Consider for a moment the worm: unseen steward of the earth—aerating and digesting the soil, gradually moving mountains—the symbol of all that is lowly and a slimy little reminder of our own mortality. In "Dead Poets Society," Robin Williams instructs his fresh-faced literature students that we write because we are all, ultimately, food for worms. Until about two weeks ago, my only use for worms was metaphorical. Then my friend Mark, a passionate eco-advocate introduced me to Vermicomposting: the practice of raising worms for poop.
Worm manure, or castings, makes excellent fertilizer, so I was keen on starting a worm bin to feed my garden. Mark was happy to hook me up; his own colony had multiplied beyond his ability to keep its members fed.
"I haven't been cooking at home much lately," he said as he lifted a 10-gallon Tupperware container out of his laundry closet. "I went to the store the other day just to buy food for the worms."
The sizeable bin next to Mark's dryer is populated with Eisenia fetida, or red wigglers—the annelid most popularly used in vermicomposting. Theoretically, I could have dug common nightcrawlers out of my yard to do the same job, but the smaller, hungrier red wigglers are far more efficient composters. They can eat and excrete their body weight in food each day, and they reproduce rapidly.
Very rapidly. Mark lifted the lid off the container, which looked to be full of nothing more than black soil mixed with a few carrot tops and egg shells. When he raked a large slotted spoon over the surface of the muck, revealing with a few strokes a writhing mass of red linguine, my immediate response was equal parts fascination and disgust. It's an expression I've seen replicated on the faces of most of my friends when I tell them I've got a huge tub of worms in my house. We tend to associate worms with decay and instinctively recoil at the sight of them. The feeling is mutual; as soon as Mark exposed a patch of red worms to the light, they went wriggling for cover. He had to dig through the bin to unearth a good population for my colony.
So why keep a small ecosystem of creepy crawlies under your sink if you're an urbanite who, like Mark, has no access to a garden? Ariel Diamond, a vermicomposting advocate who sold worm bins at the Edgewater Farmers' Market last summer, met me for coffee to talk worms. Ariel said that a lot of people she met were really interested in worm composting once they learned that it's easy to do and doesn't smell. So long as you don't overfeed your worms, they'll convert your kitchen waste into humus (that's stable organic matter, not chickpea dip) before it rots, creating rich compost ideal for indoor plants. "Most people have houseplants," Ariel told me, "and the ones that don't know someone who does. It's all about keeping food out of landfills, where it will never break down and never return to the soil." Between her worm bin, compost heap and rabbit, almost all the kitchen scraps, newspapers and credit card solicitations that enter Ariel's house ultimately feed her houseplants and garden.
There are a couple home vermicomposting methods; the one I'm using is the cheapest and simplest. If you have cash to drop on a three-story worm condo, you can save yourself a little work separating worms from castings at harvest time. If not, any wood or plastic container will do. The bigger the bin, the more forgiving the system, but Ariel assures me that it's hard to kill your worms. Drill air holes in the sides and top of the bin, along with a few in the bottom for drainage. Mark has just one large drainage hole in the bottom of his bin, which he keeps on a slant—a simple but ingenious method of collecting the compost "tea" in a plastic bottle. The tea makes excellent fertilizer for house plants too, as evidenced by the flourishing African violet on Mark's windowsill.
Start with a layer of damp, shredded, black-and-white paper for bedding. Then add the worms along with some garden dirt and finely crushed eggshells; the abrasive grit of the shells and dirt helps the worms to digest. Finally, add another layer of damp, shredded paper for insulation and place it in a dark spot to sit undisturbed while the worms acclimate to their new home. After four or five days, start adding fruit and vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds, tea bags, stale bread and leftover cooked pasta under the top layer of paper, being careful not to contribute more than the worms can eat. Put your scraps in a slightly different spot each time and add fresh paper—old toilet paper rolls work great too—about once a week. Don't give the worms any meat or dairy; it can start to stink and attract pests.
Thus far, my worms have made excellent housemates: they're quiet, low-maintenance and prefer to keep to themselves. In about three or four months, I'll have nutrient-rich worm poop to spread on my garden; in the meantime, I have a private ecosystem under my sink, returning my refuse to the food chain.
Visit the Shedd Aquarium website for an excellent guide to the dos and don'ts of vermicomposting. For the worm composting bible, check out Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof.
It took a move from the regimented lawnscapes of the suburbs to the congestion of a major metropolis for Sharon to look twice at what she puts in the trash, down the sink and into her own body. She reports fortnightly on her endeavors to change "greening" from calculated deviation to a practicable way of life. You can contact her here.