Composting–one year later

About one year ago, Jean-Francois and I adopted a small colony of red wrigglers, following a sustainability session at the Natural History Museum. As proud parents, we immediately set about finding the best bedding, bins, and strategies for keeping our new arrivals happy. The biggest challenge for us, as apartment dwellers in a large complex with strict rules, was finding a bin that would pass as patio furniture. (Since we don’t consider compost trash, we assumed that the rule about trash did not apply.)

We settled on the Worm Factory 360. It looks enough like a Japanese Stone Lantern that it could be argued that it is decorative. We supplement our system with a bamboo compost pail for the kitchen. And, we spend an evening making our worms comfortable.

A snapshot of our colony on feeding day.

A snapshot of our colony on feeding day.

Our worms get regular doses of coffee grounds and tea leaves, toilet paper rolls and scrap paper and linens. They also get a lot of egg shells, banana peels, okara (when I cannot find a use for it in time), and bread that goes mouldy.

And they are thriving. Sure, we are still trying to figure out the right mix of brown and green (see pdf below) to add to the mix, but we are learning.

This pdf is useful for helping us determine what browns and greens our worms needs.

At six months, we even expanded our bin by adding a new layer. All winter things moved along fine, albeit a bit slowly. But as Spring set in, so did culture shock.

  1. Our worms were reluctant to move to the new layer.
  2. Worms were escaping both the bin and the balcony.
  3. Other bugs started to appear.
  4. The worm castings on the second layer were WET. We could not get them to dry.

We are now trying to manage moisture, bugs and a growing ickiness-factor (at least on my part, Jean-Francois seems to enjoy mucking around in the compost). And, we have no way to share our worm tea or our beautiful worm pooh with gardeners. The grounds here are landscaped by a company that has no interest in going green.

Any thoughts on how apartment building and condo dwellers can help urban gardens and communities by composting? We are moving to a street lined with apartments, and I’d love to find a community solution that we can advance. It may also be a way to help people eat better and waste less food BEFORE it goes to the compost.

I am not alone either. Others have written about the challenges facing us Urban Composters and some offer solutions. If you are square foot challenged, and lack a green thumb, but really want to try composting, here are a few resources we have found useful:

BTW, I would not recommend the bamboo pail. It looks old and beaten up after two months and is also too soft a material for life on our kitchen counter.

Dirt cheap

It’s normal to worry about your children — especially if you’re a new parent. Are they getting the right food? Are they too hot, or too cold? Is there excessive stress in their lives? Are they getting too much exposure to the sun? There’s just so much to get right.

Picture of a worm on newspaper

Man's best friend

But here’s something that never occurred to me: it seems that it’s normal to worry about your worms too — especially if you’re new to worm husbandry.

Until last Sunday, I barely gave worms any thought. Before then, they were just little creatures I avoided stepping on after a good rain. I didn’t have the responsibility of having worms under my care … nor did I face the prospect of nurturing a colony of red wrigglers through its next few generations.

That all changed when Bonnie Lee and I attended Dig into Dirt, the first of five Sustainable Sundays events at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. We were there to learn about soil, and in the process we learned a whole bunch about worms and composting, something we’ve been meaning to look into for a while.

The session started with us handling a few worms, and starting to appreciate what interesting little creatures they are. Mine was feisty, a lovely shade of red, surprisingly strong, and fascinating to watch move. I’m not ashamed to say that I felt a kind of affection for the little fellow-gal (she-he is both, as are all his-her brethren), and a sudden desire to bring a few red wrigglers into my home.

Of course, this wasn’t just about discovering an appreciation for worms; keeping worms and composting simply make sense. When you think about it, an ecosystem is an amazing thing. Fed by energy from the sun (usually), it cycles stuff (minerals, carbon, and such) through various forms — forms as fascinating and varied as red wrigglers, Rafflesia arnoldii, naked mole rats, Tiny Tim, and orchid mantises. Whenever we throw things away, we take stuff out of the ecosystem we belong to, and give it to whatever ecosystems thrive in toxic (to us) landfills and sludge. Given how much we throw away, it stands to reason that, eventually, the ecosystem we belong to will run out of stuff; the first thing on that list looks like it will be phosphorus.

Worms can be our partners in helping keep the stuff we need to live available for us to reuse. They produce castings and worm tea which you can use in your garden, not only saving you money, but also quite literally turning the things you throw away into food… and they’re kind of cute in their own way.

Some fun facts about worms and worm composting:

  • Worms eat one half of their weight every day.
  • You can compost indoors — and no, compost doesn’t stink; it smells sweet.
  • Composting can be cheap; all you need to start are some red wrigglers, two Rubbermaid containers, and a drill. (If you don’t mind spending the money, and you’d like something more attractive, there are a few options out there.)
  • A study of 16 households that compost in Vancouver found that the average household avoided putting 915 pounds of waste in the trash each year.

Do you compost? If so, feel free to share tips here — we’ll need them. If not, what’s stopping you?