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Composting > Vermicomposting Troubleshooting

Vermicomposting Troubleshooting

Seasonal Overloads

On festive occasions, holidays, and during canning season it is easy to overload the digestive capacity of a worm bin. The problem will correct itself without doing anything but you may not be willing to live with anaerobic odors for a week or two. One simple way to accelerate the "healing" of an anaerobic box is to fluff it up with your hand cultivator.

Vegetableatarian households greatly increase the amount of organic waste they generate during summer. So do people who can or freeze when the garden is "on." One vermicomposting solution to this seasonal overload is to start up a second, summertime-only outdoor worm bin in the garage or other shaded location. Appelhof uses an old, leaky galvanized washtub for this purpose. The tub gets a few inches of fresh bedding and then is inoculated with a gallon of working vermicompost from the original bin. Extra garbage goes in all summer. Mary says:

"I have used for a "worm bin annex" an old leaky galvanized washtub, kept outside near the garage. During canning season the grape pulp, corn cobs, corn husks, bean cuttings and other fall harvest residues went into the container. It got soggy when it rained and the worms got huge from all the food and moisture. We brought it inside at about the time of the first frost. The worms kept working the material until there was no food left. After six to eight months, the only identifiable remains were a few corn cobs, squash seeds, tomato skins and some undecomposed corn husks. The rest was an excellent batch of worm castings and a very few hardy, undernourished worms."

Vacations

Going away from home for a few weeks is not a problem. The worms will simply continue eating the garbage left in the bin. Eventually their food supply will decline enough that the population will drop. This will remedy itself as soon as you begin feeding the bin again. If a month or more is going to pass without adding food or if the house will be unheated during a winter "sabbatical," you should give your worms to a friend to care for.

Fruit Flies

Fruit flies can, on occasion, be a very annoying problem if you keep the worm bins in your house. They will not be present all the time nor in every house at any time but when they are present they are a nuisance. Fruit flies aren't unsanitary, they don't bite or seek out people to bother. They seek out over-ripe fruit and fruit pulp. Usually, fruit flies will hover around the food source that interests them. In high summer we have accepted having a few share our kitchen along with the enormous spread of ripe and ripening tomatoes atop the kitchen counter. When we're making fresh "V-7" juice on demand throughout the day, they tend to congregate over the juicer's discharge pail that holds a mixture of vegetable pulps. If your worm bin contains these types of materials, fruit flies may find it attractive.

Appelhof suggests sucking them up with a vacuum cleaner hose if their numbers become annoying. Fruit flies are a good reason for those of Teutonic tidiness to vermicompost in the basement or outside the house if possible.

Maintenance

After a new bin has been running for a few weeks, you'll see the bedding becoming darker and will spot individual worm casts. Even though food is steadily added, the bedding will gradually vanish. Extensive decomposition of the bedding by other small soil animals and microorganisms begins to be significant.

As worm casts become a larger proportion of the bin, conditions deteriorate for the worms. Eventually the worms suffer and their number and activity begins to drop off. Differences in bedding, temperature, moisture, and the composition of your kitchen's garbage will control how long it takes but eventually you must separate the worms from their castings and put them into fresh bedding. If you're using vermicomposting year-round, it probably will be necessary to regenerate the box about once every four months.

There are a number of methods for separating redworms from their castings.

Hand sorting works well after a worm box has first been allowed to run down a bit. The worms are not fed until almost all their food has been consumed and they are living in nearly pure castings. Then lay out a thick sheet of plastic at least four feet square on the ground, floor, or on a table and dump the contents of the worm box on it.

Make six to nine cone-shaped piles. You'll see worms all over. If you're working inside, make sure there is bright light in the room. The worms will move into the center of each pile. Wait five minutes or so and then delicately scrape off the surface of each conical heap, one after another. By the time you finish with the last pile the worms will have retreated further and you can begin with the first heap again.

You repeat this procedure, gradually scraping away casts until there is not much left of the conical heaps. In a surprisingly short time, the worms will all be squirming in the center of a small pile of castings. There is no need to completely separate the worms from all the castings. You can now gather up the worms and place them in fresh bedding to start anew without further inconvenience for another four months. Use the vermicompost on house plants, in the garden, or save it for later.

Hand sorting is particularly useful if you want to give a few pounds of redworms to a friend.

Dividing the box is another, simpler method. You simply remove about two-thirds of the box's contents and spread it on the garden. Then refill the box with fresh bedding and distribute the remaining worms, castings, and food still in the box. Plenty of worms and egg cocoons will remain to populate the box. The worms that you dumped on the garden will probably not survive there.

A better method of dividing a box prevents wasting so many worms. All of the box's contents are pushed to one side, leaving one-third to one-half of the box empty. New bedding and fresh food are put on the "new" side. No food is given to the "old" side for a month or so. By that time virtually all the worms will have migrated to the "new" side. Then the "old" side may be emptied and refilled with fresh bedding.

People in the North may want to use a worm box primarily in winter when other composting methods are inconvenient or impossible. In this case, start feeding the bin heavily from fall through spring and then let it run without much new food until mid-summer. By that time there will be only a few worms left alive in a box of castings. The worms may then be separated from their castings, the box recharged with bedding and the remaining worms can be fed just enough to increase rapidly so that by autumn there will again be enough to eat all your winter garbage.

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