City Farmer’s Wormshops – “Composting is Creepy”
Photo by Ian Lindsay. City Farmer’s instructor Lauren Welch in centre. Alexander Dallin and Maren Gilbert Stewart are the students.
[Since 1990, City Farmer and the City of Vancouver have held worm composting workshops for City of Vancouver residents who live in apartments. For $25 participants get a worm bin, 500 worms, Mary Appelhof's book "Worms Eat My Garbage", a trowel, bedding and a one-hour class. City Farmer also holds classes for school kids who come with their class.]
“Decay: It’s bad enough you need to compost organic waste; now you need to have worms eat it for you.”
Article by Denise Ryan
Vancouver Sun June 14, 2008
Since our cat, Gordito, died last year, and hard on the heels of the end of our morbidly bloated gerbil population, my son has been lobbying hard for a pet. Preferably a dog. It doesn’t need to be a big dog, Alexander says. A terrier, a wiener dog, even a chihuahua would do.
When I announce that as part of greening our home we are going to get some pets — 500 of them — he is pretty excited.
But when I break the news the pets will be red wigglers, and that, no, that’s not a kind of wiener dog, he looks disappointed. When I add, casually, that they’re worms he becomes utterly despondent. “I don’t like worms,” he says quietly. Neither do I. But after visiting a friend who’s been worm-composting indoors for years, I’ve been shamed into it. Katherine Bruce and her partner Dave Smythe have a blithe “do what we can” approach to their eco-efforts.
They started worm composting in an apartment-sized indoor composter when they got together 12 years ago. Now that they’ve grown up, bought a house and graduated to a garden composter, they keep the red wigglers because they’re attached to them.
“We have to cull the herd every once in a while,” says Katherine, “but we kind of like them. They’re like pets.”
According to Metro Vancouver’s website, more than 40 per cent of what we send to the landfill is organic waste. Indoor or outdoor worm composters are a great way to deal with organic household waste. The city provides garden composters to residents for a nominal fee; for those, like me, who live in an apartment, the city coordinates with City Farmer, providing apartment worm composters that can easily work on a balcony.
“They’re just like pets,” I tell Alexander, although I’m aware my tone is not exactly convincing. “We’ll feed them, take care of them. You can bring them to school for sharing.”
“I’m not really interested in worms,” he reiterates with the kind of studied control that could presage a downright refusal to participate. He’s too big to be forced into doing things, so I decide to call in reinforcements. After all, eco-evangelist Laurie David has called peer pressure one of the most effective tools in the green movement.
His friend, Maren, a six-year-old planet earth-loving vegan, is happy to oblige. She is not just interested in worms, she announces upon arrival. She loves them.
I just hope she loves them enough for all of us. I have my doubts. Will they be like the gerbils? Will they reproduce constantly? Can I request 500 males?
But if Maren’s up for it, so are we. “I love worms and every living thing,” says Maren brightly as we head off to City Farmer. Alexander groans. I’ve bribed him with a package of organic gummy worms, which he silently makes his way through.
City Farmer is an oasis of urban agriculture nestled in Kitsilano. The staff provide educational outreach to schools and anyone else who is interested and pairs with Metro Vancouver to educate urban dwellers on the joys of worm composting.
As part of its educational outreach, City Farmer also provides worm composters to interested schools so students can take care of the worms throughout the year, feeding them organic matter, and reaping the rich compost they produce.
At the City Farmer garden, composting instructor Lauren Welch sets a black bin in front of us. It’s about the size of a blue box or a large gerbil cage, and loosely filled with a mix of shredded newspaper and hay.
Then she’s off to get the worms. The garden is lined with brightly painted boxes that used to house the red wigglers, but Welch explains that they have to keep the worms locked up now. They’re a hot item.
“People were stealing them. They’re expensive. About $22 a pound, which yields about 500 worms.”
She brings over a tub of mulch, sticks her hand right in and turns it over to reveal a squirming mass of red wigglers. My stomach turns slightly, and from Alexander’s face, I can see he is having a similar reaction. Maren jumps up and down and claps her hands.
Not all worms are appropriate for these kinds of worm composters, Welch explains as she offers the kids some worms.
The long, fat earthworms we see crawling along the sidewalks after a good rain come from deeper in the ground where it’s cooler.
“Those ones don’t like the temperature in the composter,” she explains. “They also don’t do well with the rich matter they have to ingest.”
Maren holds out her hand for a worm, and quickly discovers that it has two tiny, white thread-like wigglers clinging to it. “Babies!” she declares. “Yep, those are babies,” says Welch. Alexander groans again. When Welch offers him a worm, he declines, politely. “No thank you,” he says, backing away. Soon he’s happily hidden in the back of the garden eating City Farm’s first strawberry right from the stem. He’s going to wait this out.
While we get our lesson in composting, he keeps busy tracking the kind of wildlife he prefers, like spitbugs.
Welch guides Maren and I through the process. She tucks a mix of orange, banana and vegetable peel into a corner under the shredded newspaper. The worms will efficiently feed on the waste, then excrete it. The digestion process causes chemical changes in the organic matter that make its nutrients easily accessible by plants when mixed with garden soil.
Welch recommends limiting materials like newspaper, and washing peels to remove toxins. She knows that some people who don’t have balconies have been known to keep the composters under the sink — my friends Katherine and Dave lived in such a small apartment that for years they kept theirs tucked under the kitchen table. “People weren’t always thrilled when they were over for dinner, bumped up against it and we told them what it was,” Katherine said, “but it didn’t smell.”
The worm composting bin has air holes on the side and bottom, and a tray for the small amount of liquid that drips out. This liquid, called lecheate, can be diluted and used on plants as fertilizer, explains Welch.
One downside to this kind of small composter is fruit flies, but Welch has a solution for that. Mix a half-cup of fruit juice with two drops each of dish soap and vinegar and set it on top of the compost in an open container. “It pretty much eliminates the fruit flies,” she says. “Just change it every week.”
Welch’s enthusiasm is infectious, and by the end of the worm workshop we’ve all held a few — although Maren is the only one who has grown attached enough to give hers a name. Although it’s just a tiny worm, he’s made a big impression. “His name Humungi,” she says as she gently lays him down in the mulch and bids him goodbye.
Alexander has just one final word on the whole subject: “Gross.” I guess we’ll be keeping our new pets tucked out of the way on the back porch.