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Vermiculture in Schools – and Beyond

First grader Ben caring for the worm bin in his classroom

First Grader Ben knows that worm bedding needs to be kept moist

Verrmiculture is worm farming. Worms are the gardener’s friend. They eat kitchen waste and turn it into valuable fertilizer called vermicompost. You too can be a vermiculturist, one who practices vermiculture and makes vermicompost, and you cannot begin too soon.

When I visited Kate Bailey’s first grade last week to read to them, they were all excited and told me they had a thousand new pets in the classroom and could I guess what they were. I could not. Gleefully they showed me their worm bin and told me all kinds of worm facts.

The children knew that the worms that live and work in bins are not the same kind of worms that you find in the garden. They have red wigglers, Eisenia fetida, in their bin. A single worm is both female and male, but it still needs to mate with another worm. The children talked about the ‘vest’ that the worm has around its middle. Adults know the proper name is the clitellum. In a sense you could say two worms still have to hug to exchange sperm and fertilize the eggs. Then the ‘vest’ with the fertilized eggs ultimately slips off the worm in a cocoon. The baby worms will hatch in approximately three weeks. Usually only two or three baby worms will come out of each cocoon. You can see we had a very technical and scientific conversation.

With the help of a three year grant from the Mass Department of Environmental Protection Amy Donovan of the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District is in the process of bringing worm bins and coupons to buy the worms to the schools in our district. “Having worms in class is a chance to get up close and personal to compost. They’ll see it is not yucky or smelly – just fascinating,” she said when we talked on the phone.

Donovan has been working with worms and school children for some years. “Worm bins are a perfect small scale compost system for schools because students can see the compost system working. They can observe materials every day or two and see the changes. It also works for the curriculum in three ways. The worms provide a science experiment, classroom pets, and practical indoor composting,” she said.

There are good support resources for the vermicomposting program in the schools including The Green Team (www.thegreenteam.org), an environmental club sponsored by the Mass DEP.

I had my own worm bin when we lived in Heath. It was simply an opaque bin I bought at Home Depot.  It was set up for visiting grandsons when they were about 8 or 9 years old. We gained a lot of basic information about worms together.

Each worm bin needs dampened shredded newspaper, never plain white computer paper, to make bedding for the worms.  Worms breathe through their skin and that is why they need a damp environment. They do not need soil.

Food scraps, fruit and vegetables, bread, oatmeal, and egg shells as well other foods, including moldy bits from the back shelf of the refrigerator, are suitable for the bin. Actually, smashed up egg shells are very good for worms because they supply calcium that they need for reproduction. Food does not need to be ground up, but smaller pieces will break down more quickly. Meat and bones and dairy products should not go into the bin because they will rot and smell bad.

We did not just dump our scraps in one spot, but put enough for one week (as we tried to judge) in one spot, and then put scraps in another spot the following week. We also fluffed up the shredded bedding from time to time so it didn’t pack down. Over the course of the year I would also add more damp bedding. When the boys left I kept up the routines myself.

Once a year I cleaned out the bin and harvested the castings otherwise known as worm manure or vermicompost for my garden. I dumped out my bin onto a tarp outside on a sunny day. Worms do not like the light so they dive down to the bottom of the pile. While I am waiting for the worms to leave the top layer I wash the bin and fill it with more damp bedding, and I always added a couple of handfuls of the vermicompost, so the worms would know they were still at home.

Norm Hirschfeld and Marsha Stone, veteran worm farmers

Norm Hirschfeld and Marsha Stone, veteran worm farmers

Norm Hirschfeld and Marsha Stone have been composting for over 20 years. They did have a couple of smelly and buggy adventures when they first began, but they now keep their sweet smelling Can O Worms vermicomposter in their basement. Can O Worms is just one of the worm bins that you can buy. The bins come with full information about the bins and handling worms. They also are designed to collect compost tea as well as regular compost.

Compost tea is the liquid exudation created by the water in the kitchen waste, as well as being produced by the worms themselves and other microorganisms in the waste. Worm bins are usually equipped with a reservoir to collect this rich fertilizer, and a spigot. Compost tea can be used in the garden or for mixing with water and used on houseplants.

Exudate  from Norm's worm bin

Exudate from Norm’s worm bin

The bible of vermicomposting is Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof. It gives directions for making your own worm bin, and answers every question you might have about worms, how the worm population will increase, what kinds of problems might arise and how to fix them, and the composting process.

It might be time to set up a new worm bin in my new house.

Between the Rows   November 19, 2016

3 comments to Vermiculture in Schools – and Beyond

  • Helen Opie

    I could not keep up with them. I’m not sure if it was migration to seek more food or population explosion…guess I need to read up and try again…or maybe one person who doesn’t eat out of grocery stores simply doesn’t provide enough food to support a colony. I loved the compost!

  • Fascinating stuff! I do keep a compost pile, but I haven’t ventured into vermiculture. My garden is mostly native perennials and ornamental annuals. But if I ever have a sunny edible garden again, this might make sense. Thanks for the info!

  • Pat

    Helen – What a mystery. I have no suggestions but the population explosion sounds possible. Someone like you must always be putting in vegetable peelings and such.
    Beth – For the school children vermiculture is a way for children to see the science of composting up close. I had my worm bin mostly for the grandchildren, and the the science of it. The compost was good for any plants, including houseplants.

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