Ten years ago I set up a wormery in the garden. Back then there were newspaper articles every few months advising us on how easy it was. You didn’t even need a garden. One journalist set up their wormery on the balcony of their flat, another kept one indoors. The principle is simple: a plastic or wooden receptacle designed so that worms can process most of your kitchen waste. You put the waste in (avoiding citrus and onions), the worms work their way through it, and the resulting solid matter is rich compost, and the liquid matter that collects at the bottom of the wormery is perfect, though very concentrated, liquid fertilizer. You need to dilute it about 1:10 with water; it’s excellent for growing tomatoes. It also stinks: don’t spill it on your clothes. Most wormeries have a tap at the bottom for releasing the liquid.
There were, broadly, two styles of wormery.
The type that I had consisted of a simple plastic bin, with a tap at the bottom, and a plastic tray that sat about 4” (10cm) from the base. The tray had holes punched in it for the liquid to seep through and collect at the bottom. To stop the worms going through these holes you placed newspaper on top of the shelf, and a thin layer of compost on top of that, and then your worms. (The wormery came with a starter pack of near-comatose wigglers that could survive for a week or two in their packaging.) You had to use old-fashioned, thick, porous newspaper, the kind that most national dailies are no longer printed on. When the Guardian (my newspaper of choice) switched to its Berliner format in the summer of 2006 they also switched to newer, glossier paper (more like the kind that magazines are printed on). It meant that the newsprint was less likely to make your hands dirty, but it was no good for the worms. I kept copies of our local weekly paper to line the bottom of the area where the worms lived.
The second type of wormery consisted of shelves, with the kitchen waste in varying states of decomposition. The top shelf was where you placed your kitchen waste, and the shelves below it contained older, partly composted waste, right down to the bottom shelf, which was high quality compost. The base of each shelf was a kind of mesh, so that liquid, and small pieces of compost, and smaller worms could fall into the lower shelves. That was the theory anyway. I never saw one of them in action.
Ten years ago I always kept an eye out for these newspaper and magazine articles, especially when I’d set up a wormery of my own. They were as regular as the articles advising you that water in plastic bottles is no better for you than tap water and that bottled water is a huge rip-off. My research is different. I drink a little tap water (it’s not poison) but if I drink the same quantities as I do of bottled water I get an upset stomach. (I’ll spare you the details.)
It’s many years since I came across any articles extolling the simple virtues of having a wormery. There are probably two reasons for this. First, they are really hard to maintain. I tried for three years and finally gave up, for reasons outlined in the next paragraph. Secondly many local councils (like ours) have weekly collections of kitchen waste: they take everything, including citrus, onion skins, fish and meat products. As long as it’s organic it can go in the kitchen waste bin.
My experiences with a wormery led me to conclude that the only things that you could put into it, day after day, were banana skins and coffee grounds. Anything else, in any meaningful quantity, would make the wormery smell, and take a lot longer to break down. If you put an avocado skin in it would still be there three months later. Mushy fruit would make the thing stink, for weeks, even if you covered it with a bit of extra compost. I tried to make a go of it, for three years, but sadly it didn’t work out. I figured that most of the journalists who wrote those enthusiastic articles would have given it a year. Now our local council take away all of our kitchen waste once a week, and trying to maintain a wormery was just a brief episode. If you ever hear of anyone who’s managed to keep a wormery going for more than three years, or if you come across any recent articles telling you how easy it is, please let me know.