The little FedEx box looked innocent enough — though its contents might seem the stuff of nightmares. Inside were two fist-size cloth sacks, each bulging with hundreds of red, spindly worms in a peaty mush. I dumped the slightly pulsating mixture onto a piece of cardboard on our driveway.
"I want to touch one, but I don't," said 6-year-old Ethan.
He hooked one on a trembling finger. "It feels like a cold piece of spaghetti," he announced, gaining enough confidence to dangle it over his big sister's head. "What if a bird comes?" asked Hannah, 10, gazing up at the sky.
We were not getting ready for a massive fishing expedition. These worms were here to eat our garbage. I'd been casting about for something environmentally minded to do with the kids, and worm composting seemed ideal: It would play to their fascination with creepy crawlers and offer a concrete, dirty-handed satisfaction. From the field's bible, Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof ($13, Flower Press, wormwoman.com), I learned that a few pounds of worms could graze their way through much of our food waste year-round, producing fertilizer we could use to enrich our deprived lawn and flower beds. The kids were excited by the idea and eager to meet their new "pets."
The worms twisting away on our driveway weren't the garden-variety garden variety. They were the gourmands of garbage: redworms, a.k.a. red wigglers. Redworms are hardy enough to withstand frequent handling and breed enthusiastically in captivity. They're also eating machines and can work their way through half their body weight in garbage each day.
I had ordered two pounds — some 2,000 worms, the starter amount recommended for our Worm Chalet, a lavish, multilevel McMansion. You can keep a worm bin in the basement or even the kitchen, but we elected to set up housekeeping in our garage. (I found the prospect of all those eyeless creatures writhing away in the dark, two floors below where we slumbered, a bit too Edgar Allan Poe.)
We fed our worms apple cores, browning lettuce, coffee grounds, stale bread, pizza crusts. At dinner one night, Hannah paused in her usual attempt to hide her cauliflower beneath her napkin, suggesting brightly, "This would be good for the worms!" Meat and fats are verboten, since they could make the worm box smell as they decay (gross, I know) and might attract unwanted marauders, such as mice. We collected our scraps in used cereal boxes (cardboard breathes, so it doesn't encourage stinky anaerobic bacteria) and kept them in the sink until we could walk them out to the bin. (For more attractive scrap storage, try a countertop crock.)
It was an act of faith that the worms were indeed eating our garbage. Like the Queen of England, they don't like to eat in public: They hide beneath the cantaloupe rinds and old toast and eat from below. Every time we opened the lid, the scrap pile would be smaller.
An Inconvenient Truth
Worm composting is not for the squeamish. Ethan has a hearty interest in all matters digestive, but even he is appalled by the puddles of brown goo, still faintly recognizable as asparagus tips. "Gross!" he'll shout, and retreat to the safety of the yard. The chalet also has become home to small bugs and tiny flies. (No doubt this is due to our often wide-open garage door; also, we aren't very disciplined about putting the lid back on the bin.) Appelhof counsels a big-tent acceptance here: "Your worm culture is not a monoculture," she writes. "It is a diverse, interdependent community of large and small organisms" all united around the common goal of helping your food waste decompose. She notes that flies, the peskiest interlopers, will be discouraged if you thoroughly bury the food under a layer of bedding. As for the smell, we have found it not unpleasant: If the bin isn't allowed to get too wet or full, it exudes an earthy scent with subtle notes of the week's menu.
Nor are worms exactly the Lassies of the invertebrate world. They are industrious but modest workers who will burrow below the surface when exposed to light. Staring into a box of half-decayed garbage can't compete for a child's interest with, say, a few rounds of Wii bowling. I did a little matchmaking by scooping out a few worms at a time to act as goodwill ambassadors. "How do they see?" Hannah asked as she peered at one we'd placed on our patio table. We did some reading and found that worms don't have eyes, but sense light through their skin. One afternoon, the kids had bonded enough to want to name all their new pets, and drew up a list on a legal pad. I explained that worms were hermaphrodites, a combination of both boy and girl. "Maybe try Alex and Sam," I suggested.
As the Worm Turns
After about two months, the bottom of the worm box was covered in a brown, earthy mixture dotted with the occasional avocado pit or apple stem. This vermicompost is a rich, nutrient-packed food for the garden. I did my best to pick out the worms and return them to their bin. I then scattered a thin layer of humus in the garden beds, which do seem the lusher for it.
Our plants aren't the only things that have benefited. As we triage dinner leftovers, I remind the kids that if our worms weren't here, this stuff would be clogging up a landfill in a plastic bag. And behind our garage, a cucumber plant has spontaneously sprouted from a patch of compost-enriched soil. It's a little miracle, as cucumbers are the only vegetable Ethan will allow to touch his lips. "When will they be ready to eat?" he asks every day. We consider it a thank-you gift from our worms.
Making Worms Welcome
Lodging: You can make your own bin from a wooden crate or a plastic tub, or buy one from a supplier. Composters.com has bins starting at $33; and, a swank pad is the Terra Cotta Worm Factory ($77, happydranch.com). The bin should allow for airflow, so you may need to drill holes on the sides and bottom. (Consult Worms Eat My Garbage for details.) A lid will deter flies, retain moisture, and give worms the darkness they prefer. To house the scraps your worms will chow on, try a ceramic crock; $30 at gardeners.com.
Bedding: Bedding allows air to circulate, keeps the worms moist, and helps deter flies when you bury the food underneath it. Try shredded newspaper (the black-and-white sections — colored ink might harm your worms), computer paper, wood chips, or coconut coir ($3 a block, wormwoman.com or plant nurseries). The bedding needs to be damp but not soaked, like a wrung-out washcloth.
Worms: Not just any will do. Redworms are the champion garbage eaters. You can find them at bait shops or by mail order ($19 for one pound, wormwoman.com).
A Good Read: Gary Larson's There's a Hair in My Dirt! ($13, Harper Paperbacks)
Location: Your worms will do best between 55 and 75 degrees. They'll die if temperatures in the bin get below freezing or soar near triple digits. A sheltered area like a basement or garage (keep that door closed!) is a good spot. Some vermiculture veterans keep their bins right in the kitchen, but if you're allergic to mold or mildew, you shouldn't set up shop in your living quarters.
Menu: Worms prefer a mostly vegan diet — noncitrus fruit and vegetable scraps, bread, pasta, rice. You can also toss in paper towels, coffee filters, even dryer lint. Ground eggshells are a special treat — they provide much-needed grit to help the worms' digestion. Don't serve meat, fats, oils, or onions, which can smell bad as they decay, or citrus, which contains acids that can irritate the worms.