Down the Wormhole: My Initiation into the Wormy World of Compost
I have to admit, when my husband first announced that we would be feeding our garbage to worms, I was a bit apprehensive. When he told me that the worms would live in our house, underneath our kitchen table, I began to fear for his sanity. Don’t get me wrong, he’s generally a pretty sensible guy, but this is a man who was once wooed by a stray mouse he found loitering on the sidewalk by our house. (It’s almost three years old now and lives in the kitchen, on a shelf above the washing machine.)
After he discovered that our landlord didn’t allow dogs, he tried to convince me to get a kitten, despite the fact that, for him, the presence of cat hair and the ability to breath are mutually exclusive. So you’ll understand if I assumed this was the latest in a series of peculiar pet proposals. A week later, we received two pounds of live redworms in the mail and set off on our wormy adventure.
Worm composting, or vermicomposting, is ideal for people interested in reducing the amount of garbage they produce, explained Jennifer Gilbert, a Conservation Coordinator for the city of Davis, who had agreed to answer questions about my new pets. In return, you get nutrient-rich solid compost (worm castings) that can be used in potted plants or the garden, as well as liquid fertilizer known, not so appetizingly, as ‘worm-tea.’
Jennifer, an enthusiastic young woman with dual degrees in Environmental Studies and Biology, has shared her office with two large plastic bins full of worms for years. “They’re very quiet,” she assured me.
I was curious to see the worms in action and Jennifer was happy to show me. She pawed around the bin, digging through handfuls of worm castings, and found a tiny pearl-like bead- it was a cocoon. Her bin was teeming with new hatchlings. This new generation of baby redworms was especially exciting because the former population had been decimated in the previous compost harvest.
After a few months of maintaining a worm bin, harvesting old compost is necessary to make room for new food scraps. One common method of separating worms from their castings is to dump the contents of the bin onto a tarp outside and simply scoop the top off the pile; because worms are very sensitive to light, they will burrow to the bottom of the heap to avoid the sun, and, consequently, the harvester.
Temperature matters, however, and Jennifer’s worms couldn’t take the heat. Worms are sensitive to a variety of conditions, and getting everything right can be tricky. After two years of tinkering with light, moisture content, acidity, and food composition, Jennifer has the technical aspects of worm ownership down to a science, although she prefers to think of it as an art.
A typical worm bin contains moistened, shredded newspaper for bedding (though a variety of different materials will work), and has small air holes to discourage the growth of smelly anaerobic microorganisms. Unlike earthworms, redworms are able to process large amounts of organic material- this is why they are ideal for kitchen composting.
Though worms can eat almost anything organic, Jennifer prefers to restrict them to a vegan diet in order to keep the bin free of foul odors. And, as I was somewhat surprised to learn, her well-maintained worm bin not only didn’t stink, but actually smelled sort of nice- like fresh, wet soil. That’s an impressive feat, considering the motley mixture of food waste that had been decomposing in there.
Her worms subsist mainly on a diet of fruit, vegetable scraps, tea bags, coffee, and bread. Although it all gets eaten eventually, they seem to have a particular fondness for coffee grounds. Jennifer thinks they like the caffeine.
The Public Works Department of Davis holds ‘how-to’ worm composting classes in the spring and fall (the summer is too hot); upon completion, Jennifer will start you off with your very own batch of redworms. Before she hands them over, however, you must bring your bin in for inspection. “It’s like an adoption process,” Jennifer said, “I want the worms to have a good future.”
It’s unfortunate that I first heard about this useful program after my husband and I had already set up and populated our worm bin. We learned the hard way that our bin’s air holes were about five times too big (maybe that’s why I’ve been finding runaways on the kitchen floor). Jennifer suggested covering the largest holes with duct tape rather than re-drilling holes in a new bin. Brilliant.
We’ve had our bin going for about three weeks now and can already see bits of soil-like compost collecting on the interior walls. Although we still occasionally find a new escape artist, the worms seemed to have settled down and adjusted to their new lives in our kitchen. I just hope the mouse isn’t jealous.
If you want to more about composting with worms (and who doesn’t?), you can visit the City of Davis Recycling Website.