Wigglers help gardeners turn garbage into compost

One of the rewards of home vermiculture is the nutrient-rich worm compost that can be used in the garden to build healthy soil.
One of the rewards of home vermiculture is the nutrient-rich worm compost that can be used in the garden to build healthy soil.
Posted July 15, 2011, at 10 p.m.

I am reluctant to leave the garden on a summer day, but when Marjorie suggested we visit The Worm Wiz, I dropped my rake and we took off for Bowdoinham.

I was excited about seeing a large-scale vermiculture operation and learning more about using redworms (red wigglers) to recycle food waste into nutrient-rich garden compost. Teaching home gardeners and classroom teachers how to get started in worm composting is part of Marjorie’s work for University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Hancock and Washington Counties. The Worm Wiz is Brett Thompson, owner of a red wiggler production business on the second floor of the Bowdoinham Recycling Barn, a fitting location for recycling of food waste into worm compost. Brett also visits schools and garden clubs across the state, helping others get started in vermiculture.

Brett has been selling red wigglers and 10-gallon worm bins, dubbed “Wiggle Rooms,” since 2000. What began as a fundraiser for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Program has turned into a business devoted to helping gardeners get started in vermiculture. Brett now sells “Takeout Worms,” 50-100 worms packaged in one-quart Chinese takeout containers, and ready-to-go Wiggle Rooms complete with worms and bedding.

He also sells worm castings (worm compost), valued by gardeners for improving soil structure and increasing soil moisture, nutrient-holding capacity and microbial life. Red wiggler castings, odorless with the color of dark coffee grounds, are rich in plant nutrients (N-P-K ratio of about 3.2-1.1-1.5), trace minerals, and growth promoters. A handful of worm compost placed under garden transplants at planting time or applied as a mulch around existing plants will keep them healthy and productive. Before leaving, we purchased 60 pounds of castings to use in renovating the strawberry bed.

After talking about vermiculture with both of these experts, I can offer a few tips to help beginners get started. First and foremost, find a copy of “Worms Eat My Garbage” (Flower Press, ISBN 0-942256-10-7), by Mary Appelhof. It is a must reference book for anyone getting started in vermiculture.

While reading about vermiculture, take the time to determine the amount of worm fodder that your family generates in a week. This information will be used to determine both the bin size and the amount of worms that you will need.

Red wigglers eat fruits, vegetables, bread, cheese, houseplant waste, eggs and egg shells, coffee grounds, coffee filters and tea bags. They should not be fed citrus, meat and bones, or

pet wastes.

Worms use grit to break down food particles in their gizzards. Marjorie recommends pulverizing the egg shells with a rolling pin so that the worms can use the fine pieces for this essential component of their diet.

Think about where in your home you will keep the worm bin. Ideally it should be located where temperatures are between 59 and 77 degrees F. While worms will function down to 50 degrees, their productivity is reduced. Should the bin temperature go below freezing or exceed 86 degrees, they will die. The bin’s location should always provide air circulation around the outside of the bin.

You will need a supply of bedding to start your bin, and since the worms will eventually eat the bedding, you will want to keep extra bedding on hand. The best materials are light, fluffy and moist. We have used shredded newspaper (avoiding the glossy colored inserts) and shredded autumn leaves or a mix of the two. Hardwood chips can also be used.

There will be other needs, particularly when the time comes to separate worms from their castings and refill the bin with new bedding. Take a page from Brett Thompson’s book and let

necessity be the mother of invention. During my visit, I saw him use an old wallpaper brush, a

cement trowel, a discarded electric back massager, and other tools that were perfect for the tasks at hand. You will know what you need when the time comes.

For the home gardener, worm composting provides a means of recycling kitchen waste during the winter when the compost pile is frozen solid. But we keep our worm bin going year-round. And on a winter’s eve, we set up the old card table near the wood stove, cover it with newspaper, put on a favorite movie and spend an evening harvesting worm compost, one way of staying connected with the garden.

Resources

Order Takeout Worms, Wiggle Rooms, or schedule a presentation on worm composting by

visiting thewormwiz.com, or call Brett Thompson at 837-2397.

Marjorie Peronto, associate Extension professor, University of Maine Cooperative Extension,

Hancock and Washington Counties, marjorie.peronto@umaine.edu.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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