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Putting Worms to Work

Judy Elliott of Denver Urban Gardens has been teaching backyard composting for 25 years.

Composting with worms, or vermicomposting, advances the 'reduce, reuse, recycle' ethos.

At Gove Gardens, Elliott is raising red wigglers and European nightcrawlers.

Maintaining worms consists of pulling the bedding apart and turning the material for aeration.

Worm wrangling is increasingly popular with urban homesteaders in Denver. Composting with worms, or vermicomposting, advances the 'reduce, reuse, recycle' ethos.
Seven years ago, Mike Kane was a car salesman, working 12 hours a day, six days a week, and looking for a career change.

"I wanted to start a business I could pretty much run by myself and have a positive effect on the environment," he says. That was the impetus for A.B.C. Composting, a small worm farm Kane operates out of his garage on 120th Avenue and Holly Street in north metro Denver.

Starting with one pound of red wigglers bought online, Kane grew that startup inventory into six or seven pounds within a year, whereupon, he says, "I hung out my shingle, put an ad on Craigslist and pretty much sold out in two weeks with everything I had. I thought, 'Hmm, maybe I should expand a little bit.'"

And expand, he has. Kane estimates he now sells 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of worms a year, raising them in bins measuring four feet by eight feet and 22 inches high. The name "A.B.C.," conceived by his daughter, stands for "already been chewed."

"It fits, because that's exactly what the worms do," says Kane, 55. "They take some trash I feed them and they make organic fertilizer." His worms receive a mixture of vegetable scraps and paper products -- junk mail, cardboard and the like -- moistened to the consistency of a wrung-out sponge.

"The Internet will tell you worms eat half their weight a day," he says. "I think it's a little less than that, but if I sell 500 pounds of worms on an annual basis . . . those worms eat half their weight a day, every day, so over the course of 365 days they're consuming 250 pounds of waste a day. It's just simple math."

Compost catalystMaintaining worms consists of pulling the bedding apart and turning the material for aeration.

It's no wonder amid the sustainability mantra of "reduce, reuse, recycle" that worm composting, or "vermicomposting" would gain interest, especially in arid Colorado, where the ordinary composting process could use an accelerant that worms provide in breaking down yard clippings and other waste.

"It could take two to three years for that to compost down to nothing," Kane says. "But if you put a pound of worms in there, it'll take four to six months to break down that same material once you have enough worms in it. You speed up the process, plus you get super-rich fertilizer compost."

Along with the worms themselves, Kane sells worm castings (poop), as well as equipment for raising worms on his website. He also teaches vermicomposting for organizations like Denver Urban Gardens and in schools. Though he works as a plant manager for a bathtub manufacturer in Aurora, he says these days he could live on his worm farm earnings.

He says his customers generally fall into four categories:  1) what he calls the "indoor growing" crowd seeking help with fertilizing and nourishing their crops; 2) people who want reduce the amount of green waste they throw out; 3) gardeners; 4) people interested in both gardening and reducing what they throw out.

Marijuana growers have added to Kane's customer base, but they can be challenging. "They're kind of a hard sell," he says. "If you're growing a very profitable cash crop and you're growing it one way and one way only, to change that you have to take a chance on losing a cash crop. A lot of them won't change very easily. There are times I get a phone call: 'Do you sell worm castings?' 'Yes, I do.' ' Good, can I have seven tons?'

"Well, I can't produce seven tons," Kane says. "There are places around the nation that can, because they're always making it. I probably produce a ton every couple weeks or so."

Worm workshopsJudy Elliott of Denver Urban Gardens has been teaching backyard composting for 25 years.

Judy Elliott, a senior education specialist with Denver Urban Gardens, has been teaching backyard composting for 25 years, including instruction on vermicomposting. The organization offers free classes on raising worms once a month on Saturday mornings. Classes run through mid-October.

"It's  become very popular," says Elliott, who tends to the worms in the composting bin housed at Gove Gardens on 13th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. The insulated wood bin on the site contains moist newspapers, leaves and vegetable scraps chopped into one-inch squares. And, of course, worms.

"Worm composting allows anyone to compost," Elliott says. "You can take the box inside in the winter, and it's appropriate for apartment dwellers because you don't need much space."

At Gove Gardens, Elliott is raising red wigglers and European nightcrawlers -- the latter of which are not to be confused with the large nightcrawlers common to Colorado. "The preferred is the red wiggler," she says. "The nightcrawlers you see are not appropriate because they dig deep tunnels; they live in a different environment and would not live in newspapers."

For people interested in vermicomposting who want a nearly ready-made bin, Elliott suggests a Rubbermaid Roughneck storage container in a solid color, not transparent. She specifies that brand and model because it's made of a rubbery material, not hard plastic, which might crack. About the only modification required is to drill quarter-inch holes -- three rows of 10 holes -- on each of the two lengths of the container, plus the top.

Elliott says maintaining the worms basically consists of pulling the bedding apart once a week and turning the material for aeration, adding vegetable scraps and keeping the bedding moistened to that rung-out sponge consistency. She advises against citrus fruit (it attracts fruit flies), as well as no meat, fat, cheese or bones.

"Anything you put in has to be chopped up into one-inch pieces," she says. "Just like regular compost."

"When you do it correctly, it's a balanced community," Elliott adds. "It's also very good for getting young people involved in 'reduce, reuse, recycle.' And once you run your hands through fully aged worm compost, you're hooked."   

This is a fourth in a series of stories exploring backyard animal husbandry in Denver. Read the first one, on chickens, here, the second, on goats, here and the third, on bees, here.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Mike Taylor.

Mike Taylor is a freelance writer in Denver. He is editor of ColoradoBiz magazine and previously wrote for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Anchorage Times.
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