As the Worm Turns

Jeffrey Neal of Loop Closing ( builds worm bins for homes, businesses, and government facilities in D.C. Photo: Plume

I confess, I’m obsessed with my worms. I am fascinated with what they like, and don’t.

While I’m a longtime composter, I started vermiculture composting only a couple of months ago. The idea that these small, hermaphroditic (both male and female) organisms could take my food waste and churn it into coveted fertilizer became intriguing and something I knew I needed to try for myself.

Three months later, I have a thriving worm population feeding on food waste – in my boyfriend’s living room.

Vermicomposting, per the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the use of earthworms to convert organic waste into fertilizer.” According to, the practice of vermicomposting can be attributed to Michigan biology teacher Mary Appelhof, who in 1972 wanted to continue composting during winter months. She ordered one pound of red wiggler worms (Eisenia fetida) from a bait dealer by mail order. She created a shallow bin in her basement, loaded it with bedding and added her food scraps and worms. By the end of the winter, they had consumed 65 pounds of food waste and produced worm castings that eventually led to impressive vegetable yields in her garden.

Flash forward to 2018, and vermicomposting is gaining in popularity as people recognize how food waste, when placed in landfills, creates methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. While backyard composting is great for homeowners, vermicomposting is ideal for situations that don’t have outdoor space. And the worms are the ideal pet. Requiring minimal maintenance, managed correctly, there is no associated smell or attraction of vermin. The systems can even be aesthetically pleasing, not to mention a great conversation piece.

Composting worms aren’t just any worm. They’re specialized breeds that thrive while living in colonies. You can order them from any number of sources online. You’ll need about a thousand to get started.

There many vermicomposting systems available. I opted for the Worm Factory 360 Composter, but a quick Google search will provide instructions for a wide range of products including inexpensive and homemade vermicomposting systems.

Beyond the intrigue and quirkiness of setting up a vermicomposting system, why should you consider doing this?

  • Food makes up some 30 percent of our waste stream. Together with food recovery efforts such as those operated by Food Rescue US and composting, vermicomposting can reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. Food waste in landfills is particularly problematic as the anaerobic conditions convert it to methane, a greenhouse gas that warms the climate 86 times more than carbon dioxide and contributes to climate change.
  • Worms create coveted and nutritious “castings” (worm poop) that are an excellent fertilizer. If you don’t have a garden, even your house plants will thrive when these castings are added to their soil. Castings also make a unique and homegrown gift.
  • Looking for a conversation starter and fascinating science project for your favorite eight-year-old? What could possibly be better than a worm farm?

Meanwhile, at least one DC condo building is sporting a community vermicompost bin in its basement. Condo owners feed their mashed-up food waste to worms. The castings are returned to residents for houseplants and herb gardens with any excess donated to a nearby community garden.

If you’re not ready to install your own vermicomposting system or you can’t convince your condo association – or boyfriend – to give it a try, you can still support vermiculture and improve the health of your house and garden plants by purchasing worm castings. Now that Frager’s is officially affiliated with Ace Hardware, you can order worm castings online and have them delivered free to the store.

How does it all work? Those tiny worms have mouths but no teeth. Like all beings, they have preferences for certain food types. They don’t like meats, dairy, oils, citrus or onions, and large concentrations of these can result in a die off. They’ll eat almost anything else. They need some roughage in their diet such as coffee grounds, and moist newspaper will help mitigate any smells or fruit flies that might emerge from the bin. Too much moisture in the bin will result in “leachate” – a liquid that will cause a vermicompost system to smell.

I confess, I’m obsessed with my worms. I am fascinated with what they like, and don’t. How about you?


Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, a writer and a blogger for the DC Recycler:; Twitter: @DC_Recycler. She is also a board member of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club, but the perspectives expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions of that organization.