Saturday, May 16, 2009

Worms Work in our House...

So we've been a little busy around here lately!  Last week I hosted a Worms & Wine party with the Urban Worm Girl, and it was such fun. I have been wanting to start composting in the city for a long time now, but didn't know where to start...

When I was a kid, I remember my family had a compost pile out in the corner of our yard where we would throw coffee grounds, banana peels, eggshells, veggie scraps, fruit cores, rinds, etc.  My dad would throw lawn clippings on the pile too, and apparently my parents used the compost for our garden and planting beds  (I was not a part of the "using" process, or if I was, I don't remember...).  Most of my memories about the compost pile are of avoiding it while climbing over the fence because it smelled horrible. 

Although this type of composting is great in many ways, it requires some attention to keeping the mixture's composition in balance and you need to mix and turn the pile regularly.  Plus, you need outdoor space, which I have precious little of. There are also composting tumblers you can buy to help with mixing this type of decomposition composting, and if you are going this route, they are definitely worth looking into. But I didn't want to use one of these on my balcony either, and I didn't like how outdoor composting in Chicago limits you to the warmer seasons, and in the Winter you would be back to tossing all your food scraps.

So, in researching online, I learned that you can compost indoors with the help of WORMS! All the sites said this method would NOT smell (which I was somewhat skeptical of), but I decided to learn more. I started making more and more friends while living in the city who were like-minded and had also heard of "vermiculture" (composting with worms), and some who had tried it or were doing it successfully!  I learned that it doesn't smell because the worms are eating the scraps before they really decompose. Also, all the food is covered by the worm's bedding to protect it from air exposure, make the worms feel like they are underground, and keep bugs from finding it. This was really interesting to me, but I still had a few issues: Where could I put these worms in my place? Where would I get the worms from? Was I ready to do this? Could I convince my husband to get on board and agree to worms in our house?

I admit, the idea of having worms living in your house might sound really weird at first, but I got over it when I weighed all the positive effects it would have on our lives and our Earth. First, after we began recycling in earnest around here, we noticed how much of what still went into our garbage can was food waste. This bothered me for 2 reasons - first, it took a long time to fill the can, and all that organic garbage started to smell before it looked ready to go out, second, I felt like sending all those food scraps to the landfill was a sad waste of matter that could be broken down and go back into the soil, enriching it for future food to grow. Vermiculture offered a major solution to both of these issues, and would also produce natural fertilizer for our balcony's new veggie garden this summer.  The process also yields a liquid, commonly referred to as "worm tea" or "liquid gold", that can be diluted to half-strength with water and then used as a fertilizer for our houseplants.  And all of this is organic and safe...instead of some scary chemicals that I would have to call poison control over if AJ touched and then put his hand in his mouth.

Then this year, Urban Worm Girl was featured in the Chicago Tribune, and 4 people saved the article for me.  I was like, "Ok, it's time to get this going!  No more procrastinating!" So I emailed (Stephanie, the Urban Worm Girl) and set up a date for my worm bin demo. I decided to make a party of it, and sent out an evite to many family and friends, thinking a couple might be interested. I called it Worms & Wine, a name borrowed from a vermiculture event at A Cooler Planet, one of my favorite stores, and proceeded to buy organic and biodynamic for the party from Red & White.  Red & White is a new wine store on Milwaukee Ave., and the guy working there was very helpful in helping me pick out the bottles, as well as helping me to stay within my budget. The party went really well, and AJ had a blast as well. We had over 15 people come out, and I know that at least one of them has already gotten a bin from Stephanie and started composting as well!  I'll be covering the event in and upcoming Chicagonista article, so watch for it there for the lowdown...

So, here's the process going on at our house...first, we chop our scraps up into more manageable peices. This picture shows some fruit scraps like cantaloupe rinds and seeds (which have since sprouted in the bin! I mixed them back into the bedding, so we'll see if the worms will eat them before becoming cantaloupe farmers themselves!), banana peels and strawberry tops. Since we started with a pound (or roughly 1000) worms, it will take them a couple months to keep up with our scrap production, so we have been keeping the overflow in a tupperware container in the fridge.  I guess that the older scraps become softer (more ripe?) and are even easier for the worms to eat, so that should help them to process it all. I can't wait until they get to the point where they can eat all of our desirable scraps! (I say "desirable" because the worms should not be fed meat, dairy, spicy foods, or food containing oil, butter, etc.  Like AJ learned in his Curious George episode on compost, "no mayoniase!")  The next shot is of the inside of the bin. Most of what you can see is the cardboard and newspaper that make up the bedding.  If you can click on and open the picture, you might be able to see one worm on a pice of cardboard in the lower right-hand corner of the bin, but since they don't like light, they quickly burrow down into the bedding when I open the lid. As time goes by and the worms eat more food scraps and more of their bedding, the look inside the bin should change over to mostly just looking like rich soil. I think this is supposed to take a couple of months.
 Then we will add a new tray to the tower with new bedding and scraps, and the worms will migrate up into it, leaving the composted casting fertilizer behind. This is what we will put onto the soil in our garden outside, and share with friends if we harvest more than what we can use. The last shot to the left is the worm's new home sitting happily undisturbed (for the most part, AJ has gotten used to it there already and largely leaves it alone except when it's time to feed and say "hi" to the worms...) under out stairs. 
I hope this will reinforce in AJ our belief that all creatures big and small are important in God's green earth. We all have a purpose, as well as a responsibility to treat the world and its inhabitants (including ourselves!) with respect and love.  He already is a big fan of the worms, and when we start to use the compost and the "tea", and then harvest the vegetables from the garden, we will be showing him how all these things work together to nourish one another.  We eat the food, the worms eat the scraps, the worms fertilize the plants, and the plants make more food!  Here's to the worm's role in that cycle!

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