Sunday, March 14, 2010

Frequently Asked Questions

Worm Fancy gets many emails and phone calls about getting started in vermicomposting and I thought it would be helpful to put together some answers to the most frequently asked questions.

How do you get started?

This is by far the most common question I get. Many people are interested in vermicomposting but they just don’t know where to start. I would say that if you are reading this you are absolutely starting at the right spot… research. I started vermicomposting with very little knowledge and lots of excitement. I knew the basics about giving worms a moist home and some food, but that was about all I knew. So I suggest you read through the next few questions and get yourself comfortable with the basics of getting started.

Where should you keep worms?

Worms can be raised on a small or large scale, depending on your goals. If you are trying to manage food scraps for yourself or your family, a small 12 to 20 gallon worm bin should be adequate. Bins can be made of just about any material such as plastic, wood or canvas. The bin should be dark and opaque, and it should have a lid, drainage and aeration holes. When choosing a bin more surface area is better than a deep one. Worms will do better in a 14-gallon Rubbermaid bin than in a 5-gallon bucket. Worm Fancy can help you design your own bin out of whatever material you would prefer or provide you with bins to purchase.

For best results you will want to ‘set up’ your bin before you get your worms. One way to ensure that your new bin takes off successfully is to mix a decent quantity of waste material in with fresh moistened bedding, then simply letting the bin sit for a week or so before adding the worms. I know this can be a challenge for those people anxious to get started, but it will go a long way in terms of ensuring your success.

If you are trying to manage larger amounts of organic materials or produce large amounts of worms or vermicompost, worms can be managed in low-mounded rows, in large compost piles or even in large municipal type systems. The same principals to worm survival apply in the large-scale system as in the small system. Large systems allow worms to move out of an area that may be too dry, too hot or too anything, into a more hospitable area so they can be easier to maintain.

What will worms eat?

Worms will eat a wide variety of organic materials such as paper, manure, fruit and vegetable waste, grains, coffee grounds, and ground yard wastes. While worms will eat meat and dairy products, it is best not to feed these materials or oily foods to worms, due to potential odor and pest problems. Worms will consume limited amounts of citrus wastes, but limonene, a chemical compound found in citrus, is toxic to worms, so it is best to limit or avoid feeding them this material.

Most people think that worms feed directly on the waste material added to the bin. In a sense they do, but more specifically they are eating up the microbes that form on the rotting material. If you throw in a bunch of fresh carrot peelings the worms won’t be able to start processing the material until sufficient microbial colonization has occurred.

Because worms have no teeth, they need some type of grit in their bedding that they can swallow and use in their gizzard to grind food, much like birds do with small stones. A little soil or sand will work. You can also put some eggshells in a blender (with a little water) and then add the liquid to your bin.

What is the bedding for?

More important to what will they eat is what will they live in. Worms will eat the bedding but it is also material that the worms will burrow into for protection and comfort. Some great materials for bedding include shredded cardboard, shredded newspaper, aged straw, coconut coir and fall leaves. They can also live in peat moss although I don’t recommend the use of this material since it is not harvested in a sustainable or environmentally friendly manner. Just about any paper product will be fine in your bin, although you will want to avoid waxed boxes or glossy paper. The bedding will need to be moistened but not wet. The ideal moisture level would be similar to that of a wrung out sponge.

Will the summer heat kill my worms?

Worms can survive a wide variety of temperatures, but they thrive best at temperatures between 55 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit (13–25 degrees Celsius). If you keep your worms in the house you don’t need to worry too much. However if you are thinking about putting your bin in the garage or have an outside application you may want to think about a shady spot. I have had bins at 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer and the worms have survived although they were certainly stressed. We recommend placing a frozen water bottle on top of the bedding.  Keep the bottle cap closed so you are not adding too much extra water to the bin.  You can also freeze your kitchen scraps before adding them to the bin so that it will keep the bin cool when the temperature outside is particularly warm. Worms will migrate to the area in the bin that has the most comfortable temperature.

The winter cold is another thing to consider if your bin is outside. If you are in an area where it freezes you will want to think about ways to keep your bin warm and protected during the winter months.  We drape Christmas lights over or under the bins to create a warm (and festive) area for the worms.

Worms are amazingly resilient. With a little precaution and care they will do just fine in all weather conditions.

What about other creatures in the bin?

Other creatures will find your bin even if it is kept inside. You may find different kinds of mites, springtails, pot worms (small white worms often mistaken as baby red worms), and an occasional fungus gnat. These organisms generally stay in the bin, live in harmony with the worms and cause little problems. Consistently burying the food in the bedding will minimize the attraction of unwanted species.

If a bin is kept outside, the number of organisms that find their way into a bin increases greatly. Slugs and snails, ants, spiders, soldier fly larvae, fruit flies, pill bugs, centipedes, even frogs, salamanders and some small rodents have found their way into outdoor worm bins. Rarely will more than three or four of these cohabitants occupy a bin. Most do not hinder the functioning of a bin, and they are not bothersome.

Worms raised in worm beds can also attract predators such as birds and moles. Birds can be deterred in traditional ways such as placing scarecrows near the beds, or the beds can be covered with cardboard or other material. Moles can breed quickly and can eat a lot of worms. They can be deterred either by raising the worms on a cement pad, or placing a wooden, wire or plastic barrier several inches into the soil around the beds. The barrier should stick out of the soil an inch or two to prevent the moles from finding a way over it.

Finding other creatures in you bins can be surprising, and worrisome to the new vermicomposter. Most of the other creatures do their part in the decomposition process and in most cases are harmless to the worms. A diverse ecosystem is a sign of a healthy ecosystem; so don’t worry when you start to see some new additions to your bin. Generally the only time to worry is when the population of another species gets so large that it begins to compete with the worms. Rest assured this doesn't happen very often when feeding normal kitchen scraps to a small system. If you are ever concerned about the ‘health’ of your bin please call or email Worm Fancy and we will help you with your challenge.
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Brenda says...

Worm Fancy is the greatest place to get your worms in the Sacramento area. They have the best customer service!

Doug and Tammy, Yuba City

Tammy and I would just like to thank you for your professionalism and patience in answering all our questions about vermiculture. We are very interested in the difference it will make in our garden this year. Even our son will be using the new Worm Factory 360 in his science fair project that compares plants with and without worm castings. We're already noticing the better health with it. Our time with you was pleasant and we will be sure to return! Thank you again and we'll keep you posted. composted. :D

Scott R. from Sacramento

I picked my worms today and it sure looks like a lot more than 2 pounds worth. I ordered a pound from another vendor and you gave me 5 times more than they did.