Letting worms do the composting

Posted: March 16, 2013

They arrived early on a Tuesday morning in a cardboard box. "1000 Red Worms," read the label in large letters printed beneath the USPS tracking number. Return address: Uncle Jim's Worm Farm. Inside were the catalysts for my latest experiment: vermicomposting. Or, to be less Latinate about it, composting with worms.

I'd first become acquainted with the idea of composting - that is, using microorganisms to turn food scraps into soil - when I lived in northern California with roommates who used old peanut butter jars as glassware and spent much of their money on bulk lentils. One of them had a book on composting called Do the Rot Thing. It was intriguing, but I was scared of the rot.

In Oakland, the city solved my problem: It ran a compost program that hauled away kitchen and yard scraps. But Philadelphia has no such system. Tossing my banana peels with my other trash just felt wrong. Adding to my guilt, we have a small garden that would be a perfect place to apply compost. I felt caught between my desire for great dirt and my fear of doing it wrong.

Enter the worms. Whereas traditional composting relies solely on microorganisms like bacteria and fungi to break down food particles into new soil (and requires active maintenance so it doesn't stagnate), in vermiculture, worms speed the process for you. Once microbes have taken care of some of the predigestion (worms don't have teeth or many digestive fluids), the worms suck the food through their mouths. Inside their bodies, strong muscles and particles of sand and grit grind the food into even smaller pieces; microbes in their intestines then finish the digestion, converting the food into nutrient-rich castings - a fancy word for worm poop. Vermiculture is like normal composting turbocharged.

The simplest form of vermicomposting - besides what's already happening in your yard - is to fashion your own vermicomposter out of a plastic tub. The challenge with such an approach is that, much like nonworm composting, it requires confidence that you will be able to "manage" your bin. I did not have that confidence.

The Worm Factory, available on Amazon, is basically a stack of square plastic trays, their bottoms perforated like sieves, that rest on top of a base unit designed to catch any fluid that leaches out of the composting material. You start with just one tray of worms, feeding them handfuls of food scraps and topping each deposit with shredded paper or dried leaves. Then, once the tray is filled, you add another on top, containing a starter pile of more scraps. The worms, seeking new food, migrate upward through the holes in the bottom of the new tray and leave you with a bottom tray full of beautiful compost. When the second tray is full, you add another on top, and so on until you have a short tower of compost-filled trays, a self-contained worm industrial complex.

The worms in question are not garden earthworms. Apparently, they have a thirst for freedom that is not desirable for creatures you're planning to keep in a box in your kitchen. Vermicomposters favor the red wiggler, a docile worm with no exploratory tendencies that likes to live in colonies.

I was supposed to wait three days after setting up my worms before checking on them, but I made it only 24 hours before lifting the lid to see what was happening inside.

Was the paper wet enough? Was it too dry? Had I given them too much to eat? Not enough?

I was supposed to check to see whether they were "working" on their food, but how does one tell? The instruction booklet didn't answer my questions, but it firmly stated the consequence of a poorly managed worm bin.

"Be careful," it said. "Worms can become stressed, which will cause them to group up in a ball or even crawl out of the bin."

I decided to do my own research. I e-mailed a neighbor I'd heard had a worm bin in her basement. I watched a seven-part homemade video series on YouTube about worm composting. Following suggestions I'd read in an online vermicomposting forum, I tried chopping up the food before adding it to the bin to give the microbes and worms a head start; when this also gave a head start to fruit flies, I tried keeping my scraps in the freezer and defrosting them before each feeding. Every morning, I pored over the Worm Factory instruction booklet as I ate breakfast.

My husband did not spend his mornings reading the worm booklet. Rather, he kept feeding the worms forbidden things like onion skins and seemed to view them - and me - with an amused befuddlement. "Why can't the worms just go outside?" he asked. They were occupying valuable real estate in our kitchen.

"Because they need to be temperature-controlled," I told him. (Because they can't burrow into the ground, it doesn't take much for them to bake or freeze.)

His mother, who has an honest-to-goodness compost pile in her backyard, was much more supportive. "They're amazing organic factories," she wrote in an e-mail. "Worms can almost make one believe in God."

She was right that there was something about the worms' abilities to speed decomposition that put one's mind toward the existential. Perhaps that was one of the reasons I felt such a need to actively care for my worms: I knew that eventually their descendants would turn me into compost. But in my defense, I liked checking up on them, poking gently around the box to see how their population was growing and which foods they seemed to prefer.

Eventually, I remembered that the whole point of the worms had been to make compost without having to worry about it.

So over the last few months, I've taken a step back. I don't worry about finding extra produce to supplement the worms' meals. I feed them random amounts at random times.

So far, it's working. I may not be recycling all of our green waste, but I'm using enough of it to feel mildly virtuous, and the constant need for shredded paper makes a dent in our pile of junk mail. The worms seem to love the dead leaves from the tree in our yard and eagerly devour our weekend coffee grinds. They haven't tried to escape.

Best of all is the compost itself. It's black and dark, moist to the touch, with a rich, earthy smell that doesn't carry even a hint of rot. It's perfect compost, the stuff of my California dreams, worm-derived - and, finally, worry-free.

Catherine Price is the author of "101 Places Not to See Before You Die."

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