Shalon Butt on the joy and danger of garbage-eating worms.

As low-maintenance pets go, worms are the best. They may not be cute or fluffy, but they do an amazing trick: they eat. A lot.

And they’re not very picky.

I have pet worms. I give them my organic garbage, and they turn it into rich compost. It’s like turning straw into gold. So when someone asks me if I’ve ever named my pet worms, I tell them, “they’re Rumpelstiltskin. Every one of them.”

I started vermicomposting about two years ago. Since the City of St. John’s does not provide organics pick-up, I took matters into my own hands. Vermicomposting is tremendously rewarding. You see how much you save from the landfill, and so your actions have a measurable, tangible effect.

And it’s easy if you know what you’re doing.

Be warned, however: while the worms are indeed low maintenance, the little maintenance required is specific and necessary. This vermicomposter is my second. I made many mistakes with the first one, and I list them here so you can avoid them.

If you’d like to get yourself a present for Earth Day on April 22, I recommend garbage-eating worms.

I got the worms and vermicomposter—complete with soil and bedding—from Bill Glynn of Trouters’ Special Farm in Bay Bulls. Rounding up your own worms is not a good idea because they have to be a specific kind called red wrigglers or else they try to escape. Red wrigglers are content in captivity. Maybe they’re bred to be like that, I don’t know.

Their home is a large Rubbermaid container, about a metre long. Worms like a little—but not much—light so I leave the plastic lid on top, slightly ajar.

Worms enjoy food that’s a little bit, um, rotten. Therefore, it’s best to save up compost in a small bucket with a tight lid, like a beef bucket, to feed them once a week, making the food more palatable for them and causing less disruption. It also gives the worms time to eat their way through the last food, thereby keeping the bin from overflowing.

Dig a hole in the soil, down to the bedding, to add the waste. Then cover it with soil. Make sure the waste is always covered by at least two inches of soil so it won’t smell. If the compost is well covered, it just smells like soil, trust me. Covering it well with soil will also reduce fruit flies.

(Another way to inhibit fruit flies is to microwave or boil fruit peels before adding them to the compost, thereby killing any eggs laid in the peels. I haven’t found it necessary.)

As I’ve said, worms are not picky eaters. As long as it’s fruit or vegetable matter, they’ll eat it. What to feed them, and how much, is mostly a matter of common sense. Harder materials like grape stems and avocado pits—while I’m sure eventually break down—last a long time in a vermicomposter, and can build up over time. (Anyway, what are you doing buying all those grapes! They’re expensive!)

Citrus (orange peels, for example) should be given in moderation. Be sure not to give them any animal matter or fat. Doing so invites odour, rodents, and flies. (Yech.)

I’m often asked if the worms try to get out, especially since they’re not covered completely by the lid.

If the worms are happy, they won’t go anywhere. My worms weren’t happy the first time around. Everything was fine for about a month, then I started to find worms trying to make a break for it on the bathroom floor. As soon as the light was off, worms would wriggle to the surface of the bin.

A mutiny was on the horizon. It was unpleasant and frightening, considering how many of them there were. I struck preemptively and put them outside.

Note: never put the bin outside. It rained, and the bin got waterlogged, and a lot of the poor worms drowned.

Thus ended my first vermicomposting experience.

Not long after, I got my second vermicomposter, and they began to rise up just like the other ones.

I realised the problem: they were burning alive! You should know that worms have very sensitive skin. In fact, they breathe through their skin and they respond to the acidity of the soil. They like the soil slightly acidic, but only slightly. The vermicomposter has the potential to become extremely acidic as the vegetable matter breaks down. I had been periodically adding crushed eggshells to the bedding, thinking that was enough. Clearly it wasn’t. The worms need crushed limestone. Any garden centre will carry it. I added one teaspoon with each feeding and I had happy worms.

Successful vermicomposting is mostly a matter of keeping the bin in the same condition as it came in.

Listen to your worms. They’ll let you know when there’s a problem.

If the soil gets too damp, add some shredded paper or brown leaves to the bedding. If it gets too acidic, add limestone—quickly!

It’s all about balance, and appropriately so, since a lack of balance is the source of every ecological crisis.

Worms are pets to help restore the balance!

Don’t tell the worms that, though—they’re just hungry.

Illustration by Kira sheppard


The Angelshakes “We’re a bit of a mess, as you can see.” Patrick Brennan is talking about his dynamically-membered band, The Angelshakes, who first began assembling last September. The mess he’s referring to is strictly below the surface.

11 September 2008

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