Wanted: A senior citizen trying to start a compost bin lacks a critical ingredient


POSTED: Sunday, December 21, 2008

Question: I'm a senior citizen trying to start a simple compost in a 30-gallon aluminum refuse can with a hole in the bottom. My problem is that I can't seem to get any worms. I tried to dig up some worms, but they always disappear. I read about ammonia sulfate crystals that you're supposed to sprinkle on your garbage and it's supposed to make it into rich soil, but no one I talked to knows anything about it. Can you help?

Answer: Although your intentions are commendable, it's hard to give you a definitive answer since you don't say what type of compost you are trying to start or where you live. A local recycling expert, Mindy Jaffe, says worms thrive in areas on Oahu which are very moist, such as Manoa and Central and Windward Oahu. There are harder to find in the drier parts of the island such as Leeward Oahu and the Waianae Coast. Jaffe, who owns Waikiki Worm Co., told Kokua Line that there are two related - but different - composting methods - thermophilic composting and vermicomposting.

  “;People composting green waste - grass clippings, leaves and branches, garden trimmings - use the standard thermophilic composting method, whether they have constructed a compost pile or heap on the ground or are using a barrel or bin for the process,”; she said. “;Thermophilic refers to the heat-loving microscopic bacteria and fungi that break down cellulose material. Many other decomposers will be present as well, including sow bugs, millipedes, beetles, mites, springtails, earwigs, and roaches. These organisms tolerate the high temperature and relative dryness of the thermophilic process.

“;Worms are superb decomposers, but require a relatively high moisture content. In rainy parts of the island, such as Manoa or Wahiawa, the common topsoil worm - Amynthas gracilis - is plentiful and will find its way to your naturally moist compost pile, or come up through the pukas on the bottom of the barrel to partake of the abundance of decaying organic matter. If you water your compost pile/bin and especially if you add food waste (which is mostly water), you can attract and retain a substantial worm population.

“;If you live in a hot, dry part of the island, worms may not be naturally occurring and you'll need to “;seed”; your compost with a few to start up a population. You must water your compost pile frequently to maintain high moisture content. For vermicomposting, or composting with worms, a worm bin is specially managed to sustain a colony of worms and the material to be processed is kitchen and household waste such as food, paper and cardboard, rather than garden and lawn waste. Worms can be housed indoors or out in a simple plastic box with holes drilled in the bottom or a in manufactured system such as the Can-O-Worms vermicomposter. If properly managed, worm composting is clean and odorless.”;

  Jaffe said the worm species used for vermicomposting are Perionyx excavatus (Indian blueworm) or Eisenia fetida (red wiggler). In nature, these worms process manure at pig and chicken farms, but they readily switch to banana peels, papaya skins, melon rinds, apple cores, vegetable trimmings, old rice and moldy bread.

Vermicomposting has become a very popular recycling strategy over the last several years. An estimated 5,000 households on Oahu divert more than 520 tons of garbage annually from the waste stream. By keeping a kitchen colony of worms, valuable plant nutrients in food waste are recovered, concentrated and packaged in the worms' poop, more properly called castings or vermicast, and known to plant lovers around the world as “;gardeners' gold.”; This dark, nutrient-rich, safe and organic soil amendment is ideal for gardens, houseplants, landscaping and lawns.

As for using ammonia sulfate crystals, Jaffe said she has not heard about such a practice. Worms and worm bins, workshops, and other vermicomposting products and programs are available from Waikiki Worm Company, or 382-0432.

A workshop on thermophilic composting is presented regularly at The Green House in Pauoa Valley, or 524-8427.


June Watanabe is on vacation. Write to “;Kokua Line”; at Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 7 Waterfront Plaza, Suite 210, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu 96813; call 529-4773; fax 529-4750; or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).