Loads of questions for a newbie vermicomposter

MikeRoykoJanuary 5, 2012

I am using a plastic 18 gallon container for my first vermicompost bin and hope someone can help me unravel some mysteries.

Here is what I am doing -

1. I am feeding the worms with vegetables that I chop up in the food processor. I am also feeding the worms coffee grounds and shredded paper (black and white ink only that goes thru my shredder).

2. There are two pounds of red wigglers in the bin.

3. The bin is put into the sun in the morning to warm it up. At night I put it in the garage where the temperature is between 40 and 50 degrees.

So here are the questions -

1. The worms tend to go to the sides while outside in the sunlight. There are no worms in the middle of the bin. Why is that?

2. I am layering the food when putting it into the bin. First the food, then bedding, then coffee grounds. The consistency is pretty gooey (the veggies look like relish after they are mixed up) and I am not sure if the air flow is OK. Should I mix everything together to get a better consistency?

3. There are tiny white insects (mites?) in the bin. They seem to hang out with the worms. Are they OK?

4. I have loads of vegetable waste and am thinking about a system that uses trays. I have between two and four pounds of vegetable waste per day. What are my other options?

Thank you!

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How long have you had the bin setup? It sounds like it is pretty new and you may be overfeeding it right now. The best course of action may be to let the bin sit and "work" for a week, or two, or three without adding more food.

How much bedding do you have in there right now?

If you have not yet read the thread "what was I thinking" morgan3 speaks to using a heat mat with his bins. He keeps his bins in an unheated garage and gets some cold winters.

The three main type of options for worm bins are (1) bins as you read about a lot (2) stacking tray systems you mentioned (3) flow through systems - aka FT. Flow through systems are supported and you place food and bedding in the top and finished compost works down to the bottom where you harvest it. I have two FT's and you can see photos of them in the thread "5 gallon bucket x worm inn, call it a F1 hybrid".

The other piece of advice I was given, and followed, is to split the worm population up into a few bins. The thinking is you will kill off a bin at some point (over feed, freeze, bake, drown, etc) and the other bin may survive and you won't have to buy more worms.

I've only had my bins for 3 months now and by no means am I an expert.

    Bookmark   January 5, 2012 at 8:21PM
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Hi Mike,

Congratulations on your new bin! I will try to answer your questions based on my own experience, and I'm sure that others will add their own wisdom.

First, I would be hesitant to put the worms into the sunlight - sunlight can hurt them and heat up the bin rapidly. They may be moving to the sides because the center is heating up past their comfort level. They should be just fine in your garage so long as they don't reach freezing levels. If you really want to bring them outside for a little warmth, keep them in the shade at all times.

If your consistency is gooey, I would suggest two things: first, it may be the food processor is chopping up the food too small to allow for air flow. If I chop up my food, it is no smaller than one inch chunks. Most of the peelings and trimmings from food preparation are already small enough for the worms. When I started my first bin years ago, I went to a lot of trouble to process the food until I realized it really wasn't necessary, and decreased air flow and eventually made my bin smelly. White mites indicate that the bin has a lot of moisture in it. They won't hurt your worms, but the lack of airflow might. I would encourage you to put the food in as-is (not finely processed), and mix it with dry or barely moist bedding and the coffee grounds. Bigger chunks of food leave bigger air pockets. Dry bedding should absorb excess liquid and balance the moisture in the bin.

I would encourage you to make sure that you are not overfeeding them. Two pounds of worms, at their absolute best, should consume a pound of food a day. You do not mention how long you've had the bin, but it can take a month or three to really get the microorganisms in the system going to the point that it can really process a full pound a day. Your worms will eventually multiply and eat through that two to four pounds of vegetable waste per day that you are producing, but right now it is too much for them. If the worms are getting more food than they can handle, it will start to rot, get gooey, and get compacted and decrease air flow, which compounds the moisture problem.

When I first got worms, my goal was to feed them every scrap from my household in order to bring our green waste to zero. It was a really good goal, but it took several months before they were up to it.

I have used a tray system but I found that my worms quickly outgrew it and I ended up using it in a manner that it was not intended, causing myself a lot of extra work. They can work really well, but in my experience cannot handle the amount of food that you are producing. Others on this forum may have other experience they can share with you. Here is a post of my vermi-tray experience, though it is probably not typical: http://forums.gardenweb.com/forums/load/verm/msg0816361714189.html

If I were in your situation, I would do one of two things:

Option 1 is to buy more worms to consume the waste my household currently produces, knowing that within a few months I will need to either find another source of food or start giving away worms.

Option two is to be patient and add lots of bedding. Mix in a lot of dry bedding to balance out the moisture in the bin, and add your food scraps with enough bedding to keep the moisture balanced. I would be more inclined to add it in patches and pockets rather than in layers. Layers can decrease airflow and give the worms nowhere to go if the food heats up when it decomposes. In the mean time, throw your extra scraps in the compost heap or the freezer and know that the worms will have multiplied substantially within a few months and they will meet your household's scrap production. In order to help the worms eat the food faster, I like to mix in some of the existing compost with the food as I add it to the bin. (i.e. I make a pocket for the food that is larger than I need, dump in the food, some fresh bedding, and quickly toss it with my hands so that the food mixes with the bedding and a handful or so of the contents of the bin. Then I cover it with the contents of the bin.) I think this helps the microbes get into closer, faster contact with all the surfaces of the fresh food so that it can start decomposing and be available to the worms more quickly.

Just a word of encouragement: your worms really will be eating up all of those scraps faster than you realize. I started with 2 pounds of worms and a single Vermihut in April of 2011. I now have 10 containers totaling almost 500 gallons and I'm starting to give away worms by the pound on a regular basis. I just built a new container that will hold approximately 80 cubic feet of worms and compost because my worms are quickly outgrowing their containers. I now collect from local restaurants to keep all my worms well-fed.

I hope that this will be helpful to you, but please take what is useful to you and read through the forums. Most newbies have exactly this problem and there is a lot of information for you in questions already answered.

Good luck to you, and let us know how it goes!

    Bookmark   January 5, 2012 at 8:41PM
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Hey Mike, some sage advice here. I would agree with what is said about the size of your bin and the amount of food you have available to feed your worms. Your bin is most likely undersized for the amount of food you are trying to feed the worms. I have lots of 'scraps' from my garden which I save in covered 5-gallon pails. I leave these pails in my unheated shed and bring in one pail at a time to my 40F to 50F garage to thaw out before blending and feeding to the worms. There is no hurry to dispose of the food you are feeding to your worms Mike, so follow the directions given above and you should do fine.

Also, moving your bins outdoors and back into your garage is not advisable. The more consistent temperature of the garage will keep your vermiculture process going at a slower pace, but it is better to maintain a constant temperature rather than an extreme fluctuating one.

Any time worms try to leave the bins or hid in the corners Mike, you can assume there is a problem. I don't use holes in my bins and keep a light on 24/7, so my worms typically don't run away from home, but occasionally I will find one or two dried up on the floor. This is normal, but if you see large numbers of worms trying to leave home, then something is wrong. Nice thing is you can get worm counseling right here for free!

    Bookmark   January 6, 2012 at 2:12AM
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I am thinking your container is new because the great exercise of moving an 18 gallon container every day will get old fast. The temperature in the garage although not ideal should save your back.

While it is possible to vermicompost with shredded office paper it just does not seem as absorbant as I would like. Do you have any cardboard egg cartons or coffee trays? I bet the worms would like them.

While it is possible to vermicompost with coffee grounds they already look so much like dirt and sprinkle into the lawn and garden so nice and evenly that vermicomposting grounds may not be necessary.

Are you adding water to the vegetables that I chop up in the food processor? If so you need tons of dry bedding to absorb it.

"I am not sure if the air flow is OK." This bin seems to be a bit like another new poster's questions. I am guessing the air flow is not OK.

Do you have a tri prong hand rake to check gently into the bin?

If I had my way with the bin I would probably get a second bin, tear up a few inches of corrigated cardboard and egg cartons and place it in the bottom. Then I would flip the first bin over upside down onto the second bin. It might smell a lot. Then I would hold off adding food for a while.

Other options... With two to four pounds of vegetable waste a day what you need is not more worms but a huge bin. Do you really need to store your car in the garage? Humor.

Until you get going can you put some of the less tastey pounds of vegetable scraps like brocolli stems into an outdoor compost bin?

Right next to your bin should be a large container of bedding. Add food add bedding.

I don't care if you mix the compost or mix in the bedding or not. I do not think it matters. It is great fun to transfer a working vermicompost bin forkfull by forkfull into a second container just to see what is going on in various areas of the bin. That is how you will learn what is right for your system.

Too much bedding never hurt a vermicompost sytem.

Too much food has made bad things happen.

Bedding regulates the moisture in the system.

    Bookmark   January 6, 2012 at 2:19AM
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Chopping food in a food processor is fine, but not necessary. Chopped food will decompose faster. I used to grind mine in a meat grinder. The worms loved it. The key is not to add too much at a time, and be aware that chopped food releases moisture faster than unchopped food. Coffee grounds are fine. They take a while to break down. When they finally do, the worms love them. If your shredder can handle it, try using corrugated cardboard for bedding. It works better than paper.

I would be wary of putting my bin in the sun. The temps in the garage are a bit too cold, but the heat from direct sunlight can cause more problems than the cool temps in the garage.

So, your questions...

1) Worms just do that. Don't ask me why. In theory, they should be spread out throughout your bin. In practice, they like the outside edges. If you have them balling up in thick masses on the outside edges, it means that something is wrong in your bin, and the worms are trying to avoid it.

2) Layering works. A gooey mess means that you are feeding too fast, or that you have too much food for the bedding, or both. Gooey might mean that the airflow is bad. How does the bin smell? If there is a slight ammonia smell, or sewerage smell, you definitely have an airflow problem. The best way to solve gooey is mix in more bedding and stop feeding for a week or so. If you mix everything, you will still have gooey, and you might (I said MIGHT) create a heating problem. Or you might break up the gooey layer and solve the airflow problem. Try it and see what happens. How thick a layer of food are you adding all at once? When I ground up my food, I didn't like to add more than 1/2 inch of food at a time. I usually didn't feed over more than half of the bin surface at one time. If I made a mistake, I wanted room for the worms to escape the mistake. Mixing will make the bedding break down faster, which is good as long as you are always adding more bedding.

3) I don't know what your tiny white insects are, but they are probably there to help break the food scraps down. The worms should get along with them just fine.

4) With the amount of food scraps you want to compost, any option you go with will involve more bin space. Give your worms a few months to grow into the existing bin, then pull out a pound or so to start a new bin. In the mean time, you might want to investigate a flow through system, or compost the scraps outdoors in a conventional compost system, and feed the worms the partially finished compost.

    Bookmark   January 6, 2012 at 12:17PM
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compostgal(9a-CA Sierra Foothills)

Potworms or enchytraeids are common co-composters. They do not harm the worms or the bin. In larger numbers they indicate a bin environment that is slightly acidic; adding a small amount of oyster shell flour or ground egg shells will bring the pH back to normal.

    Bookmark   January 19, 2012 at 2:51PM
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denno(z7 NC)

Because you keep the worms in a garage, and if unheated, I can tell you have too much food in there. I keep mine in a shed which pretty much is the same temps as outside of it. During these cold months, I only need to feed about every two weeks, and that's about the equivalent of two bananas.(about 1 1/2 lb of worms) They don't move around much when it's cold, and they are most active at about 70-80 degrees. Once you get into the Spring, you'll notice more consumption, but for the amount you want to be consumed, you'll need a lot more worms and bins. Another thing to do is put the food in one spot in the middle, say towards the front. Then before you harvest in the warmer months, start putting the food in the middle towards the back, give the worms a few days to move there, and then harvest the front half of the bin. Also, I don't harvest after September, because you'll be going into the cold months again, and I believe those castings help to insulate the worms. Good luck!

    Bookmark   January 20, 2012 at 11:09AM
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