"Earthworms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm...worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them,..." -(Gilbert White of Selborne, 1770)-
"(Worm) casts are manufactured in the alimentary canal of the earthworm from dead vegetable matter and particles of soil, and contain everything the crop needs...nitrates, phosphates, and potash in abundance and also in just the conditions in which the plant can make use of them. Recent investigations in the United States show that the fresh casts of earthworms are five times richer in available nitrogen, seven times richer in available phosphates and eleven times richer in available potash than the upper six inches of soil. The earthworm is, therefore, the gardener's manure factory."-(Sir Albert Howard in "Organic Gardening", May, 1944)-
"Earthworms are the shock-troops of nature for the quick production of humus while she is waiting upon her slower processes. Climaxing her millions of years of experimentation, she created in miniature a perfect humus mill, easily adapted to the use of man. In the body of the earthworm we find a complete, high-speed humus factory, combining all the processes (both mechanical and chemical) for turning out the finished product, topsoil, properly conditioned for best root growth and containing in rich proportion, and in water-soluble form, all the elements required of the earth for plant nutrition."-(Thomas Barrett, 1976)-
"Golly, I hope Carolyn doesn't notice that a worm just bailed out of that spider-plant I keep forgetting to water, and landed on her head."-(Brian Paley of Prince Albert, 1994)-
As can be seen from the above-noted quotations (just ignore that last one), the idea of using earthworms, and their casts, to promote plant growth is not a new one by any means. Unfortunately, with the arrival of chemical fertilizers in this present century, this earlier system declined almost to the point of extinction. It seems agriculturalists became quite focused on growing both houseplants and food crops as large as they were able to, in as little time as possible. Only recently have we really begun to see the hidden cost of our "advancement."
Part of the financial problem is quite obvious to anyone who has ever bought a container of fertilizer, then another container five or six months later. Same box, same contents, whole new price. We accept this as simply being the way things are, the normal rise in the "cost of living," the reason our wages go up from time to time. Even if we accept the fact that money is, after all, meant to be spent, perhaps the time has come to consider those "costs" which are not quite so obvious.
With Canadian figures rather hard to come by, let me use an American example to illustrate the drain on natural resources brought about by our reliance on chemicals. According to government sources in 1992, approximately 2% of all the natural gas consumed in the United States goes into the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer. On top of this, consider the gasoline and diesel fuel which is used to transport the fertilizer to market. We may get another paycheck every week or two, but once the natural resources of this planet are depleted, where exactly are we supposed to go with that money to buy some more?
Another problem which must be considered is the after-effect of using these products. As more and more of these chemicals get dumped into the soil, the soil becomes less and less productive. This results in using larger amounts of chemicals to produce the same kind of results (like drug addiction on a planet-sized scale), and a larger amount of damage being done to the soil. Though it may sound like it, this is not an endless cycle, but rather, a one-way street to destruction. There is something we can do, however, and our old friend the earthworm can help us do it.
The first thing we should be careful not to do is point a finger at the local farmer, and try to lay all the blame at his doorstep. (My mother was quite fond of telling me that whenever I pointed a finger at anyone else, three of my fingers were pointing back at me.) The farmer is, after all, usually in the business of providing food for people, and that sounds like a pretty decent idea to me. The farmer is also not the only user of these chemicals. How many people do you know who have houseplants, trees, shrubs, lawns, or gardens? How many of those people do you figure use fertilizers (or pesticides)? Well, those are the people who can make the difference.
Trying to fertilize an entire farm the natural way, without reducing the yields we have come to expect (and even require), would be a task of immense proportion. The term "herculean" comes to mind, as does the word "impossible." However, the idea of using a small population of Red Worms to produce a sufficient amount of fertilizer for our everyday at-home needs, is something we can easily handle. The worms, perfectly willing and able to help us in this noble endeavor, ask very little in return. A place to work, some garbage to eat, and in return, an unlimited supply of the most perfect plant food available anywhere!
Though there are several ways of using both the worms, and the resulting product, the majority of this information will be covered in various other sections of this home page (as fast as I can make it available), and for now we will simply take a quick look at two of the most popular methods.
First is the in-home worm-bin method, known more commonly as vermicomposting. You simply take a suitable container, fill it with a bedding material such as peat moss, shredded newsprint, or well-worked compost(for more info on bedding materials see those specific modules further on in this lens), add a small population of worms, and feed the little guys your daily kitchen wastes. Depending on how long you leave the worms in the bedding, and how varied your waste materials are, you will soon have a container of very nutrient-rich compost just waiting to be introduced to some fortunate plant.
If the worms are left in the bed until all the food and bedding is totally "converted", the finished product will more properly be referred to as "worm casts", or "castings". At this point, however, the resulting product is a very high-grade fertilizer, and caution must be taken to ensure it does not come into direct contact with the root system of any young plants. Although this is the method used by most commercial "breeders", the material is only sold after being blended with loam, sand and clay to form potting soil, the final price of the product being determined by the percentage of "castings" it contains. The most expensive potting soils usually contain 50-60% worm casts.
A major problem with producing material of this nature, however, is that it often involves sacrificing the entire population of worms. As the level of casts increases in the bedding, the worms will start to die off since no animal can live in its own waste material. For this reason I recommend removing the worms while there is still an amount of organic material left unconverted, eliminating the need to raise a new batch of "composters", and also ending up with a product that is much less delicate to work with. No extraordinary care is required when using vermicompost since the plants can use its nutrients at their own pace as the natural processes in the enviroment complete the decomposition, or conversion, of the remaining materials.
Over the years, vermicompost has been the subject of many laboratory studies,and it has never failed to prove its worth as both a plant food and a soil enhancer. This is due in part to the high levels of organic matter and humic acids it contains, topics we will deal with elsewhere in these pages.
For now, however, let's take a quick look at a second method of using worms to enhance your plants, one that has no need of a special container, and can be operated with a bare minimum of effort.
Since people that have seen the results of vermicompost on my plants invariably want to obtain some of this wonderful material for themselves, I am often asked to supply them with a bag or two for their personal use. Taking into account the reactions of a couple of these people when they discovered a live worm or two in the material, I have started "pasteurizing" everything before I give it out. As a result, two separate things occur again and again.
First of all, I have never given a bag of soil to a person who didn't show up later, raving about the results they had witnessed after giving their plants a hardy feeding of vermicompost. Secondly, I have never had one of these people fail to notice that as well as their own plants were doing, mine still seemed to be doing better. They are always sceptical when I explain what I believe is the reason for the difference.
Never bothering to sterilize the material I keep for use with my own plants, it is only inevitable that a number of worm cocoons, and baby worms (spawn) get mixed in with the soils I blend. It is my belief that even without feeding them, these worms live long enough to make a difference to the plant. A big enough difference that people notice. Rather than ask you to take my word for it though, I thought I would simply provide you with two excerpts from my notes, one from the scientific community, the other from a fellow horticulturist. Both of these comments refer to the practice of not only using vermicompost, but actually including a certain amount of living worms in the mix. First, let's see what science has to say:
"Wolney (a research scientist) has shown by direct experimental cultures in boxes, with and without earthworms, surprising differences between the cultural results obtained, and this has been fully confirmed by the subsequent researches of Djemil. In Wolney's experiments, the ratio of higher production in the presence of worms varied all the way from 2.6% in the case of oats, 63.9% in that of rye, 135.9% in that of potatoes, and 300% in that of the field pea, to 733% in the case of canola."-("Harnessing the Earthworm", Thomas Barrett, 1976)-
And now the horticulturist:
"I have planted moss rose in experimental pots, same age and condition, one pot with worms, one without; invariably, the one with the worms will take on a new zest and life, and I have had them make such wonderful growth as 16 to 1. I have also grown petunias in boxes, in such size and profusion as to be unbelievable to one who never had a demonstration of the earthworm's fertilizing and cultivating ability. Petunias in soil of identical fertility, with the aid of hundreds of earthworms burrowing about their roots, produced leaves 1 1/4 to 1 3/4" wide by 3" long while those in the boxes without worms were yet 1/2" wide by 1 to 1 1/4" long. And the worm-fertilized plants were several times as tall as the others."-(Portion of a letter from Mr. R. A. Caldwell of Georgia to Thomas Barrett, 1976)-
At any rate, whether you should decide to use straight earthworm castings, vermicompost, or live earthworms, I feel safe in saying, once you have seen the results for yourself, you may never buy another box of chemical fertilizer again. Oh, and remember, if you choose to use live worms, and you put them in with a hanging plant, either remember to keep the plant watered, or make sure your spouse or your friends aren't sitting beneath it when it drys out!
Before we discuss the various materials which are suitable for this purpose, and the advantages or disadvantages inherent to each, let's take a moment to decide what we are trying to accomplish by providing the worms with bedding in the first place. We can do this by looking at what the worms need in order to lead healthy and productive lives, and then deciding which of these needs are dealt with most efficiently by the bedding.
A Worm Needs....
- Food to eat.
- Environmental conditions free from rapid fluctuation.
- Shelter from light sources.
- Access to potential mates. And...
- Delicate handling.
Now if we only had the worms to consider, that would just about do it. However, when we talk about cultured worms, we must also consider the needs of those who are doing the culturing, namely you and yours truly.
A Vermiculturist Needs....
- Healthy, productive worms.
- Freedom from foul-smelling bins.
- Freedom from intrusive pests. And...
- Easy access to required materials.
- (A winning ticket in the local lottery is probably out of the question?!)
With that in mind, we can now set down at least a couple of basic qualifications for what makes a good worm bedding. Though these are not the only considerations by any means, these points will go a long way to setting us on the right path.
Bedding Material Should....
- Retain moisture in a form that is accessible to worms.
- Stay loose and allow for air passage between the individual particles.
- Allow for drainage of excess moisture.
- Not be coarse enough to damage a worm's delicate skin.
- Not be a food source that is high in protein.
- Be aged past the heating stage. And....
- Be free of topsoil. (Red worms are compost or manure worms as opposed to earthworms.)
So, with all of these points in mind, let's get down to the job of looking at the available options, and the various pros and cons associated with each. Just before we do, however, I should point out that I am not trying to nudge anyone in one specific direction or another. All I am really interested in is giving everyone enough information so that they can decide on whichever bedding will best suit their individual circumstances, and a pointer or two on how best to use whichever one they finally decide upon. Each of the following materials are suitable as worm bedding, but some will simply be more suitable than others for your particular needs. So if that is clear to everyone.....we may proceed.
Worm Bedding 2
With the exception of manure (a topic we will deal with in a later article), peat moss is probably the most widely-used of all the worm beddings. A few years ago, we could even have defined this material more specifically as "Canadian" peat moss, or sphagnum moss. The reasons for that particular preference had to do with the fact that the Canadian peat moss was a sterile medium, whereas the American peat moss was more likely to contain various impurities which might have proved harmful to the worms. Though many breeders still ship worms in Canadian sphagnum, often at the specific request of the buyer, if reasonable care is exercised, just about any peat moss may now be used.
Since I can already hear the multiple screams heading my way, let me explain what I mean by reasonable care. First of all, any suspicious moss should be thoroughly "leached" before it is used as worm bedding. This is a simple matter accomplished by soaking the material for a few hours (or overnight) in clean water, and then squeezing out the excess moisture. If the water you squeeze out is dirty, the process should be repeated until the resulting flow is as clean as when it was first added. At that point, resist the temptation to add your entire worm population to the moss until you have first allowed a brave handful of worms to try out the new accommodations for at least one entire night. If they survive, chances are the others will also. Of course, if you are fortunate enough to have access to some of the true Canadian sphagnum, you can probably skip the first step altogether, and proceed directly to the test with the partial population. I do, however, strongly suggest that you never skip the second test. You may get away with it 99 out of 100 times, but just one bad batch of moss and....well, you get my point.
Like most other bedding materials, peat moss has both advantages and disadvantages. The reason for its popularity, however, is that the advantages pretty much outweigh the negative aspects, and those things considered to be disadvantages can often be used in a positive manner. If we understand each of these characteristics, and make the best use of them, it becomes easy to see why so many worm breeders favor this material.
Among the advantages of peat moss can be found the following items:
Because it retains moisture so well, peat moss can lessen the amount of daily attention required by the worm bed (a major plus in multiple-bed situations.) And less watering means you will have that much more time to teach the worms to dance, recite poetry, or run for political office. In all fairness, I have to admit I have heard at least one individual express concern that while peat moss does indeed retain large amounts of moisture, the water is trapped inside the fibres, where the worms cannot make use of it. I also have to admit that I find that a little hard to believe, since the worms ingest the entire fibre, water and all. If any worm has ever died of thirst while living inside moistened peat moss, I, for one, have never heard about it.
This is one of those characteristics you can only appreciate if you have had prior experiences with bedding materials that are not so easily handled, such as manure or leaf mold. Properly moistened moss is a pleasure to handle, and if you should drop a little here or there, just let it dry, and vacuum or sweep it up.
It Has No Inherent Odor.
Though worms tend to deodorize most materials simply by their existence within the medium, there is often a short period of time where some beddings might be just a little offensive to those of us with delicate sensibilities. No such problem with peat moss, a definite plus in my books.
Availability and Consistency
If you happen to live in a rural area, the availability of material for worm bedding should never be a problem. Urban living, however, can often present certain difficulties. Aside from having to gather materials, storing those which you manage to accumulate can present additional problems. For those with very limited storage space, or lacking suitable amounts of the time or inclination required to gather materials, peat moss offers easy access, usually at a reasonable cost. Any decent garden-supply shop will have this material on hand, and a medium-sized bag can usually be purchased for just a few dollars. For the average indoor system, a bag of moss will usually last several months, and if the same brand is constantly used, the worms will not be subjected to the rapid changes of condition that can so often raise their mortality rate.
Last but not least among the advantages of using peat moss as a bedding material, we should make mention of the wonderful diversity of this substance. Not only can peat moss be used alone, but it can also be used to enhance just about any other bedding material, and even as a method of rectifying certain problems encountered with other products, and also some environmental problems. For instance, if a certain bedding material drys too rapidly, adding a 30-50% mixture of moss will help to retain the necessary moisture level. In beddings that are too dense, peat moss will add a little porosity, and in materials that are too far on the alkaline side of the pH scale, the acidic nature of peat moss can serve to bring things into a better balance. When used as a shipping medium, peat moss will retain enough moisture to cool the worms, without requiring so much water that it will easily freeze solid. The fact that this material is lighter than most will also save some of the shipping costs, and because of its sterile nature, you may encounter less hassle from Customs when shipping internationally. All in all, peat moss has a lot going for it, and eventually, just about every worm breeder or vermculturist will come to consider it an indispensable part of their operation.
Among the disadvantages of peat moss can be found the following items:
Now I know I already said that peat moss was inexpensive, and it is (as long as we are talking about a regular-sized indoor operation.) However, many other bedding materials are free, so we have to be fair and call any price-tag at all a disadvantage. In the situation of a larger set-up, the cost can rapidly add up, and for commercial applications, the expense would be simply ridiculous. What this means is that peat moss is a great choice for an indoor bedding for a regular-sized set-up, but can only serve very specific needs for anything much larger than a one or two-bed system.
Its Acidic Nature (pH)
By its very nature, peat moss is an acidic substance. Since the worms prefer a pH that is close to neutral (or very slightly acidic), this can present a problem if certain precautions are not taken. First of all, worms that were previously housed in bedding materials that were neutral or slightly alkaline, should never be transfered directly into straight peat moss. Though I have raised several batches of worms in sphagnum (moss), they were either hatched initially in that substance, or gradually acclimated to the new conditions. To acclimatize worms to new bedding, I simply transfer an amount of the old material, worms and all, to one side of the new bed, opposite to the fresh bedding. The worms will then move into their new environment at their own pace, and the number of casualties is considerably reduced. (This procedure should be used whenever you place newly-received worms into a bed that contains material other than that which they were shipped in.) On the plus side of this matter, the acidic nature of peat moss can be used to balance other beddings (or soils) that have become too alkaline for whatever reason, something that gardeners everywhere have known for years.
A Lack of Nutritional Value
Since peat moss is made up of very old plant matter that has been sitting in, or under, a bog for many, many years, whatever nutrients it may have contained in a previous lifetime (spooky, huh?) have all been thoroughly leached out, which means that not even a worm can live on a steady diet of this material for any length of time. As far as that being a disadvantage or not, I guess it's merely a matter of personal opinion. If you are more interested in getting rid of food scraps (or some other feed source), rather than peat moss, you might consider this to be a benefit, since the worms will rely on the feed for nutritional value, and the peat moss will add body as it gets blended into the final mixture. This tendency to add to the structure of the finished compost is one of peat moss's best selling points, so maybe this item should have been listed under advantages after all. (Too late. )
All in all, a truly remarkable substance, and as we've already stated, a bedding material widely-used by vermiculturists around the world.
Worm Bedding 3
Though this material has a lot in common with peat moss, it must be understood that bog soil is a very different substance, with unique characteristics of its own. When we refer to peat moss or sphagnum, we are usually speaking about dead plant material that can still be identified as such. Bog soil on the other hand, is material that has been dredged up from the bottom of the bog, and is decomposed well past the stage where easy visual identification is possible. As opposed to peat moss, which is usually brown in color, bog soil that has any moisture content at all will be very black, turning slightly brown only when completely dehydrated.
During the period that I was maintaining my worm beds in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, I was directed by a customer of mine to a bog located just outside of town. (It was one of the nicer places I have ever been told to go. ) When I arrived at the site, I discovered that at some point in history, someone had dredged mountains of material from the bottom of the bog, and left it piled up in huge mounds all around the edges of the water. I suspect the absence of sufficient quantities of sphagnum was the main reason the "bog soil" had been abandoned. At any rate, the place was open to public access, and there had obviously been many people before myself who had loaded up large quantities of this material, probably for use as a soil additive in their gardens. For several months after that time, I periodically trucked a load of this "soil" home, screened the larger pieces of wood out of it, and used it as worm bedding. The worms loved it, and it made a really nice final product after the worms had mixed it with all the food wastes I was using as feed. (Finding a beautifully-preserved piece of fossilized tree bark in one of the batches I took home was also a very pleasant bonus.)
Among the advantages of bog soil can be found the following items:
This is one of the areas where bog soil is very similar to peat moss, holding several times its weight in moisture content. In fact, it seems to me that it might be even better than peat moss in at least one regard. Though I've never run actual tests to determine by how much, I would have to say that bog soil holds the water even longer than moss, apparently being more resistant to the effects of evaporation. Also, peat moss will tend to "crust" over at the surface as it loses moisture, but bog soil remains friable even when its dry. This allows the worms better access to the surface, with less chance of damage to their skin.
Lack of Odor.
Another similarity shared with peat moss, but beneficial for at least one reason in addition to the obvious one of not being offensive. When you use peat moss, it is easy to estimate how converted the bedding has become simply by watching the color of the material. As the level of the castings increases, the bedding will become darker in color, alerting you to the fact that a cleaning of the bed might be in order. Since moistened bog soil is already black, however, it requires a pretty good eye to tell what percentage of castings the bedding contains. (A close inspection will show that the converted material is slightly lighter in color than the fresh material, a dark grey as opposed to black.) This is where the initial lack of odor becomes very important. Since worm casts contain a large amount of actinomycetes, and actinomycetes account for the smell associated with good rich earth, we can let our noses substitute for our eyes. If we sniff a handful of the bedding material, and the bog soil now smells like fresh garden soil, we know that a fair amount of conversion has taken place. Like all casting-rich bedding, if you completely dry an amount of converted bog soil, it will turn in color to a light grey, quite easily distinguished from a sample of the fresh material.
In this area, bog soil shares the same benefits as peat moss in that it can be used to enhance other beddings that do not hold moisture as well, and it can still be used for its cooling properties, and its lightweight nature, though in all fairness, it weighs slightly more than moss, and packs a little tighter. In these areas, I would rate bog soil as a strong runner-up to peat moss, and way ahead of the remaining materials.
In the matter of pH, I consider bog soil to be superior to peat moss, since it tends to be a completely neutral substance. Of course, this means it cannot be used to correct the imbalances of another bedding, but that disadvantage is far outweighed by the benefit of its neutrality. Since it is neither acidic nor alkaline, worms can usually be transferred into this bedding with very little risk to their well-being.
Whenever you can find this material, it will probably be free for the hauling, and that's a price you simply can't beat. A couple cautions, however, might be in order. First of all, always respect private property. Some bogs might be located on privately-owned land, and in that situation, either permission should be sought from the owner before removing any material, or the site should be removed from your list of locations. With all the many sources of bedding material which are available, trespassing is not only unnecessary, but very likely to give vermiculture a black eye which it simply doesn't deserve. Another point to keep in mind is the possibility of obtaining contaminated material. Though it is sad to say, the truth of the matter is that bogs have often been used in the past (and probably still are in the present), as illegal dumping sites. If the bog you are considering happens to be in the immediate vicinity of a large mill, or industrial site, you might want to look elsewhere. It would be a shame to produce castings that were later responsible for the contamination of your garden, or possibly the illness of your friends, your family, or yourself.
Among the disadvantages of bog soil can be found the following items:
Since bog soil is basically an unprocessed material, you are very unlikely to find it in your local garden center. Even if you have a vehicle, and the ambition required to find a suitable source--a bog that is open to the public--there is still a fair amount of work involved in loading it into containers, and then unloading the containers upon arrival at your home. It will also require screening to remove the larger pieces of wood which always seem to be present, and finally, if the trip is to be made worthwhile, a large amount of this material will likely need to be acquired. The storage of this excess material until it is needed could present some problems of its own. In short, if your particular circumstances are not just right, acquiring this material just may not be worth the effort.
We have already discussed this possibility a little earlier, but I wanted to mention it once again, simply because it is so important. I cannot stress it enough. If you have any reason to suspect the integrity of a batch of bog soil (or any bedding), find another source! There is simply too much material available for use to have to settle for something that may prove to be harmful to the environment (I include people in this word since we certainly are part of that environment.)
Lack of Nutritional Value.
(See comments under same heading in section on peat moss.)
All things considered, and all cautions taken, bog soil is an excellent bedding, and anyone fortunate enough to come across a good, reliable source of this material should consider themselves to be very lucky individuals indeed.
Worm Bedding 4
Now this is a material you just have to love. Not only is it relatively easy to use, and as plentiful as it gets, but using it as bedding solves the problem of bundling it up, and lugging it off to the recycling depot. Which brings me to another point, and my first real digression in this article (I really am getting better. )
In the time that I have been vermicomposting, I have been subjected on at least two separate occasions to lectures about the evils of feeding paper products to worms, when in fact I should be recycling those materials. The somewhat distorted logic at the heart of these lectures goes something like this. It is better to reuse a material several times than to feed it to worms once, whereupon it is forever lost to the world?! My personal view of that particular argument is best expressed in this manner.
First of all, material that is fed to worms is not lost to the world, but rather, it is transformed into one of the finest soil additives available to us from anywhere. Using this material in places such as tree nurseries can result in faster-growing, and even healthier trees. More trees equal more material for not only paper products, but building materials, and even other considerations such as food, air, and natural beauty. So vermiculturists are not taking something away from Nature, but in actuality, adding to it. And as far as the paper recyclers go, consider this. Even with the popularity of recycling these days, the process is still in its infancy. The truth of the matter is that the entire recycling industry is diverting just a fraction of the available waste materials from the landfills and incinerators of this planet. If we can feed another fraction of that particular part of the waste stream to our worms, fine. And if we ever reach a point where no more material is being landfilled, and the recycling industry cannot find enough paper to process, we can always switch our worms over to yard wastes, food scraps, or other such materials. In the meantime, we are only dealing with a portion of the material that is beyond the capabilities of a very young recycling infrastructure. (We are your allies, not your enemy.) And now, back to the business at hand.
Among the advantages of newsprint can be found the following items:
Availability and Consistency.
Newsprint is one of the most common materials available anywhere in North America. If you yourself don't receive a daily paper, you probably know many people who do. With only one or two of those people saving their papers for you (and being grateful to get rid of them), you can keep most in-home worm bins in perpetual bedding with no effort whatsoever.
Easy to Use.
Whereas certain bedding materials require a fair amount of preparation prior to use, newsprint needs only to be shredded and soaked. The excess moisture is then squeezed out, and the bedding is ready for use. Hand-shredding is probably the most common method of reducing the paper in size, with paper-shredders rapidly becoming more popular. Though newsprint can be ground into dust with larger industrial machinery such as a hammer mill, this results in the need of wearing protective devices to prevent the accidental inhalation of the finer airborne particles. (You don't want paper-dust in your lungs.) Since moist newsprint decays quite rapidly even in slightly larger pieces, however, reducing the material to the size of dust is really unnecessary. You could also decide to simply crumple up entire sheets of moistened newsprint, but then expect it to take a little longer to get eaten.
As I have already mentioned, newsprint is readily available, at a very reasonable cost, or free. If you find you require a lot of this particular material, you might try approaching your neighborhood grocery store, and inquiring about how they dispose of the daily papers that do not sell. Often, you will discover that just the banner portion of the front page is saved as proof that the paper was not sold, and the rest of the paper is then cast into the garbage. Usually, a store owner would prefer to have someone pick up these unwanted items, rather than have them added to the garbage which he/she will later have to pay to have hauled away.
Any time you can arrange to have your worm bedding delivered to your door, rather than having to go out and locate it elsewhere, you can consider yourself ahead of the game.
This time I'll list the matter of pH as a benefit, which is where it probably belongs at any rate. Like peat moss, newsprint is naturally an acidic material, and as such, it also may be used to bring overly-alkaline substances back into balance. (Once again, gardeners have known this for a very long time.) Since it is acidic, however, the same cautions must be taken that were mentioned in our discussion of peat moss' pH, and the same methods should be used when worms are transferred into newsprint from a bedding that falls closer to the alkaline side of the scale.
Among the disadvantages of newsprint can be found the following items:
This point is one that should never be neglected, but one that may also prove very tempting to those of us who find we have very little time which we can devote to bedding preparation. I'm talking about considering the use of newsprint that has already been pulverized for use as an insulation material. To put it plainly....DON'T DO IT!
Newsprint that has been prepared for use as insulation has also been treated with fire-retardant chemicals. Not only could these chemicals destroy your worm population, but even worse, the worms might actually survive, producing castings that could later be used to fertilize your garden, possibly contaminating a portion of your food supply. In short, saving yourself a little effort is just not worth the potential risk which it involves. For this same reason, machinery that has been used in the preparation of insulation should never be used to prepare bedding material.
It Drys Rapidly.
Unlike peat moss, or bog soil, substances which hold water extremely well, newsprint that is exposed to the air loses its water content quite rapidly. The key phrase here is exposed to air, and as long as we keep this in mind, the problem is easy to solve. What you want to do is place at least a couple of inches of a more water-retentive bedding (such as the already-mentioned moss or bog soil) on top of the newsprint, creating a barrier from the air, and resulting in a lessened need for watering. It is important that newsprint bedding remain moist, since it becomes very rough when it is dry, and this could cause a problem for the worm due to its delicate skin.
It Leaks Light.
Depending on whether you shred the newsprint, or simply crumple it up, a certain amount of light may filter into the lower regions of the bed. If we understand that a worm does not flee the light due to some unreasonable fear, but rather due to the fact that it is sensitive to ultraviolet rays (prolonged exposure to a light source will result in the death of the worm), then we can understand that this is not a good situation. Once again, however, a top-covering of peat moss, bog soil, compost, or manure can easily be used to solve the problem. A piece of dampened burlap will also work, but a top layer of another bedding material has an additional benefit, which we will discuss very shortly.
It Can Become Compacted.
This is another area where the degree of the problem will depend on the manner in which the newsprint was prepared as bedding. If shredded, rather than crumpled or pulverized, newsprint can become quite packed down, resulting in several situations which need to be considered. First of all, compacted newsprint is not the easiest material to bury a feed source into, or harvest worms out of. If this was the only problem, however, that good old top-layer of a different bedding material would once again solve the problem. That is the additional benefit I mentioned earlier, a more friable bedding material for the worms to use while the newsprint has some time to decay. However, there is a more serious problem that could develop which a simple top-layer cannot prevent. If the bedding becomes so packed down that it cuts off the available air-supply, anaerobic bacteria (which thrive in the absence of air) could rapidly invade the worm-bin, resulting in the same aroma that a garbage bag produces when built-up fluids drown the bottom layers of the waste material. Not only is this an aroma you will really want to avoid in your house, but the worms like it even less than you, and will probably desert the bin, setting off in search of a more suitable area to live in. This will probably result in great unhappiness for you, and a very quick death for the worms.
At any rate, if we consider all the positive points involved in using newsprint as bedding, we can see that it really is a very useful material with a lot going for it. On the other hand, there are also several negative aspects which must be taken account of, if we wish to avoid creating more problems than we are solving. With all of that in mind, I usually recommend that people who wish to use newsprint as bedding, do so in the following manner.
Reduce the material to the smallest size that is reasonably possible, then use it as only one ingredient in a bedding which is composed of several different materials. In that fashion, the newsprint can be used to compliment various other beddings, and at the same time, the other materials can help eliminate the chances of encountering one of the problems most often associated with using the newsprint all by itself. I personally consider newsprint to be a vital ingredient in several of my own worm-bedding mixtures, and appreciate it as a truly beneficial substance.
Worm Bedding 5
With machine-shredded paper, we come to one of the most neglected, yet plentiful sources of worm-bedding material. In every populated area of the modern world can be found office-buildings, libraries, schools, police stations, and countless other locations that have in common the fact that they produce amazing amounts of waste paper each and every day. A tremendous portion of this paper is simply shredded, placed into plastic bags, and sent off to the local landfill. All it usually takes to obtain this material is to ask the office manager, the janitor, or whoever is in charge of the particular site, for permission to haul it away, and your bedding requirements are satisfied. (If you tell them it's for your worms, they may look at you a little strangely in the beginning, but that's something we should all be used to by now.)
For most regular-sized, indoor vermicomposting operations, one location will suffice to provide all the bedding that is necessary. Since the material is already shredded, the work-load is reduced to transporting the paper to your home, moistening the required amount, and installing it in the bed. By giving a little consideration to the "disadvantages" listed below, and keeping them in mind when you pick a location, you can have all the safe bedding your worms require, for very little effort, and you will be doing something that is environmentally friendly at the same time. For that matter, if enough in-home vermiculturists each absorbed part of the waste from one or more of these sources, it would not be long before a large amount of paper was being dealt with in a much more suitable manner than it presently is. In that situation, everyone is a winner. Just before we discuss the disadvantages, let's take a look at the more positive aspects of this potential bedding source.
Among the advantages of machine-shredded paper can be found the following items:
As I've already stated, there is not a populated area in the world that doesn't produce large amounts of this substance. Aside from the sources I listed above, keep in mind any location that produces flyers, such as the kind that are stacked in grocery or department stores, informing patrons of weekly, or daily specials. Any government office is a pretty sure bet, as are local telephone, or utility companies. With just a little effort, I'll bet anyone can come up with a list of 10 or 12 possible sources of various shredded papers. And if you belong to any kind of group or organization that includes several vermiculturists, the purchase of a community paper-shredder might be an investment worth considering. (Choosing your own source of raw material to shred will help you overcome the most significant of the disadvantages involved in dealing with this choice of bedding.)
This advantage is reliant on the fact that you first find a suitable source, and then stick with it. If you are fortunate enough to find a location that not only produces safe material, but enough of it that you have no need to use an additional outside source, hang onto it by fostering a good relationship with the producer of the material. You are performing a service for them by eliminating a certain amount of their waste problem, and they in turn are doing you a favor by supplying you with a free source of bedding material. If each of you appreciates the efforts of the other, there should never be a problem. If the source you have found produces a large amount of waste material, you may even want to introduce the producer to another vermiculturist or two. The producer will see even more of the waste being taken care of, and you may also advance your friendships with your fellow wormers.
Cleanliness and Lack of Odor.
This is another of the substances that are usually a pleasure to work with. Though machine-shredded paper can suffer from the same smudging problem as newsprint (since that could be the shredded paper you find yourself dealing with), it is already shredded, so the problem is nowhere near as bad. Odors are never a problem, and as I've mentioned elsewhere, I consider that to be a major plus.
What can I say? Completely free, unless you count the cost of hauling it, and if you choose your source wisely, transportation should never amount to much. Even if you put out the expense of purchasing one of the community-use shredders I mentioned earlier, the actual bedding material you can produce with it will cover your costs in a very short period of time. If you take into account the labor you'll save by not having to shred the paper manually, you may even agree that the machine is profitable in the literal sense of the word. (That depends on just how much bedding material you have a need for.)
Like peat moss, machine-shredded paper can be used to bulk up other bedding materials that are simply too dense. By keeping the bedding loose, the worms will be healthier, and maybe even happier, in addition to the fact that you are a lot less likely to encounter anaerobic conditions.
Among the disadvantages of machine-shredded paper can be found the following items:
This point makes up the largest possible difficulty when using machine-shredded paper as worm-bedding. Furthermore, the problem (at least as far as I, or anyone I'm aware of, has been able to determine) lies not in the possibility of endangering the health of your worm population, but in the possible health risks to yourself, or your family, if a contaminated source of raw material is used.
The problem lies in the area of obtaining waste material that has been used in a photocopier, and the main area of concern is the toner used in the photocopy process. (Toner is the powdery ink substance used to produce a photocopy, and may be plastic, or chemical in nature.) Since very little laboratory research has been done in the area of problems caused by transferring these artificial substances into the food chain, we have no way of knowing what ill effects might be caused by ingesting food grown in soil that has been enriched with compost containing these substances. We can assume, however, that since a worm's diet consists strictly of organic matter, these inorganic materials are passing through the worm's digestive tract, and becoming somewhat concentrated in the resulting casts. (The same situation occurs with the heavy metals contained in some sewage sludges. After being consumed by worms, the result is less overall volume to dispose of, but higher percentages of contamination in the remaining material.)
Since we are talking about your own health, and the health of your family or friends, I think if a mistake is to be made, we should err on the side of caution, and at the very least, follow some simple precautionary guidelines:
If any bedding material in your worm-bin originated from a photocopier source, then the resulting casts should only be used in soil mixes intended for use in potted plants, and care should be taken that the above-mentioned potting soil is properly disposed of after use. This means taken to a landfill site, rather than being added to your garden. (Remember to also avoid discarding the used potting soil on your lawn, since ingestion by your neighborhood birds might simply result in a more roundabout entry of the contaminants into the food-chain.)
If you are unsure about the origin of the bedding material, then treat it in the manner stated above. And finally,...
If you are ever in a position to encourage, or support research into this area, (a simple letter to your environmental agency or university could go a long way), then please take the time to do so.
With all of that said, I still have to point out that we don't know for sure that this matter actually presents a problem, but as I said earlier, when we are talking about the health of ourselves and our loved ones, it would be foolish to take unnecessary risks. And this brings us to the next aspect of this particular disadvantage.
Yes...I know. I already listed this as an advantage to using machine-shredded paper, and it is. But considering what we just talked about, those of us who wish to use the resulting compost on our gardens now have to see a certain disadvantage in acquiring material of this nature that is also safe to use. Well, I assure you, there is still plenty of machine-shredded paper around that contains no photocopied material, but a little more effort will be required to locate a suitable source. Because this material makes up such a large portion of the waste-stream, however, I personally think the added effort is well worth the time. This is also where the idea of having a community-based paper-shredder comes in handy, allowing you to make your own machine-shredded from the plentiful supply of unshredded waste paper that is still available everywhere. And in the instance of in-school vermicomposters,and similar situations, the chances are good that there is already a paper-shredder available, which means that simple sorting of the material that is to be shredded will solve the whole problem.
We have already dealt with the next three disadvantages in our discussion of newsprint and I trust you can find your way back to that section if you need a slight refreshing on the details. In short, these disadvantages are:
It Drys Rapidly, Leaks Light, and Can Become Compacted.
Like many vermiculturists, one of the main reasons I keep worms is to help in the reduction of waste materials that are destined for some already over-burgeoned landfill. If I have to exert a little more effort in obtaining a suitable source of this particular waste, I can take consolation in knowing that I am at least dealing with a material that truly makes up a large portion of the problem we face in this area.
Worm Bedding 6
Cardboard Part 1
Now we come to my favorite worm bedding, the one that in my humble opinion (I heard those snickers), is the ideal material available for this purpose. When I started my first worm-bin, I decided that cardboard would be my bedding material of choice, and if I had either kept my operation at the typical in-home size, or if I had had access to the necessary mechanical equipment required for producing large quantities of this substance (in its most suitable form), I'm sure I would still be using cardboard and nothing else. Unfortunately, shredding cardboard by hand (with razor knives and scissors) is a long and difficult process for anything but very small amounts, and unless the material can be reduced directly to particles the size of dust, degradation of the bedding can take a lengthy amount of time. This matter of slow degradation is not always a bad thing, mind you, just for the type of situation I was into at the time. Rather than go off on a tangent once again, however, I'll try and include as many explanations as possible of the pertinent aspects of cardboard usage inside the listings of advantages and disadvantages which follow.
Among the advantages of cardboard can be found the following items:
Availability and Consistency.
Cardboard is very likely one of the most available sources of worm bedding in the populated areas of the world, second only to the rest of the paper products in general, and to newsprint specifically. If we consider that Canadians produce more waste material per capita than any other country in the world (including our American friends to the south), and that one of our largest sources of waste is in the area of packaging, then we should be able to begin imagining just how many cardboard boxes this country goes through every day. According to figures that were supplied to me by Environment Canada (and mentioned elsewhere in this article), of the waste cardboard available in my home province in 1994, only 8.5% was being recycled. That means over 90% of the available material ended up at the local landfills, and even if we assume that the recycling rate has doubled since then (which I personally doubt), over 80% is still being buried. All a vermiculturist has to do is intercept the material before it gets hauled away, and of all the available substances, cardboard is one of the easiest to do that with. The simple fact of the matter is that of everything that makes up our waste stream, cardboard is the material most often separated from the rest, before it is thrown out, and for people who raise worms, that is excellent news.
Access to quantities of cardboard is made even easier by one very simple fact. For many people that have a lot of this material, it can be very expensive to dispose of. Consider how many grocery stores, small and large, occupy every neighborhood, in every city in North America. Once or twice a week (sometimes even more often), these stores receive their grocery orders. Approximately 80% of what they receive will be packed in cardboard boxes, which will be emptied, usually flattened out, then placed in large garbage bins to await hauling to the dump. In case you weren't aware of it, most companies that supply those large dumpsters, charge for each time that the bin is emptied. The rates may vary from one location to the next, but I can assure you, it is often costly enough that many store owners will be quite happy to have you remove a load or two for them, whenever you are able. Like always, talk to the individual merchant before removing anything from their property, and once you receive permission to do so, treat that merchant in a polite and conscientious manner. That way, you will not only obtain a good supply of great bedding, but you might even make a new friend.
One last point concerning this availability issue. Very often, the larger grocery (or department) stores in the various metropolitan areas will produce enough of this waste material that a recycling company will already be contracting to handle their waste for them. For that reason, --though it certainly can't hurt to check things out-- it may save you some time if you approach only the smaller corner-store type operations. Besides, if you are running anything short of a commercial operation, just one or two smaller locations will probably be sufficient to provide you with all the bedding material you require.
With all that said, there is very little to be added on the consistency side of the matter. Basically, cardboard is cardboard, and except for a few related issues which we will deal with further on, the simple fact of the matter is, if you start your worms in cardboard, and continue to use cardboard as their bedding material, there is very little chance that your worm population should have anything to complain about.
Is it possible that some beddings are friendlier than others?
In a manner of speaking, yes. I realize that using any waste material for worm bedding, rather than sending it off to the landfill, is an environmentally-friendly act (which is why I haven't included it among the earlier lists of advantages), but using cardboard in this particular manner has at least one added benefit.
You see, even though there are many substances that can be diverted from the landfill for use as worm bedding, very few of those materials take up as much space at the landfill (in relation to their total weight) as cardboard does. Cardboard boxes, for instance, are not always flattened out before being disposed of, and crumpled cartons tend to use up a lot of unnecessary space. If the boxes are flattened out prior to burial, they can still present another problem. Under tremendous pressure, and protected from the elements by a multiple layering effect, this cardboard can take an awful long time to decompose, thus causing the landfill to reach its capacity much faster than it normally would, if used only for rapidly-decaying materials. So you see, if we use 50 pounds of cardboard for worm bedding, as opposed to 50 pounds of green waste (for example), we save a lot more in the sense of available disposal space, and that is what I mean by a greater degree of environmental friendliness.
A Good Feed Source.
In most cases, a good feed source does NOT equal a good bedding material. The reason for this is that most feeds are too high in protein to double as a bedding substance. The worms (who by their very nature eat constantly) will soon burn out in a high-protein bedding, and when I say burn out, I mean that almost literally. The constant intake of protein will raise the internal temperature of the worm, which results in a binful of wigglers that are no longer wiggling. They will also not be eating, mating, or moving, since they will all be dead. What they will be doing, is laying around in the bed, racing each other to see who can rot first. I'm sure there is a very nifty scientific explanation for this phenomena, but I can only attest to it as the result of having killed several batches of worms in this manner. When someone was good enough to offer an explanation of the problem to me, I chose to accept it.
What this means of course, is that with many substances --such as newsprint or machine-shredded paper--, a feed source apart from the bedding material is required for happy, healthy worms. There are exceptions to this rule, however, and cardboard is one of the most notable among them. Not only can cardboard serve as an excellent bedding material, but if you are so inclined, you can have it pull double-duty, serving also as the only feed source in the bin. It has even been said by various worm experts that worms raised strictly in cardboard will be larger, healthier, and more prolific (sex-crazed ) than worms raised in any other material. There are a few explanations for these opinions, and also one or two qualifications which should be kept in mind.
First of all, why should cardboard make a good feed? Because of the cellulose (a complex carbohydrate derived from plant fibre) it contains, as well as the glue (usually made from animal by-products) that is used to bind the various layers together. In combination, these substances provide the worm with just about everything it requires to grow up big and healthy. If there is anything lacking in this particular bedding/feed, it is the additional protein necessary for giving the worm a firm, resilient body, something desirable to anyone raising worms as fishing bait, even though the worm itself may consider it to be an optional trait. (This deficiency is easily rectified by a weekly supplement of commercial feed.)
The main qualification that must be taken into account is the condition of the cardboard in relation to its availability as feed. When pulverized, this material is pretty much ready for instant ingestion by the worms, and conversion of the bedding into castings can be expected to occur in as little as 6-8 weeks. This is, of course, assuming the presence of an average worm population, which for the sake of argument can be approximated at 2 pounds of worms per cubic foot of bedding. If, on the other hand, the cardboard is not pulverized, but simply shredded or crumpled, it will take a considerably longer time before decomposition progresses to the point where the worms can use the bedding material as feed. In that situation, a secondary food source will be required until such time as the cardboard reaches a suitable state. (Continued next article.)
Worm Bedding 7
Cardboard Part 2
I mentioned elsewhere in this lens the fact that peat moss, bog soil, or shredded paper could all be used to fluff up other bedding materials that were too dense, or heavy. Not only is the same thing true of cardboard, but of all the materials used in worm bins, none produce (in my opinion) a nicer final product than this one. When pulverized prior to use, cardboard is already light and fluffy, and even if used in a rougher state (shredded or crumpled), it will eventually result in an extremely friable compost. In fact, cardboard may be the only paper-based bedding material that doesn't present the home-based vermiculturist with compaction problems.
Usually Has No Odor.
Another of those wonderful materials that has no inherent odor unless it is left lying around in very large quantities, or in a dampened condition. (Once installed in a worm bin, even moist cardboard is usually odor-free, and if it isn't, the bin conditions should be checked.)
Among the disadvantages of cardboard are the several smaller problems which relate to this one main point:
Cost or Effort.
Considering everything I have already said about the availability of waste cardboard, you may be wondering why this matter of cost should be the disadvantage I mention, and you might even be wondering exactly what cost I am referring to. Well give me a moment and I'll explain.
First, it must be understood, cost is not always determined by an actual expenditure of cash. Time is also a valuable commodity, as is work, and unless you happen to be in a very fortunate situation, the conversion of raw cardboard boxes into suitable worm bedding can involve a considerable outlay of both. You see, the waste material is definitely available, but simply crushing the boxes and wetting them down is a very crude technique that is seldom satisfactory in the long run. This means you must either pulverize the cardboard, or at the very least, reduce it in size quite drastically.
There are two, possibly three main problems encountered when the boxes are merely crushed and moistened as a means of preparation.
First of all, unless you are using a relatively large bin-system, you will have to find very small cardboard boxes to crush, or you simply won't have enough available space in the container. (If later on, you should try to use the same method to add fresh bedding to the system, you may also find yourself squishing a fair portion of the existing worm population.)
Next comes the problem of harvesting those little wigglers from within such a system. You see, until the cardboard becomes decayed enough for the worms to ingest, they will feast themselves on the glue that is available between the layers of paper. They will accomplish this by squirming inside those various layers via the corrugations, and that is where you will have to find the little critters when you need them. Aside from having to peel the paper layers apart from one another, when you do locate the worms, they will be covered in the very slippery glue substance, making them almost impossible to pick up. (If you have no intention of harvesting the worms until all the bedding is converted, this particular point should not prove to be a problem.)
Finally, if you decide to supplement the cardboard with an additional feed source (kitchen waste, compost, etc.), you will rapidly discover the difficulties involved in "burying" anything in crumpled cardboard.
What this means, of course, is that for most practical uses, you will find that cardboard bedding works best when reduced to pieces of approximately 1 square inch or smaller, with pulverization working best of all. If you have read any of the earlier articles I have written on this subject, you may recall that I acquired the square pieces of cardboard bedding for my initial worm beds by cutting boxes into long strips with a razor knife, then cutting the strips down with heavy-duty scissors. (I eventually cut 145 pounds of one-inch cardboard squares over a period of roughly 45 days, and sometimes late at night, when the moon is full, I can still feel the resulting cuts and blisters which I acquired along with the bedding material. ) So if you figure the hours involved in this process, and assume even a minimum wage for my efforts, you can see the cost I am referring to.
Now, as I've already said, pulverization works the best, but unless you happen to own a hammer mill, or at least have access to one, you are not likely to encounter a great amount of cardboard in the form of dust (other than the unsafe material prepared as insulation.) The idea of purchasing a hammer mill specifically for "bedding preparation" is more than a little silly considering the cost, and even renting the use of this type of equipment from time to time can get expensive. (If you should obtain the use of such a piece of equipment, remember to wear a face mask to prevent the accidental inhalation of the airborne particles.)
So in the end, though I consider waste cardboard to be the finest bedding substance available for indoor worm composters, the problems involved in obtaining it in a suitable form, or the effort required to convert the raw material to the necessary condition by hand, makes this substance suitable only for the smallest of operations. That is, unless you happen to be one of the fortunate few who just happen to find yourself in a very rare situation. In that case, congratulations, you lead a truly blessed life.
Now I happen to have it on very good authority (quite possibly an older sibling), that the first question asked by Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Generals Custer and Patton, and even Rambo, before going off to wage battle was, "So who we fighting?!" That's also the question we have to ask ourselves before we take any action, or we may find later that that action was not necessary, or even worse, that the action we took served only to create a larger problem. So before we think about killing anything, let's take a look at what a worm bin really is, and as such, what it can be expected to contain (in fact what it must contain if it is to function properly.)
No matter how we look at it, or what fancy terms we tend to use, a worm bin is nothing more than a self-contained, adapted for the indoors, miniature compost heap. The precise manner in which we use the worm bin may differ from the outdoor pile (but not really very much), and it may house a proportionately-larger worm population than its larger outdoor cousin, but in the end, the fact remains, it is simply (and wonderfully) a small compost heap which produces an extremely high-grade finished product (there really is a difference between compost and vermicompost.) Therefore, like every other compost heap, it must, by its very nature, be teeming with life. Of the individual animals which make up this plethora (great word!) of life, very few actually deserve to be called "pests", since they are a vital ingredient for the successful decomposition of the organic wastes which all of us, as vermiculturists, are trying to have converted. With this in mind, let's take a quick look at exactly what it is that is happening during the transformation of organic waste into "black (or brown) gold." Some of what I am about to describe will be missing in a worm-bin situation (due to the smaller amounts of material), but it will be helpful as an aid to understanding the overall process.
Now when a large amount of organic waste is brought together in a heap, the following things tend to occur (assuming there exists a suitable temperature range, adequate moisture, and in certain cases, air). The pile is invaded, and occupied, by bacteria which specialize in breaking down organic compounds. Among the first of these invaders are those which are commonly referred to as mesophilic decomposers. These critters (much too small to be seen with the unaided eye), thrive in temperatures ranging between 50 degrees and 113 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. Having gotten word of the "block party in progress", these little critters (25,000 of them laid end-to-end should measure close to an inch) do pretty much the same thing that you or I would do in the presence of all our friends, and all that food,...they party hardy. In no time at all, things begin to heat up, literally. What's really interesting, however, is the result of this increase in temperature brought about by all the energy which is being expended. The mesophilic decomposers fall victim to the heat and begin dying in large numbers.
If my admittedly limited understanding of this entire procedure is correct, the next step is the inevitable arrival of the party crashers, in the form of thermophilic microorganisms, which just happen to enjoy temperatures between 113 degrees and 170 degrees Fahrenheit, the very temperatures which are quickly eliminating the mesophilic bacteria, whose activity caused the heat increase in the first place. In the event that the food supply is running low (in the sense of fresh compost), not an immediate problem; the thermophilic organisms have plenty of mesophilic corpses to clean up (nice guys, huh?) And now things really get interesting!
You see, while all this frenetic (another great word) energy is being expended (bringing the temperature in the pile up to its peak of 170-180 degrees Fahrenheit), a new group of critters has been quietly massing their troops at the borders to the frontier (the compost heap), unable to effectively join the party due to the rather uncomfortable temperatures. As the thermophilic microorganisms deplete their food supply, however, the overall activity diminishes, and the temperatures start to drop (a process referred to as stabilization.) As the temperature continues to fall lower, and the party crashers begin to crash (again having been the cause of their own demise), this new batch of troops, comprised mainly of actinomycetes and fungi decide to make their move, and take over the pile which is once again nice and cool (at this point, a fresh supply of organic waste could be used to start the entire cycle all over again.) Also at this point, so many different actors take the stage, that I think I had better switch to a slightly different approach, such as referring you all to the wonderful (I sincerely mean that as a compliment) Master Composter Programs that are becoming more popular, and thus more available, every day. In all seriousness though (I will try to finish what I've started), these programs are well worth taking for anyone who is serious about their gardening and/or environmental concerns. An article of this nature, is simply no substitute for what these fine people can teach the rest of us.
The New Approach
These critters are basically a higher form of bacteria, which have several very notable characteristics. Just for starters, close your eyes for a moment, and imagine the beautiful smell so commonly associated with fresh soil. That's actinomycetes you're smelling. Now think of all the wonderful benefits you have heard of being derived from humus (if you haven't heard these things anywhere else, you certainly will when I manage to get my articles on "The Benefits to Plants Derived From Vermicompost" up onto these pages.) The actinomycetes are crucial to the formation of humus. Often working very deep in the soil, these ambitious bacteria convert dead organics into a type of peat, and also release various nutrients such as nitrogen and carbon, making it available for mixture into the top-soil. Since actinomycetes possess the ability to produce antibiotics, many other bacterial populations decrease as the number of actinomycetes increases.
When you speak of small animals (as opposed to bacteria) protozoa are about as small as you get. Other than that, there's not really much to add, except that they are present to a certain extent in compost, and are probably closer to bacteria in their actions than they are to the other animals.
Fungi are very simple (primitive) plants which are incapable of producing their own carbohydrates, since they lack the chlorophyll present in higher-level plant-forms. The family of fungi includes yeasts, molds, mushrooms, etc., and they survive on energy which they obtain from the organic matter in dead plants and animals. The presence of mushrooms in your compost heap or worm bin (very common with cardboard bedding) is a good indicator that the temperature of the bedding is around 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit (a great temperature for red worms), since only a few fungi can survive the higher thermophilic temperatures (around 120 degrees Fahrenheit.)
NOTE: With the exception of some of the larger fungi, all of these things we have discussed so far have at least three things in common.
-They are microscopic in size (don't bother looking for them.)
-Their diet consists of the material you thought you were feeding your worms (dead organic matter.) And...
-They make up a large portion of what the worms really are eating (in the strictest sense.) It's a good possibility that if all these organisms were somehow removed from the feed source, the worms would make like frogs and croak.
Another thing the above-mentioned organisms have in common is that they are basically what is referred to as level-one (or first-level) consumers (or decomposers.) This simply means that as their numbers increase in the pile, other larger decomposers will come along and invite the first-level decomposers out to dinner (as the main course...of course.) In this manner, population levels are kept in check, and the same thing happens to the second-level consumers in their turn. Since the higher-level decomposers are usually more suited to moderate temperatures, they will only be residents of the pile at certain times. It is mainly the second and third-level decomposers which are most often mistaken as pests (I'll bet you thought I was never going to get around to that), but the true fact of the matter is that they are often among the most beneficial of the critters in both the heap and the bin. (Keep your eyes open, however, for also in the list which begins in "Pests and Pest Control (Part 3)" you will find those that are "Not So Beneficial", and even the "Downright Nasty".)
Members of the same family as the spider and the tick (8 legs in common), this little creature is inevitably found in any compost situation, and if you think your bin is free of them, maybe take another look. Those most commonly found in a worm bin will be a reddish-brown in color, and very numerous. Moving around the surface of the bedding material, they attack dead plant matter, fly larvae, springtails, and even other mites. Several of the more popular books on vermicomposting describe these animals as hunting down red worms, paralysing them in some manner, and effectively reducing the worm population. Others talk about them stealing worm cocoons and drinking the fluid from them, also reducing the worm population. The most common fear I have run into among novice worm-breeders regarding the mite, is the fear of damage to their houseplants. For my part, I can tell you that the only time I have seen a worm and a mite share dinner, the worm was in fact the only menu item, but I have never deduced anything significant from it except that the mites (there were several at work) were cleaning up the carcass of a recently deceased worm. (You very seldom find dead worms in a bin simply because the other decomposers tend to clean them up very fast.) As far as actually chasing the little wiggler down and thus creating his own dinner, I have never seen anything even suggestive of that type of behavior. Nor have I ever seen even one mite in the process of making egg-nog, scrambled eggs, or even eggs Benedict. As for the plants, the mite which is to be feared in that regard is the red spider-mite, obviously some cousin of this mite, since I have planted numerous plants of various types directly in active worm bins which were saturated with these little animals, and never has even one taken up residence among the living portion of the plant. Aside from the fact that they are a little unsightly, they have never caused real grief in any worm bin in my care (and as I said, this is not due to lack of numbers, they obviously breed at least as well as the worms.)
Not to be confused with centipedes (a whole different story), the millipede can be distinguished by the two (2) pairs of legs attached to each body segment with the exception of the sections nearest the front (a centipede has only one set of legs per segment.) Vegetarians by nature, millipedes break down the larger pieces of plant matter, resulting in finer pieces being made available to the other decomposers which lack teeth, such as (you guessed it) the worms!
Now here is a third-level consumer (it feeds only on living animals such as insects, spiders, and worms), which must be hunted out in turn by something slightly larger, about the size of an average worm-breeder. Though more commonly found in an outdoor situation, just one of these things, in the confined space of a small worm bin, can do a lot of damage. On the upside, they're rather territorial (as are most predators....ask Arnie), so if you find one in a small bin, chances are you've eliminated the problem. The first real pest we've talked about.
This is one of those compost critters with a face only its mother could love. Even though it is strictly a vegetarian, and most common in an outdoor pile, that is probably where you would most like it to stay. Its fat little form would probably clash with the furniture anyway, and a good scream or two from your spouse should be enough to remind you that the best prevention for most of these particular animals is to simply never bring outdoor compost into the house without first cleaning it. (A good dose of solarization works wonders!)
Snails and Slugs
Another true pest as I'm sure any of you who garden have known for a long time. I'm just as sure that nature had a real good reason for these particular animals, but how she expected us to accept the fact that its favorite food is living plant material (such as that found in the garden you just wrecked your best jeans to get planted) is beyond me. The usual beer-traps (the non-alcoholic beer actually works better than the "real thing") is fine for outdoors, and if you have them in your indoor bin, try lightening up on your watering schedule. These animals like moisture.
The big brother to that little mite we were discussing a little earlier, and one of the least appreciated animals in the garden. Rather than being a pest, this animal is a great form of natural pest control. Every garden should have plenty, and if the one in the house is particularly bothersome, try looking it right in the eye, speaking to it in a very calm voice, then give it a wink...and step on it!
This is another of those little critters that I can almost guarantee will be present in virtually every vermicomposting situation sooner or later. Very small animals, usually no more than 1/4 inch in length, springtails will range in color from white to light grey, and even a sort of metallic blue from time to time. Feeding on decomposing plant matter, fungi, and pollens, as well as grains, they are most easily identified by their habit of "jumping" to a new location when they are disturbed. Since they accomplish this "jumping" by utilization of a specially-adapted tail-piece, their name becomes rather self-explanatory. Since they will die if they leave the environment of the worm bin, and since they are performing relatively the same job as the worms, I have never really considered them to be a problem. If you simply can't sleep at night (due to all that jumping around), then you may want to try method number one in the realm of "pest control." (The method I'm referring to will be explained a little further on, along with a couple of other "pest management strategies.")
The largest number of these compost invaders will be made up of the rove beetle, and the ground beetle. Both of these guys are third-level consumers, preying mainly on insects, snails, and even slugs. As a matter of fact, the black rove beetle is so efficient at this particular task, many people deliberately import them into gardens where slugs and snails have become a problem. Both of these beetles, as well as their larvae, will also feed on decaying vegetables.
Now these guys are certainly not welcome in most homes, and we will discuss steps to eliminate this problem in the section on pest control (method two). In the meantime, you may wish to know that an ant's idea of a smorgasbord would include any, or all of the following: any fruit, fungi, seeds, anything that is sweet, most other food scraps, other insects, and even other ants. (Get the picture? They like just about everything.) To make matters even worse, ants tend to think that compost piles, indoors or out, are really nifty places to build their nests. I once came across a nest over a foot around in one of my outdoor compost piles. It looked like some crazed drug dealer had decided to stash thousands of little white "pills" in the middle of my compost, and the only way I knew what I was looking at was by the frantic efforts of the ants to remove those "capsules" to a place of safety after I uncovered them. Unfortunately for the ants, the portion of the pile they had built their nest in was only two or three feet from the still-hot section of the pile, and by quickly transferring a couple shovelfuls of "eggs" into the center of the heated area, the invasion was very rapidly squelched. In a normal compost situation (outdoors, and without worms), I wouldn't worry about the ants, since by their very presence, they tend to mix the minerals around in such a way that they increase the phosphorus and potassium balance of the pile, but when the pile is home to a population of worms, the situation changes (the ants tend to deplete the carbohydrates which the worms require for food.) Thus, when it comes to a choice between the ants and the worms, I'll have to resort once again to Arnie's wonderful words...."hasta la vista, babies" (or something like that.)
There are many types of flies, and many of them are true "pests." Some of them can also be very, very difficult to get rid of once they take up residence in or around the bin area. Most of those "strategies" which we will be getting to very soon now, relate to these airborne invaders, since they truly are the peskiest of the pests. Just before we get to that, however, there is one more type of "pest" to deal with, and I always find it strange that this is the "pest" I am most often asked about, and the one that people are most often bothered by.
Other Wormlike Critters
First of all, let me tell you straight out, the red worm population in your "worm" bin, is by no means the largest population the bin contains. Aside from the obvious winners in any contest which deals with population, the bacteria, there are also tremendous populations of "flatworms, rotifers, and nematodes, all of which are usually small enough that you don't have to bother looking them in the eye. There is also, however, at least (I stress at least) one other critter that is not only present in almost all compost situations, but usually in quantities vastly outnumbering the red worm population, and this little guy can easily be seen with the unaided eye. The animals I am referring to are the little tiny white worms, about a quarter of an inch long, that so many people mistake for red worm spawn. First of all, these are not red worms at all (red worm spawn are transparent at birth, with a visible red vein running the length of their body, and their normal red coloring is present within hours of the time they hatch), and these little white worms are also full grown. Commonly referred to as "pot worms" (since they're usually found in flower pots), I believe their proper name is "enchytraeid." Other than the fact that they're white in color, and very small, they are basically doing exactly the same thing as their red worm cousins, eating decayed organic matter. Since they are rather unsightly, however, it seems that most people would like to be rid of them, and though I am not of the same opinion, I will suggest a method (good old method one) that will help to at least keep their numbers down. In response to the various books which claim that these little guys could conceivably grow in such vast numbers that the resident red worm population might suffer from either lack of food, or lack of space, I can only say that I have never made it a point to deliberately try and keep the "pot worm" population in check, and I have never experienced any noticeable decline in the growth rate of my red worm population.
At any rate, though this list of "compost critters" is not exhaustive by any means, I think we've looked at the main occupants of both the indoor and outdoor-type compost piles. Next, we'll take a quick look at how we can possibly deter a few of the peskier ones from choosing our specific location.
This particular method is designed as a way to reduce an unwanted population rather than eliminate it totally (which may in fact be impossible in regards to the pests in question). I can't take credit for the system, but I can testify to its effectiveness, and also to its inherent danger. As a result, the first comment I need to make is directed at any younger readers (though I suspect most of them abandoned me somewhere around the middle of this admittedly long article), and the message is this:
Do not try this on your own. Adult supervision is required, and I don't want to hear any excuses or explanations! Got it? Good.
With that said, the following method is probably the most effective way I have come across to reduce the population ofmites, springtails, and pot worms, should you decide that they simply must go.
Begin by watering the bin very heavily, soaking the upper layers of bedding thoroughly. (Make sure you have drip pans in place if this is indoors.) Wait a few minutes, during which time the red worms will head down in the bedding in an attempt to get below the excessive water, and the various pests we mentioned earlier will rush to the top of the bedding in order to avoid drowning.
Now simply use an acetylene, or butane torch, to scorch the surface of the bedding material (which should be sufficiently wet to avoid catching on fire.) A few slow passes in either direction will do the trick. Bye bye, billions of bugs. Remember to alter your future watering schedule to give the bedding some time to dry out. Leaving the bedding too wet for too long is a sure way to create a whole new batch of problems.
As an alternative to this solution, many of the older "worm" books recommend setting "traps" in the form of bread slices, or potato peels, around the surface of the bed, and then removing them when the offending "pests" have congregated (and they certainly will) on them, thus removing large quantities of the critters at once. My concern is that by using a food source that so readily attracts the little animals, you are probably supplying them with exactly what they need to actually increase their rate of reproduction, and it may be the case that you are simply aggravating the problem. Of course, I don't have this particular problem, since I don't regard any of these critters as an actual threat, and I'm almost certain that their populations just regulate themselves naturally.
There is one thing, however, I will recommend in regard to these particular "pests" and I do so because the thing I am recommending is of great benefit to the red worm population. Very simply, watch your pH levels. The pH level most suitable to the red worms we use for composting is right around the neutral range of seven. The mites and their friends on the other hand prefer conditions which are slightly more acidic in the areas they choose to breed in. Therefore, test your pH regularly (you can buy inexpensive kits at any garden shop), and if the bedding is too acidic, sprinkle a little dolomite lime onto the surface, or even add more crushed egg-shells to the food scraps you are feeding the worms. CAUTION: Make sure you use dolomitic lime, or another lime that is not going to heat up and kill your worms! And now, on to methods 2 and 3.
In regard to our industrious little friend the ant, I have learned by experience that "prevention" really is the answer. I personally, use a three-pronged defensive strategy, and though it has worked fine for me, you may decide to enhance it in any number of inventive and imaginative ways. (Should any of you come up with a system that either works more effectively, or is easier to implement, I would always love to hear from you.) In the meantime, my method consists of the following:
-First, I attempt to prevent the little monsters from entering through the "front door", literally. This is easily accomplished by sprinkling a little lemon juice (or a lemon-scented oil, etc) across the thresholds of both doorways into my house, as well as on the window ledges. Ants despise the smell of lemon, and this works very well to keep them on their side of the doorway. You should repeat this procedure at least once every two weeks or so in the summer months.
-Second, I never bring leaves or grass-clippings into the house for use as worm-feed, unless I take time to put the material into an old roasting pan I have, and then insert it into an oven at a temperature of 180 F. for at least 45 minutes. This will kill not only the ants, but many other critters, and their eggs which might later hatch, and decide to take up residence in your worm-bin specifically, or your house in general. Though I very seldom use soil for bedding, I do use it as an ingredient in the planting mediums I blend, and this same procedure is followed without fail.
CAUTION Temperatures in excess of 180 F., or times in excess of 1 hour in the oven, can drastically reduce the nutrient content of the material, bedding, feed, or soil.)
-For those "superbugs" that get passed these first two lines of defence, I utilize one final trick. As I may have mentioned elsewhere (and most likely will yet mention again), my worm-beds are built with six-inch legs designed to raise them enough to facilitate drip-pans. Each of these legs sits inside an old tobacco-can which I keep 3/4's full with water, creating a sort of moat which any little animal who has managed to get this far inside, still has to cross before gaining access to the bedding. I figure my first two methods must be quite effective, however, since I only found one beetle in the can of water while those beds were set up.
An Additional Note:
-Should you decide to make use of the various ant-traps which are available at any number of stores, keep in mind that they should not be placed directly in the worm bed, since the ant will first have to drag a mess of dead worms out of his way before he can discover what all the excitement's about!
Now we come to the undisputed "King of the Pests", the fly, and the first thing we have to do, is clear up another common misunderstanding. It seems when people first start to suspect that they have a problem with flies (if the whole bin is drifting around from room to room, it may be too late to deal with it), the attempted solution is to start burying the food that is being placed in the bin, or in the event that it was already being buried, then to bury it even deeper. The reasoning goes something like, "If the flies can't smell the food, they'll leave." WRONG!
Once you have enough flies kicking around that it becomes obvious something is wrong, there is only one solution that has any real chance of working. A complete change of bedding material combined with follow-up measures designed to prevent a reoccurrence of the same problem. You see, it's like this. While it may have been the food which attracted the original flies to the bin (a very good possibility), the current reason they are so thick that you can notice them is because you are standing in the nursery. Many types of flies, such as "minute flies, house flies, and most insidious of all, the dreaded fungus gnat, spend the earliest parts of their lives living in compost as maggots. Add to these numbers, their cousin the fruit fly (found wherever fermenting fruit is available), and then work in one more rather disturbing fact. The average housefly, paired with a suitable mate, and in the absence of its natural predators, working in conjunction with its own off-spring, can breed enough of a family that their dead carcasses could cover the entire earth 47 feet deep, in one year. Oh boy, have we got a problem?! Not really, and once again, preventionis the key.
First and foremost, I'm going to assume that you are taking my word for it about the only possible solution being the change of bedding. There are less drastic methods which will even work, if (and this is a great big if ) the bedding is caught before it is saturated with potential off-spring, but do you really want to take the chance? If not, we will assume that the bedding has been changed (dispose of the old bedding outdoors, or use the "baking" method we discussed earlier to eliminate the future flies it contains), and now we just don't want this sort of thing happening again. In that case, there are a few things we should try to keep in mind:
-All food scraps being placed in the worm bin must be buried with at least 2-3 inches of "clean" bedding. By "clean", I don't necessarily mean it has to be fresh, just free of "attractive" food odors. Suppose you scrape away an inch or so of bedding, pour some left-over fruit-juice into the opening, and replace the bedding you originally moved. Since most "bedding" material is absorbent, the liquid which you just added, will soak "up" into the top layers of the bedding (the material at the top of the bed is almost always dryer than that at the bottom), and you might just as well have poured it on top in the first place. Unless there is at least 2 full inches of bedding on top of that juice, if it decides to ferment, hello fruit flies.
-When new food is being added to the bed, we should locate it in such a place that the last-used location is not exposed, if there is any danger that it is still only partially decayed. This is one of the biggest arguments for having bins which are large enough to provide several locations for adding the food scraps. A simple rotation of locations will guarantee that the first spot is completely cleaned up by the worms before it has to be used again.
-Another helpful point to remember is that most of these flies which lay their eggs in compost, require that a certain amount of moisture be present. Thus, a layer of dry leaves, or grass clippings (remember to bake them when they are first brought in) on top of the bedding, will often discourage any attempts they might make at installing their daycare center in your house. (This also works with outdoor piles.)
-And finally, we should always remember, that all the care we take with the bin and its bedding will amount to very little, if we forget to keep an eye open for other potential sources of trouble. If the container which we save our scraps in is sending a message to every fly within a hundred miles,...well you all saw "Field of Dreams", didn't you? To paraphrase Mr. Costner, "If you leave it lying around....they will come!"
But seriously, everything I am trying to stress simply amounts to good housekeeping. As in any other situation, a little effort before there is a problem will go a long way to preventing the problem from ever arising. In all the years I have raised worms, I have only had one major problem with bugs. How that little sucker got up my nose I just can't figure out, but man oh man, does he ever tickle my brain?!
Meanwhile, this has probably taken far too much time in the telling, but I hope these two articles have at least been of some help to at least a few of you. If there is anything you need more particulars on, or if there is anything you would like to share with me, please don't hesitate to drop me a line.
The various species of earthworms have different environmental requirements which are necessary for their propagation and continued health. These requirements will inevitably dictate whether one particular "family" of worms will be suitable for culture in any given circumstance. For instance, though many people may be interested in the possibility of raising Lumbricus Terrestris (the Nightcrawler, or Dew Worm) in the house as a source of fishing bait, this is simply not very plausible when we consider that this particular worm prefers temperatures in the area of 5-10 degrees Celsius. During the heat of the day, this large member of the earthworm family retreats to the depths of his burrow, venturing out only in the late evening, or early morning, the coolest available times. (Burrows have been found to extend to a ground-depth of over 12 feet.) Thus, if we wish to culture this animal in the confines of our homes, we will require the ability to refrigerate at least a part of the available space. Even then, however, the number of additional considerations will eventually convince most people that nightcrawlers should be "harvested" rather than "cultured."
On the other hand, the two most commonly-used worms for vermicomposting, Eisenia Foetida and Lumbricus Rubellus, are the most popular precisely because of the ease in replicating indoors the environmental conditions they prefer. They are perfectly suited to an inside existence, so the culturing of these animals presents next to no problem, requiring only a minimum of effort, and presenting no hardship for those of us who share their place of residence. The fact is, in the absence of the normal hazards these worms usually face in their outdoor habitat, they are found to grow faster, stay healthier, live longer, and reproduce at an increased rate when kept indoors. Thus, indoor culture turns out to be heaven for them, and a benefit to the "landlord" who will have a great way to convert his organic waste materials into a wonderful "food" for his plants, lawn, and garden.
These environmental "requirements" can be broken into three main areas, and we will look at each of these in the following paragraphs. (It is assumed that the worms in question have already been housed in an adequate bedding material, and are being supplied with a sufficient quantity of food.)
Number One Is Moisture
If we consider that the earthworm (contrary to what its name implies) is actually a creature of the water, it is not hard to accept that moisture constitutes the most urgent of its requirements for life. In my own experience, however, the problems most often incurred in a worm beds involve too much moisture, rather than not enough. As in most things in life, a suitable balance must be found and maintained for optimum performance, keeping in mind that this balance may have to be altered to accommodate specific needs at specific times. Let's first take a look at the lower end of the moisture scale.
Research has shown that in the natural scheme of things, the greatest abundance of earthworms will be located in soils which average between 12% and 30% moisture content (Minnich, 1977). If this amount of available moisture should fall too low, the earthworm will begin to lose its internal water content, and a series of biological events will begin to occur which, if unchecked, will eventually result in the death of the animal. (In 1956, a researcher named Roots determined that a worm could lose as much as 75% of its moisture without dying.) During the final stages of dehydration, a worm will even expel colemic fluid from within itself in a desperate attempt to moisten its own body. At this point, total submersion in water may be the only way to prevent the worm's demise.
Back in 1995, I ran some tests in which I placed a population of worms in a bin which I consistently kept much dryer on one side than the other. Once the worms had become established in their environment, I performed two tests. First, I stopped adding food to the side of the bin which contained the adequate moisture supply, installing an amount of wet food at the far end of the dry region. The worms wasted no time in travelling through the dryer material to reach (and take up residence) directly inside the food supply, as well as in the damper bedding immediately surrounding it.
Next, I set up the bin in basically the same manner as before, but this time I placed in the dry region, a supply of food which contained no moisture of its own. It took a little longer, but this food also was consumed by the worms, though I never found them to actually take up residence in this portion of the bed. What I concluded from this is that the worms can store enough moisture in their bodies (obtained from the damper region) to not only travel through a very hostile environment to reach a food supply, but also enough to dampen the food once they acquire it, and still make it back to the friendlier region before sustaining critical damage. (The significance of these results will become apparent a little further on.)
In traditional vermiculture, it is generally accepted that the optimum moisture level for a worm-bin is somewhere between 50% and 80%. This, however, is not as wet as it may at first appear. Consider just how much peat moss, for example, is required to make up 10 pounds. Then consider that to achieve a moisture content of 80%, it is only necessary to add roughly 8 pints of water. (A pint's a pound, the world around.) If you take a handful of worm bedding, and squeezing it as hard as you can you produce a stream of water, the bedding is too wet; if no water is released, then the bedding is too dry. A few (I stress few) drops of water oozing from between your fingers indicates adequate moisture. There are times, such as when bait-sized worms are required, or immediately following an artificial drought (the reason for this procedure will be explained in another article), that larger amounts of water may be called for, but 80% is adequate most of the time. This is crucial to the health of your worms.
A situation of too much moisture is very often arrived at when a newer "breeder", or "vermiculturist", attempts to keep the worm bedding consistently, and evenly moistened. Observing that the top layer of the material is dryer than it "should" be, more water is added to the bed. What results, however, is a layer of "properly-moistened" material laying on top of lower levels which progressively become more and more swamp-like. The lower regions of the bed will always be wetter than the surface layers. Now if we go back to the results of those tests I mentioned earlier, we can see that as long as there is moisture available to the worms anywhere in the general vicinity, they will normally make out just fine. There is really no need to saturate the entire amount of bedding, though some moisture throughout is recommended to prevent damage to the worms delicate skin as it moves about in search of food (or a good-looking date to share the food with.) In addition to reducing the amount of time spent watering the beds, less watering will help to prevent a number of other problems.
First of all, one of the only reasons for a worm bed to develop a bad odor is the presence of anaerobic bacteria. (These are the same culprits responsible for the foul smell emanating from a garbage bag, or can, that is commonly left sealed.) These particular bacteria work in the same manner as aerobic bacteria, but in the absence of one vital ingredient...air. Thus, if too much water is added to the worm-bin, the air can be forced out of the lower areas, creating perfect anaerobic conditions, and resulting in an odor of indescribable proportion. By the way, the worms themselves will not tolerate these conditions, so if you see the entire population of your vermicomposter apparently heading south for the winter, you might think about easing up on the water supply. There is also another problem, though you may not notice this one until it kills your worm population.
When you first placed the worms in their new home, the bedding was made up of fresh material (hopefully), which in due course would become simply another ingredient in the final product. Then food was added, and the worms went about their usual business of eating everything in sight, altering the material as it passed through their remarkable little bodies, and finally excreting it back into the bed from which it will eventually be harvested, and used to "feed" some very fortunate plant. Like every other animal in the world, however, a worm is unable to remain healthy if forced to live in his own waste material. Thus, we change the bedding on a regular basis, preventing the castings from reaching a level where they would be toxic to the bin's inhabitants. By over watering, however, we speed up the process, spreading the castings with the liquid run-off. (The substance which will eventually kill the worms is also the same substance that we wish to save for the plants, and a lot of this can be lost in the excess water.)
At any rate, it soon becomes evident that while moisture is crucial to the survival of our friendly little worms,moderation is the key! So we keep the bedding moist, but never soggy, using as little moisture as possible to get the job done. Always check the lower regions of the bed (a moisture-detector commonly used for potted plants works very well) as well as the surface, and don't worry if there are some portions of the bed drier than others. As long as there is always some available moisture, the worms will be happy and when you see how much less time you spend worrying about precise moisture measures, so will you.
Number Two Is Temperature
When we talk about temperature in regard to worms, the most important thing to remember is that while the worms will survive a fair amount of variation in their climate, they will only do so if these variations occurslowly, over a period of time. Taking a worm-bin from a house which is a comfortable 20 degrees Celsius, and moving it out into a winter temperature of -10, even if only briefly while on the way to the car, is a sure way to solve the problem of overpopulation in the bin. And the same problem can occur in reverse. If you have the worms out on the balcony for instance, and fearing an early frost you move them from a temperature of 5 degrees Celsius into the heated living room, try not to be surprised if you later notice that a lot of the survivors are in mourning for missing loved ones.
Generally, the most suitable temperature range for Eisenia Foetida and Lumbricus Rubellus has been shown to fall between 13 and 22 degrees Celsius, a range which is also quite convenient for those of us who live with them. Temperatures which fall outside this range can affect the worms in several different ways, not all of which are as final as death.
As the temperature drops below 10 degrees Celsius, the amount of food eaten by the worms will also decrease. The worms will be less active, and possibly move a little lower into the bedding (unless it is a cold floor causing the problem, in which case they will move nearer the surface.) At 4 or 5 degrees Celsius, the adult worms may stop producing cocoons, and the growth rate of the younger worms will diminish. And now this is where it gets a little tricky. Of all the material I have studied on the culturing of red worms, only once have I come across a writer who is apparently of the same mind as myself where this next matter is concerned.
Time and time again, I have read statements to the effect that a worm cannot survive a solid freeze. Now if what this statement means is that a worm cannot survive being frozen solid, then I agree 100%. However, if this statement is meant to imply that any worms left in the soil (yes, I said soil, but that's another article) after the onset of winter are destined for that great compost-heap in the sky, then I disagree just as strongly.
Two years in a row, I went out to my yard in the spring, while the ground was still frozen, and using very strong tools managed to remove a chunk of frozen earth out of the garden area. Upon looking at the profile of the ground, the presence of red worms curled up in little air pockets in the soil, is simply not a sight you can easily overlook. After knocking a couple of these guys out of the little air-pockets, I was very impressed on each of the two occasions when only a few moments passed before the worms in question slowly woke up, stretched out, and proceeded to look rather foolish as they tried to work their way back into the still-frozen ground. Since we are talking about holes which were only a few inches under the surface (and I was living in Prince Albert, SK, in Canada), no one will ever convince me those worms did not survive a solid freeze. Obviously, given adequate time to adapt and prepare, they somehow managed to avoid being frozen solid.
So just to clarify what I'm saying here, it is my belief that even though no animal can survive being frozen solid, worms do manage to survive in the ground, though immobilized of course, throughout the freezing temperatures of our Canadian winters.
Pushing things up to the other side of the scale now, we find a similar situation when we talk of excessive heat. Though the most suitable temperatures for consumption of food, and reproductive processes in regards to the worms we have been discussing are generally agreed to be in the moderate range mentioned earlier, when properly acclimated, red worms will continue to breed, feed, and grow very well in temperatures up to 30 degrees Celsius, if adequate moisture is always present. In fact, research has shown that worms raised from hatchlings to adulthood in temperatures considerably higher than the norm, may even develop, and reproduce, at rates faster than members of the same species raised at lower temperatures, or outdoors (Minnich, 1977; Hartenstein, Neuhauser, and Kaplan, 1980.) The same does not hold true, however, for worms originally raised at lower temperatures, with death often resulting (Hartenstein, 1978; Mitchell, 1978.)
So once again, we see that it is often a case of what the particular batch of worms is accustomed to, and it also bears mentioning once again, any change in temperature should be a gradual one.
There is a final point which should be mentioned in regards to temperature. Always bear in mind that if the worm-bin has sufficient moisture content, the temperature in the bedding will average anywhere from 5 to 10 degrees lower than the surrounding air. There are times when this will be an important consideration. And finally, a word of caution. Several of the books which are available on vermiculture recommend using cold water as a way of bringing down the temperature in a bed which is suspected of being too warm. Possibly there may be no harm in this idea, but I for one have had the experience of standing in the shower when the hot water suddenly ran out, and...well, you get the idea.
And Number Three Is Aeration
Though there is not an awful lot to say on this last topic, what there is to say really needs to be said. We have already mentioned earlier that worms are not fond of anaerobic bacteria, and if subjected to conditions of that nature, they will either leave the offending area (I really wasn't kidding), or if they are unable to take this course of action, they will die. In addition to this, however, there is yet another problem. Though it may not kill your worm population with any great speed, if it is allowed to occur at all, it can result in a worm bin becoming a mass burial site before the problem is even noticed.
As the worms go about the business of everyday life, simple as it is, they will need to breath, just like most other living creatures. (Actually, the process of osmosis makes a worm rather different than those of us with lungs, but the end result is pretty much the same.) Gradually, the available oxygen is used up and replaced with carbon dioxide and other miscellaneous waste gases. Unlike those of us who live aboveground, however, the poor little worm is stuck beneath the soil, or bedding, in close proximity to the "toxic" fumes. In addition to this, the decreasing amount of fresh oxygen can result in an increase in heat, and the increase in heat will result in a similar rise in the oxygen requirements of the worm. A truly vicious circle.
Fortunately, the whole situation is easily rectified, and only requires very infrequent attention. About once every two or three weeks, the top few inches of the bedding should be gently stirred, allowing for the escape of any built-up gases. (This will also go a long way toward preventing the bedding from becoming too densely packed.) The lower levels of the bedding can also be stirred, but on a far less frequent basis. If you are in the habit of burying the food you are placing in the worm-bin, it is quite possible that the bedding is already being stirred sufficiently, and all you really need to watch out for in that case is the accidental saturation of the bin. If you are just in the process of setting up a new system, you should keep in mind that a larger surface area is beneficial in this regard.
To sum up, if the basic sense of these various levels mentioned above, and the principles they describe, are maintained, and if sudden or drastic changes can be avoided, the end result should be healthy, happy, and productive worms, and less work and worry for yourself.
(A FINAL NOTE: None of the above procedures should in any way be interpreted as implying a substitute for regularcleaning of the bin, or refreshing of the bedding material.)
Copyright © 1995, D. Brian Paley