Composting Worm Acclimation: Most Common issues

Composting Worm Acclimation: Most Common issues

One common question every new vermicomposter asks is what issues may arise when first introducing worms to their new home.

Almost all of the issues are related to the new environment. 

Imagine being removed from your home and moved across states only to be dumped into an environment that is not only unfit to support your needs but is vastly different from what you are accustomed to. A move can be jarring for worms, so it’s useful to be mindful of the environment your worms came from to provide them the most comfortable home.

The bedding (also called substrate) your worms live in is of paramount importance. One of the most common materials used when starting a vermicompost system is coco coir or a paper and cardboard mix. Both are great sources of carbon, but both for the most part are a sterile medium. What do I mean by sterile? An established vermicompost system is teaming with microlife, with an ecosystem of a variety of fungi and bacteria working together with the worms to break down and process carbon and nitrogen in the substrate. Paper and cardboard go through a process that neutralizes microbial life. So what does this have to do with worm acclimation? 

Ten years ago I made this mistake when starting my first vermi system of 1,000 redworms.  

My first bedding mixture was a combination of all three: paper, cardboard, and coco coir. 

I had an old water cooler with an open top. The application directions instructed me to “drop the worms into your preferred bedding”, but being inexperienced means you will run into issues you never would have imagined or heard of. And that's exactly what happened. There was a mass evacuation in a matter of two hours after putting them into their fresh lifeless substrate. About 500 worms were crawling on my apartment walls, the rest were on the sides of the container attempting an escape or lingering at the top layer planning their exodus. 

What happened? Well, they did not recognize that this was an area for them to occupy and settle into. This can happen for multiple reasons, but if you eliminate this common issue by incorporating a living substrate or biologically dense material such as worm castings into your mixture, this can be the difference between a worm-pocalypse happening in your house or a smooth transition from bed to bed. Red Worms are resilient and low maintenance once you get them settled in, so if you’ve had some troubles early on like this, just know that they can be extremely hardy and can cycle their offspring for decades. Descendants of that very first batch of worms that scaled up my apartment walls are still with me over 10 years later. Of course they have been in the mix of colonies of 50 thousand strong making quality castings for nurseries and online customers around the US. 

The first step in preparing for your new composting worm's arrival is making sure their bedding is full of microbes by adding materials to the fresh new bedding like my favorite, leaf mold compost. Organic potting soil can also be a good material full of microorganisms. If you already have an existing worm bin, just add 5%-20% of some of the older established bedding into the new system.  You do not need a lot of living substrate to mix in, you just need some. 5%-20% is a good range to aim for. 

If you've already started a substrate with a sterile medium do not worry if they are not settling in. The easiest way to help them recognize that this is their new home without mixing a biomaterial would be placing the new system under a well-lit area. (Do not place in direct sunlight as the sun can be too hot for the worms, especially in Texas.)

Most worms are light sensitive and it will eventually drive them down away from the light. They will settle in after roughly 1-2 days of light exposure. Now they will make their environment suitable for their needs by innoculating their environment creating their ideal living space. 

Now that you’ve established their living environment, another reason your worms can reject their new system can be a lack of moisture, a good rule of thumb after you apply some moisture is to ring it out with your hand, and if one or two water droplets drip out then that's it. That moisture should be consistent throughout the system so mix well and apply small amounts at a time, you don’t want a sopping wet system that will go anaerobic and get smelly.  

The next preventative measure is to avoid adding food scraps into the new system until everyone gets settled in, usually around 1-2 days. Rotting food material that will not be eaten can increase acidification and bring on protean poisoning that can destroy your entire population. 

Last but not least is the temperature, if your newly prepped system was basking in the sun all day and you want to introduce your worms give it a few hours in heavy shade or bring it indoors in order to lower the bedding temperature to a nice 76 F. 

These are the basics of introducing worms into their new systems. Remember the worms won’t be the only organisms in your worm system, in fact, the microbes outnumber the worms a billion to one. It’s all ALIVE!

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