I went to a dinner party last week and the host had a tiny composter in her apartment’s kitchen; she said there were bugs inside that eat the food she deposits. It sounds gross, but I feel bad tossing all my leftovers in the garbage—how do these things work? Why don’t they smell?
—Curious about compost
Dear Curious Composter,
All compost systems rely on the same principle: stuff rots and then turns into dirt. If you do it right. The good news is it’s not that hard to replicate what nature does on a grand scale in your very own kitchen. Properly composted food is never smelly and can cut down on your trips to the garbage bin (and the inevitable filling of our landfills). In fact, if you get into it, you can compost up to 1/3 of your household waste.
What your friend most likely had was a worm composter, also called a vermicomposter. This kind of composting is great for an apartment because it doesn’t take up much space, is totally hygienic and the final product is humus. Not the middle-eastern bean spread, but the ultimate fertilizer for your organic container gardening.
The busy earthworms, called red worms or manure worms, (yes, they wiggle, but no, you don’t have to touch them) will keep your composter functioning and odor-free. These special guys eat up to their weight in food every day, and their excrement is the aforementioned humus. Their casts (a nicer name for poop) contain all sorts of good stuff like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, meaning that the humus they produce will make your garden grow. And on top of all that, once your scraps are devoured by the worms, all the nasty pathenogenic bacteria (the kind that can make you sick) are totally neutralized.
But there are some caveats; you can’t just dump all your leftovers in a vermicomposter, but fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, old bread, coffee grounds, shredded computer paper (no colored ink) and newspaper, and houseplant trimmings are all OK. Go light on the vegetable oils, dairy and meat; all these things take more time for the worms to digest, so don’t throw a big hunk of steak in your composter, no matter how free-range and organic it might be. Some people say small amounts of meat or bone will break down just fine, but it might take some experimenting. It isn’t complicated, by you will need to read up on the subject. You will need to keep the whole operation moist, and you can make your own or buy a composter ready-to-go at a host of websites and garden centers. The worms are also available online or from your neighborhood plant store. Try wormdigest.org, cityfarmer.com and cityknowlege.com.