My worms are committing suicide. Maybe they don’t like the maggots. Or the New York Times.

It’s my fault.

It all began early this summer, when I planted tomatoes in pots on the balcony.

I am not a gardener. I don’t enjoy it. But I love–love–tomatoes. Real tomatoes, not those red styrofoam baseballs in the supermarkets. Real tomatoes, like my late father used to raise in his Indiana garden. From real tomato plants, like the ones I had to pick caterpillars off as a kid, which made me itchy and resentful.

If you want real tomatoes in New York City, you can take out a mortgage and buy Heirlooms at the Union Square farmer’s market. Or–if you have a balcony–you can grow your own.

Last summer, I bought a spindly tomato plant. I transplanted it into a big pot on my balcony. I weeded it, picked off dead leaves, dosed it with organic fertilizer, watered it obsessively.

In return for my uncharacteristic ardor, the plant gave me four tomatoes. The largest of which I could fit in my pocket (I didn’t; you can only do that with store-bought tomatoes).

They were delicious. But the ratio of labor to harvest could have been better.

This summer, I bought four plants.


I got the worms because I shopped for cars.

In August, our 10-year-old VW Bug was due for inspection, and it wasn’t going to pass. The repair cost would be astronomical.

So. Car-shopping.

I quickly learned that car manufacturers–Japanese, German, Korean and, yes, American–had, in the ten years since we’d bought a car, caught on that Americans like big. We like power. We don’t need no stinking conservation.

Every car we test-drove got worse gas mileage than our old Bug. Even the new Bug. And the hybrids, while more “green,” were too big for me to park–a major issue in Brooklyn.

We repaired our old Bug.


The car search made me ashamed of how wasteful I am in general.

I stocked up on über-efficient lightbulbs. I eschewed over-packaged produce. I started carrying cloth shopping bags.

And I decided to compost my kitchen scraps. After all, I had four tomato plants to feed.

I perused composting websites. I bought two five-gallon plastic buckets, poked holes in the sides, bottom and lid of one, set it on a block inside the second to catch the drainage (Compost Tea, the articles called it), put the whole assembly out on the balcony, and started dumping raw vegetable stuff, coffee grounds, leaves, shredded paper, dead plants and eggshells in it.

The stuff decomposed. Slowly. Fragrantly.

I hit the websites again. Worms, they declared. Worms would turn my garbage into compost in nothing flat. I could order them on the Internet.

Or I could buy them in Manhattan.


Macy’s doesn’t sell worms. But the Lower East Side Ecology Center does. The man on the phone told me I could order a half-pound of elegant red worms for $11.

I should pick them up on Friday at a booth in the Union Square farmer’s market.

On Thursday, my worm dealer called to tell me that the critters would not be available until next week. The worms, he said, had Issues.

I pictured a Freudian preying mantis, and a worm on a couch: I’m blind, the worm says. I’m a hermaphrodite…I eat garbage…

“What kind of Issues?” I asked the dealer.

“It’s been a very hot summer,” he said.

Ah. No hands: they couldn’t open a hydrant.


The following Friday, I gave my dealer $11, and he gave me an old milk carton–soymilk, of course–half-filled with dirt. The worms were in there, he assured me.

I tilted the carton. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear them discussing their issues.

I bore my cargo gingerly home on the Q train.

I upended the carton into the compost. There were, indeed, worms, and they set to work.

In a few days, I saw dirt where the garbage had once been.

The creatures multiplied. I don’t know how worms Do It, but suddenly there were more worms than compost.

My 4-year-old grandson, Beckett, petted them. We discussed worm poop.

Then it rained. Water dripped through the holes in the lid of my composter, but it didn’t drip out the bottom. I opened the lid: fleeing worms crowded the rim of the container. In the catch-bucket below, worms floated in the Compost Tea.

I scooped the fugitives back in, and plunged a knife through the bottom, to make more drain slits.

The sun shined hard the next day. A vast field of crisp worm bodies steamed on the tarred balcony floor around my composter. Inside the container, more worms lined up to escape. I scraped them back in. I shredded several pages of the New York Times and mixed them into the compost to dry it out. I made a waterproof over-lid from a flat aluminum-foil pan, and weighted it atop the composter with my hand shovel.

More crispy corpses littered the battlefield the next day.

Beckett tried to pet them. We discussed dead worms.

Maggots appeared in the compost. They seemed to be eating garbage like the worms were. I suppose that’s what folks mean by It’s All Good.


The worm exodus has slowed–but maybe that’s because there aren’t many left. Now, I turn the compost and find a worm or two with every scoop of the blackening, lumpy, surprisingly un-stinky mass. I find a maggot or two. I find fruit flies and the odd ant.

I empty the Compost Tea from the catch bucket every now and then on my tomato plants. The plants have thanked me with six tomatoes so far. They were small, but delicious. There are lots more, still green, on the branches.

I’ve found a nifty composter on-line: you roll it on a base, and the garbage tumbles and aerates.

I’m thinking, maybe next year…