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Worm Feast

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I'd like to compost all those kitchen scraps that go down the disposal. I know there's a better use for them than filling a dump. But backyard composting involves careful attention to things like moisture, aeration, and the proper mix of "greens" and "browns" ... whereas I'm often unable to find a matching pair of socks. For people like me, the answer is: Turn to the worm. 

Worm composting -- the technical word is "vermiculture" -- is almost as simple as tossing stuff in the trash. You build a custom bin, with appropriate drainage and other features. You stock it with worms. And then you add kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, even this newspaper. (Animal products, however, are a no-no.) The worms digest the material, and excrete "castings" -- which is dinner-table speak for "worm shit" -- that can make a fantastic fertilizer or potting soil for houseplants or your garden. 

So why isn't everyone doing vermiculture? Lauren Seiple, an education coordinator at the Pennsylvania Resources Council, knows one reason: "It's worms. Moreover, it's worms deliberately brought inside the home -- where most worm bins are kept." 

Seiple conducts workshops on vermiculture, including a Sept. 9 session at the Mount Lebanon Public Library, and says that up until fourth grade, "All kids love worms. But after grade four, girls don't want anything to do with them." 

Which is sad, for these aren't your garden-variety worms. To compost properly, you need red wrigglers, which you can't just dig up after a rainstorm. You can order them online, or attend one of Seiple's workshops: Every participant goes home with their own worm bin. (PRC gets its worms from a worm farmer in Georgia.) 

Worms can eat a little -- you can feed them as rarely as every three weeks -- or a lot: A worm can eat upwards of half its body weight each day. Since a worm bin can contain a pound's worth of worms -- roughly 1,000 -- that's a half-pound of vegetable matter that could fertilize your garden next year, rather than rotting in a dump. 

What's more, worms make an ideal low-maintenance pet. "You don't have to take worms out for a walk," Seipel points out.

But what do you tell the squeamish spouse who fears finding a writhing mass of worms in the laundry room? 

Seipel, who keeps a worm-composting bin near her desk at work, notes that, "You're creating an ideal environment for the worms. You'll occasionally get a rogue worm who wants to explore -- or end it all -- but there's no reason for them to leave their bin." 

Seiple's next vermiculture class is at 7 p.m. Sept. 9, at the Mount Lebanon Public Library, and space is still available. ($45 gets you into the class, and your own vermiculture starter kit.) For more on this and future classes, as well as other ecologically-minded programs, check out the Pennsylvania Resources Council website, www.prc.org.

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