I believe personal food production is the simplest path to freedom.
Unfortunately, my current lifestyle is far, far away from being able to produce my own food. My dream lifestyle would be to live on a homestead and work in the city, but the true cost of commuting is obscene, and honestly living in the city is wildly fun and convenient. So for now, I'm a city boy looking for ways to get my hands in the dirt.
Years ago I asked myself what I could do to keep the self-sufficiency dream alive while saving up for my homesteading mid-life crisis, and my vermicomposting hobby turned out to be one of the easiest and most rewarding ways I stay connected to nature while still living in small city spaces.
I acknowledge this is a long article, but I wanted to put all of my thoughts in one place rather than spreading them out among several less-coherently-joined articles.
So, here's a table of contents to help you pick what you're interested in:
- Why Vermicompost? - We already have unparallelled access to how to do something - why is far more interesting.
- Lessons Learned - some observations you won't find from other sources (or at least I didn't)
- FAQ - I get a lot of the some questions when I tell people I keep a compost bin in my small apartments
- A Call to Action - Get worms! Get worms now!
Personal food production starts with good soil, good soil starts with good compost, and some of the best compost in the world is worm castings (worm poop).
It's on par with concentrated fertilizer; "black gold," as one company brands it.
I feed mine coffee grounds, lettuce, bread (small amounts), ground eggshells, junk mail, and just about everything you could put in a salad, all from a wide variety of sources. Variety is the key to good compost, and I would be surprised if you could manage similar variety at a production scale.
Also, the voracious Red Wigglers used in this type of composting system seriously put away the produce.
They'll turn a weeks' worth of veggie scraps, coffee grounds, egg shells, and junk mail into soil in a 2-foot cube, week after week. Worms can put away a half pound of produce per pound of worms, and a pound of worms is what you start with when you're getting set up. In my mature bin, handfuls of scraps go in and a week later it's dirt.
On a responsibility scale of goldfish to goldendoodle, they're at less than goldfish.
You should feed them weekly, but I've gone as long as a month without feeding them (after completely filling the bin) and they were totally OK. Other chores: once a month I shred junk mail, once every three months I rotate the bins, and once a year I save & grind some eggshells. All "chores" the 5-year-old in me loves, by the way.
Finally, compared to purchasing castings, my back-of-the-napkin estimate is you generate the equivalent of $40-$160/yr by keeping your own worms.
You can buy worm castings just about anywhere; Amazon sells good stuff with Prime shipping - the "Wiggle Worm" brand at $40 per cubic foot (a 30lb bag is roughly 1 cubic foot). Each Worm Factory tray holds about 2ft x 2ft x ~1in (1/3 cubic foot) when it is ready to harvest, I harvest maybe 2-4x per year, and the manufacturer claims as much as one harvest per month.
So, since I feed my worms maybe a couple salads' worth of scrap veggies/coffee/etc per week, I personally expect about 1 cubic foot per year, so $40/year on a pure dollar-value basis. The manufacturer would claim up to $160/year (4 cubic feet per year), and I'll believe this.
Why Not to Vermicompost?
I think cost and space are really non-issues, as detailed above, so what might be stopping you?
Do you think composting and worms are cool, or gross?
Take a look at this image of my worms eating an apple (I turned it over so you could see them, they eat stuff bottom-up) - does it totally gross you out?
By my experience, most people think the worms are cool but don't really want to mess with them without gloves, which is understandable.
Personally, I still have the attitude of a small child when it comes to playing with dirt and worms, so I love worm time!
Another minority of people seem grossed out by worms and compost bins, so if this is you, putting them under your counter might not be the best idea. Do some soul-searching with the above image.
Which camp are you in? Still with me?
Note they tend to stay just under the surface, so for the most part you're not interacting with them, but you will have to when you rotate the bins.
When first getting started I read lots of material, including "Worms Eat My Garbage," and this post is no substitute for a great resource like that. I still learned a lot about what matters after actually having apartment worms, though:
Always cover compost with shredded paper
A couple inches of shredded paper, wall-to-wall, keeps everything aerated while also somehow discouraging flies (including fruit flies). I'm not sure why, you'd think they'd just crawl through the paper anyways, but it works. Neglecting this doesn't guarantee an "Attack of the Fruit Flies" scenario, in fact you'll probably be fine (my bin is currently low on paper), but maintaining coverage is the top preventative measure I'd recommend if you're worried about keeping flying pests from settling in.
A hidden cost: the paper shredder
In the wild, Red Wigglers hang out in piles of dead leaves and eat fallen fruit. So, in the simulated leaf pile under your sink, half their diet should be high-carbon materials like shredded paper, and the other half should be the table scraps and such you're looking to get rid of.
I tried shredding paper by hand, then "upgraded" to a hand-cranked paper shredder, and eventually went all-in on an office grade shredder. It's actually a nice thing to have anyways for ID theft security, but I wouldn't keep one in my apartment just for that.
As an unexpected benefit, I do love turning advertisers' junk into part of my food chain! Well, the non-glossy junk.
If you don't want a shredder, I've since noticed how offices generate piles and piles of shredded paper, so you could repurpose that too. A garbage bag of shredded paper should last a couple months, so I wouldn't think it'd be too much of a hassle to coordinate.
When I was first getting started, my worm bin was inaccessible without taking it out of the cabinet, and taking it out was a mild chore since you had to reach in and grab it from the worst lifting posture imaginable. So, I got a separate countertop compost pale to keep scraps in while I was mustering the will to dice them for the worm bin. Even though this was a purpose-built bin with a fully seal-able top and a carbon filter, fruit flies would still hatch (they come in the skin of some fruit) and the whole thing would turn in to a fruit fly bomb. It was pretty gross.
It turns out, if you add veggies to the compost bin immediately, for whatever reason fruit flies aren't a problem. Maybe the eggs don't hatch, or the flies don't come out past the shredded paper, or they get eaten by bacteria or something. Oh well, I'll take it! I haven't had any fruit fly issues after making access to my worm bin more convenient, therefore obviating the desire for my countertop pale.
Vermicomposting self-manages, so don't be a hover composter
Quick & easy compost disposal is one of the major benefits of an under-the-sink Worm Factory, so don't lose that benefit by making things harder than they need to be by pampering your bin.
I initially had the impression you needed to run a really tight worm-ship, involving pre-chopping, moisture management, strategic food placement, mold removal, etc or else Bad Things Will Happen in your compost bin.
Fast forward four years. Due to eventual lack of time and patience, I've let all of that go, and everything's fine. I've seen moulds come and go. I've had smells come and go. I've thrown in half-rotten and moldy fruit and watched it disappear, and I place scraps wherever seems to be room and it all gets eaten. At least for reasonable deviations, the system is flexible and can take care of itself.
I don't mean to encourage neglect, but I do mean to encourage giving vermicomposting a try, and it's easier than the literature might make you think. I originally expected it would be more like managing a fish tank (for the uninitiated, small fish tanks can be a huge hassle), but in reality it mostly just works.
FAQ / Common Questions
It's fun to tell people I keep worms in my apartment, and I get a lot of the same questions:
Q: Does it smell?
Practically, never; technically, sometimes.
It has never made my kitchen or apartment smell, and I currently live in ~350 square feet, so I'd know if it did.
However, if you opened up the cabinets and stuck your nose in the worm bin, the smell would range from (ideally) mountain plains after a fresh rain to (less ideally) a bit of a barn smell.
Smelly food is due to anaerobic decomposition. For example, when you or a loved one leaves a Tupperware experiment sealed in the fridge, the impending smell-tastrophe is entirely the result of anaerobic microbes breaking down last months' dinner in an oxygen-less environment.
Aerobic decomposition doesn't smell, and one major purpose of the worms is to aerate the soil, resulting in efficient and odorless decomposition with an accompanying "fresh soil" scent.
I'll admit, my bin is usually a bit off of the mountain plains standard, presumably due to small, temporary pockets of anaerobic decomposition resulting from large clumps of food or too much food at once. I don't notice it unless I look, and it fixes itself over time, so in my book it's not actually a problem worth solving.
Q: Can they escape?
An environment like the Worm Factory provides them a close replica of their natural environment, plus they don't last long on dry surfaces, so I think it's safe to say they'll either be in the worm bin, or nowhere at all.
I've read that some worms might try to leave the bin if the conditions are really dire, but it'd be a last-ditch effort to run for their little wormy lives.
Q: What can you feed them?
It's a common question, so it deserves to be called out in my FAQ, but I won't get too detailed since all bins come with comprehensive feeding instructions.
Anything that might go into a salad other than dressing and meat.
A Call to Action
The world badly needs good soil, and people living in cities badly need to be more connected to their food cycle. I can think of no simpler way than a worm bin.
Then, after it's set up, you can find Red Wigglers in your local hardware store, oddly enough. If you're thinking of ordering worms online, use your own judgment as to whether it seems safe for the worms. All the one-star reviews for "Uncle Jim's" worms were from June 2011, which was just a couple months before I started composting, so I didn't buy online. At the moment it seems like all the reviews are positive, so it's probably fine, just pay more attention than usual to where exactly your purchase is coming from.
And if you do end up setting something up, let me know! That fuels my blogging habit too.