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Why Did the Worm Cross the Road?

Not the answer you are expecting.

Lucky folks have seen mobs of worms on the sidewalk after it rains. It’s crazy how many worms are all over the parking lots and in the street. The classic explanation is that rain flooded their worm hole and they had to crawl out to avoid drowning. I argue that the flooding story is just a fable, it makes sense and sounds right, right? I say, ‘Wrong’. Try my explanation instead, see if it makes more sense.

My goldfish tank shows that they don’t mind a flood of water. I dropped in a few worms as a snack, but some lucky red wigglers avoided getting eaten by my fish. They sank to the bottom and burrowed into the gravel. I found them months later while vacuuming the tank. Clearly the water holds enough oxygen for fish and worms. Nobody was drowning.

Instead, I say, those crawling worms are on a mission. Think about their usual life in a hole. It gets lonely down there. And when they come to the surface to mate, they only find their nearest neighbors (again). But evolution and selfish genetics want our worm heroes to spread their seed as widely as possible.

Unfortunately, the dry ground limits their travel because the dry surface would kill them. They only get to do the very horizontal tango with that next-door neighbor (again) … except when it rains. In the rain, the intrepid worms use the wet ground and puddles to take a daring dash to get as far away from home as they can. They leave the safety of their hole in the ground because this is their chance to find a new worm to mate with.

Next time you see a stampede of worms, you will know why. Spread the word. Those little monsters crawl across the dangerous pavement after it rains because they are looking for love.

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Rescue your bin. Add more of this ingredient:

I get frantic calls from some worm customers. After six to twelve months their worms aren’t good. This is a surprise because the herd had been doing so well. Now they are thin, not moving much, and not multiplying. It takes a couple of questions to get to the root of this problem. They have been feeding, and feeding, and feeding.

Sounds great, but they forgot my worm bin advice of, “The bin should look like bedding with worms and food in it.” They didn’t add much or even any bedding to buffer the food. Their bed instead looks like a mucky paste. It’s sad to see the skinny worms struggling to swim through very firm pudding. Their bin needs a big dose of light fluffy base to live in while eating the food scraps.

So, if you have a new worm farm, regularly add more bedding. This is the pre-wetted cardboard, leaves, coco coir, paper, compost, or whatever high carbon/low nutrition bed that you have. Some experts say add bedding with every feeding, but I’m not that perfect. I add food until it looks like there is a lot of food in there. Then I add a bedding layer to ‘soak up’ all that food. If the bed is wet, I’ll add dry bedding and stir it in a bit.

If your worm bed is already mucky, it’s time to rescue the worms and start again. Getting the worms out of muck can be tough, so I use my lazy method overnight. My lazy method uses light to push worms down into their new home. Put fresh bedding, with maybe a little food, into a bin. Put some kind of worm filter on the new bed. Put that muck with worms on top of the filter. Now walk away. Overnight the worms will migrate down to that better new home. Lift the filter to put the muck into a harvest container. Now you have harvested vermicompost and a new worm farm.

Sometimes, you are in a hurry, or the worms need a little push to make their move. In that case, make your stack of new bedding, filter, and muck. Wait 15 minutes or so, then scrape off the top of the muck. The top inch or so should be worm free. Repeat the wait and scrape to harvest all the muck. This lazy method works even better before your bin to harvest gets so mucky.

I am selling a great worm filter, but you can use any mesh. It is just a tool to get a clean separation between new bedding and old bed. You can even do this with no filter at all if you don’t mind a little muck mixed into your new bedding.

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What is a worm blanket?

A worm blanket covers the worm bed. Usually, it lays directly on the bed. There may or may not be a lid above the blanket, topping and closing the bin .

A worm blankets are many different things. It can be inorganic like a plastic or can be organic material such as cloth, paper, jute, hemp, or the common favorite – cardboard. There have been metal, mineral and vegetable worm blankets. I like to use actual blankets picked up cheap from the thrift store.

The worm blanket; protects the worms, helps to control moisture, blocks flies, makes the bin look better, and generally improves the function of the bin. The blanket can be; thick or thin, sturdy or flimsy, temporary or permanent, edible or not. The different kinds of blanket are better or worse at these functions and you get to decide which is most important.

Worms like worm blankets. Very often, you will find worms hiding in, clinging to, or clambering on or inside the blanket. Some breeders say the worms crawl up to do their mating dance. Certainly, the blanket is a well oxygenated place to slither or rest.

‘Organic’ materials are carbon rich such as newspaper, cardboard, or cotton/wool cloth. All of these soak up moisture from the bedding. Over time they become slimy, rot, and merge into the bedding. People like them because they are cheap. Worms like to crawl up into them probably because they are moist and full of tasty bacteria. But then worms crawl up into just about anything. Some worm bin sellers supply a hemp or sisal mat. Over time the merchant will be happy to sell you replacements as the worms eat the material. All of these allow the bed to breathe. They allow some moisture to escape which can be a good thing.

Non-organic are usually plastic. Can be a plain plastic sheet or maybe bubble wrap. These don’t rot. They hold down the moisture, sometimes too well. They can be folded back to cover only part of the bed for fine tuned moisture control. The edges allow gaps that let the bed breathe. Polyester blankets are completely breathable and hold in heat when that’s important. I’ve seen shade cloth used and of course my Worm Filter (https://oldtomswormery.com/product/worm-filter/) fits here.

Notice how holding in moisture is a common trait? The blankets helps keep the bedding moist but also helps keep the bin walls dry. Wet walls allow wandering worms! With each of the blanket types, you adjust by folding the sheet back or adding extra layers. The trick is to allow oxygen access. So, best effect is moisture held in while oxygen flows freely.

Worm blankets also help to block flies. Flies must find damp food to lay their eggs. If your bin contains fly eggs, you will get flies when you open the bin. When flies can’t find damp bedding, they can’t lay eggs. Anything dry and fluffy on top of a worm blanket will block those pesky flies. I maintain a dry fluffy layer of shredded newspaper on top of a Worm Filter. The Worm Filter is a plastic mesh that doesn’t wick moisture. The mesh gives just enough protection to the newspaper so it stays dry for a good long time. Any blanket can be covered with a dry layer.

So try different types of blankets to see which works best for you.

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Flies!

Hi Dan,  Nice to hear from you.

Lots of worm growers suffer from flies and complain to the various Facebook groups. They get a load of chemical cures that I don’t agree with, such as diatomaceous earth or mosquito dunks. Freezing the food is suggested to kill fly eggs and you are reminded to bury the food. Neither of these give long term relief because it’s hard to be perfect every time you feed the wormy babies. 

I instead suggest you block the flies with a dry top layer. Fungus gnats, fruit flies, house flies, and Black Soldier Flies all lay eggs in the moist bedding. If they can’t reach your bedding they can’t lay eggs and the swarm goes away. 

To do this start with a worm blanket. That’s a sheet of any kind. Some use newspaper or cardboard but those get wet and sloppy. Some use a plastic sheet but that can make your bin too wet. I sell a ‘Worm Filter’ that is a plastic mesh, it works well and has other uses. Cloth also works well, it is called a worm blanket after all. Over that sheet put a 2 to 4 inch layer of newspaper strips. Hand tear into approximately one inch strips. Shredder paper is cut too fine for this. That sheet separates the wet bed from the dry layer and the dry layer gets rid of the bugs. It can take a week for the residual eggs to hatch out. Eventually the dry layer gets wet. When it does, stir the wet paper into the bedding and make a new dry layer. This dry layer technique works in my various types of worm bins.

OK?

Tom B

[email protected]

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Rats Are Worm Murderers

I get asked often if my red wigglers can go safely into a raised bed garden or an outside compost pile. I have always explained that these are compost worms and not Earthworms. They don’t dig like earthworms do. Earthworms dig a hole (called a burrow) and anchor their tail deep underground. Earthworms pull leaves and other edibles into their burrow to eat in peace. Red wigglers live in leaf litter and the soft, organic layer on top of the soil. These little guys slither along in the rotting top layer to eat the microbes growing there.

If you go digging through piles of leafy debris, you will not find crowds of worms and I can tell you why. My worm bins are packed with living, growing, and multiplying worms. There can easily be 2000 and more worms in the two square feet of bedding. So ‘Where do the outside worms go?’ you ask. I can tell you for certain now. Outside and exposed is not their happy place.

It is not that the food for a crowd of worms is limited in a well mulched garden or a compost pile. I have pulled buckets of compost into my garage for potting up seedlings. After a few weeks, worms magically appear. So, if they are in the compost why don’t we find those same worms in the compost pile? What is the magic of being indoors?

A few nights ago, I was working on two bins in my garage. Both had plenty of worms and lids. I took the lid off one to do some feeding and forgot to put that lid back on. The other, identical bin kept its lid on. That was the only difference. Both were freshly fed, stirred, and full of worms, just one was left open to the world. It was a fatal mistake.

Overnight a rat got into my garage. Apparently, he found the open worm bin because it was plowed and cleaned out. Mr. Rat clearly had a feast as all my worms were no longer there. All that was left was half finished worm bedding. Luckily, the other bin was safely closed. There was no rat visit to that closed bin. The worms are still happy and plentiful in that covered bin.

The same outrage must be going on every night out in my unprotected compost pile and stacks of leaves. The worms try to multiply, but the rats and other predators are eating them up. Who knew it was such a deadly jungle in the back yard? The worms do not live underground and are sadly, constantly being eaten out in the open. My new, stronger answer is the red wigglers need protection. Keep them in a bin with strong walls and a secure lid. They are not safe or happy in the wild. They do not do well in a raised bed or outside compost pile. Red wigglers want a protected home where rats, and mice, and who knows what other creatures cannot make them into a meal.

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Stacking Worm Bins Improved

The Stacking Worm Systems Improved

There are worm growing trays built to stack. The trays are perforated on the bottom with the understanding that you can put new trays over finishing trays and the worms will migrate upwards to follow the food. For examples: Worm Factory, Vermihut, Can of Worms…lots more including DIY.

When I first used one, the not yet used trays were always in the way. Either they were stacked empty on top of my working tray or they were laying around taking up floor space (or they got misplaced). It turns out the directions I read did not tell you what to do with the spare trays. So, I worked out a better way.

First of all, keep them in the stack so the empties don’t disappear. Second put those empty trays UNDER your working tray(s). This holds the top working tray at a convenient height for working with. Any worms who want to make a break downwards hit the dry empty tray below and get back up home in a hurry. This heading home is much better than hanging out in the puddle at the bottom.

Third, use the bottom tray as an ‘emergency’ worm catcher above that drip tray. Put a little bedding in the tray but no worms. If any worms do fall down from above they will land in this friendly zone and again will not fall through to the bottom puddle. If any food or drippings fall, this bottom tray stops them in a healthy composting zone. If both worms and food fall, they make a nice home there together until you feel like moving that bit of wormy bedding up into your working tray.

So, you feed the topmost working tray with food and bedding until it is ¾ or more filled with well broken compost. It is not yet vermicastings because it is still full of lumps – food and not yet composted bedding. Stir that top tray as often as the urge grabs you. Some say stirring slows egg production. I have never had that as a problem and stirring speeds up the food eating and worm growing.

When the working tray is well filled with compost and worms, move an empty tray to the top. Put in bedding and food to get it started, (more bedding than food to start). This would be a good time to promote the bottom ‘catcher’ tray to the top (and start a fresh bottom tray). Continue feeding and stirring the top tray. After the initial load of bedding, add just enough fresh bedding to keep the working bed loose. Maybe a 3 to 1 ratio of three servings of food for every one serving of fresh bedding. Now, ignore the trays below the top working tray. Food only goes into that top tray. The second tray and especially the third tray are maturing. Leave them alone except for the occasional admiring glance.

Each tray can take two to three months to fill. If you fill faster, then you need more trays to give the maturing trays time to finish. You harvest the lowest tray when it looks like dirt (almost no lumps) and only if you need that vermicompost. The filled trays can stay in the stack forever or until you need to empty a tray to rotate it to the starting position on top. This means the trays can easily take six to nine months to be ready.

I did not believe in the stacking systems until I used one. It turns out they can be fun.

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Cheap Kills Good

I posted worms for sale on the local neighborhood website. I am giving a good deal on worms and supplies delivered with personal service. I sell worms by the pound which is what it really takes to get a bin going in a reasonable amount of time. If you want to compost your kitchen scraps or produce garden fertilizer, you need a pound to get that good start. A pound of worms is about 1000 red wigglers.

Someone else on the site is advertising worms for composting at $5. The customer drives to pick up on the side of the road near some apartment complex. For $5 the customer gets only 25 worms! Sadly, 25 worms is almost a guarantee to think you have failed. Those sad few worms will hide in the corners and won’t find each other for mating and multiplying. The customer will think they did something wrong.

It turns out, their ad is clobbering mine. Apparently, my $48 pound of worms scares people.

If you do the math. Customers are instead buying 25 worms at $8000/pound!

At the local bait shop, you can buy 25 worms for just under $3. It is likely this person is just buying a stack of bait containers and reselling them on the street corner to the unaware.

Luckily, my little worm farm will sell out again this spring. As the worm bins regenerate, I will sell a few more pounds through the rest of the year as I continue to build production capacity. At some point I will raise my prices to stop bleeding cash. So, I am not personally hurt by these shenanigans, but our hobby and industry get a bad name. It makes me mad.

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Feed the Worms and the Bin

I love to feed the herd. To see them multiply is just too rewarding. But there can be too much of that good thing. If you just add food, your worm bin will eventually burn out and the worms will not be happy.

There are two living beings in play. Obviously, the worms are our focus. They have busy, happy little lives going on in the bin. But the bin is alive too. Just a peek shows that there are a lot of other crawly things sharing the worm house. Even more so, there are a bazillion invisible critters swimming around and driving the compost breakdown. Those invisible bacteria and fungi are prey for the hungry worms.

So, if you want happy, well fed worms, you must feed the bin that feeds them. Microbes eat the food dumped in and the bedding too. The microbes need bedding and food mixed just like an outside compost pile needs a blend of greens and browns. Food is the nitrogen rich greens and bedding is the carbon filled browns. Add both for healthy growth.

We aim for an initial 30 times brown bedding to over-balance the green / brown ratio. That mix buffers the food and provides structure. As the bin matures, judge how heavy the bed has become. It needs to maintain a fluffy, spongy quality that you learn to recognize. Occasionally stir in a handful of shredded cardboard, paper or leaves to see if the bed looks better in a few days or do you need to add more.

Completely broken done bedding is thick and dense. That rich vermicompost is the good endpoint. But before the ending you need to keep the bed freshened. Fresh bedding lightens the bed for easier digging and crawling. Your microbes consume the fresh bedding with the food scraps to make a healthy dish for worms to slither up and dine. Have a nice dinner my fine herd. Enjoy the browns you helpful microbes.

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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.