June 30, 2008

Composting in Tight Quarters Means One Thing: Worms

By Erik Robinson, The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

Jun. 29--Say that you're a green-minded apartment or condo dweller striving to live sustainably.

You've already minimized your carbon footprint by foregoing the large house and yard that characterizes much of suburbia, but the idea of composting your food scraps seems a little unwieldy.

You don't have anywhere to put a composting bin the size of a trash can, much less a garden in which to plow the nutrient-rich product it creates. Plus, the landlord is understandably concerned a compost bin could attract pests.

Jo Anne Dolan has just the solution: Worms.

Dolan, who runs the Master Composter/Recycler Program for Columbia Springs Environmental Education Center in Vancouver, recommends vermicomposting as an especially good option for one or two people living in tight quarters. Worms create the highest-quality compost, in the fastest time, in the smallest space, with the least amount of effort.

"Worms are so cool," she said.

Dolan is part of a fan club spanning the course of history: Aristotle was said to have called worms the "intestines of the soil," while Charles Darwin extensively studied the social, reproductive life and role of earthworms in the environment.

With the guidance from Dolan and other composting experts, we offer a few of the basics on turning garbage into valuable compost.

Where do I get the worms?

There is no retail worm store, at least right now. But Dolan and other experts assure there are plenty of people already involved in vermicomposting who are willing to sell, share or swap surplus worms.

Penny Cox produces an abundant and constant worm supply in the manure of the two horses she owns on 5 acres in La Center. She supplies worms to Dolan's classes, sells them online, and last year even shared them with her son's elementary school as a science experiment.

"If you can collect them in a classroom, you can keep them pretty much anywhere," Cox said.

Do I need a particular kind of worm?

Vermicomposters generally recommend Eisenia fetida, commonly known as red wrigglers, for their ability to reproduce rapidly and eat voraciously. They'll eat half their weight daily, pooping it all out as compost rich in phosphorous, calcium and nitrogen -- the same stuff people pay plenty to buy at garden stores.

A half-pound of red wrigglers equals 500 to 800 squirming worms, which will live for about a year in the bin. Dolan said they will reproduce until they reach the carrying capacity of the space, reaching a loose ecological balance with the kitchen scraps you're feeding them.

Where should I put my worm bin?

The worms don't like vibration or light, so keep the bin away from the washer and dryer. Find a place in the kitchen, carport or on the patio or balcony. Keep it out of hot sun and heavy rain, and prepare to move it inside if the temperature drops much below 40 degrees. Dolan suggests checking with your landlord if it's a shared space, and using it as an opportunity get to know your neighbors.

Pete DuBois, sustainability coordinator for Clark County, said he keeps his own worm composting bin outside his house.

"If I was living in an apartment, it would be a different story," DuBois said. "It's basically like having a pet. You're having something living in your area, so you want to maintain it."

How do I maintain it?

Each time you place food scraps rotate to a new corner, taking care to lift and cover the top layer. A pound of food should spread to a square foot of space in the bin. Dolan recommends using a small hand trowel, leaving it in the bin so that the handle points toward the corner that should receive the next bunch of scraps. Figure on placing scraps no more than once a day.

Where should I save kitchen scraps in the meantime?

Dolan recommends storing scraps in a plastic yogurt container until you're ready to feed the worms. She suggests keeping the container in the freezer to avoid attracting fruit flies while building up a variety of scraps. And, no, the worms don't mind a tasty "scrapsickle."

When is it finished?

It will take three to six months for the worms to convert the material to compost with a rich earthy smell.

What do I do with the stuff?

Even if you don't have a garden, remember the product is valuable to people who do.

One of Dolan's colleagues at Columbia Springs simply posts an online advertisement and leaves small containers of rich compost to be picked up on her front step. A small amount can be great for houseplants, or there are plenty of community gardens that will take it.

"You're keeping it out of the waste stream," Dolan said. "You're doing a good thing."


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