The Joy of Kitchen Composting with Worms
Bees are the real reason I have worms in my kitchen. It started when I saw a flyer at MOM’s organic market about a workshop for children on raising bees. When I called about signing up, I spoke with Heidi from Azure B. LLC, who runs the workshops. She also got me interested in her workshops on vermicomposting, or composting with worms. So, off we went to her house and farm in Marbury, Maryland with some friends and their children for a workshop on worm composting and to see her family’s bee hives.
As promised, it was fascinating and fun and we all came away with our own kitchen worm bins fully stocked with red wigglers.
The red wiggler worm, Eisenia fetida, is a species of earth worm adapted to consuming decaying organic material. One red wiggler can consume its own body mass in compost in approximately 48 hours. When our kitchen bin is working at peak capacity, we probably have about 3,000 or so worms.
You can put anything in the worm bin that you would put in a regular compost bin in the yard, like fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds, and tea bags. As with regular compost, you cannot add meat, cheese, or anything oily like salad dressing.
The waste eventually breaks down into a rich, nutrient-dense soil, or “black gold.”
My friend Dana places her worm bin on the counter top next to the sink (that’s hers in the first photo, which you may recognize from the Del Ray Patch article she wrote about her worm bin). She keeps the spout open to let the “worm tea” drip into the sink. The worm tea is the excess moisture in the bin. It’s important to keep the moisture level even, like a wet sponge, so the worms stay healthy (and so they don’t drown). To help maintain the proper balance of wet and dry matter, I also add shredded paper and leaves to the mix.
When you first start out, it’s recommended that you layer shredded paper and some dirt in with the worms. Above them you add some food scraps and then more dirt to cover the worms without smothering them. Then, you add a bit of water and ideally, mush it in with your hands. It’s not an exact science. You’ll soon see what seems to work best in terms of the mix of paper, water, and food scraps that keep the worms happily munching.
My setup is to keep the worm bin under the sink. About once a week, I put a plastic bowl under the spout and let the worm tea drip into the bowl over the course of a few hours. The water accumulates mainly from the fruit and veggie scraps, but also from when you add water if the bin seems too dry. I then dilute the liquid and give an outdoor or indoor plant a power drink of vitamins and nutrients. Last spring, I moved the bin outside to drain it where the rain mixed in with tea naturally.
To use the bin, you just lift the lid and toss the scraps in and the worms get down to business eating through everything and “pooping” out the compost (also called worm castings). And, seriously, they don’t smell at all. If there is a smell, it means you’re adding too many food scraps that the worms can’t eat fast enough; hence, the smell of rotting food.
I found I had to harvest the worm castings every couple of months, which is not for the faint of heart. I spread out some newspaper and pull out the compost with my hands and then pick out any remaining worms. You have to be careful to keep the worms in the bin, since they’re non-native and shouldn’t be released to the wild. I then use the black gold in the garden by scratching it into the soil here and there or adding some to a hole when I’m starting a new plant or seed.
You can get started with a worm bin on your own by buying some red wigglers at a bait shop or online, or you can get in touch with Heidi’s company. Another way of acquiring the worms is to get some from a neighbor who composts. The worms reproduce quickly, doubling their population in about 90 days. When I found I had what seemed to be an overpopulation in my bin, I advertised some on freecycle. Then, when mine faced extinction after leaving the bin outside in a heat wave (shame on me!), Dana kindly replenished my supply.
The indoor worm bin is great, but I’ve found it’s not big enough to compost the several pounds of waste our family of four produces in week. So, we have an outdoor compost bin as well, where I put the majority of our food scraps. Maybe I’ll create an outdoor worm bin this summer.
You can find more information about the kitchen composters that Heidi and her partner, Stefano, design and sell on the Azure B. Web site. For some great information and a how-to for making an outdoor worm bin, check out the How Stuff Works article on vermicomposting.
Do you have a worm composting bin in your kitchen? What advice do you have for others just starting out?