The Basement Annelid Project [1]

We have worms in our basement. A whole pound of them, merrily chomping away at chopped-up lettuce stems, banana skins, and apple cores.

For years I’ve wanted a worm composter, but I never got organized enough to put one together, and then there was the problem of where to buy the worms (by mail order, they’re fairly pricey, plus you really need to be home when the box arrives so the worms don’t freeze–or fry–on the doorstep). Several times I’ve gone so far as to scan the Yellow Pages for bait shops, but there never were any near my house and besides, I don’t know an Eisenia foetida from a hole in the ground; a baitmeister could sell me anything. So…I put it off, and then it would finally be not-winter and our outdoor compost pile was defrosted again and I didn’t have to think about it until November again.

No more! A few weeks ago I was cleaning up after a church meeting and mentioned to one of the folks on the committee that it was a shame we didn’t have a worm composter in the church kitchen for all the food scraps. It turns out she had an unused worm bin at home that she’d never gotten around to populating because she realized that, um, she’s not a worm sort of person.

Well, I’m squeamish about some things but worms I can handle, so now I have a super-deluxe, expandable-to-four-story Worm Factory in our basement.

And because things happen when they are supposed to, I found a worm supplier just a few blocks from my house via FindWorms.com, which was suggested in the booklet that came with the Worm Factory. My worm connection is a young mom who’d only been in business for a month when I called her. Is vermiculture the new Tupperware for SAHMs?

I’ve been conservative in feeding this first month, giving them about two cups worth of chopped veggie scraps every fourth day for the first week or so, then every third day. Following a hint I picked up somewhere along the line, I pre-treat the material by freezing it first in margarine tubs and ice cream containers. This week I’m going to every other day for the first time.

They’ll process almost anything, including tea and tea bags (I remove the staples and string, and tear the bags into smaller pieces). You’re not supposed to use meat and dairy products, but I’m not clear whether this is because of the smell, because it might attract flies and rodents, or because they’re bad for the worms. Citrus rinds aren’t supposed to be used, either, and I’ve read that onions and cabbage-y foods like broccoli can produce a strong smell, but I’ve been adding onions and leek tops and broccoli stems in moderation and haven’t noticed a problem. The only smell of any kind so far is rain-damp earth.

Some people in the family–I mention no names–worried that the worms would escape and crawl up the basement stairs and then to the second floor and up the bed to attack him in his sleep. So far this has not happened. The thing about red wigglers is: they don’t like the light. It was even tricky trying to get a photo of them–as soon as I’d take off the lid and peel back the damp newspaper, they’d would slide beneath their bedding. I finally had to turn over a corner of bedding before I found enough to photograph.

The population is self-limiting; they reproduce in proportion to the available food and available space. It probably will be next autumn before I have to add another tray to the bin, especially since I’ll be putting some of my overflow into our outdoor compost bin.

There’s plenty of information about worm composting online. The place I learned the most was the Red Worm Composting blog, and today I discovered that my worm dealer also has started a blog: see Gardens, not Garbage.

[1] The title of this post is a riff on Tim Eisele’s really cool The Backyard Arthropod Project. [2] I couldn’t resist.

[2] Compost led me to Tim’s blog in the first place. I let our backyard pile dry out too much in 2009 and yellow jackets moved in. Last spring I found a big, beautiful creature on the fence that looked exactly what I thought a yellow jacket queen would look like, so I came indoors and went looking online for a photo of a yellow jacket queen. Somehow Tim’s blog came up in the Google results; because it was filled with fascinating and occasionally completely disgusting photos of insects, I’ve been caught in his web ever since.

© 2011 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go

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11 Responses to The Basement Annelid Project [1]

  1. Sue Knopf says:

    Amazingly, I also have a worm bin in my basement. I’ve had one of one sort or another for years, but the last one (made from a big “wheelie bin” (bit trashcan on wheels) really wasn’t working well after several years so I bit the bullet and bought one from Gardens Alive–it looks identical to yours. The critters seem much happier there than in the wheelie. I got my first worms from friends who had been worm composting for quite a few years and these are their descendants.

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    • Anne Bingham says:

      It seems so simple to make one from found materials or a shallow storage bin, but somehow I just never got around to it. The one Chris J passed on to me is truly the bin of my dreams–so far, anyhow. We’ll see how well it works when fruit fly season arrives, but I have a plan for managing that (involves Tanglefoot and a bunch of yellow plastic strips and jar lids.

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  2. Tim Eisele says:

    Cool! I wonder how much difference the worm species makes. I’m particularly amused that a web site exists that is specifically dedicated to locating earthworm dealers.

    I also wonder how much difference the species of worm makes. Finding worms around here is trivial (every grocery store and gas station sells worms as fishing bait), but they are mostly the huge nightcrawlers that are up to six inches long. Sometimes they have “leaf worms”, which are smaller and are probably closer to what you have.

    I was a bit surprised a few years ago to learn that earthworms are a recent arrival in the UP (and in most of the northern Midwest), having been brought in just in the last century or so by human activities. They’re mostly brought in by the mud on vehicle wheels.

    Be careful not to let the cluster flies get into your composting bin. Their maggots are parasites of earthworms.

    And then there’s Isabella Rosellini’s short video about earthworm sex:

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    • Anne Bingham says:

      I’ve asked a vermiculture experts to drop by and comment on the difference the species makes, but in the meantime, my info is that the species makes a great deal of difference because different kinds of worms eat different things. Red wigglers are the most popular because they’re smallish, condition-tolerant, and have a wide-ranging appetite for carrot ends, wilted celery, apple skins, and lettuce cores, not to mention shredded newspaper, cardboard tubes, tea bags (staples removed), and eggshells (all nicely chopped or blenderized to increase the surface area). There’s a species of European nightcrawler that’s used, too. Fascinating about there not being earthworms on the UP until the 20th century (or did you mean the 19th?). I thought worms were everywhere, even in the Antarctic. Off to read up on cluster flies now…

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    • Compost Guy says:

      Hi Tim,
      Choosing the right species for your bin is actually VERY important. In all honesty, most of the worms you find outside in your garden, or even at your local bait shop are not going to be ideal for vermicomposting. “Leaf Worms” are likely “epigeic” (surface dwellers) – which is GOOD – but they still might not be Eisenia fetida, which are the best all-around composting worm out there.
      In northern regions you need to be more careful about spreading invasive worms as well. Sometimes “leaf worms” can be Lumbricus rubellus or Dendrobaena octaedra which, if kept in outdoor systems, can potential move to nearby sensitive ecosystems and have a negative impact.

      Regards

      Bentley

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  3. Tim Eisele says:

    Earthworms being brought into areas that were under glaciers during the ice age has been ongoing as long as European people have been here, and is still happening: according to this site, there are at least 15 species that have been accidentally introduced in Minnesota so far.

    That looks like one of the features of Red Wigglers[1] that makes them desirable in home composters: they don’t overwinter well, so they are unlikely to get established into the wild from compost use.

    [1] Reeeeeed wigglers, the Cadillac of worms! (advertising jingle from one of the main fictitious radio advertisers on the show “WKRP in Cincinnati”)

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  4. MaryWitzl says:

    Ah, you’re singing my song here. I wish we had more earthworms in our garden; we had an infestation of wire worms who apparently ate all our earthworms. I can dig in my beds for hours without finding a single earthworm — such a shame!

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    • Anne Bingham says:

      Mary, I wonder if your Scottish wire worms are a different species than the ones I’m finding by the same common name in the US, which seem to be a stage of click beetle and appear to be vegetarian (with a special fondness for potatoes).

      The North American version apparently thrives in wet earth and the way to get rid of them is to dry the soil. So, you know, just wait until Scotland dries out and the wire worm problem (if they are the same as here) will go away, too.

      Although waiting until Scotland dries out is probably like waiting for hell to freeze over….

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      • MaryWitzl says:

        I would have laughed at the idea of a dry Scotland, but recently it HAS been dry here! We’ve had almost two weeks of solid sunshine and perfect weather, and there have even been forest fires here. It’s unprecedented. I want to enjoy it — we all do — but I’ve got a sore back from carrying down watering can after watering can full of water for all the vegetables and flowers we’ve been planting. Too much of a good thing. I hope those wire worms are dying fast!

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