One of the 5,071 reasons I like my daughter’s preschool is because they have a successful worm farm, one of those black plastic towers specifically designed for the task, which you can open to reveal hale bunches of “Red Wriggler” composting worms (Eisenia fetida), generations of them actively turning snack waste into plant food, and an ecology lesson. On a recent morning, one of my daughter’s classmates “got to” rake in some fresh leftovers; my daughter’s reaction: “Why does Henry get to do all the special things?!” If that’s not an example of positive peer competition at its best, I don’t know what is.
Not long thereafter, I took home a container of these worms to start my own worm composting outfit, something I have been wanting to do for a while now. The main obstacle until now has been finding the right kind of space for a worm bin, one that’s out-of-the-way but still temperature controlled — Eisenia fetida do well in the range of 50-80 degrees Fahrenheit, without sudden fluctuations. Once I came to terms with the fact that the worms would have to live indoors, the issue became finding or building a bin small enough to fit under the kitchen sink — a space I generously estimate to be 3.5 cubic feet. While I’m fairly sure they sell sleek, pre-made units that compact, and good on ‘em, it’s not in my household budget right now. Balking at the idea of fashioning an unwieldy trunk out of Tupperware or scrap wood, I finally found instructions for a really simple bin fashioned out of five-gallon buckets. The plan calls for three buckets and the drilling of holes, followed by the securing of newspaper scraps and composting worms. Cut the cost to nil by cadging food-grade buckets from a bakery or brewery. This often happens with my gardening plans, that I wait to see plans through to completion — years, in this case — until the final component just falls into my lap. I’m resolutely tight-fisted, and my plans have to kind of “materialize,” as one friend put it; I like to echo the maxim that “luck comes to those who are prepared,” which makes me sound studious.
After drilling 50+ holes in these buckets, I stacked them up, tore up some newspaper, sprayed it until it was moist, and freed the worms into it. Using “The Composting Cookbook” to troubleshoot (I don’t remember how I came by this book — by Karen Overgaard and Tony Novembre, 2002 — but it has been very helpful for each type of composting I do), I have learned the following:
- Composting worms don’t have teeth, they have gizzards, so they need to consume garden soil in addition to food scraps. I added a trowel-full to start, but feel free to add more — can’t hurt.
- And, to be precise — because I can because I looked it up in that book — the worms aren’t actually eating the food scraps, they’re eating the bacteria that eat the food scraps. Isn’t that interesting?! Maybe it will put some of you more at-ease about vermicomposting indoors. In contrast to the closed container I use to hold kitchen scraps destined for the compost heap, which smells rife, the only aroma from this stacked-bucket unit is good soil smell, which I really like. In fact, I have purchased eau de toilette that doesn’t smell as good. (For real. It was called “Cut Grass” or something like that, and I would buy it again!)
- Don’t give them too many citrus scraps, or things that’ll make the habitat too acidic (like coffee grounds, I assume), because you’ll get mold — I learned this by doing. If that happens, just scoop it out, together with the affected scraps and bedding, and that should be the end of it.
- Make sure it stays moist! That means damp enough to darken the newsprint, but not wringing wet. This has not been a problem, here.
- The holes in the top might be a liability; I have since read that this can permit flies in too easily. No problems with that yet, and I am hoping that because the bin is contained underneath the sink, this will not be a disgusting problem. However, if I were to do it all over again, I would hedge my bets by not drilling any holes through the lid, and drilling more holes along the sides of the buckets — near the top –instead.
- A pound of worms can process a half-pound of scrap/day, but not until it really gets going, with worms thriving and producing offspring. Give them time. I have been putting in just a handful every other day to get things started.
I will keep you posted on how I actually harvest worm castings from the stacked-bucket unit. It will take some weeks or months. Ultimately, I’m hoping to divert pounds of waste from the landfill, for better compost and a sleeker household budget (we pay by-the-pound to dispose of stuff, and we bring it to the landfill, which is 10 miles away, ourselves). The prospect of fertilizing my houseplants and starting seedlings with something I have nurtured into metamorphosis instead of purchased makes me happy. That sounds smug, but I think the worms deserve to be gloated over a little.