Willy the Worm's Wonderful Words of Wisdom

(Letters, Questions, and Answers)

Part 3


From: John, Freda, and Barrett Ludy
(The Ludy's are from Indiana)

How would you suggest we design a small, portable bin for our son's elementary school science fair project? We need to keep the worms in it for about two weeks. Also, it can't be much bigger than a large shoebox due to size limitations for displays.

Hello John, Freda, and Barrett,

First of all, let me thank you for the nice words about "The Burrow." It's always nice to know that people are making use of the material I am putting out.

The procedure for a worm bin of the size you describe is neither difficult, nor unusual (at least no more unusual than any worm bin.)

To begin with, the actual bin could be constructed from a little plywood, to whatever specifications you require. On the other hand, however, a quick trip to W..mart, or_-mart, (or Worm-mart?), should prove to be much quicker, and I know for certain that they handle little plastic "food storage containers" that are precisely the same size as a shoe-box (probably an intentional coincidence.) The ones I buy (for running small experiments, or testing new food sources or bedding materials out on small sample populations of worms) have never cost more than $1.79, which in a long run works out to be a lot more convenient than building one.

When you get the container home (make sure it comes with a lid), its time to divide up the work, and guess what, you have exactly the right number of people. How you actually divide up this tremendous amount of labor is entirely up to you, but I have Willy looking over my shoulder, and he would like to suggest that you let him pick who should do what (he's such a busybody, but we're good friends, so I said O.K.)

The first thing that has to be done is a slight modification to the container, namely the addition of drainage holes. Now one of the only problems with these plastic containers is that they will often break if you try to "punch" holes in the bottom. Therefore, Willy has two suggestions as to how John can do this without encountering any problem.

The first method is to simply use an electric drill to "drill" several holes about as round as a pencil into the bottom. (Sometimes these containers have molded bottoms, so the holes will have to be in the lowest areas.) The second method (and I AGREE with Willy that ONLY an adult should do this) is to melt some holes in the bottom of the container with a soldering iron. If this is the method John chooses, however, Willy says he should remember to melt the holes from the inside out, so any rough edges are on the outside of the container, where the worms won't scratch their skin on them.

Now once this is done, the container will need some bedding, and because the container is rather small, this bedding should be fresh, so it will last the worms the full two weeks without getting all used up. Willy thinks Freda should do this so that Barrett will be able to start on his job, which is to separate the required worms from the old bedding. These next couple of points, however, are pretty important, so it would be a good idea to read them before anyone starts anything.

While Freda is making up enough fresh bedding to fill two thirds of the new container, Barrett will have to take enough material from the main bed to make sure he gets enough worms that they will be easy for his science teacher to find. If you pile this bedding, Barrett, on a table or bench, with a very bright light hanging right over top of it, the worms (they're very shy) will start to burrow down into it. Give them a few minutes, then carefully brush the top of the old bedding over to the side, away from the main pile. (When you start to see a lot of worms, its time to stop, move the light even closer if you can, and wait till they go down some more.)

After you have repeated this a few times, you will run out of bedding in the main pile, but you should have a little ball of worms all tangled up together, trying to get away from the light. Now, while Barrett keeps an eye on the worms (they'll try to get away from the light), either Freda or John will take enough of the old bedding (and whatever baby worms are still mixed up in it) to fill the third part of the new bin. Remember to only bring the bedding to within a couple inches of the top of the container.

Now moving "fast like bunnies", either John or Freda should bury a little bit of food, such as coffee grounds, under the third of the fresh bedding which is furthest from the OLD material. (Try to avoid things like potato peels, or apple cores in a bed this small since they take up too much room, and a lot of time to decay.)

Finally, with everything ready in the bed, its Barrett's turn to move "fast like bunny", and put his pile of worms on top of the OLD bedding. Shine a light on my little buddies, and they'll burrow down real (YOU GOT IT!) "fast like bunnies", even untangling themselves while they do it. And there you go, a fully operational worm-bin, the perfect size for a science project. (In case you're curious, the reason for the OLD bedding is so the worms can adjust slowly to the fresh material.)

If you feed them again, it shouldn't be until at least a week later (so they can settle in), and the new food should be buried on the side of the bed opposite to where the first food was buried (that means the second batch will go under the OLD bedding.) Again, only use one third of the bin, and always use one end or the other, never the middle.

When you transport the worms to the science fair, wrap the container in an old blanket or something when you take them outside (I just looked up your weather on the Internet, and I see it gets pretty chilly in Indiana.) Other than that, just have a good time, and after the fair is over, simply dump the little container back into the large container....but gently. (Willy wants you to say hello to Ferdinand if you see him, and when I asked him how you were supposed to recognize this Ferdinand character, Willy said he would be easy to spot, since he was the only worm Willy knows in Indiana with a punk-style haircut??!

By the way (I bet you thought I forgot), the lid can be placed upside down under the new container, to catch any liquid that leaks out, and then can be used as a lid to provide extra warmth when the bin is moved.

So take care for now, and let me know how you do at the fair.

Brian Paley (The Worm Guy)

Willy the Worm(The Human Hunk)

Very funny Willy.
I thought so.


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From: Tara Spitzer
(Tara is a student in upper state New York)

Hi again,

Hello Tara (Tam?),

I'm sorry to keep writing to you.

It is no bother at all, as long as you remember that I am a full-time university student, who like yourself (from time time), has no choice but to put everything else on the back burner while I prepare for upcoming tests and exams (which I wll be doing for the next two weeks or so, which means I got to your letter just in time.) If you do write, and it takes a while for an answer, it doesn't mean I'm ignoring you, I'm probably just studying, or taking Willy to a movie.

I had a couple more questions for you and one thing to add. First of all our school has 2 cafeterias and that amount I gave you was for Tuesday-Friday in 1 cafeteria.

Judging from this information, I will be giving you suggestions which will pertain to a bin that is capable of processing roughly 20 pounds of scraps (the type you described in your last letter) per week.

Is it true that composting with worms requires less work because it doesn't have to be turned as often?

That is exactly correct. A regular out-door type of compost "heap" requires regular turning (mixing of the materials) in order to provide air circulation as a means of avoiding the development of "anaerobic" conditions, which will very quickly produce an extremely foul odor. With a worm bin, however, this air circulation is achieved by the movement of the worms throughout the bedding (a very big plus.)

What does it require, does it have to be turned, the moisture has to be maintained, right?

The answers to both these questions are located at my home page, "The Burrow", under the section entitled "Environmental Requirements", under the further sub-headings of "Moisture" and "Aeration." You can go directly there by entering the following address into your browser:

/burrow/environ.htm

or, simply click here.

What about adding new bedding?

The bedding in your worm bin should be pretty much converted, and thus in need of changing (or refreshing) approximately every 4-6 months (it depends on the size of the worm pop., the amount of food they receive, and even those environmental requirements I mentioned earlier.) In a bin the size I am recommending to you, the easiest way to accomplish this procedure is to simply stop feeding one side of the bed two or three weeks before you wish to change it. The worms will move over to the area where the food is contained, and you can then simply scoop out the majority of the material from the side with no feed (the material will contain some cocoons, and small worms, etc., but the majority will be over with the food supply.) Replace the material you remove with fresh bedding material, and then start feeding only this side for another two weeks or so, and the worms will move over once again. Now replace the material on the second side, then begin alternating sides again at feeding time (a little more on this later), and you are set for the next 3-5 months.

How can you add new waste to it because then you'll never be done if it keeps adding new stuff and you'll just accumulate more.

When you first set up the bin, you will make sure that the bedding only comes to within 5-6 inches of the top. Now, in your mind, divide the bedding into three sections....left, right, and middle. The first time you feed the bin, dig out some of the material on the right-hand side, spread the food scraps into this hollowed-out area, and push the material which you moved, back into place so that the food is buried. The following week, do the same thing, but on the left-hand side (remembering that we are talking thirds, not halves.) The next week, go back to the right-hand side (never use the middle section) and start again. In this way, each side gets two weeks to be eaten (plenty of time for the materials you described), and the middle is always available as a "safety zone" for the worms in case either or both of the food-trenches begins to heat up.

As the worms process the bedding, and the food scraps, they will also reduce its volume by a certain amount, and the material will also begin to pack in more tightly at the bottom of the bed. (This is why we "stir" the top few inches of bedding every month or so----to release any gases which may get trapped in the material, where they might reach a level of concentration that could be toxic to the worms. These gases are produced both by the decaying food, and the worms respiratory processes.) The bedding level will also be adjusted every 4-6 months when the material is "freshened."

I am trying to do a small trial project for a week's worth now and I am splitting it in half to compare with worms and without and to see how much there is and how long it takes, first of all.

I'm not exactly clear on what you mean by this. Are you comparing the speed of vermicomposting to that of outdoor-style composting? If so, the test is not really valid, since outdoor piles rely a great deal on the heat generated by microbial activity, and thus require a fair amount of matter before adequate conditions can be arrived at (somewhere in the area of a 3-square-foot "pile" of organic substances, and in the correct amounts, creating a correct (suitable) Nitrogen/Carbon ratio.)

Depending what I find out I would like to turn this into a larger project and something that I could use for my senior project which means it will continue after I graduate so I am trying to think ahead.

In that respect, you are doing exactly the right thing......I'm a big fan of thinking ahead (and with your track-record, I suspect you'll do just fine.)

Also, how large a container would I need for that?

For your particular situation, I am going to strongly suggest that you (or someone you know) build a custom bin out of plywood and two-by-fours. You can find the plans for one bin of this type (though smaller than what you'll require) at my home page once again, this time under the section entitled "Build Your Own Worm Bin". To get there directly, enter the following address into your browser:

/burrow/bin.htm

or if you are reading this in my letter section, just click here

AFTER YOU READ THE REST OF THIS LETTER.

I said the bin in the plans was not large enough for your particular needs, so this is what you will require. The finished bin should be two feet wide, by six feet long, and at least 22 inches deep. DO NOT USE TREATED LUMBER (the greenish-colored material), but you can use a caulking compound to seal the joints. (Make sure the caulking is completely "cured" before adding either bedding or worms, since you don't want the fumes trapped in the bed.)

This will give you three imaginary sections of bedding roughly two feet by two feet, and you should have no trouble burying even 20 pounds of waste every other week in either the left or right-hand section (NEVER IN THE MIDDLE.) Start off with less, however, since you need to give the worm population time to expand into their new environment. Move a little material each week to check if there is a lot of food remaining in the old trench. If there is, cut back a little on the amount you are feeding. Given adequate time, however, I feel safe in saying you will be amazed at how fast those scraps start to disappear.

Since I'm not sure what your initial population of worms consists of, I will suggest that you start off with at least three pounds of bed-run (mixed) red worms (if you have more, use more....that bed will hold up to 18 pounds of worms very comfortably.) Begin with smaller amounts of food, and increase them as the worm population grows. If you have a stretch of space 2 feet wide by six feet long that you can use as a location, the rest of the materials (I'm guessing at your American prices) should cost under $100.00.

Thanks again,

As I've already mentioned,.....no problem at all (this is one of the best ways to get my information onto the page....in the letter sections. So, take care of yourself, and keep me informed. (If this system is just too large, let me know that also, but once the bin is built, you might be surprised at how little room it actually takes up, and the larger size certainly makes it easier to look after, always a consideration when you have studies to attend to.)

Tara Spitzer :)

Brian Paley (The Worm Guy)

Original Text

Copyright 1995, D. Brian Paley

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