02/06/2013 05:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I Live With 600 Earthworms

I know a lot of people who cannot stomach the idea of vermicomposting -- after all, you are dealing with rather undesirable things like trash and worms -- but I quite like this activity. In fact, the first kind of composting I ever tried was using worms. I mean, there is not much to fear. Worms don't have any desire to be near humans. They prefer being surrounded by wetness and mud. They don't even want to be in the light of day. So it's not like you are going to come home one day and find them jumping ship into your bed. Actually, I take that back -- there is one thing that would drive these night-crawling, mud-bathing creatures running and screaming into the open: overfeeding. I will admit I was a little overzealous in my early days of composting. I wanted to test the worms' limits, since I had heard that well-trained ones could break down up to one pound of kitchen scraps a day. That fateful day when I learned my lesson the hard way, I even blended my super-sized feed first, for the worms' eating pleasures.

The next morning, I walked into my kitchen and almost stepped on quite a few one-to-two-inch skinny black strips stuck to the floor. Call me dim, but I was genuinely confused at first as to what they were; I mean, these inanimate, dried-up jerky bits in my kitchen just did not resemble the juicy, shiny Eisenia Foetida I lovingly purchased and raised. Only the concentrated location of the corpses eventually tipped me off to the mass suicides I had caused. So, as Paul Rudd's character from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Kunu, might say if he were teaching you to compost, "You're feeding too much. Feed less." (Also, don't make their breathing holes big enough for them to crawl through, obviously.) In fact, at a later point I actually completely neglected my bucket of worms for something like months (Animal Rights Activists: I am sorry). When I finally opened the bucket again, I saw still-living worms and the richest, most beautiful soil on which I have ever laid my eyes. The moral of the story is: red worms are actually perfect pets. They eat your leftovers when you remember to feed them, but, if you don't, they won't fuss too much.

As for sheltering my hundreds of new roommates during this initial run, I went the DIY route. There are many specimens of vermicomposters available on the market - a quick search on will tell you all need to know. However, at that time I was living in a studio with nary the room for more than one chair, and a multi-layered Worm Café was just not high on my list of items to put on display (plus, those things cost upwards of $100). So, off I went to the hardware store, where I picked up two five-gallon paint buckets for a whopping $12 including tax. I drilled holes on the bottom, lid, and the sides near the top of one bucket, which I nested inside the undrilled bucket. Some wet shredded paper courtesy of the office went in, along with a handful of dirt. Finally, the worms were gently tipped into the inner bucket. Voila, a vermicomposter was born.


This contraption worked well enough for how little it cost. However, as you can imagine, nested paint buckets do not contribute to or enhance any interior home decorating style with which I am familiar. Furthermore, they become less user-friendly the more compost is produced. Here is why: the reason for nesting the buckets is so the outer one can catch liquids that drain out of the kitchen scraps from the inner bucket. However, lifting the inner bucket got more and more problematic for an un-fit person such as myself as the pile of kitchen scraps and worm castings grew over time. Even emptying out the outer bucket turned into a weight-lifting exercise, especially if my kitchen scraps happened to be high in water content. Yes, I am weak and wimpy, but something that you have to do frequently has got to be easier.

All of the above, along with a blur of work and school, led to one unfortunate outcome: I stopped composting. For something like four months. Graduation, a somewhat bigger apartment (all 400 square feet of it) and a new roommate (the S.O.) later, my life finally calmed down to the point where I started feeling guilty about my environmental footprint again. This time around, I still eschewed the various layered tray models on the market as the amount of disposable square footage in my abode remained negligible. At the same time, I did not want a repeat of my first vermicomposter either, as it was not exactly a joy to use. I further realized that, if someone like me, who fancied herself an environmentalist, was not excited about the available options, there was no way that people who had other priorities would want to compost. From there, an inkling of an idea to build an indoor vermicomposter that would appeal to the masses began to develop. Inspired by my favorite Umbra bathroom trashcan, I started designing a worm bin that would physically and stylistically fit inside a very average apartment. My prototype holds slightly less than four gallons in total capacity. It is 15 inches tall and 11 inches in diameter at its widest point. It has no visible layers, yet performs all the same functions a Worm Café or Worm Factory would. I dubbed it the City Bin. I started composting in it in earnest last November. So far, no complaints. Emptying the bottom layer of the City Bin, which catches leachate from the main compartment, is easy and far preferable to the bicep curls I used to perform to dump out liquid from the outer bucket of my original two-bucket system. It is also not as deep, which makes it a breeze to mix the castings and new scraps. The worms seem happy too -- no attempted escapes of which I am aware.

Admittedly, my City Bin is best suited to childless singletons who do not cook every meal, but the point demonstrated by this experience is that composting -- yes, even the kind with the worms - is easy if the right tools were provided. Composting is important enough of an activity for our environment that it should be widely promoted and easily practiced. It is a shame that the existing inventory of indoor composters available for purchase does not reflect this. Hopefully, my little tale of worms inspires you to go out and make vermicomposting work for your living space.