How to Get Used to Composting with Worms

One of the common objections that people have to vermicomposting at home is that worms are gross—they belong in the ground, not indoors anywhere near the vintage furniture. Or the human body, for that matter. Now keep in mind that I'm the kind of guy who avoids germs by opening doors with paper towels. Though I was eager to begin vermicomposting chez moi, I was paranoid that I could contract some kind of weird virus-from-the-Underneath by handling the worms. Other folks who I've talked with have had similar issues.

Though these concerns are completely unfounded, I would nevertheless put a plastic bag on my hand whenever I added food scraps or sorted through the bin, thereby shielding myself from imagined vermiviruses. Then, one Saturday afternoon, I opened up the bin to see how the worms were spending their weekend, and something shifted. Overcoming my hypochondria, I began digging through the compost with my hands in direct contact with the castings, the worms, and the other critters.

The experience led to what I can only describe as a kind of trance, where the universe of the worm composting bin became the object of an over hour-long meditation. I think what struck me at first was the texture of the compost. In addition to its earthy smell, it has a sublime crumbly quality that exudes its life-giving potential. And there was something restorative and almost mythic about holding a handful of soil—a rare thing for this city dweller.

So I began to burrow into wormworld, turning the compost-in-progress to see what was happening underneath the newspaper bedding. I went on a scavenger hunt for worm cocoons, the seed-sized eggs the worms produce, and I dug through the bin to see what this band of soil dwellers was snacking on. Looking closely at them, I could see their blood vessels as well as the castings moving through their bodies.

By getting a tactile impression of the compost, you can also gain a better sense of its moisture content. The old composting adage goes that a worm bin should be only as wet as a wrung-out sponge. In practical terms, this means that if you squeeze the compost and water comes out, it's too wet. To dry out a system, you can add more carbon-heavy materials or draw off the water from the bin.

Thanks to my compost bin dhyana, I'm no longer paranoid about worm germs. If anything, I find the red wigglers more fascinating than ever. I've mentioned some facts about them before, but a few more gems: They can live in your bin for seven years (in nature for three or four years). Considering that the mating process of these hermaphroditic creatures can last several hours—and the fact that their castings are so good for plants—it seems to me that the worms have found an ideal balance of living and creating life. They're veritable founts of fertility.

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