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A 21st Century garbage can: seeking the ideal vermicomposter

When the golf-loving gated-community-living mother of a friend of mine told me she had worms at a ladies tea, I knew that vermicomposting was no longer underground (see video Black gold: high rent worm composting). This was a couple years ago and since I’ve only heard more stories about how wonderful it is to let worms eat your garbage. 

Yet, still I waited to become a worm-owner. It wasn’t so easy as simply visiting a pet store. Where was I supposed to buy my worms? I stopped by a nursery (the garden variety, not a daycare) and they suggested a fishing supply store. But Barcelona is no fishing village and I had no idea where to go for bait, or whether it would work in a worm bin.

The supremacy of red worms

I considered waiting for a rainy day and collecting a handful from the wet sidewalks in my in-laws suburb, but I’d read that you needed lots of worms and I wasn’t sure I could collect enough without arousing suspicion (vermicomposting still isn’t big here) and even if I could, I wasn’t sure about carrying a bucketful on the train.

Later, my former roommate and now Master Composter Sarah explained that garden worms don’t work well as composters: they don’t eat enough garbage, they don’t reproduce fast enough and they don’t survive that well in a worm bin.

Actually, of the 3000 known earth worms, the primary species recommended for a worm bin are red wigglers: technically Eisenia foetida or Eisenia andrei, but also known as red hybrids, manure worms, striped worms, fish worms. 

Initially, Sarah offered to ship me some of her own backyard stash from New York. Since these guys reproduce so fast- breeders can lay 2 or 3 cocoons per week (filled with 2 or 3 worms)- her population would recover quickly, but we both decided it was unlikely that this was very legal without some massive amount of paperwork.

A DIY “veg box” worm bin

Finally, thanks to the Internet, I found a local supplier who for 30 euros ($40) would send me 1000 red worms, plenty for a family like ours. Now I needed to make a home for them. I knew that I could make my own worm bin with two large plastic storage containers, but I wanted to try to do it cheap and recycled.

When I told my brother-in-law, a veteran vermicomposter who goes by the title Wormer (at least on our site), about my housing issue, he suggested I use “veg boxes”. This led to several emails clearing up that this is Australian for “polystyrene containers (what I only know as Styrofoam) usually used to deliver produce to market (whether supermarkets or farmers markets, I’m not sure)”. 

I soon discovered that here in Spain, they use wooden boxes for packing produce; Styrofoam is reserved for fish. I was ready to pick up a couple empty containers outside the fish market one day, until I noticed someone hosing them off to be re-used: good for the environment, bad for my cheap/recycled idea.

Making composters an essential appliance

I heard about a guy who had started a company selling composters here in Catalonia. I decided to email him and ask if I could stop by with my camera. A couple months later- I had my second child during the delay-, my husband and I arrived at his warehouse with our newborn dangling in her cloth pouch.

While home composting is only just starting to be talked about among the younger generations (and for the older generations it’s not such a stylish hobby: my mother-in-law does it with plastic bags tucked behind the henhouse), Eugeni Castejón is in his early 30s and his composters are trendy. He showed us one model – the ComBox Barcelona – that sports the distinctive flower pattern from Barcelona’s sidewalks (he’s marketing this one abroad since Barcelona the brand sells these days). 

Castejón started his company in 2002 and was so early in the modern Spanish composting game that he snagged the domain name compostadores.com (compostadores translates to composter). His goal is to make composters as commonplace as a garbage can, and as stylish as a Smeg applicance. He’s off to a good start. Today, he runs a company of about 20 and sells 10,000 composters per year. 

I liked that his proprietary composters were made from recycled material, but they don’t involve worms so I wasn’t sure about leaving one on our terrace filled with organic waste (though he sent one home with us and we’ve been using it for garden trimmings, which has been problem-free). 

A vermicomposter from Down Under

Thankfully, as I panned his warehouse with my camera, I recognized the Can-O-Worms composters stacked to the ceiling in a back corner. This is what my brother-in-law The Wormer uses (see video The Wormer, his Can-O-Worms and worm pee) as well as my brother Tyson (he’s married to an Australian and this is an Aussie brand). 

I wanted something tested-by-family since recently my Seattle sister Jennifer had had problems with another commercial brand of worm bin. Granted she doesn’t know much about vermicomposting and I doubt she buries her waste beneath the worm castings as recommended, but her bin developed a fruit fly problem last summer. 

Instead of finding a solution to deal with the pests, she simply let the season change and one day emailed me upset that the first freeze of winter had frozen the entire bin, crawlers and all. We both thought her days of vermicomposting had come to an abrupt end, but several days later there was a thaw and when she lifted the lid of her worm bin she found that the worms had come back to life. Maybe this is what they mean when they say that red worms are hardy creatures; perhaps if she’d had garden variety earth worms, she would have had a mass burial on her hands. 

Mediterranean worms from California

So with this near-worm-massacre fresh on my mind, I decided to order a Can-O-Worms along with a batch of Eisenia foetida– or California red worms- which, according to Castejón’s website, are not actually from my native state, but originally from the Mediterranean. 

The whole thing arrived a few weeks later, without packaging, which led us to believe we had only received the home and not the worms. Well, I’ll let the video tell the story, but it felt like a game of Worm-in-a-Box, something I’d definitely recommend to anyone with young kids.

This, I’m afraid, is only the beginning of a small saga that is life with worms. But I doubt anyone wants to read too much more about my wigglers in one sitting so I’ll save my stories of what a worm bin can do to your kitchen for another day. 

Suffice it to say, while I recommend worms to anyone who wants amazing dirt for their garden (we’ve harvested a few times already), this is not a game for anyone who’d prefer to be left in the dark regarding the magic of decomposition.