One of the downsides of urban living is the consignment of organic waste to the landfill. It's particularly frustrating if you also have a small patio or container garden, and have to turn around and buy potting soil and fertilizer for it. On the other hand, compost heaps are big, smelly, lots of work, and around here they freeze for half the year anyways.
Vermiculture is really the only viable solution that I've come across, aside from curbside compost pick-up (and by the way, how cool is that?!). Vermiculture means raising worms, cute little wriggling worms, in your very own home. They (and their occasional roommates) eat your compost and turn it into rich, delicious soil. Worms speed up the composting process, meaning much quicker conversion of your banana peels into dirt, and less space needed for the composting container. I've been vermicomposting for a couple months now, which hardly makes me an expert, but so far it has been more than manageable, in fact, it's been super-awesome.
So, how do you know if worms are for you? The main consideration is environmental. Worms are sensitive to temperature, particularly heat, and since the decomposition of compost can create a lot of heat itself, an un-air-conditioned apartment or sunny patio is not a great place for these little guys.
Last month, we had a few freak days with temperatures in the high 80's, which meant well into the 90's or higher inside the bin, and I noticed a significant die-off in the worm population. So I moved the bin outside, where it gets a nice breeze, and soon everything was back to normal. I am planning to move the bin into the basement when summer really kicks in, to protect it from higher temperatures.
The second-largest consideration, in my mind, is maintenance. While collecting the compost and feeding the worms is no more time consuming than taking out the trash, in the case that your worm bin does develop a problem, such as a red-mite infestation, high acidity, or die-off due to high temperatures, it may need some attention. The earthworm population is self-regulating, so small die-offs are not a problem - assuming you correct whatever was causing the problem, which might take a little investigative work. The best thing is that unlike a dog, pet worms can be left at home when you travel. Worms can amuse themselves with re-eating everything in the bin for a pretty long time (experts say 3 weeks), so, unless you are backpacking Europe, they'll be fine.
It is also worthwhile to consider the kinds of waste a worm bin can handle. Worms are sensitive to acidic conditions (and probably also to a chemical compound found in citrus peel), so citrus peels are no good unless you add an alkaline, such as calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate can also aid with other acidic food wastes. I haven't tried the calcium carbonate yet, but I've been eating grapefruits at a rate of two a day, so I plan on picking some up soon! Protein-based waste, including dairy and meat products, can spoil and stink up everything before the worms are able to digest it, so it's no good for an indoor bin. Outdoor bins with protein wastes in them may attract neighborhood raccoons and the like. Since advice is mixed on this point, when I move my bin into the basement, I'll try experimenting with some meat wastes and see how bad this really is. Crushed eggshells are fine and do not cause any odor in my experience. All compost needs to be alternated with layers of bedding material, like shredded newsprint or dried leaves; the carbon-rich bedding material balances out the nitrogen-rich food waste, creating the right conditions for decomposition and soil creation.
You may be thinking, what about smells? Isn't that a pretty major consideration for raising wrigglers in your kitchen? Luckily, not so much. Worms don't eat the organic material directly; they wait for bacteria to break it down a little first. It's that same decomposition process that causes unpleasant smells, but since the worms jump on it as soon as the decomposition gets going, the smell doesn't have a chance. Since your bin will be covered, smell is even less of an issue. Inside the bin can smell a little earthy, and a little like whatever is waiting to decay. Unfortunately, when there is a small die-off, the bin can also smell like dead worms, but that, too, is not perceptible when the bin is shut. Since I collect my compost in a covered bowl and feed it to the worms weekly, sometimes the smell of over-ripe fruit waste in the collection bowl is noticeable in the kitchen.
So, if you think that vermiculture might be for you, stay tuned! Conatainers are considered next week. In the meantime, if you're thinking about it, here's a recap of the
- How much space does it need?
A few cubic feet - works well in basements, under tables, and on porches.
- How much time does it take?
Just a few minutes a week.
- Does it smell?
Not generally. Inside the container, it can be a little earthy, but that's about it, unless there is a problem.
- Does it look grody?
Sure, but that's why you put a cover on the box!
- Does it need special equipment?
Yes, but really just the container. And the worms themselves, of course.
- Is it worth it to do this by hand?
If you'd like to compost, but don't have the space, this is the way to go.