Getting over the ick factor

Photo: istockphoto.com/zerocattle
Conquering 5 common fears related to composting with worms.

What do Charles Darwin, Cleopatra and Aristotle have in common? They all revered the lowly earthworm for its contribution to the health of our planet. But not everyone shares the love.

Cathy Nesbitt remembers what it was like being anti-worm, and it started with a disastrous experience looking after a teacher’s vermicompost (or worm compost) bin.

“I just threw the food in so I had fruit flies,” says Nesbitt. “I was afraid of worms. Not that I thought they would eat me… just they were creepy, icky, slimy.”

But once she learned about worm power—they eat up to half their weight in food scraps each day, reduce the amount of organic waste going to landfill and produce gorgeous black castings (a nitrogen-rich natural fertilizer)—her point of view changed.

Today, she’s the namesake behind Cathy’s Crawly Composters, a Bradford, Ont.-based vermicomposting business. And business is booming.

“What used to be a concern of hard-core environmentalists is now a concern of everyone,” says Marilyn Firth of Winnipeg-based Red Wriggler Haven. “There’s definitely an increased interest and awareness in doing this.”

Anyone can vermicompost year-round, whether you have a backyard or not. You can use a simple, well-ventilated Rubbermaid bin or a tower system with stacking trays, such as the Canadian-made Worm Chalet ($150). Then all you need is moist bedding (shredded newspaper works well), fruit and vegetable waste (leave out the meats, dairy or eggs) and Red Wriggler worms, usually sold in ½ pound or full pound quantities, ranging from $25 to $50.

It only takes six weeks to start seeing changes in the bedding. After about three to four months, the wrigglers will be ready to be moved to a new bin, leaving behind the dark, crumbly castings (known as ‘black gold’ to the green thumb set) to be used in your houseplants or garden.

But if you’re still stuck on “yuck!” read on to see what our experts say about the top five fears of vermicomposting:

Fear #1. Worms are icky

Being 90 percent water, worms may have a slightly gooshy feel to them. But don’t judge them too harshly. A pound of worms (and their offspring) can process a tonne of organic waste in a year. Besides, any creature with five hearts deserves our loves, says Nesbitt.

Fear #2. Worm bins stink

“If you’re taking good care of your bin, it smells like spring – that nice, fresh earth smell,” says Firth.

Keep the scraps covered with bedding, and don’t overfeed your worms. This will prevent a whole heap of problems—mould growth, and anaerobic conditions that lead to bad odours and unwelcome critters, says Bentley Christie of Elmira, Ont.-based Worm Composting Canada. “It’s next to impossible to starve your worms, but overfeeding is relatively easy,” he says.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: A pound of worms will eat about three to four pounds of kitchen scraps each week (start with a 2 litre ice cream tub per week, suggests Nesbitt.)

Fear #3. Worm bins attract bugs

Fruit flies are the most common (and tiresome) bug problem but it helps to rinse your scraps first and keep the waste buried under the bedding. “Fruit flies are surface workers – they don’t want to go under to get the food,” says Firth.

Fear #4. The worms will escape

“Some worms on your lid and sides of the bin is very normal,” says Christie. “But if most of them are up there, something is wrong down below.”

The bin may be too acidic (balance the pH with crushed eggs shells) or too wet (drain with a turkey baster or add more bedding.)

And worms won’t overrun the bin. “Worms have been around for millions of years and they haven’t taken over yet,” says Nesbitt. Worms reproduce to fill their environment based on available space and food.

Fear # 5. It’s a lot of work

“Maintenance can be five minutes a day or once a week,” says Gerrie Baker of The Worm Factory in Westport, Ont. “You can definitely leave for a weekend, a week or several months. You don’t have to walk your worms, clean up after them or get a neighbour to watch them while you’re away.”

That said, worms are living creatures and need proper care and attention. “If you’re watching how it’s going, you’re going to have a higher success rate,” says Firth.

Taking that first step

“Start small,” says Christie. “Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to create mountains of compost. Set up a tiny hobby bin and add a very small quantity of waste materials. Just start by watching the process with a very hands-off approach.”

And wear kitchen gloves if you have to. Your garden—and the planet—will thank you for it.