– By Joana Beujekian-Steven
When people go raw or high raw, they often notice a sudden reduction in non-compostable waste (cereal boxes, plastic cheese wrappers, milk jugs…) and a dramatic increase in raw produce scraps (banana peels, apple cores, pineapple peels…).
The first summer my husband and I went high raw, we set up a container from an air purifier we were no longer using, and just threw our scraps in there, along with carbon sources such as dead leaves. Since it was in the backyard, we had no problems with flies whatsoever. This worked well enough, but the organic matter took quite a while to decompose, and the container would fill up really quickly.
When winter came, I didn’t know what to do. We obviously could not use the same set-up, since in freezing temperatures, the scraps would never break down. I remembered one of Tonya Kay‘s forum posts and decided to get a worm composter. Of course, I had to run the idea by my hubby, who the year before thought that a worm composter was a ridiculous idea. But since he realized a Vita-Mix was a good investment considering how many times a day I use a blender, I was hoping he’d reconsider the vermicomposting idea, since we eat so much produce… and he did
After a few weeks of weighing various options, I decided to go for a Gusanito Factory of Worms as well as a pound of red wigglers. It was the easiest option for me since I often buy from Amazon and like their quick, no hassle customer service. Everything arrived within a week or so, and the worms were baptized “Borg” (because the food “will be assimilated”! A Star Trek reference…)
The way it works is as follows: worms will not eat the actual food, they eat the decomposition. As a result, as soon as everything breaks down, it gets eaten up, preventing any foul smells from forming. Your food will not rot or smell bad, and if it does, you either have too much food, or not enough worms. As the worms eat, they produce solid compost and liquid “worm tea”. Both can be used to fertilize and water your plants, and are full of nitrogen and nutrients. Your plants will thrive on the mild, yet powerful by-products of vermicomposting!
Here is what I do:
Step 1: Gather the food scraps and refrigerate them
It is better to feed the worms every week or so, rather than everyday. It gives them time to finish one level, and then move up the next one. If you add food everyday, you’ll keep the worms busy on the same level, and when it’s full and you’re ready to go to the next one, you will still have plenty of fresh food left on the lower tray. To avoid any decomposition, I just place all my produce scraps into those plastic boxes of ready-to-eat lettuce, and leave them in the fridge until it’s time to feed the Borg.
Step 2: Prep the food scraps (optional)
While you don’t have to, I prefer to grind up the food leftovers in my food processor before adding them to the composter (remember that the scraps are no different from the food you eat). The reason I do this is to make the worms’ job easier. If you give them large pieces of food, they will take a longer time to break them down, compared to chopped up scraps that are more exposed, and therefore will decompose faster.
A few pulses later, the food scraps will be chopped up enough that you can throw them in the composter. In this case, they looked somewhat like tabbouleh
I will admit that when I’m lazy, I skip this step. It’s OK, as long as you don’t overfeed the worms. Check the lower levels. Are they mostly black dirt with few visible pieces of food? If so, you’re good to go.
Step 3: Spread the food into a lower level tray…
… Step 4: and cover it with garden soil (the kind you put in flower pots) or shredded newspapers
You want your compost to have a carbon-nitrogen balance (just like with any other composter). While the scraps provide plenty of nitrogen, you need some “brown” carbon sources. Gusanito recommends coconut coir, Tonya Kay uses shredded newspapers, and I use garden soil. The layer will also prevent fruit flies from getting too interested in your compost bin. I have quite a few fruit flies in the house, despite the traps I set for them (not a lot, but they reproduce pretty fast) and none of them are interested in the worm factory.
Step 5: Keep track of your progress:
After a few days, depending on how many worms you have and how much produce you fed them, you will see how the compost material has shrunk, and you are left with brown dirt. You are on your way to beautiful compost! Worms will reproduce as you add more food, and will die off if you don’t feed them enough. Either way, they adapt and need very little maintenance.
Step 6: Harvest your beautiful black soil…
Every once in a while, you want to turn the dirt over to aerate it. When you have very, very few worms left, you can take the tray outside (or on a layer of newspaper indoors) and empty it. You can now use the soil to mix in your flower pots, and spread it in your vegetable garden.
… and worm tea:
You will have worm tea fairly often, and you need to empty the trays regularly. This is very easily done thanks to the little spout on the front of the composter. Use the worm tea to water your plants, instead of fertilizing them.
That’s it! That’s really one of the wonderful benefits of a plant based diet. You eat food that requires very little packaging, and the scraps decompose to grow more food… which will in turn be composted. It’s quite a beautiful cycle!