Home composting? All it takes is a little wormfeeling.

Zurich-based WormUp is bringing composting inside the home, with the help of hundreds of happy wriggling worms. Co-founder and Happiness Officer Sarah Steiner talked with Open about the Swiss company, closing the circle, and the secret to successful worm composting.

Open: What inspired you to bring composting inside the home?
Sarah Steiner: The idea was really born from the frustration with not being able to compost organic waste in the city, which was the case at the time in Zurich. My colleague, one of the founders, was growing tomatoes on a huge balcony and he needed compost. So we were looking for a way to compost indoors in a city apartment where you don’t have a garden.

Most commercial home composters are made out of plastic, but yours is ceramic. Why’s that?
Our approach is to recycle, to live and act in natural cycles. We wanted to have a product which has a long lifespan. If you use them as they’re meant to be, ceramics don’t usually break – you can still find vases from the Greeks and Romans. They’re long lasting and they don’t pollute the environment. Our product is quite sturdy – some people use it as a seat on their balcony. And if it does happen to break, you can easily recycle it. It’s a circle closed.

But besides the product’s lifecycle, it actually looks like something you’d want in your house.
That was our other main goal: to make it beautiful. We wanted to make it really appealing so that people like to touch it, so that compost gets out of this yucky corner where people normally think of it. With our products, the compost doesn’t smell, it looks nice, and it becomes something very natural. That’s what we want.

And what about the worms? Do you think people know what to expect when it comes to worm composting?
If people have never composted in their life, some of them expect a machine. They think they can always put in the same quantities and assume that if they follow the instructions in the manual, it will absolutely work.

But that’s not always the case?
People need to develop a feeling for it – we call it wormfeeling. To develop it you need to look inside and see what the system needs. Get closer to nature and have an eye for natural processes.

How do I know if I’ve got wormfeeling?
There are a few questions I always ask. Do you like cooking? Do you have a green thumb when it comes to house plants? If they answer, ‘I’m a terrible cook, I even burn water’, or ‘My plants die and I just throw them away’, then I’m not so sure. But if they love trying new things in the kitchen, and they know how to help their plants thrive, then it’s likely that they’ll develop wormfeeling. It’s slow living, not fast food. And then of course I ask if they don’t mind touching worms.

Wait, you have to touch them?
You have to put your composter close by, so you check in on it often – we recommend every 2-3 days. You shouldn’t be afraid to stick your hands in, pick up the worms and look. How do they behave? Are they agile, moving? Normally they should be somewhere on the top, visible.

And what if they’re not? Does that mean something is wrong?
If the conditions aren’t right, there can be a worm exodus. If it’s too dry and too warm, the worms can die and they compost themselves. They just disappear, which is a loss, and not nice. Or when people feed them too much, it can suddenly become very warm. The microorganisms work too fast and use up all the oxygen. The system can get out of balance and the worms can die. That’s why we tell people to be careful not to overfeed.

How sensitive are worms? 
When they arrive, your worms can be stressed from the rattling, all this tap-tap-tapping. That’s why they might not stay down in the soil. Birds know this too, which is why they tap on the ground when they’re hunting – to get the worms to come to the surface. So sometimes in the first couple of days you may find worms on your floor. It’s easy to deal with this though. Just leave a light on for the first couple of nights, or place a humid ring of towels on the floor around your composting system. The worms will crawl under it and you can collect them in the morning and put them back in their home.

Sounds like there’s a lot to learn about caring for worms!
Darwin wrote his last book on worms. He spent years studying and experimenting with them, and then he wrote his book. He even ascribed a certain intelligence to them, based on the tests he did. Worms are fascinating – we keep learning so much from them.