When Joan O’Connor was first handed a few small bags filled with composting worms at Canterbury Shaker Village, her initial thought was, “Now what?”
Eighteen years later, O’Connor, who has always had a passion for recycling, simple living and all things sustainable, is a huge advocate of composting worms and strives to educate others about the benefits of doing so through her business, Joan’s Famous Composting Worms. She provides customers with temporary mini-worm bins to get them started with the process.
“I’m a worm mentor,” O’Connor said. “I felt so alone with my first batch, until I started reading and learning and making stupid mistakes. It’s fun.”
Composting worms are to be used in indoor compost bins — if they’re kept outside, both the worms and the compost pile will freeze during winter. Indoor compost bins can be created using a plastic storage bin; O’Connor recommends using one at least 2 feet by 3 feet and no more than 16 inches deep. The user must drill two one-inch holes in one lower corner of the container to allow for drainage.
“If you don’t let out that excessive moisture, it gets mucky and disgusting,” O’Connor said, adding that the liquid that pours from the bin is often called “worm manure tea,” when worms are used. The drainage should be collected so that it may later be diluted and used to water plants. “If you analyze [the liquid] under a microscope, it’s teeming with beneficial microorganisms,” O’Connor said. “You want your soils to be vibrant like that. You don’t want dead soil.”
Before worms are introduced to the bin, the bottom of the container should be layered with moist peat moss and shredded newspaper. The worms should also be topped with peat moss and newspaper before food scraps are added. The bin should be kept at 60 to 80 degrees for the best results, O’Connor said. She suggests the basement as a good spot to keep the bin.
“Worms want to be fed beautiful garbage. They want it to be nice and dark and quiet,” she said. “What a lovely life.” If the basement isn’t a storage option, the bin can be kept in a utility room, in a hall closet or even under the bed, she said, adding that no odors are emitted from indoor compost bins.
Indoor compost bins are to be used for apple cores, lettuce, fruits, vegetables, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea bags, paper plates, paper towels, beans, rice pasta and bread. Larger items, such as corn husks, should be left in an outdoor pile to decay, and citrus fruits should be left out of the equation altogether, O’Connor said.
“Twenty percent of what people throw away is compostable,” she said. “Banana peels and stuff, stop throwing them in the trash can. Put them aside … do this worm bin. It doesn’t take much time.”
Worms — O’Connor starts with a pound of Red Wigglers — can eat their own weight in garbage daily, and it is their feces, or castings (also often called “black gold”), that make the big contribution in composting process. When the compost is spread in the garden, it’s got additional nutrients from the castings.
“That’s the reward,” O’Connor said. “That’s why you’re doing it.”
Some commercial fertilizers and composts claim to contain worm castings but are, O’Connor said, much different than the nutrient-rich castings produced in home worm bins, because they have been processed, dehydrated and packaged.
Composters should not worry about the small bugs that sometimes become part of the composting process.
“It’s a community of stuff in there, not just worms,” she said. “Everybody is doing their jobs.” The only time bugs become a problem in a composting bin is if the bin contains too many of one species. In that case, O’Connor said, a layer of bugs can easy be scraped off the pile.
While selling her starter worm composting kits at farmers markets, O’Connor said the “ew” factor usually comes into play.
“I’m there holding worms in my hand and I say, ‘Come over here, they’re just composting worms,’” she said, “they’re not the big night crawlers you see in a garden that are two to three inches long. They’re long, red and beautiful.”
“I have to convince people these are workers, not snakes,” she said.
O’Connor said some school teachers have taken on indoor composting piles with worms as class projects. Homeschooling parents, she added, are some of her best customers because so many learning possibilities can stem from the process. She recommends the book Worms Eat My Garbage to parents and teachers interested in sharing the topic with today’s youth.
“It’s beyond these little Earth Day celebrations. People should do this year-round,” she said. “If children have a snack, take the banana peels and say, ‘OK, it’s time to feed the worms.’ Dig a hole, plant the garbage and cover it up.”