Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Compost Chronicles: Worm Bin Crisis

I have two vermicomposters in my house: one is a large converted rubbermade bin in the back-door vestibule and one is a 5-gallon bucket with a lid converted, rather hastily, into a vermicomposter; I keep the latter in the cabinet next to my garbage can. I also use a 5 quart ice cream bucket as a "transitional bin" to keep my compost materials (coffee grounds, vegetable scraps); I put kitchen scraps in the ice cream bucket and then once a week I dump that bucket into one of the vemicomposters or, if both containers contain too much material, into my backyard compost bin.

I admit that, given the small size of the 5-gallon vermicomposter and the ease with which it becomes too full, I've let it sit (read: neglected it) for the last couple of weeks, thinking it would be good to let the contents decompose in peace before touching it again. The last time I filled it with waste, I'd added an old bag of moldy oranges; since this was a pretty big load for the small bin, I covered the oranges with shredded newspaper and left it alone.

Oops. Today I opened it up to retrieve some compost (I'm making compost tea with cheese cloth, twine, compost and a sun-tea pitcher, but I'll have to save that for another post) and it was nasty -- juicy, jet black, and putrid smelling. Think dirty diaper after baby has consumed mass quantities of blueberries. Although the worms are still slithering around happily, I'm upset about this, as I just read in the book Toolbox for Sustainable City Living that this kind of smelly scene is an indication that the compost is too wet and nitrogen-rich, which can cause the compost to become anaerobic, creating alcohol. This is good if you're a home brewer, but bad if you're trying to grow healthy compost.

In my uneducated attempt to remedy this situation, I took a long spoon and stirred up the stuff to aerate the bin's contents, then added shredded newspaper (I manually "shredded" a whole issue of the Shepherd Express with scissors to accomplish this). I also added the contents of a planter with a seeds that didn't sprout, some ripped-up paper egg cartons (to absorb some of the liquid) and a few handfuls of seed starter mix and sphagnum peat moss. I wanted to add dead leaves from my yard, but it's raining, and the last thing I want to do is add more liquid to this compost sludge. When I replaced it in the cabinet, I left the lid loose, to keep the air flowing.

So then I went to my rubbermaid vermicomposter to see if I could obtain a big spoonful of finished compost to make compost tea. This bin was disturbingly close to becoming anaerobic, as it was a little too moist and the compost was a little too black. I did manage to dig deep and find some semi-finished compost, but the bin needed some aerating, so I stirred it up and, when finished, sprinkled a generous amount of sphagnun peat moss (with a little seed start mix thrown in) to the top to cover up the smelly unfinished compost.

The silver lining in this dark compost cloud is that I've learned two valuable composting lessons. I need to aerate my vermicomposters more often and I need to avoid overloading them with nitrogen-rich materials. Instead of just letting them sit with an inch of shredded newspaper atop for days or even weeks at a time, I will probably have to check the bins daily, stir them up, and maybe add some more carbon-rich matter (the dry, brown stuff). Live and learn!


  1. oh sista!
    i'm growing weary of the VCB. I don't know how much longer I can take it. I might not be this hard core. I need to order my outdoor one.
    And with that, I need to go stir my bin. ick.
    I'm trying...

  2. I'm with you. I am going to keep trying to figure it out, but if I don't figure it out soon, I may be shifting my focus to my old fashioned compost bin, too.

    Are you in the market for a bin? Steve and my father-in-law are making mine. If it goes well, we could use the same plans to help you make yours. Or perhaps Dad Zydek can make one for you. Let me know if that interests you...

    It's hilarious that you said "oh sista!" Are you imitating my sister Shannon? lol.