Worm Crawl! A Vermicomposting Disaster

Those who do not have outdoor space for compost bins can turn their kitchen scraps into rich soil for houseplants and container gardens by vermicomposting: using worms in containers to make compost indoors.

Last winter, Hannah Harvester took up vermicomposting in her Canton apartment.  She purchased composting worms at a farmers market, placed them in a plastic tub, and began feeding them organic waste from her kitchen.  It took a while to figure out how much food the worms could process and how much moisture they could endure.  Once balance was achieved in the system, the humus steadily accrued.    This week, Hannah wrote to The Garden Plot with a cautionary tale about worms and heat:

When I first prepared my worm bin several months ago, I came across the term “worm crawl” in a book I was reading about composting with red wigglers. While the writer gave no description of a worm crawl, it was fairly easy to conjure up an image of one, and I hoped it would never happen to me. Today, my hopes were dashed. I woke up in my second-floor apartment after a night that was partly sleepless, due to the extremely high temperatures of the past few days. The first thing I noticed when I entered my living room was the dried out carcass of a worm on the carpet. Then another, and another after that. Upon lifting the lid of my worm bin, I saw hundreds of worms gathered at the top of the bin, trying to escape en masse: WORM CRAWL.

A couple of days ago, I’d fed the worms and nothing was amiss. I realized instantly that the high heat must have made conditions unbearable for my poor little worms. They live, or lived, in a large plastic tub with several cloth-covered ventilation holes, in my living room closet. I kept the tub filled with damp bedding, mostly shredded paper, and buried my food scraps in the bedding every few days. I don’t have a garden; the reason for my worm bin was to divert organic matter from the landfill. I once read that due to a lack of oxygen in landfills, food waste does not decompose as it would in nature but turns to methane gas instead. Bad. Since then I have found different ways to keep food out of my trash bin. In the last place I lived I could bring my food scraps to the local co-op, a ten minute walk from my house. Here, especially given the long winters, I decided on a worm bin.

After working out the initial kinks, like my desire to give my worms more food than they could handle when still a small population, figuring out the proper dampness of the bedding (less damp than I’d initially thought), and learning how to keep fruit flies out (cloth covering  for the holes), my worm bin was great. It wasn’t smelly, it was low-maintenance, and I loved being able to turn things like used cotton balls and q-tips into compost. In the late spring, I gave a gardener a big tub of nutrient-rich vermicompost. It all felt good.

This morning, realizing it would stay too hot for my worms in my apartment for a few days at least, I acted fast. I called Bob Washo and Flip Filippi, who run the CSA I’m part of,  Little Grasse Foodworks. Bob agreed to take my worms. He said he was building a new compost bin the next day, and would work the worms and their castings into the new bin. Luckily, Bob and Flip are raising pigs, so I plan to take my food scraps to them for the rest of the summer. When the weather turns cold and I don’t want to make the bike ride up to the farm, maybe I’ll try again. I’ve saved a few worms who are in a mini-worm bin in my stairwell where it’s cooler. Come October or thereabouts, they’ll be the progenitors of a new population of apartment dwelling red wigglers, and my vermicomposting adventure will begin again.

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3 Comments on “Worm Crawl! A Vermicomposting Disaster”

  1. Ellen Beberman says:

    I, too, had worm crawl when I used vermicomposting. In my case, I think it was overly wet bedding. There is something horrific in lifting the bin lid and finding hundreds of worms plastered against the underside!

    This was a number of years ago; I haven’t gone back to worms, although it is a really promising way to make good compost. It sounds like Hannah has worked through some of the finer points of maintaining the bin, and I hope she is able to get started again soon!

  2. Jesse says:

    We use the Worm Factory at home, which is completely odorless and allows for no chance of “worm crawl”. Yes, it’s a bit of an investment upfront, but it’s great because it provides a self contained, easy to manage system for vermicomposting. Check these guys out – great customer service, very knowledgeable – http://naturesfootprintinc.com

  3. Dave says:

    I’ve just published a tutorial on vermicomposting, and describe in detail the creation of a worm bin using cheap and easily available rubbermaid bins. I’ve been using this process successful for a long time now. You can read the article here: http://allthingsplants.com/articles/view/dave/150/ Everyone should do worm composting!

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