When it comes to gardening, I encourage people to learn by doing. Sure, you should ask yourself tough questions at the outset — especially, for us urban gardeners, about how much space and time you really have to spare and how best to use them — but I also think it’s possible to overthink things. Some lessons just aren’t learnable until you dig in, plant, weed, water, grow and harvest.
It’s also possible to underthink things. In hindsight, that’s what I was guilty of in June when I ordered a vermicomposting system and, oh, some 1,000 red wiggler worms to populate it. My intentions were good: I wanted to use my kitchen scraps to make compost, reducing waste and benefiting my garden in one move. And I had read that one of the most efficient ways to do just that is to put this particular variety of earthworms to work doing what they were born to do, which is to digest garbage into nutrient-rich castings.
I have been paying the wonderful Compost Cab service for two years now to pick up my food waste every week and return it twice a year in the form of bags of finished compost. But I started that arrangement back when I lived in a condo building with no outdoor space. Now that I was in a townhouse, did I really need them anymore? Couldn’t I take on the job myself? I looked at various systems and concluded that worms – which can produce finished compost in a mere 90 days – were the way to go.
Then the system of stackable trays I had ordered arrived, along with a 70-plus-page guide, and as I read through the directions, so much more involved than I had anticipated, I started to realize: This wasn’t a no-brainer.
I’d need to make sure the system was kept at an average temperature between 55 and 75 degrees, which meant it would have to live indoors most of the year. I’d need to make sure to mix paper or other high-carbon items with the food waste to maintain proper balance, helping prevent odor and/or a fruit-fly infestation — or, worse, a worm exodus. (The horror!) I would need to avoid feeding them citrus or other acidic items.
I’d have to feed the worms at the right pace, keeping them happy and able to reproduce so they could handle all the materials coming out of my active kitchen. I needed to consider pureeing or microwaving my food scraps before adding them to the worm composter to help jump-start the process. And more.
All the caveats and instructions started to give me a headache, even before the wrigglers themselves were delivered. When they were, I started to seriously wonder just what I was getting myself into.
Well, I suppose I make mistakes so readers don’t have to, and as I forged ahead, that’s just what I did. First, I put too much food in too quickly, without enough paper materials to balance it out, and the dreaded fruit-fly infestation was on. Then, when I tried to make up for an overly wet system with a lot of shredded paper at once, the worms rebelled, and too many of them, yes, exited the system one day. Not a good day.
I overcompensated. I became too timid, adding food much too slowly, under the misperception that the worms couldn’t keep up with me. I refused to let go of the Compost Cab subscription, putting a much higher proportion of my food scraps into that pickup bucket than into the vermicomposting tray. I started to think that I needed a second composting system – perhaps one of those outside tumblers?
And then I took a breath, talked to some experts, and reread the guide.
It turned out that I could fill the tray a lot more quickly than I had been doing. Sure, I needed to include paper, but that was pretty easy to do, given that I’m a multiple-newspaper subscriber. I just had to get in the groove. Once or twice a week, when my countertop compost pail filled up, I would quickly scrape the contents into a food processor before feeding it to the worms. I’d send some newspaper or junk mail through my office paper shredder and put that on top of the food scraps.
Soon enough, the system seemed to equalize. The worms seemed more active and were (I think) reproducing. I set out vinegar traps, and the fruit flies abated. And I took a very important next step. I finished filling the first tray and followed the instructions for stacking another one on top. While the worms worked through the scraps in the bottom tray, turning them into those rich, dark castings, I’d have another place to put food scraps, and they’d make their way up when they were ready. At last, the system was keeping up with me — or maybe I was keeping up with the system.
Just last week, I finally gained enough confidence to pull the plug on my beloved Compost Cab. My worms were doing their job, and I was doing mine – without over- or underthinking things.