In some homes, worms do the trash disposal
Callie Colby of Bethel began vermicomposting - composting with worms - back in the 1970s.
“I was into organic gardening back then,” she said.
Colby started feeding her vegetable and other food scraps to worms kept in a bin at a time when the practice was just starting to take root.
Vermicomposting accomplishes two primary goals: eliminate smelly garbage in the house and wastestream, and provide a great growing mix for house and garden plants.
Over the years Colby has been in and out of vermicomposting, depending on the particular phase of her family life.
She’s back into it now, joined by a growing number of other Bethel-area residents.
Several took a class on the subject in Bethel last year. Jackie Schuesler was one.
“I love my plants,” she said. “I hated worms, but I knew I had to do it to get the castings.”
Castings are the ‘manure” produced by the worms.
The red wriggler worms are generally purchased by the pound, and they can consume up to half a pound of food waste a day, she said. The worms can double their population in several months, and fill a 10-gallon bin with castings.
A bed of shredded newspaper holds moisture and provides added food. No soil is needed. As a rule, meat and dairy products are not recommended for the worms, because they can smell.
As Schuesler learned more about the process and the worms, she started to warm up to the tiny creatures.
“I find it very interesting,” she said. “It’s fun to go and see how many of them there are. They’ve become my babies - I pick them up and look at them.”
Another local worm enthusiast is Jackie Cressy of Bethel.
She recently divided her two pounds of worms and shared a pound with another vermicomposter.
Now she’s building the population back.
“We eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. One bin can’t deal with all we produce. I hope by December to get into a second bin,” she said.
She also does traditional composting outdoors, where she puts her excess food waste in the warmer months. But since accessibility is a problem in the winter, she builds up the worm population to handle the load then.
One bin of her worms can handle about a pound and a half to two pounds of food waste a week, she said.
“This is stuff you really don’t want to take to the transfer station,” she said. “Food waste is heavy.”
She describes the worm bin as “a little ecosystem.”
To speed the composting process she chops vegetable and fruit waste in a food processor.
“They can break it down more efficiently,” she said.
The worm castings go into her houseplants and window boxes.
Chris Lee of Bethel began vermicomposting last year after his kids left for college.
“It was an empty nest thing,” he said.
He started with traditional composting outdoors, but then added worm composting. He learned both through reading and researching online.
“My main goal was to make compost for the garden,” he said.
Lee has gone into it big time, caring for six bins of worms and collecting several hundred pounds of composting material in the process.
As the worms grew and multiplied, he simply kept adding containers. Now he has to go searching for food to keep everyone fed.
Lately Lee has found the worms relish pumpkins. Each bin can make a half a pumpkin disappear in several days, he said.
Another favorite is cucumbers. “They come from every corner of the bin for them,” he said.
Also popular are coffee grounds and eggshells toasted on a woodstove.
He said he has had generally good luck with the worms, save for a spell when his concoction of food waste starting generating heat like traditional composting does. The worms raced to get away from it, and for several days Lee placed milk jugs with frozen water in the heated area to keep the worms cool.
Because a well-balanced worm bin is odorless, it can be kept anywhere.
Lee keeps his in the basement; Cressy, in a cool back room - but she knows another composter who kept it under her kitchen table.
Colby keeps her bin in her pantry.
Nowadays Colby uses the castings, mixed with peat moss and vermiculite, to feed her container gardens.
“It does wonders for your plants,” she said.
While the worms behave themselves in their bins, the critters did have one adventure when Colby first ordered them by mail.
“They got loose in the Post Office,” she said.
Jock Robie of Gorham, Me. is the enthusiastic worm composter who presented a workshop in Bethel last year. He describes his experience in spreading the worm word in recent years:
Worm composting, organic gardening, organic produce, recycling, composting, locavore, sustainable agriculture, pesticide, herbicide and chemical fertilizer aversion, CSA, GMO, permaculture, Master Gardening etc, etc are all of increasing interest to the public as their awareness and education increases regarding what they are eating, where it is coming from, how it is produced and its impact on their health.
Composting with worms is a niche in the transformation. A very small niche but it is a growing niche right along with the total movement.
I have been giving presentations and workshops for three years on vermiculture and composting with worms. I’ve had my own worm bins for five years. Interest and attendance in my presentations and workshops has been steady but not overwhelming. The general public is still mostly unaware. The interest comes from those that already know about it but haven’t tried and don’t know how to start. My most satisfying work is with elementary school teachers at the 4th and 5th grade level. Kids at this age are like sponges.
My experience with adults is mixed. The initial enthusiasm in the workshop does not translate into success. I think persistence, a willingness to ask for help, and a willingness to invest time are in short supply. Composting with worms is not difficult but it is not trivial either. Unless you are a gardener and plan to use the worm castings yourself it is hard to keep the interest alive. A few do just because they would rather recycle than throw their compostable waste in the trash. I keep making presentations and doing workshops in order to find the exceptions and then I support them with all I’ve got to help them succeed.
Composting with worms on a small scale has been popular for years dating back to the 1970’s and 1980’s, when Mary Applehoff first published her book ‘ Worms Eat My Garbage” in 1982, which is now in its 2nd edition and still the best “how to” book on the subject for small scale worm composting.