They're slimy, wiggly and eat garbage. Children love them, and so do gardeners. They're worms, squirmy little composters that turn table scraps into rich fertilizer.
This week, kindergartner Scotty Horigan got a close look at these industrious critters -- maybe a little too close for his taste.
"They feel squiggly, like spit," said the Ellicott City 6-year-old, gingerly dropping a bunch of dirt-covered worms into a cut-off plastic soda bottle to make his very own home composter as part of a program sponsored by state and county agricultural officials.
The process is known as "vermicomposting," and it has long been popular among gardeners delighted with the material churned out by red wiggler worms that can eat as much as half their body weight in garbage every day.
Now, worm composting is catching on among nongardeners, touted statewide by the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service as a safe, environmentally useful way to eliminate household garbage.
"It's a great family activity," said Jon Traunsfeld, coordinator of the 60 volunteers in the service's Master Gardener Program, which has handed out thousands of worms to schoolchildren in Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties; Baltimore City; and the Eastern Shore. "It's very visual. It makes quite an impact."
"The kids go crazy," agreed Betsy McMillion, Howard County's recycling program coordinator, who works with the program, giving out worms in elementary school classrooms. "They absolutely love it."
Red wiggler worms, or Eisenia fetida, can be found in cow and horse manure. They grow to be as long as 2 inches.
As are earthworms, red wigglers often are used as fishing bait. Unlike earthworms, however, red wigglers love to eat such scraps as potato peels, rotten apples, crushed egg shells and coffee grounds.
"They're specialized for eating raw garbage," said Mr. Traunsfeld, of the cooperative extension service. "Earthworms aren't interested in burrowing through coffee grinds and potato peelings."
In composting, the worms are kept in covered bins about the size of a small footlocker and filled with moist, shredded newspapers and table scraps.
They're fed small amounts of fresh garbage every two to three days.
If they're fed too much, the compost heap will develop an odor and attract fruit flies, said Rondalyn Reeser, a volunteer master gardener from Howard County.
In about three months, a composter with 2,000 worms -- about 2 pounds -- can produce their weight in rich fertilizer. Known as "castings," the material has more phosphates, potassium and nitrogen than the material produced in typical grass-and-leaf composters.
"My violets are blooming like crazy," said Ms. McMillion, who keeps a bin of worms in her Columbia office.
Red wiggler worms can be bought at bait and tackle stores or ordered from compost manufacturers. For about $70, a compost starter kit, complete with 2,000 worms, is available from a Rhode Island company that creates worm farms.
The worms made quite a stir this week when Ms. McMillion brought her vermiculture show to a kindergarten classroom at St. Johns Lane Elementary in Ellicott City.
Using the cut-off ends of plastic containers, shredded paper and dirt, the children made composters for worms distributed by Ms. McMillion.
Five-year-old Elizabeth Wiebking observed that her worms felt "like an ice cream cone -- cold."
"Mushy" is how 5-year-old Courtney Reardon described the red wiggler in her palm.
Not everyone was eager to meet the classroom's newest additions.
"I've made it through the morning and afternoon without touching them," said Sharon Campbell, a student teacher from Coppin State College, who laughed as she invited students to help themselves to worms from a plastic container.
If Ms. McMillion had her way, however, everyone would have a bin of red wigglers.
"We're trying to encourage composting," she said. "It makes too much sense not to."
To speak with an extension agent about worm composting, call the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service's Home and Garden Information Center at 1-800-342-2507 between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m.