The State We’re In: The Worm Turns … Waste Into Compost

Michele S. Byers

Michele S. Byers

by Michele S. Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation

What’s slimy and wiggly, can live by the hundreds in your home, and transform junk mail and food scraps into a rich fertilizer known as “black gold”?

Worms! Believe it or not, organic gardeners and farmers throughout this state we’re in are raising them for their amazing composting ability. “Vermiculture” is the practice of breeding and raising worms.

The worms used in vermi-composting aren’t your garden variety earthworms or nightcrawlers. They’re a species known as Red Wigglers (Eisenia foetida), and they’re typically kept in plastic bins.

Their care is pretty simple: Add vegetable peels, crushed egg shells, coffee grounds, fruit rinds and similar kitchen waste between layers of shredded scrap paper in a shallow container of worms. The worms will quietly munch through the scraps and – voila! – produce enough compost to help your garden thrive.  But leave out the meat and dairy … they’re vegetarians.

A growing number of gardeners are singing the praises of these unusual pets.

“All those kitchen scraps and junk mail and newspapers that would be sent to the landfill or recycled, can be converted right in your home into a useful green product,” wrote Dave Moskowitz, president of the Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission, in a column in the East Brunswick Patch.

“They really are easy to take care of and a great conversation topic at our parties. It seems like everybody wants to see our worms when they come over,” added Moskowitz, who gave his wife a worm composter as a birthday present. Who says romance is dead?

A few years ago, the Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission teamed up with Middlesex County to provide worm composters to all the town’s elementary schools, making East Brunswick the first school district in the state to compost cafeteria waste with worms.

Robin and Jon McConaughy, owners of Double Brook Farm in Hopewell, are also “crazy about worms,” as they proclaim on their website. One pound of red worms, they noted, will chew through a half-pound of waste and produce castings containing five times more nitrogen, seven times more phosphorus and 11 times more potassium than ordinary soil.

So why buy chemical fertilizers when you can produce your own organic compost with help from worms?

You can either buy a ready-made composter or build a do-it-yourself model with an inexpensive plastic storage bin. You can even order the worms online!

One caution: When ordering worms, be sure to ask for Red Wigglers by their Latin name, Eisenia foetida. Other species, sometimes advertised as composting worms, are actually invasive and can have a devastating impact on our deciduous forests if they escape into the wild. Never order worms with the Latin names Lumbricus rubella, Amynthas agrestis, Amynthas hilgendorfi or Lumbricus terrestri.

For tips on worm composting and how to build a worm composter, go to

To learn more about invasive worms – the kind you don’t want in your composter or garden – read this Scientific American article –

And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, go to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at or contact me at

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