In early March, I met a friend at her local community garden to help her and her husband plant a vegetable garden in their newly acquired garden plot. I arrived to find them unloading a wheelbarrow full of flats of vegetables and flowers, small packets of seeds, and a Tupperware container of ground egg shells to fertilize the tomato plants. The only gardening I had done in years involved trying not to spill dirt all over the floor when I moved my houseplants from one pot to a slightly larger pot. I had forgotten how nice it is to kneel in the dirt, sleeves rolled up, and watch wildflowers wave in the breeze. Fresh dirt is a really wonderful smell.
While we were planting marigolds and bell peppers, we started talking compost. San Jose does not have citywide composting for food waste: the city only collects yard waste. This had been a source of frustration for me since I moved here, since I had always been able to mix banana peels with yard trimmings in our green bin growing up. Luckily for my friend and her husband, their community garden had its own compost pile that they would now have access to. My solution so far had been to schlepp my accumulated banana peels and carrot tops to my parents’ when when I visited them every couple of weeks. This had been inefficient at best and smelly at worst.
I had been thinking about getting a worm bin ever since I moved to my current apartment last summer. The more I explained to my friend and her husband why I wanted one, the fewer reasons I could think of why I shouldn’t get one. Worm bins tend to be compact, with a footprint of one to two square feet, which can easily fit on my small balcony. They are self-contained, so I can bring it inside when it gets too hot for the worms in our 100-degree-plus summers. And it would be much more convenient than driving my compost half an hour away. By the time I got home, refreshed from an afternoon of working in the dirt, I had talked myself into it. I would get around to it next weekend, I thought, already thinking about the work week ahead. Or maybe the week after that.
A week later, Santa Clara County issued its first stay-at-home order. In another few days, the governor of California would issue an indefinite state-wide order. I no longer had a place to dispose of my compost other than the trash. I desperately wanted to feel connected to plants and the earth again. And I was in need of a new hobby.
The Worms Arrive
During the first week of quarantine, I ordered a two-tray worm composter and 250 red worms from a worm farm. The worms used in worm composting are not not earthworms; they prefer leaf litter and vegetables to dirt. An established worm bin can break down your food waste in anything from a few days to a week. This process, called vermicomposting or worm composting, produces fertile worm castings that are are rich in nutrients. You can add them to your garden soil as a fertilizer, or you can use them to mix your own soil when you are getting a garden going.
A worm bin, also called a worm farm, can be any container large enough to hold your worms, whatever you’re feeding them, and the resulting compost. The worm bin I ordered was a black plastic container about a square foot around with two trays and a lid. It was elevated and had a spigot at the bottom to let out excess liquid. When the worms have done their work and filled up the bottom tray with rich soil, you start adding food to the second tray. Once the worms migrate to the new tray, you can use the dirt in the bottom tray and move the now empty tray to the top. If your worms have a continuous supply of food, you will have a continuous supply of rich compost.
While I waited for the worms to arrive, I started preparing their first meal. I keep my food scraps in a metal bowl with a lid in my fridge. I was used to throwing everything in there: teabags, orange peels, and vegetable scraps. I dumped everything in the bowl into the trash and washed it out. From that point on, only worm safe food would go in the compost bowl. Everything not worm friendly would go in the trash. I like to think that worms have sensitive noses: they tend not to like anything with a strong smell, which includes onions, garlic, and citrus. They are also vegetarians. The only exception is that they will eat ground up eggshells.
I got a little excited and started shedding unbleached paper to use as worm bedding. Worm bedding is a loose material that can hold moisture, like coconut coir or shredded black and white newsprint. When worms move into a new worm bin, they live in the worm bedding and gradually eat their way through the vegetable scraps that you feed them. For whatever reason, I had been unable to find a list of the things that were included with my worm bin online. I knew it was coming with a block of coconut coir, but I hadn’t seen anything about shredded paper. Not having a shredder, I tore up bits of newsprint by hand. It was a meditative experience, though it produced scraps probably a little larger than worms like.
As the days passed, I became resigned to the possibility I was going to receive a box of dead worms. The worm farm website said their worms were sent by two- to three- day shipping so they would have a better chance of arriving alive and unharmed. However, their website copy had not been written in the middle of pandemic, and I had foolishly thought that because people were remaining indoors, they were ordering fewer things online.
Eight days after they shipped, my worms arrived.
I had been watching the tracking information avidly. After seeing my worms get delayed then get back on track twice, I was cautiously optimistic to see their status change to “out for delivery” on a Thursday morning. Around 8 o’clock that night, I saw the UPS truck pull up at the apartment complex next to mine. Worms!!! I tweeted. The UPS truck drove away. My heart sank. No worms.
About fifteen minutes later, a box was dropped on my doorstep. There was a beep as the UPS scanner registered that my box was delivered.
There was no time to waste. I opened the box immediately and spread the contents across my living room floor. I put the cardboard box on my balcony and thoroughly washed my hands. Under other circumstances, I would have left the box in quarantine unopened, but I needed to get the worms in their new home as soon as possible. After eight days in transit, they would be dehydrated and in need of food. Given the fact that there was a faint smell coming from the box even before I opened it, I wasn’t hopeful that all the worms had made it.
At first, I thought the worms had been left out of the box. I was starting to get worried when I found a small black bag cloth bag tucked inside one of the trays of the worm bin. It looked much smaller than a bag carrying 250 worms should be. I quickly opened it and peered inside. There were a few worms wriggling around in dry peat moss that looked like dark dirt. I could finally relax: some of them had made it. I didn’t look too closely for worm carcasses. I closed the bag back up and set to work.
First things first: The brick-sized block of coconut coir needed to be soaked in water to expand to its full size. The instructions wrapped around the block said it needed to be soaked in three gallons of water. I already had a three-gallon bucket, so I filled it up and dumped in the block of coconut choir.
Next was the worm bin itself. It turned all I needed to do to assemble it was screw on the legs and stack the trays together. They fit loosely enough to let in some air, but there wasn’t so much space that worms were likely to escape.
There was an additional step I hadn’t anticipated: laying two sheets of damp newspaper in the bottom tray. This was only for the first time you set up a worm tray, presumably to keep the worms (which would be stressed and unused to their new home) from escaping or falling into the reservoir below.
Did I have newspaper, in this day and age? No.
I did however, have newsprint, which is paper made out of recycled newspaper. Artists use it to sketch out charcoal drawings. Did I feel very silly substituting this for newspaper? Yes, I did. But you do what you have to do to keep your worms from accidentally falling into the bottom of the worm bin and drowning.
By then, the coconut coir had soaked up most of the water. Of course, it was only at this point that I then read the actual instructions that came with the worm bin. “Break the block in half and soak it in 1.5 pounds water,” it said.
The closest thing I had to second bucket was a small green compost bin, so that would have to do. I quickly poured out half of the coconut coir slurry. The instructions said to mix in shredded newsprint. This mixture would form the worm bedding for the bottom tray. The worm bin had come with a plastic bag of pre-shredded newsprint. Oh, well; I’d have more shredded paper for later to match my leftover coconut coir.
I poured in the coconut coir and shredded paper mix and spread it evenly in the bottom tray. Then I poured my worms onto it (gently). I put the top tray on, then the lid, and took a deep breath. It was past 9 o’clock. I was tired but satisfied. My worms were safe in their new home, where they could recuperate from their stressful journey. Time to clean up.
I gave the worms their first meal the next day. I lifted off the lid, then the top tray. I gently scooped away some of the damp coconut coir mixture and immediately came across a few worms. They were sluggish and didn’t burrow away from the light very quickly. However, they were clearly alive. They already glistened and looked a little plumper, very different than the dull, thin worms I had seen yesterday. I took a small handful of vegetable scraps from my bowl and buried them inside the bedding. I put the top tray and the lid back on and smiled. In a week, I would feed them again and see how they were doing in their new home. My worms were okay.
Thinking about getting your own worm bin? Check out my post So You Want a Worm Bin.