Bog Soil

Though this material has a lot in common with peat moss, it must be understood that bog soil is a very different substance, with unique characteristics of its own. When we refer to peat moss or sphagnum, we are usually speaking about dead plant material that can still be identified as such. Bog soil on the other hand, is material that has been dredged up from the bottom of the bog, and is decomposed well past the stage where easy visual identification is possible. As opposed to peat moss, which is usually brown in color, bog soil that has any moisture content at all will be very black, turning slightly brown only when completely dehydrated.

During the period that I was maintaining my worm beds in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, I was directed by a customer of mine to a bog located just outside of town. (It was one of the nicer places I have ever been told to go. ) When I arrived at the site, I discovered that at some point in history, someone had dredged mountains of material from the bottom of the bog, and left it piled up in huge mounds all around the edges of the water. I suspect the absence of sufficient quantities of sphagnum was the main reason the "bog soil" had been abandoned. At any rate, the place was open to public access, and there had obviously been many people before myself who had loaded up large quantities of this material, probably for use as a soil additive in their gardens. For several months after that time, I periodically trucked a load of this "soil" home, screened the larger pieces of wood out of it, and used it as worm bedding. The worms loved it, and it made a really nice final product after the worms had mixed it with all the food wastes I was using as feed. (Finding a beautifully-preserved piece of fossilized tree bark in one of the batches I took home was also a very pleasant bonus.)

Among the advantages of bog soil can be found the following items:

  1. Moisture retention.
    This is one of the areas where bog soil is very similar to peat moss, holding several times its weight in moisture content. In fact, it seems to me that it might be even better than peat moss in at least one regard. Though I've never run actual tests to determine by how much, I would have to say that bog soil holds the water even longer than moss, apparently being more resistant to the effects of evaporation. Also, peat moss will tend to "crust" over at the surface as it loses moisture, but bog soil remains friable even when its dry. This allows the worms better access to the surface, with less chance of damage to their skin.
  2. Lack of Odor.
    Another similarity shared with peat moss, but beneficial for at least one reason in addition to the obvious one of not being offensive. When you use peat moss, it is easy to estimate how converted the bedding has become simply by watching the color of the material. As the level of the castings increases, the bedding will become darker in color, alerting you to the fact that a cleaning of the bed might be in order. Since moistened bog soil is already black, however, it requires a pretty good eye to tell what percentage of castings the bedding contains. (A close inspection will show that the converted material is slightly lighter in color than the fresh material, a dark grey as opposed to black.) This is where the initial lack of odor becomes very important. Since worm casts contain a large amount of actinomycetes, and actinomycetes account for the smell associated with good rich earth, we can let our noses substitute for our eyes. If we sniff a handful of the bedding material, and the bog soil now smells like fresh garden soil, we know that a fair amount of conversion has taken place. Like all casting-rich bedding, if you completely dry an amount of converted bog soil, it will turn in color to a light grey, quite easily distinguished from a sample of the fresh material.
  3. Diversity.
    In this area, bog soil shares the same benefits as peat moss in that it can be used to enhance other beddings that do not hold moisture as well, and it can still be used for its cooling properties, and its lightweight nature, though in all fairness, it weighs slightly more than moss, and packs a little tighter. In these areas, I would rate bog soil as a strong runner-up to peat moss, and way ahead of the remaining materials.
  4. pH.
    In the matter of pH, I consider bog soil to be superior to peat moss, since it tends to be a completely neutral substance. Of course, this means it cannot be used to correct the imbalances of another bedding, but that disadvantage is far outweighed by the benefit of its neutrality. Since it is neither acidic nor alkaline, worms can usually be transferred into this bedding with very little risk to their well-being.
  5. Cost.
    Whenever you can find this material, it will probably be free for the hauling, and that's a price you simply can't beat. A couple cautions, however, might be in order. First of all, always respect private property. Some bogs might be located on privately-owned land, and in that situation, either permission should be sought from the owner before removing any material, or the site should be removed from your list of locations. With all the many sources of bedding material which are available, trespassing is not only unnecessary, but very likely to give vermiculture a black eye which it simply doesn't deserve. Another point to keep in mind is the possibility of obtaining contaminated material. Though it is sad to say, the truth of the matter is that bogs have often been used in the past (and probably still are in the present), as illegal dumping sites. If the bog you are considering happens to be in the immediate vicinity of a large mill, or industrial site, you might want to look elsewhere. It would be a shame to produce castings that were later responsible for the contamination of your garden, or possibly the illness of your friends, your family, or yourself.
Among the disadvantages of bog soil can be found the following items:
  1. Availability.
    Since bog soil is basically an unprocessed material, you are very unlikely to find it in your local garden center. Even if you have a vehicle, and the ambition required to find a suitable source--a bog that is open to the public--there is still a fair amount of work involved in loading it into containers, and then unloading the containers upon arrival at your home. It will also require screening to remove the larger pieces of wood which always seem to be present, and finally, if the trip is to be made worthwhile, a large amount of this material will likely need to be acquired. The storage of this excess material until it is needed could present some problems of its own. In short, if your particular circumstances are not just right, acquiring this material just may not be worth the effort.
  2. Possible Contamination.
    We have already discussed this possibility a little earlier, but I wanted to mention it once again, simply because it is so important. I cannot stress it enough. If you have any reason to suspect the integrity of a batch of bog soil (or any bedding), find another source! There is simply too much material available for use to have to settle for something that may prove to be harmful to the environment (I include people in this word since we certainly are part of that environment.)
  3. Lack of Nutritional Value.
    (See comments under same heading in section on peat moss.)
All things considered, and all cautions taken, bog soil is an excellent bedding, and anyone fortunate enough to come across a good, reliable source of this material should consider themselves to be very lucky individuals indeed.

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Now this is a material you just have to love. Not only is it relatively easy to use, and as plentiful as it gets, but using it as bedding solves the problem of bundling it up, and lugging it off to the recycling depot. Which brings me to another point, and my first real digression in this article (I really am getting better. )

In the time that I have been vermicomposting, I have been subjected on at least two separate occasions to lectures about the evils of feeding paper products to worms, when in fact I should be recycling those materials. The somewhat distorted logic at the heart of these lectures goes something like this. It is better to reuse a material several times than to feed it to worms once, whereupon it is forever lost to the world?! My personal view of that particular argument is best expressed in this manner.

You see, my friends, it goes like this. First of all, material that is fed to worms is not lost to the world, but rather, it is transformed into one of the finest soil additives available to us from anywhere. Using this material in places such as tree nurseries can result in faster-growing, and even healthier trees. More trees equal more material for not only paper products, but building materials, and even other considerations such as food, air, and natural beauty. So vermiculturists are not taking something away from Nature, but in actuality, adding to it. And as far as the paper recyclers go, consider this. Even with the popularity of recycling these days, the process is still in its infancy. The truth of the matter is that the entire recycling industry is diverting just a fraction of the available waste materials from the landfills and incinerators of this planet. If we can feed another fraction of that particular part of the waste stream to our worms, fine. And if we ever reach a point where no more material is being landfilled, and the recycling industry cannot find enough paper to process, we can always switch our worms over to yard wastes, food scraps, or other such materials. In the meantime, we are only dealing with a portion of the material that is beyond the capabilities of a very young recycling infrastructure. (We are your allies, not your enemy.) And now, back to the business at hand.

Among the advantages of newsprint can be found the following items:

  1. Availability and Consistancy.
    Newsprint is one of the most common materials available anywhere in North America. If you yourself don't receive a daily paper, you probably know many people who do. With only one or two of those people saving their papers for you (and being grateful to get rid of them), you can keep most in-home worm bins in perpetual bedding with no effort whatsoever. Aside from the daily newspaper, there is also a constant supply of flyers and various ads invading most homes on a regular basis. I personally find it quite gratifying to know that whereas I "occasionally" eat junk food, my worms "regularly" eat junk mail.
    On the consistancy side of things, we owe a big thank-you to our federal governments, who indirectly solved the biggest problem vermiculturists used to face when considering the use of newsprint as worm bedding. The problem was, of course, the heavy metals contained in many of the inks which were commonly used in the past. If the worms passed these substances into their castings, then the resulting compost would be of little, or no value to the average vermiculturist, possibly even qualifying as toxic waste. In an effort to protect our children, however, the government passed laws requiring the absence of these materials from any product that a child could get into his/her mouth. Complying with these regulations, manufacturers now produce inks which are soy or canola based, and both of these substances are readily, and harmlessly ingested by worms. Hurray for sensible legislation!
  2. Easy to Use.
    Whereas certain bedding materials require a fair amount of preparation prior to use, newsprint needs only to be shredded and soaked. The excess moisture is then squeezed out, and the bedding is ready for use. Hand-shredding is probably the most common method of reducing the paper in size, with paper-shredders rapidly becoming more popular. Though newsprint can be ground into dust with larger industrial machinery such as a hammermill, this results in the need of wearing protective devices to prevent the accidental inhalation of the finer airborne particles. (You don't want paper-dust in your lungs.) Since moist newsprint decays quite rapidly even in slightly larger pieces, however, reducing the material to the size of dust is really unnecessary. You could also decide to simply crumple up entire sheets of moistened newsprint, but then expect it to take a little longer to get eaten.
  3. Cost.
    As I have already mentioned, newsprint is readily available, at a very reasonable cost, or free. If you find you require a lot of this particular material, you might try approaching your neighborhood grocery store, and inquiring about how they dispose of the daily papers that do not sell. Often, you will discover that just the banner portion of the front page is saved as proof that the paper was not sold, and the rest of the paper is then cast into the garbage. Usually, a storeowner would prefer to have someone pick up these unwanted items, rather than have them added to the garbage which he/she will later have to pay to have hauled away.
  4. Convenience.
    Any time you can arrange to have your worm bedding delivered to your door, rather than having to go out and locate it elsewhere, you can consider yourself ahead of the game. This is very often the case with newsprint when we are talking about one or two indoor composters of average size. Considering that the bedding only has to be changed roughly once every three months, if your daily paper has any size at all to it, you should always have at least enough bedding for the average-sized operation, and in addition, some nice delivery-person will bring it right to your home. Could you reasonably ask for more?
  5. pH.
    This time I'll list the matter of pH as a benefit, which is where it probably belongs at any rate. Like peat moss, newsprint is naturally an acidic material, and as such, it also may be used to bring overly-alkaline substances back into balance. (Once again, gardeners have known this for a very long time.) Since it is acidic, however, the same cautions must be taken that were mentioned in our discussion of peat moss' pH, and the same methods should be used when worms are transferred into newsprint from a bedding that falls closer to the alkaline side of the scale.
  6. Lack of Odor.
    Newsprint is another of these wonderful substances that has no inherent odor, making it a real pleasure to use as worm bedding.
Among the disadvantages of newsprint can be found the following items:
  1. Oil-Based Inks.
    I know...I know....I said earlier that the new "oil-based" inks were a tremendous blessing. They are...for the worms, and for the make-up of the resulting compost. However, for the person doing the shredding, at least if it's being done by hand, we have a whole different story. You see, oil-based inks transfer very well onto skin, and from skin onto just about everything else. What this results in are hands and fingers that very quickly, become very black, and quite often become the cause of smudged clothing, furniture, faces, and other assorted goodies. Furthermore, the oils in these inks repel water very efficiently, making it necessary to use lots of soap in our resulting efforts at removing the invasive smudges. If you use a paper-shredder to prepare the material, you can solve a lot of the problem, but even then, I'll bet at least a smudge or two gets past you. All I can suggest is that you train yourself not to handle anything of value while working with newsprint, and even if it itches...try not to scratch it.
  2. Possible Contamination.
    This next point is one that should never be neglected, but may also prove very tempting to those of us who find we have very little time which we can devote to bedding preparation. I'm talking about considering the use of newsprint that has already been pulverized for use as an insulation material. To put it plainly....DON'T DO IT!
    Newsprint that has been prepared for use as insulation has also been treated with fire-retardant chemicals. Not only could these chemicals destroy your worm population, but even worse, the worms might actually survive, producing castings that could later be used to fertilize your garden, possibly contaminating a portion of your food supply. In short, saving yourself a little effort is just not worth the potential risk which it involves. For this same reason, machinery that has been used in the preparation of insulation should never be used to prepare bedding material.
  3. It Drys Rapidly.
    Unlike peat moss, or bog soil, substances which hold water extremely well, newsprint that is exposed to the air loses its water content quite rapidly. The key phrase here is exposed to air, and as long as we keep this in mind, the problem is easy to solve. What you want to do is place at least a couple of inches of a more water-retentive bedding (such as the already-mentioned moss or bog soil) on top of the newsprint, creating a barrier from the air, and resulting in a lessened need for watering. It is important that newsprint bedding remain moist, since it becomes very rough when it is dry, and this could cause a problem for the worm due to its delicate skin.
  4. It Leaks Light.
    Depending on whether you shred the newsprint, or simply crumple it up, a certain amount of light may filter into the lower regions of the bed. If we understand that a worm does not flee the light due to some unreasonable fear, but rather due to the fact that it is sensitive to ultraviolet rays (prolonged exposure to a light source will result in the death of the worm), then we can understand that this is not a good situation. Once again, however, a top-covering of peat moss, bog soil, compost, or manure can easily be used to solve the problem. A piece of dampened burlap will also work, but a top layer of another bedding material has an additional benefit, which we will discuss very shortly.
  5. It Can Become Compacted.
    This is another area where the degree of the problem will depend on the manner in which the newsprint was prepared as bedding. If shredded, rather than crumpled or pulverized, newsprint can become quite packed down, resulting in several situations which need to be considered. First of all, compacted newsprint is not the easiest material to bury a feed source into, or harvest worms out of. If this was the only problem, however, that good old top-layer of a different bedding material would once again solve the problem. That is the additional benefit I mentioned earlier, a more friable bedding material for the worms to use while the newsprint has some time to decay. However, there is a more serious problem that could develop which a simple top-layer cannot prevent. If the bedding becomes so packed down that it cuts off the available air-supply, anaerobic bacteria (which thrive in the absence of air) could rapidly invade the worm-bin, resulting in the same aroma that a garbage bag produces when built-up fluids drown the bottom layers of the waste material. Not only is this an aroma you will really want to avoid in your house, but the worms like it even less than you, and will probably desert the bin, setting off in search of a more suitable area to live in. This will probably result in great unhappiness for you, and a very quick death for the worms.
At any rate, if we consider all the positive points involved in using newsprint as bedding, we can see that it really is a very useful material with a lot going for it. On the other hand, there are also several negative aspects which must be taken account of, if we wish to avoid creating more problems than we are solving. With all of that in mind, I usually recommend that people who wish to use newsprint as bedding, do so in the following manner. Reduce the material to the smallest size that is reasonably possible, then use it as only one ingredient in a bedding which is composed of several different materials. In that fashion, the newsprint can be used to compliment various other beddings, and at the same time, the other materials can help eliminate the chances of encountering one of the problems most often associated with using the newsprint all by itself. I personally consider newsprint to be a vital ingredient in several of my own worm-bedding mixtures, and appreciate it as a truly beneficial substance.

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Original Text

Copyright 1996, D. Brian Paley

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