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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Rich vermicompost: Your reward for feeding worms! © Robert Queen

December 1998

Welcome and unwelcome guests

If all goes well, worms won't be the only creatures dining in your worm bin.

Maureen Mecozzi

Rich vermicompost: Your reward for feeding worms! © Robert Queen

The castings of thousands | When you're ready to squirm
Worm wisdom | Composter's corner: Gene Ciszek

Your bin is in fact a hotbed of consumption, with a whole battalion of organisms breaking down organic matter (and each other) into simpler forms that can then be reassembled into other kinds of living tissue – say, a pumpkin for next Halloween.

Besides worms, molds, bacteria, and sowbugs consume waste directly; they're called first-level consumers. Second-level consumers – springtails, protozoa and mold mites – dine on the first-level consumers. And third-level consumers, including ants and rove beetles, get three squares a day by eating the first- and second-level consumers. It's not pretty, but it works.

Don't strain your eyes looking for these very welcome guests. You'd need a microscope to see most of nature's recyclers; a hand lens will bring some of the larger species into focus.

There are three visitors to whom you must certainly show the door should they appear in your bin. Centipedes (one pair of legs per segment) are vicious predators and will kill worms; they must go. (Millipedes, with two pairs of legs on each segment, are docile vegetarian insects that will be an asset to your bin; they should stay.) Earthworm mites, most likely present in overly wet bedding, can multiply to such numbers that the worms will stop feeding. If your bin becomes overrun with this reddish-brown mite, remove and burn the mite-infested food, or place it out in the sun to kill the mites, then leave the cover off your bin for a few days to reduce moisture.

A wise man once said: "Time flies like the wind; fruit flies like bananas." And worm bins, too. Not all bins will have fruit fly problems, but if yours does, don't panic. Try one or more of the following to control fruit fly populations:

  1. Remove banana and citrus peels from the bin until the fly population decreases.
  2. Change the bedding material completely, or add plenty of fresh bedding.
  3. Place a piece of interfacing fabric (available at fabric stories or sewing centers) on top of the bedding. The fabric allows air to circulate, but will prevent flies from escaping the bin.
  4. Catch a spider or two and let them loose in the bin. (You saw The Fly, didn't you?)
  5. Bury food waste deeply and cover it well with bedding.
  6. Trap the rascals with a beer: Pour 1/2 cup of brew into a small jar. Make a small hole in the corner of a plastic bag. Insert the bag into the jar, hole pointing down toward the beer but not submerged. Fold the bag top down around the sides of the jar and fasten with a rubber band. Flies can get in, but won't be able to get out. (Reproduced with permission from : "Worms Eat My Garbage" by Mary Appelhof.)

The castings of thousands

Vermicompost is loaded with nutrients plants can easily absorb -- so much so that you'll want use it sparingly, or in combination with garden or potting soil. Pure worm compost also may contain high levels of salt, which can inhibit plant growth.

If you like, screen the vermicompost before you use it by pouring it through an old window screen, 1/8-inch screening, or sieve to remove seeds, stems, or other undigested matter.

Broadcast worm compost over the entire garden and till it in to improve the fertility and structure of your soil. When it's time to sow, sprinkle some compost in the seed bed rows to give the coming sprouts a boost, or work a handful into each transplanting hole before you set seedlings. Top-dress house or garden plants by placing a thin layer of worm compost around the plant, but not right up against the stems; the next rain or watering will carry nutrients toward the roots. Or make your own potting mix: 1/4 worm compost to 3/4 potting soil, peat moss, garden soil, or perlite and sand equals good growth!

When you're ready to squirm

Whether you intend to keep a worm bin for worms, compost or both, you won't be alone in your endeavor. It's an activity that's gaining in popularity across the country, in large part due to "Worm Woman" Mary Appelhof, whose 1982 book, "Worms Eat My Garbage" (Flower Press, Kalamazoo, MI) remains the bible of vermicomposting. Check your library for a copy, or visit Ms. Appelhof at

You'll find a wealth of other worm resources on the Internet, including the names and addresses of mail-order bin manufacturers and worm suppliers. Search for "worms and composting" and get ready to do some digging!

Statewide, University of Wisconsin-Extension offices can offer assistance, too – check the county government listings in your phone book for a local number.

Worm wisdom

Worms breathe through their skin, which must be moist for the exchange of air to take place.

Aristotle called worms "the intestines" of the soil.

"Castings" is the term used in polite company to describe what comes out of the business end of the worm.

Worms are more powerful than the African elephant and more important to the economy than the cow. - Charles Darwin

Castings combined with decomposed bedding and organic waste become vermicompost.

There can be a million or more earthworms in one acre of soil.

Worms do not have teeth. Organic matter is ground up in a worm's gizzard.

Redworms are surface-dwellers, preferring the top six inches of soil. Nightcrawlers are soil-dwellers, and like to burrow several feet below the surface.

There are approximately 3,000 species of earthworms named and known to science.

Earthworms are neither male, nor female, but both. Each worm can produce eggs and sperm.

A worm is 75-90% water.

Worms have no eyes, but they are sensitive to light.

Composter's corner: Gene Ciszek

Gene Ciszek is upbeat about worm composting and recycling. The former percussionist beat it out of Chicago after 58 years of making music in bars, cabarets and dance halls to retire in the rural beauty of Lac du Flambeau in Vilas County's lake country.

Gene adapted to the rhythm of North Woods life, but he never forgot how to improvise. In February 1995, he "filled in" for the operator who ran the waste transfer station at the closed landfill. Gene decided to "do a little spring cleaning" and his spruced-up site turned into a regular gig as the recycling center attendant. His station, set in wooded fields, has bins to sort materials as well as some of Gene's innovations - compost bins for locals who don't have room to compost at home, and separate areas for aluminum chairs, window screens and furnishings that can be reused.

It's a classy place. Gene's hut is decorated for each season and planted with flowers. He hands out the local newspaper, candy to kids, coffee to adults and even dog biscuits to canine visitors. Gene occasionally sports his old tuxedos from his band days so his attire matches his attitude and respect for recycling resources. Worm composting is an outgrowth of his vision for his community and his training as a Master Composter. As a Vilas County Supervisor and Landfill Commissioner, he "aims to make the most of the area's natural resources and human resources."

Gene thought vermiculture would be a good way to make quality compost, teach school kids good habits and provide redworms for the Lac du Flambeau fish hatchery. He has designed a sealed, compact 8" x 18" x 30" worm bin that requires no bottom drainage holes. Lots of air enters the bin through two perforated one-inch PVC pipes that run the length of the bin. To date, 24 of his bins are used in area homes; nine bins were also offered to the elementary school.

"I'd really like the kids to see the value in this, to raise fishing worms and to have some fun," Ciszek said. "You have to come up with new ideas periodically to keep people interested."