Little rotters: Invite worms to feast on your kitchen waste and make compost in return

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The Independent Online

As if there weren't quite enough of them to contend with already, a giant can of worms is sitting at the bottom of my drive. I know this for sure because its cardboard packaging tells me as much. "Can-o-worms", it threatens, in bright green letters.

Sure enough, the search for a knife sharp enough to cut the plastic straps is an onerous one. But then the delights of worm-assisted composting begin to reveal themselves. This is the same wormery whose picture had been lurking between the polytunnels and the snail barriers in the latest Green Gardener brochure. It was enticing (though at £90 not cheap) because the theory seemed so simple. Worms, we were told, have evolved over millions of years into fast and efficient natural composters, each eating and digesting up to half their own bodyweight in waste every day and, when they rid themselves of it, producing high quality compost – "black gold", as gardeners know it. It's a virtuous alternative to kitchen waste rotting away in landfill.

The contraption now sitting before us is no ordinary wormery. It has arrived from the Herefordshire company that must surely win the worms' Wormery of the Year prize every time. If proof were needed that Wiggly Wigglers is a pro-worm business, then look no further than its "Top 10 tips for great worm-assisted composting" in the booklet that accompanies the kit. It includes the recommendation that feeding should stop if worms get behind on their waste. "Remember, worms do not have teeth," the booklet reminds us, recommending that setting the wigglers large meals is a bad idea.

Given that the chance to pick up fat, juicy worms is one of the few successful gardening enticements for Emily, eight, and George, six, not to mention our eldest, Ben, 19, the Can-o-worms was purchased as a family activity. After some preliminary fiddling around with its plastic legs we are ready to get our hands on the wigglers.

The worms' initial living area, it transpires, is the first floor of a four-storey tray system. The ground floor is the "sump" from which liquid feed – a product of the composting process and a perfect fertiliser when diluted – can be drawn off through a tap. In readiness for the new residents, George and I fit the wormery's cardboard packaging across the bottom of their tray, spread a peaty substance on top and then it's time to start liberating those worms.

"Oh, there are hundreds," gasps George as a lively clump of 30, released from their hemp bag, dart around in his hand. "I want him as a pet," he adds, peering at one of them. Emily has spotted "a family" in her hand, though the similarity of two "brothers" is not immediately apparent. Meanwhile, Ben is just ready to up-end the kitchen compost – some faded broccoli, banana skins and several toilet-roll centres (worms love dry fibre; it should make up 25 per cent of the material added) over them. Not so fast, warns Granny, the only one of us who has bothered to explore the instructions. "Worms are light-sensitive..." (she is reading from the booklet) "... so leave the lid off for a couple of hours to encourage them to burrow down in the bedding."

Sure enough, the little redworms (Eisenia fetida) dive in like an army of synchronised submarines once freed from their bag. When the time comes to deposit the kitchen waste, Emily and Ben are both fairly liberal – but there's a science to this, too. Citrus fruits, garlic, leeks and spring onions are evidently none too popular at meal-times in worm world but apple cores, bread, pasta, rice and tea bags are well received.

We are by no means the only family to have found such pleasures. Wiggly Wigglers' founder Heather Gorringe, who worked on her father's pedigree Suffolk sheep herd before coming across the idea of worm composting, turned over £3m last year and won the Farmers' Weekly Alternative Enterprise Award. And sales in the first three months of this year are around 40 per cent up on last year.

"People find they can compost waste that they hadn't thought was compostable, and there's not the smell you get with a compost heap," she says. Gorringe also knows there's big potential growth in the corporate sector. She's already supplied worm composting kits to schools, museums and companies, including HSBC.

Her enthusiasm has, by her own admission, caused some chaos in the past – not least when she decided to post out samples of worms to 120 journalists, a few years back, to illustrate the delights of wormeries. "I had a woman on the phone from the BBC canteen telling me she had a worm phobia and how dare I send them," she recalls. The company's zany outlook is evident in its website, wigglywigglers.co.uk, where some intense debate around 81 podcasts recorded to date has superseded the original objective of selling wormeries, gardening tools and bird boxes. At the last count, the podcast attracted 30,000 listeners. It's currently being upstaged by a film on the site about how to get your Can-o-worms up and running. This includes some worm trivia. How many hearts does a worm have? Five – all important to whisk oxygen around its body. Do worms have brains? Yes, because they always pull at smaller objects first.

A few weeks down the line, there were some more prosaic questions to ask about our own Can-o-worms. The worms aren't getting stuck into their food and seem rather dry, so I try watering them. The consequences reveal themselves a few days later: 30 dead worms, clogging up the sump.

"If you've got eggs and adult worms in there you can be quite blasé," Gorringe reassures me. "In an ecosystem, some creatures will die and the sump is where they'll be." But she's baffled by our symptoms. Her helpline staff have fielded concerns such as "What do I do with the worms when I go on holiday?", but we are the first to say ours are drying out. Maybe, like any digestive system, our wormery's problem is a lack of fibre. I add a few toilet roll centres and things do, indeed, seem to be on the move now.

The mistake most people make, says Borringe, is to expect too much of their worms. "It's important to remember that it's a process, rather than a machine," she says. "If you're going to have a dinner party for 12 it won't get rid of all the waste food but it will cope with the day-to-day kitchen scraps."

We're simply glad to see the worms have made it to the third floor of their tower, wiggling through the roof of the second floor tray in search of more food and leaving behind the "black gold" we were promised. At this rate, it looks like a few dinner parties are in order if we're going to keep up.

Ground force: the facts about worm composting

* While the Can-o-worms is a king among wormeries there are smaller products on sale, some costing as little as £30, that are suitable for flats with window boxes. As well as the Wiggly Wigglers products (01981 500 391), they are also available from www.greengardener.co.uk, www.recycleworks.co.uk, www.evengreener.com, www.nurturingnature.co.uk and www.originalorganics.co.uk.

* Several thousand British households already compost with worms but the UK is well behind many other countries. The Americans are seriously into it, the Dutch already compost 12 times as much waste as Britons and in Australia, where 4 per cent of the population worm-composts, there are even organised training sessions.

* An alternative system to a wormery is a Bokashi Bin. Invented in Japan, this all-food recycling system uses effective microbes or bokashi – a Japanese word meaning "fermented organic matter" – to decompose the material. The fermentation process does not produce smells, so you can keep the bucket under your sink or in your home. It can work in tandem with a wormery.

* A wormery with 1,000 worms will consume up to 250g of food per day and the performance will improve if the temperature inside is kept at around 20C.

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