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The worms are happy and multiplying

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Worm power II: worm composting through the winter

Eifion Rees

19th January, 2010

The tale of the homemade wormery in a second-floor-flat continues... The worms are thriving, multiplying in numbers. Just don't ask about the flies...

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a second-floor London flat with no garden must be in want of a wormery.

With no outside space to call your own and a desire to compost like ground-floor folk, there's no better use for potato peel and apple cores.

It's been a couple of months now since I started up my own kitchen waste recycling service with the help of a few dendrobaenas - composting worms, prized by anglers for their wriggliness, rescued from the local tackle shop - and the system so far seems to be working perfectly.

There have been trials and tribulations in equal measure, but the basics seem to be in place: the worms are happy and multiplying, the organic kitchen waste (not too much citrus or onion, and no meat or dairy) disappears as quickly as my wife and I can create it, and the compost is being generated apace.

The worm has turned...

Inside the 35-litre plastic tub I use to house my workers, weird and wonderful things have been taking place. The first, most notable change since the end of October, when the project began, is that the wormery is fuller and so much heavier to lift down from its shelf in a storage cupboard off the communal stairs up to our flat - though the post-Christmas exercise is probably doing me good!

The organic waste is becoming compacted under its own weight, slowly broken down and digested by the worms, which excrete nutritious vermicompost, a dark, moist earth. The stack system that most shop-bought wormeries offer provides a simple way of collecting your vermicompost; accessing it for me requires a less technological approach: once the box is filled, I'll up-end it onto a sheet of cardboard, pick out the worms and put them back into fresh bedding, and collect the compost.

That is still a few months away - thanks to its size, it will be a while before my worms have produced a full box - but the handful of compost I've ferreted out by hand and added to my indoor herbs has seen them perk up considerably.

Vermicompost is proven to increase levels of potassium, phosphorus, iron and zinc in plants, fruit and vegetables, improving growth and yield.

To the high proportion of vegetable waste I've been adding a healthy dose of ripped up toilet roll tubes each week; the carbon in the cardboard helps keep the mix from becoming too wet.

As a result there has been little leakage from the holes in the bottom of the box, a bit of a shame, as I'd wanted to test out the incredible fertilising properties of wormery liquid.

....into many worms

In late November I opened the wormery and found, on the inside of the lid, a tiny, pale dendrobaena. I had become a father for the first time. Wiping away a proud tear, I steered the youngster back towards its home and closer to the food. Its egg sac must have become attached to some of the ripped-up newspaper that covers the compost, and become lodged in an upper part of the box when it was moved.

It was a significant moment, as it meant conditions were right, and the worms happy enough with life to be creating more. This had been a concern, given the current cold weather and the fact that the storage cupboard has no heating.

Worms can tolerate cold weather - down to 3C or so - but the bubble wrap I taped around the wormery as insulation must be working. Amorous activity increases according to the temperature, so given the healthy birth rate in the depths of winter, spring and summer should provide a baby boom - a manageable one, though, as worms regulate their numbers according to the food available.

Come fly with me

While the worms are thriving, unfortunately so too are the fruit flies. A cloud of them emerges from the wormery whenever it's opened. So bad has the problem become that my wife Jessie has banned me from bringing the worms into the flat to feed and admire them in comfort - I have to wait till she's out, then rush round with a tea towel trying to destroy the evidence.

The Victorians believed fruit flies (and mice and maggots and various other creatures) simply materialised out of inanimate matter - a convenient theory known as 'spontaneous generation' - but these winged pests actually hatch from our food.

Adults are drawn to the alcohol in fermenting fruit and veg, where after feeding they lay their eggs. The eggs hatch within hours - small wonder a wormery of decomposing matter is simultaneously a cornucopia and a maternity ward.

The best way to control flies is to keep the food in your wormery covered - try putting a piece of old carpet or thick material over the composting area to prevent more eggs being laid - or bury scraps rather than leave them on the surface.

Tempt and trap

If you are suffering an infestation, try planting small containers filled with something to tempt and trap. A number of recipes exist for this: cherry tomatoes covered in honey; cider vinegar and detergent (surfactants break the surface tension so the flies sink); equal parts water and white vinegar - red will not work, according to the directors of this footage of some impressive fruit-fly trapping.

Whatever your bait, create a cover for your container using foil, paper or clingfilm, with tiny holes to allow flies in but not out. The alternative is an aerial assault with a vacuum cleaner - fruit fly armageddon in minutes.

If they are still a problem in warmer months, consider putting the wormery outside on a windowsill or piece of flat roof at feeding time - but make sure it's secure! If you know there will be no rain and the wormery is out of direct sunlight, you could even leave it there for a while. More heat equals more worms equals faster food waste disposal - a case of making compost while the sun shines.

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