I’ve Got Worms

Seeing as I’m writing a weblog on local foods in the dead of winter, I hope I can be forgiven for a slightly off-topic entry. Yesterday, I recieved a belated Christmas gift–a pound of red wriggler composting worms. My in-laws live in Kalamazoo, which would be ground zero for the worm-composting movement, if there were such a thing. The author of Worms Eat My Garbage, now deceased, lived there, and her organization continues to sell worms and vermicomposting supplies. Because this particular species of worm is cold-sensitive, I couldn’t have them sitting on my doorstep until I came home. My exceedingly generous and accomodating father-in-law delivered them on a trip through town.

Vermicomposting Basics

I’m trying to make this weblog beginner-friendly, so I’m going to run through the basics here. If you know anything about composting with worms, this next section is worth skipping.

Unlike the earthworms we’re familiar with in the Great North, red wrigglers spend all of their time very near the surface, where the soil is composed of mostly organic material. Because they don’t burrow and hibernate like earthworms, they won’t survive through a heavy or deep frost. They are, however, well suited for close quarters, and are able to convert an impressive volume of organic waste into “castings”, or worm manure.

My “worm bin”, which I prepared ahead of time, is an opaque Rubbermaid-style storage bin. I filled it about 3/4 full with shredded 2006 income tax instruction forms (available mid-April by the thousands at your local library) and wet the newsprint down. As recommended by Worms Eat My Garbage, I added 3 times the weight of the paper in water, aiming for a damp-not-soggy moisture level. More on this later. The worms “chew” by grinding food up with soil particles in a gizzard, so I added a dead houseplant, with its soil, to provide some grit. On top of it all, I dumped my worms. I left the lid off until the light-sensitive worms retreated into the newsprint bedding. I made my first deposit, burying some moldy home-baked bread under an inch or so of wet, grey paper.

The Process So Far…

The next morning, I eagerly checked in on my worms. Apparently, my bedding was too wet, which provided me with a truly horrifying first morning with my worms. Worms, as it turns out, breathe through their skins, which must be kept moist. If it’s too moist, however, they start to drown. This is why the sidewalks are covered with waterlogged earthworms after a good rain. Not having a sidewalk available, my worms climbed out of their too-wet bedding and congregated along the upper lip of the bin.

Now, I’m not the squeamish type, but hundreds of squirming, bloated redworms are an unpleasant sight, somewhere between a horror film and the sex-ed photos of STDs in their advanced stages. I added some more dry newsprint to balance the moisture level, pushed my worms back into the fray, and hoped for the best. This afternoon, things seemed to be on the level, so I think I’m OK. I hope to find all of the dessicated remains of escaped worms before my wife does.

Good Intentions

The plan with the worm bin, and the connection with the whole local-food thing, is pretty simple. The castings are a nutrient-rich plant food, like any manure. Unlike most animal manures, it can be applied to plants fresh. Also unlike most animal manures, I don’t have to drive ten miles out of the city to get it. This, along with the “worm tea” that can be drained off, will be put to use in my greenhouse to get my seedlings off to an organic start. Last year’s greenhouse seedlings were a pretty pathetic lot, because I didn’t fertilize them. This year, I may have to resort to a dilute chemical fertilizer until my worms get their act together. The most frequently suggested organic alternative, made out of fish waste, is a little scary in terms of heavy metal (lead, mercury, &c.) content, and I’d sooner use a known chemical than an unknown contaminant.

An added benefit is that I’ll be able to continue composting without making the long, long journey through the deep, deep snow to the compost bin at the far end of the yard. A bin in the basement makes for a much more enticing trip, which may result in a more-often-emptied slop bucket. Most of our vegetables come from produce we froze last summer, so there isn’t a lot of waste being produced. Hopefully, our worms can keep up with production. My complimentary book says that my worms can process 1/2 their collective weight in garbage a day, so this should work out.

In Other News

I filled the last of my seed needs at the sales at my local Flowerland, and have thinned my flats of lettuce, spinach, snapdragons, and annual poppies. The asparagus has not yet sprouted, but I think I’m still within their germination window.

As I watch the footage that inspired our nation’s largest-ever meat recall, I had to face my biggest why-aren’t-you-doing-this-already food problem–meat. I gave up vegetarianism a few years ago (for reasons I may get into later) and didn’t develop my meat-buying instincts while I was learning how to shop for myself. I’ve decided that I don’t want to be eating cows that are too sick to walk onto the killing floor, and will finally start choosing local meat when it becomes available at the farmer’s market.

Meanwhile, I am buying increasingly unprocessed cuts at the grocery store. Last week’s shopping trip saw the move from frozen, boneless, skinless chicken breasts to fresh, boned, skinned chicken thighs, and this week I bought a whole bird. I think I’m going to roast it, Thanksgiving-style. I might cut the next one up, depending on how that goes. My aversion to local meat in the past stemmed from the fact that I didn’t know how to handle an entire bird, or unground chuck, or what have you, so I’m going to be ready this year.

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