Vermicomposting at home - December 1997

by Colleen Fogarty

When I moved last August, I wondered what I was going to do with my organic waste now that I no longer had a suitable place for a compost pile. As I was lamenting the possibility of landfilling all the wonderful fruit and vegetable scraps, my partner Jeff suggested the idea of setting up a worm bin.

"A worm bin? Are you joking?" I really thought he'd lost it this time. He explained that he'd seen one of these set-ups at a Youth Hostel in Ohio, and that a certain type of worm would actually eat kitchen scraps and create a nutrient rich soil amendment in return. He referred me to the book Worms Eat my Garbage, by Mary Appelhof. I worried, and fretted. "What about tea bags?" "Will there be an odor?" "Where would I keep this?"

Finally I took the plunge and checked out the book. (There are several copies in Monroe County Library system.)

I read the book within 3 days. Ms. Appelhof is definitely a worm fan. The book is an easy-to-read step by step guide to home vermicomposting including such chapters as:

"How many worms do I need?"
"How do I set up my worm bin?"
"What are the most commonly asked questions about worms?"

It sounded like the worms (and the other critters in the bin) would be the answer to all my composting problems.

Jeff and I scavenged some scrap lumber from someone's junk pile and built a simple 2 x2 foot bin, approximately 8 inches deep. We drilled air holes in the bottom, and I set up a bedding system of shredded newspaper, peat moss, and water. There are several options for bin construction and bedding materials. Unfortunately I was unable to find a local dealer of red worms who sold by the pound (the units Ms. Applehof uses in her book.)

I purchased several dozen redworms from Rochester Hollow Grinder, a bait shop in Charlotte. I was curious to know how many bait shop customers bought worms for vermicomposting. The salesperson informed me a handful of folks come in every fall to set up their winter composting systems.

Since I didn't have anywhere near a pound of worms (the recommended "biomass" for my size bin) I let time work in my favor and relied on the worms' reproductive capability. I've been very pleased with the results, and just set up a second bin to accommodate all the abundant harvest scraps which were about to overtax the original bin.

It may seem a little odd at first, but once established it's easy to maintain. I tell my friends that I have a "sixth grade science project" in my basement. More often than not, visitors ask to go down into the basement to see the worms.

The main down sides of worm bins are the potential for odor and the potential for fruit flies. Both these problems can be quite annoying, so it is important to bury the fresh waste well. I found the book quite helpful in avoiding pitfalls. I'm in the midst of a minor fruit fly crisis now; stay tuned for details.

So, this winter as your compost heap freezes to an inhospitable solid lump, consider inviting some red worms into your basement to be your winter composters.

Worms Eat my Garbage just came out in a second edition (1997) which is also available through the Monroe County Library system.

REFERENCE: Worms Eat My Garbage, by Mary Appelhof. Flower Press, 1982.