The weeks since my move-in post have flown by. I’ve been settling into a routine in my new home, devotedly working to uphold my No Trash habits. Composting my food scraps is one of the most crucial components of the equation and as I had anticipated, establishing the practice here in NYC has been one of the more challenging steps in my transition.
I’ve come to realize that I was a pretty lazy composter in Rhode Island. I had a large open bin made of 2x4s and chicken wire. It provided me with a little over 15 cubic feet of space to fill with my nitrogenous green kitchen material and carbonaceous shredded paper and cardboard. I used a pitchfork to aerate the pile, but that was about all the work that ever went into maintaining it. Here, without the luxury of yard space, I have to construct alternatives to my big old bin. As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve placed a compost container on the fire escape outside my bedroom. It’s a small galvanized steel ash can with a lid. The volume of the can is little more than 1 cubic foot, so I need to supplement it with other compost systems, especially as the cooler months approach and the metabolisms of the microbes in aerobic compost that eat the rotting food and paper start to slow down.
I did some research to locate a compost drop-off site near me. If you live in New York City, you can view Build It Green‘s list of food scrap drop-off locations to find one near you. I reached out to the Red Hook Community Farm through the contact page on their website and a gentleman named Ian replied to inform me that they do indeed accept kitchen scraps and that they compost them there at the farm, which is a short 5 minute walk from my apartment. Drop-off hours are on Fridays from 9am – 12noon. Since moving here in August, I’ve been bringing some of my kitchen scraps and shredded paper material to this site.
The newest part of my personal composting program is my red wiggler (Eisenia fetida) worm crew. I purchased them from the Manhattan Compost Project, an operation run by the Lower East Side Ecology Center. I called them up and asked about purchasing some red wigglers to try vermicomposting in my apartment and they put me down for an order of a pound of worms and told me I could pick them up from their stand at the Union Square Greenmarket the following week (they were sold out for the current week). The Union Square area happens to be where I am going to school so after class on the day of my scheduled pickup I walked with a curious classmate to purchase my worms. A friendly woman, who had been expecting me, handed me my pound of worms in a repurposed half-gallon almond milk container, which I later recycled. They were protected from the elements by some peat moss bedding. I paid about $20 for them. Later that evening, as I stood packed into a crowded subway car, I had a daydream about dropping and spilling my worms on disgruntled commuters. I tightened my grip on the carton, widened my stance, and braced for jerky train car movements. Luckily, there were no such accidents and the worms made it safely back to my apartment.
Readers who have been following my project for a since the spring of 2012 may recall that I attempted vermiculture once before while living in Providence. Though I was already set up with an adequate compost bin, I wanted to try keeping worms so that I could harvest the castings (worm poop) to fertilize my container garden. Unfortunately, the experiment was a bit of a disaster. I kept the bin outside and sugar ants, which are a natural predator of red wigglers, invaded it. I opened the bin one day to find it crawling with ants and not a single worm remained. Hopefully I will have less tragic results indoors.
I’ve been keeping my new roommates in this old enamel washbasin until I can come up with a better housing solution for them. I have ideas for a homemade “worm factory”, but that’s a project that will take a fair amount of planning and time to create. Meanwhile the worms seem pretty happy. Though there was some tribulation one night when I accidently let their bedding get too dry (the weather is shifting here in the Northeast and the humidity has dropped considerably), which unfortunately led to some casualties. In search of water, a brave few attempted a great escape and perished in the arid landscape of my front room. I awoke in the morning to find about 10 shriveled worms stuck to the wood floorboards surrounding the washbasin. Stricken with guilt, I vowed to be more diligent in regulating the moisture levels of their bin. Worms breathe through their skin and require an environment that is neither to dry nor too wet. I’ve been covering them with shredded brown paper that’s been soaked and then squeezed of any dripping water. This seems to help keep the peat moss bedding moist. A lidded bin would also help the cause.
If optimal conditions are maintained for moisture, pH balance (not too acidic), and temperature (between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit) variables, the worms can eat up to half their body weight in a single day. That means my pound of worms can consume about a half a pound of food stock per day. They dine on both nitrogenous and carbonaceous materials as long as the food itself has some moisture—they cannot eat dry paper for instance. I’m finding that burying the food stock in the bedding helps keep the material moist, cuts down on any odor from decomposing organic matter, and keeps fruit flies at bay. Over time I’m sure I will learn more nuances of maintaining a healthy and efficient worm bin and will share what I discover as the relationship develops. I’m excited to engage in such a direct symbiosis.