Friday, May 13, 2011

10. the end

Tail, 2010

and they lived happily ever after

As I'm sure you have ascertained by now, I am not a professional worm farmer, an environmental activist, nor have I earned my PhD in Soil Science. I'm just a regular gal, perhaps a bit more opinionated than most, who stumbled onto this whole worm gig by accident. With that in mind, please take what is in this book as less of a well-researched scientific study and more of a story I share with you based on my opinions and personal experiences relating to worm composting. What is outlined in these pages is a stress-free, wait, let's be safe and say low-stress, and fun way to get your own worm composting system started.

The system I've shared with you in this book worked out really well for me. As you become comfortable with your worms and your system you might decide to make a few adjustments to suit your own personal style. Go right ahead. I won't mind.

If you are interested in a more detailed and scientific look at vermiculture (worm culture), I recommend Mary Appelhoff's Worms Eat My Garbage and Charles Darwin's The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms.

Ms. Appelhoff was an expert in her field and her book, the only dedicated vermiculture book I could locate at the time, inspired me and helped me pull my own worm composting system together.

I later learned that Darwin was the original worm guy. If you are feeling really excited about this whole worm thing and are craving additional data, you can also take a look at his book and see what he had to say about worms back in 1907. He examines the lives of worms in great detail. He explores their tastes and finds that they prefer green leaves to red, on most occasions. He finds that most worms are timid, enjoy the pleasure of food, and that their sexual passion exceeds their dread of light. It's an amazing book.

I hope learning how I muddled through and discovered that pet worms really can transform kitchen rubbish into beautiful compost has emboldened you to go right out and start some of your own muddling.

Welcome to the world of worms.


9. harvest

The Orchard, 2010

what we've all been waiting for

As time passes you will begin to see your worm edibles transforming into gorgeous dark brown rich compost, worm compost. What exactly is worm compost? Worm compost, also known as vermicompost, is simply humus (decomposed organic matter), decomposing organic matter, a few worms, and some worm castings (worm manure). The organic matter in your boxes consists of bedding and kitchen rubbish. When you see the finished product you'll be amazed by the transformation. You can use your worm compost as top dressing on house plants, in garden beds, as a component of your homemade potting soil, and as a fertilizer for freshly planted seeds and seedlings. Unlike many fertilizers, worm compost will not burn seedlings. Worm compost also aids in holding moisture in soil.

Composting with worms is not necessarily the most efficient means of creating large quantities of compost. If you are striving to attain Type-A composter status, there are plenty of sources that offer instruction on this sort of thing. This is not one of them. Worm composting, at least my version, is more akin to slow food, organic herb gardening, and long walks. Rumor has it that worm castings, a main ingredient in your worm compost, contain five times the nitrogen, seven times the available phosphorus, eleven times more potash, and 40% more humus (decomposed organic matter) than is usually found in the top six inches of the soil. This is good stuff.

I read about a variety of harvest methods and I loved the idea of the Mary Appelhof's let the worms do the sorting method. It seemed perfect because it involved very little effort. The worms did all of the work. The concept is to imagine a dividing line splitting your box into two equal sections. One section is completely ignored while the other section continues to receive food in the usual grid manner. I divided and waited. All worms should leave the ignored side of the box and move to the side of the box receiving food. Once the worms move, you harvest worm-free compost from the vacated side. It seemed logical. I checked in after a week and no movement, two weeks, three weeks, a month, and then I just lost my patience. I'm not sure why, but they didn't migrate. Perhaps, even after a month, there was still enough appealing organic matter for the worms to chew on in the ignored side of the box. Whatever the reason, the let the worms do the sorting method just didn't work for me.

Here's what did work. After a few months you can stop feeding box #1 and allow all of the fresh worm edibles to metamorphose into worm compost. At this stage you will shift all activity to box #2. Check in on box #1 after a couple weeks and gently dig around to see how things are progressing inside. It should look more like soil than a pile of food. Feel free to wait longer and let nature take it's course. I tend to lean toward impatience and harvest a couple of weeks after I move all new activity to box #2. The only difference for those less patient individuals like myself is that you will find more in-process worm edibles (items such as apple cores that still look like apple cores) in your box. This isn't a problem.

It's preparation time. Pick a sunny day and begin early in the day. This process will not work without sunlight. Pull on your gardening gloves and prepare to harvest your first batch of nutrient-rich compost. Locate your gardener's knee pad and keep it handy. Your metal trash can (final compost holding container) should be situated in its final location. Once you start adding compost it will become heavy and you won't want to move it around. Find your 5-gallon bucket and keep it close to box #1, you'll need it in a few minutes. Spread your tarp or large sheet of plastic out in front of box #1.

Okay, let's go for it! Tip box #1 and empty its entire contents onto your tarp. Watch how all of the worms begin to scoot downward to escape the bright light of the sun. Let them scoot while you use your 5-gallon bucket to gather enough bedding to add approximately one inch to the bottom of your now empty box. Go ahead and leave this inch of bedding dry. Once your box has been emptied and you have added the bottom one inch layer of bedding, you are ready to remove identifiable worm edibles (items such as the apple cores I mentioned earlier) from the recently dumped pile now resting on your tarp. As you sift through your pile you will stumble upon these identifiable worm edibles, the bits and bobs that have not yet become compost, toss them into your now empty box on top of the one inch of dry bedding.

While working through this process you will see that all of tops and tails of your fruits and vegetables are not created equally. For instance, a shelling bean pod will take much longer to transform into compost than a withered spinach leaf. Egg shells remain identifiable for what seems an eternity and this is why it is best to dry them and crush them. Simply sprinkle the crushed shells over the surface of your bedding. These dried crushed shells are an excellent source of calcium and a fine addition to your compost.

After removing all recognizables, begin sorting the remaining contents of the box into little mounds, about five-six inches in diameter and as tall as possible without them toppling over. Watch the worms scurry downward again. Take a break and let the mounds rest for about one half of an hour. You need to give the little guys on or near the top of your mounds ample time to flee from the sunlight before you begin sorting.

When you return, begin removing compost from the tops of the mounds and placing it inside your five-gallon bucket. You won't get very far before you start running into a group of worms. Removing a handful or two of compost during this first phase should do it. When you begin to expose the group of worms in your first mound, cease activity with mound one and move on to mound number two, allowing the worms in mound one to continue their journey down toward the bottom of the mound. Don't worry if you meet up with the worms quickly, you'll repeat this procedure several times.

Along the way, before you run into a group of worms in a mound, you will discover an occasional disoriented single worm every now and again. These are the worms that couldn't figure out how to wiggle their way down into the mound. Help them out. Toss any stray single worms into your new box, on top of the dry bedding and bits of kitchen rubbish. As your bucket becomes 1/2 - 3/4 of the way full with finished compost, dump it into your metal trash can.

Take another break and make yourself some tea and cookies or whatever suits your mood.

Back to work. When you finish your tea and you return to your tarp, the mounds of compost will be ready for round two. Again, remove the top layer of compost from the first mound. Not too much, stop when you bump into the worms again. Repeat this process, including the one half of an hour breaks between steps, until you reach the bottom of each mound.

The bottom of each mound should reveal a jumble of worms mixed with a tiny bit of compost. Gather up the edges of your tarp and gently scooch all of the worms into the center of the tarp. Securely grasp the sides of the tarp and carefully slide the consolidated pile of worms toward the edge of the tarp, but not too close. Don't send them over the edge just yet. Create a spout with the edge of the tarp closest to where the worms now rest and delicately slip the majority of the worms back into box #1, and then, just for good measure, save the last handful or so to slide into box #2 to keep the population healthy and pumping. Watch them all beeline straight down toward the darkness and the food. The next time you open the box you won't see any worms on top of the bedding. They'll all be downstairs, beneath the bedding, working away in your compost factory.

Okay, hold tight, we're almost there. Dump your last bucket of finished compost into its final holding container and then shovel enough bedding into your empty bucket to add about three inches of bedding into box #1. Three inches will be enough to completely cover your worms and the worm edibles. While the bedding is still in the bucket, sprinkle it with water and toss it around until it passes the good ol' wrung out sponge test. Add the moistened bedding to the box and make sure to close the box securely.

You will now use box #2 as your primary box and box #1 as your overflow box. When box #2 reaches the stage box #1 was in when you stopped feeding the worms, right before the harvest, you'll follow these same harvesting procedures with box #2.

Congratulations, you've just completed your first harvest! Reward yourself for a job well done.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

8. dining

Protection, 2008

feeding time at the zoo

As I've mentioned, I inherited an active worm box. On day one, I just stepped in and got started. I'd been told that the worms were very forgiving, so I didn't feel I had much to lose.

I pushed the contents of the worm box to one side, tossed in my fruit and veggie bits, and then tried to cover them up with the little to no bedding in the box. I didn't even know what bedding was at this point, let alone how much should be in the box. This willy nilly method only works once or twice, if at all, and then you are just stirring up everything in your box like a big bowl of cookie dough each time you add your worm edibles.

This quickly becomes more of a hindrance than a help to your system on many levels. First, and most importantly, worms don't enjoy their homes being disrupted. They are quiet creatures and they especially abhor being stirred up like chocolate chips in cookie dough. Well, actually, that's simply my perception. The worms never spoke to me. I guess it's not unlike the happy California cow controversy. While living in West Marin I saw many of those disputed cows regularly and they truly seemed happy, to me.

Okay, I'm veering a bit off topic. Back to business.

The best news is that you will start your boxes from scratch. You will know every ounce of their contents and exactly how to care for them.

Imagine an overlay of a grid atop the bedding in your worm box. Work with the number 6 or the number 9 to create your imaginary grid, 6 squares if you think you will let your bowl fill up before feeding your worms (once per week) and 9 squares if you think you'll feed them more often (twice per week). I'm a 9.

Remember my promise in Chapter 6 to speak with you in more detail about maximizing surface area to maximize worm efficiency? Here we go.

The object of this grid is to make the most efficient use of your box. For instance, the grid allows your kitchen bits and bobs placed in square 1 of your grid to decompose enough for your worms to do their thing while you work your way through squares 2-9 (or 2-6). When you return to square 1, the buried bits and bobs should be difficult to recognize and you will be able to bury the contents of another bowl of worm edibles in this square. Make sense?

Feeding your worms is simple, rest your bowl of edibles on your small table situated between your two boxes, dig into square 1 of your grid and push the bedding aside, dump your bowl of goodies into the hole you've dug in square 1 and then cover it all up completely with bedding. Remember to always cover worm edibles with plenty of bedding (about 3" high). Uncovered food attracts flies and looks unpleasant. Who wants to open their box and get a face full of flies? Not me. I spoke about fruit flies in the Chapter 4. If you've forgotten, go back and check it out.

Use a leftover chopstick from your Chinese take-out as a marker and place it behind your first grid burial (square 1) so you will know where to bury the contents of your stainless steel bowl when you next visit to your box. When you return to your box, remove your chopstick, rest it on your small table beside your bowl of edibles, fill the next space in your grid (square 2), and then place the chopstick behind this latest grid burial. Repeat this process every time you return to your box to feed your worms. Work your way through your grid (1-6 or 1-9).

If you find yourself working all of the way around your grid and returning to square 1 to find that all of the bits and bobs are still recognizable and fresh looking, you are adding too much food to your box too quickly and you are about to overwhelm your box. It's time to start a new box.

Begin box #2 and use box #2 until the items in square 1 of box #1 start to break down and look less recognizable. When this occurs, it will be okay to return to using box #1. Make sense? If things seem a little slow in the beginning, don't fret. Give it time. Slowly but surely, your worms will reproduce and the population inside your boxes will increase. As your population increases, the pace in which your worms work through their edibles will also increase. Really. It's not fuzzy math.

Begin box #2 by adding a one inch layer of dry bedding to the base of the box. Go into box #1 and use your small shovel to gently dig into the contents and carefully remove a shovelful from box #1. Slide this first shovelful into square 1 of your new grid and then a second shovelful into square 2 of your grid (on top of the dry one inch of bedding) in box #2 . These shovelfuls should include worms, decomposing kitchen rubbish, and the bits of bedding stuck to these items. No sorting necessary. Grab your 5 gallon bucket and add enough bedding material to add about 3 inches of bedding on top of the shovelfuls of goodies you've just added. Wet and fluff the bucket of bedding material until it resembles a wrung out sponge and add it to your box.

Each time you enter a box, observe the moisture level of the bedding. Remember that a wrung out sponge is your aim. A box that is too wet can compact the materials within your box and create anaerobic (bad...trash can) conditions or at worst drown your worms. A box that is too dry can adversely affect the health of your worms, they require moist skin.

I know how I felt during one camping trip when I forgot to pack my moisturizer--brutal! But seriously, moisture balance is very important to your worms, much more important than my spending a day or two without my favorite moisturizer.

If you see that the bedding is beginning to look too wet, just add a little dry bedding, scatter it about one inch thick on top of the wet bedding. You don't even need to mix it in. Just let it lie.

If the bedding is too dry, sprinkle water on top and fluff that top layer until it reaches that famous wrung out sponge state. For sprinkling, use the mist or shower setting on the spray nozzle of your garden hose, or use a watering can with a sprout that resembles a shower head (lots of tiny holes versus one large spout).

That's all there is to it.

Now that you know what you are looking for and you know how to adjust the level of moisture in your boxes, balance and harmony will be a piece of cake.

7. foraging

French Breakfast, 2008

what happens in the kitchen

What goes on in the kitchen no longer stays in the kitchen, or in the kitchen rubbish bin. All of the unwanted bits of fruit and vegetables, used tea leaves & coffee grounds, egg shells, and more that typically end up in the trash bin can now be put to good use. Start your collection!

I began my worm edible collection in a large yogurt container. This dutiful yogurt container either filled up or overflowed all too quickly, so I added another container, and when it was full, another. This collection of plastic yogurt containers on my kitchen counter was taking up too much space, not to mention the fact that it was aesthetically in bad taste. Even worse, I quickly learned that the elongated shape of a yogurt container, filled beyond the brim, not unlike a flat-bottomed ice cream cone, tips over very easily. Squishing the worm edibles down into the yogurt container and covering it with a lid is not a viable solution. Covering the container with a lid creates an anaerobic (bad) environment.

Reminder: anaerobic environments resemble trash can environments and lead to bad smells.

Skip the use of yogurt containers altogether and avoid lids of any sort and you won't have to pick up spilled scraps or endure that first terrible whiff that occurs when you remove the lid from a covered container in which anaerobic conditions have moved in. Ew!

It might seem somewhat counterintuitive, but what's best for avoiding malodorous worm edibles is leaving your container wide open and letting it breathe. Try it, you'll like it. Trust me. No smell. If those little fruit flies begin to hover around your bowl, you can always stick it in the refrigerator.

Of course you can always shell out the cash to purchase a neat little ceramic compost pail with a replaceable odor absorbing charcoal filter, but I don't really feel it is necessary. For several reasons, I recommend gathering your worm edibles in a large stainless steel bowl. Keep the bowl on your counter. Just toss items into your bowl as you prepare your meals--easy peasy. If you have company coming over or you are just sick of looking at your bowl on the counter, you can put it in the refrigerator or freezer or just feed your worms early, wash out your bowl, and put it away. Do whatever works for you. I want you to be happy.

The large bowl will not fill up as fast as a yogurt container. It won't tip over. It will hold many worm edibles. You'll only need one container. And it's reusable. The extra bonus is that it's a snap to clean, remember, it's stainless steel. No need to worry about leaving your juicy red beet trimmings in the bowl for a day, or two, or even three because a stainless steel bowl will easily wipe clean--no muss, no fuss. If you are anything like me, you probably already own a few such bowls and will not need to spend a cent. So pull one off your shelf and get started.

I suppose you'd like some details about what goes into this bowl. Fair enough. I'll tell you. The worms in my boxes have enjoyed items such as:
  • the few grapes on the vine that have gone squishy
  • limp lettuces leaves
  • radicchio, cabbage, and cauliflower cores and limp outer leaves
  • chard and kale ribs
  • the random berry or two beginning to grow miniature fuzzy mold sweaters
  • potato peels (more on potatoes below)
  • egg shells (dried and crushed--I used a mortar and pestle for small amounts and the bottom of an olive oil bottle and an empty yogurt container to smash larger quantities)
  • coffee grounds and unbleached coffee filters
  • loose tea leaves and tea bags with staples and colored labels removed
  • pear and apple cores
  • carrot and parsnip tops
  • tops and tails of green beans, summer squash, onions, and lemon cucumbers
  • shelling pea and shelling bean pods
  • strawberry tops
You get the picture, worm edibles are basically all of the bits and bobs of fruits and vegetables that you don't eat. You can also include those fruits and vegetables that you would usually eat had you not forgotten they were resting in your crisper drawer and moving, like Miss Jean Brodie, quickly past their prime. In addition, there are a few coffee and tea related bonus items that you can add to the mix.

Due to the varying rates in which worm edibles decompose, I intervene, but just a whit. I didn't want to work too hard, as I am a fan of nature taking it's course, but I wanted a little bit of control. I simply rough chopped everything I put into my stainless steel bowl. The chopping exposes more surface area and makes it easier for the worms to nibble through their nourishment. I didn't sort and consider and contemplate and drive myself mad, just a general rough chop of most items. If you think A rough chop is good, a puree must be even better, think again. The excess moisture of the puree will create a compacted and anaerobic (smelly trash bin) environment in your worm box. Don't fret about the slow pace of some items in your box. The slower moving worm edibles, like the shelling bean pods, can easily be plucked during harvest time and added into a new box set-up where they can comfortably continue their journey at their natural pace.

Let's talk about potatoes.
Potato peels are fine and potatoes too, but potatoes do not get added to your box without a price. I recommend paying close attention to your potatoes and eating them in a timely fashion, while they are fresh. Avoid the temptation of adding them to your box. I once had a pile of new potatoes that turned green on me in what seemed an instant. Apparently I had left them on the counter and exposed them to the sun long enough for them to turn a light shade of green. My understanding is that green potatoes are bitter, possibly toxic, and therefore something we don't want to eat. So I fed my potatoes to the worms. Come to think of it, that probably wasn't a very wise idea. Why would worms want toxic potatoes? I'm not really sure, but as it turns out, toxicity was not my problem. Potatoes are hardy creatures and this particular group quickly began to sprout while buried beneath the bedding inside my worm box. The sprouts proudly protruded straight up through the bedding and toward the sun. Although it was interesting and entertaining to watch this all occur, the fast-growing sprouts made it difficult to work within the box. My goal was to break things down in there, not sprout new plants. I considered removing the potato sprouts from my box and planting them in my garden, but I didn't think that growing new potatoes from potentially toxic potatoes was a wise plan. Once in a while I'm conservative. You understand. I finally decided to remove all of the little potatoes along with their newly formed sprouts and transfer them to my big woody and more landscape oriented compost pile. They would have also served as fine candidates for my green bin.
Some things were left off the list. Let me explain why.
  • I did not use grains or citrus peels. I read too many conflicting opinions about them, so I eliminated them from my list of worm edibles.
  • There were a variety of reasons not to use animal related products. Smell and the way decaying animal products act as an invitation to rodents were at the top of the list. I decided to keep my boxes meat, bone, and dairy free--no fish, chicken, pork, beef, milk, butter, cheese, etc.
  • Leftovers gone bad are rough. Very few fit the bill. Just say no to anything salty, milky, cheesy, spicy, vinegary, fatty, or fishy. I don't know about you, but that leaves out just about everything I eat. Be good. Eat your leftovers before they go bad.
  • Human or pet waste were items I never even considered, but I bring them up because it seems they are items other people have considered. These items are just plain unsafe. Bad bad bad. No no no. Enough said.
If you buy fruit or vegetables labeled with those tiny annoying stickers on them, don't forget to remove them. You don't want brightly colored pieces of plastic in your beautiful and organic finished compost. Think of your worms. They prefer all things organic. Your worms will turn their noses up and scoff at anything artificial placed before them. They are wise.

If you find yourself throwing a bunch of dinner parties, resulting in excess leftovers and food scraps, do not fret. Remember that excess food can always be stored in your freezer for future use, even worm food. Freezing worm edibles has the added perk of breaking down cell walls and allowing quicker digestion by your worms. This advice will also come in handy when you have that strawberry jam making soiree you keep meaning to have. You'll know exactly what to do with those heaps of strawberry tops post-soiree.

See? No worries.

6. pets

The Puppy, 2005

selecting a breeder

Worms are phenomenal pets! No doggie day care, no kitty clawed furniture, and no plastic poop bags. Your worms can even fend for themselves while you are on vacation for two, three, even four weeks. Just make sure that your bedding resembles a wrung out sponge before you say bon voyage.

I was lucky enough to inherit my worms, my pets with perks, the heart of the whole operation. I am proud to report that I was able to keep them happy, healthy, and eagerly producing enough offspring to eat all of the kitchen rubbish I sent their way and transform it into beautiful compost. In less that a year I was able to harvest compost from several boxes and begin several new boxes.

If you happen to have a friend with a thriving worm box or two, you should simply ask them if they'd donate a couple of heaping handfuls of their worms to a good cause--you. Individuals with worm boxes tend to be categorically friendly, as well as generous, so go ahead and ask.

If no one you know has ever considered possessing a worm box, my status pre-Point Reyes Station, you'll have to venture out on your own and find some worms. I know there are a variety of online options, but if you happen to live anywhere near a worm farm and can get a firsthand look at the way they treat their worms, all the better.

Worms are a source of organic fertilizer for many vineyards. As I mentioned earlier, perhaps you can link your worm farm expedition to your animal bedding hunt and make it all happen during a nice long weekend in wine country.

First and foremost, you want the right worm for the right job. The worms that will inhabit your box, when left to their own devices, live in a very similar environment. So you see, they are naturals for the job at hand. You are seeking a very specific type of worm.

The problem is that the type of worm you need is referred to by many names, red worms, red wigglers, striped worms, brandlings, and tiger worms, just to name a few. To make sure you end up with the right bunch, stick with a seller who knows the scientific name of their worms. When you find Eisenia fetida (E. fetida) or Eisenia andrei (E. andrei) your search will be complete.

E. fetida are the most common composting worm, but once in a while you will see E. andrei and they fit the bill as well. I highly recommend only purchasing these types of worms. I have read of other composting worms that have been known to exist in very specific environments, but we're not going to get into that here. I'm no worm connoisseur. Let's keep it simple.

E. fetida and E. andrei thrive in organic material (i.e., kitchen rubbish) rich environments. They were born to dine on decaying leaves, manure, and other types of decomposing organic matter, like your limp lettuce and cauliflower cores. And that my friend is the unadorned truth. Your objective is to create an inviting environment where your worms will feel comfortable and pursue their inherent calling in life.

Lumbricus rubellus (L. rubellus), also known as nightcrawlers will not do. They have an entirely different mission in life. They will find your attempt to confine them to a box meant for E. fetida and E. andrei insulting and will only rebel against you with starvation strikes that will end badly. If you cannot live without L. rubellus, you can find them frolicking in healthy gardens nationwide. Stop by and say hello, just don't add them to your box.

Your initial heaping handfuls, about a pound of worms, will be enough to start your first box. You now have everything that you need to get started. This is exciting!

  • The first step in setting up any new worm box will be to cover the bottom interior of your box with one inch of dry animal bedding.
  • Next, shovel enough bedding into your bucket to add about three inches of bedding to your box. While the bedding is in the bucket, sprinkle it with water and toss it around until it is as moist as a wrung out sponge. Add the moistened bedding to the box.
  • Add a couple of handfuls of soil to your box and mix it into the bedding.
  • Gently lower your pound of worms onto the bedding and watch them begin to scurry down into the bedding.
  • Close the box securely and allow them to get situated.

You will begin feeding your worms tomorrow.

Keep the contents of your box shallow (6"- 8" high). Your worms like to eat just below the surface.

Don't add more than three inches of moist bedding to get your box started and don't ever stuff too much food into the box (total contents should not exceed 6"- 8" high). A deep box that is filled to capacity doesn't really help anyone out--it is counterproductive.

I'll explain how to maximize surface area and maximize worm efficiency in Chapter 8. Your goal is to create an environment that resembles the natural environment in which these worms typically thrive. As mentioned earlier, they prefer to eat just below the surface.

Peruse the next couple of chapters to learn more about feeding your new pets. If all goes as planned, these pioneers should continue producing enough offspring for you to start your next box. The worms in your new box will procreate, and so on, and so on, and so on.

Monday, May 24, 2010

5. interior design

What Makes a Home, 2009


You are going to need bedding for your worms. Purchase bedding before you purchase your worms. They won't want to sleep on the floor. When I refer to worm bedding, words such as percale, Egyptian cotton, and thread count should not come to mind. Like most of us, worms like their bedding light and fluffy. Unlike most of us, they like their bedding moist like a wrung out sponge. Although you and I would not enjoy snoozing on bedding that resembles a wrung out sponge, your worms will love it.

If you do not know what a wrung out sponge looks like, you are truly a lucky person. You must not do a lot of dish washing. For this project, you will need to learn. Try and find a sponge, wet it under the tap, and squeeze it to remove most of the water. Now take a good look at it and commit the look and feel of this sponge to memory. You will use it as a model for determining the proper moisture level of the bedding in your worm boxes.

My landlord told me that I could start a new worm box with several shovelfuls of aged manure as bedding. She's not alone here, manure is a perfectly acceptable worm bedding. Honestly, it just sounded a pinch unsavory to me, but I felt slightly guilty about brushing off the idea without even giving it a try, so I decided to mix just a little manure in with a lot of shredded newspaper.

I sorted through piles and piles of newspaper to separate the black and white sheets from the color. I read several claims that the color ink being produced at the time was fine, but other claims warned not to take a chance, so I decided to play it safe and only use black and white newspaper. Bit by bit I fed all of the black and white pages through my junk mail shredder and put it all into a brown paper grocery bag for safe keeping.

Now let me put this manure issue to rest. Using manure for worm composting is not as straightforward as one might think. The first issue is that it is a bedding that has a tendency to heat up to a level so high it could kill composting worms. Because of this heat issue you must institute a two day waiting period after wetting your manure bedding before adding your worms. I'm not a big fan of waiting periods, especially if there are other more simplified methods that serve the same purpose. Additionally, for health reasons, you must only use well-aged, at least six month old, manure. I didn't feel able to comfortably eye the manure and confirm its age, nor did I have an interest in aging fresh manure myself. I am not a connoisseur of manure, but the supposedly aged manure available to me at the time just didn't seem right. It had a stiff ornery texture that would not break up or crumble as I hoped it might. I didn't want big chunks of bedding, I wanted loose fluffy bedding that was easy to dig into and distribute on top of my kitchen rubbish. This whole worm thing was supposed to be fun and I wasn't about to stay up all night transforming this manure into a favorable worm bedding texture. Maybe there is a fluffy aged manure out there somewhere, but I opted out of trying to hunt it down. I just stopped using manure.

Newspaper works as a bedding material in a pinch, but it is ugly, forms clumps when wet, and quickly becomes difficult to fluff up enough to cover kitchen rubbish. Fluffy and light bedding is integral to a healthy and properly aerated box. A well aerated box will keep your worms happy and healthy, and it will keep your box from smelling, which will keep you happy. Just another friendly reminder--proper aeration helps maintain aerobic conditions in your box. Aerobic is good. Anaerobic is bad. So I eventually gave up using newspaper too.

I used pine wood shavings, a by-product of wood processing, packaged as animal bedding. If you own a horse or any livestock you might already have a vat of the stuff. I do not own any such large animals, but I was able to purchase my animal bedding from a local feed store. The wood shavings were triple screened to remove dust and kiln dried for maximum absorbency and to kill any bacteria present.

You'll need a bag of pine wood shavings and a large container in which to house them. I used a metal trash can with a secure lid to protect the shavings from the getting wet in the rain and from blowing away in the wind. The shavings expand when wet and I didn't want them expanding until they were safe inside a worm box.

As noted, animal bedding made from wood shavings is light and fluffy, so you'll want to be cautious when transporting it from container (metal trash can) to worm box so you don't end up with half of your bedding scattered across your neighbor's lawn. A basic five gallon bucket, never filled above 3/4 full, works well. Spritzing the top of the bedding in the bucket with a little water also helps to minimize fly-away. Cover the bucket with its lid if it's a really windy day.

Animal bedding made from wood shavings is light, fluffy, pretties up your boxes, retains moisture, and looks great in your finished compost. Who could ask for anything more?

A local feed store may not exist in your neighborhood and animal bedding from a pet store will probably mean less product for more money. Why not take a ride to the country? The comfort of knowing that you scored a huge bag full of bedding at a reasonable price will make your country jaunt feel worthwhile. Make a day of it, pack a picnic. Maybe you'll be lucky enough to find a worm farm and a nearby feed store in the same vicinity. Even better, make it a weekend getaway. I know for a fact that such possibilities exist here in Northern California's wine country. If you happen to live in the Midwest or over on our other lovely coast, be optimistic and see if you can map out a similar adventure in your neck of the woods. This is supposed to be fun, right? Enjoy the ride!

If you are unwilling or unable to locate animal bedding, I have heard good things about coconut coir. The coir is a waste product of the coconut industry, but I'm not sure how well that reconciles with transportation costs. Black and white newspaper is a bit high maintenance, and it's not very pretty, but it is free and it does work. It's your call.

Always add a couple handfuls of soil to all of your new worm boxes. It introduces microbial decomposers to the process and they will get things in your box humming along more quickly. Think of those couple handfuls of soil as the final step in your worm box recipe, as you do your final step in cooking most savory meals--salt and pepper to taste.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

4. location location location

Photograph: Courtesy of Christopher Parsons
Waitsfield, Vermont, 2006

finding the right neighborhood

When I arrived, the old and die hard worm boxes were resting haphazardly behind my house. The good news was that they were right about where I would have placed them myself. They were under the shade of the eave, a few steps from our back door, and within reach of our garden hose. I pushed them around a touch to situate them parallel to the house, just to neaten things up a bit, and I adjusted the blocks of wood beneath the corners of the boxes so they were level. Box #1 was already in action (worms busy composting inside) and therefore pretty heavy, while Box #2 was empty and easy to move about.

Decide early on where you will keep your boxes. Once you start filling them up with worms, bedding, and food, you won't want to be lugging them around. Select a space where your boxes will be protected from extended periods of time in direct sunlight or rain.

I was not familiar with the land around our new house and, to be honest, protecting the boxes from rain was not something I'd considered, until it started raining. During the first rain I suddenly began panicking about the safety of my worms. Were there puddles forming? Were my worms going to drown? I ran outside into the rain several times, checking the boxes and the area around them until I felt fairly certain they were safe. To save yourself some time, get to know the area around your boxes early in the game, before you decide where to place your boxes. If I'd gone outside during the rain and found that my boxes were about to float away, I'm really not sure what I would have done.

Place 4 bricks or blocks of wood on the ground and place your first box on top, situating your box so there is a brick or block resting beneath each of the four corners of your box. Do the same for the second box. Confirm that your boxes are placed on ground that will not flood. The bricks or blocks of wood will elevate the boxes enough to protect them from a little rain, maybe a small puddle or two, but you don't want your boxes in a place where the water level could reach up above the bricks or blocks, permeate your box, and drown your worms. Obviously, this would be very sad.

Air needs to circulate around your boxes, so you don't want them pressed up against the house or an exterior wall of your apartment or condo, hidden underneath anything, or wrapped up in any way. In short, make sure your boxes have enough space for the aeration holes to aerate and the drainage holes to drain.

People will be curious. Be proud of your boxes, flaunt them! If you follow my guidelines, you'll have a clean and fresh smelling, not to mention very intriguing, system that you'll be happy to show off.

The space around your boxes is also a very important part of your system. You want to work in a comfortable space where you can easily access all of your composting supplies.

A small table, I actually used a tree stump, will serve as a resting place for your worm fork and other tools of the trade. At first, I kept everything on top of the worm box that I was not using at the moment. The problem with using one of the worm boxes as a table was that I had to transfer everything to the other box if I needed to get into that dormant box, even if I just wanted to take a quick peek inside. Then I'd have to move it all back to its original space on top of the first box--ugh! I think I did this a total of one time before I rolled a tree stump across the yard, placed it between my boxes, and called it a table.

If you believe you will use your gloves all of the time, you'll want to keep them on your table with your tools, perhaps in a small bag. As I was a tad squeamish about the whole idea of worms, I started out wearing my gloves during each trip to my box. As I became more comfortable, I began keeping my gloves in the mudroom and the only worm action they saw was during harvesting.

My watering can shared mudroom shelf space with my gloves and my knee pad. The containers you'll use for bedding and finished compost, I used a couple of metal trash cans that I found in the shed, shouldn't be kept too far from your boxes. I'll be honest, I let my vanity trump the efficiency of my system. We all have our priorities. I placed my trash cans along the most seldom seen side of my house, beneath an eave. So yes, I basically hid the trash cans, but they were protected from the rain and were still pretty easily accessible. I kept my five gallon bucket beside my cans, tucked my tarp inside the bucket, and covered the bucket with its lid. I didn't want the bucket filling with standing water or debris. My shovel eventually found a home inside my bedding container because that is where it was used most often.

The important thing is that all of your tools and materials are easily accessible. Use my organization techniques as a guideline. The details are up to you.

As you know, I live in a very temperate part of Northern California, so I cannot speak to you about my experiences with worm boxes subjected to freezing temperatures or buried beneath snow. I have however read some interesting cold weather suggestions. One idea would be to set your worms free when things start getting chilly, somewhere between late fall and early winter. Just take a break during those harsh winter months, and start over again, with new worms, in the spring. I've also seen recommendations for insulating boxes by adding additional bedding and surrounding them with straw bales. Some people bring the boxes indoors.

I kept my boxes outside year round. I just let them slow down a little during the winter. The worms still go on living their lives when there is a slight (Northern California) chill in the air, they just move more slowly. From my perspective, what is called winter in this part of Northern California isn't really much of a winter at all. I grew up in Chicago and I know a real winter when I see one. Winters here are a piece of cake.

Likewise, it never really gets very hot in this region. Temperatures above 90 degrees or so endanger your worms and 90+ degrees is pretty rare around here. For those of you who live in areas that experience extremely hot and sunny summers, as always, keep the boxes in the shade. Other solutions include bringing the boxes into a basement or garage or covering them with wet burlap and placing them where the wet burlap will be in the path of a natural breeze or a breeze created with a fan.

Obviously, moderate climates make for the simplest worm box care. My section of Northern California is prime worm territory. I wish they all could be California worms... Although I live in a temperate climate, perfectly suited for worm composting, it is not all wine and roses. Our climate has its downside too. We don't experience the fun that accompanies the more extreme seasons. I am rarely able to attend a summer evening barbeque with bare shoulders and I haven't experienced the joy of making a snow angel in my California backyard. I miss snow angels...

Okay, let's get back to the worms.

Indoor boxes eliminate weather issues and many people advocate indoor worm boxes. About as many, if not more, complain of their failed attempts of starting a worm box indoors. I've never tried having a worm box indoors and I don't see that fact changing anytime soon. If you find indoor worm composting works for you, fantastic! We all have our preferences.

There are a number of teensy bug and bug-like critters that will be living with your worms (another reasons I prefer the worms in the yard) and helping them with their transformational (composting) work. I commend that work. Together they will turn your carrot tops and radicchio cores into beautiful, dark, and rich compost.

Apparently, most of these critters are friends with one another and with your worms. Maybe one or two are foe. If you look hard enough you can find instructions detailing how you can identify and eliminate the unfriendly bugs from your boxes. My advice is to just let them be. I did not attempt to examine the contents of my boxes with a microscope and weed out the bad guys. We all have our limits. Bug sorting and sifting exceeds my limits. I let the bugs duke it out on their own and any disputes that may have occurred seem to have been peacefully settled.

Some critters are worth controlling. The little fruit flies that often hover around ripe fruit and certain indoor potted plants can sometimes show up in your box. If they do, it is probably due to exposed food. Make sure all of the food in your box is buried and thoroughly covered with at least a few inches of bedding. The flies are present because they are seeking a snack for themselves and a nourishing place to deposit their future offspring. A thick top layer of bedding will save you. Hide the food! If you can keep all of your worm edibles out of sight, you are safe. By nature, these little flies are a lazy. They aren't the type to start digging around and seeking buried treasure.

Let's face it, a wooden box or two containing organic fruit and vegetable scraps, wood shavings (bedding), and worms, placed outdoors, is much closer to Mother Nature's original intentions than a plastic bin housed under the kitchen sink. I don't profess to be precisely mimicking nature. For instance, I don't use manure, a natural environment for worms. Basically, it's a matter of style. The manure just isn't my style. Just because something is natural, or green, or organic, doesn't mean I like it. It must have additional redeeming qualities.

My wooden boxes were situated in a nice shady place outside of my house, not far from my back door, and I enjoyed having them there. Place your boxes in a space that suits you.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

3. architecture

A Happy Home, 2010

building a foundation

I'm lucky. I inherited three old and die hard wooden worm boxes. I started with one box and quickly learned that I needed two. I used my third box as a small raised bed and planted garlic in it. Two was the magic number. My boxes were well worn, bordering on downright beat-up, but they were highly functional. Each box met some very important specifications--plenty of aeration and drainage holes (protected by screen material) and lids that opened easily, stayed open when I needed them open, and shut securely.

I had zero problems with my boxes, but read many accounts detailing what others had endured. The most troubling issues being 1) rodent related and due to improper protection of drainage and aeration holes and insecure box lids and 2) drowned worms due to poor drainage. Poor drainage also creates anaerobic and stinky box conditions.

Anaerobic conditions must be avoided at all costs. To put it simply, in worm box terms, aerobic conditions are good and anaerobic conditions are bad. Aerobic is light, fluffy, and oxygen rich (good). Anaerobic is compacted, wet, slimy, oxygen deprived, and smells like a stinky trash can (bad). Anaerobic conditions threaten the lives of oxygen loving creatures, like your worms, and welcome the anaerobic critters who thrive without oxygen and emit foul smells.

You get the picture?

Aerobic = GOOD
Anaerobic = BAD

Your first assignment will be finding a home for your worms. This home will be a mixed-use dwelling, a place where your worms will work and play. With very little effort, you'll find an array of suggestions for housing your worms. Others have used boxes, bins, cans, dresser drawers, benches, window seats, leaky washtubs, and coffee tables. I even found one system involving a pair of old blue jeans, cable ties, and aged manure. My point is that you can ponder your options forever. Don't. Just get to it. Use wooden boxes. You'll be happy you did. You can always experiment later.

Procure two, yes I said two, wooden boxes. You'll be surprised how quickly a box can fill up. There are detailed calculations you can perform to determine the exact size of box you'll need, all the way down to figuring the square footage of surface required for the amount of kitchen rubbish disposed each week. I don't feel these steps are necessary. I didn't have the patience to weigh my fruit and vegetable scraps for a few weeks or to gauge how often I'd have guests and how what those guests ate would impact the weight of my kitchen rubbish, etc., so I decided to just get started without having much of a plan. At this stage I thought of my system as a work in progress.

My wooden boxes were approximately 1' x 2' x 3' (1' tall, 2' wide, and 3' long). Make sure that the wood used for your boxes is untreated. Treated wood contains poisons that you do not want near your worms. Why wood? Unlike plastic, wood is porous and breathes naturally, allowing for better box ventilation. Plastic is very common, but most, if not all, excess moisture problems I read or heard about were linked to plastic bins.

You must have a lid that opens easily and shuts securely. I suggest a hinged lid, one that is structured so it will stay open while you are working with the contents of your box. If it closes with a latch, even better. The main objectives are to allow yourself easy access to your box and to keep any and all fuzzy critters out.

Proper aeration and drainage is mandatory, without it your worms will drown and your box conditions will become anaerobic (bad) and, as I mentioned earlier, smell like a stinky trash can. Pee-yew! To give your boxes the aeration they need, you will need holes drilled into the long sides of your boxes. Six to eight 1" holes, evenly spaced, per side will optimally be drilled a few inches from the top on one side and a few inches from the bottom on the other side.

Follow the human lead. Critters out. Water? Reroute., 2010

These holes should be covered to protect your box from unwanted intruders, such as rodents. Screen material is an excellent solution. The screen material can be secured with a staple gun on the inside of the box. Soffit vents are another solution. I recently had a conversation with a very helpful gentleman at my local hardware store and he suggested using some type of drain cover as an alternative to screen material or soffit vents. I found an item in the drain cover section of the hardware store called a crumb catcher. They are quite cute. The crumb catchers will certainly cost more than stapled screen material, but I might indulge and give them a try in my next box to create a more interesting design. The crumb catchers I saw were 1" in diameter and looked about 1" deep. I am imagining them installed from the inside of the box, allowing the little 1" hole-punched metal cups to protrude from the exterior of the box, adding a shiny new dimension to a more traditionally designed box.

You might be tempted to start with just one box. Don't do it. You'll be happier if you have two. Trust me. It won't make sense to you now, but once you start moving along you'll be happy that you have two boxes prepared and ready to go. You'll use Box #2 for overflow when Box #1 reaches capacity and you won't have to take a break from feeding your kitchen rubbish to your worms when you stop feeding Box #1 and wait for its contents to be transformed into compost. You'll move right over to feeding Box #2 and you won't have to endure a period that forces you to toss your worm edibles into the trash. Once you begin feeding your worms it will feel unnatural to put your kitchen rubbish into a waste basket. What a waste! I really don't know why everyone doesn't work with a two-box system. It's quite practical and really does help the entire system run more smoothly.

Wooden worm boxes, two to be precise--inherit them, buy them, build them, ask someone to build them for you, just make sure you get your hands on two, and that they meet the specifications I've outlined above.

Monday, April 26, 2010

2. materials

Thank You, 2009

time to go shopping

If you've ever dabbled in gardening, you just might have some of these items stashed wherever you stash such things. As you can plainly see, all of these materials are not specifically garden-related. Even if you've never planted a seed or potted an herb, it is still likely that you possess a stainless steel bowl, a bucket, and possibly a tarp and a couple of trash cans. Read over this list and take a look at your belongings before going out and buying a bunch of new stuff that you really don't need. Mom & Dad, sis, neighbor, or one of your best pals might have a few of these items stored away. Ask them if they do and if they'd like you to help them clear some space in their garage. Enjoy the adventure of shopping for what you cannot find and save the rest of your money for some aged Italian balsamic or that life drawing class you keep meaning to take.

Here's what you'll need:

1) hand held trowel, cultivator, garden fork or "worm fork"
used for moving bedding around inside your worm boxes

2) small hand held garden shovel
used for shoveling bedding and finished worm compost

3) pretty and practical gardening gloves
used for keeping your hands soft, smooth, sun-protected, and clean

4) two metal trash cans
one can is used for bedding and the other for finished worm compost

5) large stainless steel bowl
used for storing worm edibles in your kitchen

6) worm edibles
used for feeding your worms

7) tree stump or small table that will fit between your worm boxes
used for holding your tools of the trade

8) tarp or large piece of plastic (6x8 is a good size)
used for harvesting your worm compost

9) five gallon bucket (preferably with a lid)
used for moving bedding and harvesting worm compost

10) gardener's knee pad
used for protecting your knees while harvesting worm compost

11) two wooden worm boxes
used for housing your worms

12) watering can with a shower spout (lots of tiny holes versus one large spout) or a garden hose that reaches your boxes and has a nozzle with a mist or shower setting
used for balancing the moisture level in your boxes

13) bedding (animal bedding made from pine shavings)
used for creating the basis of your worm environment

14) soil
a couple of handfuls per worm box will be mixed with bedding

14) worms (one pound of Eisenia fetida or Eisenia andrei)
they will be eating your kitchen rubbish and making compost

15) two chopsticks
used as markers for the grid systems in your boxes

1. once upon a time

Hope, 2008

so here's my story

Once upon a time, in the small village of Point Reyes Station, I stumbled into the world of worm composting.

I recall the day perfectly. I was discussing with our landlord all of the details involved in moving into a new home--phone, electricity, water, trash & recycling, keys, You have to jiggle this door a little while pulling it toward you to get it to unlock--that sort of thing. When suddenly she threw me for a loop by asking me if I'd be interested in keeping the worms. This was something she'd nonchalantly tacked on to another thought. Something like, So here are the keys...and I'd be happy to let you keep the worms. She said it in a tone that led me to believe that she was offering me a fabulous opportunity. I wasn't so sure.

I was thinking No, I don't think I need any worms. What on earth for? No no and no. Frankly, the idea gave me the heebie jeebies, but I didn't want to be rude.

I had been living in cities for most of my life. I'd lived in San Francisco for the past eight years and prior to that I had lived in Chicago. Needless to say, I had been far removed from anything resembling rural life for many years. I longed to quietly blend into village life without being noticed. I most certainly didn't want to be labeled as a dreaded city girl.

I was new to the ways of West Marin, and believe me, West Marin certainly does have its ways. A weekend road trip to West Marin for a challenging hike followed by a platter of freshly shucked oysters is one thing, but moving there and attempting to lay down roots is an entirely different animal.

Back to my story...
I wanted to be open to new things, but worms? The last thing I wanted to do was say something that would give my new landlord reason to meet up with her friends on Main Street and begin with You won't believe what my tenant, that city girl, said, followed by her account of our discussion and them cracking up into hilarious laughter. But I couldn't help myself. Without taking more than a moment to think over her question I somewhat involuntarily responded with Um (long pause) this might sound like a silly question, but what exactly does one do with worms? Are they pets?

Oops--where did that come from? I thought. She looked at me in a somewhat sympathetic manner and then led me behind the house and showed me her box of worms. She explained how Yes, they were pets, sort of, and that they also made compost, excellent compost.

She was passionate about her belief in the quality of this compost. Passion for compost? I thought. It was not a conviction I understood at the time. Being a complete novice in all things compost and gardening related, the concept was difficult for me to grasp. A bit out of my league. But I didn't want to hurt her feelings or say something that would lead to further embarrassment, so I just froze for a moment and tried to collect my thoughts. Items such as The pet worms make compost. Hmmm...okay. Do I need compost? raced through my mind. Truthfully, I didn't know what I needed. Suddenly I heard, Sure, I'll give it a go pop out of my mouth.

What the heck am I getting myself into? I thought. And that is how it all began.

She gave me vague worm care instructions and told me the worms were very forgiving, her manner similar to a seasoned chef speaking to someone who couldn't boil water. I'm actually a pretty good cook, but yes, in this analogy I am most definitely the one who cannot boil water.

The first evening we were in our new house I saved all of the vegetable tops and tails accumulated while preparing our salad, the stuff I typically dumped into our urban trash bin, and deposited it into a large yogurt container. The next morning I added the remnants of my husband's fabulous quiche. I didn't dry or crush the egg shells. I just dumped the big wet shells into my container. I didn't know any better. More on that topic later.

With my yogurt container reaching capacity I decided it was time to attempt my first trip to the worm box. I pushed away some unpacked boxes in our mudroom and found my brand new gardening gloves. I really adore my gloves, they are seamless, breathable, machine washable, ergonomically shaped, and available in green apple, purple, pink, and blue. Mine are green apple. This was all very exciting for me. I'd never owned gardening gloves, I'd never lived in a house with a mudroom, and I'd never fed a box of hungry worms.

I pulled on my gloves and found the old tool our landlord called her worm fork in a bucket behind the house. Next, I went back inside and grabbed my yogurt container of worm goodies and headed toward my newly acquired worm box. Okay... I thought Here we go. She said to bury the food. Where and how exactly to bury that food was what confused me.

While trying to hold the yogurt container in one hand and the worm fork in the other, I unsteadily opened the worm box and pushed some compost-looking matter, or so I thought (I wasn't really sure what compost looked like), to one side of the box with the worm fork. This act accidentally uncovered an array of food items that hadn't yet come close to decomposing. Is this okay? I thought to myself. Am I doing what I'm supposed to be doing? It didn't seem right, so I covered the food back up, or at least I tried, and dug into the other side of the box. More food. Bones too. And several of those annoying colorful little stickers so many of our grocers now put on their produce. Hmmm... I thought while frowning. It was quite a mess. I finally just dumped the contents of my container into the box and tried to cover it all up as best I could. It all felt very awkward. Am I going to have to do this dance every time I feed the worms? I thought. I wasn't pleased.

I was sending our landlord emails filled with lists of worm questions, daily. Looking back, I'm sure she was wishing she would have tacked on some extra rent dollars to cover her worm consulting fees. I didn't want to be a nuisance, but I wasn't sure exactly how forgiving the worms would be. I was nervous. I didn't want to endanger their little lives. As much as I didn't want to admit it, I was a city girl, and worms were not my forte.

I finally gave up sending email messages and decided that if I was going to make this worm endeavor work I'd need to do some research, a lot of research, or I'd never feel comfortable.

So I read everything I could get my hands on (sometimes I get like this)--articles, blog entries, garden websites, tiny worm sections in compost books, and the one book I found that was dedicated specifically to vermicomposting (worm composting). Truthfully, there wasn't much out there. The type of guidance I was seeking didn't seem to exist.

I found several individuals who felt they'd created successful worm boxes. Bottom line--these boxes just weren't my style. There was no shortage of horror stories describing failed worm boxes. One woman complained of opening her box and having rats jump out. Another woman told me her box had been flooded by the rain, drowning all of her worms. The prospect of successfully incorporating worms into my life was beginning to seem quite grim. It all seemed a bit, well, icky.

Knowing what I know now allows me to view all of my early research in an entirely new light. Knowledge is power, right? I have no idea how this rat drama could have occurred. Maybe the owner didn't have a box with a tight fitting lid, or maybe she didn't protect the aeration holes in her box. It would be impossible for rats to get into the set-up I eventually created. While doing my research I saw the drowned worms scenario come up several times and can only gather that these boxes were not in locations protected from rain or were lacking adequate drainage. I've learned through trial and error that moisture issues can easily be rectified by improving drainage and adding bedding. Those poor little worms shouldn't have drowned. They should have never been asked to swim.

Although I was skeptical and a smidge weary at this point in the process, I wasn't ready to give up. Not yet.

It quickly became clear to me that I'd be creating my own system. The systems I had learned about just weren't for me. This decision made me feel like I'd have a little more control over the situation and I started to lighten up. There was a glimmer of hope. I began to believe that I just might be able to make this worm thing work.

I chose to proceed a little differently than my landlord. I eliminated dairy and meat which banished smell issues, removed pointy bones from the scenario, and decreased the risk of attracting curious vermin. I experimented with a few bedding options and ended up adding a lot more bedding to my box. A few inches of bedding to cover exposed food ousts smell issues, makes food burial less complicated, and gives the worms a better work environment. Worms are not exhibitionists and they do not enjoy sunlight. They like to lie low. I chose to bury my food with a grid system and organized my kitchen rubbish collection and worm box area in a way that made the whole process flow more smoothly and efficiently, and I decided not to use manure when setting up my box. I just didn't like it.

After a few weeks I started to feel like I had a process that worked. I began prancing out my back door toward my worm box, my stainless steel bowl in hand, chanting "Here comes Mama!" as I approached my worms.

It takes just a few months to get to the first worm compost harvest, but I didn't have a few months, it was already April and I had recently been informed that I needed compost for my new kitchen garden and I needed it ASAP. In an effort to find something to my liking, I ended up selecting bags of compost made by various companies from several different stores. It got me started.

During my compost shopping spree, I did not see anything that compared to the worm compost I eventually harvested. My first harvest was amazing! It was dark, rich, and beautiful, and I loved knowing exactly what was in it as well as the precise process it had gone through to get to its finished state. If there is a commercial compost out there that comes even close to the quality and beauty of home-grown custom-made worm compost, I haven't seen it.

In the end, I made a lot of mistakes and eventually figured out a productive, neat, and clean process that made me happy. The experiences and opinions discussed in this book are based on a worm composting system in Northern California used by two adults, my husband and me. We dine at home often and eat a lot of fruits and vegetables.

My formal education may not be linked to the secret lives of worms, but I pride myself on finding the best of the best--the best cappuccino, the best facial moisturizer, the best Meyer lemon vendor at the farmers market, etc. So you can trust me. I'm not a take whatever I'm given and be quiet kind of girl. I am proud and smug about my trial-and-error method of creating the most beautiful worm composting system I have ever seen.

The transition from What exactly does one do with worms? Are they pets? to Here comes Mama! happened much more quickly than I would have ever expected. This book will allow you to skip the annoying mistakes that I made and easily set up a simple and efficient system so you can get to the fun part more quickly.

Don't be surprised if your composting worms start to feel like pets. Believe me, it is possible. Who knew that I'd find this process so fun I'd have to write a book to tell you about it? Not me.

I just didn't think it would be fair to keep it all to myself.


In the Beginning, 2008

once upon a time
so here's my story

time to go shopping

building a foundation

location location location
finding the right neighborhood

interior design

selecting a breeder

what happens in the kitchen

feeding time at the zoo

what we've all been waiting for

the end
and they lived happily ever after