Now Spring is starting to show itself it is time to bring your wormery out of the garage, greenhouse or wherever you have kept it over the Winter months to keep your little workers warm and dry and, hopefully, still productive while the temperatures have been lower. Of course some of you may have kept them out during winter and just kept the sump drained during the wetter times so that your hard working wigglers don’t drown but either way it is worth doing a quick check to make sure everything is functioning as we want and to prepare them for another year of transforming stuff we would normally throw away in amazing compost.
So what makes a wormery so great?
For those of you who don’t yet own a wormery and wonder quite what all the fuss is about read on…
In short, a wormery is a fantastic way of taking your kitchen waste and transforming it (in the form of ‘castings’) into a compost so high in nutrient value that I often refer to it more as a fertiliser than a mere compost. It diverts such kitchen waste from landfill (if your Council doesn’t already collect it) but also saves you from having to then buy in compost and mulch later in the year when you need it in your garden. A wormery will also produce a fantastic liquid fertliser that, when watered down at about 10:1, will provide organic feed to all your plants and vegetables thereby saving you yet more money. If you don’t have plants to feed then just adding it to your borders will help improve the structure of your soil with a multitude of friendly nutrients and organisms. If you don’t have plants or borders I’m sure there will be gardeners a plenty happy to take the castings and liquid feed off your hands (at least if they realise how powerful it is).
Composting with a wormery is a great way for people without the room for a compost bin or heap to compost. They are generally small and neat and can be kept close to the house to save the trip down a cold and windswept garden in the winter. “Eww, but what about the smell?”, I hear you say. Simple, there isn’t one! Really, if a wormery is working correctly the compost should have a slight earthy smell and not cause any problem at all (see below for what to do if they do start to smell though).
They come in all shapes and sizes as well but generally consist of a number of trays and a sump. Once the first tray is full you add the second and the worms will wiggle their way up through the holes in the tray above to get to the layer of new waste (generally once they have finished the tray they are currently in of course). Once that tray is full you add another and the process continues until the last one is full, by which time the bottom one should now consist of a beautiful black gold, known as vermicompost, ready to be applied to plants as a top dressing, mixed with other compost to make a potting mixture or just added to your borders as a fertiliser-come-mulch that will feed the plants every time it rains as well as improve the quality of your soil in the long run.
Getting a wormery moving again in Spring
Worms work best when it is warm and slow down a lot if the temperature drops. In the winter it is generally a good idea to keep them somewhere warm and dry and feed them slightly less (tips and tricks here can be found at http://www.wigglywigglers.co.uk/blog/getting-your-wormery-ready-for-the-winter/)
But now Spring is on the way and the temperatures will (hopefully) start to rise you can bring them out of your shed or garage and start them as normal again (keeping a close eye on how fast they are dealing with what you give them).
It’s a good time to check the state of the wormery itself as heavy winter rains may have left the bedding wet and soggy, which will compact the waste and block all the air pockets. Worms need oxygen to breathe and function well and don’t do well in compacted soil or compost. Less oxygen also means an increase in anaerobic bacteria that can lead to rotting food, acidic conditions and some nasty smells. These conditions mean your worms will be far from happy and may ultimately die so it’s a good time to check conditions and rectify them so that they are working optimally, ready to start creating that lovely compost you want for the forthcoming planting season. Even if kept somewhere dry and warm it’s certainly worth checking everything is OK.
So what do you need to look for?
- How wet is the compost and waste?
If it’s very soggy you should mix in some shredded paper and/or cardboard (the Amazon box type cardboard is perfect). I avoid glossy paper but any other shredded paper (credit card receipts and bank statements etc) should be OK as inks are mostly vegetable based these days. Also, check all trays because if it’s wet in the top one it’s likely to be the same in the others and you may need to add a layer of shredded paper to the middle layer as well. This has the added advantage of allowing the worms to climb up to the next layer easier if it’s the type of wormery that holds the trays at a certain layer (can-o-worms and worm cafe for example).
- Has the waste started to rot?
If you have overfed during the winter months then there may well be a layer of rotting food that will lead to anaerobic conditions, higher acidity and ultimately some nasty smells and dead worms. Be warned that once a bin goes off in this way mass worm death can easily follow and the smell will be so bad that you will never forget it. It happened to me once with a wormery that had been perfectly happy for about 10 years – the smell was so bad I can actually taste it now just thinking about it!
So, waste that is rotten and smelly should be removed as soon as possible and placed in a normal compost bin or heap where it will break down happily over time. Chances are the bin will be quite acidic at this time so if you have some lime mix add a handful or two (most wormeries come with a small bag of lime mix to help you balance out the pH while it is being established). Then fill the tray with as much shredded paper as you can (it is impossible for worms to overdose on paper) and leave them for a while before adding any new waste in small doses.
- Do you still have worms?
Daft as this may sound but worms rot down very quickly once they die and if your bin has suffered a lot from frost, cold or anything else they may not like then they could all have died off. Don’t worry though, they will almost certainly have left behind cocoons that will hatch and build up your population again but it is a slow process. Once you know the Winter is truly over it may well be worth buying a new batch of worms to kick start things again. These can be purchased from http://www.wigglywigglers.co.uk
- Emptying the bottom tray
Now your wormery has made it through the Winter the bottom tray is likely ready to empty but there’s likely still the odd worm in there and this has been the cause of many a discussion. Please read a previous article I wrote on emptying the bottom tray that can be found at http://blog.sherlock.co.uk/2009/03/emptying-bottom-layer-of-your-worm-bin.html
So other than damp conditions causing the compost to compact and go slimy what other things should you look out for? Here’s 5 of the most common things I see in my wormeries:
In the winter and early spring there isn’t much of a problem but as things start to warm up there are a number of insects who somehow manage to make a home in your wormery. Most are OK as they (or their larvae) eat the waste and generally help in the process of breaking things down nicely. As you get more experienced you will be able to match up the conditions with the insect and act accordingly.
Some of the more common ones are:
- a) Pot worms – these are small white worms that many people mistake for baby worms. They are fine if you don’t mind them BUT they do indicate damp conditions and a compost that is starting to become acidic. To get rid of them in the short term leave a slice of bread in the wormery overnight. The next morning you will find said bread absolutely teeming with pot worms so remove it and put it on the bird table to give your birds a treat. In the long term you need to aerate the compost so mix in some shredded paper and cardboard as well as a hand full of lime mix if you have some. This will bring down the pH and make for happier worms.
- b) Springtails – these are very small white insects that aid the composting and are totally harmless as they eat fungi that grows on the waste. I use them as an indication that things are generally functioning well.
- c) Fruit flies – they love the fruit you add and do no damage to the worms at all BUT there’s nothing quite like opening the lid and having them swarm up your nose and in your ears so you’re going to want to discourage them wherever possible. The perfect way to do this is to get into the habit of wrapping all your food waste in a sheet of newspaper before adding it to the wormery. The paper soaks up some moisture, the worms will eat it from below and yet the waste is protected from the fruit flies who can’t get to it to lay their eggs. This is an especially good idea during the summer months. Alternatively, bury the waste underneath a good layer of shredded paper, again so the flies cannot get at it to lay their eggs.
- d) Ants – these are a real pain because they cart off the cocoons (worm eggs that each contain a number of baby worms) so your worm population will suffer in the long run. To keep them out you can stand the wormery legs in jars of water (ants won’t cross water) but if they do get in you will probably have to go hunting for the queen and remove her. They are also an indication that the wormery is too dry so it may be worth adding some water to dampen the compost a bit. I know, I’ve been telling you how to stop the wormery getting too wet! It’s one of the reasons to keep a regular eye on things.
Really this is one of the most common problems people have and it can be disastrous, especially with a new wormery.
When you first get a wormery add small amounts of kitchen waste and paper and keep an eye on how the worms are coping. Once the population increases you can start increasing the amount of waste but always keep an eye on things. Once established I try to make sure there is pure vermicompost about 3-4 inches below the top layer and that the worms are working well in your current layer of food. This helps stop them from being over faced with too much to choose from and will keep conditions optimal.
Another thing to remember is that most new wormeries come with a coir block to act as an immediate bedding and people worry that the worms are reluctant to move up to their kitchen waste. This is because they are quite happy eating the coir block so only add a small amount of kitchen waste at first, a hefty amount of shredded paper and leave them to it for a bit. They will move onto the kitchen waste once they are ready – just keep a regular eye on things so you know when to start feeding them more.
- Type of waste
So what exactly can you feed your worms? Well, they love variety (as do we all) so try and vary what you give them. The following is a rough list of the things they like and what you should avoid:
- Kitchen food waste such as vegetable peelings, tea leaves and coffee grounds. Be aware that with teabags quite a few have a quantity of nylon in them to hold them together so although the worms will break into them and eat the tea leaves you may well be left with the odd teabag ‘ghost’. They won’t bother the worms but you will notice them when you come to use the compost – just remove them when you add to other compost or borders if you want. I use a lot of teabags and it really doesn’t cause a problem.
- Fruit peelings such as banana skins and apple cores (beware of fruit flies with these – follow the tips above for wrapping your waste in newspaper).
- Crushed up egg shells – the worms need the grit that these provide and they help with the pH of the compost. Worms lack teeth though so a great tip is to dry the shells in the bottom of the oven while you cook something else. They can then easily be crushed into a powder and sprinkled into the wormery.
- Shredded or torn up paper; newspaper, bank statements, credit card receipts, toilet roll inners, kitchen paper and tissues as well as brown corrugated cardboard from the likes of Amazon etc.
Bad (or at least not so good):
- Cooked food such as meat or fish – this will rot and smell as well as invite unwanted guests to appear (to compost such things why not try Bokashi, a system that is sealed and works brilliantly with most things that a wormery can’t handle).
- Citrus fruit and onion peelings as they are acidic. Very small doses may be OK but I find it best to avoid where possible, and add some lime every now and then.
- Animal manure though possibly OK is best avoided as you cannot guarantee that it isn’t from an animal recently wormed (disastrous). Worms also cannot break down any pathogens it may contains so the finished compost may not be great for vegetable production etc. I have used a wormery for dogs mess but a lot of care needs to be taken and I’ve only used the finished product for under the hedge.
Where you keep your wormery can really make a difference. You want it close to the house but sheltered enough to keep it safe.
In the Spring and summer try and keep it out of direct sunlight otherwise it will heat up quickly in the sun, bake the worms (or make them try and escape), cause excess condensation that then makes the compost too wet and generally make for a less than stable environment for your worms to work (too hot one minute and then quickly cooling down etc).
In the winter it needs to be out of the wind and rain so it doesn’t get too cold and wet for all the reasons mentioned previously.
Try and keep a weight on the lid, such as a house brick. This holds the lid firmly in place during windier weather as well minimising the number of escapees when conditions aren’t optimal inside the wormery (especially when newly setup).
- Regularly empty the sump
It is a really good idea to get into the habit of emptying the sump on a regular basis. If it gets too full the compost will get wet causing soggy, anaerobic conditions as well as possibly drowning your worms. The worm tea (leachate) makes a great liquid feed during the growing season and can be stored throughout the winter (or just poured directly on your borders). Either way getting into the habit of emptying the sump is good so you avoid the sudden realisation that it hasn’t stopped raining for a couple of weeks and you haven’t been doing it. I guarantee you will find the odd dead worm come from the tap when you do get round to it and I wouldn’t worry about it. They seem to go to the sump to die – I just re-add them to the top when I check the bin over.
I appreciate there is quite a lot of information there but if you take the time to give the wormery a Spring clean and check over it will soon reward you with some fantastic compost for top dressing house plants and vegetables such potted tomatoes etc. You can then look forward to another bumper year safe in the knowledge that your waste is now working for you, as are your worms.