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How To Fix A Wet Worm Compost

Why does a worm compost start out delightful and easy to work with but eventually turn into an over-wet and sticky collection of slow-to-breakdown food and muck?

I just can’t help it.

If I see a worm compost, I’ll always try and have a look in it.

And 9 times out of 10 that I get to peek into someone else’s worm compost, there’s 2 things I see:
1. what’s in there is really wet, and
2. there’s food scraps in there that are taking a long time to break down.

I looked into a tiered worm farm just recently that was 7 levels high! The owner explained that he had no idea how to work the farm and so when a tier becomes full, he just buys another tier and adds it on top of the last one.

The whole thing was so wet that the top layer was almost swimming. Gah!

Now this 7-level farm is an extreme and hopefully rare situation. But what’s not rare is the wet and mucky state of the compost inside it.

It’s no ones fault either.

It’s just a lack of knowledge of
1. what the natural process is that goes on in there, then
2. how to adjust what you’re doing at that process continues over time.

Over on the Worm Composting Australia telegram page I’ve published a little video of a very wet worm compost that I was called to come and rescue.

So why does this happen? Why does a worm compost start out delightful and easy to work with but eventually turn into an over-wet and sticky collection of slow-to-breakdown food and muck?

Everything you’re about to read will show you how to fix a wet worm compost.

Why A Worm Compost Ends Up Over-Wet

Inside a worm compost there is a principle in action:

A gradual increase in moisture is a natural phenomenon of an operational worm compost.

This is due to the gradual transformation of
1. the initial worm bedding that we put in there at the start, plus
2. the food scraps that are added over time,
into worm castings.

And worm castings are excellent at retaining moisture.

So now we know. If our worm compost is operational – loosely meaning there are worms in there and we keep adding food scraps to it – then it’s naturally going to get wetter over time.

But this doesn’t mean that the sticky mucky mess in there is best, or the desired result. Or even that the compost is necessarily healthy when it’s in this condition.

What it does mean is that if we want to easily get worm castings out of the worm farm that are fluffy and lovely to work with, and if we want the worms to really thrive, then we need to manage the worm compost over time.

I’m going to throw a spanner in the works at this point..

Tiered worm farms, those plastic layered systems that most people use for a worm compost, do NOT help this whole “too much moisture” situation.

But just keep that in that back of your mind for now and we’ll talk about the tiered farms in a Letter another time.

OK back to the situation at hand. What do we do to prevent the worm compost getting too wet to start with, or how do we fix it if it’s already turned to slosh?

How To Care For A Worm Farm Correctly

And how to fix a wet worm compost.

  • Remember the principle: A gradual increase in moisture is a natural phenomenon of an operational worm compost.
  • Don’t treat it like a “kitchen scraps bin” and just add everything at any random time.
  • Aerate the whole compost regularly.
  • Make the effort to notice when it’s getting wetter and adjust your management of it.
  • And despite what the instructions on the box might have said, don’t ever pour water through your worm farm.

Step By Step Recovery Of An Over-Wet Worm Compost

1. Remember the principle.

Any compost is a process not just a pile / tub / bin of decaying organic matter. A worm compost is no different.

What to do: be prepared to adjust what you’re putting in there, and how you’re looking after it, over time. The rest of these points tell you “how” to do that.

2. It’s not a garbage gobbler, or a bottomless food-scraps bin.

It’s a process that changes over time.

And there are little animals in there – the stars of the whole show, the worms – who eat at their pace, not at our pace.

What to do: take this next bit to heart..

The most common mistake people make with a worm compost is over-feeding it.

Compost worms eat ¼ to ½ of their body weight each day. Any more food than that waits until the next day.

On average a compost worm weights ½ of a gram.

Think about that for a moment.

If you originally put 1,000 worms in there (or 500 grams of worms) then they will only eat between 125 grams and 250 grams of food in a day.

Hopefully it’s clearer now, where the limit is on how much food to put in your worm compost.

You can feed them (the correct amount) daily if you want. But I suggest saving each days amount up for 7 days and feeding the total amount to them weekly. Which ties in nicely with my next point.

One caveat before we move on..

When it’s time to feed them next, if there is still some of the last feed visible, then don’t feed them yet. Adding more food before the previous feed is finished means you’re over feeding, which leads to trouble.

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OK, on we go.

3. A healthy worm compost, indeed any compost, is one that is aerated.

By this I mean there is airflow through it.

Airflow is fundamentally necessary to the composting process.

And our hardworking little compost worms need to breathe or they wll very quickly perish.

What to do: simply aerate the whole compost right before you add the weeks feed.

Get your hands in there amongst it all and gently turn it all, softly breaking up any big clumps, and giving it all a good turn over.

This brings the air in, which is needed by the worms and by the aerobic microbes. We’ll talk microbes in another Letter, but essentially, the worms and the composting process need plenty of aerobic microbes.

Bringing all this air into the compost on a regular basis goes a loooong way, maybe all the way, to bringing the whole thing back from being slimey and sticky to being loose, light, easily handled, and in optimal health and condition.

Which then leads to beautiful fluffy nutrient-packed castings at the end of the process.

Take your time with this turning and aerating, you don’t need to be an elephant stomping through the forest or giving the worms a full on earthquake.

And again we move smoothly into the next 2 points combined.

4. Spend the extra time and attention on building your intuition with the worm farm

By taking your time with the activity of turning and aerating and observing all the compost as it turns and seeing the behaviour of your worms as they get moved about, you’ll start to become familiar with what’s happening in there.

You’ll quickly get to know if “it’s wetter this time” or if “it’s dried back a little this time”.

And you can make adjustments accordingly.

If it’s too wet:

  • don’t add more food that is going to release moisture into the compost
  • or, add that food but first add some dry shredded cardboard and the food on top of that so that any released moisture can be absorbed into something
  • don’t put it in the sun but do leave off any lid the farm may have, for the day
  • if you have been pouring water into your worm farm, stop doing that.

Pouring water into a worm farm is a great way to turn the compost anaerobic and ruin it.

Even if that’s what the instructions on the farm box said, that’s a no no. Don’t do that any more.

Another caveat..

What leaks out the bottom of a worm farm is not worm tea and it’s not worm wee.

It’s just leachate.

Worms don’t wee and worm tea is made in a bucket with an air pump. You guessed it, we’ll talk about that in another Letter.

In summary:

  • A worm compost is a process as much as it’s a thing in a tub – it changes over time and we usually need to adjust what we’re doing with it as time goes by
  • Over-feeding is THE most common mistake – we need to feed at the pace of the worms
  • Airflow is what differentiates any compost and most definitely a worm compost from a pile of rotten smelly muck
  • We’re not going to pour water through our worm farms any more ever again not even once.

As you take all this information on board and begin to shift how you look after your worm compost, you can become quite familiar with just how things should be when the compost is healthy and in optimal condition.

Which means you’ll know when something is not right in there.

And now you know some very effective ways to fix a wet worm compost and brings things right again.

If you take this information into your worm compost but things don’t seem to be getting better, click here to see our “Fix Your Worm Compost” Workshop schedule.

It’s a fully interactive workshop where together we build a plan for turning your worm compost back into being everything a healthy worm compost should be.

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