about 2″ of “green” material, brown, green, brown, green then about 4″ of cut brush. Then alternate brown and green to the top of 5-6 feet, covering with about 1″ of fine soil, compost, mown grass, or anything to close the top surface but allow rain to go through.
This allows good air pass through the deteriorating material, and NO TURNING!:-) The heat rises to 14-16 degrees F. and maintains for about two weeks.
Like I say, I’m lazy! This is a tried and proven process for 20+ years.
We tried wiggler worms also, but found we produced more scraps than they could consume. We upgraded to Anacondas here in Florida. They consume much more, but the containers have to be HUGE! Not much difference between worm or snake poop.
Cat Lyddon says
I am laughing right now as I too wanted to start a worm bin. I had it all set up and sitting in a shady area outside as I had just finished adding the worms.
I turned around and jumped a mile… A HUGE turkey domesticus (not wild) stroll into the yard from who knows where we had NEVER had a turkey wild or otherwise in our suburban yard. Walked pass me totally unconcerned with the human and with the air of a prince visiting the stables. Walked up to the new worm bin and proceeded to devour every last worm….before gliding away never to be seen again.
And that folks was the end of my worm bin adventures.
I LOVE this story! I hope you got a picture of the turkey for proof 🙂
This story made my day. Hilarious! I only laugh because we had large domestic turkeys who lived at the back of my neighborhood several years back. The little bastids would come out and peck the crap out of my bicycle tires WHILE I WAS RIDING!!!! They are dumb creatures….LOL
I bought a worm bin at the end of winter and sadly it was a complete failure! It was too cold to move the worms outside and our garage isn’t heated or insulated. And being in a small townhouse our only spot, where we could ensure the cat and dog wouldn’t disturb the bin, was in our kitchen. Our bin quickly developed mites and fruit flies, which I tried to resolve. But I was also pregnant and my sense of smell intensified in the first trimester! So after trying to save my poor worms, I had to give up on my bin to avoid triggering my morning sickness every time I entered the main floor. I’ve saved my bin and hope to try again next summer! We’re also moving so hopefully we have a better bin spot to help with the knowledge I’ve gained 🙂
There’s a time and place for everything. I’m sure the next one will be great 🙂
As I start my 3rd year of small scale worm farming, I am loving what the castings do for my garden. I have learned a lot thanks to sites like this one. My biggest issue is seasonal temperature-hot summers and cold winters make a need for my bins to be moveable. This year I have built a multi-layer bin using 2×4 wood and mesh screening. In my previous bins the amount of worms doubled about every 3 months, making a lot of wonderful worm poop! This year I anticipate even more. I have never had problems with smells or pests of any kind. Oh wait, once a small frog decided he had found a tasty snack shack-he was redirected to another garden spot.
I love the frog visual! 🙂
Did you close off the bottom of the bin? Also, did you surround the bin with straw bales? I have a similar set up and find that some of my worms are leaving the bin to get in the hay.i think the conditions are fine in the bin b/c there are a lot of worms in the bin. But the ones who leave are laying eggs and pooping outside of my bin, and that’s no help to me.
Jacques Lebec says
Us worm farmers can talk about worm food for hours! I have worms in my 9 raised beds, I do feed them kitchen scraps, I have two worm bins in my garage. One red wigglers and one European night crawlers, I have a large bin full of leaves and red wigglers next to the shed. I feed them once a week, I also grind up the leftovers in a small blender. I have a paper shredder I use to shred office papers that have been in the shed for 20 years. It’s a great activity to be engaged in, worms are so interesting. The castings are great when mixed with compost, the tea is comparable to a nitrogen rich commercial fertilizer except it won’t burn your plants, it’s organic and home made. Good Article!
I have a question in regard to cold temperatures and worms… Does anyone know if you can insulate a worm bin and have an idea of how to do it? Our cellar is unheated and the temperatures can go down to 45 degree F. Too cold for the worms to live… There isn’t anyplace else to keep them in the winter. Any ideas???
Ideally the temperature wouldn’t go below 55 degrees, but I’m keeping my worm bins in the garage at the new house, and I noticed this winter that temperatures got down into the 40s. They’ve survived and seem fine. They just slowed down a bit. You could hang old blankets or some other type of insulating material around the area where you keep them, but I’m not sure I would cover the bins themselves b/c it might stifle air circulation. Experiment and let us know what works!
I had a shipment with insulated foam in the box. I wrapped this around the sides of the bin and taped it. We don’t get continuous cold weather here in Florida, but plenty of 40 degree nights and some freeze spells. They all survived the winter.
We have our worm tower outside next to the trash bins and because it does sometimes develop a bit of a smell (i’m a bit lazy and sometimes feed them too much), I have always been reluctant to bring them inside in winter. The first winter they all froze and when I opened up the tower, they had turned into a big slimy pink mess. I felt terrible for killing them all off like that. The second winter I simply wrapped the new batch of worms in fabric of the kind that we also protect plants with. And I rarely opened the tower for a few months except to put in half composted food. Seemed that minor insulation around the tower and the warmth of the compost left to itself, brought at least some of them through the winter. When I opened the tower again in spring, a small family of worms had survived and is now merrily multiplying.
I know it’s way too late for you – but just in case someone else is reading this later… I have a winter set-up for my worms, an old duvet cut to cover the bin, then a piece of left over damp proof membrane big enough to loosely cover that (any mostly waterproof cover would do) and I have a plank of wood that sits on top of the lot. It’s not posh and I only put it over in the coldest part of the winter (in the UK about early Dec to early March). It lifts off easily to add food and as it’s loose it allows enough air flow into a medium size bin. For me this is the 80/20 I do lose a percentage of my worms each year but not many and it’s minimal effort. I did bring them in for a couple of weeks when we had a very hard and long freeze this year but had been considering doubling up the duvet and putting a hot water bottle on it every day. Overall I’m glad I made the effort to do that as I lost hardly any that way.
Marie Proverb says
I have been worm composting for about nine years, after my husband’s failure to make compost with the huge rotating metal bin in the yard. He would only empty it once a season, if that! I said that I would find a faster method and I did…Red Wriggler Worms. I started with the “Tenement” method–square layered bins bought on-line. I didn’t like four bins on top of each other for many reasons and won’t get into it. I am very happy with a composter that looks like a trash bin with handles and a couple of wheel which is made in New Zealand. The compost is pulled off from the bottom.
It can be messy, especially when separating the worms from the castings, but it’s fun, the grandkids get a kick out of it.
I save the vegetable peels, et al., grind them in a food processor, because the smaller the particles, the faster to decay and be consumed.
I collect and shred black newspaper (which is getting difficult to find) as well as the paper packing in parcels that arrive in the mail and I store it in the basement in a trash bag. I also use Coconut Coir bricks reconstituted with water and combine it with the paper when I am making the bedding. I make the bedding as I need it, combining coir, paper and water. I layer it like a lasagna, vegetable refuse, a sprinkle of some sterilized ground egg shells, powdered lime and some stone dust and a layer of bedding or vice versa. The only time I have had an odor was when I tried ricotta. Had I not moved the bedding to see if it was gone, to of curiosity, I would have never smelled it. The worms did eventually consume it, but it was gross and I strictly stay with vegetation.
I know when its time to feed them, when the worms start to wander to the edges of the bin. Once fed, it will take a couple of days, but them they stay under the bedding with the food supply. If I put too much refuse in with them, it will start to ferment and the worms will move away until it cools down. Therefore, after large parties, sometimes with as much as 25 pounds of refuse left, I will actually grind and freeze it for lean times.
Worm composting is a great complement to gardening and I am surprised it’s not encouraged more by towns to keep the weight out of the trash cycle.
I’ve graduated to three large worm bins I’ve collected over time and keep in my basement. I’ve been amazed at what the compost can do for my garden, my tomatoes and flowers go crazy and even my lawn has gotten the worm casting bin rinsed out on it and that spot turns lush. My husband is a believer now that worm castings are the holy grail of soil conditioners and supports my dirty corner of the house where the water leeches from the bins and a big bin is full of soaked coconut coir that I put handfuls of at a time with each feeding. He even bought extra compost pails for the kitchen. These pails got kind of smelly, so what did I do? I added some worms to clean them up, along with a handful of soil, and wah-lah problem solved. I find that fruit fly issues and mites happen and clear up if you stop feeding for awhile too. I’m thinking of putting worms under my rabbit cages and composting rabbit droppings and leftovers in them for more efficiency in the summer. We’ll see. Thanks for the great info, Amy!
Barb Bataillon says
I am brand new at this hobby. I do garden and know how wonderful worm casing (sp?) are. But no one talks about exactly what happens after I get started. I have a large plastic bin. Shredded lots of dampened black ink only newspaper, sone scraps of lettuce (for now), about a cup or so of soil and then added worms. Layered top with moist flat newspaper and check to make sure everything stays moist.
Ok, now what? How will I know it’s working? When can I expect casings and how do I get it?
Truly niave I’m sure, but happy to try this out. Any help appreciated.
You’ll find lots of details and answers to your questions in this article about starting a worm bin. Enjoy! 🙂
Hello, I’m thinking about starting a small worm farm. My problem is (I think is a problem) I live in Florida. I think I have the perfect spot under a tree. I want to raise African Nightcrawlers (for fishing) and I have read I need light above the bin to keep them contained. My back yard is home to rabbits, squirrels, black snakes, and anything else that decides to visit. My fear is one of these critters chewing on an extension cord. Do I really need a light? Any help would be appreciated.
You only need a light during the first couple of days that you’re acclimating them to the bin. They don’t like the light, so it encourages them to stay in the bin rather than searching for a way to escape.
Before you buy or build a worm bin, look for outdoor, hot-climate worm bin ideas. My bins are made for cool, indoor environments, and would bake the worms outside during a hot summer.
I just set up my worm composter and received my worms in the mail. The worms arrived dead. A few were moving, but the vast majority were just not moving and were in a big mass. They also smelled really bad.
I put them in the composter anyway.
Should I have done that or throw them out?
Oh no! There shouldn’t be any bad smells, and they definitely shouldn’t be dead. I would contact the seller right away, and I wouldn’t put them in the worm bin. If you have an outdoor compost bin, you could bury them there.
No one has mentioned white worms, I have many in the worm bin and find they multiply faster than the red wiggler Has anyone had them in their worm bin and how can I get rid of them?
These white worms are called pot worms. They indicate that the bin is too moist and that there are likely too many food scraps, which are fermenting. I would fill the entire empty space in the bin with dry shredded paper and stop adding food for a couple of weeks. Another thing you can do is freeze food scraps until you’re ready to add them to the bin, which prevents them from fermenting while sitting on the kitchen counter.
Deena Royal says
I have a three-level worm bin and admittedly have not look after them at all for a long time they still are feed with scraps from the kitchen. But what I would like to know is how to get them up into the top tray from the second and third tray which is full of worm castings but also lots of worms. It is very moist throughout.
I haven’t tried the worm farm idea out yet. But it occurred to me that the fruit flies and other insects aren’t coming out of thin air. They started out as little eggs on the food that you’re putting into the bin. Has anybody tried microwaving the heck out of the scraps and then letting them cool for a few minutes before putting them in the bin?
Freezing food scraps first works well.
Robyn Charles says
I have a worm factory and got my first shipment of 500 worm in January (we live in the midwest, so dead of winter). I made a lot of mistakes (onions, too dry, not enough food, etc.) and most of the worms abandoned ship, fell through the holes in the bottom of the tray when the lining paper decomposed, or dried up when it got too dry. There must be a few worm left because the small amount of scraps I add every 2 days are disappearing. The moisture level is staying consistent, and I’m ready to try adding more worms. I put weed barrier cloth under the tray so they can’t fall through the bottom (this is still the first tray, and there’s barely more than an inch of castings in the tray). Question:do I just add the new worms on top of the existing worm castings, or prepare a new base tray with fresh paper on the bottom, and transfer the existing compost (and handful of worms) to that tray before adding more worms? My concern is that the tray won’t get enough air flow as it gets deeper if I leave the weed cloth under it, or the worms will again fall through the bottom if I take the cloth out.
Having a few stray worms fall through the bottom is probably inevitable. However, if lots of them are falling through, then inconsistent moisture is probably the culprit. They’re trying to escape to find the right amount of moisture.
If moisture is consistent, the majority of worms shouldn’t fall through when the lining paper decomposes. That’s because at that point, there should be enough sticky organic matter to anchor them in place.
If it were my bin, I would remove the barrier cloth to ensure good air flow, which is important as more trays are added.
As far as adding more worms, I would add them to the first tray unless it’s full and you’re ready to add a second tray anyway.