Sunday, February 7, 2010

Taking care of your worm bin

 The only worms you should use for the worm bin are the 'Red Wiggler' worms or also called 'Eisenia fetida' which are native European worms, all the other worms will not eat your garbage.
Red Wigglers thrive in organic waste and because they live close to the surface in their natural environment they can't really take colder then 40° F and not hotter weather then 90° F.
You still probably should try to avoid adding the Red Wigglers to the outdoor environment or compost pile, even the possibility of them surviving outside is rather rare but in mild winter areas there is a slight possibility they could survive in compost bins.
The worms are actually a bit sensitive to the cold or heat and you should take them into the house or garage if the outdoor temperature drops below 40° F or you might loose them. They also will stop feeding if they are too cold or hot, so keep them in the shade during the summer.

There are many places you can get Red Wiggler worms, you probably can even find a local person raising worms near where you live, the best time to get your worms are supposed to be spring or fall, but where I live we have cooler summers and I got mine in early summer and had no problems.

Before you put your worms in your newly built bin, you need to prepare your bedding. You need enough bedding to fill your bin 3/4 full with bedding, leaving the 1" louvered vents exposed.
Worms need damp but not wet bedding, a good and cheap worm bedding is a mixture of shredded newspaper and wood shavings. You will get less of crawling/flying critters that way. Stay away from Cedar bedding, which is toxic to many animals and it is advisable not to use colored print paper or office paper, because those inks are often toxic. Newspaper nowadays is printed with soybean based ink which shouldn't cause problems. I even would stay away from bleached paper I just don't think that will be good for the worms. Other bedding possibilities are sawdust, cardboard, straw (chopped into small pieces), shredded fall leaves, compost or aged manure or a combination of those. A variety of bedding material will give the worms more different nutrients, but they will be fine just with newspaper shreds and wood chips.

You have to soak the wood chips overnight in a bucket of water to make sure they can take up the water. Shred the paper into 1/2"-1" strips, put it into a 5 gallon bucket or garden tub and carefully wet the paper, turning it frequently until it is moist but not dripping wet. Then mix the drained wood chips with the paper and fill your bin #2 (the one with the drainage holes), to below the vents with the mixture making sure not to cover the vents. The worms need the air in the bin. Don't pack the bedding in, fill it loosely to add air spaces for the worms it also helps control the odor.
If you think your bedding got a bit to wet, you might want to let it drain for a few hours before you add your worms to it.
It is beneficial for the worms digestive system to add a hand-full of garden dirt or sand. Now you are ready to add your worms. Just spread them with the dirt they came in over your bedding, they will crawl in on their own.
So now your worms are in the bin you need to feed them, but you do not want to feed them too much or you will get a huge smelly mess and the worms might die.
The formula to figure out the pounds of food per week you size bin can handle is:

Width of bin x length of bin (sqft) is equal to pounds of food per week.

So if you have a bin that measures 1' wide by 1 1/2' long it can handle about   1 1/2 lbs of food per week.
When you add the food try to create a pattern by burying the food in a new place every 4-6 times. Avoid disturbing the bedding when you bury it, because it might make it heat up like compost in your compost bin and the worms will have no place to escape the heat.

What can you feed the worms? If it is vegetative matter you pretty much can add it all. Potato peels, vegetable scraps, fruit scraps and peels (including from citrus peels in small amounts), coffee grounds (paper filter included) or tea leaves/bags, and pulverized egg shells. You should not add meats, dairy, fatty food. Some say no grain, because of problem with flies or rodents, but I don't think a bit of old bread, Corn meal or oat meal here and there causes much problem, just don't add too much.

Drain the compost tea liquid often, check it daily after you add new bedding, less frequent later. You can pick up both bins and shake them back and forth, if you hear a sloshing sound you should drain some of the liquid. I use mine mixed half with water to water my house plant, but you could also use it full strength to give it to your vegetable plants outside. If the liquid smells foul, like very rotten food don't use it and flush it down the toilet.

As the materials in the bin break down into compost, you need to add more fresh bedding on top. You need to be able to bury your food under the bedding, so it is important to keep adding as it decomposes.

You can harvest your compost when the bin material looks brown and crumbly, similar to coffee grounds. It should smell like nice forest floor. It probably will take about six months from the time of bin set-up until you can harvest the worm castings
To harvest you can empty the contents of the bin on a plastic sheet or tarp (you need to drain all the compost liquid first) remove all visible food scraps which you set aside to add later to the new bedding. Worms avoid light so they always will burrow down into the compost. To separate them  from the bedding you just have to wait a short time, then remove the 3"  top layer of the compost without the worms. Wait again until they burrow down and repeat the same every 5 - 10 minutes. In the end you have very little compost with a pile of worms. Re-bed Bin #2, add worms with the little compost to the bin, reassemble the bin setup and bury the leftover food scraps inside the new bedding.

You also can gently move the worm compost to one side of the bin, fill the other half with the fresh bedding and wait a day or two until the worms have moved to the new bedding, then remove the worm compost and fill the bin up with more of the new bedding. This does work much better if you have a larger bin, but it still is worth a try for the much easier and less messier technique.

Now you can use the harvested compost in your vegetable garden, or add it to your house plants as fertilizer.

If you have a problem with little flies inside your bin, which might be fruit flies, this can be prevented by laying a piece of cardboard over the bedding, inside the bin. Fruit flies don't like to lay their eggs on the smooth surface of the cardboard so this breaks their life cycle.
You might have Fungus gnats which are attracted to moist organic matter, like found in worm bins. They don't respond to the same technique as with fruit flies but can be trapped with a sticky trap made for gnats inside the bin. Sometimes if you get gnats in your house plants putting sand on top of the soil is supposed to prevent them laying their eggs, the same might work in the worm bin.

What could cause your worms death?
1)Bedding too dry, which leaves no moisture for the worms can cause them to die. Bedding needs to be moist like a wrung out sponge.
2)Too much water, causes them to drown. Use the spigot to drain the liquid more often. A layer of coco peat fiber at the bottom of the bin can absorb excess moisture.
3) Not enough air, will suffocate the worms. Keep the bedding fluffy and keep vents clear of bedding.
4)Too much acid is toxic and can burn the delicate skin of worms. Avoid adding too much citrus scraps.
5) Digging to much around in the bin will cause the food and bedding to heat up like a compost pile, heat will kill the worms.
6) Sun will heat up the box and kill the worms. Keep the box out of the sun. In hot climates it is advised to keep them out of over 90° F temperature.
7) Too cold. Worms start dying off in temperatures under 40° F.
8) Harvest compost when ready, the worm's castings are toxic to the worms.

So, this is all the information you need to keep your worm bin going and your worms happy.
I promised it won't be hard.

Part one: How to build your worm bin


@jeanannvk said...

A really well written post! I am going to share it on my twitter account... :)

DieGartenFrau said...

Thank you, JeanAnn

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