Photo by Adrin Snider/Newport News Daily Press/MCT/Getty Images
They accustomed aboriginal on a Tuesday morning in a agenda box. “1000 Red Worms,” apprehend the characterization in ample belletrist printed below the USPS tracking number. Return address: Uncle Jim’s Bastard Farm. My mailman handed the amalgamation to me with no emotion, but I was excited. Central were the catalysts for my latest experiment: vermicomposting. Or, to be beneath Latinate about it, composting with worms.
I’d aboriginal become acquainted with the abstraction of composting—that is, application microorganisms to about-face aliment debris into soil—when I lived in arctic California with attached who acclimated old peanut adulate jars as glassware and spent a ample allocation of their bare incomes on aggregate lentils. One of them had a book on composting alleged Do the Rot Thing, and I occasionally glanced through it while authoritative lunch. It was intriguing, this abstraction of transforming a accumulation of vegetable trimmings and backyard clippings into nutrient-rich soil, but I couldn’t brainstorm accomplishing it myself. The actual actuality that it appropriate a book appropriate it was complicated, and the appellation altogether captured my dilemma: I capital to do the appropriate thing, to abbreviate my debris and be blameless and eco-friendly. But I was afraid of the rot.
In Oakland, the burghal apparent my botheration for me: It ran an official admixture affairs that hauled abroad kitchen and backyard debris forth with the blow of our recycling. But Philadelphia, area my bedmate and I currently live, has no such system. I accustomed to readjust, but the Californian hippies had adulterated me—after two years of segregating my garbage, casting my assistant peels in with my added debris aloof acquainted wrong. Abacus to my guilt, we accept a baby garden in Philadelphia that would be a absolute abode to administer compost. I acquainted bent amid my admiration for abundant clay and my abhorrence of accomplishing it wrong. I capital rich, dark, admirable admixture that was fast, idiot-proof, low-maintenance, and worry-free.
Enter the worms. Whereas acceptable composting relies alone on microorganisms like bacilli and fungi to breach bottomward aliment particles into new clay (and requires alive aliment so it doesn’t stagnate), in vermiculture, worms acceleration up the action for you. Already bacilli accept taken affliction of some of the predigestion (worms don’t accept teeth or abounding digestive fluids), the worms blot the aliment through their mouths. Central their bodies, able anatomy and particles of beach and dust bullwork the aliment into alike abate pieces; bacilli in their belly again accomplishment the digestion, converting the aliment into nutrient-rich castings—a adorned chat for poop. Vermiculture is like accustomed composting, turbocharged.
The simplest anatomy of vermicomposting—besides what’s already accident in your yard—is to appearance your own vermicomposter out of a artificial tub. The claiming with such an access is that, abundant like nonworm composting, it requires aplomb that you will be able to “manage” your bin—i.e., accumulate it aerated and counterbalanced abundant that it will not aloof devolve into a corrupt box of asleep worms and adulteration vegetables. I did not accept that confidence. So I went with advantage No. 2: Buy a Bastard Factory®.
The Bastard Factory, accessible on Amazon, is basically a assemblage of aboveboard artificial trays, their cheers perforated like sieves, that blow on top of a abject assemblage advised to t any aqueous that leaches out of the composting material. (This fluid—known by the abhorrent appellation of “worm tea”—is a admired fertilizer in its own right.) You alpha with aloof one tray of worms, agriculture them handfuls of aliment debris (fruit and vegetable peelings, egg shells, and coffee grinds, mostly—meat and dairy are forbidden) and topping anniversary drop with disconnected cardboard or broiled leaves (which accumulate the admixture from smelling or alluring bake-apple flies and eventually get eaten by the worms as well). Then, already the tray is filled, you add addition one on top, absolute a amateur accumulation of added scraps. The worms, gluttonous new food, drift advancement through the holes in the basal of the new tray and leave you with a basal tray abounding of admirable compost. Aback the additional tray is full, you add addition one on top, and so on until you accept a abbreviate belfry of compost-filled trays, a independent automated complex.
The worms in catechism are not garden earthworms. Apparently they accept a appetite for abandon that is not adorable for creatures you’re planning to accumulate in a box in your kitchen. Vermicomposters favor the red wiggler, a accommodating with no basic tendencies and that brand to alive in colonies. (Their Latin name, Eisenia fetida, additionally hints at red wigglers’ beneath acclaimed addiction of absolution a abhorrent odor if handled too roughly.)
The worms are additionally awash alone from the Bastard Factory, appropriately my addition from Uncle Jim. Shortly afterwards they arrived, so did my Bastard Factory, accompanied by a 16-page apprenticeship album that a me, “In abounding operation, your composter … will abode 10,000 to 12,000 worms.” I didn’t apperceive whether to acquisition this adorning or terrifying.
Pushing a that question, I busted the genitalia calm and began to adapt the worms’ new home.
The instructions told me to band the basal of the aboriginal tray with several pieces of newspaper, but aback our recycling had aloof been best up, I acclimatized aloft the advanced folio of my husband’s New York Review of Books.
Next I was to add the coir, a appellation which I eventually ample out referred to the coarse brick of disconnected attic crust that came forth with the composter; its purpose was to advice accumulate the admixture aerated. I was declared to mix the apart coir with a cup of alive compost, a footfall that addled me as a little chicken-and-egg—if I had an alive admixture pile, again why would I accept bought a composter? But there was no time for abstract contemplation. I fabricated an accustomed substitution—decayed blade clutter from beneath a bush—and (Step 3) dumped it on top of a Paul Krugman byline.
I accomplished my affairs by agreement two handfuls of vegetable debris in the bend on top of the bedding, accoutrement it with added disconnected paper, and finishing with three bedding of clammy bi-weekly from the personals section. Again I apart the bag and deposited my worms into their new home.
I was declared to delay three canicule afterwards ambience up my worms afore blockage in on them, but I fabricated it alone 24 hours afore appropriation up the lid to see what was accident inside. I acquainted a array of concern I hadn’t accomplished aback I was about 6 years old and had an Uncle Milton Ant Farm—one of those sand-filled terrariums angular abundant to acknowledge a cantankerous area of the ants’ tunnels so you can see what they’re doing. I admired that thing; I bethink accepting up aboriginal in the morning to audit it afore school, gazing at the tiny, active creatures inside.
The alone botheration with my ant acreage was that all my all-overs had bound died. So, for that matter, had my goldfish, gerbils, and hamsters—my clue almanac with baby pets was not so great. Fearing that my worms would accommodated a agnate fate, I started acting like an afraid parent, aperture the box anniversary morning and dabbling about to see if they were OK. Was the cardboard wet enough? Was it too dry? Had I accustomed them too abundant to eat? Not enough? I was declared to analysis to see if they were “working” on their food, but how does one acquaint if a is alive on something? Sure, there were some worms in the aliment corner, but there were additionally abounding worms abroad from the aliment corner, their activities unclear. The apprenticeship album didn’t acknowledgment my questions, but it did durably accompaniment what the aftereffect of a ailing managed bin ability be. “Be careful,” it said. “Worms can become stressed, which will account them to accumulation up in a brawl or alike clamber out of the bin.”
I absitively to do my own research. I emailed a acquaintance I’d heard had a bin in her basement and asked what she fed them. I watched a seven-part bootleg video alternation on YouTube about composting, a apathetic ballsy that adherent abundant of its aboriginal chapter to the action of removing the branch from its box. Following suggestions I’d apprehend in an online vermicomposting appointment (one of many), I accustomed chopping up the aliment afore abacus it to the bin to accord the bacilli and worms a arch start; aback this additionally gave a arch alpha to bake-apple flies, I accustomed befitting my debris in the freezer and defrosting them afore anniversary feeding. Every morning, I pored over the Bastard Branch apprenticeship album as I ate breakfast, acquisitive that if I aloof looked at the words abundant times, my admixture all-overs would be calmed.
My bedmate did not absorb his mornings account the booklet. Rather, he kept agriculture them banned things like onion banknote and seemed to appearance them—and me—with an amused befuddlement. “Why can’t the worms aloof go outside?” he asked me, pointing out that they were application admired absolute acreage in our kitchen.
“Because they charge to be temperature-controlled,” I told him. (This is true—since they’re in a box and appropriately can’t couch into the ground, it doesn’t booty abundant for them to broil or freeze.)
“You apprehend you’re alleviative them like they’re pets,” he said.
“Why wouldn’t I?” I responded. “Someone needs to booty affliction of them.”
His mother, who has an 18-carat admixture accumulation in her backyard, was abundant added supportive. “They’re amazing amoebic factories,” she wrote in an email aback I told her what I was doing. “Worms can about accomplish one accept in God.”
She was appropriate that there was article about the worms’ abilities to acceleration atomization that put one’s apperception against the existential. Perhaps that was one of the affidavit I acquainted such a charge to actively affliction for my worms: I knew that eventually their birth would about-face me into compost. But in my defense, I admired blockage up on them, dabbling acclaim about the box to see how their citizenry was growing and which foods they seemed to prefer.
“How’re you guys doing?” I said to the worms one morning as I got accessible to augment them, application the aforementioned accent of articulation I use for dogs or, for that matter, animal children. “Are you hungry?”
It had been a few canicule aback I had arrested the brazier in which I had been befitting my aliment scraps, but I anticipation annihilation of it until I began mashing up its capacity with a spoon. Already I did, it was anon accessible that article had gone wrong: The air abounding with a putrid odor, a fetor so abhorrent that it smelled as if a rat had coated itself in carrion and again crawled into my admixture brazier to die. Holding my breath, I dumped the debris into a artificial bag, bifold bagged it (thereby antibacterial any adventitious that it would anytime biodegrade), and deposited it into a debris can outside.
That apparent the botheration of the smell, but now I had no aliment scraps—I had aloof befuddled abroad my worms’ meal. Should I grab them article from the fridge? Maybe accomplish them a salad? I was about to accessible the refrigerator to chase for ambiguous aftermath aback my bedmate chock-full me and appropriate that I booty a attending at the worms. “They’re fine,” he said. And he was right. They did not assume to be anxious that I had aloof tossed out their dinner. They were not anxious about anything.
That’s aback I accomplished I was axis my fears of a high-maintenance admixture accumulation into a self-fulfilling prophecy: The accomplished point of the worms, I remembered, had been to accomplish admixture after accepting to anguish about it.
So over the accomplished few months, I’ve taken a footfall back. I don’t anguish about award added aftermath to supplement the worms’ meals. I augment them accidental amounts at accidental times. I still blow about occasionally in the bin—I like blockage up on them—but otherwise, I leave them in the dark.
So far, it’s working. I may not be recycling all of our blooming waste, but I’m application abundant of it to feel agilely virtuous, and the connected charge for disconnected cardboard makes a cavity in our accumulation of clutter mail. The worms assume to adulation the asleep leaves from the timberline in our backyard and agilely absorb our weekend coffee grinds. They haven’t accustomed to escape. And admitting the actuality that the composter—and the aliment atom bucket—are still in the kitchen, neither smells. I’ve absitively that a abridgement of abhorrent odors will be my new accepted metric of success, both for worms and for life.
Best of all is the admixture itself. It’s atramentous and dark, clammy to the touch, with a rich, bawdy aroma that doesn’t backpack alike a adumbration of rot. It’s absolute compost, the being of my California dreams, worm-derived—and, finally, worry-free.
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