I ran into the house in early October, flushed with excitement. Finally, I had worms! They weren’t very big, not like those strapping specimens I remember from my youth. They certainly wouldn’t fit onto a fishing hook (not that I would use them for that purpose anyway, 22-year-vegetarian that I am). In fact, I didn’t see my first worm until I literally impaled it on my “bitchfork” (sorry buddy!). But sure enough, there he was, my first documented worm. I quickly texted some girlfriends with the delightful news of my worm-sighting, who, like the fabulous and supportive girlfriends they are, cheered on my long sought after signs of success.
I officially started my compost bin on September 17, 2013, the date of my 37th birthday. If you know me, you know I share a resemblance to Oscar the Grouch. Not in temperament–I’m very much a “glass-half-full” type of person–but because I’m slightly obsessed with trash. I’m not sure when it all started, but in high school in the early ’90s, I volunteered at the landfill to help get their fledgling recycling program off the ground. In college I was known as the “recycling Nazi” by my roommates, and my co-worker Nicole has nicknamed me “Captain Planet.” I think people are sometimes scared to throw anything away in my house, lest they put it in the wrong place. I admit this may be a valid concern as I’ve called 911 exactly twice in my life, both while driving, to report people littering out the window of their car. But don’t you worry, I’m not above trash-picking–I will pull that sucker out of the trash and put it in its rightful place without batting an eyelash.
As focused on responsibly disposing our waste as I am, it bothered me that I didn’t yet have a compost bin. I avoid putting food waste into the trash as much as possible, partly to keep our trash output down, and partly because when food decomposes in a trash bag at your local landfill, it creates some nasty gasses that contribute to global warming, and it causes some nasty liquids that can flow into our ground water. Yuck. My approach over the last 13 years was to make our garbage disposal earn its keep, while I studied compost bins from afar. I bought books on how to compost, read online reviews of the various container types and composting methods, discussed composting with friends who I knew were toying with the idea, and even joked to my husband one year, “All I want for Christmas is a compost bin.” What was holding me back?
One thing I understand about myself is that I can be a bit neurotic in my research habits. If you want to know the nitty-gritty about a particular product or subject, set me on the task of looking into it. You won’t be disappointed. I’ve created a word document to hand along to new mamas on my recommendations for baby gear, based on the extensive thinking and researching I’ve done. Some mom friends love it, some, well…let’s just say I may have scared off a few potential mom friends! As my own mom used to tell me when I was little, I like to know the ins and outs of a cat’s arse. (Maybe that’s when my obsession with waste started?!)
The thing about composting is that, although there are guidelines, there isn’t one correct way to do it. And it’s one of those things that you can read as many books about as you like, but you really need to learn by doing and experiencing. It’s a natural process that will happen over time regardless of what we do to help it along, but many factors can affect the speed with which our piles of food scraps and yard waste will convert to the coveted “black gold” soil for our gardens. After many years of sitting on the sidelines, I finally chose to get into the game, and I couldn’t think of a better day than my birthday to honor my increased commitment to responsible waste disposal.
So I went to my local landfill and bought a compost bin that my town makes available to residents for a discounted price; I went to Brigg’s Nursery and bought some starter soil to help set up the right environment for my future worm haven; and I meticulously layered “green” elements (food scraps, green leaves, grass cuttings) with “brown” elements (soil, dried leaves, paper products) after the suggestions of multiple books and websites, as they assured me this layering would breed the most success. And then I waited. I went out every couple of weeks and added new food scraps, burying them in the pile as all the guides said I should. I avoided adding citrus and onions because I think I read somewhere that the worms weren’t fans of such delicacies. I sprayed my compost bin with water to equal the dampness of a “wrung-out sponge.” And I waited.
Husband Jerry informed me that my compost bin smelled (to which I took great offense, as you can imagine!). Winter came and, although all the books say that your compost bin should emit heat as it converts waste to soil, mine froze. At least I didn’t have to trek through the feet of snow in our backyard with our kitchen scraps since I couldn’t get my shovel into the frozen mound. We were back on garbage disposal duty all winter. Spring came and with it came my renewed energy to really get my compost pile working. Convinced that I needed more “browns” to counteract all our “green” food scraps, I eagerly cleared the dead leaves from our flowerbeds and deposited them in our big black cylinder out back. I lamented that I couldn’t attend the University of Rhode Island’s Master Composter/Master Recycler Program as it conflicted with long-held vacation plans. I would have to be patient and have faith that the worms would come.
In June my brother Robert came for a visit. He lives in a cooperative living situation in Brooklyn, NY. As described on the website www.brooklyn-spaces.com, Treehaus (their home) “is a collective home centered around sustainability, open communication, respect, and cooking. There are thirteen members of the collective sharing a lovely four-floor brownstone, along with two cats and three chickens.” Having visited Treehaus the previous December, I knew my brother was in charge of their compost bins, and I knew that they were thriving. Who better to ask for advice on my struggles than my bro, who also happened to be the closest thing to a composting mentor that I was likely to come across?
Robert’s professional opinion was that my compost bin wasn’t very appealing to worms. He didn’t think my mass dumping of brown leaves was a smart move–I definitely needed to get more food scraps into that pile. In his adventures of tending to the compost bins servicing a household of 13, he had never run into the issue of too many food scraps. Their compost bins remained lush and ice-free all winter long. And they had such a high worm population that on Sundays they could let the chickens go in for a feast, and still these compost piles turned over the food waste in record time.
I dutifully added all our kitchen scraps throughout the summer and early fall. I made it a mission to get out there and turn my compost every 10 days or less, something made much easier by my new tool-of-the-trade, a pitchfork. I mean, what self-respecting suburban mom doesn’t want a prescription to buy a pitchfork? I affectionately call her ‘bitchfork’ and she’s fabulous. Every time I buried our scraps and turned the decomposing pile of leaves/egg shells/avocado peels, I saw many insects that had happily found their way to our lovely compost pile. It occurred to me that composting would be a difficult thing to embrace if i were timid around bugs. I saw some interesting critters in that pile, but I looked in vain for the sign that my compost bin had really made it, which would be indicated by the appearance of the elusive earthworm.
Since we moved to our home two years ago, I’ve been fascinated by a sign that is posted outside a house on a busy street we travel down often: Wiggly Boy Worms $3/dozen (I swear I think they were $2/dozen just last summer, apparently inflation is equal opportunity). So many questions arise for me when I see this sign appear, right around the time of year that spring rains yield to summer sunshine: How do they know they’re boy worms? How would one go about purchasing said worms–do I just pull into the driveway and knock on the door? Where do they get such a prolific supply of worms (as in, maybe they had a compost bin that was the envy of the neighborhood)? Would I get freshly dug worms, or do they come prepackaged in some soil? In this summer of my discontent about my own compost bin, would I need to resort to importing these Wiggly Boy Worms to ensure the success of my backyard experiment? And, if I did transplant worms to my compost bin, would they survive, or will I have just signed their death sentence?
I never did buy those worms, but I did continue my regularly scheduled maintenance of my pile, despite a few complaints from neighborhood children that my backyard smelled bad. I was over a year into my compost pile and was determined that in the spring of 2015 I would have soil to use for the vegetable garden we plan to create. But really, how much patience can a woman have? Then, one glorious day in early October, there he was–my own wiggly boy worm. Small, skinny, and stuck on the tine of my bitchfork. I gently removed him and eagerly dug around, looking for some of his friends. No dice. But where there was one earthworm, there were sure to be more soon enough!
After that first sighting, I headed out to my compost bin with a pep in my step, and I wielded my bitchfork with greater care, lest I harm those very creatures I have waited so long for. I have since seen many more earthworms in my bin. They are small, but hearty. I have faith that with a proper diet all winter, they will fatten up in time for my spring planting season.
Today my 4-year-old and I were getting into the car, and he asked me to come check out what he found in the driveway. All I could see was rivulets of water, draining as they were from the snow that fell on our car last night. Cooper however, closer to the ground that he is, had seen a little earthworm, and was concerned that he couldn’t find his parents. He was concerned we would run over him as we backed out. I knew exactly where to relocate our newfound wiggly boy worm, and I had a feeling he would thrive there.
My compost bin.
From afar it looks like a giant Kan-Jam container (so said one of our friends).