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Worm worlds

Red wigglers: goats of the invertebrate world

Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Jan 10/01) - There are two cities, each with more residents than most Northern communities, beneath Vicky Johnston's desk.

Two large plastic containers stored there are home to colonies of small red worms. Descendants of worms Johnson first used when she established the composter six years ago, the red wigglers are also the cousins of worms used to establish some two dozen indoor composters in the city.

"This is not rocket science," advises Johnston as she uses a hand shovel to chop up and turn orange peels and apple cores into the containers.

"As long as you keep them in a container with a lid on it you don't have to worry about them escaping because they hate light."

The worms in Johnston's composter eat the scraps produced by the 15-20 Canadian Wildlife Service employees who regularly eat lunch in the office.

"We don't produce a lot of organic waste, but we don't produce any now because it all goes in here," Johnson said.

Each spring Johnston also adds a cup of worms to an outdoor composter she has at home to speed up the process over the summer.

A storey above Johnston's office, on the third floor of Diamond Plaza, Anne Wilson's worms do the same for the Environment Canada office.

"Two words of advice I have are 'benign neglect,'" Wilson said. "The more you fuss over them the worse they do."

The worms transform the waste, as well as the peat moss and shredded paper used as bedding material, into the finest soil available for plants.

The job isn't a big stretch for them. Normally they live just beneath the surface of the forest floor, surviving on leaves and other dead organic matter.

Red wigglers are the best kind of worms for indoor composters because of the two things they do really well: eat and reproduce.

If you really coddled your colony -- pureed their food in a blender and made sure the moisture and temperature of their world was perfect -- they would consume their own weight in scraps every 24 hours.

Johnston and Wilson do not go to that extreme. They spend five or 10 minutes per week feeding and watering the worms. It takes another half hour every few months to change the bedding.

"The idea of worms grosses some people out, but there's absolutely no smell," said Wilson, later adding, "It's a great way to keep kids busy for an afternoon -- separating the worms from the soil."

Both Johnston and Wilson are willing to provide worms to those wishing to establish their own composters.