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Living Well in the cITy


Our diet leans heavy towards fruit and vegetables and currently our condo doesn't provide anything equivalent to a green box for compostable waste, equivalent to the service our city provides for household owners. It seemed like such a waste to just throw all our kitchen scraps away. We thought composting might be possible on our balcony but it's really something better suited to a larger space. However we discovered another method of composting that works well in a small space, indoors and out.

Red wiggler worms.

Worm composting or vermicomposting makes use of worms to consume and break down organic matter. Their excrement, known as worm casting, are high in nutrients and makes an excellent plant fertilizer. The red wiggler worms typically used in worm bin consume half their weight in rotting vegetable and fruit waste per day. All they need is a damp dark place to do it in.

You can construct a worm bin using a pair of totes. Drill a number of small holes in one of the lids, another dozen in the sides of one tote in the upper quarter, and a few in the bottom along the lowest points for drainage. Cut down a couple of yoghurt cups to use as spacers and place them in the bottom of the second tote. These act as supports to keep the inner tote elevated an inch or two off the bottom of the inside of the outer tote. Put no holes in the outer tote as this tote is used to catch any run-off from the inner tote. You don't need to use an entire tote for this purpose if you can find something else suitable to use as drip tray.

There are a number of really well designed worm bins on the market. Several consist of stacking trays that have holes in them to allow the worm to travel between the trays. When the worms have exhausted all of the bedding and food in the top tray, you remove the lowest tray in the stack, harvest the casing, replace the bedding, add food, and add the tray to the top of the stack. The worms will migrate towards the food in the top of the stack, leaving the lower trays free for future harvesting.

Now you need to find some worms. I've had good luck with mail ordering worms from a nearby source. You don't need many worms to start with. A pound is more than enough. I started with a half a pound which is a good size if you're not yet sure worm composting if for you. Besides, the worms multiply so eventually, if you keep them fed, you'll have more.

You will need to provide bedding material for your worms. Although not ideal in my opinion, shredded newspaper is easy to come by and will provide the worms with the carbon they need in their diet to balance the nitrogen in the food waste you will be feeding them. That's right, the worms will eat their bedding material. It's all food to them. Shred a number of newspapers into strips under an inch wide. A paper shredder make the job go much faster. Soaked the strips with water and wring them out to get them damp like a rung out sponge. Place them into the inner tote and fluff it up to give you about half a tote of bedding material depth. When you dump the worms out into the tote, do so in a well lit area and the worms will quickly wiggle their way into the bedding. Red wigglers are light sensitive so you use this to your advantage to force them into their bedding.

After giving them a day or two to adjust, add a pound of "food". Vegetable and fruit scraps cut into small pieces are perfect. You can add a few finely crushed egg shells to raise the pH. Bury this in the worm bin under the bedding off to one side in the tote. You should also sprinkle some garden soil on the food. Worms use the soil in their gizzard to help them break down their food. And it has to be real soil, not potting soil. Put the bin outside some place out of the sun and rain but some place where it will receive some good air circulation. You might caught a faint whiff of rotting garbage every now and then but nothing strong. If the smell doesn't go away, you might not be covering the worm food with enough bedding material.

If you go with the assumption that worms convert half their weight in food into castings each day, you can determine the safe amount to feed your worms each day. It is better to feed your worms small amounts routinely instead of large amounts. And don't be afraid of starving your worms. You can do more damage to the colony by over-feeding it. When you are ready to add more food to the bin, just pull back some bedding and dump it in. Over time some of the bedding will be consumed or break down also and you will need to keep it topped up.

It takes a while to build up enough castings in the bin to justify a harvest: perhaps a couple of months depending on the size of the colony. To harvest the casting you have to sift through the contents of the bin and separate worms and uneaten food and bedding from the castings. Yeah, it can be messy but that's how you do it. Some worm bins are designed with compartments and you feed these bins so that the worms will move out of a compartment as it becomes ready for harvesting. These bins can make the harvesting process much easier.

When winter comes, you will need to find a place to store your worms. A cold balcony is no place for a worm bin as they can not survive freezing weather conditions. If you're comfortable with it, perhaps you can find a convenient place indoors: a storage room, a closet, basement, garage or even under the kitchen sink.