Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Indoor Compost Box: A Must Have for Manhattan Girls (And Boys) This Season

Last week I went to a very long-awaited indoor composting workshop provided by the Lower East Side Ecology Center. I had initially heard about this months ago (September 2007 to be exact), signed up only to be robbed of my worm box by a cancellation due to inclement weather. The following two workshops conflicted with life in general and I went without a worm box. I know this may sound slightly off to those of you who do not have eco-anxiety like I do but Andrew "Recycling Boy" can testify to my broken record declaring that I would be so much better off composting things instead of landfilling them for months now. So when we were shut out of this one, I was about to give up. Thanks to my minx, Dani, who gave me her spot so that my vegetable cuttings and I could have some solace.

Enough with the dramatics, let's get into it. What is a worm box (bin) you might ask? A worm box is a small clear plastic tote with a snap on lid that is outfitted with four air vents. The box is ideal for the placement of worms, their bedding, and your food scraps to create an indoor composting atmosphere. This allows you to put certain food scraps, decaying plant matter, and some paper waste in the box to feed the worms and yield glorious nutrient-rich compost months later called vermicompost. This being in bin form allows those who do not have access or space for full scale outdoor composting to do so in the small space of an apartment.

"One red worm processes half of its own weight in food scraps every day!"

I pride myself on knowing quite a bit about worms. I used to catch them on the farm as a child, throw them in my favorite flowers to try to help them grow, etc. I did not know, however, that the only worms that actually create vermicompost are red worms. The kind bought at the workshop were Eisenia fetida. the bin comes with a pound of worms, roughly 1,000 who all told can power through roughly half a pound of scraps a day, or three and a half pounds of food a week.

You begin with a crafty paper mache feeling leading me to wish I had grabbed the box made in class instead of making it myself. I assembled a bowl of water, three copies of the Village Voice (They print using soy ink. Who knew?), my pound of worms, and a ready-made worm bin from the workshop. After tearing all the papers into long strips, wetting them, then wringing them out, I tried to make some fluffy moist bedding. Then I dumped in the worms onto the top of the bedding leaving the lid off in the light for about an hour so they would be prompted to burrow into the bedding. The instructions asked that the box/bin be kept somewhere between the temperatures of 55 and 75 degrees which might be tough in NYC in July, but I tried to stash it out of direct light in the kitchen. I like composting, but it's not going in my bedroom....

When you decide to when to feed the worms, you can do it daily or once a week depending on what works for you. Things that are in large pieces (think broccoli stalks) should be cut down so they are easier to be eaten by the worms (who do not have mouths, but have gizzards instead). Each time you feed, rotate where you are putting the food and put it under the bedding, adding more bedding as needed. Basically, the worms eat their bedding as well.

Items you can feed your worms: Red worms eat fruit and vegetable scraps, crushed egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags, and leftover breads and grains. They should not eat meat or fish scraps, dairy, or fatty or oily foods. Vegetables are largely made of water and will keep your box damp, however, you should spritz then bedding with water it it is drying. If the temperature is an issue, you can cool down the box by freezing your scraps then introducing them to the box. I may throw in the occasional ice cube to cool it down in there for the little hermaphrodites.

After my worms burrowed I went to the refrigerator to see what items were waiting for my new little buddies. They got about 6 ounces of blueberries past their ripeness, some chopped tomatoes and lettuce from a forgotten salad, a coffee filter of Fairway's best blend, and a small container of plain brown rice leftover from Asiakan (serious yum). So far so good, they are pampered by the soy ink Village Voice and some lovely colorful nip.

As I learn more about my own worm box and composting there will certainly be troubleshooting updates!

The next Indoor Worm Composting Workshop being held by the Lower East Side Ecology Center is on Tuesday, September 18, 2008 from 6 to 8pm at the Whole Foods (95 East Houston Street). There you can purchase a worm box with worms at a subsidized rate thanks to the Department of Sanitation. To RSVP, email

~beth (Who wishes NYC would step it up like SF and have curb-side compost pick ups...)

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