( Green Witch Column, Sagewoman Magazine, Issue # 80)

I worship worms.

My love affair with them started years ago, when I lived in San Francisco. By night I was bartending at Hamburger Mary’s, the tattoo and fetish headquarters of the tattoo and fetish Folsom Street neighborhood. Lots of red lipstick, cleavage, double-knit lime green polyester. I was a species in my right habitat.

By day, I prowled the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and I gardened. Our six-bedroom Victorian house was painted hot pink and had a tiny patch of earth in the back. I learned to garden there, in my own Eden with my appropriately named housemate, Eve. Neither of us believed in original sin, so when we began to come across worms in the places where the soil was richest, the ferns finest, we didn’t think of them as pests, or poets of temptation. And it came to us one day, in a dirt-under-our-nails-ecstasy, that the worms were the keepers of the earth, were powerful forces for good. We understood that the worms were, in fact, priestesses of the soil and since we were both reading The Mists of Avalon at the time, we named the worms, all worms, for Marion Zimmer Bradley’s head priestess. We named them “Viviane.”

Now, fifteen years later, I live in little cottage in West Seattle with my husband and new baby boy, who we call the Fox.  My garden thrives. I keep worms. Mulching is a religion here and worm compost is the absolute finest mulch there is. But that’s not the best part. The best part is that the worms eat our vegetable trimmings. All of them. Coffee grounds, stale bread, beet tops, slimy forgotten lettuce in the bottom of the bin (I think that was lettuce…)

         All of this works for me. I love keeping the veggies out of the garbage. I love having free, high-quality mulch for my garden. But, most of all, I love scooping the crumbly, dark, worm compost out of the bin on the equinoxes and solstices and feeling like a priestess of earth, like Viviane’s acolyte.

We made our first worm bin out of some old, wooden closet doors.  When I say we, I mean my husband. He downloaded the plans from Seattle Tilth’s web site and spent a fall weekend building a giant box with hinges made out of bicycle tires, a stick to prop it open, sturdy legs to keep it off the ground. It was beautiful. It lasted three years; Seattle’s constant rain is hard on anything but cedar. Next time we went looking for something cheap and easy but durable. I liked the idea of finding something at our local salvage store, which I think of as a thrift store for houses; instead of great ‘40’s dresses or knock-off bags, it has everything from original glass doorknobs to perfect clawfoot bathtubs. I tooled around – so to speak – for a while, looking for the right new home for Viviane. Seattle’s climate is temperate, if wet. Not wood. Metal, I decided. Then I saw it, an old metal filing cabinet, six feet tall, four wide doors stacked one above the other. The kinds that open on a hinge at the top and then slide back. Turn that on it’s side and you’ve got four bins with hinged lids.  We drilled holes in the back for drainage and in between the bays for worm transit.

I keep a stainless steel stockpot on the kitchen counter for scraps. When the stockpot is full, I take it down to Viviane’s box, open the lid, pull up the layer of cardboard or leaves on top. I make a hole in the bedding, put in the scraps, mix it up a little. When each bay is full, I stop adding scraps to that one and move to the one next to it. Viviane migrates.

When all is going well, the first bay will be a bin full of worm compost in eight to twelve weeks. When all goes well, my worm bin is like the one at Seattle Tilth’s beautiful demonstration garden. Their worm bin is the death in balance. It’s the old growth log, softly covered with moss and ferns, the wood decayed to a dry, reddish-brown velvet. That’s what worms are capable of. Tilth even put their worm bin inside a garden bench, and your nose never knows it’s there. The bench top has a hinge at the back and you lift it up to see the scatter of leaves, not a worm in sight. They are busy. They are at home.

That’s when it goes well.  That’s how it would be if I always followed directions, which is not really my strong suit.

When it goes badly, it’s pretty gross. It’s slimy and smells bad. This is, after all, about death, people. The worm bin that is too wet, the worm bin with inadequate bedding is the death you don’t want to have, lingering and toxic and stinky, with worms crawling out, trying to escape in every direction. Earth gives life, yes, but She makes it from this. What we leave behind. What we are.

So that’s what happened this winter. Our worm bin got pretty wet and slimy. Not enough bedding, not enough drainage holes. It’s huge and it’s totally at capacity because cold, wet worms are not good workers. What can I say? I got busy. For me, it was a new baby. For you, it might be late nights at work. Regardless, neither of us was tending the worm bin, were we?

City Farmer, Canada’s awesome worm composting Web site, says, "Picture yourself after dinner. It has been a hard demanding day in the City. But now you can descend into the dark...touching the rich, dark vermicompost, releasing the memory-filled odor of damp earth – taking you into forests and the prehistoric past." City farmer also says “Taking worms out of their natural environment and placing them in containers creates a human responsibility. They are living creatures with their own unique needs, so it is important to create and maintain a healthy habitat for them to do their work.” I think about my soggy winter bin. My bad. But not like “I don’t want to worm bin” bad. Like “Honey, I’m sorry and I’ll try to do better” bad.

So I get to work. I get to work because when the worm bin is good, it’s good. I get to work because I want to have a good relationship with death and because this is a spell, a make-your-own-dirt project that gets me closer to the earth goddesses of winter than anything else but laying on the ground, and it’s too damn cold for that. I get to work because the worms take what we don’t need anymore and turn it into life.

On a sunny day toward the end of winter, I tear up paper grocery bags. I find all the pieces of cardboard lying around the house and tear them up too. I put on my gloves. I stand in the sun, the Fox strapped on my back. I use the big shovel, drive it in deep and pull out heaping shovelfuls of too-dense worm mud. The rocking back and forth of my body and the winter sun on the Fox’s body work like a charm. He is asleep by the time I get halfway through the first bay. Then I move the stuff back in. It’s like a mud layer cake that wants a cardboard and dry leaf filling. It’s like knitting with earth yarn. I tell Viviane about the regrets, the mistakes, the failures of the year: all that I want to release. I crumble with my gloves, breaking up clumps. I feel the earth energy traveling up my arms, up my legs, pulling my body down. I feel my feet on the ground. I wipe the hair off my face and feel a blessing. Not a worm on my forehead; a priestesses’ crescent moon.

With a lightened heart, I remember spring.  At the end of winter, this is no small thing. The sun warms the back of my neck and I remember last year, when the compost was ready at spring equinox and I spread it under the fruit trees, mixed with lettuce seeds. I was seven months pregnant at the time and either I was exuding some sort of fertility force field or worm compost is the best seeding mix ever. My soil was rich. I grew new life, within and without.

That was the year my son was born, and that was the year my salads became legend. Ask anybody. Baby lettuce leaves, mint, pea-vine shoots, purple and yellow viola petals.  I brought one to friend Michele, five days after her son was born and she was coming out of the tunnel of worry and fatigue and desperation that the early birth brought her. She said of that salad, grown in spring, grown in the leavings of all that sacred death, she said, “It was like eating life.”

I worship worms. Evelyn Underhill, that writer and mystic, said that worship is "The adoring acknowledgment of all that lies beyond us—the glory that fills heaven and earth. " If worms don’t fill heaven, they at least fill earth.  I adore and acknowledge them. They take my vegetables and they take my regrets. They take my coffee grounds and my failures and when spring comes, if I have priestessed well, they give me new life.


Ritual Resources

You, too, can have your own Avalon. Build a worm bin. In early winter, give it what is dying. As you put in the coffee grounds, name your regrets.  Release them. Say, “I give you my mistakes;” name them too. All of it feeds Viviane. If you follow directions (instead of my example,) your worm bin will be clean and sweet. In 2-3 months, you’ll have a bin full of planting material, just in time for a powerful spring spell.  You can easily buy a worm bin for indoors or outdoors, there are plenty of them for sale online. I haven’t ordered one, but some of them look amazing.


If you want to make one for yourself that will be easy and cheap, here’s a plan.  Credit for this set-up goes to the Washington State University Whatcom County Extension web site, check it out for some great visuals to accompany this how-to. http://whatcom.wsu.edu/ag/compost/Easywormbin.htm

You’ll need:

{C}·      Two 8-10 gallon plastic storage boxes with lids. They should be dark, not transparent.

{C}·      A drill with ¼ and 1/16 inch drill bits

{C}·      Newspaper, cardboard or (my favorite) fall leaves

{C}·      About one pound of redworms per ½ lb of food waste, per week. In other words, you need a 2 to 1 ration of worms to food scraps. If you want, weigh your veggie scraps for a week, then procure your worms, see below.


Here’s how:

{C}1.                     Drill about twenty evenly spaced ¼ inch drainage/worm transit holes in the bottom of each bin.

{C}2.                     Drill ventilation holes about 1-11/2 inches apart on each side of the bin near the top edge using the 1/16 inch bit. Also drill about 30 small holes in the top of one of the lids.

{C}3.                     Fill one of the bins with bedding. (this is where I went wrong by adding equal amounts of bedding, layered with the scraps as I went, instead of filling with bedding first. Oops.) Use newspaper or cardboard torn into 1 inch scraps, fall leaves, sawdust, compost, aged manure. Tearing up your paper grocery bags or newspaper or cardboard is a great meditative, fireside, winter night activity. Keep a bag or box by the fire like knitting and stare at the flames while you do it. Puts a little heat into the spell. Whatever you use, it needs to be moistened before you put it into the bin. Add a couple handfuls of soil or sand to the bedding to provide digestive grit for Viviane.

{C}4.                     Add your worms. According to Cityfarmer Web site, “The two types of earthworm best suited to worm composting are the redworms: Eisenia foetida (commonly known as red wiggler, brandling, or manure worm) and Lumbricus rubellus. They are often found in aged manure and compost heaps. Please do not use dew-worms (large size worms found in soil and compost) as they are not likely to survive. “ Worm sources: if you have an agricultural extension office near you, they may be able to help. Otherwise, you can recruit your own by putting a large piece of wet cardboard on your lawn or garden at night, they’ll come up to eat the cardboard and you can scoop them up in the morning.

{C}5.                     Cut a piece of cardboard to fit over the bedding and get it wet, too, then lay it on top of the bedding.

{C}6.                     Put your bin in a cool, well-ventilated area. Laundry rooms, garage, balcony, under the kitchen sink all work great. Just make sure the temperature doesn’t fall below 40 degrees Farenheit.  Put it on blocks or upside down plastic cups over the lid of the second bin, to catch any moisture. That stuff is awesome liquid fertilizer. (If you need more guidance, the photos at the web site above are really helpful.)

{C}7.                     Start adding your scraps. Go slow at first. Lift the cardboard layer, make a hole in the bedding, bury the scraps. Bury them in a different place each time, increasing the amount of scraps as the worm population grow.  Worms eat anything vegetable in nature: breads and grains, coffee and filter, teabags, fruits and vegetables. They hate meat, dairy, eggs, oils. No feces either.

{C}8.                     Rotate the bins. When the first bin is full of compost and the food scraps are gone, fill the second bin with new, moist bedding. Then let the worm migration begin: you nest the new bin in the old one, with the bottom of the new bin touching the compost in the old one. Start burying your scraps in the new, top bin. The worms will migrate up to the new food and then you can use your compost for a spring planting spell. If it’s warm enough, some of the worms can go out with the compost, they are great for the garden. Just don’t keep them cooped up without access to food.


The Website above, as well as the resources below, has excellent troubleshooting advice if you run into trouble. May your worm bin be a winter Avalon for you, for Viviane and for the Goddess and the God.

Blessed be!


For directions on making an indoor bin, scrap to bedding management and more, check out http://www.cityfarmer.org/wormcomp61.html.


For plans to make a big, beautiful outdoor bin, search “worm bin” at http://www.seattletilth.org/


For a child friendly, easy Q&A format, check out http://urbanext.illinois.edu/worms/neighborhood/index.html


For more on worm composting, check out Mary Applehof's short book, Worms Eat My Garbage.