This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 26, 2003 3:46 AM. The previous post in this blog was The prodigal blogger. The next post in this blog is Holy moly. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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Sunday, January 26, 2003

They're not all bad

All this talk about the worm that ate the internet yesterday reminds me to say something good about the worms that eat my garbage.

At our house we have a compost bin, and in it live thousands of redworms. We started our relationship with this colony's great-great-great-great-grandparents around 10 years ago, after hearing about the benefits of worm composting from a co-worker. At the time, some friends of mine were starting up a new ecology institute called the Northwest Earth Institute, and they had us all buzzing about small things we could do to move our lives toward the ecological ideal. They held some really interesting classes called "Deep Ecology," and included in our class was one stubborn skeptic who forced us all to admit that ecology is really a religion.

But an hour later, a lot of us said, O.k., but it's still something we want to do.

Shortly after that class I went out and bought a humble little book called "Worms Eat My Garbage" by a gal from Michigan named Mary Appelhof, who is the queen of worm composting (a.k.a. vermicomposting). It explains how you do it. Basically you set up a bin; make a nice bed of straw, leaves or shredded newspaper; add water; add worms (we bought a particular strain of redworm through a local greeny store); and start dropping in all of your fruit and vegetable waste, eggshells, coffee filters, and a few other items (no meat, bread or grain). Next thing you know your little buddies are eating it up and pooping out these little black crumbs -- "castings" is the polite word -- that come together to make some of the best fertilizer you ever put on shrubs, flowers or vegetables.

As Appelhof's book points out, it's easy to make your own bin, but you can also buy one already made, for not much money. Our first one (we inherited a bigger one when we bought our current home) was a pretty small plastic bin, a little bigger than the size of a newspaper and maybe 18 inches high. Air holes in the top, drain holes on the bottom for the small amount of worm "tea" that sometimes runs off. (Which house plants love, by the way.)

It sounds gross, but when you start doing it you see that it isn't. There's no odor if you do it right -- neither a garbage smell nor a poop smell. And it's hard to do it wrong. These guys can handle neglect. You don't have to turn the compost, ever. If the bin is big enough, you needn't get around to removing and using the "doo" for years. The stuff compacts down. Every few months, the little devils actually eat the bed they're in (and their deceased brethren, ewwww), so you add some more straw, shredded newspapers or leaves. No big whoop.

You do get fruit flies, lots of fruit flies, so you probably don't want to do this in the living section of your house (although some people do so and simply set up a "trap" for the flies). And the worms can't withstand heavy frost, so in many parts of the world, it isn't feasible unless you winterize your bin. But they can handle a few days at a time below freezing, and in a place like Portland there's never more than that.

One week when we first got the worms, it got really cold for several days and we forgot to move the bin inside. The poor guys froze solid in their mucky little home. So we brought them inside, giving them up for dead. The next day, they were thawed out and recovered fully.

After a while you figure out which kinds of garbage these guys eat quickly, and what takes them longer to chew on. (Yes, I think I read that they actually do chew.) Banana peels disappear in no time. Corn cobs might still be in there when your grandkids are gardening. They (the worms, that is) eat slowly in the winter and pretty darned fast in the summer.

You don't have to be a hippie or a green to try this. It's easy. You can't not like the extra space it makes in your garbage can, which you can use to discard styrofoam if you are so inclined. You also get a ready supply of bait for fishing -- catch-and-release or otherwise. And when you scoop out your first batch of beautiful, free fertilizer and see how rich it is, you'll thank Mary Appelhof, and her billions of little pals.

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