It’s rare when your pets can serve a clear ecological purpose. Of course, service animals aren’t unusual – I’ve always admired the folks who bring up puppies to be used as guide dogs. But our pets are, needless to say, a little odd. For one, they live in a set of boxes in our basement. Secondly, they only eat garbage, and seem to enjoy it (or as much as they’re capable). Thirdly, they never seem very happy to see me. Or maybe it’s just the light. Of course, I’m talking about our family of worms.
If you’ve never heard of worm composting, it’s quite an odd idea. In contrast, everyone has heard of regular outdoor composting. Whether it’s a haphazard pile of yard waste or a carefully layered stack of food garbage and leaves, having a compost pile doesn’t seem terribly out of the ordinary. Next up on the eco-nerd food chain is having a tumbling composter, which means either you want your compost faster than usual or you don’t have the space for a pile but are environmentally committed enough that you want to compost anyway. It’s higher up because it requires buying or constructing specialized equipment. But the highest on the eco-nerd chain is worm composting. After all, you actually have to keep animals alive! It’s like raising mini-livestock. Plus, most of the people who worm-compost do so because the very thought of throwing away produce scraps in the winter is so horrifying that they must do something about it. (Outside compost freezes and won’t break down once the temperature drops below 32 F/0 C).
I became a tender of worms after organizing a worm composting workshop for Ecolocity DC. We had two speakers who had different set-ups and different philosophies. Ed Bruske showed off his store-bought bin and was very pragmatic about it. He has a very impressive garden, so composting year-round is just a no-brainer. Jacob Siegel demonstrated his home-made set up, which because he salvaged the pieces from other people, was totally free. His perspective was a bit more spiritual. He asked us to share our favorite “composting experience” and like the good eco-nerd I am, I had one! It was the fact that my office-mate Margaret and I both found throwing used tea-bags away at work so unnatural that we actually brought them home to compost.
Despite this impulse, I honestly didn’t think that Chris and I would be raising worms. But Chris surprised me. After the workshop, he turned to me and said, “So, when are we going to build a worm composter?” Considering I’m usually the one with these projects – “Honey, let’s plant fruit bushes; honey, let’s put in rain barrels,” etc. – I was almost speechless. I said, “If you want to, you certainly can!” And to his complete credit, he did. He assembled all of the materials and built our box.
I’ll have a post on building this later, but the duct tape is to keep the light out and the sticks are for ventilation. It’s a bit haphazard, but it works.
Since then, I’ve been the keeper of the worms. In some ways, raising worms isn’t all that different from having a very low-maintenance pet, like a fish. It’s easy, but not quite as simple as everyone says. In fact, the little buggers stressed me out quite a bit at first! You order worms in the mail and they’re pretty traumatized at first. Like anyone who has just moved – much less been shipped across the country – it takes a while for them to get used to their new home. Unfortunately, the worms’ solution is to crawl out of their box and on to our basement floor. Then they dry out and die, becoming shriveled, black worm-corpses. I would come downstairs and find these little dead worms all over the place, like some kind of horrible plague had struck. It broke my heart to see these critters I had tasked myself with taking care of dead. Thankfully, after leaving the light on in the basement for a while and allowing them to adjust, they stopped trying to make escape attempts.
Currently, I collect our vegetable and fruit food scraps in our ceramic composting container and then whenever I get around to it, chop them in our mini-food processor. You can put scraps in whole, but the worms are much more likely to eat it quickly if it’s in worm-sized pieces.
I then put the food in the box near where I did last time, so there’s never food in the same place twice in a row. At the same time, the food isn’t so far away that all of the worms have to move across the box to get it. If the newspaper bedding is getting low or is too wet, I rip up a bit more and put it on top. This arrangement has been working so far, and our worm population has grown substantially. Every time I open the box, the worms appear to be bigger and healthier.
Eventually, as the box fills up with worm castings (poop), we’ll move them to a new box with new food and bedding. But for now, our wormy pets seem about as happy as they can be.