What to Do If Your Vermicomposting Worms Are Trying to Escape
What is Vermicomposting?
First of all, the definition of vermicomposting is to use earthworms for composting! These eco-friendly animals can help reduce waste. I keep red wigglers in a vertically stacking bin indoors. The area where I currently live does not recycle unless a person pays a private company several hundred dollars a year to pick up the sorted trash. I grew up recycling and well, I love nature, so I wanted to find a way to help reduce my waste. I ordered the Worm Factory 360 composting bin to keep indoors and it's surprisingly fun. There is no smell and it is just the right size for a two-person household. They turn my kitchen scraps into a dark, rich, and healthy soil enhancer. I use the compost, or 'worm castings', to mix into gardening soil. My plants have been thanking me by having increased growth and producing delicious fruit.
They can also live in outdoor compost systems, in the grow beds of aquaponic systems, enhance the health of your lawn, aerate potted plants, rejuvenate farm land by putting nutrients back into the soil, and be grown to be used as fish bait.
How to Prevent a Worm Jail Break
Okay, so you've taken the plunge and have started your very own worm composter but your worms have decided to make a break for it. What's the matter, are they not happy in their new home? Actually, they are not! Here are some proven tips to prevent them from escaping.
- Did you leave the lights on? Worms are photophobic, or light-fearing, and will immediately react by burrowing. Your newly arrived worms will be restless after traveling from their old home and placed into a new environment. They will leave the composting bin unless a light is left on for 24 - 48 hours. That is enough time for them to settle into their new home. Encourage this behavior by setting up the bin with some coconut coir and peat moss beforehand.
- Is it too wet or dry? They like to have a moist environment. If it is too dry, they will secrete moisture directly from their skin and literally shrivel up. This often happens in hot outdoor compost piles. A light spritz with a spray bottle will help them plump back up. On the opposite side, enclosed plastic bins keep moisture in very well. It is best to buy a composter with a spigot at the bottom, or attach one yourself. The excess water will pool at the bottom and drain out. This is called worm leachate and can be poured onto your potted plants for nutrition. Adding dry material such as newspaper or cardboard will help soak up any extra sogginess. Generally, kitchen scraps such as lettuce or watermelon rinds have enough moisture to make adding water to the worm bin unnecessary.
- What are you feeding them? Certain foods such as tomatoes, coffee grinds, tea bags, onions, pineapples, and citrus peels are high in acidity. They are perfectly fine to put in a worm composting bin in moderation. Have non-acidic items such as stale bread, spinach, cabbage, and potatoes to create a balance. A pH between 6.0 to 7.0 is ideal. There can also be chemical irritants. Be careful not to add too much salt to the composter, such as old saltine crackers. The bleach in white printer paper can also kill worms if present in a large amount. The key is moderation! Mix and match everything.
- Are they getting enough air? Worm composters can be kept indoors because they do not smell! When a person lifts the lid off, the material should smell like damp, good earth. If it smells like rotting garbage, chances are the environment has turned anaerobic. They do gas exchange through their skin. If the compost looks more like a swamp, drain it! They will drown and smelly anaerobic bacteria will take over the decomposing process instead. Worms and their bedding material also need ventilation. Drill some additional holes into the sides of the bin to increase air flow. Another possibility is that the composting material could have gotten too compacted by gravity. Stir the bedding up and some additional filler to create air pockets. Torn up cardboard egg crates are perfect.
- Are they in a calm environment? Kids, nosy pets, and new owners love messing with the worm composter. Opening the lid to check on the worms once a day is fine. Opening the lid ten times a day to poke around is not. Picture trying to sleep in a bedroom and your room mate keeps opening the door, turns on the lights, and then starts shaking the bed! Wouldn't that stress you out and make you want to leave? The worms feel that way too! Excessive vibrations signal that they are in danger (from a plow or from a mole, for example) so try to place your vermicomposter in an easily accessible yet peaceful location.
- Finally, what species are your worms? There are over 4,400 known earthworm species and not all of them are suitable for composting. The red wiggler (Eisenia fetida) does extremely well indoors and can handle seasonal changes to a degree. They can survive in extremes of 40 - 80° F (4 - 29° C) and thrive in 68 - 77° F (20 - 25° C). Other common species used for composting are European nightcrawlers and Alabama jumpers. However, they may not be adapted to your local soil conditions and require a deeper soil or bin depth. A worm that composts even faster than the red wiggler is the Malaysian or Indian blue worm (Perionyx excavates), named for its' dark purplish color. They are larger and reproduce quicker. However, it is a tropical worm that needs warmer temperatures, 45 - 92° F (7 - 34° C), and will die off in cold winters. Malaysian blue worms sometimes get mixed in with red wiggler cultures and end up out-competing the red worm. The next time you have a storm come through and you see worms not only on the floor but climbing up your walls, you may have accidentally gotten blue worms! These react strongly to pressure changes and are also known as traveler worms because they have been found to high tail it as far a rooftop to escape the rain! Make sure you order from a trustworthy worm farmer!