In most living situations, inviting pests into an apartment via stacks of dirty dishes or neglected garbage can be grounds for roommate termination. But what do you do when your wife brings home 1,000 worms and insists they are now members of the family? Such was my husband’s conundrum.
The worms would take up residence in the Worm Factory, a 3-foot tall vermicomposting bin system set up in our tiny Brooklyn kitchen. Vermicomposting mimics the process of decomposition that typically occurs in parks, forests or anywhere that worms and soil unite. Worms can eat up to half their body weight in food every day and produce pellets (called “casts”) that are exceedingly rich in nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.
The casts, which are essentially piles of digested organic matter, are also pH balanced and contain humic acids that condition the soil and promote plant healthy growth. Perhaps this is why in 1881 Charles Darwin wrote, “All the fertile areas of this planet have at least once passed through the bodies of earthworms.”
If all went as planned, our worms would obediently eat our kitchen scraps, create nutrient-rich soil castings and never decide to stage a revolt. I was hopeful but hesitant, mostly because I had yet to see a composting effort actually work.
As an alumna of the liberal arts college co-op housing scene, I had faced my fair share of sour, runny heaps — ditto for fruit flies spawning in the murky depths of the scraps bucket next to the sink. Meanwhile, my husband’s former roommate had neglected his own vermicompost bin and then stood helplessly by as the system collapsed into a mess of unspeakable worm death. Needless to say, if I was skeptical, he was downright scared.
Aside from the potential “rotting garbage” factor, however, composting seemed to fit perfectly into my urban, reformed-hippie lifestyle. I ride my bike to the farmers market and eagerly tote home the local bounty in canvas bags.
And in my kitchen, I began to cringe every time I threw coffee grounds and celery tops into the garbage, thinking about their wasted potential. So when the Worm Factory showed up at our door as a belated wedding gift, I decided to give the whole composting thing another shot. I picked up some red wrigglers at the farmers market, threw an encouraging grin at my husband’s concerned face, and hoped for the best.
Quite miraculously, our fears were entirely unfounded. While not as affectionate as a puppy, I quickly started to view the worms as our pets. I looked forward to their daily feeding and grew accustomed to their surprisingly particular food preferences (likes: coffee grounds, vegetable scraps and junk mail; dislikes: cereal bits, breadcrumbs, and chai tea bag remains).
After a few weeks, I felt confident enough to report to anyone who would listen that a healthy compost bin actually smells quite pleasant — like damp earth, instead of the pungent sulfur stench I generally equated with compost bins. I also began to take pride in introducing friends to “the worms,” delighting in their surprise and curiosity as I lifted the sturdy plastic lid. Then, of course, there was the soil.
After about three months of feeding, I carefully wiggled the active composting tray off of its base and peered into the collection tray. There it was — several inches of dark, rich unbelievably beautiful dirt. I let out a triumphant yelp and wished for a moment that I could high five the worms. (No luck.)
By recycling our kitchen waste, I had created gorgeous, nutrient-rich earth to spread on our houseplants and shower on the abused trees outside — not bad for an apartment-dwelling city girl.
As for my husband, while he is still adjusting to the idea of our new roommates, I am pretty sure I heard him talking to them the other night. Either that or “hello wormies” is his new greeting to the refrigerator.
Tips for successful vermicomposting:
Start with a 'professional' bin: It is entirely possible to build a homemade worm bin — but if you have the means (or an approaching birthday), investing in a commercial bin system that is designed to maximize worms’ potential as dirt generators significantly ups your likelihood of success. A few bins to try: the Worm Factory, Can-O-Worms, or WormsWrangler.
Repurpose your desk lamp: Worms are very shy around light and tend to prefer dark, moist places. At night, shining a small desk lamp on your bin will help encourage your worms to burrow into the food scraps and deter any feisty wrigglers from straying.
Don’t overfeed: As a future Jewish mother, overfeeding is in my DNA. But while a pound of worms can typically process up to a half-pound of food each day, each bin will be different. Too much food can cause the bin to heat up or grow too moist. Experiment with feeding portions until you have a good idea of how much — and how regularly — your crew likes to eat.
Keep it (mostly) vegan: Fruit and vegetable scraps, stale bagels, crushed eggshells, ripped up newspapers, and coffee grounds are all fair game for your worm bin, but avoid meat, dairy or oils which can lead to odors, flies and other unwanted pests.
Related gardening story on MNN: Everything you always wanted to know about earthworms