I decided to do my own research. I emailed a neighbor I’d heard had a worm bin in her basement and asked what she fed them. I watched a seven-part homemade video series on YouTube about worm composting, a slow-moving epic that devoted much of its first installment to the process of removing the worm factory from its box. Following suggestions I’d read in an online vermicomposting forum (one of many), I tried chopping up the food before adding it to the bin to give the microbes and worms a head start; when this also gave a head start to fruit flies, I tried keeping my scraps in the freezer and defrosting them before each feeding. Every morning, I pored over the Worm Factory instruction booklet as I ate breakfast, hoping that if I just looked at the words enough times, my compost anxiety would be calmed.
My husband did not spend his mornings reading the worm booklet. Rather, he kept feeding them forbidden things like onion skins and seemed to view them—and me—with an amused befuddlement. “Why can’t the worms just go outside?” he asked me, pointing out that they were occupying valuable real estate in our kitchen.
“Because they need to be temperature-controlled,” I told him. (This is true—since they’re in a box and thus can’t burrow into the ground, it doesn’t take much for them to bake or freeze.)
“You realize you’re treating them like they’re pets,” he said.
“Why wouldn’t I?” I responded. “Someone needs to take care of them.”
His mother, who has an honest-to-goodness compost pile in her backyard, was much more supportive. “They’re amazing organic factories,” she wrote in an email when I told her what I was doing. “Worms can almost make one believe in God.”
She was right that there was something about the worms’ abilities to speed decomposition that put one’s mind toward the existential. Perhaps that was one of the reasons I felt such a need to actively care for my worms: I knew that eventually their descendants would turn me into compost. But in my defense, I liked checking up on them, poking gently around the box to see how their population was growing and which foods they seemed to prefer.
“How’re you guys doing?” I said to the worms one morning as I got ready to feed them, using the same tone of voice I use for dogs or, for that matter, human children. “Are you hungry?”
It had been a few days since I had checked the bucket in which I had been keeping my food scraps, but I thought nothing of it until I began mashing up its contents with a spoon. Once I did, it was immediately obvious that something had gone wrong: The air filled with a putrid odor, a stench so foul that it smelled as if a rat had coated itself in sewage and then crawled into my compost bucket to die. Holding my breath, I dumped the scraps into a plastic bag, double bagged it (thereby destroying any chance that it would ever biodegrade), and deposited it into a trash can outside.
That solved the problem of the smell, but now I had no food scraps—I had just thrown away my worms’ meal. Should I grab them something from the fridge? Maybe make them a salad? I was about to open the refrigerator to search for borderline produce when my husband stopped me and suggested that I take a look at the worms. “They’re fine,” he said. And he was right. They did not seem to be concerned that I had just tossed out their dinner. They were not concerned about anything.
That’s when I realized I was turning my fears of a high-maintenance compost pile into a self-fulfilling prophecy: The whole point of the worms, I remembered, had been to make compost without having to worry about it.
So over the past few months, I’ve taken a step back. I don’t worry about finding extra produce to supplement the worms’ meals. I feed them random amounts at random times. I still poke around occasionally in the bin—I like checking up on them—but otherwise, I leave them in the dark.
So far, it’s working. I may not be recycling all of our green waste, but I’m using enough of it to feel mildly virtuous, and the constant need for shredded paper makes a dent in our pile of junk mail. The worms seem to love the dead leaves from the tree in our yard and eagerly devour our weekend coffee grinds. They haven’t tried to escape. And despite the fact that the composter—and the food scrap bucket—are still in the kitchen, neither smells. I’ve decided that a lack of foul odors will be my new general metric of success, both for worms and for life.
Best of all is the compost itself. It’s black and dark, moist to the touch, with a rich, earthy smell that doesn’t carry even a hint of rot. It’s perfect compost, the stuff of my California dreams, worm-derived—and, finally, worry-free.