Tonawanda News

May 19, 2013

Worm composting an organic, fast way to produce fertilizer

By Danielle Haynes danielle.haynes@tonawanda-news.com
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Some people might get a little squeamish when they hear what Master Gardener Gale Klinshaw, of the Town of Lockport, likes to do for a hobby. 

It involves critters some might describe as squishy, wriggly and even slimy.

“I’m passionate about my worms,” Klinshaw said in a recent interview. 

In fact, it was the first thing she said when asked about worm composting.

Klinshaw keeps hundreds of red wiggler worms — it’s hard to put a definite number on it, she said — that break down food and even paper trash into fertilizer material for her garden. The little critters, kept in a worm farm — Klinshaw calls it a worm house — have lived inside her home for about four years.

“I asked my husband if he thought I’d be too crazy to keep worms in the house and he said, ‘As long as they don’t climb out,’ ” she said with a laugh.

Klinshaw, who keeps an outdoor vegetable garden, flowers and potted plants indoors, said she decided to start using worm composting about four years ago as part of her effort to try to garden more organically. She wanted a fertilizer she knew doesn’t have any harmful chemicals.

“I don’t put any chemicals whatsoever in my garden,” she said, adding that she’s also used traditional composting for years.

But that’s not all the worms are good for. 

John Farfaglia, educator with the Niagara Cornell Cooperative Extension, said in addition to keeping things organic in the garden, many people turn to worm composting as a recycling method.

“If someone was just interested in recycling, even if they’re not full time gardeners, I’m sure it’s a good way to eliminate that type of waste and doing it in a very natural way,” he said, adding that it could be a good alternative to traditional composting.

“For a lot of people this is a better alternative because it doesn’t take as much raw material and probably takes less work,” he added.

Worm farms can be purchased online from gardening supply websites — Klinshaw recommends the Gardeners Supply Company at www.gardeners.com — and are usually about the size of a kitchen garbage can. They consist of levels of trays separated by a grid or netting that allows the worms to move up to the next level of “food,” leaving the composted materials in the lower levels.

Klinshaw said she just adds scraps from the kitchen as she has them, covers them with shredded paper or dirt and harvests the resulting fertilizer from the bottom tray when it’s ready to go. At the moment she has a roughly five-pound bag waiting to be used in the holes she’ll plant in her garden. 

Another 10- to 15-pound bag awaits use inside to until any errant worms she might have harvested wiggle their way to the top and get put back in their home.

Vitally important is that the worm farm is kept indoors because the worms will die if they get too cold or too warm. Farfaglia said that people often worry decomposing kitchen scraps might start to smell after keeping them indoors for a while. Not so, he said.

“It’s done in a discreet way where if it’s done correctly you woudn’t even notice it,” he said.

Klinshaw said she’s never had a problem with odors and only ever once had worms trying to escape from their home when she first got the set-up. If you maintain it properly by making sure to cover the newly added scraps, keeping it the right temperature and making sure the environment isn’t too wet, the worms won’t want to wander, she said.

And the end result is hard to deny.

“The end product is a really rich form of compost that’s excellent for plant growth,” Farfaglia said.

Klinshaw agreed, saying she even uses the liquid runoff — aka worm tea — from the worm farm to water her indoor plants. 

“I’ve been watering everything with it now. (The plants) really leafed out more quickly and they’re nice and green,” she said.

Don’t worry, she said, the liquid is also odor-free.

Klinshaw said you can’t just throw anything and everything into the worm farm. There are some rules to remember, like never throw citrus or onions in because they’re too acidic. Klinshaw suggests avoiding potatoes and seeds because they can start sprouting.

The Cornell Cooperative Extension website also says to avoid oily or fatty foods, like meat and dairy because they can make the worm farm smell. Even vegetables cooked in oils should be avoided.

Vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee and even shredded paper are ideal, though, Farfaglia said.

Ultimately, Klinshaw said she has a good idea of what her worms like best. They’re particularly fond of maple leaves — she speculates because they’re from Vermont. She speaks fondly of her worms and is very careful to treat them as well as possible.

“I guess they’re kind of like pets even though they don’t say a lot. You can tell they appreciate what you do for them the way they eat the scraps,” she said. “I know what they produce for me is really helping my plants.”

Contact Sunday Lifestyle editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116 or follow her on Twitter at @DanielleHaynes1.