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How to Solve ALMOST All Your Worm Bin Woes With Bedding

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.

The Takeaway

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!

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How to Make Your Own Worm Bin

There are many commercial worm bin/systems to buy, however many of these systems are pricey and often you may not want to spend that type of money.  If you are new to worm composting, making your own DIY bin can be a great option and is relatively cheap to do.  In this post I will share the steps to creating your very own tote-style worm bin on a budget, step by step.

  • Choosing the Type and Size of Tote
  • Preparing the Tote
  • Choosing a Bedding
  • Preparing the Bedding
  • Prepping the Bin for the Worms
  • Adding the Worms

Let’s get started.

1. Considering the Type and Size Bin to Use:

When it comes to DIY worm bins, you can use a variety of things that you may already have laying around the house.  Many people use Rubbermaid (or similar tote-style bins) to make their worm bin.  You can also use things such as mortar trays, plastic barrels, crates, or even something as simple as a grow bag.  For sake of this particular post, I am going to talk about Rubbermaid totes.

When purchasing or using a Rubbermaid tote, size definitely matters!  You want to take into account how many worms you will have in the bin and what your end-goal is.  Do you want the most possible castings, do you want to grow the biggest and fattest worms, or do you want to start small to experiment with the hobby on your own?

I made a tote for my African Night Crawlers.  African Night Crawlers reproduce quickly and are voracious eaters.  Because of this, I chose a larger 18 gallon tote.  I also plan to use these worms for bait as well, so a large bin will give the worms plenty of space to grow large and reproduce.  Keep in mind that a tote of this size will get very heavy as it fills with compost.  If you think you will be moving your tote around frequently or have limitations to how much you want to carry, you may decide that a smaller tote is more suited to your needs.

Your tote should be opaque as the worms like a dark environment.  Worms shy away from light and thus clear bins (although cool for kids to see through the bin) are not best suited for worm composting.  Keep in mind that roughly a pound of worms need at least 1 square foot of surface area living environment.  If you want them to reproduce, they will need even more.

2. Preparing the Tote:

Regardless of the type of bin you decide to make, you need to keep in mind that worms need an environment with plenty of aeration.  Some people choose to leave the lid off of their tote completely but others (as myself) chose to drill many holes in the sides and lid to provide the air-flow needed.

To drill the holes, I recommend using nothing smaller that 1/4 inch.  I used a drill bit and drilled approximately 18 holes on each side of my bin (in 2 rows along the upper portion of the bin below the lip.  I also drilled holes on either end in the same fashion.

I drilled holes covering the entire lid of my system as well.  This will ensure that the bin doesn’t get overly wet and that the worms have an environment suitable to their needs.  As worms breathe through their skin, they need moisture but also lots of air!

If you create a bin and find that your worms are crawling up the sides, oftentimes this is a sign that they need more oxygen.  There are other possible reasons as well, but start with adding more holes if this problem arises.

3. Bedding:

The next thing to consider after drilling holes in your tote is to decide what type of bedding (carbon material) you want to use in your bin.  If you want to use things you already have, this is a great way to recycle and turn your trash into beautiful worm castings for your plants and garden.

Bedding can consist of shredded newspaper or junk mail (avoid the glossy ads), egg crates, toilet paper/paper towel rolls, and cardboard.  These are all 100% free options that I use frequently in my own bins.

Other options for bedding include leaf litter, manure (aged), peat moss, dried grass clippings, garden waste or coconut coir.  Keep in mind that things such as manure, leaves and grass clippings have the potential to introduce bugs to your bin.  This may not be a problem if you are composting outdoors, but for indoor bins these may not be ideal.

4. Preparing the Bedding:

Once you have made your bin, providing adequate aeration and once you have decided on your bedding, you are ready to prepare the bedding and place it in the bin.

An ideal worm bedding should be moist like a wrung-out sponge.  I used egg crates, shredded cardboard, and coconut coir for my bin.  I soaked the bedding in water for about 20 minutes.  I then picked up a handful of bedding and squeezed it.  I added water until when I squeezed the bedding mixture I got 3-5 drops of water from it but no more.  If you over-moisten your bedding you can wring it out before adding it to your bin or you can add additional dry bedding to soak up the excess moisture.

Once you have the bedding moistened, add several inches to the bottom of your bin.  I try to fill my bin approximately halfway to provide lots of living space before adding my worms.

5. Prepping the Bin for the Worms:

Ideally, you will set up your worm bin prior to the arrival of your worms.  Allow the bedding to sit in the bin for several days with a small amount of food mixed in.  This will allow the bacteria and microbes to get to work before the worms arrive.  This creates an environment that allows the worms to get to work right away after being introduced to the bin.  If you order a pound of worms, simply start with a small amount of food (no more than 1/4 cup).  Make sure that all food in your bin is adequately covered with bedding material so that fruit flies or other pests don’t enter the bin.

If you didn’t prepare your bin in advance, don’t worry.  Simply introduce your worms and wait a few days before adding any food.

6. Adding the Worms:

Once you have finished preparing your bedding and allowed the bin to rest for a few days, it is time to add your worms.  If you ordered worms, keep in mind that the travel through the mail can have them quite stressed.  As mentioned earlier, worms shy away from light.  Simply dump your worms (gently) onto the surface of the bedding and allow them burrow down on their own.  Keeping the lid off and light on for a few days above the bin should minimize the risk of any adventurous worms trying to leave the bin.  After a few days if the worms seem to be doing well, you can place the lid on the bin if you desire.

Get Started:

You can easily set up a worm bin in an hour or less.  A simple Rubbermaid or Sterlite bin should run you no more than $15 to $20, often even cheaper.  Use a free source of bedding around the house and the only further expense may be the purchase of your worms.  An even better option is to reach out to local gardening clubs or farmers markets to see if you can get worms locally.  Many worm farmers are more than happy to share worms with newcomers, as mentioned before, worms multiply quickly!

Enjoy the fruits of your labor and feed your worms weekly.  Make sure that all of the previous feeding is (mostly) gone before adding more food.  Adjust to the worms needs according to how much they are eating.  Remember that bedding is also a food source for your worms.  Under-feeding is much better than overfeeding.  Worms are pretty forgiving and before long you will be cranking out compost like an old pro!