Under my desk in a shoe-box sized container, I have several hundred worms. They live happily in the dark, and every now and then I spritz a bit of water over them and throw in an apple core or banana peel for them to munch on. In return, they make me rich, nutritious dirt-like compost. It is a beneficial arrangement for all of us.

Occasionally, my worms will go with me to a program where I talk about the importance of composting and how easy and fun it is to get started. The children are always fascinated by my office friends, and this fascination opens the door to further exploration on their own. We even made worm bins during one of our Zoo Edventures last year for the children to take home.

Vermicomposting (using worms to break down organic material into dirt) is an easy and effective way to get rid of excess fruits, veggies, coffee grounds, tea bags and a whole host of other natural materials. While most worms are decomposers (animals or plants that break down organic matter), not all are appropriate for creating a vermicompost bin. Red wigglers are the worm of choice and can be ordered online at various websites (such as www.unclejimswormfarm.com). They work well in these bins because they enjoy eating most types of compostable material, prefer dark, cool environments, multiply readily if given food and kept moist, don’t mind being a bit crowded and produce incredibly nutrient-rich dirt.

It is really easy to start your own worm bin and enjoy the benefits of composting in your own home. Just get a plastic container with a lid (plastic storage tubs work well for this) and drill tiny holes all over the container, including the lid and the bottom. You want to make sure the holes are large enough to allow air to circulate and water to drain out, but not big enough for your little wriggly friends to escape. Next, tear some newspaper into small strips, soak it in water then ring it out. You want the paper to be damp, but not mushy. Not only will the newspaper provide an excellent substrate for the worms to hide in, it also will provide them with their first meal as the worms eat the newspaper and start the decomposition process. Make sure to also sprinkle some dirt and dead leaves on top of the newspaper to give them some grit and natural bacteria to get started.

But most importantly, don’t forget to add your worms! The number of worms you add really depends on the initial size of your container. In the case of my shoe-box sized bin, about 100 to 200 worms would be a good starting point. For larger bins, upwards of 5,000 worms is a good place to start.

After you have your worm bin assembled, start adding food for your worms. Coffee grounds, banana peels, tea bags, egg shells and any other plant or paper material generally work well. Start off with only a few food items and make sure to bury it in the newspaper so it doesn’t smell. As your worms eat the material and begin to multiply, you can gradually add more food for them, making sure to spritz the bin with water occasionally to keep it all moist. Be sure to avoid meat products, since the worms cannot digest it as well and generally will avoid it altogether. Store the bin in a dark closet or under the sink, where it can stay about room temperature, and after a few weeks you will begin to notice the newspaper disappearing and being replaced by wonderfully rich dirt. Once you have a nice collection of dirt, you can remove it and use it for gardening or potting plants (making sure to carefully remove the worms, of course) and add more dampened newspaper to the bin.

Vermicomposting is a fun, easy way to get rid of your extra food scraps and learn more about our natural world. Composting, in general, is an environmentally friendly alternative to simply throwing away materials that are actually quite good to have around. At the zoo, we compost 90 percent of our animal waste, straw and hay bedding and uneaten food products. The compost that is produced from our “Zoo Doo” is sold during our seasonal compost sales (look for one coming up in the spring!) or upon request any time during the year.

Perhaps someday everyone will have a small worm bin under their desk at work or under their sink at home. Until that time, we will continue to spread the word on how amazing these mini recycling machines are. Happy vermicomposting!

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