Browngirl Going Green


Turning Garbage Into (Black) Gold
April 12, 2010, 12:05 am
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For the past several months I’ve really been enjoying spending time with my so-called ‘garbage’. It all started when my worms got killed. My red wriggler composting worms, that is—and yes, I said ‘killed’. Well, I don’t know if they died right away, but I’m sure they didn’t live for very long.

Okay, let me back up a bit. So I’d been keeping a a small worm composting bin on the tiny covered back porch of my second-story apartment for almost two years. And then, I got it into my head to try to start gardening in the backyard, which was kind of a mess. There were tons of weeds growing in a semi-jungle environment back there, but there was also an abandoned black plastic worm bin tucked amongst the foliage. I think it’d been left by an old neighbor who’d moved away, and since my one worm bin wasn’t really big enough to ‘keep up’ with all my kitchen scraps, I decided to start a second worm composting ‘farm’ in this recovered bin.

I was very excited—I bought more worms from a local East Bay woman who sells them online and set up this second bin in the yard, since I didn’t have much more space on my back porch. After getting the worms settled in their new home, I stepped back, brushed my hands off, and grinned at the idea of fistfuls of lovely, fertilizing vermicompost, or ‘worm compost’ (basically, their poop/waste) to use in my garden someday.

I would check on the worms every few days, feed them and make sure they weren’t getting dried out—it was summer and pretty warm, and even though I had the bin in tree-shade, the worms need a moist environment or else they can shrivel up into little grayish worm carcasses. Not cute, nor very conducive to producing vermicompost!

Then one day my apartment manager (who lives off-site) called to tell me that some people would be pruning the trees in our backyard in preparation for some construction work for the building next door. ‘No problem,’ I thought. The next day, the landscapers that my landlord pays to cut down our jungle of weeds came by for their yearly clearing, which made me happy because that meant I wouldn’t have to figure out how to clear the ground for my garden, and since I was going to have all this worm compost eventually I got really excited by the possibilities.

From my apartment window, which looks out onto our terraced yard, I could see and hear the landscapers—two White guys in their late 20’s or early 30’s—buzzing away all the weeds and pruning back the trees. When it sounded like they were done, I went back there to feed and check on my worms, hoping that all the noise hadn’t sent them into shock.

But, to my surprise, my salvaged round black worm bin was nowhere to be found. I asked the landscapers, who were pretty laid-back and friendly, if they’d seen it, and they shook their heads no, but said that the maintenance guy had been around the day before, clearing stuff away and that I should call him. So I called the maintenance guy, who doesn’t speak English very well but managed to communicate to me that I should call the manager.

I was getting a little frantic by now about what might’ve happened to my worms, so I called the manager, who calmly and matter-of-factly told me, “Oh, we thought they were garbage, so we threw them away.”

I wanted to cuss her out right then and there. But instead, I patiently explained to her how worms can create compost, and how one of the reasons I was cultivating them is because she wouldn’t allow us to have the county-operated compost bins at our building. She sounded like she couldn’t believe what I was saying, but I guess I was indignant enough about it that she gave in when I asked her to reimburse me $20 for the worms that were ‘thrown away’—“killed”, I couldn’t help thinking.

Mortified and sad, I went back to the yard to report to the landscapers—whom I could tell would understand—what awful fate had befallen my worms. One of the guys’ mouths fell open in horror and he said, “They [meaning the worms] create their own eco-system in there—that’s like killing a little family!” I nodded gravely, and wondered where my worms were now. Stuck in some landfill miles away? Drying up under the hot summer sun? The thought made me shudder, but it felt better that someone else understood my pain.

A few weeks later, I also got a lot of sympathy for my murdered worms from my friend Wally, a 30-something African-American man living in East Oakland who’s an avid gardener as well as a certified master composter. Wally clutched at his chest when i told him what happened, as if he’d just heard about an incident of highly negligent parenting.

Needless to say, the landscapers’ and my friend’s reactions made me feel better, although they didn’t bring my worms back to life. I like to think that maybe they are happily living near the surface of my backyard, in some out-of-the-way spot under a tree, where they were unceremoniously dumped by the maintenance guy. But more than likely, they were thrown into the garbage, and died a not-very-pleasant death.

I did buy more worms eventually, and now have two worm bins going strong. The other silver lining to this story is that my apartment manager finally reneged and allowed our building to have the green county-provided compost bins, which means that ALL of our organic matter can be composted now (worms tend to not like or are unable to break down a lot of starchy things, citrus and meat/bones).

And lastly, I will be harvesting some crumbly, rich black vermicompost very soon, and using it on my vegetable beds. And that’s my story of how I helped turn some garbage into ‘black gold’.