Composting with worms

You might not think of an earthworm as a likely kitchen helper, but many people use these creatures to turn table scraps into rich, organic fertilizer. Vermicomposting (taken from the Latin vermi for worm) is accomplished with the aid of the species known as the red wiggler, red worm, fishing worm or brandling worm. Unlike the common earthworm or night crawler, which is a burrowing soil-dweller, red wigglers prefer to feed on decaying surface vegetation and manure (thus their other nickname, "manure worms"). The waste product (worm poop), called "castings," is a high-quality fertilizer that can be safely applied to garden vegetables and flowers.

A small bag of worm castings can cost upward of $5 on retail shelves, but you can easily make your own by constructing a worm habitat out of a plastic storage tote with lid. A 16-gallon container is an ample size; choose a dark-colored, non-transparent one. Drill holes in sides, lid and bottom for aeration and drainage. Prepare bedding for the worms—a mixture of dampened, shredded paper and moist, rotting leaves works well—enough to fill about two-thirds of the bin. The bedding should be kept about as wet as a well-moistened sponge. Regularly add small amounts of organic waste like vegetable/fruit scraps, coffee grounds, teabags and eggshells (no meat, dairy or greasy food), burying it near the bottom of the container. One pound of worms can process about 3½ pounds of food per week. Technically, the worms don't eat the food but rather the microorganisms that are decomposing it; nonetheless, all the material, bedding included, will eventually be converted to compost. Worm bins must be protected from extreme heat or cold (temperatures between 55 F to 77 F are optimal), so a kitchen, utility room or garage is a good home. Properly maintained, the bins won't become smelly or unsanitary. To find commercial sources of red wigglers (remember that garden worms won't survive in your containers) and advice and instructions for becoming a successful worm farmer, visit

http://www.bae.ncsu.edu/topic/vermicomposting/vermiculture.

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