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 digestive magic.
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 well.
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 houseplants.
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 Maldonado.
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 worms."
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 cycle."
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 information.
• 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 bins.
• 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 email@example.com. 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 writer.