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Reaching into my little compost pail. On the right is the cardboard lid I made and punched a few air holes in.

My family has composted as far back as I can remember. We had this bland old plastic jug, probably once used to store juice in the fridge, which we lined with a paper towel and filled with food waste: egg shells, apple cores, banana peels, vegetable remains. Then when it was full someone would have the unpopular chore of taking it outside and dumping it in the designated area. We always had a pile there, which we would mix with grass clippings and old leaves and would occasionally rake over to mix up the ingredients. Then when it came time to try growing vegetables in the spring we’d spread some of the dark dirt from the bottom of the pile into our small garden.

Most of my friends didn’t have compost but I was probably in high school before I noticed this. Compost was just a normal part of life for me, and while sometimes our jar in the kitchen smelled a little bad, it was nothing worse than the regular trash can.

If you are one of those “normal” people who grew up only using a trashcan and can’t comprehend compost, composting is great for gardening, and much better for the environment that packaging your waste in plastic and sending it off either to sit in a landfill or be incinerated. I think it’s unsurprising that Story of Stuff creator Annie Leonard became interested in trash when she was living in New York city; when people are packed into tight spaces you can see up close how much waste we all produce. Although most people don’t have space to compost outdoors in cities, they do have space for vermicomposting.

In 2011 I attended one of New York’s composting workshops to find out what the deal was with vermicomposting. This is a nicer way of saying “composting with worms.” The workshop was great, but I wasn’t ready to jump right in. I sat on the idea for awhile, and then one day I ended up discussing worm bins with my officemate and realized she was really interested in them too. We decided to go for it. She got the worms and the tub (they sell large plastic shoebox-like tubs with holes punched in them) at the Union Square Farmer’s Market. We went to the park and set it up, and then I kept it at home for awhile while we got it going. Keeping the moisture level right is essential. We were pretty worried about what would happen if it didn’t work out, though we said we could always just dump out the contents behind a tree in the park and walk away if things got out of hand. From the mistakes we made I soon realized we didn’t need to worry too much. Early on I made it too moist and the worms tried to get away by crawling out the holes. I discovered things that looked like twigs outside the box a few days later — it turns out worms, like vampires who die in daylight, can’t exist outside of a dark, wet environment. They just dry up. So while I felt bad several of them died, it wasn’t like they were going to crawl out and take over my apartment — they died close by the bin. Eventually I carried the large box to work (it’s a very awkward size for the subway, though it does fit perfectly inside an IKEA bag) and we kept it under a desk, adding apple cores and my ridiculously large stash of pistachio shells (apple cores are like worm candy, but pistachio shells take years to break down). We neglected it a bit after awhile, and eventually noticed it smelled like a forest. It was a pretty nice smell, but when you lifted the lid there certainly was that foresty smell that hadn’t been there before. We also hadn’t seen any worms in weeks. At some point we combed through carefully and it turned out it must have been too dry and the worms had died off. My officemate bought more worms and we started again.

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A picture of our compost my officemate took. You can see the blue IKEA bag showing through the bottom, and leaves we mixed in from the park. Look at those healthy worms!

When I moved to Tokyo I figured my vermicomposting days were behind me, at least for now. Where would I find red wigglers here? Then I discovered another teacher I worked with kept vermicompost in her classroom, leftover from a teacher several years previous who had ordered the red wigglers and had compost set up school-wide. I tried to do the same on a smaller scale but it takes a lot of buy-in from everyone to really make it work. It’s probably not the best project to undertake your first year. So we kept it in the classroom, but didn’t interact much with the worms, and now I’ve taken what was left of them home. I bought a little red gardening container with preformed holes at the bottom and an attached dish for drainage from Franc Franc. I didn’t think my husband would be pleased if the worms took up a lot of space in our little apartment. Then I put a little newspaper in the bottom, the worms and their “dirt” in, along with apple cores and tea bags. Now I just put some scraps in whenever I think about it; usually once a week. It’s been really moist lately.

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I put a lot of dry onion scraps in as brown matter this time, instead of leaves.

It’s small enough it can’t take all of our kitchen scraps. You never want to have excess plant matter sitting on top for long periods of time — it can mold. Some potential contributions, like bananas, I don’t like to put in anyway because I think it’s more likely to breed fruit flies (though there’s a dearth of fruit flies in Japan. Do they spray more or something?) and others, like onion, really should be going into the freezer for making stock. But I like creating fertilizer for my lonely plant and having something living in my cupboard. It’s nice to keep in the practice of composting, no matter how small the scale.

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Healthy, happy worms.

Do you compost? Any tips for me?

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It fits easily in our cupboard. I turn my glove inside out so as not to get dirt all over.

 

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