, Salem, MA

October 18, 2013

Vet Connection: 5,000 ‘pet’ worms get to work making compost

Vet Connection
Dr. Elizabeth Bradt

---- — Our adventure starts with a conversation about food waste during a staff meeting at the practice. Why are the trash bags leaking from the kitchen trash? Why are people throwing so much food away in the trash barrel? We do have more esoteric conversations at staff meetings, but sometimes housekeeping has to be addressed. It was mentioned that perhaps the food we are throwing away could be composted. Good idea!

We are already a Dumpster-free practice. We have a picnic table instead. All 10 members of our team, about 150 clients and their pets generate only two barrels of trash and five to seven recycling bins of cardboard, plastic, glass and paper weekly. We have paperless patient records, which reduces paper waste and helps us keep more accurate patient records. Reducing the stream of every type of waste we generate is always a goal.

We discuss where to put the food waste. At home our family has a small, covered bin by the sink into which we throw coffee grounds, tea bags (without the string and staple), veggie and fruit cuttings. Maybe we could have a bin at All Creatures for our food waste? What would we do with it? We have a compost pile outdoors at the practice, but it is not “cooking” really well at this point. It’s really just a pile, not a nicely aerated compost pile in a chicken-wire cage.

Jokingly I mention hearing about a worm composting system that could generate compost indoors all winter, with worms doing all the work. The team dares me to try it out. First I look at various composting systems on the Internet. Previously I had bad luck with plastic outdoor composting systems, which warped in the sun and froze in the winter, so I order a wooden, layered set of four trays, each with a screen in the bottom, from Williams Sonoma. Each level layers onto the next, and below them all is a cookie pan to catch any moisture. I read the directions. Apparently the composter is not complete until I locate red wiggler worms to house in the composter.

Searching for a red wiggler worm purveyor, I found the wonderfully hysterical website Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm Uncle Jim also has videos on YouTube explaining all the details of a worm’s life and how he will transport them directly to your home and how to keep them happy once they get there.

Apparently these worms do not have eyes. Somehow they sense light and avoid it. They don’t have teeth, either. They compress food with the muscles in their gizzard, which contains some sand or limestone and helps grind up the food and mix it with fluid from the digestive tract. Smaller pieces are created and digested into a rich, brown/black material, which they excrete out the other end. What they excrete is the worm casting. This is the compost that is so rich with nutrients for our gardens and lawns. Worms eat and digest their own body weight daily, aerating the soil and creating nutrient-rich soil with three times more nitrogen and phosphates than natural soil and 11 times more potash. They live from one to four years and can reproduce every 90 days.

The 5,000 worms arrived in a bag of very dry peat moss. They have lost 70 percent of the their body weight due to dehydration in the peat moss, but almost all were alive. We place them into very damp peat moss in the bin, so they can rehydrate and start munching on a light dusting of cornmeal. Each day we add a cup or two of vegetable and fruit peelings and 1 cup of water to keep the peat moss moist until the first bin is 75 percent full. Once the red wiggler worms are acclimated, they will consume pounds of food waste weekly.

We set the second bin on top of the first so the worms can migrate up into a light layer of peat moss and vegetable /fruit trimmings. The worms breathe through their skin, so they need aerated material, such as peat moss or their own castings, to live in. We can open the top of the bin and hear them munching and crunching.

I am looking forward to the day we get to harvest the compost. We will take the bottom bin out and place it on top. We will then open the cover to expose the worms to light, and they will vacate the top bin and migrate through the screen down into the lower bin. Then we will dump the vermicompost into our garden.

For now we have these 5,000 new worm pets at home. When the worms have really settled in and reproduced, we may start the composting at the practice and use the worm castings in our practice gardens. In the winter when the worms slow down in the outdoor mulch piles, we will have lots of compost being produced inside. When the worms multiply, we will set some of them in the middle of the outdoor compost pile and they will work their miracles in the soil outdoors.

Uncle Jim says there is no such thing as too many worms. That’s why we’re taking good care of ours. We want them happy and multiplying so they can aerate and supply our gardens and lawns with their nutritious vermicompost.

Hopefully you will consider composting in your home, or at least in a mulch bin in your yard, to take advantage of all the wonders of worm-produced, non-toxic, inexpensive garden and lawn fertilizer.


Dr. Elizabeth Bradt is a 1986 graduate of Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and the owner of All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Salem. Email your pet questions to Please title your email “Vet Connection.”