Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Worms Crawl In, The Worms Crawl Out

And the fact that they crawl out is fair proof that I stink at vermiculture.  Fortunately, it doesn't happen often.  I get ahead of myself though.

At the last trailer park we lived in, I tried to have a sealed compost bin in the back of the house, where no one should notice it, so I could get rid of some of our waste in a more environmentally friendly matter and make some awesome compost for my garden boxes while I was at it, instead of always having to buy compost if I wasn't lucky enough to find some on Freecycle.  Within a few weeks, the trailer park manager noticed it and told my mother-in-law (with whom we were living) that it had to go.  WTH?  In order to even see what it was, he had to be snooping around on a level that is completely unacceptable, and if we owned the trailer, we probably would have sued for him to pay to have it moved to a new location for such an invasion!  My mother-in-law, on the other hand, just said I had to get rid of it.
This is an earthworm.  This is not the right kind of worm for vermicomposting.  We do enjoy "worm hunting" after rain and collect this kind of worm off the roads and put them in the garden to do their thing though!

When I heard of vermiculture, I was thrilled to discover a way I could compost indoors (hidden from my mother-in-law, since I'm quite sure she wouldn't have approved!).  I got a worm bin already made from my mom, who had used it in some sort of demonstration for her volunteer work as a master gardener, and got some red wiggler worms that were being sold as bait at a gas station for about $3 (if I remember right.   Actually, we got them to go fishing and I just used the leftovers to start the worm bin.)  Armed with an article in Backwoods Home Magazine on getting started with vermiculture, which is unfortunately not available online, I set about putting in some moistened shredded newspaper for bedding, food scraps, and a little garden dirt in there, along with the worms, and waited for the magic to happen. 

For a long time, nothing interesting seemed to be happening.  The worms seemed to be happy enough, going about their wormy business.  Food scraps would eventually disappear.  All seemed to be good in worm town.  Then we moved. 

I decided to put the worm bin under the kitchen sink, with the idea it would be easy to toss the veggie scraps or whatever in there right when I needed to.  However, it was a tight squeeze to get it in there, so I didn't like opening it to put the scraps in very much.  I found that I was more likely to put larger batches of things in, rather than several small batches.  And then the flies came.  My neglect and sporadic feeding of the worms apparently set about a lovely environment for fruit flies to breed.  And breed they did!  I was able to eliminate them eventually by vacuuming up all the ones I found flying around the house...and pulling out the worm bin and putting it above the washer and dryer where I could monitor the worm/fly situation more closely.  I also decided to purposely not feed them for a while, in the hopes that if the flies didn't have anything to eat, maybe they would disappear and just hoped that the worms could outlast the flies in that regard.  It seemed to work, and I recently learned that it is actually a good idea to let your worm bin "rest" so they can thoroughly process the existing material (ie eat their own poop apparently.  Eeeew!) from time to time.  The first time I found a worm on top of the dryer, I decided that if the worms were starting to crawl out, maybe they were getting hungry and I should feed them again.  I hadn't seen any fruit flies in a while, so it seemed my evil plot had worked.

Then strawberries went on sale for $1 a pound.  Usually, I try to only buy and/or pick local strawberries, where I can talk to the people that grew them and find out exactly what toxins (hopefully none!) were dumped on them in an effort to get a good crop, but winter had been dragging on much, much too long and I was getting depressed and I figured some strawberry therapy was just what I needed, so I bought 13 pounds.  Why 13 pounds?  Because I had $13.  Anyhoo, I stayed up late one night cutting off the stems and cutting them into pieces and making my mostly healthy fruit far less healthy by dumping sugar on them to bring the juices out.  Fortunately, I had news coverage of a potential core meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant to keep my mind occupied while I was doing this...and mindlessly threw all the stems and icky parts of the strawberries to the worms.

It occurred to me the other day that maybe that wasn't such a good idea and I probably didn't really have a worm bin anymore, rather a large colony of aspergillus or some other super fun mold hanging out over my washer and dryer.  Rather alarmed by this notion, I immediately pulled down the again neglected worm bin.  Instead of the feared mold, I found that the strawberries had broken down into a very, very liquidy mud.  In fact, there was standing water in my worm bin.  I panicked.

I called for the kids to immediately come help me tear up some more newspaper to absorb all that moisture, never once thinking until afterwords that if the worms were still alive, there probably was no need to panic because they'd probably be okay for a few minutes longer.  We got some newspaper in there, I've been trying to feed them just small, frequent meals now, so hopefully everything is okay now.  I did a population check the other day and discovered that there are about twice as many worms as I started with in there.  There probably should be a lot more, but, obviously, I suck at vermiculture.
The boys tearing up newspaper for our vermicomposting emergency

I want to get better.  Really, I do.  I've heard that worm castings are like plant crack, and that sounds like a good thing, right?  Plus, if we have a great worm population, I could "harvest" some of them to go fishing this year instead of buying bait.  So I've been doing a bit more research and I'm going to start to try to take the lives of my little wormies a bit more seriously.  I discovered a great blog all about worm composting the other day, so I'll be reading that frequently, I think, to make sure my worms can end up being all that they can be.


  1. I've had some of the very same worm problems you have had. Keeping worms is not as straight forward as some would have you believe. I've even taken a worm compost class. See http://www.suburbanhobbyfarmer.com/worm-composting-lessons/

  2. Yeah,we tried that once,it was hubby's job to take care of the bin,since he was the one who wanted the worm bin in the first place.We simply ended up with dead worms and wet newspaper...haven't tried it again since.

  3. Wow, that makes me feel so much better! At least I haven't killed off my worms. lol

  4. I have been wanting to try this, but I have yet to check it off my list. I think your blog and the link you posted on FB make it easy to understand how to do this! I'm REALLY loving your blog. We live in a trailer as well and while we do have a good bit of land to garden, my husband won't let me use up ALL of the space... ha ha! I'm really crossing my fingers he might make me some raised beds this year. We shall see!

  5. Glad you like! My husband got totally on board with the using the whole yard thing when he realized it eliminated the need to even own a lawnmower, let alone requesting he USE one! Part of the idea here is to have small enough areas that need mowing that our weed whacker gets the job done. :-)

  6. We love our worm bed but it has been a real learning experience. I started it last year and we decided we are running out of space and will need to do a second one up soon. We also discovered that if you throw seeds in there they sprout really well and all of ours that we have gone on to plant have done wonderful!

  7. We managed to kill all our worms. Havent started it back up since

  8. My kids have made worm bins at Urban Options, Impression 5, and now school. They advertise them as a composting solution for people in apartments *as if* they are a total composting solution. With that in mind they are a terrible, whole house composting solution. You're right about small feeding being best with little rests. To do that for a family of nine we'd need many, many bins and lots of monitoring of conditions in each.

    Not to trash vermiculture. I think it's a great hobby and a great augmentation to traditional composting; it just can't replace traditional composting for our family. I could get into it again so long as it was treated as a worm habitat and a traditional compost buffered our fluctuating abundance and lack of food scraps.

    BTW, I was in the ER to get stitches for Elisha once when the doc asked if we homeschooled. We don't "pass" well. Perhaps our "tells" are instead of fretting over the kids fanning their anxiety, they notice the calm mentoring as we chat about *why* it's most appropriate for the doctor to use a butchers knot for the stitches, how locals inhibit nerve function to the stitchee's benefit, perhaps their listening to science podcasts on my phone. (What can I say? I'm not good at mainstream.) Anyway, that doctor honored me for homeschooling and said it takes a special person to pull it off. I disagreed but then add, "Well you do have to be the sort of person who instead of magazine layout kitchen can be comfortable with crystals growing on the windowsill, a made from scratch sourdough growing on the kitchen counter, and a worm composting bin by the back door." The doc blanched and looked woozy. I hadn't even mentioned a dead animal to dissect in the freezer!

    Clearly there's a reason so many urban homesteaders are homeschoolers. It's a natural fit.