My Worms

Adventures in composting with 1,000 red wigglers.

A cluster of Red wigglers worms in the hand of a composter's yard in Newport News, Virginia.
Red wigglers

Photo by Adrin Snider/Newport News Daily Press/MCT/Getty Images

They arrived early on a Tuesday morning in a cardboard box. “1000 Red Worms,” read the label in large letters printed beneath the USPS tracking number. Return address: Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm. My mailman handed the package to me with no emotion, but I was excited. Inside were the catalysts for my latest experiment: vermicomposting. Or, to be less Latinate about it, composting with worms.

I’d first become acquainted with the idea of composting—that is, using microorganisms to turn food scraps into soil—when I lived in northern California with roommates who used old peanut butter jars as glassware and spent a considerable portion of their meager incomes on bulk lentils. One of them had a book on composting called Do the Rot Thing, and I occasionally glanced through it while making lunch. It was intriguing, this idea of transforming a pile of vegetable trimmings and yard clippings into nutrient-rich soil, but I couldn’t imagine doing it myself. The very fact that it required a book suggested it was complicated, and the title perfectly captured my dilemma: I wanted to do the right thing, to minimize my trash and be virtuous and eco-friendly. But I was scared of the rot.

In Oakland, the city solved my problem for me: It ran an official compost program that hauled away kitchen and yard scraps along with the rest of our recycling. But Philadelphia, where my husband and I currently live, has no such system. I tried to readjust, but the Californian hippies had infected me—after two years of segregating my garbage, tossing my banana peels in with my other trash just felt wrong. Adding to my guilt, we have a small garden in Philadelphia that would be a perfect place to apply compost. I felt caught between my desire for great dirt and my fear of doing it wrong. I wanted rich, dark, beautiful compost that was fast, idiot-proof, low-maintenance, and worry-free. 

Enter the worms. Whereas traditional composting relies solely on microorganisms like bacteria and fungi to break down food particles into new soil (and requires active maintenance so it doesn’t stagnate), in vermiculture, worms speed up the process for you. Once microbes have taken care of some of the predigestion (worms don’t have teeth or many digestive fluids), the worms suck the food through their mouths. Inside their bodies, strong muscles and particles of sand and grit grind the food into even smaller pieces; microbes in their intestines then finish the digestion, converting the food into nutrient-rich castings—a fancy word for worm poop. Vermiculture is like normal composting, turbocharged.

The simplest form of vermicomposting—besides what’s already happening in your yard—is to fashion your own vermicomposter out of a plastic tub. The challenge with such an approach is that, much like nonworm composting, it requires confidence that you will be able to “manage” your bin—i.e., keep it aerated and balanced enough that it will not just devolve into a stinky box of dead worms and rotting vegetables. I did not have that confidence. So I went with option No. 2: Buy a Worm Factory®.

The Worm Factory, available on Amazon, is basically a stack of square plastic trays, their bottoms perforated like sieves, that rest on top of a base unit designed to catch any fluid that leaches out of the composting material. (This fluid—known by the repulsive nickname of “worm tea”—is a prized fertilizer in its own right.) You start with just one tray of worms, feeding them handfuls of food scraps (fruit and vegetable peelings, egg shells, and coffee grinds, mostly—meat and dairy are forbidden) and topping each deposit with shredded paper or dried leaves (which keep the compost from smelling or attracting fruit flies and eventually get eaten by the worms as well). Then, once the tray is filled, you add another one on top, containing a starter pile of more scraps. The worms, seeking new food, migrate upward through the holes in the bottom of the new tray and leave you with a bottom tray full of beautiful compost. When the second tray is full, you add another one on top, and so on until you have a short tower of compost-filled trays, a self-contained worm industrial complex.

The worms in question are not garden earthworms. Apparently they have a thirst for freedom that is not desirable for creatures you’re planning to keep in a box in your kitchen. Vermicomposters favor the red wiggler, a docile worm with no exploratory tendencies and that likes to live in colonies. (Their Latin name, Eisenia fetida, also hints at red wigglers’ less celebrated habit of releasing a foul odor if handled too roughly.)

The worms are also sold separately from the Worm Factory, hence my shipment from Uncle Jim. Shortly after they arrived, so did my Worm Factory, accompanied by a 16-page instruction booklet that informed me, “In full operation, your worm composter … will house 10,000 to 12,000 worms.” I didn’t know whether to find this inspirational or terrifying.

Pushing aside that question, I screwed the parts together and began to prepare the worms’ new home.

The instructions told me to line the bottom of the first tray with several pieces of newspaper, but since our recycling had just been picked up, I settled upon the front page of my husband’s New York Review of Books.

Next I was to add the coir, a term which I eventually figured out referred to the fibrous brick of shredded coconut husks that came along with the composter; its purpose was to help keep the compost aerated. I was supposed to mix the loose coir with a cup of active compost, a step that struck me as a little chicken-and-egg—if I had an active compost pile, then why would I have bought a worm composter? But there was no time for philosophical contemplation. I made an approved substitution—decayed leaf litter from under a bush—and (Step 3) dumped it on top of a Paul Krugman byline.

I finished my preparations by placing two handfuls of vegetable scraps in the corner on top of the bedding, covering it with more shredded paper, and finishing with three sheets of moist newspaper from the personals section. Then I untied the bag and deposited my worms into their new home.

I was supposed to wait three days after setting up my worms before checking in on them, but I made it only 24 hours before lifting up the lid to see what was happening inside. I felt a sort of curiosity I hadn’t experienced since I was about 6 years old and had an Uncle Milton Ant Farm—one of those sand-filled terrariums skinny enough to reveal a cross section of the ants’ tunnels so you can see what they’re doing. I loved that thing; I remember getting up early in the morning to inspect it before school, gazing at the tiny, industrious creatures inside.

The only problem with my ant farm was that all my ants had quickly died. So, for that matter, had my goldfish, gerbils, and hamsters—my track record with small pets was not so great. Fearing that my worms would meet a similar fate, I started acting like an anxious parent, opening the box each morning and poking around to see if they were OK. Was the paper wet enough? Was it too dry? Had I given them too much to eat? Not enough? I was supposed to check to see if they were “working” on their food, but how does one tell if a worm is working on something? Sure, there were some worms in the food corner, but there were also many worms away from the food corner, their activities unclear. The instruction booklet didn’t answer my questions, but it did firmly state what the consequence of a poorly managed worm bin might be. “Be careful,” it said. “Worms can become stressed, which will cause them to group up in a ball or even crawl out of the bin.”

I decided to do my own research. I emailed a neighbor I’d heard had a worm bin in her basement and asked what she fed them. I watched a seven-part homemade video series on YouTube about worm composting, a slow-moving epic that devoted much of its first installment to the process of removing the worm factory from its box. Following suggestions I’d read in an online vermicomposting forum (one of many), I tried chopping up the food before adding it to the bin to give the microbes and worms a head start; when this also gave a head start to fruit flies, I tried keeping my scraps in the freezer and defrosting them before each feeding. Every morning, I pored over the Worm Factory instruction booklet as I ate breakfast, hoping that if I just looked at the words enough times, my compost anxiety would be calmed.

My husband did not spend his mornings reading the worm booklet. Rather, he kept feeding them forbidden things like onion skins and seemed to view them—and me—with an amused befuddlement. “Why can’t the worms just go outside?” he asked me, pointing out that they were occupying valuable real estate in our kitchen.

“Because they need to be temperature-controlled,” I told him. (This is true—since they’re in a box and thus can’t burrow into the ground, it doesn’t take much for them to bake or freeze.)

“You realize you’re treating them like they’re pets,” he said. 

“Why wouldn’t I?” I responded. “Someone needs to take care of them.”

His mother, who has an honest-to-goodness compost pile in her backyard, was much more supportive. “They’re amazing organic factories,” she wrote in an email when I told her what I was doing. “Worms can almost make one believe in God.”

She was right that there was something about the worms’ abilities to speed decomposition that put one’s mind toward the existential. Perhaps that was one of the reasons I felt such a need to actively care for my worms: I knew that eventually their descendants would turn me into compost. But in my defense, I liked checking up on them, poking gently around the box to see how their population was growing and which foods they seemed to prefer.

“How’re you guys doing?” I said to the worms one morning as I got ready to feed them, using the same tone of voice I use for dogs or, for that matter, human children. “Are you hungry?”

It had been a few days since I had checked the bucket in which I had been keeping my food scraps, but I thought nothing of it until I began mashing up its contents with a spoon. Once I did, it was immediately obvious that something had gone wrong: The air filled with a putrid odor, a stench so foul that it smelled as if a rat had coated itself in sewage and then crawled into my compost bucket to die. Holding my breath, I dumped the scraps into a plastic bag, double bagged it (thereby destroying any chance that it would ever biodegrade), and deposited it into a trash can outside.

That solved the problem of the smell, but now I had no food scraps—I had just thrown away my worms’ meal. Should I grab them something from the fridge? Maybe make them a salad? I was about to open the refrigerator to search for borderline produce when my husband stopped me and suggested that I take a look at the worms. “They’re fine,” he said. And he was right. They did not seem to be concerned that I had just tossed out their dinner. They were not concerned about anything.

That’s when I realized I was turning my fears of a high-maintenance compost pile into a self-fulfilling prophecy: The whole point of the worms, I remembered, had been to make compost without having to worry about it.

So over the past few months, I’ve taken a step back. I don’t worry about finding extra produce to supplement the worms’ meals. I feed them random amounts at random times. I still poke around occasionally in the bin—I like checking up on them—but otherwise, I leave them in the dark.

So far, it’s working. I may not be recycling all of our green waste, but I’m using enough of it to feel mildly virtuous, and the constant need for shredded paper makes a dent in our pile of junk mail. The worms seem to love the dead leaves from the tree in our yard and eagerly devour our weekend coffee grinds. They haven’t tried to escape. And despite the fact that the composter—and the food scrap bucket—are still in the kitchen, neither smells. I’ve decided that a lack of foul odors will be my new general metric of success, both for worms and for life.

Best of all is the compost itself. It’s black and dark, moist to the touch, with a rich, earthy smell that doesn’t carry even a hint of rot. It’s perfect compost, the stuff of my California dreams, worm-derived—and, finally, worry-free.