How to Make the Best Red Worm Bedding: The Ultimate Guide

How to Make the Best Red Worm Bedding: The Ultimate Guide

Red wiggler compost worms,
You may think they work hard
… but they stay in bed all day!


A common theme has shown up in the comments section of our Facebook page as of late. In particular, our members have asked some great questions about bedding:

”Which bedding is safe?”

”Can I use colored paper for bedding in the worm bin?”

”What is bedding?”

All great questions, thanks for sending those in! We love to help you dig deeper into the finer points of worm composting. So that’s why red wiggler compost bedding is our topic for this month … and it’s a biggie

Who is this for? Everyone who raises worms needs high-quality bedding.

When is this for? Bedding isn’t only for starting out; it needs to be replenished on a consistent and regular basis.

Why does it matter?The quality of your compost bedding is directly tied to the success, growth, and effectiveness of your worm farm.

By the end of this article we’ll more deeply explore each question above PLUS reveal even more about red worm compost bedding materials and procedures:

  • Which qualities make good bedding
  • What materials to avoid and why
  • Which bedding materials are both sustainable and free
  • How to prepare bedding mix

Bedding Basics

Once you understand these simple bedding facts, you’ll be off on the right foot.

  1. Bedding is what makes up the bulk of what we add to our worm compost bins. If you add it to the bin and it isn’t naturally juicy (considered a green), then it’s a brown, and it can be considered bedding.
  2. Consistently and appropriately moist bedding in the worm bin decomposes aerobically– with the help of billions of bacteria who require oxygen for life. They feed on the organic matter, then become the primary food source for the worms.
  3. The ideal balance of bedding to food is about 60/40, which means more of the red wiggler’s diet may come from bedding rather than food scraps. And that’s why it’s so important to feel confident about what materials you are using in your worm habitats.

Qualities of Good Bedding Material

Now you may be wondering, “What can I use for worm bedding?” Perfect, just read on to learn which qualities make certain materials work best.

How to Make the Best Red Worm Bedding: The Ultimate Guide

Sustainability

Since you add bedding regularly, and in greater quantity than the food scraps, you can imagine that it requires a consistently renewable resource to make it worth doing.

Luckily, with an endless flow of junk mail and paper packaging these days, you should be able to find your carbon-rich browns pretty easily.

A red wiggler compost worm requires a very humid environment but suffers in overly wet conditions.

Bedding addresses both- it can suck up excess water when necessary, and retains moisture, keeping everything damp, when things are in perfect balance. This method of moisture maintenance also helps to keep temperatures steady in the worm bin.

Aeration

Fluffy bedding creates the foundation for a hospitable habitat in the worm bin. It’s the many tiny air pockets throughout a layer of damp bedding that allow Eisenia fetida to both breathe through their skin and journey from place to place. If bedding is too compact, it doesn’t allow for aeration. That leads to a risk of anaerobic decomposition-which leads to rotting and smells in the worm bin. So, keep it fluffy, my friend, keep it fluffy.

Carbon-based

How to Make the Best Red Worm Bedding: The Ultimate Guide

Simply stated, Wikipedia defines carbon as a key component of all known life on Earth.

The healthy worm farm is home to billions of living creatures who rely on carbon-based morganic matter for food.

These elements sustain life and are transformed into other life-giving things, like fertilizer and the next generation of compost worms!

Beware of Bad Bedding

Some materials in the worm bin will cause undue stress, disease, and even death to your red wigglers. When in doubt, leave it out!

ToxinsHow to Make the Best Red Worm Bedding: The Ultimate Guide

This is a point on which many of us get hung up. It’s hard because we often can’t be sure of what makes up the materials we’re choosing! Plus, we can’t always predict the way worms will react to new materials in the bin. It often depends on the maturity of the existing compost, the quantity of bedding added, other materials already in the bin, and the way we process and prepare our materials as bedding.

Some inks in the past were known to contain toxins. And even though most no longer use harmful chemicals, you’re always better safe than sorry, so be sure to read labels, check for toxic/non-toxic symbols, and look to see if there is anything indication that the manufacturer has used soy-based inks.

Commonly, a few materials raise the most red flags … and for good reason:

  • Sawdust or wood chips from timber treated to keep insects away have chemicals best left out of the worm bin.
  • Cedar, poison oak, poison sumac, and poison ivy all have naturally occurring harmful oils.
  • Yard waste with pesticide residue will kill off the bacteria and lead to the demise of the worm bin.
  • Bleached paper contains chlorine which may damage delicate worm skin. (See below)
  • Highly pigmented colors in glossy magazine pages often contain heavy metals that can build up and poison a worm.

The Good News(paper)

It’s confirmed, newspaper print is now mostly made of soy ink and vegetable dyes, and is not harmful.

A comment posted by Len on the Permaculture Research Institute website claims, “A chemist told me that if you filled an A4 page with colour that the amount of ink would only represent about 1% or so the weight of the paper.“ I found that to be interesting- especially when we consider what fraction of the entire mix of bedding it ends up being. Super tiny.

I use loads of shredded office paper, along with leaves, cardboard, partially composted yard waste, and much more. The combination further reduces any risk of heavy exposure to whatever chemicals may remain. And again, I’ve never seen my worms react other than positively to new bedding, so I feel good stickin’ with it for now.
There’s never a good reason to add shredded paper full of toxic inks and other chemicals to the bin, but I can tell you from experience that there’s a simple way to process it to make it extra safe.

Here’s a step that I use to reduce any risk even further:

“To dechlorinate bleached paper, shred it and allow it to soak in gray water, or even day-old tap water. Just give it a couple of hours and a majority of the chemicals will be gone. Pour off the used water and squeeze out what remains.”

pH Crazy Stuff

PH refers to the acidity, neutrality, or alkalinity of something. Red wigglers require a very stable and neutral pH for optimal health. Using bedding to maintain pH is a quick and easy way to be sure your worm farm is a safe place to be …but not if you use materials like these next two offenders!

Fresh Coffee Grounds

Highly acidic coffee grounds only become problematic when used in such excess that other materials can’t compensate for their low pH. Coffee grounds that have been left to decompose become more neutralized and are then great to add in moderation.

Wood Ash

On the flip side is what the Wormery warns as a highly caustic, alkaline (high pH) material that will burn thinly skinned worms. Wood ash should be kept out of the worm bin entirely.

If you aren’t sure where along the pH scale your bedding materials are, a simple pH meter gives a quick reading that shows if you need to amend your bedding to get it back to neutral.

Sharp Materials

Here, I’m thinking about freshly chipped woods and things like masses of thistle weeds. These would just be treacherous. Pokers, thorns, prickles- these are also very dense compared to the soft green parts of a plant. They break down so slowly that they’d be a long-term source of danger.

Materials that Mat

Materials that tend to mat are things like papers that haven’t been shredded but are wet and packed together. Also, thick layers of leaves may trap moisture and pack so densely that nothing can flow through.

Remember, airflow and drainage are ultra important in a well-managed worm bin. It’s those things in particular that make the Worm Factory 360 such a lifesaver. The holes throughout each layer support ideal conditions. However, if matted bedding closes off the holes, the benefits are lost. When in doubt, use your claw or other accessories to fluff the bedding and regain that oxygen flow your worms need.

Non-absorbent Materials

Aside from being a food source, another vital function of worm compost bedding is to create that ideally moist environment where worms can eat, mate, and lay their cocoons.

Bedding that is light and fluffy is great, but if it is basically dry, it no longer fits the bill. So, keep yours wet enough that it’s like a damp sponge, or near 80% moisture. If you aren’t confident that you can tell by looking, use a moisture meter to get an accurate reading.

As a rule, and one not to be broken, nothing inorganic belongs in the worm bin.

Plastic, glass, metal, and polymers are non-absorbent, non-nutritive, and serve no beneficial purpose as part of the rich fertilizer harvested from a “finished” worm bin. Tear off and discard all tape, gummy glue, plastic labels, stickers, and the little windows you find in some junk-mail envelopes before preparing your worms’ bedding.

DIY Worm Bedding

Here are a few creative examples of how you might go about finding materials for your red worm bedding throughout the year.

Spring: Gather up the dried up remains of last year’s vegetable and cutting garden for a nice carbon-based alternative to shredded paper.

Summer: Husk fresh corn to use both leaves and silks in the bin for volume, aeration, and drainage.

Fall: Mulch dry fallen leaves for an ideal addition to any bedding mix.

Winter: Delivery boxes from UPS, Amazon, etc. are perfect for hungry worms looking for a cozy place to chill.

Note:
Though husks provide the volume and networks of passageways, they do NOT retain water or help with moisture maintenance. Mulched leaves are rich in carbon, microorganisms, and are easily broken down, BUT they are also prone to matting if they are just piled in there as is.
So far, it seems that no single bedding material is likely to have every ideal quality on its own.

To fill in the missing essentials and avoid complications, I combine yard waste (husks, leaves, etc.) with partially finished compost, and *properly prepared junk mail. In this way, beneficial microorganisms, plenty of pockets of air, lasting moisture, and both easily consumable and long-lasting organic matter are all part of the luxury bedding mix.

5 Steps to Prepare Bedding

Sort

When I go through my junk mail, I inevitably have some stuff that I regrettably can’t feed the worms. I pull out the glossy papers, tear out plastic windows on envelopes, and remove things like tape, staples, and wads of glue.

Shred

The smaller bedding bits are, the more easily they can be combined with other materials and be transformed into compost. If it’s an option, I highly recommend using a paper shredder that can handle cardboard or many sheets of paper at a time. Mine has become an indispensable bedding maker!

HINT: Make sure to shred only dry materials. Wet stuff really messes up the shredder!

Soak

This will rid your materials of lingering chemicals and add the moisture red wigglers love.

Strain and Squeeze

Too much water is just as bad as not enough. A salad spinner works well for things that are awkward to squeeze, like wood chips, and other yard waste.

Fluff

After squeezing wet bedding, it often holds together in a tight ball. Break it apart and fluff it up.

Combine

Once the elements of a bedding are made, fold them all together, spread it evenly, and send those happy worms to bed. Voila!

Now it’s your turn!

You can make unique combinations that take advantage of the resources you find in and around your home or workplace. Use any of the materials under the YES column; avoid the ones under NO, and use the In Moderation ones sparingly.

Share this image on your site and please include attribution to The Squirm Firm:

Red worm bedding materials (infographic)

Final Thoughts

The protocol for worm compost bedding is summarized by saying that almost any paper can be safe, except that which is highly glossy, like a magazine cover or certain junk mail postcards.

Generally speaking, the dyes used in most newspaper print are of soy ink and should not be harmful to your compost worms.

Other materials add benefits that paper alone can’t offer. A mix of materials will always be the best.

If you still aren’t sure if you want to add it to your worm bin, ask yourself this, if you don’t let your worms compost it, where will it end up?

For more useful tips, tricks, and expert advice on worm composting, sign up for our FREE monthly newsletter. We’ll keep you in the loop and bring something new to your email inbox once each month.

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