Worms, Glorious Worms

My faults are legion, but inability to compost isn’t one of them.

Like any Londoner with a square foot of outside space I own a compost bin. It houses remains of several years’ worth of leaves and hedge trimmings and not a single scrap of kitchen waste. Because: I also own a wormery – a lidded bucket which is home to several thousand tiger worms (eisenia foetida)[1].

Vermicomposting involves joint action of worms and microorganisms to break down organic waste. Since the process doesn’t rely on heat, it can be done on a small scale and entirely indoors.

I was inspired to give it a try by this guy’s article (and the update), except I didn’t construct my own wormery. I’m not good at making things.

The journey so far

I have been vermicomposting for three years. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

My first attempt ended in mass worm death. I took their bucket outside and chanced to placed it under a broken gutter. It rained heavily for several days. The wormery should have been able to cope with rain, but I guess a constant drip from a broken gutter was a stretch too far. It filled with water, the worms drowned. I felt bad about it.

In last summer’s heatwave we came close to another accident. It was 30 degrees in the shade, I hadn’t checked up on the worms for a couple of weeks, the wormery needed emptying of compost, I procrastinated. When I finally lifted the lid there was a layer of semi-dead barely moving worms on the surface. Decisive action saved the colony. They wouldn’t have lasted much longer.

The eco angle

Is having both indoor and outdoor composting facilities an overkill? Not for me.

In winter I rarely go out in the garden. If I didn’t have a wormery, in the cold months most of my kitchen waste would end up in the rubbish bin, thus adding to my landfill footprint. Because: my faults are legion and laziness is definitely one of them.

Luckily my worms don’t share my vices. These amazing little organic factories work tirelessly day and night transforming tea bags, pizza crusts and apple cores into a thick lavender hedge and several healthy rose bushes.

It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures.

– Charles Darwin

Even my long-suffering house plant perked up once I started feeding it worm fertiliser, else it would’ve been dead and composted a long time ago 😉

The composting angle

My garden is too small to keep the outdoor compost bin constantly supplied with carbon for the right C:N ratio (about 30:1). Some of my friends’ bins are fly-infested receptacles of smelly gelatinous mess because of that reason, especially in spring when there are no fallen leaves to balance out nitrogen-rich kitchen scraps[2]. With a tiny garden like mine, wedged in among terraced blocks of flats, this could provoke unwanted scrutiny from delicate neighbours, the council, and other assorted vermin.

It may be counterintuitive, but a small compost bin is more difficult to look after than a large compost heap. It’s more sensitive to outside temperature variations – there’s little to be done about it without turning composting into a full-time job – and there’s less leeway for mistakes.

A wormery can take a larger proportion of nitrogen than the outdoor bin. Worms eat the waste, so it doesn’t have time to rot or ferment; good drainage and ventilation keep anaerobic bacteria in check. This is further helped by worms burrowing in the compost and me occasionally digging in it as per instructions, and because I want to see the worms 🙂

Free fertiliser

Manufacture of synthetic fertilisers produces large amounts of greenhouse gas. On top of this, soil microbes convert excess nitrogen unabsorbed by plants into nitrous oxide, so a large chunk of the liquid synthetic plat food that people pour on their flower beds goes up in the air.

Worm compost is better for the environment than synthetic fertilisers: the nutrients are released slower, plants have more time to absorb them and less of the good stuff ends up in the atmosphere. It is also full of microorganisms that enrich the soil and help keep the plants healthy[3]. And best of all, it’s all free 😀

Worms make great pets

My worms live in the cellar in winter and out on the patio in a shaded corner in summer.  There’s no smell. If I stick my nose into the bucket and sniff hard, the most I get is a damp earthy smell, like a tomato plant.

Worms are quiet, don’t annoy, don’t whine, don’t chew up furniture, nor shoes, and there are no vet bills. They are ideal pets for the commitment-challenged. My wormery can go without food for weeks while I’m away – all I need to do before I leave on holidays is drain the bucket of any liquid (this can go straight in the garden, plants love it) and add a handful of kitchen scraps mixed in with plenty of paper or cardboard. Then place it back in the cellar, and I’m good to go.

Interested?

If you’d like to give it a go, I recommend reading Eifion’s articles on The Ecologist blog. They are both informative and a good read 🙂 And then there’s always Youtube.

Notes:

  1. Garden earthworms are not suitable. Apparently they have a thirst for freedom and need to burrow in soil – both undesirable tendencies for creatures you’re planning to keep in a bucket with damp shredded paper. On the other hand, tiger worms, also called red worms or manure worms, often found in fallen leaves on the forest floor or in manure piles, are surface dwellers and like living in colonies.
  2. I could use paper or cardboard, but honestly, I don’t see myself doing this for  my outdoor compost bin, checking it twice a week for temperature measuring the pH ratio, adjusting the mix of scraps I put there based on conditions. I find it easier to keep up the motivation when there’s some living thing I’m trying to not kill.
  3. I’m not an organic gardener (if I can be called a gardener at all) by any stretch of imagination, but I don’t like putting chemicals in the environment if I can help it.
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