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Get Rich (Compost) Quick!

Let Worms Eat Your Garbage

By Grace Dunklee Cohen

Ugh – worms eating garbage, right in your kitchen? Isn’t that dirty and smelly?

Recycling food scraps by feeding them to composting worms. The nutrient-rich byproducts - worm castings and compost tea - fertilize indoor and outdoor plants. Photo: Karen A. Mason.

Recycling food scraps by feeding them to composting worms. The nutrient-rich byproducts – worm castings and compost tea – fertilize indoor and outdoor plants. Photo: Karen A. Mason.

Surprisingly, no. “An active, well-managed worm bin is nearly odor free and takes up very little space,” according to Joan O’Connor, founder and manager of both the Tilton (NH) Winter and Summer Farmers’ Markets and Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Hampshire board member. Since 1992, O’Connor (aka Joan’s Famous Composting Worms) has been practicing, preaching and propagating vermicomposting – using earthworms to convert organic waste into fertilizer.

“When you follow some simple vermiculture guidelines, it’s easy to turn food waste into nutrient-rich compost – the best possible form of recycling,” O’Connor says. “Unlike labor-intensive traditional composting, which is often abandoned during cold winter months, worm composting is easy year round –inside your house, condo or apartment. Optionally, the bin can go outside during summer.”

Traditional outdoor composting requires regular turning to aerate organic waste so micro-organisms can break it down. This solution composts high-volume yard waste well. Vermicomposting uses earthworms to aerate soil, digest organic waste and produce nutrient-rich vermicast or ‘castings’– a lusciously rich worm-poop compost, higher in nutrients, but on a much smaller production scale than traditional composting.

Don’t go turning over rocks to capture common night crawlers used for fishing, warns O’Connor. European nightcrawlers (Eisenia hortensis), or the smaller red worms (Eisenia foetida) or red wigglers (Lumbricus rubellus) provide the best long term vermicomposting results.

Joan O'Connor has been practicing, preaching and propagating vermicomposting – or using earthworms to convert kitchen food waste into fertilizer – since 1992. Photo: Grace Dunklee Cohen

Joan O’Connor has been practicing, preaching and propagating vermicomposting – or using earthworms to convert kitchen food waste into fertilizer – since 1992. Photo: Grace Dunklee Cohen

Think vegan when sorting scraps for vermiculture, says O’Connor. Avoid citrus and exclude dairy products, meat, and meat by-products (including fats) that break down slowly and cause odors. An established colony of worms can eat nearly its own weight in scraps. Worms don’t have teeth and must wait for scraps to break down before they can eat. “Sometimes you can run scraps through a blender for a nice worm “smoothie” that’s ready to eat,” says O’Connor.

The byproduct “castings” can be used immediately or stored. Mix castings directly into potting or garden soil, use as a rich top-dressing for indoor or outdoor plants. Or make “compost tea” for a rich, faster-acting elixir for all kinds of plants.

Vermicomposting appeals to a wide range of people, including teachers and students, parents and grandparents, loggers and – yes – even high-society ladies and gents.

Like people, worms are happiest (and most productive) in moderate temperatures of 60-80º. Because well-managed composting worms don’t smell, they can be kept in any temperate convenient spot. Under the kitchen sink is the most popular site, but imaginative vermicomposters keep worms under beds and dining room tables, in guest rooms, behind the sofa, atop the fridge, or at the office.

Learn more about vermicomposting in the next issue (February) of Green Energy Times. Joan O’Connor will share step-by-step details on how to get started.

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