Saturday, December 4, 2010

Behold this compost!

Behold it well.

That's what Walt Whitman said, and I know where he was coming from. For the past two years, I've been the steward of roughly 5000 worm souls living peacefully together in a standard-size rubbermaid storage bin in my house. The amazing part is that they transform about a gallon of food scraps into pure, rich, wonderful dirt in only about 3 weeks. And they do it without any unpleasant smell at all! (We even had it in our kitchen for a while.) In fact, it is actually pleasant. If you put your nose right up to it, you are rewarded with the nice fresh aroma of rich soil.

We collect our food scraps in a gallon-sized bowl: egg shells, coffee grinds, banana peels, carrot tops, and the like. At the end of the week I take the bowl, which is usually full, and bring it down to feed the worms. I dig a trench in the dirt, dump it in, and cover it up. I rotate the spot each week: one week I dig in the left side of the worm bin, then the middle, then the right side. By the time I get back to the left again (3 weeks later) everything is just about gone, replaced by clean dirt. "What chemistry!" as Whitman said.

There are some tricks to good worm husbandry, of course. If you get the wormery too wet, things get bad. A little bit too much, and the worms climb up the sides. Way too much and everything dies, rots, and gets smelly. Leaving the cover off helps let water evaporate, and the light scares most of the worms down below. It also scares away other (harmless) creatures such as mites that can reach insane population densities (though I haven't had that "problem" for a while).

I only add water when it looks really dry - about 2 cups every couple of months. The decomposing vegetable juices keep it nice and moist on their own. If you see lots of worms crawling up the sides, lots of mites, or any water dripping out the bottom, you know you are adding too much water. Add some newspaper shreds to the mix to dry it out. Newspaper is good to add periodically anyway as it is a carbon source. If you drink a lot of coffee, grounds work well for this, too.

The finished product, after it is screened with 1/8 inch wire mesh and frozen for a week (to kill worm eggs), makes a fine and nourishing potting soil, straight up or mixed.

From "Leaves of Grass":

O how can it be that the ground does not sicken?
How can you be alive, you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health, you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?

Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations;
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day—or perhaps I am deceiv’d;
I will run a furrow with my plough—I will press my spade through the sod, and turn it up underneath;
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.

Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person—Yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noislessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings, while the she-birds sit on their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,
The new-born of animals appear—the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk—the lilacs bloom in the door-yards;
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.

What chemistry!
That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea, which is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever.
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,
That the fruits of the apple-orchard, and of the orange-orchard—that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will none of them poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.

Now I am terrified at the Earth! it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.

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