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A Worm Farm is a Digestive System

All living things love to eat. There is joy in putting a favorite meal down your gullet. Getting those nutritious bits through our system takes basically the same steps for microbes, worms, humans, or elephants. I’d like to describe the worm bin as it mirrors my own digestive tract. Take a bite and chew. That first step splits big chunks into little bits with lots of edges available for breaking down. We human farmers are the teeth for our worm bins. We use knives and blenders and tearing hands to bust up the bedding and food scraps. The finer we can mince those bits is the better our worm bin can process them. We are the incisors that cut and the molars that grind for the wormy herd. A good swallow sends my snack down. For each bin I pull back some bedding to stir in their meal. It seems best to mix the dollop of food into the bedding rather than leaving it in a lump. That mixing means every bit can quickly get engulfed by the microbial mob in the bin. A covering of bedding helps to hold in the moisture and keep out the flies.

Your stomach and intestines have micro-villi which are like tiny fingers prodding and moving the food along. Likewise, the worms wiggle and stir as the work their magic. They take mouthfuls of tasty bits, but also stir the mass, allowing even more access for the mighty microbes.

Our digestive enzymes dissolve our meals. Those microbial bacteria and fungi do the same in the bins. We absorb amino acids and carbs after proteins and starches have been dissolved. Likewise, the worms hunt for and eat those well grown microbes. The microbes are the breakdown product of dissolved worm foods. By the way, after the stomach, your digestive system includes a very healthy menagerie of microbes.

We absorb these nutrients through our stomach and intestinal lining. The herd of worms performs that function in the bin. Worms are the apex predator and top of the food chain in a well run bin. They eat and absorb the microbial crop. Like in any jungle of eat or be eaten, the worms hunt the slower and weaker microbes, keeping their prey strong and controlled. It is an ecosystem in each bin. The tasty bits of bacteria and fungi get turned into a growing number of voracious worms. The worms multiply much like my own gut grows fat! The worms then poop out their fertile vermicasts. Gardeners call this ‘black gold’. It is one of the best fertilizers for any garden.

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A New Beginning

I am back to feeding my worm bins. After months of steady growth and dedicated gathering(vegetables, brewer’s spent grains, and cardboard). I got discouraged by an invasion of rodents. Mice, or more likely, rats got to into my garage and were tearing up the bins. They ate my herd and suddenly bins of writhing earthworms were just boxes of half finished compost. The mice didn’t just eat the worms, they also messed with my ‘paperwork’ system.

The only documentation I had was plastic tags left in the bins. The tags showed start dates, notes about bedding or feeding or notable differences, and eventually date of harvest. Well apparently, the rodents found those tags were good for their own bedding! They stole the tags and suddenly I couldn’t tell how old the bins were. I couldn’t tell which bins had been half harvested versus those that just weren’t doing well.

That little break in my tenuous bit of organization just wrecked me. Feeding and splitting stopped because, what was the point? I instead focused on poisons and traps which didn’t ever seem to finish the job. I had to finally pull everything out of the garage to find and destroy their nests and physically evict them from my grow room. So now it feels like there is some control again. While that battle was going on, I was also working on a cardboard/paper shredder. So suddenly both the rodent attack and bedding bottleneck cleared, I have no excuses for neglecting the herd.

So, I am back to grinding food and feeding the bins. It exposes the next couple of bottlenecks because both tasks are time based.

First, preparing food enough for ~ 15 bins is time consuming. For now, I am grinding in a Vitamix blender. Each tiny batch is blended and drained in a sifter to remove excess water. Each blender full might feed two bins. I definitely need a faster food prep. I have an insinkerator food grinder( see the whiz bang website), but it needs a much more efficient water drainer. The plan is to assemble a food trammel to fix the problem. Second, is my time, or more correctly, my lack of organization. One man’s spare time is hardly enough to establish success in worm farming. I need to keep breaking bottlenecks and making more efficiency.

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Hands on Farming

At Old Toms Wormery, I am a very hands on worm farmer. My worms live in plastic tubs that are just the right size for me to move around and stir by hand. I like fast composting, so each tub gets stirred several times a week and sometimes several times a day!

Frequent stirring allows close monitoring of the health and happiness of the herd. I get to watch for issues such as overheating or over watering. I also get to see how fast their food is used up and they are ready for more.

A bin of 20 to 30 gallons should be just about the right size for the average American family. Within a few months you will know if that is enough space for your family. ‘Experts’ say that worms eat 25 to 50% of their weight in food scraps per day. I don’t use any hard and fast rules like that. I can’t know how many pounds of worms are in each bin so how can I know how many pounds of banana peels to pour in?

I instead look to see if the worms have finished their last meal before adding more. How fast they eat is how fast I add new food. Worms are not members of the ‘clean plate club’, but you get the idea.

Fresh food is best added to the ends or even the corners of the tub. That way, you can see when the food is getting well broken down and the worms have safe and cool bedding to live in, in the middle of the tub.

Fresh food might heat up for the first couple of days. That is the active composting that worms don’t like. They might avoid that area until that food is starting to break down and get ready for them. When the worms crawl in to start feasting, it’s time to stir that food into the rest of the bin. Watching and stirring keep my worms safe and happy.

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Bedding for Worms

Red wiggler worms are like little seeds that grow compost. Add them to a good moist bed and they will multiply while making the best soil conditioner for you.  The bedding that worms want is the same as the carbon containing ‘browns’ used to build a regular compost pile. They like absorbent materials like brown leaves, sawdust, peat moss, coconut coir, newspaper, or my current favorite, cardboard.

The classic books such as Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Applehof recommend newspaper.  However, few of us still get the daily paper.  I’m too cheap to buy peat moss or coconut coir and I don’t like the dirt and bugs that come with come with leaves or sawdust, so I stick with the loads of cardboard that flow by everyday.  Using cardboard for growing worms also keeps it out of the landfills.

Cardboard does have it’s own problems too.  It can be hard to tear up to the size people like to feed their worms.  Luckily, the worms don’t really mind a chunky bedding. Most folks cut up cardboard with a sharp knife or shears or scissors. Some soak the cardboard in water for easy tearing by hand. Whatever method you choose, the worms will quickly start breaking it down from the edges. I like a finely broken down cardboard bedding because the smaller bits compost quicker and I am looking for fast compost production.  I made a DIY cardboard shredder that is still too scary to share.  Maybe refinements will let me eventually sell the Better Bedding Shredder, but not yet. In the meanwhile, if you live in the San Jose area, I would be happy to supply cardboard shreds.

The Old TomsWormery bedding is a mix of cardboard, newspaper, coffee grounds, spent brewers grains, rock dust,, and eggshells.  I wet OldToms worm bedding with fruit and vegetable juices from another project, but you can add a little (fist size) ground up food scraps. I have lots of well finished vermicasts, check the website for availability.