Starting a new worm bin

This post will show how to set up a plastic tote worm bin from scratch using the Starter Worm Mix.

The most difficult stage of any worm composting system is the start up stage. This stage is the easiest to get wrong. Most beginners have the most trouble with this and it’s mostly due to expectations. Just a few things right off the bat:

  • Don’t expect the system to process food scraps quickly
  • Don’t add so much water that it pools in the bottom of the bin – aim for damp not drenched
  • Don’t add the worms or worm mix right away

It can be easy to overdo things at the beginning. This is especially true with adding food scraps. In the beginning, “Less is More” should be the mantra. With that out of the way, here is the way I typically start a new system:

Step 1: Preparing the new system

The first step is choosing the right size tote for your needs. Totes come in a variety of sizes from 5 gallon to 70 gallon containers. Larger systems can be easier as they require less overall maintenance but they can be very heavy to move around when full. The sweet spot is the 12 to 20 gallon range. These sizes can accommodate reasonable sized feedings and a good amount of worms. They are also not so heavy that you can stack these bins for multiple systems. If you have trouble lifting items for any reason it is better to stick with the lower volume ranges, even a 7 gallon container can be a good system.

Step 2: Adding airflow

Unfortunately, the bins alone will hold too much moisture and won’t have adequate airflow. Airflow is important as the worms need to breathe and the bacteria that breaks down food wastes also require oxygen. The more airflow in these enclosed plastic totes the better. There are a number of sites that show systems set up with multiple totes by stacking one inside the other and putting drainage holes on the bottom of the top tote. I am not a fan of this as it requires an additional expense of another tote and it doesn’t provide so much airflow to the bottom to make it worth it (my opinion).

In order to provide airflow, holes need to be added to the sides of the tote. This can be done either with a drill or a solder iron. More people have access to a drill than a solder iron (myself included) so I’ll be explaining that method. (Side note: A solder iron may be a better option as it won’t leave small plastic bits like a drill will.)

I typically use a 3/8″ or a 1/2″ drill bit for the holes. The holes should be drilled close to the top of the tote about every 2″ or so. There really isn’t any perfect amount but the more the better. You can make them larger but I would recommend putting some type of cloth over larger holes to prevent uninvited fruit flies or any other pest.

The tote has two rows of alternating drill holes along the top.

Step 3: Adding dry bedding

Since these systems are excellent at holding moisture, you will want a layer of dry bedding at the bottom. Over time, this bedding will soak up moisture from added food scraps and the processed vermicast. The most widely available bedding is corrugated cardboard (Amazon boxes in particular). I shred cardboard in a paper shredder but you don’t have to do this. Just tear up the pieces by hand. I also had some paper egg carton material so I threw some of that in. This layer is roughly 3″ in depth.

Step 4: Lightly water the top of the bedding

I use a pump sprayer but any hand sprayer will do. I use just enough water to coat the top layer of the bedding. Again this layer will soak in food scraps added later on. (Side note about water: avoid using city water if possible as it contains chlorine and possibly chloramine. These chemicals kill pathogens (good thing!) but also bacteria that break down scraps and worms eat (not so good). If you can stick with rainwater but if not use filtered water. But DO NOT buy water for this! If you don’t have filtered water, you can leave water in a bucket for 24 hours and occasionally stir it. This will off gas the chlorine.)

The pump sprayer is a 2 gallon version.

Step 5: Add a SMALL amount of food scraps

I can’t stress this enough, only use a handful or so of food scraps. The aim of vermicomposting is a cold composting process. Heating can kill worms. This is the most common way to kill an system by adding too many scraps at once. At this initial set up stage I typically add frozen food scraps. As the scraps thaw, the released moisture will soak into the bedding around it.

The scrap was an old celery that was going bad. The celery was chopped up a bit and placed in. Notice that you can still see bedding below.

Step 6: Add more bedding

Cover up the food scraps with a layer of bedding. This will help to prevent any smells to attract unwanted pests. The bedding will also soak in any excess moisture from the scraps. After adding this layer, spray it down with water. You can add more water than previously added. The goal is a wrung out sponge level of moisture.

Step 7: Add the worms or Starter Worm Mix

Actually, before adding worms wait about three days for the food scraps to break down some. If there are unpleasant smells add more bedding.

Now it’s time to add the worms. If you are using the Starter Worm Mix, slowly spread the material out from one side to the other. The worms may be sluggish at this point but that’s OK! They will take a few days to acclimate to the system. The Starter Mix will contain the necessary microbes and bacteria for the system to get going. It also provides an area for the worms to hang out and settle into their new home.

Add some moisture to the top of this using the sprayer.

I added some shredded newsprint into the Starter Mix before adding. The Starter Worm Mix doesn’t look like this.

Step 8: Add last layer of bedding

Add a light layer of bedding on top of the Starter Worm Mix to prevent the material from drying out. Then add some moisture on top. This top layer is always subject to drying out a bit. That’s OK! It’s more important that the layers underneath the top layer have the wrung out sponge level.

The dry top layer offers a few benefits:

  • Deters fruit flies from laying eggs in the system
  • Can act as a wick for excess moisture below if the bin gets too wet
  • Can prevent mites from getting out of hand in the system

Step 9: Close the bin! You’re all set!

Put the lid back on top and set it in a place that is out of the way. Nothing more to it!

After 3 or 4 days check in on the system to see if the worms are spreading out some. Also check in on the food scraps that were added. If the scraps are missing, you can slowly add in some more food. I would continue with adding a handful at a time for a few weeks. Once you notice the worms processing the scraps faster, then you can add some additional scraps. It is best to place the scraps in sections and never cover the entire surface with them. You always want to provide some areas for the worms to congregate to just in case.

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