Saturday, 28 January 2012


A few years ago the British government announced that, in a time when global hunger is increasing, one-third of food in the UK is thrown away uneaten. That is about three billion pounds a year wasted – a part of the estimated one metric tonne of waste per household per year.

Of course, everyone will have some kitchen waste – no one wants to eat the potato peelings or woody stems – but throwing it in with the rest of the rubbish is a ridiculous solution when there are so many allies happy to turn it back into soil.

At the same time, many people have another problem; they want to grow their own food, but have the thin, poor soil of many suburban housing estates -- builders’ waste covered in a thin veneer or topsoil and turf. To grow things properly, many people need to build up their soil with organic waste.

Fortunately, these problems can solve each other, and there are already volunteers ready to help in your neighbourhood. They will work hard for you 24 hours a day without complaint, they are experts at turning kitchen waste into great soil and they work for free. They are worms.

We got a wormery a few Christmases ago, when we were staying in a flat while we built our home. Moving to a home in the country made a compost bin more sensible than a wormery, but it worked well for us while circumstances demanded, and we recommend it for many urban and suburban residents. It came in an easy-to-assemble kit – the bin, a stand, an interior tray and – snug in a plastic bag with air holes – the worms. We lay them gently in the tray inside the bin, spread a bit of peaty earth, shredded newspaper and a bit of kitchen waste around them, and then let them settle in.

A medium-sized wormery can process several pounds of organic waste a day – that’s several pounds you don’t have to put in bins, wrap in plastic and put outside in the cold; that won’t take up space in the landfill; and that won’t worsen climate change.

When the temperature dropped, we wrapped insulation around the bin and placed cardboard over the top to keep them warm, and they seem to still be going. According to worm experts, they slow down below eight degrees Centigrade (46 Fahrenheit) and stop altogether below five degrees (41 Fahrenheit). The outside temperature can go five or ten degrees below that, however, and they can still be all right if the wormery is sufficiently insulated. If you live where it regularly goes below freezing in the winter, you can bring it inside or into the shed – a well-maintained wormery should not smell foul.

A few things are not suitable for the worms. They don’t like high-protein dishes like meat, cheese or beans, acidic waste like citrus peels, too much grass, or pet poo. A little bit of these things can be okay, but not much. Most wormeries also come with an alkali powder of some kind in case the compost gets too acidic, and I'm told that seaweed, crushed eggshells or fireplace ash will also help. You can tell if it starts to smell or if you see tiny, threadlike worms. The worms – called potworms in Britain – are harmless themselves, but an indication of a problem.

One nice thing about a wormery bin is that most have a valve at the base for draining excess water -- “worm tea,” which is about the colour of tea and, diluted, is excellent for watering plants.

We’re slowly learning a bit about self-sufficient country life, but in all candour, it’s hard work. Most of us are inexperienced at physical labour and traditional crafts, and none of us are getting any younger. We would be well advised to accept free help wherever it’s given, and to cultivate a staff that will do some of our work for us.

Photo: Earthworm from Wikicommons.

1 comment:

Green World said...

That is actually quite an interesting approach. This may sound gross, but one trend is that people are actually eating worms and other insects as delicacies. Its become a real business believe it or not and was actually profiled in a major finance magazine called Fortune - I kid you not!