I feel a twinge of guilt every time I put compostable stuff in the normal trash, so I'm really glad that I don't have to do that anymore! Before I learned more about how landfills and biodegradable materials work, I thought that organic matter and compostable items would just break down on their own if I put them in the regular trash. For the most part, that's not the case.
I used to think composting was just for hippies, but now that I've learned more about it, I think everyone should try it. It is a bit of work, but it cuts down the amount of trash you have, provides you with good compost for your plants, and is good for the environment. In this post, I'll give a step by step guide for those who are wondering how you can compost easily (or at least fairly easily) indoors using redworms.
Step One: Set up a home for the worms.
For me, the number one reason why I use this system is to avoid fungus gnat and fruit fly infestations. If you live in a climate where you can keep your worms outside or on a porch/balcony, that's no problem, but since I keep my worms in the kitchen, I am extremely fastidious about keeping other unwanted pests out of the worm environment.
We started out composting with a DIY worm bin made from a big Rubbermaid box with little holes drilled in to allow oxygen in. It was impossible to keep gnats out of it, even when I tried taping a mosquito net around it. Since I bought a Worm Inn, I have way fewer problems with adult gnats/flies finding their way inside. They might land on the outside and try to find a way, but it's really difficult for them to actually get in, especially because I tie the bottom of the Worm Inn really tight by double wrapping and knotting it. Any extra liquid is able to seep out still, but the gnats/flies can't seem to get in. The top of the Worm Inn is essentially made of mosquito net type of material with a zipper that seems secure enough that they cannot get in that way easily either. It sounds like the new Urban Worm Bag is made even more secure than the Worm Inn. I just might put one of the Urban Worm Bags on my Christmas list this year :)
If you're in China and don't want to pay or wait for shipping from the U.S., there are a couple of worm systems I found on Taobao that look okay. They won't be as breathable as the Worm Inn or Urban Worm Bag, and I can't really speak to whether they will be effective at keeping gnats/flies out, but they do look like they would be more effective than my old DIY Rubbermaid worm system.
Once you have a worm home, the first step before adding worms will be to add a small layer of "brown" material to the bottom of the system. This will give some cushion and hiding spaces to your worms and also helps to begin a healthy composting environment. A good compost system needs a mix of "green" materials and "brown" materials. The shredded cardboard (and newspaper or other non-glossy paper) are brown materials. Do NOT add any of your green materials yet until you get your worms. Without the worms there to begin eating, your worm home isn't ready yet for green materials and moisture. It will just attract pests.
Step Two: Prepare some food scraps.
The eggs of fungus gnats and fruit flies are so tiny that you can't see them; it's probable that most fruit and vegetable peels have some microscopic eggs on them. To solve this problem, I freeze my fruit and veggie scraps for at least 48 hours before adding them to the Worm Inn. This has proven very effective in killing off the eggs.
(Bonus tip: I also use this method with rice, flour, and even noodles. As soon as I buy a bag of grains, I stick it in the freezer for at least a few days to kill off any eggs. Before I did this, we would often get outbreaks of weevils or drugstore beetles in our grains. When the bag was first opened, no problem, but after about a month, the weevils would be everywhere in the bag. They also have microscopic eggs, so the bag appears to be bug-free at first, but once the eggs start hatching and they lay even more eggs, they multiply super fast! Since I started freezing our bags of grain for a few days before putting them in our airtight containers outside of the freezer, we have had zero weevil or drugstore beetle outbreaks, even in Qingdao. So, whether you want to compost inside your house or just protect your grains, I highly recommend freezing for a few days first to kill off any eggs.)
So, even though your worms haven't arrived yet (so you shouldn't actually add any food scraps to your worm home yet), you should start preparing those food scraps by freezing them. This will ensure that your scraps are egg free by the time the worms arrive and you want to add the "green" items to the worm home.
I usually have two ziploc bags full of frozen scraps at a time in the bottom part of my freezer. This allows me to pull from one that has had all frozen scraps for 48 hours or more while I can add more recent scraps to the other bag.
Worms can process most of your kitchen scraps, but there are some things to avoid. Here is a helpful list of dos and don'ts:
Step Three: Get some worms.
The first time I bought worms, I looked on Craigslist in the U.S., but nowadays, there are tons of websites that sell them. Just do a Google search to find a place that ships to your country. Be sure to order worms that can compost. Typical earthworms (nightcrawlers) cannot eat kitchen scraps.
If you're in China, most likely, you're familiar with Taobao, and that is where I've always ordered my worms in China. I recommend that you tell Taobao to limit the search to your city or province so that the worms don't have far to travel before coming to you. Sellers should ship the worms to you in a little box/container that has small holes cut into it so that the worms can breathe. I ordered my most recent batch of worms from this store since it's near Tianjin. This seller does ship to other areas in China but to minimize the stress on your worms and to ensure that most or all of the worms arrive alive and well, if you live far from Tianjin, try to find the same type of worms from a seller that is closer to your area. (My worms arrived about 10 hours after I placed my order, and all of my worms arrived alive and well.)
Whatever country you are in, don't get worms shipped during a very hot season. I waited until temperatures were in the low 80s F (around 26 C) until I placed my order because I knew it would be hard on the worms to come even a short distance in the 90-100 degree heat we had been having for most of the summer.
Step Four: Make a smoothie.
If the frozen scraps are just put directly into the Worm Inn, it takes a lot longer for them to break down into a form that the worms can eat. Worms don't have teeth, as I'm sure you know, so they can't just take a bite out of a banana peel. They have to wait until the peel breaks down enough on its own to start seeping into their little worm bodies. This process goes way faster if the peels and scraps are blended into smaller pieces and a somewhat liquid form. The worms can start to eat this almost immediately, or at least within a day or so. This means you can feed them more often and get compost more quickly, but also not have big chunks of food sitting around in the Worm Inn wafting tantalizing smells toward fungus gnats and fruit flies, just begging them to find a way in.
When you've got your smoothie ready to pour in, again, be careful to quickly open and close your worm home so that little flying insects don't get in.
One other idea to help keep smells from attracting gnats/flies is to make sure you always cover a fresh batch of worm smoothie with a thick layer of shredded cardboard and paper.
After I cover the scraps with paper, I add a tiny bit of water to the paper just to keep the Worm Inn from getting too dry. Worms must have enough moisture to survive, as I've learned the hard way a couple of times. However, if the worm environment is too wet, it will definitely be more likely to attract pests, and it will get more moldy than you might be comfortable with.
To catch any excess water run off when I'm adding smoothies/water to the Worm Inn, I keep a little plastic container under the Worm Inn. After about 20 minutes, I empty out any run-off to make sure it doesn't attract insects.
Step Five: Clean your worms. (Optional)
First, since I've had a couple of bad fly/gnat infestations, I'm paranoid about keeping them out of my Worm Inn. Once they get in, you basically have to re-do the whole system to get rid of them. I have tried everything else to get rid of an infestation, and cleaning out the whole Worm Inn by hand (super messy and time-consuming) is the only way that works. The best way is to keep them out in the first place.
When worms arrive, they arrive in a little pile of compost/dirt that most likely has other organisms in it, possibly including eggs from gnats/flies. When my most recent batch of worms arrived, I could see tons of little white mites crawling all over the worms. They're not bad for the worms, and actually, most of these little organisms help with the composting process. But I'm not taking any chances that there are also gnat/fly larvae or eggs mixed in with them.
So, that's the primary reason that I hand-wash every single one of my little worms after I first get them before putting them in the Worm Inn.
The second reason I do it is that I feel like it helps me bond to them. This is probably way too sentimental for the average vermicomposter, but I do appreciate my little wormies, and I like the experience of holding them and cleaning them off when they first arrive. (They, however, do not enjoy this experience at all!) I don't do anything too extreme like name them or anything (in a small batch of worms, there are still probably 100 or so worms!) but I like to see that they're healthy and mobile before I add them to my Worm Inn, where, if all goes well, I never see most of them again.
If you're creeped out by worms, know that a healthy worm system will keep worms in it forever. The worms hate sunlight and being exposed to the open. They love to snuggle in their warm, dark home and are happiest when they don't have to encounter anything outside of their environment. The ultimate introvert pet!
Even though I do like getting the chance to check up on them by hand before they go into the Worm Inn, I can tell that they are totally ready to get in the Worm Inn and away from me, so I try to get them in their home as soon as possible after rinsing off any possible pest contaminants.
One other thing I should note here, if you find any small light brown round "shells" as you're cleaning your worms, save them and add these to your Worm Inn. They are worm cocoons, and a tiny baby worm is inside! These are definitely easy to distinguish from any pest eggs. They are very visible, about the size of a grain of millet or quinoa, a light brown color, and kind of sticky. Although they don't have any residue that comes from them, if you just lightly touch them, they will softly adhere to you, so they're easy to rescue and add to the Worm Inn.
If your worm system starts to smell moldy, that means you are probably adding too much food/water for your worms to handle and should cut back, or you might be adding unhealthy things to the system (see the Dos/Don'ts list above). Your worm system shouldn't have a strong smell - just a little earthy, like soil.
If your worms try to come out, it likely means their home is too dry. This happened to us about a week after we first started vermicomposting. I hadn't gotten the hang of how wet/dry the system should be, so I hadn't added enough water to the "brown" layers, and then we went out of town for the weekend. When we came back, there was a mass exodus of worms slowly crawling away from the worm bin in search of water :( Fortunately, we managed to rescue some of them in time. If you ever see worms leaving their home, you know there's a problem!
After a few months of composting, you should be ready to harvest a little bit of compost from the bottom of your worm bin.