Vermicomposting Ten

How To Breed, Raise, and Maintain A 100-Pound Stock of Worms in a Single Room

 

 

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 Part 6

Well, well, well….it’s about time you showed up. Lots to do, so let’s get it done (and I’m happy to be here also.)

In all that we’ve looked at up until now, we have considered our “bedding” to consist of soil. I have repeatedly stressed that “soil makes a lousy bedding“, and as a result, people are accusing me of entering that rather tedious argument about whether red worms can be adapted to living in dirt. The reason I have never entered into that particular argument is quite simple. Anyone who stops arguing long enough to consider the matter will see that there is nothing to argue about, as a simple look at the situation will tell us. Its like this.

Since the worms used for vermicomposting (at least here in North America) are natural inhabitants of compost piles and manure heaps, soil tends to be far too dense for them to work in effectively (though part of this problem can be overcome by the reduction in size of the future generations, as our experiments have shown.) However, since a major portion of the finished compost is made up of the bedding material (after it is ingested, and then later expelled, by the worm), soil still makes a lousy choice since it contains virtually no nutrients when compared to manure, compost, or even paper products such as cardboard (the finished product might be best in a range of different soils, but pretty inadequate when compared to material produced from one of the other bases).

The final reason for not using soil has to do with the fact that it is being used in a contained area in most vermicomposting situations, and thus is not being refreshed with new matter as it would be in a natural outdoor situation. Remember that a major component of soil is simply accumulated worm casts, which means that worms housed in it are being asked to live in their own waste material, something that no living organism can do for long without showing ill effects (the production of 100% pure worm “casts” often involves sacrificing the entire worm population). Add to this such facts as, soil is heavy, tends to either hold too much water, or not enough, and moving it into an indoor setting is a good way to bring in a lot of “hitchhikers”, and you have most of my reasons for not using it.

So that presents us with a little problem, but nothing to really get too worried about.

Way back in the previous sections to this article, I made one or two points that I promised to clear up a little later….I forget what they were. (I’m kidding!) Now is the time to look at a couple of these points, and possibly even a new one.

Another Size Reduction Method

In our “bucket tests”, the main reason for the reduction in the size of the worm, as far as I can tell, was one of necessity (a smaller size made it easier to move through the material, and helped the worms adapt to the relatively low availability of food.) When we switch to a more common “bedding” material (compost, paper products, manure, etc.), the amount of high-nutrient food increases, and the difficulty in movement decreases, and thus, the worms resume a more “normal” size. But there are still other ways to obtain the results we desire, and though the conditions take a little longer to set up, the final effect is the same. The method I have chosen is overcrowding (since it relates so well to the idea of having a large supply of available worms always on hand.)

Right this moment, there are quite possibly several very anxious people running out to wherever they keep their worms, intent on harvesting several bins, and dumping all the acquired worms into one very small container. There is a little more to it than that, and that particular behaviour is likely to result in a severe decrease in the population. (Just remember what we spoke about regarding “drastic environmental changes”. Suddenly having your universe shrink by 300-400% certainly counts as one of those.) That’s why I said this part of the procedure was going to take some time (between 12-16 months in my case.) What we have to do is provide all the right conditions, then calmly wait for nature to take its course.

BUT, (I hear you protest), I have lots of bins which have contained populations of worms for over a year, the worms have never shrunk in size, and the population has always remained roughly the same??!! That’s absolutely correct, if we are talking about the more common bin systems, and feeding methods, which we aren’t. It was for this reason that I stressed the larger (and deeper-than-normal) bin, and in a minute, I’ll add a slight twist to the feeding schedule. First, however (and I’ve been real good about this lately),…A slight digression…..

The beauty of this particular story, is that it serves as a perfect example of how we often learn more from our failures, than we do from our successes. A year or two after I got into larger-scale production of red worms, I found myself in a situation of having several friends of mine (fishing buffs), show up at my house roughly once a week, in order to “bum” a few worms for bait. The number of worms they required was not the problem, but having to continually dig up 10-15 of Willy’s friends, and then set them into some suitable container, and having to do this several times on certain days, prompted me to seek an easier method of satisfying these well-intentioned people. (I also realized there were likely many other people who might even pay money for any resulting system.) The solution to the problem seemed simple enough, which is exactly where so many good ideas first go wrong.

What I came up with was a system that appeared so obvious to succeed, and was so simple to put together, that I actually bought everything I needed (not much) to put together 10 or 12 prototypes of a system I began referring to as a “Bottomless Bait Bin” before I actually did any testing (not a great idea.) The whole plan was very simple (as I’ve said), and consisted basically of two “Tupperware-type containers”, each roughly large enough to hold a loaf of bread. I made the necessary modifications (in those days I was still a believer in drainage holes), then added a compost-type bedding, and a population of approximately 100-150 red worms in each “bin” (identified as “A” and “B”.) To this I added specific directions on “how to use” the two bins, and sat back awaiting the inevitable millions that were sure to start pouring in. It was quite fortunate (for me) that it was my “friends” who got first crack at the system, and I got too busy with other things to spend much time trying to market the idea. At the end of the first two weeks or so, my “friends” were a little less than overjoyed, but by the end of the month, I wasn’t so sure they were even talking to me any longer, and it was even possible that they had hired a rather nasty looking individual to do away with me altogether. So what exactly had gone wrong??

The system should have been fool-proof. According to my directions, the lucky fisherman simply removed 10-15 worms (whatever they thought they might require for the trip) from bin “A”, put them into a suitable container to which a little bedding had been added, and went fishing. Each time a fishing expedition was planned, the same procedure was followed, always using Bin “A.” When the supply of good-sized worms in Bin “A” appeared to be running low, the fisherperson (political-correctness is a pain) was to switch to Bin “B”, start adding a little more feed to Bin “A”, and while Bin “B” was being depleted, the spawn in Bin “A” would have a chance to grow. Voila, a never-ending supply of worms! WRONG!

No matter how many times I re-worked the feed schedules, or experimented with the various environmental requirements, that system never worked for more than the two or three weeks that it took for the worms to become very ill (they shrunk in size, and apparently stopped breeding), before burrowing their way into that “compost-heap-in-the-sky.”) In the end, I began to suspect the cause, and a little testing not only confirmed the reason for my failure, but supplied me with a crucial piece of information about worm-breeding in general, which I had been lacking up to that point in my studies. It had to do with the matter of population densities, and the explanations offered in the many books I had read. The accepted opinion seemed to be (in regards to people’s concerns about their worm populations growing until they overflowed their bins) that worms employed a sort of natural population-control method, by which they slowed down their breeding in response to lack of space….sort of like a goldfish adapting to the size of its fishbowl.) While certain parts of this explanation had the sound of truth, other parts still had me wondering. The main problem was that I had seen worms in densities far exceeding the suggested capacity of 1000 worms per square foot of bedding, and the ones I had observed in such circumstances had appeared to be quite healthy, perhaps even extremely so. What I couldn’t seem to locate was the reason for these different densities, since the amounts of available food were relatively the same on each of the occasions, as were the environmental conditions (I had observed both of these situations in the worm-bins housed in my basement.)

Once again I discovered the answer quite by accident, when I observed two entirely different population densities occurring simultaneously, in the same bin. As you may recall, my “master” bed measured 3 feet wide by 6 feet long, and was 30 inches deep. The whole bed was then divided into 3 separate compartments each 2 feet by 3 feet, and 30 inches deep. To understand what I observed, and how it came to be, let me refresh your memory on one or two other points as well.

  • I originally used small cardboard squares for bedding in the first two of the three compartments, before running out of that material, and switching to other substances.

  • The “master” bed was located in my very cramped basement.

There came a time (early spring one year), when I decided to “rebuild” the soil in a portion of my backyard, which would later be used as a garden. During this process, I decided to run a test to see if red worms could in fact be transferred to the soil, and survive (even then I was doubting most of what I had read.) I thought I would give the worms their best chance for survival if I allowed them to enter their new home as slowly as possible, and with this in mind, my planned procedure was as follows:

  1. I dug a rather large hollow into the newly-blended soil ingredients, a crater roughly 4 feet in circumference.

  2. I started to move the entire contents of the first section of my worm bin out into the recently-dug crater (this way the worms could move into the soil gradually as their normal bedding and food supply got used up.)

  3. Holy shades of Louis Pasteur, Batman!

I Made A Discovery!

Due to the cramped condition of my basement, and the fact that I kept my bedding levels so deep (roughly 20-24 inches), it seems that each time I had “divided” my beds, I had done so not by removing the front or back portion of the bedding, but by removing the entire upper layer. This meant that at least 6-8 inches of the lowest part of the bedding, had never been disturbed (which I knew for certain when I realized it was made up of straight cardboard bedding.) Upon reaching this portion of the bedding, I immediately observed two very interesting things:

  1. The worms were crammed into this part of the bed in densities 5-10 times as great as anywhere else in the entire bin.

  2. These worms were the healthiest-looking worms (though slightly smaller than the average) in the entire bin. (Make no mistake, the others were healthy, just not this healthy.)

Rather than drag this out into a novel, let me cut to the chase (I ran several tests to confirm my suspicions.) What was keeping the worm population regulated was not their “socially-conscious” birth-control methods, or even the amount of available food (at least not entirely), but something much more basic, which I should have thought of earlier, but in fact was probably brought to the forefront of my mind because of a passing comment made by a researcher in one of the books I had been reading (I told you there was good stuff along with the bad.) The researcher in question, had made some observation about reproduction rates of worms in their natural environment, and then said something to the effect of “I’m not certain how this would be reflected in the “frequently-disturbed” environment encountered in a vermicomposter.” I felt like locating the researcher’s address, and writing him to say that I knew exactly how it would be reflected. Though many writers had made mention of the fact that the worms should be disturbed as infrequently as possible, those mentions had been made in the same books that were teaching everyone to build bins in which the worms had no choice but to be disturbed every couple days or so. This was further evidenced by the pictures I had seen of outdoor worm-beds (and later my own outdoor bins), which always seemed to contain a much denser population of worms than the traditional indoor bins (an outdoor “bed” which encompasses 24 square feet has less need of frequent maintenance than an indoor bed which occupies much less area.) This all led me to take another step, and run the next tests which finally convinced me that in this regard at least, all the books were misleading, if not completely wrong.

It should be kept in mind that our original objective involved “maintaining a large population of red worms (for future sale), in as small an area, and with as little trouble, as possible”.

In virtually every book written on the subject of vermicomposting, the matter of “bedding depth” is generally agreed upon. The suggestions may vary by a couple inches from one volume to the next, but almost always fall into an accepted range of somewhere between 6-12 inches (and most often 8-10 inches.) These recommended depths are then supported by the “fact” that red worms dwell most commonly in the top 4-6 inches of their environment (a statement I accept as true.) The very nature of worm “culturing”, however, is to establish conditions which are most beneficial for the worm (if it is to thrive), and for the “breeder” (who would like to prosper.) This may, at times, involve adjusting some of the conditions which we regard as normal (worms are not naturally found living in houses), and I believe that bedding depth is one of the “natural” conditions which can, and should be manipulated (for the benefit of both the worm, and the breeder.) First, however, let’s take a look at why red worms are “normally” found so close to the surface.

One point I had decided on in my earlier studies of this subject (not necessarily correctly), was that red worms required a larger amount of nutrient intake than their soil-dwelling cousins, in order to survive in a healthy condition (the amount of nutrients available in compost or manure would put virtually any soil to shame.) Since material dropped on the ground very seldom “sinks” to any depth, the upper regions of the soil became the red worm’s natural habitat. According to that train of thought, if I located the food source lower in the soil, the red worms would move down in search of it, take up residence in the proper area, and live happily ever after. When this appeared to be actually happening, I felt rather pleased with myself. When the worms started shrinking (and after I determined they were still healthy…just very tiny), I assumed it had to do strictly with the inherent difficulties a “litter-dwelling” worm encountered when it tried to adapt to living in dense soil. Though I still believe that to be partially correct (consider our earlier “bucket” experiment), I now realize there were even more accidental discoveries involved in “shrinking” my worms than I had realized at first. (I have never denied this whole procedure came about as a series of “accidents.”)

After a fair amount of thought, testing, and successful reproduction of the results, these are my best ideas on what happened. It was a long time ago that I stated, there are still aspects of this procedure that I am trying to figure out, but whether all the particulars are here or not, I do know if you duplicate these conditions, you will witness similar events. After I give you my best explanation of the situation, I will point out the reasons you might want to consider setting up your system in a similar manner.

If you remember way back at the beginning, I told you the size of the bin-system I described was important to duplicating these results. This is why. Having a 2-foot by 3-foot, by 30-inch area to work with (one third of the master-bed), allowed me to try something you simply cannot do in a smaller situation (if you love your worms, don’t even think about trying this in a small bed.) Hollowing out a full third of the first compartment, to a depth reaching within 2 inches of the bottom, I proceeded to fill the opening with raw compost materials (food scraps, grass clippings, leaves, commercial feed, and even a used vacuum-cleaner bag.) I covered this trench with 3-4 inches of bedding, which meant I had stuffed roughly 25-30 pounds of organic material into a single bed, all at one time. Guess what? A day later I was able to get a temperature reading from that trench of nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit (now you know why I said not to try this in any bed that is not large enough to give the worms plenty of space to retreat from the heat….nice rhyme.) The heating only lasted a day or two, however, and a few more days after that, the bedding level on the side of the bin with the trench, started dropping fairly rapidly. About 14 days after the first trench was installed, I repeated the procedure on the opposite side of the bin (I never used the center area, as a safety measure in case both sides ended up heating at the same time, and also to make sure that the fresher material, didn’t start whatever was left of the old material, heating once again.)

By the time a couple months had passed (and I had all three beds working in the same fashion), a few noteworthy things had occurred.

  • I was getting rid of all the kitchen and garden wastes (including a substantial amount of grass clippings and leaves) from not only my own home, but also the homes of several friends and customers.

  • The beds were filled with worms in densities I had never assumed possible. And…

  • I quickly reached a point where I couldn’t keep up with the required feeding materials (without dedicating my whole life to the process.)

(One of the strangest things of all was that several times I found feed trenches saturated with worms even though the organic material was still very warm on my skin. Considering a normal body-temperature of 98.6 F., if that material felt warm to me, it had to be at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the worms were having a great time (apparently) right in the middle of it.) This is something I still plan to look into further.

At that particular point, the worms were dwelling throughout the bedding, top to bottom, and were still maintaining their “normal” size. Feeling rather burnt out from the sustained effort of keeping these critters in munchies, I now humbly admit to a certain period of “neglect” where these worms were concerned. Where each of the individual beds had been receiving between 50-125 pounds of feed a month, Willy’s friends were now lucky if I remembered to water them occasionally (I even told myself I was merely letting them clean everything up in preparation for new bedding.) I guess my next discovery was what this article is all about.

It came about that I got asked to set up a new bin for a gentleman, and of course, supply him with the starter batch of worms. I whipped together a three-bin system (much smaller than my own), and when the time arrived to install the worms, I went down to “harvest” them. The first thing I noticed was there appeared to be no adults in any of the areas I tried to harvest….lots of spawn, but not a single adult (sound familiar?) Try as I might, I simply couldn’t locate the sexually-mature worms responsible for all those spawn. When I realized I was facing the same situation in all three beds, I assumed the adults had all died due to lack of food, and decided on the only alternative I had. I harvested an entire pound of these ridiculously small red worms, and installed them into the gentleman’s bin-system. Well, there is no need to bore you with the details, since you already know what had happened. It turns out, if that customer had had sufficient room to grow those worms he received to their full size, he would have had hundreds of pounds of worms for the cost of one.

At any rate, it appears that while those beds were being supplied with the enormous amounts of feed material which I began with, the resident worms were adding a whole new meaning to the word “orgy.” Then, when the food supply dried up (and I thought they had died off), they shrunk in response to the new situation. With normal breeding (while in the shrunken state), they filled the beds to capacity over the next few months, and thus, even when I caught my interest again, and tried returning to the original feeding schedule, they were unable to grow, since the beds just couldn’t accommodate that many “full-sized” worms. By simply removing a number of these worms to a “private” bed, with lots of room and food, I was able to grow them back to “normal” size in what was very often, only a matter of 10-15 days. That’s how this system of raising lots of worms in a small area came to be, and why I can’t tell you so easily how exactly it works (it’s a combination of several different circumstances.) What’s really important, however, is what this means to the person who wishes to maintain a large stock (in number) of worms, in a small area, without having to feed them hundreds, or thousands of pounds of feed. And this (finally), brings us back to the matter of depth. (Was that a digression? I think that was a digression….Sorry.)

Consider first of all, the usual recommended depth of a worm bin….10 inches for the sake of argument. We’ll start with adult (full-sized) worms just to keep matters simple. If your worm-bin measures 2 feet by 3 feet, and is 10 inches deep, you have space (according to most of the manuals) for roughly 6000 worms, or to put it another way, 6 pounds of adult red worms (24,000 bed-run.) If you increase your depth to 20 inches (costing you next to nothing in floor-space), you double the available bedding area, allowing twice as many worms. This may not seem like a lot, but remember that we are considering “shrinking” our worms, which means that a 10-inch depth will accommodate (and this figure is extremely modest) 120,000 adult worms….and 20 inches allows for almost a quarter million. These worms will still only weigh 12 pounds, and have only to be fed accordingly. That means you can feed the “equivalent” of 250 pounds of “full-sized” worms, on the diet normally required by only 12 pounds of worms! This is a major difference, in both effort, and in maintenance costs. And there are still other benefits to the deeper bed.

The most significant benefit of the deeper bed lies in the fact that you can feed much larger quantities of food at once (remember to be careful about heating.) This results in a lot less work for you, a wider variety of suitable feed materials (and less need of grinding scraps to conserve space), as well as reducing the frequency with which the worms are disturbed (something I know from experience, leads to improved reproduction rates, as well as healthier worms.) In addition to all this, the added depth provides a wider selection of “micro-climates” for the worms to choose from. Thus, if the bed dries out a little too much near the surface, the worms can move lower down, and vice versa if the lower regions get a little too wet. (In regards to this, one researcher set up a worm bin with multiple levels, designed like drawers. He was able to determine what the moisture content was at each level, and the fact that 85% of the worms congregated at one specific depth showed that they have definite preferences, and will seek out suitable conditions. They have little, or no opportunity to do so in a bed that has no significant depth. And remember… happy worms will always mean healthier worms.)

At any rate, due to the length of this entire 6-part article, and my own inability to avoid digressing, I am reasonably sure I have forgotten things I meant to get around to, and have probably produced as many questions for some of you, as answers. For that, you have my apologies, and assurance that I will try to answer any questions you care to send my way, regarding this matter. If anything contained anywhere in this piece has helped anyone in any way, then I guess it wasn’t a total failure, and I can only promise to try and do better in the future.

Until then, however,….The End.

Vermicomposting Ten

4 thoughts on “Vermicomposting Ten

  1. Thanks for your sharing your work and insights David! There’s a massive amount of information here, and it may take a second reading to digest (slowly, like a worm). I dont have plans to raise large amounts of worms, but nonetheless, theres a lot of good insight there for us wimps with our measly beds.

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    1. Hey, these days I’m one of those wimps myself. I live in an apartment with two worm bins in which i have just started trying to duplicate some of these results again, and I won’t even have conclusive results for almost two more years. In the meantime, I already hear my worm population talking about unionizing. Ah, the difficulties of scientific research. Have a great New Year Dan, and thanks again for all that laborious reading. It certainly makes it seem worthwhile.

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