Today was a traumatic day for us. And an even worse day for the worms.
Charlie went downstairs as he was getting ready this morning and then yelled up to me that something was wrong with the worms. I had just rolled out of bed and wasn’t especially happy about dealing with worm problems, but I went downstairs.
Hundreds of worms were climbing on top of each other and cramming themselves in between the sides of one of the trays, trying to get out. We pulled the trays off and found out why: hundreds of other worms had fallen through an empty bottom tray and had drowned in the leachate underneath the trays.
It smelled like death. Worm death. And add some anaerobic compost on top of that. Aggh. We did some triage and got rid of most of the dead, but ultimately had to go to work.
We came back tonight and got a better look at what had happened. I think there were several things that went wrong:
The instructions that came with my Gusanito worm composter said to lay a sheet of weed barrier underneath the bottom-most tray, in between it and the liquid collection tray. In theory, good idea to keep the worms and castings from getting gummed up in the spigot.
In real life, the worms would fall through the holes in the bottom tray and then get caught on the weed barrier and not be able to get back up. This meant that they ended up drowning in the leachate. Dead worms. This has happened to a much lesser extent in the past, but nothing ever on this scale.
After I thought more about this I realized that the weed barrier really should go inside the bottom tray, rather than underneath it. This will keep the worms from falling through, but will still allow the liquid to pass into the liquid collection tray.
Another thing that I think contributed was that one of the trays was especially full, and in my attempt to add bedding, had inadvertently created layers of paper products with compost in between. I had made the bad choice of putting a few sheets of red office paper together on top of the pile, without shredding them. The worms didn’t seem to like the dyed paper at all, so it just sat there. Add more compost on top, then another layer of cardboard, and more compost and shredded paper on top. All in all, I think the layers kept the worms from being able to move around in the tray, and to decompose things properly. That led to anaerobic (stinky) compost.
The worms probably didn’t appreciate this arrangement very much, so they went searching for a better home and ended up in the empty tray beneath, where they then fell through into the weed barrier. Final product: dead, stinky worms and stinky compost.
We put the weed barrier in the bottom tray, and then separated out the really full tray into two trays and removed or broke up the layers of paper. Hopefully that will allow the worms to move around and get things back to normal.
sigh. I feel like such a bad worm steward. As I was hosing off the things that had become covered in worm stink and castings, I was thinking that at least this didn’t happen with chickens. It makes me appreciate that we haven’t forayed into larger backyard animals, where an animal apocalypse would be even more traumatic.
And now our hands really stink. As in, really really stink. You know how when you chop garlic and then like 24 hours later you can still smell it? Same thing. Except with the smell of worm death. Yuck.
I didn’t take pictures of the casualties – no one wants to see that. I checked out Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up & Maintain a Worm Composting System from the library, so hopefully we can avoid any more death and destruction.