The living room gets crowded on Sunday evenings. Lynne sits in her favorite rocker, iPod plugged in, absorbed in math homework. I sit in the other rocker with a crossword puzzle. And Marjorie sits between us at a card table on which she has dumped the contents of her worm bin.
The pile of worm castings on the table is dark and crumbly, like chocolate cake. The room smells like rich soil warmed by the sun after a summer rain, a smell from my childhood, from sitting in the middle of tall corn as a rainstorm approached.
Marjorie shines a bright light on the cone-shaped pile and the red worms quickly wiggle their way down to darkness. She then brushes off the surface of the pile, transferring handfuls of worm castings into a small covered bucket for storage until they are used in the garden.
With each brushing, light drives the worms deeper until most of the castings have been collected and the pile reduced to a fist-size ball of writhing worms. These are returned to the bin, a large plastic tub with a tight cover and holes in the bottom and sides for drainage and aeration. The worms are placed in one corner of the tub, and an 18-inch layer of new bedding material, a well-mixed combination of shredded newspaper and shredded leaves moistened with water to the dampness of a wrung-out sponge, is loosely layered over the tub bottom.
Before closing the bin, Marjorie buries handfuls of kitchen waste under the bedding: banana peels, cantaloupe and watermelon rinds, cucumber peels, tomato pieces and eggshells. Accumulated since the last harvest of castings, these kitchen wastes are sliced into small pieces and stored covered in the refrigerator until needed for the worms. Any vegetable waste, anything that you would add to the outdoor compost pile, is worm fodder.
In a few days we will find banana peel sections covered with nearly transparent baby worms. Eventually most of the vegetable materials, all of the bedding, and even the eggshells will have disappeared, reduced to worm castings.
These are the basic elements of vermiculture, also called “home vermicomposting.” Start with an aerated plastic or wooden container, add damp bedding and worms, bury garbage, harvest worms and their castings, and set up fresh bedding as necessary.
Turning these basic steps into a successful home vermiculture system is more complicated. Readers who want to set up their own home worm bin should start by reading “Worms Eat My Garbage” by Mary Appelhof.
Certainly, home vermiculture is not essential for a successful sustainable garden; garden and kitchen vegetable wastes can be easily recycled in outdoor composting systems. What is essential, I believe, is the role of vermiculture in the education of our children.
When confronted for the first time with a pile of worm castings, a 13-year-old recently commented, “Yuck! This stinks!” This was an understandable response, considering that she probably had never been exposed to the smell of organically rich soil and that she presumed all animal waste must, by nature, stink. It is also a sad commentary on the relationship many of our children have with the natural world.
There should be a worm bin in every child’s life, every year, kindergarten through grade 12. Science teachers can use vermiculture to teach life cycles and reproduction with examples, and to teach the cycling of nutrients, water and carbon dioxide in ecosystems. Math teachers can provide experiences in measurement and graph-ing of worm population growth. English teachers can assign essays — what was Darwin saying to us about the earthworm?
Teachers, we need to put worm bins in our classrooms and use them. Our students need to be introduced to the smell of good earth, to the importance of all creatures, even lowly earthworms, in the history and future of our world.
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