We have all been there. Some of us more than others. We are shaking our heads and feeling defeated, deflated and utterly ticked off at our worm bins and their problems. Starting out vermicomposting before finding many of the resources I use today, I was completely lost. I had one book on the topic and had found one forum which had minimal interaction and slow feedback time. I would be sitting up, waiting to get the “expert opinions” on how to fix my problems.
Fast forward a year or so and I have found that there is one ultimate (not so secret) fix for all the troubles that effect our worm bin efforts. Bedding. Yep, that’s right. Bedding can make or break you. Sounds kind of extreme, but I beg to differ… bedding can be the solution for most of the problems you run into when raising composting worms.
Many issues that afflict the worm bin ecosystem are related to poor feeding habits (a story for another day), and not utilizing bedding to it’s highest potential. Read on to see some major problems that can be remedied with simple adjustments to your worm bedding.
What is Worm Bedding
As most of us know, in a worm bin we try to balance carbon sources (bedding) and nitrogen sources (foods). The complex nature of those ratios is far less important to understand unless you are looking to sell your castings with a perfect makeup of nutrients and bio-availability to soil. Sounds complicated and it is, which is fine because I am not in that business.
Bedding can be any number of readily available resources. Leaves, grass, garden waste, newspaper, paper towels, cardboard, egg crates, peat moss, coconut coir, and many others. For sake of this post I am going to focus on the resources I typically use in my bins: cardboard, newspaper, egg crates and coconut coir since these are what I have the most experience with.
Solving Moisture Problems in the Worm Bin
I remember the fateful day that as a new vermicomposter I added a healthy amount of watermelon to my stackable tray system along with my usual handful of shredded newspaper. I went about my day and woke up the next morning to an all out flood that had come out of my spigot, filling the catch tray and had overflowed onto the floor.
On the other end of the spectrum, more recently I purchased my first continuous flow through (bag style) system. I was a little overzealous adding tons of coconut coir and ended up with the Sahara Desert in my system. Worm were no where to be found and the food was a matted mess up top with the coir. The worms were fine, but they had burrowed deep into the bag where it was still moist and they could survive.
What was my underlying mistake in these scenarios? Bedding.
In an overly wet bin, adding a good amount of dry bedding and mixing it into the muddy sludge is the best way to absorb the excess and to help restore a balance that will result in nice flaky, damp castings.
On the flip side, not understanding your bedding can result in a dry bin. As I was trying to fix what I thought was a slightly wet system resulted in me drying it out too much!
How do you figure this equation out? Understand your bedding and the proper moisture level that you should have in your bins and you will rarely run into moisture problems. An appropriate bedding should be damp but not dripping. Most people describe it as a wrung-out sponge. When you pick some up and squeeze it you should only get a few drops of water out.
So when you find yourself with a wet bin, add small amounts of dry bedding and monitor until the bedding is lightly moist and the castings restore to a nice damp consistency. When the bedding is too dry, soak some cardboard, newspaper or egg crates in water and add it to the bin over the course of a few days until the dry bedding has absorbed some of the extra moisture and again, the balance is restored.
How Bedding Can Fix Bug Problems
I may be the worst person to ask about bugs in the worm bin. I am phobic of most bugs which in retrospect is hysterical because I was somehow under the impression that my worm bin would be bug-free and flourish. Jokes on me, the worm bin is a complex ecosystem which houses way more bugs and micro-organisms than worms!
I have found myself in quite a number of pickles related to bugs over the course of my vermicomposting journey. I am admittedly not very good at sufficiently burying my scraps which can lead to bug nightmares for those of us with phobias of the creepy-crawlers. The main solution to minimizing the population of mites, springtails and flies is bedding.
Without adequate bedding to cover your feedings, fruit flies can find their way in to the worm bins. These critters in particular are a royal pain in the backside to get rid of. The flies lay eggs in the yummy produce in the bins and before long you have a true nuisance on your hands. I have found that when a bug problem reaches epic proportions (see my videos on springtails and mites for reference) adding a thick layer of DRY bedding on top of your bin severely inhibits the capability of the flies getting down to the feeding to lay eggs and it smothers out the hatchlings from being able to make it out. BOOM: problem (mostly) solved.
How Bedding Can Solve the Problem of a Food Shortage
When your worms are eating you out of house and home it can become a difficult road to walk. Take it from me. A household of two, we do not create nearly enough food waste to keep all 14 of my bins fed. I am lucky to have a number of friends and relatives who save scraps for me, but nonetheless I still run into the occasional food shortage.
Fret not, bedding is also food for your worms. Why do you think you end up with lovely black compost that is devoid of all signs of paper and cardboard? The worms eat that too! Whenever I find myself low on food, I err on too much bedding. I personally feel it is NEARLY impossible to over-bed the worms. Overfeeding is a problem, adding too much bedding is usually pretty harmless and provides your worms with something to munch on until your next banana peel is ready to be thrown into the bin.
I am Travelling and Worried My Worms Will Starve
This is almost impossible. Short of a 6 month trip, its pretty hard to starve your bin and thus kill it off. I have seen some videos on people who have neglected to even open a bin in nearly a year and there were still worms flourishing in the bin. People tend to worry and over-feed their bins prior to a trip. This is a common mistake. Over-feeding can create a hot, anaerobic and acidic environment which CAN kill the worms.
If you are travelling, resist the urge to feed your worms a bucket of scraps. Add a normal feeding and double-up on your usual bedding amount. I can assure you, your worms will be alive and thriving on your return.
There are plenty of problems that can be solved using various methods however the most simple and basic in my mind is too consider your bedding. Do you have enough of it? Are you using it to its greatest potential? Consider your bedding type, absorbancy factor, and how much you can use to try and trouble-shoot your worm bin problems. Happy Worming! Load up that cardboard!