Monday, April 26, 2010

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.

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