Worms. They've been wiggling on earth for about 120 million years. Cleopatra pronounced them sacred. Charles Darwin studied them for decades. The Chinese have used them in medicines for centuries.
And it's been about 2,000 years since Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato documented the technique of vermicomposting, or vermiposting, the homespun science in which worms convert food scraps into rich compost via their waste.
Today vermicomposting is practiced on a large scale around the world, with the byproducts -- worm castings -- used commercially as pesticide and fertilizer.
Composting with worms also has come into favor on a smaller scale, in homes. It is ideal for apartment and condo dwellers with little space. But vermicomposting kitchen waste can be for anyone; it's neat, easy, odorless, inexpensive and green.
"It makes you look at garbage in a new way," says Alice Beetz, agriculture specialist with The National Center for Appropriate Technology, in Fayetteville, Ark.
Beetz herself started vermicomposting two years ago.
"It's a better way to handle my kitchen waste, and I really value the compost it produces. Also, because I answer questions about worms for others, I believe that I should have some basic experience," she says.
Getting started is simple: Build or buy a worm bin to house the worms.
A suitable wooden bin with a lid (worms do their best work in the dark) can be constructed easily. Two inexpensive eight- to 10-gallon plastic storage boxes with lids also work well.
Fill the bin with damp, fluffy bedding material, such as shredded newspaper or peat moss, and add a pound of red wiggler worms, available at most large nurseries. You want red wigglers (also known as bloodworms, red worms, brandlings, tiger worms and manure worms). Garden-variety earthworms will not do.
Let the worms acclimate for a couple of days. Then, for their first meal, bury a small portion of kitchen scraps in the bedding on one side of the bin. Check it daily. When the scraps are gone, add a larger portion, and repeat the process. Once established, a pound of worms will consume about 4 pounds of kitchen waste a week. Scraps can be greens, carrots, lettuce, broccoli, sweet potatoes, pieces of fruit (they love cantaloupe), coffee grounds and eggshells. (Eggshells are a necessary part of their diet.) Avoid meats, dairy products and citrus.
Red wigglers are hearty eaters, consuming almost their weight in kitchen scraps every day. They'll multiply, too, and before long you may want to thin the herd. This can be accomplished by indoctrinating neighbors and your extended family in the virtues of vermicomposting.
The compost, known as worm castings, should be harvested in a month or two, when they are dark brown and there are no recognizable food scraps.
The way the castings are harvested depends on the type of worm bin being used, and the Internet offers numerous sites with simple instructions for building and setting up worm bins, as well as for feeding the worms and harvesting the castings. Many also provide step-by-step illustrations. Do an Internet search for "how to vermicompost," or call your county's Cooperative Extension office to request literature on vermicomposting.
The rewards for tending a worm farm are great.
"The end product is magic," Beetz says. "People have always said there are real advantages to using worm castings. Now scientists are proving it."
Researchers say worm castings provide anti-disease properties for plant roots and foliage and pest resistance against whiteflies and aphids. Horticulture experts also are weighing in.
"An important nurseryman at a recent major meeting reported his flowers bloomed earlier and held their blossoms longer when treated with worm castings," Beetz says.
There's a great educational aspect to vermicomposting, too, according to Beetz. The first time she put in new bedding, she set out the bins and invited the kids in her neighborhood to help.
"Children love worms," she says. "They know that they are taking care of little livestock and that they need to pay attention. They realize garbage is being used to make something valuable. They see a very clear cycle. The children really got into carefully moving my worms into new bedding."
One young child could not be torn away. "I'll be here," he told his mother. "You can come back for me later."