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Wednesday, 20 June 2007
Wiggling While They Work Worms

4/16/2007

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)

By Cheryl Chojnacki

Compost that's Good for the Environment

Karen Dombrowski manages a fertilizer factory with thousands of workers who ask for nothing more than the leftover scraps from her kitchen.

And there's no overhead; the entire operation is run out of the basement of her Crystal Lake home, with no complaints from a union or Dombrowski's neighbors.

That's because the workers are worms, meaning there's benefit all around - for the wrigglers themselves, for their supervisor, who gets an end product that makes her plants happy and healthy, and for the environment.

It's worth taking note of the environmental pluses as Americans prepare to celebrate Earth Day again on April 22.

Worms have always been nature's champion recyclers, chomping on dead plants and critters and producing a nutrient-rich poop that helps new plants thrive.

And when worm lovers like Dombrowski bring the process into their homes through composting bins, they also reduce the amount of garbage that might otherwise end up in a landfill.

With five bins, Dombrowski has been a fervent vermicomposter, or worm composter, for about 10 years. She applies the castings to houseplants and her husband Frank's extensive vegetable garden.

Dombrowski prefers her homemade fertilizer to non-organic varieties from the store.

"I'm not going to say I made it myself," she quipped, "but I know my worms, and they made it. It really packs a wallop in terms of getting the plants ready to go in the spring."

Studies have verified that vermicompost gives plants a boost, said Brian Carroll, education program assistant at McHenry County Conservation District.

Worm manure is rich in phosphorus, nitrogen, and other nutrients and minerals that plants use to become bigger and healthier and gain more foliage.

"They say that the worm castings supposedly have a casing on them that allows the nutrients to release slowly," Carroll said.

"That's beneficial because it happens over a long period of time rather than a bunch of nutrients all at once."

Carroll conducts a public workshop, "Dirty Deeds: Using Worms to Compost.”

He talks about how to set up a covered bin with bedding and worms, what to feed the worms and how to harvest and use the compost. He also demonstrates how much moisture should be in the bedding, another crucial consideration.

Though earthworms come in thousands of different species, a few in particular - including "eisenia fetida," also known as redworm or red wiggler - are prized for their voracious appetites.

They're sold by the pound from vermiculture supply companies.

Nobody's counting, but a pound is said to contain at least several hundred wiggleworms.

Non-native to the United States, red wigglers wouldn't want to live in your garden, but they're perfect for contained composting.

They're vegetarians who'll feast on most fruit and vegetable waste, along with bread crusts, coffee grounds, tea bags and egg shells, but meat, dairy and oils are definitely not on the menu.

Neither are citrus fruits - too acidic - and extreme veggies like hot peppers.

If the resident recyclers can get foods to their liking and the bedding is comfortable, they won't wander off, Carroll said.

"The only way they would attempt to crawl out of the bedding is if the conditions in there are really bad," he said. Likewise, if tips are followed, there should be little or no odor.

That status can quickly change if the bin is not well ventilated or food scraps are not properly buried in the bedding.

It takes three to six months for the worms to do enough dirty work for a person to separate out what is often known as "black gold." But the harvesting is pure enjoyment for Dombrowski.

"It kind of puts me in a trance," she said. "It's just very relaxing for me to do. Some people knit; I harvest my worms."

As a teacher for the environmental education program of the McHenry County Regional Office of Education, Dombrowski brings compost bins into the elementary schools to introduce students to the wonders of worms and what they do for the environment.

"Kids should think that worms are really fascinating and not icky," she said. "We're trying to help them realize that worms are truly magnificent creatures."

 
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