Vermiculture: 1 Woman + 1,000 Worms = Smart Composting

Of all the animals, the worm has played the most important part in the world’s history.–Charles Darwin

Ever since learning that food scraps in landfills turn into methane gas–one of the leading pollutants responsible for global warming–I’ve been on a tear to figure out how to compost in my apartment.

My research pointed to one answer, and a most unfortunate new word: vermicomposting. I was pretty grossed out even saying it. For me, it evoked images of voracious rats chomping through fetid food waste.

In reality, it’s the process by which worms eat garbage and transform it into rich fertilizer, which can then be returned to the Earth.

Okay, that’s beautiful. But still, the idea of hundreds of slimy, dirty worms noshing my food scraps in my own home gave me the creeps.

Yet the more I researched, the more it made sense. Worm bins are compact (16 x 23 x 19 inches), so they’re a perfect choice for small-space living. Also, worms turn garbage into compost in three months, as opposed to a year with garden composting. Worm castings (or poop) and tea (worm pee) are a rich source of nitrogen, making them an excellent organic fertilizer. Properly maintained, the worm bin won’t smell. (If it starts to stink, then you’ve got a problem: either it’s too wet, too dry or too full.)

Here’s how to start your own worm ranch:

Find a home for the worms. The City of Santa Monica, Calif., where I live, subsidizes composting containers. So, for $33, I picked up my cute lil’ worm bin, which even had a name: Wriggly Wranch. Check with your municipality for a similar deal.

With a sleek, black modernist architectural design, the Wranch offers Red Wrigglers the finest in contemporary living.  It fits perfectly on my tiny back porch. The worms can tolerate temperatures between 50-90 degrees F. If it gets colder or hotter, they’ll have to be inside. Keep your worm bin out of direct sunlight.

Round up some worms. There are several species, but one of the only kind that will work in the bin are called Red Wrigglers. Several companies will airmail Red Wrigglers to your door for about $25 a pound. Leaving such a huge carbon footprint in my effort to recycle seemed absurd, so I put an ad up on Freecycle and got immediately got seven or eight responses. Worm farmers are a supportive bunch, it turns out. You can also buy them from your local nursery.

It takes about 1,000 worms (1 pound) to get started. You could start with fewer, but it will take patience to let the little guys multiply into a population big enough to handle large quantities of food scraps.

Make the bed. To create the bedding for the worms, the Wranch provides a block of coconut coir.  We spread the coir in the bin and then dumped our little recyclers in.  I’ve never been so excited to open a can of worms.  (Sorry, had to make that joke.)

Feed them properly. Worms thrive on a diet of fruit and vegetable scraps (except citrus rinds), coffee grounds, crushed egg shells, nut shells and even stale bread. They don’t like any animal products (meat or dairy), fats (including vegetable oil) or rotting food.

It took a week or two for our worms to really start eating.  After a couple months, the population was big enough that they could handle a pound of food a day! The trick is to put food scraps in the food processor so that they’re already broken down for the worms.

I eat the food, they eat my garbage and then it all goes back to the earth.  Nature’s perfect, closed-looped systems never cease to amaze me!

Evangeline Heath is a freelance writer based in Santa Monica. She documents her adventures in yard-sharing and urban homesteading in her blog FarmApartment. Her last post for NOURISH Evolution was about yard-sharing.

Growing Beyond the Garden

nton-small-iconRelatively speaking, our garden is small. In the past, we’ve designated two narrow beds in back for vegetables and managed to shoe-horn in about half a dozen tomato, eggplant and pepper plants along with some basil, cucumber and pole beans, most of which we grew vertically in cages or along trellises or running up ropes towards the sun. I’ll admit to longing, though, for sprawling zucchini and melon vines, and beans that bloomed at a height my daughter could reach without having to sit on Daddy’s shoulders.


And then about a month ago, inspired by the creativity of urban gardeners, I began to look at my yard differently. Suddenly, I saw those spots in the front where weeds had choked out the chocolate cosmos not as eyesores, but as sunny spaces for zucchini to unfurl. The narrow strip of bare earth along the side of the house, where leggy dahlias had once stood, now beckoned me to bury some seeds. 

I complied and today, sunny orange squash blossoms mingle with the hues of our Joseph’s Coat roses in the front yard, a watermelon vine snakes along the edge of a walkway and the broad, green leaves of bush beans ripple in the breeze beneath our fig. Allowing myself to mingle fruit, vegetable and flower has turned our whole yard into a virtual garden and will bring us nearly half again the amount–and variety–of food as in years past.

This week, suss out your own yard and pick a place you might be able to tuck a stray vegetable or two. Then see how much pleasure the bonus brings to both yard and table throughout the summer season.