Keeping your worms happy

Tips for a productive worm farm…

The hardest workers in the place.
The hardest workers in the place.

Eisenia fetida, otherwise known as tiger worm, red wigglers are just about the best composting buddies a fellow can have. They work tirelessly, day and night, helping to break down our veggie scraps and green waste into castings and liquids that are second to (almost) none in terms of adding nutrients to soils and grow media.

Worms have the joy of living in their food.
Worms have the joy of living in their food. This does mean that you’ve got to be a bit careful of what you feed them.

Red wrigglers are undemanding critters, they like to be in a dark, moist place with a fairly constant temperature and a continuous supply of food. Don’t we all!

Worms have the joy of living in their food. They pass through it again and again, eating the decaying material and bacteria and fungi that colonize it. As they do so, they pass out liquid and solid material (known as ‘castings’) which is pure gold in terms of giving the garden a boost.

We have a generic, layered, worm bin
We have a generic, layered, worm bin

The only thing that they don’t really like is acidity (maybe you’ve put a whole bunch of citrus in their bin recently) which can be remedied with a pinch of dolomite or lime added to the bin with every feed. They’ll eat it eventually but will leave it to last/

Of course, they don’t like drying out, too much light or being eaten by predators either. These things are easily remedied, with the last often being caused by adding too much food at once. What the worms can’t eat sits on the surface, attracting, mostly, ants and rats.

This is what it's all about...precious castings
This is what it’s all about…precious castings

Tips for keeping happy worms –

  • Don’t put too much food in at once. This is something you’ll have to work out by trial and error.
  • Don’t let the bin get too dry or hot. Worms hate the dry. As long as you can squeeze a pinch of castings between finger and thumb and to form a malleable ball, thats OK. If your worm farm gets too hot or dry, they will migrate downward to the cooler areas. If your bottom layer isnt well drained, or there is no way for the worms to escape, they will drown en-masse. That makes for a smelly clean out!
  • Don’t let the bin get too wet. Worms can drown. a great way to keep the bin from flooding is to leave the tap or outlet open all the time. You’ll find a few adventurous worms escape that way, but its better than opening a bin full of dead and decomposing worms.
  • Keep some dry bedding in the worm farm. This gives the worms a chance to move from areas that are too wet. It also works its way into the castings, allowing a degree of aeration.
  • Keep the pH around 7. It can go closer to 6 with no worries, but they don’t like extremes. The little fellas breath, feel and communicate through their sensitive skin. Imagine their dismay when they crawl into a patch of acid! Adding a pinch of dolomite or lime to the bed helps with acidity. Put some citrus in when it’s too alkaline
  • Keep the light out. Worms are photophobic and don’t enjoy the light. A close fitting cover, some sack or other breathable material can do the job just as well.
  • Feed them small amounts regularly. This allows the worms to do their job and keeps the worm farm clean.

A note about feeding –

Chop the food into pieces that are as small as is reasonable. The smaller the pieces of food, the quicker they break down and the quicker the worms can eat them. Going to the other extreme of cutting too fine and adding the sludge to the worm farm can lead to poor break down and attract pests and cause foul smells.

Worms escaping
Stretching their legs a little…

The main problems are…

  • Escaping worms

Worms have no choice but to move away from sources of discomfort. They live in their food and sense their surroundings through their skin. Areas that are too extreme in many ways will cause the worms to migrate away.

They will also migrate to the upper surfaces of the worm farm when the air pressure drops just before it rains. This is nature’s way of keeping worms from drowning when the soil gets drenched. The lower air pressure causes them to move up out of the soil or compost.

However, worms like to move around, going on little worm forays to check out the surrounding area. If you have a few of them on near the lid, as in the picture above, they are probably not escaping, just wandering around. Don’t worry if you see this from time to time.

  • Smell

There can be several causes of a worm farm smelling. Too much food that’s just rotting on the surface is the main culprit. Too much moisture is the next in order. This allows anaerobic digestion to occur which can be nasty. Third is, maybe…sadly…your worms are dead. This happens, so check regularly just under the food layer for lots of red, wriggly, happy critters.

  • Pests

Remember, first, that a worm farm is an ecosystem of its own, with producers, grazers, predators, fungi and bacteria. In balance, they don’t cause a problem, but its when any of them occur in huge numbers that there is an issue.

  • Mold
Green mold
A little mold isn’t too bad.

Mold isn’t bad in small amounts. You’ll find it on pieces of bread or pastry that hasn’t broken down. The solution is to reduce the size and amount of breadstuffs you add to the bed and bury the bread completely.

  • Slugs:  

Poor sealing of the bed is usually the cause. Slugs like to live in the same conditions, so will often be found breeding happily in your worm farm too.

  • Red mites:  

Little red crawling dots that are related to spiders and can attach themselves as parasites to your worms. These are attracted by acidic conditions. A little dolomite will help here.

  • Little black flies:  

These aren’t usually a problem.

  • Maggots: 

These are a problem and point to too much food lying around.

  • Little white worms: 

They can be seen all the time, but don’t usually cause a problem. They are called entrachydids. They indicate acidic conditions.

  • Ants: 

Ants are the supreme opportunists. They will invade a worm farm at the first opportunity. Too much food, or using feeding meat or fish to the worms is usually the cause.

  • Slaters: 

Not usually a problem unless they’re in plague numbers. They’re detritivores so eat the same food as the worms.

  • Spiders:  

Spiders show us that there is a thriving ecosystem with lots of prey. They indicate that there is a lot going on on the surface of the bed. This isn’t always a great thing as the worms do their thing in or just below the surface.

There is actually a plus side to most of the pests that you will find in a worm farm – chooks love them. Incorporate your chooks into your worm ecosystem as the top predators (of course, feed them outside of the worm farm…they love to eat worms just a little too much).