Day 18 – Compost Construction for City-Slickers

After 2+ weeks of saving my food scraps in a large Tupperware container, I finally got my act together and built a compost.  I decided to use a vermiculture compost (with worms, see my previous blog post) because it works well for city apartments.  I did an Amazon.com search and you can buy premade vermiculture composts anywhere from $90 to $200 but I used directions of Boston.gov’s website to build my own for under $15.

Step 1 – Buy the Materials:

I bought an 8-gallon Rubbermaid tub from a local hardware store for $10.

Step 2 – Measure and Drill Holes in Your Bin:

I then used a tape measure to mark out where I would drill air holes in the tub.  The air holes are to provide ventilation  so that the compost can “breathe”, many of the organisms require oxygen to do their thing.  I drilled 24 evenly spaced 1/4″ holes in the top and the bottom as well as 24 1/16″ holes on the two longer sides near the top.

Top

Bottom

Long Side

However, I got a little bit excited with the drill and the plastic material on the bottom cracked and broke in certain places so I had to tone it down a bit.

I will be putting this bin on top of a paint tray ($2) to catch any moisture that might come through the bottom.  This also enables airflow through the bottom.  Simply putting the bin flat on the floor or in the cupboard is not going to get the job done.

Step 3 – Acquire 1lb of Red Wriggler Worms:

I did some internet searching and believe it or not, it’s pretty hard to find Red Wriggler Worms for sale on the internet.  I tried calling a few local groups who sold them for $20/lb but I couldn’t reach any of them.  So I called Boston’s Waste Management group for advice.  They were super helpful and forwarded me to their composting guru Susan.  She composted in her city apartment using vermiculture for many years and then moved out of the city where she has been composting for almost 20 years.  She offered to give me some of her worms from her compost at home for free, awesome.  So I met up with her after work and she gave me this:

Red Wrigglers in a Trader Joe's Bag

Susan, you are the best, thanks again.  Sometimes local farmer’s markets sell worms or you can try and get them through Groundwork Somerville’s SoilCycle Program for $20 if you live in the area.

Step 4 – Prepare the Bedding:

Before you just add the worms, you need to shred a bunch of newspaper, get it moist and put it in the bottom of your bin.  I grabbed a stack of Metro papers from outside the T.

Cover Article - Top 10 Worst Public Bathrooms in Boston, I actually read the article, don't use the bathroom in the Public Library or any of the T-Stations, Government Center is ok. Just in case you were wondering :)

For an hour or so I ripped up newspaper and had way too much fun, this video more or less describes my experience.  Make sure the shredded pieces are wet (damp but not too dripping) and fill the bin up with about 6″ deep.

Step 5 – Add the Worms!

I then just dumped the worms on the top, put the lid back on, and let them chill out for an hour before adding your food scraps.  Worms don’t like the light so they’ll burrow down into the bedding.

Step 6 – Add the Food Scraps:

18 days worth of banana peels, apple cores, and veggie scraps that is soon to become worm food.

This was one of THE MOST foul smelling things I’ve experience in a long time.  I grew up playing hockey and I have rarely smelled anything worse than my gear with years of sweat caked onto it, but this was worse.  It smelled really strongly of vinegar and a few other horrid things I didn’t care to comprehend.  Lesson learned, build your compost before you start acquiring food scraps.

I knew ahead of time that the smell of this old food would be gnarly so in an attempt to keep the peace with my roommates I baked banana bread at the same time in hopes that the aroma of the banana bread would overpower that of the rotting food.  It worked like a charm and now I have banana bread, bonus!

Gently peel back the bedding so that you can bury the food scraps.  It is recommended to “generously” bury them with bedding which allegedly helps keep the smell down and the flies away (I’ll keep you posted).  Don’t be too rough because the worms are fragile, be nice to them.  I bought a small hand rake at CVS for $2 but you can also get a legit gardening tool from a local hardware store.

Then pile in the scraps:

Time to disinfect the hell out of this Tupperware.

And cover them with bedding:

They say you should visualize your bin as having 3 sections.  The first time, add your scraps to the 1/3rd one side of the bin.  The next month add your scraps to the middle 1/3, then the third month add your scraps to the far 1/3.  The worms will slowly move to the section where the food scraps are so by the 3rd or 4th month you’ll rich fertilizer at the end where you first placed your scraps.  Then you can plant flowers or vegetables (or marijuana as our building manager accused me of).

Step 7 – Cover it with Damp Cardboard and Put the Lid on it:

Lastly I cut out a piece of cardboard roughly the size of the bin’s opening, got it damp and placed it over the  bedding.  This is to help keep it moist as well as to keep the flies from noticing.

An old TV box from a previous roommate

Boo Styrofoam Packaging, but it can be recycled (#6) so I'm not throwing it away.

Step 8 – Place Box Somewhere Cool and Dark:

I put it in one of our cupboards under the counter.  Here’s the finished product:

I’ll keep you posted periodically throughout the next few weeks/months on how this project is going.  It might work great or it might be a huge disaster, I’m not sure yet so we’ll see.  Either way it was super cheap and super easy to do.  After buying the materials it really only took me a couple of hours after work.  I designated a Tupperware specifically for food scraps and put it on top of the microwave and every week I’ll add it to the compost.   Maybe in a few months around Christmas I’ll give away some flowers with my new worm poo fertilizer so be nice to me if you want one.

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9 thoughts on “Day 18 – Compost Construction for City-Slickers

  1. loved this post, Mike. i laughed to myself at my desk like an idiot the whole time AND learned things. congrats on getting everything set up!

  2. I’m surprised you used damp newspaper instead of potting soil or some other kind of dirt for the bedding. Do yo know why this is? I would think soil would keep the worms happier/healthier and cover the smells better than the newspaper.

    • From what I read it seems that newspaper is used as the bedding material because it holds moisture well, it provides good circulation of air because it’s fluffy, and worms readily eat it. The airflow helps things compost faster than they would if they were buried in soil (more dense than the newspaper bedding). Using soil is better for outdoor composts because you’re connected to the ground anyway. All of the vermiculture compost directions I found were all newspaper or cardboard. Other things people use are corrugated cardboard (also holds moisture well and is yummy to worms), mix in some peat moss (holds moisture but no real nutrients to the worm), old decaying leaves, and a handful of soil (helps the worms digest).

  3. So far it’s been roughly two months since I started my vermiculture compost. I’d say it’s been going very well; no smell at all, super easy to use, low maintenance, and there’s a plethera of good worm poop (although I’ll wait another month or so before I use any of it). However, today when I went to bury my food scraps I realized that I haven’t been using enough bedding (ripped moist newspaper). Also, my bin was too moist. This was evidenced by the worms trying to crawl out of the bin as well as kind of a sour smell and some fruit flies. So I did some researching online and found this helpful site among many others:

    http://www.vermicompost.net/worm-composting/vermicomposting-mistakes.aspx

    Basically you want your bedding to be wet, but wrung out like a damp sponge. If it is too wet, as is common with rubbermaid bins like mine, you simply add some dry ripped up newspaper to absorb the moisture. Overly wet bins can lead to fruit flies. Also if you don’t have enough bedding then the fruit/veggies that are exposed are easily found by fruit flies, so make sure the food is covered with plenty of bedding. Also, your bin should be 3/4 filled with bedding, mine was only about 1/4 full so I’m going to add a bit of dry bedding and check it next week. If this bedding has absorbed some of the moisture I’ll fill it up to 3/4 with bedding. Wish me luck :)

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    • Hi Eddie, I’m still using the composting bin however, one thing I didn’t plan for very well was what I would do with the compost once I had it. Sounds silly but it’s much easier to create compost than it is to actually use it. So now I have A TON of compost but not many opportunities to make use of it. There are a few community gardens in the area so I’ve thought about trading compost for occasional veggies.