Monday, March 25, 2013

Open a Heap o Worms

I've never been the best composter, but even so the Northwest is the most difficult place by far that I've ever tried to do it. People talk about it a lot, blogs and newspapers run articles about composting, hell, even the county will subsidize your purchase of a bin. But some of the best gardeners I know, when pressed, will admit that our cool wet Winters (and Falls and Springs--let's be honest) make it a challenge at best. Sure, selectivity of materials, great diligence, and willingness to have multiple composts in the works at any given time can cook up some fine black gold, but it ain't easy.

So a couple of years ago, I figured I'd try worm composting, but again, I was not so good at it. Ultimately, I did not have enough bedding and space to accomodate the volume of kitchen and garden waste I produce. In the meantime, I am pretty sure, rats gobbled up many of the specially purchased red wiggler worms alleged to be master casters (although I've had no luck to date finding reliable information on vermipredation).

Now I live alone, and don't have as many daily food scraps, but since I press cider, pickle, and can in bursts, I produce occasional heaps of peels and pulp. Add to this a helpful neighbor who makes a lot of juice and gifts me with bins of finely ground veggie and fruit every week or so, and I have so much fresh material that any compost or worm bin is bound to be overwhelmed.

Until I gave up. 

At least, I stopped trying to go the usual routes, like paying for special worms or compost bins. Taking the DIY ethic to it's sometimes backbreaking and stubborn extreme, I resolved to make due with the tools, soil, and critters I have. 

Over the carrot and kale pulp, a layer of old leaves.
I pushed my failed compost into a heap. The humble heap (a word of Anglo-Saxon origin, more faithful to the spirit of a shapeless mass of rotting vegetables than the Latin-derived "pile," which is a bit too prissy and upright for what this is). Somehow I got it into my head that I could coax the local earthworms up into it. The up-side of our cool wet climate is that it is rarely outright freezing, and worms are often close to the surface throughout Winter. In fact, I knew from my compost failures over the years that they would migrate into a heap if it weren't burning up at proper compost temperatures. [You may not be a big worm fan, but they probably beat my similar cannot-compost-adaptation/rationalization involving rats.]

So I decided to set the table a bit more to their liking. When I go on a cooking binge, or the juicaholic neighbor has one of his own, the debris goes on half the heap, as in the opening photo. Then I scrounge up some old dead leaves for variety and anti-bird cover, and toss them on, like in the second photo. Finally, I layer on some mineral soil. Luckily for me, moles are constantly kicking up backdirt from their endless tunneling under the lawn, and all I have to do is scoop up a few shovels of that nicely broken up soil and toss them on. Like in the last of this most un-photogenic series, here:

Yep, that there's a dirt-covered heap. One of the internet's finest photos.

The dirt is something earthworms like, even need, giving their guts the grit to digest the vegetative matter. According to my reasoning, which lies somewhere between superstitious hunch and scientific hypothesis, the combination of new scraps with old microbe-laden duff and mineral soil should be a balanced meal that lets the worms thrive and make more worms. Lately, as I turn the heap, the number of worms suggests that I am onto something.

Speaking of turning, my hunch/hypothesis is that this is the crucial activity on the part of me, the human steward of this worm mountain. Earthworms are good aerators, but the frequent addition of more fresh vegetable peels and pulp, of wet leaves and often sodden soil, is enough to compact the heap into a stanking anaerobic mess that will never decompose fully. Turning the pile loosens the material, creates new air pockets, and facilitates migration of interior to exterior and vice versa.

This is why, in the first photo, you see carrot pulp on only one side. In a week or so, I'll dig in deep to the other side with the fork, and turn it over on top of the left before depositing a new load of scraps, leaves, and soil onto the right. If I see any slimy clumps, I'll break them up. Maybe toss on more leaves or soil, or just pull out a few twigs; I respond to the moment. In time lapse photography, you would see the heap shift from one side to the other. 

This hypothesis/hunch has yet to run through the test. The look and smell of the heap, not to mention the burgeoning worm population, suggest it is working. As time passes, I imagine that I'll be able to harvest shovel-fuls of fertile dirt-compost-castings, as the pile continues its slow swaying dance and the worms shimmy inside. I may set up a half-inch screen box nearby and harvest the fine fallout that way, tossing the rest back into the pile. Or maybe, some other idea will occur to me. In the meantime, I toss dinner scraps on every day or so, a pile of pulp every week or so, and engage in a burst of heavy labor now and then. And the worms eat and make more worms.

[Oh yeah, it worked great! See the Update, and Round 2 experiment here.] 

1 comment:

  1. Hey, "the piles" is a hallowed term for gastrointestinal distress. Prissy!? :)

    Very good applied scientific experimentation, though. Dad would be fascinated and pleased with your rindings. (At first that was a typo, but I decided it was an excellent one. Mom would like my punnings ...)