Apartment Vermiculture

Good Find Stores is all about making the most of the better-quality things we already have, but those same values don’t stop with furniture and housewares. We like all kinds of thrifty things that conserve, reuse, recycle, or upcycle our existing resources. We think sustainability, permaculture, homesteading and other movements, like StrongTowns and #Bitcoin, are all part of a whole, a ‘piece of the main’ if I may borrow and recycle that turn of phrase. That is why today I am writing about how to recycle your food waste using vermiculture, even if you live in a small apartment.

Recycling our food waste aligns with Good Find’s core values because it reduces unproductive landfill waste, reduces the attendant greenhouse gasses, and provides a useful asset to the recycler and their communities. But also, I live in California, and in its wisdom the State has seen fit to mandate that all Californians must share our values and begin recycling their food waste. This is not how I would choose to govern or be governed, but aside from my feeling that the government is having role confusion, I am all-in with looking at solutions to support this.

Before I begin, I need to qualify that my background is in accounting. I don’t know anything about using earthworms to recycle food waste. I have energy, passion, and an internet connection. I have combined the energy, passion and internet connection with about 40 minutes of attention, about $20 of supplies, my own admittedly strange imagination, and a willingness to learn as I go.

A quick survey of YouTube gave me the outline of what is needed to set up an earthworm food recycler (vermiculture composter). Normally, and what would only be proper for me to do, I would share the links for the various channels and clips I have viewed preparing for this project. All apologies. I just was not organized enough at the outset. I resolve to do better at posting link notes in the New Year. The short answer is, here is the shopping list I built from watching the videos:

  • Large plastic storage tub. Obvs, got mine almost free, used. 
  • Wider, longer, lower tub for big tub to sit inside, (of course, yes, used).
  • About 3 lbs of dirt. I had about a third of a bag of cactus soil leftover from doing some potting. With the help of some worms we hope to be making our own soil, soon.
  • Shredded paper. For me, this was like unexpectedly solving an unrelated problem. I routinely shred documents with non-public, personal information, and this time of year it is my ritual to shred the tax documents that I am no longer required to keep by the IRS. Most of these docs are black ink on white paper. My municipal recycler can’t accept shredded paper, so disposing of it was a problem. It was going straight to the landfill. 
  • Small amount of screen (I talked to the guy at the hardware store and he sold me some of the sheet screening they use for their in-house screen repair for just a few pennies. Sometimes you can get small amounts of scrap screen for free if you ask)
  • All-weather adhesive. Something to glue the screen to the plastic tub. Read the labels, ask the humans.
  • A piece of steel wool. Almost any grade will do; you are just using it to rough up the spots where the glue is going. Sandpaper scraps work fine. You could score it with a knife blade, use a rough end of a stick, you get the idea.
  • A way to make holes in the plastic tub. I had an easy time since I have a nice drill and ⅛” bit, but really, just need holes big enough to 1) drain excess liquid at the bottom, and 2) let air in for the worms at the top.
  • Worms.

I intend to keep this mess outside on the apartment patio, so in addition to the shopping list above, I keep an old dishwasher tabs container on the countertop to collect the food scraps in the kitchen as I make them. It has a wee handle, just like a tiny pail, and a tight lid if I need to keep any odors in. Then I can carry them out once a day or at my convenience to an old paint bucket I keep next to the composter. According to the internet, these composting systems can run clean enough to live indoors with you, but even so, it is best to save up your food waste and introduce it to the composter only about once per week. 

To set up my composter, I put holes around the bottom and top. As I mentioned above, the bottom holes will allow excess liquid to drain out into the surrounding basin. The liquid that accumulates there, if any, is supposed to make a great supplement for your houseplants or patio garden. It is pretty dry out here in California, so I will have to wait and see if I get any excess, accumulated fluid from the composter. The top holes are for air to circulate and let the worms breathe. Worms might live underground, but they breathe air.

With the holes drilled in the sides of the inner tub, I used the steel wool (or any abrasive) to rough the edges around each hole. I then cut about 2” squares of my scrap screen and glued them over each hole using the waterproof, all-weather adhesive. This will keep our worms from wriggling out of the container. The glue requires 24 hours for a full cure. Also, I had read that the shredded paper should soak prior to using. At this point I emptied my shredder into a pail, added water, and let everything set for about 24 hours.

Once the adhesive has cured, I mixed my soil and my soaked, shredded paper in the bottom of the tub. On one side I used a trowel (I used my hand, ok?) to make a little hole, and I put my week’s food scraps in there. I eat a primarily vegetarian diet, so for one person I make sort of a lot of vegetable food scraps. I bury the scraps with the soil from the hole and use a little extra shredded paper over the top to make sure I have good coverage. If left uncovered, it will attract fruit flies and other micro-menaces that I don’t want around when sitting on my patio for coffee, or in the evenings. 

After that, just add worms. I bought the very last container of red wrigglers at the local PetSmart. I neglected to ask the clerk if they were selling out because of California’s new recycling law (I highly doubt that is the reason). I had read that these were good choice for composting, and the package says there are something like 45 of them in there. I observed as I emptied the container that there were several very small ones at the bottom along the edges where the dirt was packed tight. I just plopped them out on top of the soil on the opposite side from the buried food waste, and closed the lid.

After one week I had accumulated a significant amount of vegetable food waste to recycle. I opened the tub and explored the place where I had emptied the worm container. It was only dirt, now. No worms. On that same side, opposite where I had left my first food scraps, I used a trowel (this time, I used a trowel) to dig a little hole and empty this week’s scraps. I covered it with the dirt from the hole and, to make sure I had good coverage, added some dry, brown leaves from the doorstep. That extra, dry, brown vegetation will help keep the moisture in balance and provide additional food for the wrigglers. 

The biggest costs were the worms, at about $12 from the PetSmart (I live in a very high cost area), and the adhesive, for about $7. I feel sure that cheaper worms could have been found. If I am able to raise a lot of red wrigglers, you can bet I will be interested to learn who else in my community has been buying them at a big box retailer for $12 per package.

I am just shy of two weeks into this project and so far there is no objectionable smell on my patio and everything seems to be in order. I am concerned that the worms will not be able to keep up with me, that I will need a larger scale operation to cover even just one person. I will enjoy learning about the relationship between the scale of the waste I create, and my ability to use it gainfully. If I am successful, I should have a ton of red wrigglers available, which is an asset to me and my community. I should also be producing a volume of high quality worm castings, soil and compost, which is an asset to me and my community. I hope to use that product to grow tomatoes and other vegetables on my apartment patio.

I can’t wait to report back on this project as it continues. If you like this content, please share on your social media, comment, and subscribe. Thank you!

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