Worms are a simple and old-fashioned answer to garbage disposal


April 17, 1991|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

One makes certain compromises living in the city. Instead of the farmer's traditional garbage disposal -- pigs -- we city slickers raise their urban equivalent -- worms.

Many of us raise earthworms, unwittingly, in our yards, but I'm talking about a more committed relationship: a worm bin.

A worm bin has decided advantages over a pigpen. It needs a fraction of the space. The worms aren't noisy. Nor are they smelly. They won't bite the children. And you can leave town for weeks without having to get a hired hand. You can't eat your worms, but you do get rich worm-made fertilizer for your plants and garden.

Vermicomposting, the fancy name for keeping a worm bin, isn't for everyone. But it can be an excellent way to get rid of kitchen scraps if your city's public health department won't let you compost them in an open bin, or if you don't generate enough yard waste to keep a compost pile cooking, or if you live in an apartment and don't have any yard at all.

Because worm bins are tidy, portable and mostly odorless, you can keep them almost anywhere. Convenience -- proximity to the kitchen -- is the key. For most of the year, a worm bin can be kept outdoors, out of direct sunlight. Unless you have very mild winters, however, the bin should be brought indoors during the coldest months. It can go into a closet, in the basement, under the kitchen sink or even in the dining room with a cushion on top.

Here is how one family's jumbo worm bin works. The sturdy, 3-by-2-by-1-foot wooden box lives on the porch, just outside the kitchen door. It is filled with moist, shredded newspaper, wriggling red worms and rapidly decomposing kitchen scraps. Some people use moist fallen leaves as bedding, but this household generates more newspaper than leaves.

Scraps are put into a small plastic bucket beside the sink. When the bucket is full, someone takes it out the kitchen door, opens the bin, pushes aside the bedding and buries the scraps.

Here is what their worms won't eat: meat, cheese, fish, pet waste, oily or greasy food. Here is what they will eat: any vegetable and fruit waste, corn husks, pulverized eggshells, bread, coffee grounds and paper filters, shredded pizza boxes, some shredded dirty paper napkins, towels and plates, tea bags, spaghetti, watermelon rind, and so on.

The worms eat the garbage. What comes out the other end of the worms is a bacteria- and nutrient-rich organic material called worm castings -- a priceless soil enhancer.

Besides worms, decomposers at work in a worm bin include bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, mold, rotifers, springtails, sowbugs, pillbugs and mites. Most of these critters are so small you will never know they're there.

Every six to eight months, you can harvest your castings. Move the compost to one side of the bin. Add fresh bedding to the other side, and bury food scraps only in the new bedding. Over the course of a month or so, almost all the worms will migrate to that area. You can then scoop out the compost and replace it with bedding. Use your fabulous compost on house plants, seedlings or anywhere you can use rich organic material in your soil.

Interested? You can either build your own worm bin, which will cost you about $25 in materials, or buy one ready-made for $40- $55. A friend with a well-established bin can give you some worms, or you can buy these, too.

Worms used in vermicomposting are not the common earthworm you are used to seeing in your garden. Earthworms can't tolerate the nitrogen-rich environment of the worm bin. Manure worms, known as red-wrigglers, are the fellows you need.

When you set up the box, give your worms a limited diet of coffee grounds and filters for a month to give them a good start in life. Then start them in on your other kitchen scraps. You may be surprised at how satisfying it is to feed your garbage to the worms. And be prepared -- your children may become very attached to them.

The bible of the worm bin is "Worms Eat My Garbage," by Mary Appelhof, available at most libraries. This lively book gives a simple design for do-it-yourselfers, and tells you everything you ever wanted to know about worms. The book includes an order form for a ready-made bin and worms.

Another source of plans for a bin is the Worm Factory, Route 3, Box 200, Dover, Ark. 72837. Send them a check for $6.95, and they will send you plans for an "ecology box."

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