In Good Thyme
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:30 PM
"Earthy, well-decomposed compost is gardeners' gold. It makes soil rich and friable and creates a hospitable environment for plant growth. Compost does wonders when worked into the soil before planting vegetable or flower beds, houseplants, just about any green, growing thing. But creating your own compost in a back yard bin isn't an option for everyone. There may be space limitations or condo regulations. And composting kitchen scraps outdoors sometimes attracts pests. Worm bins may be a good alternative for all but the most squeamish of gardeners. A worm bin - yes, it's a bin of worms - is a compact system designed for composting food wastes using worms. But not just any worms! Worm bins are populated by designer worms. Okay, they're red worms (Eisenia fetida or its relative, Lumbricus rubellus), but they're a cut above your ordinary, garden-variety creepy-crawly. Common earthworms and nightcrawlers eat dirt and won't survive in a worm bin. The high-toned red worm dines on your finest kitchen scraps, thank you, including vegetable and fruit peelings and rinds, egg shells, grains, pasta, bread, and coffee grounds and filters. Oh, and a croissant now and then would be ever so nice, darling! And did I mention that these worms are vegetarians? No meat or dairy products for these elite creatures. GARBAGE IN, COMPOST OUT Red worms can eat their own weight in food in 24 hours. That means a whole lot of worm poop, known by the more genteel term, castings. It's the castings that make for super compost. And if you keep your worm bin bedding clean, odor shouldn't be a problem. Worm bins can go a month or more between cleanings. Don't try that with your kitty litter box! Feeding worms is almost as easy as feeding a Pet Rock. If you're going to be away from home for up to three weeks, just give the little fellas some extra food before you go. They'll be fine until you return. However, if you're going to be gone for a month or more, arrange for someone to feed your worms. Hello, Susie's Pet Sitting Service? I need you to feed my worms while I'm in Maui. Yes, I said worms. Hello? Hello? House your worms in a box between 12 and 18 inches deep with drainage and aeration holes and a snug lid to keep moisture in and pests out. Wood is ideal, but you can make bins from other material. Don't use clear plastic, however; worms are creatures of the dark. Detailed plans for building your own worm bin may be obtained free of charge from the Island County/WSU Waste Wise Program, home of Whidbey's Worm Women and Men. Keep your bin where temperature (ideally, 55 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit) and moisture can be controlled and there's good air circulation. An insulated garage or even the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink would work. You'll need to provide bedding. For worms, bedding is habitat, food source and odor-suppressant. It can be made from shredded paper, dry leaves, straw, cardboard, or a combination of all, moistened to the wetness of a wrung-out sponge. The bedding will eventually become part of the compost and must be replenished from time to time. What I've described is a very basic overview of the fascinating world of worm keeping, otherwise known as vermicomposting or vermiculture. If you'd like to know more, or to request worm bin plans, call the Waste Wise Program office, 679-7391 or 321-5111, ext. 7491 or e-mail email@example.com. The finer points of keeping worms and other composting techniques will be discussed in a class entitled Yard Waste Composting, or What Your Garden Really Needs at the Master Gardener-sponsored Whidbey Gardening Workshop, Saturday, March 3 at Coupeville Middle School. It will be taught by Janet Hall, Island County/WSU Waste Wise program coordinator. Janet knows her worms. In fact, Janet and her contingent of Worm People will give you worms to start your own bin. If the class whets your appetite for worms, on Sunday, March 4, you can attend the Earthworms in Eco-Technology Conference and Trade Show in Portland. It will feature leading experts in the vermiculture industry and the largest exhibit of earthworm-related products and services. Mary Appelhof, author of the vermicomposter's bible, Worms Eat My Garbage will be a guest speaker. For more information on the conference, call (541) 476-9626, or go to www.vermico.com/conference.htm. After an entire weekend of worms, you'll be qualified to call yourself a genuine vermiphile. You may never look at fish bait the same way again. "