Sunday, July 11, 2010

At last, we have worms

It took some investigation, but I tracked down a supplier of wriggly red worms here in Calgary for our apartment composting project. Had I lived in Vancouver, the city would have supplied worms, bins and bedding all for $25.........

But I'm in Calgary and worms of any description I thought might be in short supply. Judging by the propensity for chemicals Calgarians seem to have to keep to their lawns "immaculate", nae an  earthworm stands a chance. But before having to resort to mail-order worms, I found Worms at Work and Doom called Mark.
Actually he is adorable
Mark turned out to be a character up there in his seventies, cracking jokes and telling stories that would give Doom, a comedian, a run for his money. Mark and his wife Pat have an incredible worm operation in their garage. It's well worth the visit. Not only was the set-up for his worms impressive, I was quite taken with his uber-cute but bad-tempered dog. Mark gave enthusiastic instructions, approved the plastic tub we had pre-bought and sold us a half-pound bag of Red Wiggler Worms (Eisenia foetida). (Not any old earthworm will do, the larger ones found in your soil will unlikely survive in confined conditions).

Our new Red Wiggler Composting Worms
I stocked up on newspaper and cardboard and went about shredding it into small pieces for their bedding while Doom dug around in the closet and found his drill.  He drilled holes all around the bin about two inches from the base and three in the lid. Like us, worms have to breath but through their skin. If the compost heap is not aerated, anaerobic respiring bacteria proliferate from the lack of oxygen and produce methane as in the case of landfills. And you end up with a horrible rancid smelly pile of....... and dead worms.

The all important ventilation holes
I dampened the newspaper  and cardboard to a consistency of a wrung-out wet sponge. Again like us worms need comfy bedding. Other materials such as shredded fall leaves, chopped up straw and other dead plants will also do the trick. It needs to be damp for the worms survival but not too soggy so as to drown them. Apart from this initial stage, I've never had to wet the bedding. In fact, because the food scraps contain a lot of moisture and one of the results of all that lovely aerobic (i.e. in the presence of oxygen) respiration is water, I add dry material to keep the compost from becoming a boggy mess. Some sites recommend drilling holes in the bottom of the bin to let the excess liquids drain out onto a tray but I found this unnecessary as the worms seem to be happy with a constant mix of dry bedding and food. According to other recommendations, I added a little organic compost which contained the wonderful starter soil microorganisms which actually do the job of breaking down all your kitchen and paper scraps.
And here's the thing to make your compost really work; you need not only the worms but these organisms to survive. They're very sensitive to the delicate balance of pH in their environment. So don't add citrus fruits or go crazy with the onion or garlic skins as this will tend to make things acidic. It's a good idea to add crushed eggshells that will neutralize this effect. Besides, once you're ready to harvest, your plants will love the calcium minerals. No meat nor oily food - too much of these things aren't great for us either. But just about anything else from a plant source will make scrumptious food for the worms. Doom and I fill a yogurt container worth of chopped-up scraps including tea bags about every two days, and it's about every two to three days we empty this into the bin. It's important not to over feed them. (If for some reason I have an excess of scraps I freeze them to avoid fruit flies). I bury the food a few inches under and make sure that I turn the compost over regularly to aerate it and to make it easier for the worms to wiggle around. I love to get my bare hands in there and see what's going on in this self-contained environment. I find it fascinating how quickly things are broken into abundant nutrient-rich castings aka poo. By the way, there is no smell. (Perhaps a faint wisp of a beautiful summer garden?)
Temperature is also a factor so leaving it out in the freezing winters of Calgary or next to a heater is not recommended. Our original intention was to keep the bin under the kitchen sink but it didn't fit. Instead the wasted space of our tiny apartment's hallway became it's home. Left there it was exposed to some light which hopefully encouraged the worms to stay buried in the darkness and not venture out of the ventilation holes. It takes a while for the worms to "settle in" and I once found a shrived dried up string-like body under the harsh light of the main hallway of the apartment building. It was quite upsetting to think of its intrepid but treacherous journey across our hardwood floor, under the gap of the front door and onto the concrete slab of the hallway. Fortunately there hasn't been too many other casualties. All in all there isn't really too much work to this vermiculture malarkey. When I'm chopping veggies I just continue on with the scraps to make them more easily digestible. Perhaps shredding newspaper is a bit of a pain but is not really a big deal. Like any other creature I intentionally live with, the worms are my pets.

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