Troubleshooting My Worm Composting Problems

Posted on Jan 20 2010 - 5:20am by Mike Lieberman

It’s time for me to troubleshoot my worm composting problems again.

After starting my worm composting bin in my kitchen, they died when I made a composting mistake and drowned them out. This time I kept the bin too dry and the worms died.

I brought the container into the worm lady at the Lower East Side Ecology Center in the Union Square Farmers Market. I wanted to see if the bin was the issue.

She looked over the bin and said that it looked fine. Her recommendation was to fill up the bin about 3/4 of the way full with shredded newspaper bedding and to gently rinse it with water until they are moist, but not dripping wet.

After I wetting the bedding (get it wetting the bedding?), she told me to dump the worms on top and let them sit out in the light for a few minutes until they dug themselves into the bedding.

When they dug themselves into the bedding, I was to put some food scraps in the bin for them and continually add throughout the week. She also recommended to sprinkle coffee grinds or to put tea bags into the bin to keep up the moisture, but not too much. I learned that lesson already. If you don’t have either, you can use a spray bottle to mist the bedding.

This is my third time with the worms. Any additional advice for me? What else might I be doing wrong?


  • Mamachibi

    Air? I assume the box has a lid, does it have enough holes that they are getting air?

  • Mike Lieberman

    I have holes on the lid, on the bottom and around the top. I just added some around the bedding at the bottom.

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Troubleshooting My Worm Composting Problems | Urban Organic Gardener -- Topsy.com

  • botanybuddy

    I've had mine four years no problems. Think of them like growing a plant in a pot. That actually looked a little dry to me. I would sit that bin inside of another one slightly elevated by a couple bricks. If you have too much water it will drain off like a plant into a saucer (the bin) below. Those drippings you can then collect and are better than any fertilizer you can buy. Sometimes I will even put a little extra water in just to brew some extra tea. As long as your drainage is good enough you won't drown them. I store the tea in two liter bottles and use it as a liquid fertilizer year round.

    I also recommend gravel in the bottom to just above the drain holes to make sure it doesn't cake and clog the holes. For weight's sake, in your case you could even crush some aluminum cans or something else non biodegradable to make up that space. The newspaper will layer down nicely separating the layers to keep the drainage area from filling with soil (castings), and the water will still make its way out. However newspaper and soil directly against the drainage holes almost always clogs them.

    Happy worming!

  • Mike Lieberman

    Wow. Thanks for the great tips. Looks like I gotta start collecting some soda cans to crush up and put at the bottom of the pile. Love that idea.

  • christackett

    I haven't had my bin for as long as botanybuddy, but i wouldn't put gravel or cans in my bin. Seems like that'd be a pain in the butt when you tried to harvest the compost.

    My worms almost died this winter because they got too cold. (the closet they were in didn't have a vent and never got the heat.) So i pulled them out in front of the heater and they are doing well again.

  • Mike Lieberman

    Good point Chris. I didn't even think of that since I haven't even gotten close to harvesting anything but dead worms. These have been doing well so far.

  • Pingback: uberVU - social comments

  • http://twitter.com/integrodesign Gabriel Withington

    I dislike worm composting. My thought is unless I'm raising worms to feed to something else (fire escape chickens? how about catfish?) I'd rather just compost. The best way I know of to compost in an apartment is with 5 gallon buckets, two in rotation. Throw your compost into a bucket, mixing in shredded newspaper or other high carbon material if you feel like it. When it's full, throw the lid on and swap out for the other bucket. Shake the full bucket on occasion to aerate it which helps to minimize any odors and speed the decomposition. If you do have an odor problem try draining any liquid (water your plants?), adding more high carbon material and covering the top with a layer of paper (shredded or otherwise).

    Bucket composting doesn't require the purchase of anything beyond the buckets (which you can get for free if you know where to look), poses no risk of killing worms, can accept compost at any rate you produce it (might need more buckets if you are particularly prolific) and there is nothing to think about when you go on vacation. Sounds like a no brainer to me, but I'm lazy.

  • Mike Lieberman

    I am starting to agree with you Gabriel. It's too much for me and I'm killin worms left and right. I can definitely get access to crazy amounts of buckets.

  • billshores

    I don't like newspaper bedding. I prefer a mix of moistened corrugated cardboard, coffee grounds, and used potting mix. Holds moisture well and less prone to drying out. You can premoisten the cardboard then easily tear it into 4″ by 4″ pieces, mix with the coffee grounds and moistened potting mix to get the proper moisture level (moist as a wrung out sponge).

    The potting mix is a peat or coir based mix with perlite. The perlite adds grit to the bedding which helps worms digest food.

    The food waste adds moisture to your bin. Excess moisture can be dealt with by making sure you have drainage holes at the bottom (and a tray to collect) and by adding pieces of dry cardboard to the top surface of the bin to wick up excess moisture. As these pieces get moist tear up and add to the bedding.

    Hope that helps. I really liked your SW container video, I will share your website with my students, clients and friends in Jersey City. Thanks a lot!

    Also, for bin in your video (small bin) I would add no more than 1/2# worms, 1/4 # would work OK too.

  • Mike Lieberman

    Thanks for your advice Bill. There is something that I'm missing out on with the worms, I just haven't been able to pinpoint it yet.

  • billshores

    I don't like newspaper bedding. I prefer a mix of moistened corrugated cardboard, coffee grounds, and used potting mix. Holds moisture well and less prone to drying out. You can premoisten the cardboard then easily tear it into 4″ by 4″ pieces, mix with the coffee grounds and moistened potting mix to get the proper moisture level (moist as a wrung out sponge).

    The potting mix is a peat or coir based mix with perlite. The perlite adds grit to the bedding which helps worms digest food.

    The food waste adds moisture to your bin. Excess moisture can be dealt with by making sure you have drainage holes at the bottom (and a tray to collect) and by adding pieces of dry cardboard to the top surface of the bin to wick up excess moisture. As these pieces get moist tear up and add to the bedding.

    Hope that helps. I really liked your SW container video, I will share your website with my students, clients and friends in Jersey City. Thanks a lot!

    Also, for bin in your video (small bin) I would add no more than 1/2# worms, 1/4 # would work OK too.

  • Mike Lieberman

    Thanks for your advice Bill. There is something that I'm missing out on with the worms, I just haven't been able to pinpoint it yet.

  • Pingback: My Compost Bin and the Mass Migration : A Green Spell

  • http://www.suburbanhobbyfarmer.com/ Bill Brikiatis

    Mike — I’ve been worm composting for three years and I had my troubles. I have harvested some compost, but not as much as I would have liked. If you can spare the time, take a look at my post at Worm Composting Not So Easy, Part III. Here’s the link:http://bit.ly/gmQvWV.

    I’ve learned a lot from this site: wormbincomposting.com. She has a question and answer page at http://www.wormbincomposting.com/wormcompostingquestion.html. For me, she has gotten all the answers right. In case you’re wondering, I don’t get any $ from her.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Thanks for all the info Bill. It’s definitely not as easy as everyone makes it out to be.

  • Jodi

    I’ve recently started and so far so good. I added soil along with the newspaper. And eggshells or agricultural lime every week or so.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Nice. You are having better luck than I did.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Cool. Thanks for all the tips.

  • Tylena

    i have a question for anyone who might be able to help me!  I have been worming for a few months with no problems til now, i checked on them the other day and there are TONS of white, hairlike worms around the top of & throughout the bin, wth are those?!?!  also, little ant sized, beetle shaped bugs crawling throughout?!?!  And how do i know when the dirt is ready to harvest?!?!

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    I think the hairlike worms aren’t the red wrigglers and some other kind of worms. 

    You will know when it’s ready to harvest when it’s not too moist, crumbly and smells Earth like.

  • Worms!

    Mike, 

    I couple things I have noticed with my worms – they love rotting food! I generally keep my food scraps in a bin in my kitchen – I collect the scraps over about a weeks time, adding some coffee grinds as I go (I drink a lot of coffee, so I only put maybe 2 of 7 days of grinds in the bin). Make sure the scraps are not all stalks, worms like greens, but they love fruit and mushy items. The one thing I have noticed they do not eat is artichoke leaves and corn stalks (unless I forget to feed them for a few weeks). If you are starting the worm bin, I would collect about a liter of scraps over a week or two, then let that bit rot for another week (you might want to set this outside as it could start to smell). In the bin, put about an inch of paper scraps (I typically soak about half of my scraps in water, then ring them out until they are about damp sponge quality), like you had at the bottom, then add a layer of the rotting food, then a layer of paper scraps and some cardboard if you can (chop it into 2 x 2 inch pieces and soak and ring it out) they love to nest and have baby worms in cardboard. Make sure none of the food is visible from the top, if you leave food on the surface, you are in danger of a knat infestation! Then add the worms to the tops, and if they do not come in dirt, sprinkle a little on the top, they use dirt in their gizzard like teeth, from what I understand. Also, Squirm is correct – worms hate light! You can use the bin you have with the holes in it, but get a second bind, without holes and put your bin inside it – this bin does not need whole in it except at the top for air. Prop your bin a few inches off the bottom of the new bin, the new bin will collect any excess moisture from the top bin and hold the liquid for the worms without drowning them. To add to the bin, collect scraps in a separate bucket over about a week or 2 (until you have 1/2 to 1 liter), allowing it to rot slightly over the week, mushy, but not liquid is the consistency you want in scraps – drain off any liquid, then make a whole in a corner of the worm bin and add the scraps, cover completely with the paper already in the bin (add more paper if it is not fully covered). Keep adding scraps to different corners every week or 2, if you notice the worms are not fully digesting what you give then, skip a week or 2 until they catch up. Check the bin periodically (once a month) for moisture or dryness issues, but generally try not to bug the worms, neglect seems to be good for them (and makes excellent house mates for me!). I hope you are still vermicomposting (just noticed your post is from a year ago) good luck!!!

  • dT

    Go to the bait an tackle shop and buy Redworms. They are much cheaper there than at a garden center, These worms don’t require much attention and consume much more food than ordinary earthworms. Keep them in a moist dark environment and they will fatten up in a few days.

  • dT

    Go to the bait an tackle shop and buy Redworms. They are much cheaper there than at a garden center, These worms don’t require much attention and consume much more food than ordinary earthworms. Keep them in a moist dark environment and they will fatten up in a few days. I also agree that you should let the food rot out separately for a few days and chop it up with a shovel or something before feeding it to the worms. Worms actually feed off the microbial agents that grow on food and this will help it all to decompose more quickly.