Crawly Composters Feed Gardens ... and Nourish Kids Imaginations
Story and Photo by: Steven Biggs
It sounded so mature: “Wait for me, Dad! I’m really interested in those worms,” five-year-old Emma admonished as I carted the pound of worms to the basement without her. She zipped past me on the stairs and scurried to our new worm composter, a three-tiered apartment-like affair also known as a vermicomposter. Quinn tagged along too, though I didn’t know what reaction to expect from him: at two years old, he’s quick to protest when his hands are dirty.
Together the kids picked up the worms, which had been temporarily housed in old juice cartons, and then poured the worms into their new home. The kids wriggled gleefully at the sight of the writhing mass of slimy worms, though I doubt the glee was mutual; a couple of worms undoubtedly finished the day with slight bruising.
Clean-handed Quinn eventually gave a few tentative pokes at the worms when he saw they were making an escape into the bedding material. After each tentative poke he’d study his hands and then wipe them on his shirt. And eventually build up enough pluck for another poke.
Finally the moment came: he mustered up his courage and proudly held up a worm for me to see.
If worm composting – chopped-up slimy food scraps mixed with soil, shredded paper and worms – seems like the antithesis of fine food, think again: worms underpin food production. Not only do they improve soil, they cycle food scraps into a top-notch soil amendment. Equally important is the educational component. Worms are a neat way for kids to experience the cycles of food and growing.
Cathy’s Crawly Composters
I originally became interested in vermicomposting when raccoons and rats repeatedly broke into my outdoor composter despite lots of additional critter-proofing wire mesh. Indoor worm composting, I figured, might be the solution. But the more I saw my kids with the worms, the more interested I became in the idea of worms as a fun garden-related activity for kids. So I called Cathy Nesbitt, owner of Bradford-based Cathy’s Crawly Composters, to learn more. Cathy is far from being a traditional farmer. She raises worms.
A self-proclaimed worm advocate, Cathy founded her company in 2002. Besides selling worms, composters, and worm castings, she is a worm and worm-composting educator. That means talks and workshops for schools, horticulture clubs, birthday parties, and events related to waste management. Her husband Rick and mother-in-law Mary also work in the business. Mary Nesbitt even keeps worms in her apartment.
When Cathy came to visit, my kids took a shine to her right away. It wasn’t a surprise: she’s animated, smiles a lot, and has worm earrings and a worm necklace. I was horrified to see my kids proudly trot out their self-made worm bin, a soil-filled container into which they’d lovingly plopped the countless maimed worms I’d unearthed while digging fencepost holes. Most were dried out and barely recognizable. Cathy examined the remains of the worms without flinching, and then suggested to the kids that the worms might like a bit more moisture.
Next we inspected the vermicomposter I had intended for her to see. To my relief, she sang out, “It’s like Easter!” as we dug through the shredded paper, soil and scraps with our hands. Then she showed me the worm eggs, some ready to give birth to batches of up to twenty worms, others, more light in colour, not yet ready to hatch. I was relieved at the good report card as, despite finding live worms in there, they hadn’t seemed to be eating a lot. Cathy explained that they were in a cool spot, which had slowed them down, and that a colony takes time to become established.
Cathy was completely at ease with her hands in the bin, moving aside kitchen scraps and soil while checking the worms, so I was surprised when she told me, “I was afraid of worms before I started my business.” A social worker who has studied psychology, she says worms were definitely not on her radar in the beginning. But now she’s pumped about worms.
She hasn’t entirely given up social work, except that now she approaches it using worms. “I think the worms are transformative,” she says as she describes her work at a group home where residents take the care of their worm colony very seriously. And the fun part is making poo balls, which are wet, sticky worm castings (as worm excrement is called) rolled into balls, a product that can be added to a watering can to create a natural fertilizer solution.
Worms and Worm Composting
The worms used for worm composting – red wigglers – are related to the common night crawler worms that appear on sidewalks after a summer rain, but Cathy explains that red wigglers are better for vermicomposting. That’s because they’re the eat-on-the-go, fast-food junkies of the worm world. They like to eat – and eat quickly. And they like nitrogen-rich kitchen scraps. Night crawlers, on the other hand, drag food into tunnels that are up to six feet deep, preferring food with more carbon, such as dried leaves.
Worm castings are a nitrogen-rich natural fertilizer. Worms can be fed kitchen scraps such as fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds and even bread (but no meat or any fats or sauces). Along with food scraps, three key elements of successful composting are temperature (worms are most active between 16° and 25° C); moisture (75 percent relative humidity is best); and air flow (containers should have holes.) One other pointer that can make a big difference: The smaller the pieces into which the food is chopped, the more quickly the worms can break it down. Cathy remarks that one of the most common concerns she hears is that the worms might get out of the composter. “There’s no time for sightseeing,” she laughs as she talks about the voracious appetite of red wigglers, which eat at least half their own body weight each day. Another common question is, “Will it smell?” The answer is no – not when done correctly.
Worms as the Solution
Cathy sees worm composting as the missing link in smart waste management. “People want one solution,” she laments as she talks about one Toronto office building that scrapped its successful worm composting program when the Toronto green bin program was launched. She reminds people that it’s not an either/or situation: It’s possible to have worms and still use the green bin for excess scraps or those unsuited to worms.
Unlike a green bin, she explains, castings need not be collected by truck, hauled around the province, sorted and processed. It’s an eloquently simple approach to managing waste. Granted, Cathy has more worms than does the average person, but one month she diverted 1,100 pounds of coffee grounds from a local coffee shop and 3,300 pounds of produce waste from a local grocery store.
She’s optimistic about the future role of worms. “The worms will play an even bigger role in waste management,” she says. She is preparing for that future by educating kids now. Cathy recalls opening up a bag of worm castings for a Grade 2 class so that the students could touch and smell them. Giggling, she recalls one boy who said, “Doesn’t smell like mine.” That’s the point Nesbitt wants to drive home. “They’re incredibly clean creatures,” she says. Clean enough for any house or apartment.
I’m proud to relate that there’s no more hesitant poking at worms for Quinn: When digging, I must now mind the little hands that reach into the soil at the sight of a worm. Luckily, I’m usually forewarned by an exuberant cry of, “Worm, Dada!”
A writer, horticulturist and garden educator, Steven Biggs is a lifelong gardener who has managed to garden wherever he’s lived—with allotment gardens, container gardens, indoor gardens, and gardens in the overgrown backyards of rented houses. Sign up for his free vegetable gardening e-zine, “Homegrown in Toronto,” at www.The-Locavores-Garden.com.
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