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Between the Rows: Working with worms

  • Norm Hirschfeld and Marsha Stone make compost tea to use in their garden and on house plants. For The Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • Ben Johnson takes care of a bin of worms in his first-grade class at Four Corners School in Greenfield. For The Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • Norm Hirschfeld and Marsha Stone For The Recorder/Pat Leuchtman



For The Recorder
Friday, November 18, 2016

Worms are a gardener’s friend. They eat kitchen waste and turn it into valuable fertilizer called “vermicompost.”

You too can be a vermiculturist, one who practices vermiculture and makes vermicompost, and you cannot begin too soon.

When I visited Kate Bailey’s first-grade class last week to read to them, they were all excited and told me they had a thousand new pets in the classroom, and could I guess what they were. I could not.

Gleefully, they showed me their worm bin and told me all kinds of worm facts.

The children knew that the worms that live and work in bins are not the same kind of worms that you find in the garden.

They have red wigglers, Eisenia fetida, in their bin. A single worm is both female and male, but it still needs to mate with another worm.

The children talked about the “vest” that the worm has around its middle. Adults know the proper name is the clitellum.

In a sense, you could say two worms still have to hug to exchange sperm and fertilize the eggs. Then the vest, with the fertilized eggs attached, ultimately slips off the worm in a cocoon. The baby worms hatch in approximately three weeks.

Usually, only two or three baby worms come out of each cocoon. You can see we had a very technical and scientific conversation.

With the help of a three-year grant from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Amy Donovan of Franklin County Solid Waste Management District is in the process of bringing worm bins and coupons to buy the worms to the school throughout our our district.

“Having worms in class is a chance to get up close and personal to compost,” she said. “(Students) will see it is not yucky or smelly — just fascinating.”

Donovan has been working with worms and school children for some years.

“Worm bins are a perfect small-scale compost system for schools, because students can see the compost system working. They can observe materials every day or two and see the changes. It also works for the curriculum in three ways: the worms provide a science experiment, (they become) classroom pets, and (it leads to) practical indoor composting,” Donovan said..

There are good support resources for the vermicomposting program in the schools, including The Green Team
(www.thegreenteam.org),
an environmental club sponsored by the DEP.

I had my own worm bin when we lived in Heath. It was simply an opaque bin I bought at Home Depot. It was set up for visiting grandsons, when they were about 8 or 9 years old. We gained a lot of basic information about worms together.

Each worm bin needs dampened shredded newspaper — never plain white computer paper — to make bedding for the worms. Worms breathe through their skin and that is why they need a damp environment. They do not need soil.

Food scraps, fruits and vegetables, bread, oatmeal and egg shells, as well other foods, including moldy bits from the back shelf of the refrigerator, are suitable for the bin.

Actually, smashed up egg shells are very good for worms, because they supply calcium that they need for reproduction. Food does not need to be ground up, but smaller pieces will break down more quickly. Meat and bones and dairy products should not go into the bin, because they will rot and smell bad.

We did not just dump our scraps in one spot, but put enough for one week — as we tried to judge — in one spot, and then put scraps in another spot the following week.

We also fluffed up the shredded bedding from time to time so it didn’t pack down. Over the course of a year, I would also add more damp bedding. When the boys left, I kept up the routine myself.

Once a year, I cleaned out the bin and harvested the castings, otherwise known as worm manure, or vermicompost, for my garden. I dumped out my bin onto a tarp outside on a sunny day.

Worms do not like the light, so they dive down to the bottom of the pile. While I wait for the worms to leave the top layer, I wash the bin and fill it with more damp bedding, and I always add a couple of handfuls of the vermicompost so the worms would know they were still at home.

Norm Hirschfeld and Marsha Stone have been composting for more than 20 years. They did have a couple of smelly and buggy adventures when they first began, but they now keep their sweet- smelling Can O Worms vermicomposter in their basement.

Can O Worms is just one of the worm bins that you can buy. The bins come with full information about the bins and handling worms. They also are designed to collect compost tea, as well as regular compost.

Compost tea is the liquid exudation created by the water in the kitchen waste. It is also produced by the worms themselves, as well as other microorganisms in the waste.

Worm bins are usually equipped with a reservoir to collect the rich fertilizer.
They also come equipped with a spigot.

Compost tea can be used in the garden or for mixing with water and used on houseplants.

The bible of vermicomposting is “Worms Eat My Garbage,” by Mary Appelhof. It gives directions for making your own worm bin and answers every question you might have about worms, how the worm population will increase, what kinds of problems might arise and how to fix them, as well as the composting process.

It might be time to set up a new worm bin in my new house.

Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980. She now lives in Greenfield. Readers can leave comments at her website: www.commonweeder.com