A Day in the Life of a Worm Girl, by Amber Gribben
A question that I often get asked when I'm teaching curious students about worm composting is: “What would happen to the worms if they were covered in hot lava?” I’m convinced there must be a mandate in Illinois’ first grade curriculum to introduce the concepts of volcanoes and lava, thus transfixing students on the subject of this molten magic for the rest of the school year, if not longer. Sadly, I have to explain that the worms are no match for hot lava.
I, and co-owner Stephanie Davies, have had the privilege of visiting not only first grade classrooms but classrooms of all ages – pre-K through college – as Urban Worm Girls, vermicompost educators and composting extraordinaires. Through classroom demonstrations, presentations, vermicompost bin installations, and green fairs we have visited hundreds of schools in the Chicago area since 2008, and have reduced the amount of organic material sent to landfills from these area schools. This is no small feat, as nearly 70 percent of all materials currently sent to landfills can be composted with proper diversion, though once in the landfill they become the largest form of methane caused by humans.
What started as a hobby and labor of love has quickly turned into a part-to-full-time occupation for me and Davies. After learning about the process of vermicomposting and taking the initiative to begin the practice in our own homes, we set out to educate the community on this simple and clean process, and we’ve reveled in the wonder of the Red Wiggler worms ever since. With a background in the academic publishing world, I came to Urban Worm Girl with a strong footing in marketing, design, content creation, and product development. Educating the public on worm composting allowed me to continue to use these skills, but with a much more specific and targeted message. Instead of covering a wide-range of topics and subject areas, I was able to focus on the remarkable process of transforming what is seen as garbage into what might be one of the most valuable materials in our soils.
Composting with worms is a very different process than what one might consider with a backyard compost pile. Rather than playing the game of balancing your carbons and nitrogens and allowing your food scraps, paper, and yard waste to break down through decomposition and decay, worms are actually just eating this compostable material, digesting it, and producing their own waste. This waste product, better known as castings, is often considered the “black gold” of the gardening world for its amazing effect on plant growth, disease suppression, soil enrichment, and irrigation improvement.
The worms used for vermicomposting are commonly known as Red Wigglers but are scientifically recognized as Eisenia fetida, and are a species of earthworm known for their small stature and large appetite. Red Wigglers only grow to about one or two inches in length, and are quite slender in size but are capable of consuming half their body weight per day. This consumption rate far outpaces their larger and more commonly recognized cousins the European Nightcrawlers, Lumbricus terrestris and Lumbricus rubellus. Nightcrawlers, with their thick bodies and long length often make for a fisherman’s delight but will not actually eat as much as the Red Wigglers. In addition, Nightcrawlers burrow their way through the soil, thus aerating and providing tunnels and passageways for water drainage, and spend most of their days moving throughout the ground over long distances. So, when starting a worm compost bin, it is always best to make sure you have the right worm for the job.
Rest assured, neither Davies nor I knew anything about worms four years ago when Urban Worm Girl began. Our previous contact with worms was typical of most people's experience: we spotted them while we dug in gardens or saw them appear on a rainy day. Little did we know our houses would be full of tens of thousands of worms in the years to come. As more and more worm questions came to us, the answers soon followed. We searched for them in academic articles, reference books, and even at an annual vermicomposting conference! We became so well-read that our presentations graced the classrooms of horticultural studies, natural history museums, a multitude of public libraries, and science and sustainability conferences. We feel honored every time an audience member leaves with a smile on her face, or compliments us by saying “I expected this to be so boring, but I really learned a lot and you made it all so fun!”
It is with this energy and enthusiasm that we continue to spread the gospel of vermicomposting to others. In the past year or so, we have expanded our reach from residential and educational installations to larger, institutional worm compost bins. A number of office buildings in downtown Chicago have welcomed the worms into their facilities, and with our help they have implemented composting programs taking food scraps from kitchens and cafeterias to on-site vermicomposting bins that process waste on a daily basis. The finished vermicompost is in turn used on landscaping, green roofs, and rooftop gardens. A full-circle solution is an incredible way to maintain an efficient waste management program and empower employees with sustainable practices that help meet the goals of the property management companies that oversee the buildings. We’ve enjoyed seeing these programs take shape, and are looking forward to expanding into additional sites in the coming year.
Had someone told me years ago that I would find my footing alongside a creature with no legs, eyes, or bones, I would have laughed at the idea. But having been in awe of this amazing species for a few years now, I would have it no other way. I have also learned that when you encounter wiggling creatures and see them as small and insignificant, remember how quickly the face of our planet can change with the help of a few hungry worms.
Urban Worm Girl is a member of edibleschoolyard.org