What would you say if I told you that you could turn your
child's interest in dirt and worms into a family-friendly project
that benefits the environment? Although the idea of using worms to
eat your garbage and turn it into compost might make you a bit
squeamish, your kids will find it utterly fascinating.
Vermicomposting is the process of using worms to eat your
kitchen waste and turn it into nutrient-rich compost material to
return back to your garden or use on indoor house plants. While the
traditional composting process can be difficult to start and
requires a careful balance of materials, vermicomposting is easy,
inexpensive and requires very little space. Plus, the kids will get
a lesson in reducing waste while learning about worms and their
How does it work?
Vermicomposting requires a specific type of worm called red
wigglers. This hardy variety of worm is an enthusiastic breeder
with a big appetite. These worms are able to ingest up to their
body weight in food every day. Their waste is called castings and
it contains nutrients such as phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium
that help to create a healthy balance in our soil. Worms eat
primarily kitchen waste including fruit and vegetable scraps,
coffee grinds and eggshells. Don't serve worms meat, fat or oil
because the vermicomposting bin can develop unpleasant odors or
attract unwanted pests. Avoid citrus fruits, onion and garlic as
Red wiggler worms are available for purchase from a variety of
online and local suppliers (see vermicomposting resources). You
will need about a pound of worms to get a large bin started (one
pound contains about 1,000 worms). The worms will need a proper
home to work their magic. Affordable vermicomposting systems or
"wormeries" are available but you can also make a perfectly good
home for your worms out of a plastic storage bin. Drill some holes
in the lid of a plastic storage container. Add slightly damp,
shredded black and white newspaper until the bin is halfway full
(you will need to periodically check the moisture level and either
add more water or newspaper). Toss the worms and a bit of the soil
that they came with into their new home. Feed the worms produce
waste (one to two pounds per week for the average size bin) and
after a few months, the bottom of the worm bin will be covered with
an earthy compost mixture. Separate out any worms and return them
to the box. Use your compost in your garden or on your
If you are looking for help getting a vermicomposting bin
started, you don't have to look far. The Peggy Notebaert Nature
Museum is offering a workshop April 18 called "Fabulous
Fertilizers" where kids can learn the basics of vermicomposting and
make their very own worm bin.
Worms make a good "first pet" for kids, says Lindsay Maldonado,
coordinator of family and children's programs at the Peggy
Notebaert Nature Museum. At the vermicomposting workshop, "kids get
a totally hands-on experience. They can play with the messy worms,
assemble their bins and learn the difference between good and bad
scraps. And parents walk away feeling really surprised at how easy
it is to do something simple to help the environment," says
Similarly, the Chicago Botanic Garden offers a "Wiggling Worms"
program throughout the summer where kids can learn about
vermicomposting and get a hands-on experience with a worm bin.
Feeding garbage to worms is a practical way to teach children
about the importance of reducing waste and caring for the earth-not
to mention the education in worm digestion. Kids can "manage" this
project from start to finish.
"All kids like to have their own thing," says Eileen
Prendergast, manager of family programs at the Chicago Botanic
Garden. She recommends starting with small, individual bins
"because each child can use their own food waste leftover from
meals to feed their worms. The process even encourages kids to eat
healthier foods so they will have something to give to the
Vermicomposting produces results that kids can see for
themselves. As your worm bin gets going, discuss how the amount of
food waste that you are putting down the garbage disposal or into a
trash bag is shrinking.
Stephanie Davies, the founder of Urban Worm Girl (www.urbanwormgirl.com),
says, "Kids think of the worms as 'recyclers.' You feed your
garbage to the worms, then the worms feed your garden, helping to
grow more vegetables for you to eat. The process begins again as
you feed that waste back to the worms. It is a beautiful
Every family can vermicompost, regardless of space limitations
or composting experience.
Manda Aufochs Gillespie (www.thegreenmama.com) of
Chicago vermicomposts at home with her husband and 2-year-old
daughter. "This method of composting is great for busy parents
because you can do it indoors, the process doesn't produce odors or
take up much space and it cuts down on your food waste."
Whether you set up a large "wormerie" for all of your produce
waste or start small with a shoebox-size bin for your child, this
eco-friendly project benefits the whole family.
"I think that it is important for kids to see and participate in
things that are meaningful to us as parents. Kids can be a part of
this environmentally friendly process from start to finish-from the
ooh and ahh factor of playing with the worms to spreading the
finished compost on plants," Gillespie says.
• "Worms Eat My Garbage," by
Mary Appelhof. This book is the authoritative guide when it comes
to vermicomposting. Visit the Web site www.wormwoman.com for more
• Urban Worm Girl (www.urbanwormgirl.com).
Visit this Web site to buy supplies and get answers to frequently
asked vermicomposting questions. Owner Stephanie Davies also makes
visits to classrooms and homes to educate people and set up
• The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Drive,
Chicago. Make a compost bin to celebrate Earth Day at the "Fabulous
Fertilizers" vermicomposting workshop on April 18. $8 per
All ages welcome. Visit the Web site, www.chias.org, for details.
• Chicago Botanic Garden,1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe.
Visit the Web site, www.chicago-botanic.org,
for more information on the "Wiggling Worms" program, part of the
Fruit and Vegetable Garden Family Drop-In Program Series on
weekends during the summer starting May 23.
• Pacific Gardens Mission, 1458 South Canal, Chicago. Pick
up worms to get started vermicomposting while making a contribution
to a charitable cause. $25 suggested donation for one pound of red
wiggler worms (about 1,000). $75 suggested donation for
1.5-cubic-foot wood "wormerie" with bedding, worms and
instructions. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. One
week's advance notice required for pickup on Friday mornings. No
shipping and no walk-up business.
Caitlin Murray Giles is a Chicago mom and freelance
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