So, you’ve separated the glass from the plastic and aluminum, bundled the newspapers, and hauled everything to a recycling site. You shop with canvas bags and buy things with less packaging. You’ve even started carpooling with a few neighbors. What more could you possibly do? In one word, “composting.”
Composting reuses organic waste like grasses, leaves, and clippings from the garden and vegetable and fruit peelings from the kitchen. Says George Dickerson, horticulture specialist with New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service office, “It’s tempting to stuff all your food waste down the garbage disposal.” Instead, he suggests, save that organic material and turn it into a rich fertilizer that helps build up our typically poor desert soils for larger and healthier gardens.
While many gardeners are familiar with a traditional outdoor pit or barrel composting system, here in the East Mountains the chances of attracting bears or other wildlife are pretty high. A better and more efficient way to recycle your garden and kitchen waste may be with vermicomposting, or using red worms. Vermicomposting can be done in a bin inside the garage or even under the kitchen sink. The length and width of a bin depends on the amount of vegetable waste your family produces. A general guideline is to provide one square foot of surface area per pound per week of waste in your bin. Plastic storage bins with many quarter-inch holes added in the bottom and top will provide good drainage and weigh less than wooden bins. The holes are important for ventilation because worms actually require more air than humans for survival.
Composting worms are not the same as the night crawlers or earthworms used for fishing. (See the sidebar for sources.) It is best to prepare the bin before purchasing the worms, especially in hot weather, so they can start going to work right away. Just add them to the top of the moist bedding. Cover the top of the bedding with a moist newspaper or straw to prevent the bedding from drying out. Worm boxes can be started with shredded newspaper, cardboard, leaves, straw, or peat moss, slightly moistened. A handful of sand should also be mixed in to provide grit for the worms’ digestive systems.
In optimum conditions, red worms eat their own weight in one day. On average, two pounds of earthworms can recycle a pound of waste in 24 hours. “Worms will eat all kinds of food wastes, including coffee grounds, tea bags, vegetable and fruit wastes,” says Dickerson. Bury food wastes in the bedding instead of adding them to the top. Worms will not eat animal or dairy products, though, and these will instead foul the bin. In fact, there should be no unpleasant odors associated with vermiculture. If an unpleasant smell develops, dump the bin immediately, rescue the worms, and restart with fresh bedding.
Scraps can be added continually for two to three months until the bedding disappears. Then, it’s time to harvest the worms and castings, as the compost is called. To separate the worms from the finished compost, place the compost in small piles on a tarp in the sun. Red worms will move away from the light and to the bottom of the piles. Lift the top layer of compost off each pile until you reach the worms. Combine piles and repeat the process until you have a pile of finished compost and a pile of worms. No matter how meticulously you try to recapture every little creature, a few worms or eggs will escape into the compost. Don’t worry. They will aerate the soil and break down garden debris.
Start a new bin again with the herd of worms and use or store the compost for next year’s flower or vegetable garden. Worm castings are also fantastic for indoor plants.
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