Thursday, February 12, 2009

Trying to go green when you suck at certain things, Part II

Adventures in Composting

I've already mentioned that I had a few problems with my first attempt at worm composting (or vermicomposting). I recently joined the Vermicomposting group at Yahoo and posted about my problems, and got a few responses back. I'm going to cut and paste my post and the responses here, and then add my new thoughts.


My original post

In the fall I took a worm composting class, after which we were given a worm bin (a plastic tote with holes), shredded cardboard and a bag of worms. I went home eager to start. After a week, none of the food scraps I added seemed to be disappearing, so I emailed my teacher. He suggested adding a scoop of dirt. This would add other organisms to the bin, which he said would speed up the decomposition process.

After another week, the bin was crawling with fruit flies and other bugs, and I saw very few worms. I wrote my teacher again, who said to put a small glass jar in the bin with apple cider vinegar and a little dish soap in it. I did this, and while it captured a lot of bugs, it still seemed like just as many were swarming around.

For many weeks thereafter, this was the situation: very few visible worms, even when I dug around, and lots of other bugs. But since the bin seemed to have the right moisture level, it didn't smell, and food seemed to be disappearing, I thought that maybe it was OK.

However, since then I've read differing opinions on the web. Some say that you don't want to add decomposing food, because that attracts bugs and reduces your worm population. Others, like my teacher, say that decomposing food and other bugs are helpful, because they make the digestion process easier for the worms. So I am very uncertain.

Also, I have neither a garage nor a basement, so I keep the bin outside on my porch (I surrounded it with styrofoam, except for the holes, to protect from cold). When the first frost hit, however, everything in the bin died. I looked at it recently, and it has this white, spider-webby covering over everything that I assume is mold.

So now I have no clue what to do. Do I start over with a new bin and new set of worms in the spring? Did I do wrong or right with the bin I had in the fall? What should I do differently? And what should I do with the rotting mess in the bin I already have?

One more question...

How much food is a good amount to feed your bin? I kept food scraps in two 16-oz rubbermaid containers, and I generally filled both of them weekly. But I would only add one to the container at a time. Is that a good amount? Is it too much? How can you tell?



1. I don't know where you live but you probably need to keep your bin inside during the winter months. I'm in WI and I keep mine inside and will probably do so during the warmer months too just so I can keep an eye on it. I started my bin in November and I'm no expert but I've read alot and know what you mean about the information available - it can be confusing. Unless you have a well insulated bin that has some microbial activity working to help keep it warm during the winter the worms can freeze outside if you're in an uber cold place like I am.

To help keep fruit flys at bay you can microwave the food before you add it to the bin or freeze it. Both are effective ways to keep the fruit flys away. Also be sure to cover whatever you put in the bin with plenty of bedding to further deter the fruit flys.

It sounds like you need to dump the whole thing, wash it out and start over fresh. If you can't put the bin inside I'd personally wait until it's warmer outside to start a new one. I don't know that you did anyting wrong but make sure you have plenty of bedding next time. More bedding than food for sure. Cover the food well and I'd say either freeze it or microwave it before you add it to the bin and don't worry about if it is decomposed or not before you add it. It will decompose once it hits the bin. I personally blend my food too before adding it but I have a stackable system with good drainage so if you don't have good drainage you might want to skip that step. It's not really necessary.

2. I killed my first apartment worm bin too. Here is what I did wrong:

--I made it too moist because I was dumping my daily coffee grinds in it in a pot of water. The bin became sludgy.
--I added way more food than my worms could handle. It attracted flies because the worms could keep up so the food would decmpose on top.
--I didnt keep enough shredded newspaper on top of the bin so there would be no room for flies.

I would dump out your current bin and start over.

Once I realized that my worms couldnt eat all my scraps, they thrived. My goal now was to get some good vermicompost every three months for my plants. I would add a little food each week...and actually monitor their progress.

I now live in a place where I have a big yard. An outdoor worm bin is much easier to maintain because of space. I can dump everything I have into a large pile...and the worms just grow with the space. since it's in the corner of the yard, flies and other critters dont matter. it all just decomposes and breaks down.

3. I'd say to start out add a handful or two then montior it. If it's disappeaing then add a little more. How much you feed all depends on what kind of worms you have, how much they eat, how often you feed, temperature, bin conditions, etc. so there are no hard and fast rules.

When you start your new bin put in some stuff that breaks down fast like banana or melon and mix it with some other stuff that is a little slower like potato peels or carrot peels to get the process going.

Just some thoughts. . . .


My thoughts

As I said in my original post, I have no basement or garage, so the bin's NOT coming into the house. Thus, I'll have to wait until spring to restart the bin.

I always used a lot of bedding and did the microwaving bit, but it sounds like I might have fed them too much food. So I think that's what I have to do when I restart the bin: feed them less, and gradually let it build up.

Anyway, here's to hoping I have more success with my next compost bin!


  1. I also killed my worms on my first try at vermicomposting. I had it figured out that we generate too much compostable for the bin so reduced the amount added. But I neglected to add more bedding, the bin got too moist and they all died (mist ammonia odors, poor things). I might try again.

  2. Greenjoycie,

    Glad to know I'm not the only one! "Adding too much food" seems to be a common mistake.