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Consider Worm Composting

Worms are still a wiggly subject for some gardeners. Even in these days of renewed organic enlightenment, some folks just can’t stomach the thought of the slimy creatures slithering about in their yards.

As recently as the 1930s, gardening publications were promoting worm poisons. Bugs of all types were often considered bad, and any chemicals that could “sterilize” the soil were accepted as good.

These days, of course, we know the presence of worms is the surest sign the soil is healthy. Smart gardeners are starting to reject blanket applications of pesticides and are instead applying compost and safer critter repellents to their lawns and gardens. Vermiphobia has been replaced by tolerance; it’s a kinder-gentler planet for worms.

As we head toward a cooler time of the year when outdoor composting is slower, and in some regions outright impossible, it’s time to consider worm composting in your own home. As unpalatable as it may sound, indoor worm composting – known as vermicomposting – is tidy, sanitary and odorless. The worms, a special red tinted species which thrives in containers, are happy to stay confined in their home where they devour kitchen scraps, newspaper and a variety of other wastes. The end result is the most rich compost imaginable.

The material will be especially valuable next spring. Worms secrete an enzyme that promotes seed germination; a layer of vermicompost spread across seed flats will render amazingly efficient results. Worm compost spread across your lawn will deliver healthier, more robust turf.

Here are some basic instructions:

WORMS – Contrary to popular belief, you can’t simply go out into the back yard and start collecting earthworms. They won’t typically live more than a month in the confines of a compost bin. Instead, gather or purchase redworms that typically live at the bottom of the forest floor. If you’re shopping, ask for Eisenia foetida, (pronounced i see nee a…..fe tid a), and if it’s a reputable dealer, they’ll know what you’re talking about.

As for how many to purchase, go with two pounds of worms per pound of garbage that you generate per week. Populations will grow quite rapidly in the right conditions. Redworms mature in 60-90 days and can then produce cocoons which take approximately 21 days to hatch baby worms.

THE CONTAINER – Indoor systems are usually variations on basic kitchen trash cans. Your worms can live in any plastic bin, wooden box or barrel with plenty of air holes punched in the sides and top. The size of the container will depend on how much garbage you want to feed your worms each week, and how much space you have.

Worm bins can be located in the basement, garage or under the kitchen counter, wherever the temperature stays between 59 and 77 degrees. The location should be dimly lit, since worms are sensitive to light, yet will do their most efficient feeding near the surface of the composter.

BEDDING — Worms need comfortable surroundings. Suitable bedding material includes shredded newspaper and cardboard, shredded leaves, straw and other dead plants, sawdust, dried grass clippings, aged manure and peat moss. The richer the material in the bedding, such as plants or manure, the richer the resulting compost. Add a couple handfuls of sand or soil to provide the necessary grit for the worms digestion of food.

The material should be damp, like a wrung-out face-cloth, but you should never allow standing liquid in the composter. Worms’ bodies are up to 90 percent water and their body surfaces must stay moist.

WASTES – Worms can be finnicky. They don’t like toxic chemicals, or the excess sugars in junk foods, cakes and candy. They’re vegetarians and won’t eat meat or bones. Avoid dairy products, and, obviously, plastic and glass. They also aren’t fond of garlic and potato peelings, or cat and dog litter.

Otherwise, almost anything goes. Vegetables, fruits, seeds and breads are welcomed. Coffee grounds and tea bags are fair game. Eggshells are especially good, since the worms like the flavor, and the eggshells keep the bedding from becoming too acidic.

HARVESTING — Since worms don’t like the light, harvesting the compost is easy. Simply remove the cover of the bin in bright light and all the worms will crawl toward the bottom; scrape the top layer of the compost off and apply it to your garden, or stow it away until spring. Every few months, empty the container entirely and hose it down.

WORM FACTS — A healthy Redworm is 3 to 4 inches long . . . Redworms live a maximum of five years, yet one to two years is average . . . If you start the new year with 250 worms, under the right conditions you could have one million worms by the end of the year . . . Worms eat one third to one half their weight every day . . . Worms have five hearts, yet no lungs or eyes . . . Worms only mate with members of their own species, there is no such thing as a hybrid worm . . . Redworms are also called tiger worms, brandling worms, red wigglers, manure worms, Georgia reds, yellow tails, tiger tails, Michigan reds, and Ozark reds.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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