Like most people who “get into” worms, Steve Schaefer speaks of them like a parent: proud of their daily accomplishments, seeing past the day-to-day slime.
He’s been digging around in the worm bins at Evergreen Brick Works to show off the thousands of red wigglers and their tiny white offspring slithering beneath the surface, efficiently turning food scraps and bits of shredded paper into rich fertilizer. He lifts them out of their moist, dark home into the sunlight, and they curl away, protectively, hiding behind each other.
It’s a bit gruesome for the uninitiated — but then, kind of touching, when you think how vulnerable these worms are, they without eyes.
Schaefer, 68, is a retired school social worker. He moved to Toronto from Winnipeg two years ago to be close to his children and grandchildren, losing all of his gardens in the process.
On a recent Tuesday, he is inadvertently dressed like a tree, in brown corduroy pants and a green shirt that says “worm wrangler,” his unofficial title here in the greenhouse.
“We really minimize the importance of worms,” he says of the public generally. “The more I work with them . . . I’m quite in awe of how effective they are.”
Evergreen’s worm composting program began before Schaefer arrived, but under his enthusiastic watch it became more structured, with log sheets to track progress, and an expanding collection of worm-filled bins.
He has learned on the go, volunteering twice a week with a group that chops up food scraps, monitors the worms and harvests the end product, called castings. On Saturdays, when children visit, he answers questions.
“Sometimes they get very excited; they’ll horde them,” he says. “A little girl in here, she was 6 or 7, every time someone picked a worm out she’d say: ‘I’ll take that one.’ And she had this handful of worms, and no idea what to do with them,” he says, holding his hand out in imitation.
While other types of worms are more inclined to burrow, red wigglers are top feeders who eat on the go, making their digestive habits the perfect fit for humanity’s desire to turn yesterday’s lunch into fertilizer.
“They’re just very amenable to this whole process. They eat a lot, they excrete a lot, they reproduce quickly, they last a long time, they’ll live for many, many years,” Schaeffer says, as greenhouse volunteers snack on brownies roughly the same colour as the castings.
When a bin is ready to be harvested, the team will pick out the worms or use a sifter to help separate them out, like panning for slimy gold.
The bins are plastic with holes drilled into the sides for ventilation. Some bins are part of plastic highrise towers, called “worm chalets,” with different levels for the worms to inhabit.
Inside, chopped up banana peels, newspaper and food waste is at various stages of digestion, with bins closer to the top nearing harvest. It generally takes two months for the bin’s contents to turn into castings with a nice rich colour, light texture, and no odour.
“These are windows from envelopes. It doesn’t hurt them. It’s from upstairs in the office,” Schaeffer says as he plucks small slivers of plastic from the bin. “We’ve asked them to be careful.”
The workers agree that the name “worm chalet” is a little ridiculous, if not aspirational. The tiny creatures could benefit from a marketing campaign. Even a computer spell checker seems to be against them, arbitrarily changing “vermiculture” to “vermin culture.”
It doesn’t help that a lot of horror movies have worms, says Cathy Nesbitt, who runs a worm composting business out of her Bradford home.
“People think they’re going to be crawling all over their house. They’re not; they’d die right outside the bin because it’s not moist enough. And if they’re crawling out of the bin, I say someone should call the SPCA because your worms are being mistreated. They wouldn’t crawl out if the conditions are right,” she says.
To combat their bad image, Nesbitt emphasizes the fact that worms have five hearts. At birthday parties or school visits, she invents a bit of mythology: Whoever was in charge of body parts, she tells children, knew people would be afraid of the worms — so they needed the extra hearts. A pound of worms contains up to 1,000 worms and 5,000 hearts, she notes.
“People soften. They’re not ready yet to buy them, but they’re open a little bit more,” she says.
Like most people, Nesbitt was not born with a love of worms, but grew fascinated by the worms in the backyard compost. While sidelined with an injury at work, she decided to start her own business, importing red wigglers from the U.S. and growing a small colony. Now she’s a woman transformed. When she sees bait worm vending machines, “I do have this crazy urge sometimes to set them all free,” she laughs.
As a business model, red wigglers can be difficult, because there are few repeat customers. Once you buy a pound of worms, they multiply quickly.
Nesbitt said worm composting is difficult to do on a large, city-wide scale. It’s the kind of thing best driven by an individual, or an organization such as a condo board, which can use the castings for landscaping.