(Other Than Manure)
(which will require an article of its own.)
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Of all the ingredients and materials necessary for the indoor culturing of red worms, bedding, which is one of the most important, is also quite possibly the most often neglected. The purpose of good bedding material is apparently one of the least understood aspects of a vermicomposting system, and improper maintenance of this bedding is frequently one of the main reasons for the failures encountered by those who are new to the process. At various times, I have seen worms which were housed in bedding that was too dry, too wet, too dense, and even too coarse. I have also witnessed worms living in their food--having no bedding at all--and while there are situations where this might be the proper practice, indoor culturing is not usually one of them.
Before we discuss the various materials which are suitable for this purpose, and the advantages or disadvantages inherent to each, let's take a moment to decide what we are trying to accomplish by providing the worms with bedding in the first place. We can do this by looking at what the worms need in order to lead healthy and productive lives, and then deciding which of these needs are dealt with most efficiently by the bedding.
A Worm Needs....
Now if we only had the worms to consider, that would just about do it. However, when we talk about cultured worms, we must also consider the needs of those who are doing the culturing, namely you and yours truly.
- Food to eat.
- Environmental conditions free from rapid fluctuation.
- Shelter from light sources.
- Access to potential mates. And...
- Delicate handling.
A Vermiculturist Needs....
With that in mind, we can now set down at least a couple of basic qualifications for what makes a good worm bedding. Though these are not the only considerations by any means, these points will go a long way to setting us on the right path.
- Healthy, productive worms.
- Freedom from foul-smelling bins.
- Freedom from intrusive pests. And...
- Easy access to required materials.(A winning ticket in the local lottery is probably out of the question?!)
Bedding Material Should....
So, with all of these points in mind, let's get down to the job of looking at the available options, and the various pros and cons associated with each. Just before we do, however, I should point out that I am not trying to nudge anyone in one specific direction or another. All I am really interested in is giving everyone enough information so that they can decide on whichever bedding will best suit their individual circumstances, and a pointer or two on how best to use whichever one they finally decide upon. Each of the following materials are suitable as worm bedding, but some will simply be more suitable than others for your particular needs. So if that is clear to everyone.....we may proceed.
- Retain moisture in a form that is accessible to worms.
- Stay loose and allow for air passage between the individual particles.
- Allow for drainage of excess moisture.
- Not be coarse enough to damage a worm's delicate skin.
- Not be a food source that is high in protein.
- Be aged past the heating stage. And....
- Be free of topsoil. (Red worms are compost or manure worms as opposed to earthworms.)
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With the exception of manure (a topic we will deal with in a later article), peat moss is probably the most widely-used of all the worm beddings. A few years ago, we could even have defined this material more specifically as "Canadian" peat moss, or sphagnum moss. The reasons for that particular preference had to do with the fact that the Canadian peat moss was a sterile medium, whereas the American peat moss was more likely to contain various impurities which might have proved harmful to the worms. Though many breeders still ship worms in Canadian sphagnum, often at the specific request of the buyer, if reasonable care is exercised, just about any peat moss may now be used.
Since I can already hear the multiple screams heading my way, let me explain what I mean by reasonable care. First of all, any suspicious moss should be thoroughly "leached" before it is used as worm bedding. This is a simple matter accomplished by soaking the material for a few hours (or overnight) in clean water, and then squeezing out the excess moisture. If the water you squeeze out is dirty, the process should be repeated until the resulting flow is as clean as when it was first added. At that point, resist the temptation to add your entire worm population to the moss until you have first allowed a brave handful of worms to try out the new accomodations for at least one entire night. If they survive, chances are the others will also. Of course, if you are fortunate enough to have access to some of the true Canadian sphagnum, you can probably skip the first step altogether, and proceed directly to the test with the partial population. I do, however, strongly suggest that you never skip the second test. You may get away with it 99 out of 100 times, but just one bad batch of moss and....well, you get my point.
Like most other bedding materials, peat moss has both advantages and disadvantages. The reason for its popularity, however, is that the advantages pretty much outweigh the negative aspects, and those things considered to be disadvantages can often be used in a positive manner. If we understand each of these characteristics, and make the best use of them, it becomes easy to see why so many worm breeders favor this material.
Among the advantages of peat moss can be found the following items:
Among the disadvantages of peat moss can be found the following items:
- Moisture Retention.
Because it retains moisture so well, peat moss can lessen the amount of daily attention required by the worm bed (a major plus in multiple-bed situations.) And less watering means you will have that much more time to teach the worms to dance, recite poetry, or run for political office. In all fairness, I have to admit I have heard at least one individual express concern that while peat moss does indeed retain large amounts of moisture, the water is trapped inside the fibres, where the worms cannot make use of it. I also have to admit that I find that a little hard to believe, since the worms ingest the entire fibre, water and all. If any worm has ever died of thirst while living inside moistened peat moss, I, for one, have never heard about it.
This is one of those characteristics you can only appreciate if you have had prior experiences with bedding materials that are not so easily handled, such as manure or leaf mold. Properly moistened moss is a pleasure to handle, and if you should drop a little here or there, just let it dry, and vacuum or sweep it up.
- It Has No Inherent Odor.
Though worms tend to deodorize most materials simply by their existance within the medium, there is often a short period of time where some beddings might be just a little offensive to those of us with delicate sensibilities. No such problem with peat moss, a definite plus in my books.
- Availability and Consistancy
If you happen to live in a rural area, the availability of material for worm bedding should never be a problem. Urban living, however, can often present certain difficulties. Aside from having to gather materials, storing those which you manage to accumulate can present additional problems. For those with very limited storage space, or lacking suitable amounts of the time or inclination required to gather materials, peat moss offers easy access, usually at a reasonable cost. Any decent garden-supply shop will have this material on hand, and a medium-sized bag can usually be purchased for just a few dollars. For the average indoor system, a bag of moss will usually last several months, and if the same brand is constantly used, the worms will not be subjected to the rapid changes of condition that can so often raise their mortality rate.
Last but not least among the advantages of using peat moss as a bedding material, we should make mention of the wonderful diversity of this substance. Not only can peat moss be used alone, but it can also be used to enhance just about any other bedding material, and even as a method of rectifying certain problems encountered with other products, and also some environmental problems. For instance, if a certain bedding material drys too rapidly, adding a 30-50% mixture of moss will help to retain the necessary moisture level. In beddings that are too dense, peat moss will add a little porosity, and in materials that are too far on the alkaline side of the pH scale, the acidic nature of peat moss can serve to bring things into a better balance. When used as a shipping medium, peat moss will retain enough moisture to cool the worms, without requiring so much water that it will easily freeze solid. The fact that this material is lighter than most will also save some of the shipping costs, and because of its sterile nature, you may encounter less hassle from Customs when shipping internationally. All in all, peat moss has a lot going for it, and eventually, just about every worm breeder or vermculturist will come to consider it an indespensible part of their operation.
All in all, a truly remarkable substance, and as we've already stated, a bedding material widely-used by vermiculurists around the world.
- The Cost.
Now I know I already said that peat moss was inexpensive, and it is (as long as we are talking about a regular-sized indoor operation.) However, many other bedding materials are free, so we have to be fair and call any price-tag at all a disadvantage. In the situation of a larger set-up, the cost can rapidly add up, and for commercial applications, the expense would be simply ridiculous. What this means is that peat moss is a great choice for an indoor bedding for a regular-sized set-up, but can only serve very specific needs for anything much larger than a one or two-bed system.
- Its Acidic Nature (pH)
By its very nature, peat moss is an acidic substance. Since the worms prefer a pH that is close to neutral (or very slightly acidic), this can present a problem if certain precautions are not taken. First of all, worms that were previously housed in bedding materials that were neutral or slightly alkaline, should never be transfered directly into straight peat moss. Though I have raised several batches of worms in sphagnum (moss), they were either hatched initially in that substance, or gradually acclimated to the new conditions. To acclimatize worms to new bedding, I simply transfer an amount of the old material, worms and all, to one side of the new bed, opposite to the fresh bedding. The worms will then move into their new environment at their own pace, and the number of casualties is considerably reduced. (This procedure should be used whenever you place newly-received worms into a bed that contains material other than that which they were shipped in.) On the plus side of this matter, the acidic nature of peat moss can be used to balance other beddings (or soils) that have become too alkaline for whatever reason, something that gardeners everywhere have known for years.
- A Lack of Nutritional Value
Since peat moss is made up of very old plant matter that has been sitting in, or under, a bog for many, many years, whatever nutrients it may have contained in a previous lifetime (spooky, huh?) have all been thoroughly leached out, which means that not even a worm can live on a steady diet of this material for any length of time. As far as that being a disadvantage or not, I guess it's merely a matter of personal opinion. If you are more interested in getting rid of food scraps (or some other feed source), rather than peat moss, you might consider this to be a benefit, since the worms will rely on the feed for nutritional value, and the peat moss will add body as it gets blended into the final mixture. This tendency to add to the structure of the finished compost is one of peat moss's best selling points, so maybe this item should have been listed under advantages after all. (Too late. )
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Copyright © 1996, D. Brian Paley