“Want to see the worms?”
At Wilton Wildlife Preserve & Park, Amelia Gelnett flips the lid of a black plastic box and digs gently with bare hands into layers of moist, shredded paper flecked with bits of broccoli, apple cores, kidney beans and celery trimmings.
As curious visitors crowd around the box, Gelnett raises her cupped hands so they can see the three-inch-long red worms wriggling in the dark rich soil on her upturned palms.
“Worms are really neat creatures,” she said. Red wiggler worms, or Eisenia foetida by their scientific name, feel vibrations and sense light. When they move through soil, the mucus on their bodies acts like a glue, reinforcing their tunnels.
“They have a little tongue that comes out. It’s pretty cool,” said Gelnett, a devoted worm watcher and keeper of Wilton Wildlife’s indoor worm box.
On an early spring day, Gelnett, an education and conservation intern, revealed the magic of composting, how anyone can transform organic household waste — veggie and fruit scraps from the kitchen, leaves and lawn trimmings — into nutrient-rich soil that nurtures flower and veggie gardens, lawns and indoor plants. Composting, an easy way to “go green” and love your Mother Earth, also reduces garbage at the curb and in landfills.
Backyard composting, using handmade bins or purchased containers is the outdoor method, producing a greater amount of soil. Veggie, fruit and other organic waste is collected indoors in a kitchen container and carried to the outdoor bin.
Vermi-composting, using red worms to break down organic waste, is a small-scale, indoor method.
Want to learn more about composting?
WHAT: “Worms and Composting” class
WHERE: Five Rivers Environmental Education Center in Delmar
WHEN: 2 p.m., Saturday, May 2
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: To register, phone 475-0291. Web site: www.dec.ny.gov/education/1835
More resources on home composting:
— “Worms Eat My Garbage” by Mary Appelhof — The essential worm-composting guide book for fifth-graders through adult by the self-named “Worm Woman,” available at local libraries and bookstores.
— Seven downloadable pages of detailed information on backyard composting from Cornell Cooperative Extension can be found at cwmi.css.cornell.edu/compostbrochure.pdf.
— Green Conscience Home & Garden store, 33 Church St., Saratoga Springs, makes custom worm bins and offers composting workshops, www.green-conscience.com, 306-5196.
— Saratoga Organics, 19 Front St., Saratoga Springs, offers home composting equipment and advice, www.saratogaorganics.com, 885-2005.
— New York State Department of Environmental Conservation offers backyard composting information. www.dec.ny.gov.
— www.emilycompost.com — Worm and garden composting, links to other helpful sites.
— www.compostbins.com — Get the scoop on nearly 100 compost bins, including worm boxes.
— www.wormman.com — Order live worms and worm bins.
— www.planetnatural.com — Information on all kinds of composting, order worms and worm bins.
“With optimum conditions, they will eat half their weight in a day,” Gelnett says of the red wiggler, which looks like a smaller, rosy-colored earthworm. It breaks down food faster than the typical earthworm and doesn’t need deep soil.
Gelnett’s worm box is a plastic office filing bin, 12 to 18 inches deep, with air holes drilled in the sides. With bedding, moisture, food scraps and some rock dust or grit for their digestive systems, the worms “do their own thing,” she says, and in about two months, produce about a quart of soil.
Tea bags, coffee grounds and egg shells are dumped in by the Wilton Wildlife staffers. “Cucumbers appear to be a favorite. Leaves are eaten the quickest,” Gelnett said. Fruit scraps, especially citrus, are added in small amounts, as they attract fruit flies and can make the worm bin too acidic.
“I think we’re going to go for the worms,” said Sam Henle, a 20-something guy who arrived at the free composting class on a motorcyle with his girlfriend, Julie Carter. “I didn’t realize how easy it could be,” he said. “There’s something appealing about seeing the process, about eating a tomato that came from a rotting banana peel . . . taking garbage and converting it into something else.”
At Green Conscience Home & Garden store in Saratoga Springs, owner Karen Totino makes worm boxes for her customers. The ready-to-go Rubbermaid boxes, with red wigglers and worm bedding, cost $50 to $60.
“It’s something that homeowners can do very easily themselves,” said Totino, and to prove her point, from behind the store counter she pulls out a large Ziploc bag of finely textured, jet black, odorless soil made in the worm box she keeps in her basement.
Green Conscience also offers worm workshops. To celebrate Earth Day, the store held a build-your-own worm box program at the Saratoga Springs Farmers’ Market shelters on High Rock Avenue on April 17.
“It’s great for families. Kids love worm composting,” she said.
At her Milton home, Totino makes “compost tea,” a mix of worm bin soil and water, and uses it to water house plants and garden flowers. Worm composting is perfect for condo dwellers who love house plants, she says. “You can reduce your waste and get a great product.”
Whether you compost indoors or outdoors, it’s the same natural, biological process.
Compost requires oxygen and gives off carbon dioxide, and as the matter breaks down, it decreases in volume by 30 to 50 percent, says Gelnett.
The best recipe for compost is to mix or layer brown or carbon waste (newspaper, leaves and sawdust) with green or nitrogen waste (food scraps); adding three times as much brown as green.
“To aerate it, turn it with a pitchfork,” she said.
If you really want to get into the chemistry, you can look up the nitrogen and carbon content of food and yard waste on the Internet. For optimum composting, you need moisture at 50 to 60 percent; oxygen at 5 to 10 percent, PH at 5.5 to 8.2 and a temperature from 110 to 160.
Serious composters sometimes stick a thermometer in their compost bin to gauge the stage of decomposition.
Although meat scraps will break down in a compost bin, adding meat, dairy or bones “invites creatures and is much more smelly,” Gelnett said. Plastic, oil and pet waste should never go into compost. “What grows in the ground, goes in the ground,” she said.
Outdoor compost bins can be made by hand with recycled wood pallets and chicken wire. Or you can dig a hole and fill it with layers of green and brown waste.
Compost bins and tumblers, which turn the compost, can also be purchased and cost from $65 to $300. In Japan, where kitchen composters have been common for years, Panasonic sells an $800 electric composter that turns trash into fertilizer in less than a day.
Interest on rise
At Cornell Cooperative Extension of Saratoga County, assistant director Susan K. Beebe noticed last summer that there was an increased public interest in composting.
“People are doing more home gardens, growing vegetables. And a lot of Saratoga has sandy soil, so people want to improve their soil,” said Beebe.
Soil made from compost is also good for lawns. “Research has shown that it wards off fungus disease,” she said.
Gardeners can bring a sample of their finished composted soil to the CCE for a PH test.
“The PH should be neutral, 7 to 7.5,” she said. “It’s especially critical with vegetables to know your compost PH.”
Backyard composting can be whatever you want it to be, from super simple to scientific, Beebe says. “There’s a lot of ways to go about it. The key is that it needs to be turned. It has to have sunlight.”
Beebe used to do backyard earthworm composting at her Saratoga Springs home, removing worms as the population grew, but now she keeps it really simple.
“It’s just a nice big pile in a sunny corner,” she says. “Realistically, you don’t need a container.”
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