Local gardening

Teaching kids how to compost with worms

August 8, 2013 

Vermicomposting produces the Cadillac of compost, worm castings.

DANIENEL — istockphoto.com

Many schools have compost sites on campus for recycling of school garden and cafeteria food preparation waste. With the start of the new school year only a few weeks away, why not consider a whole new version of composting from last year, composting with a wiggle.

For schools with active compost bins in place, it only takes a dozen or so red wigglers, Eisenia fetida, to get started. Some prefer a pound of worms which is approximately 1000 wigglers.

These fellows (they are really hermaphrodites) will take over the toil of turning and aerating the waste while at the same time eating their hearts (all five) away through your garbage.

They waste no time gorging on garbage and gifting you with castings, the Cadillac of compost.

The voracious feeders work tirelessly outpacing the work of long-term invertebrates, fungi, and bacteria of the compost bin.

The organic matter in your bin will undulate with worm activity. Because the worms are processing the garbage, the heat created by the previous decomposers does not occur. If it did, you would have baked worms. To reward the wigglers for their work, treat them to a coffee break via a bag of Starbucks Grounds for the Garden. Grounds seem to accelerate compost creation and the worms really do appreciate them.

Besides receiving a continuous stream of compost when you continue to feed the worms, you will begin to notice an abundance of worms.

You not only have a vermicomposting bin but also a breeding bin! With worms each partner produces offspring. One worm produces ninety-nine hatchlings in an 11-week period. A hatchling becomes a mature breeder in three months. At the same time the parents continue to mate and produce offspring. Be prepared for a population explosion.

Worms will populate every area of the bin making harvesting of casting and vermicompost a challenge.

There are a number of harvesting methods but the “dump and sort” method is fun for a class.

Spread a large tarp on the ground outdoors near the garden and place volcano cone-shaped piles of vermicompost atop it. Because worms are sensitive to light, they crawl to the bottom of each pile.

Students can scoop casting from the top, reshape each mound and continue the tedious process until worms and castings are separated.

Worms are returned to the bin to work or your class may want to sell worms to local bait shops, fishermen, or future vermicomposters.

Castings are distributed to raised beds, flowerpots, seedling trays, and around shrubs and trees. A cup of castings steeped in a gallon of rainwater makes compost tea, an elixir for plants and soil and a wonderful gift for gardeners.

A less time consuming way to harvest casting is used by garden writer Sharon Lovejoy. She has harvested castings in an 8-foot long, 4-foot wide, and 16-inch high worm bin.

She feeds the worms on one side of the bin one week and shifts to the other side the following week.

The worms quickly learn where the fresh food is and move to the newest menu items. She then harvests from the vacated side.

Fourteen year old vermicomposter Billy Carson of Billy’s Goat Farm in the upstate has been growing worms for fun and profit for 10 years. He recommends the Can of Worms system, a stackable tower of trays. As worms finish eating organic matter on one tray, they migrate up to the next tier leaving behind a tray of casting for removal.

Composting and vermicomposting are wonderful ways to learn biology, ecology, and even business basics.

Arlene Marturano is an educator, consultant, master gardener, and freelance writer. Read more of Arlene Marturano’s garden writings at suite101.com and www.scgarden learning.com

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