Our first worm bin was a gift, and we fussed over our new collection of worms like new parents. Unfortunately, our inexperience led to some problems. Here’s a look at the new bin, the mistakes we made, and the problems that ensued.
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A Lifelong Composter Speculates About Worm Composting
I’ve been composting since I was just a wee lass. It’s a simple and low maintenance process, so when the question of vermicomposting came up–composting with worms–I figured it couldn’t be that hard, and the worm castings would be a great soil amendment. Also, who wants to walk outside to the compost pile during a snowmageddon winter, when I could easily walk down to a worm bin in the attached garage?
So when my brother–a high school teacher who’s had a worm bin in his classroom for years–got our name for Christmas, he knew exactly what to get us.
The New Worm Bin
Worm bins can be built from a variety of materials or containers. The important thing is that the container is dark (no clear plastic) and breathable. A worm bin made out of wood will naturally allow air exchange for the wormies.
My brother took an 18-20 gallon plastic tote with a lid (like this one), drilled 2 holes per side, and called it a worm bin. Man, I’m glad we didn’t have to do that for ourselves, LOL!
Filling the Container
It was now time to add bedding and food to the bin. This is the part where there are all kinds of theories about what works best. What we did was shred a bunch of newspaper and cardboard and use 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!
Next we added the peel and remnants from a winter squash. I thought they would enjoy the high sugar content of squash peels since they had gone 4 days without food (more on that in a minute).
Worms can eat most fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells, and coffee grounds; they don’t prefer citrus fruit, onions, or hot peppers.
We pushed everything to one side because one philosophy is to actively feed the worms on only one side of the bin at a time like this one. When the food on one side seems to be all broken down and is mostly rich, worm castings, then you add bedding to the other side, and start feeding them over there.
After a period of resting, the worms migrate from the “done” side over to where the fresh food and bedding are. Then it’s relatively easy to harvest the castings from the “done/resting” side. We’ll see about that!
Now add worms. Since my brother lives 500 miles away, he shipped us some red wiggler worms.
They come “shipped 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 on a light in the room (at first) or they might try to escape before establishing themselves in the bin you’ve made!
Getting it Right
One of the reasons why we hadn’t been super motivated to get started with a worm farm prior to this point is because we worried about not getting it right. Since the bin is inside the house, we worried about bad smells or fruit flies.
Our regular compost bins outside are fairly forgiving, and even when we’ve had some smells due to an imbalance of grass clippings to leaves, at least we knew how to remedy it (add more leaves!), and at least it’s not in the house.
With the worm bin, we’ve spent a good amount of time peeking in the bin and looking for signs of too much water or not enough. Too much food or not enough. Too much bedding or not enough. Are the air holes sufficient for air exchange? And on it goes.
Would you like to learn more about composting in all its forms to improve soil quality and reduce cost and waste?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
Paranoia Leads to Real Worm Bin Problems!
Weird things started to happen. Perhaps we were worried for a reason! The next day after starting this worm bin, I was harvesting collard greens so I threw a few leaves into the bin for them.
After the addition of collard greens to the bin, though, the entire house stunk like rotten Brassica for a week…because there WAS rotten Brassica in the house. Apparently I gave them too much food, too fast. I threw in a bucket of brown leaves and the problem seemed to go away.
Then we 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 we dealt with the fruit flies.
But now we’ve noticed that the sides of the bin, the underside of the lid, and the top of the pile are all covered in tiny, white specks. Mr. TAF did some research, and it turns out these are mites. They are harmless, but show up when there has been too much moist food added to the bin at once. These guys compete with the worms for food.
The solution is to not feed the worms for a couple of weeks. So, I’m back 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’m a little disappointed that they don’t eat more, but I’m looking forward to the day that they’re settled in their new home, the problems are balanced out, and they can eat one pail of food scraps each week.
We were excited to get this right, and learned a lot by dealing with the too much food/ too much moisture/ fruit fly/ mite debacle. We wrote this article as more experienced and knowledgeable worm bin owners.
Need more composting ideas?
- Building the Right Compost Bin
- How to Get Rid of Fruit Flies in a Worm Bin
- The Lazy Gardener’s Way to Make Fertilizer
Are you looking for more strategies for your permaculture garden? You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
Have you had issues with your worm bin? What did you do to remedy it?