One woman. 1000 worms. Endless possibilities.

Categories: Compost | 9 Comments
Posted Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Ever since learning that food scraps in landfills actually turn into methane gas – one of the leading pollutants responsible for global warming – I’ve been on a tear to figure out how to compost in my apartment.

My research pointed to one answer, and a most unfortunate new word: vermicomposting. I have to say, I was pretty grossed out even saying it. For me, it evoked images of voracious rats chomping through fetid food waste.

In reality, it’s the process by which worms eat garbage and transform it into fertilizer, which can then be returned to the earth.

Okay, that’s beautiful.  But still, the idea of hundreds of slimy, dirty worms having their way with my garbage in my own home gave me the creeps.

Yet the more I read about it, the more it started to make sense.  First, worm bins are compact so they are a perfect choice for small-space living.  Also, worms can turn garbage into compost in about three months, as opposed to up to a year with garden composting.

And of course, as I’ve written about here recently, worm castings (or poop) and tea (worm pee) are a rich source of nitrogen, making them an excellent organic fertilizer.

More importantly, if properly maintained, the worm bin will not smell.  If it starts to stink, then you’ve got a problem: either it’s too wet, too dry or too full.

When my mother-in-law sent me this video, my mind was made up.  The worms were moving in.

Both Los Angeles County and The City of Santa Monica subsidize composting containers, so residents can get them at a reduced price. For $33 bucks, I picked up my cute lil’ worm bin which even had a name: “Wriggly Wranch.”  Darling!

It turned out to be the size of a large file box with legs, so it couldn’t fit under the sink, as I’d hoped at first. But with my husband’s reminder that worms were used to being outside, I found it fit nicely on my small back porch. They can actually stand temperatures between 50-90 degrees, I learned.

Now I had the bin, but no worms. My first discovery was that there are, in fact, two species: Earthworkers and Composters.  The first are found in the garden and live on topsoil and hummus.  Nightcrawlers are one example, of many.  As for Composters, there are only a few kinds, the most common of which is the Red Wriggler.  This is the one you want for your bin.

A quick Google search turned up a list of companies that will airmail Red Wrigglers to your door for about $25 a pound, not including shipping.  But the idea of leaving such a huge carbon footprint in an effort to recycle struck me as a little absurd.

So I put an ad up on Freecycle and got seven or eight responses in pretty short order.  Worm farmers are a supportive bunch, it turns out.  One woman called my attention to Santa Monica City College’s Recycling program.

They have a giant machine called the Vermitech, one of a few in the state.  It holds over one million worms in a 16 ft. long, temperature-controlled environment. SMC feeds all the scraps the cafeteria creates in food preparation to the worms, and then use the castings to fertilize their grounds.  Brilliant.

I arranged to meet with Madeline Brody, the woman who runs the recycling program.  My husband and I walked over to her office at SMC with a bag of empty yogurt containers (with holes poked in the lid so the little guys could breathe).  Madeline drove us across campus in a golf cart to the Vermitech – and it was clear that this was my husband’s favorite part of the outing.

She opened the enormous lid, revealing a flat expanse of brown dirt. No worms in sight.  But when Madeline put on some rubber gloves and scooped her hands into the soil,  she pulled up a huge clump of hundreds of Red Wrigglers. They were all intricately tangled together like the massive biological network of neurons in the brain, busily transforming garbage into compost.

Nature’s perfect, closed-looped systems never cease to amaze me. This planet has a perfect built-in process for returning waste back to the earth, developed over billions of years.  There simply is no better way to do it.

The American solution, clumping trash into huge brick cubes that send noxious fumes into the atmosphere, is insanely destructive.  Did you know that the Fresh Kills landfill in New Jersey is responsible for a whopping 2% of the methane gas pollution for the entire world?

And you thought Jersey only produced trash TV!

Check in tomorrow to see how I set up Wriggley Wranch.



  1. Eleanor

    Another great post, with great links! I’m all over Freecycle. Also, reading Farm Apartment has inspired me to start separating out my food scraps from the rest of the garbage (regardless of whatever strains this puts on my young marriage) We really have no excuse, since a standard part of our apartment building trash service includes the ‘Kompost’ bins, the contents of which all go into fertilizing the massive city park and beautiful gardens of Munich.

  2. Darcy

    Great post! My boys an I are about to start vermicomposting, so this post came at a great time for even more encouragement!

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  4. Evangeline

    Worms are fun, educational and cute! What a great idea! Figuring out the biology of all the processes going on in decomposition is an excellent science lesson. Ecology, Biology, Chemistry – it’s all there. Plus, they make great pets. I already feel very attached to my brood. You might want to check out the book “Worms Eat My Garbage” a great primer on worm farming. Good luck and keep me posted on your progress.

  5. Evangeline

    Eleanor – Kompost. It’s just sounds so much cooler in German. Hopefully your relationship won’t end up in trash along with your food scraps! There was a recent article in the NYX called “Therapists See Rise In Green Disputes.” I was going to write a post about it. It’s kind of funny, but also kind of not. The other day Joshua brought home two Japanese Apple Pears wrapped in styrofoam netting imported from Korea. I had to take a walk around the block for that one. It’s important to stay light-hearted, but remain conscious about what you’re working toward. I’m glad I’ve inspired you!

  6. Darcy

    Evangeline that’s exactly right :) We homeschool, so besides the benefit to the garden we’re putting in this year, it’s their science project for the next months. Thanks for the book recommendation.

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  9. Nancy Stinson

    I have stumbled across this and I am impressed. Wow, is all that I can say. I have to ask, do you have copies available for some of the past workshops ect that you are involved in. They sound interesting and I would like to get my hands on the information to read it. I have a large backyard garden and I have an interest in starting a local CSA, but I havent’ been able to get anybody else to help. (Not yet, but I am not giving up). I am going to take some time and read through your stuff. Its good info, keep it up!

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