Frugal Living: Can Worms Save the Planet?
In this episode, Jim speaks with worm-advocate Cathy Nesbitt about vermicomposting. Check out Frugal Living on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon, Anchor.fm, iHeartRadio, or anywhere you go to find podcasts.
Why pay for soil amendments? Once you understand the basics, composting takes little effort and offers ongoing benefits for your garden. In this week’s episode, I talked with Cathy Nesbitt. She’s a self-proclaimed worm advocate and the founder of Cathy’s Crawly Composters.
Worm composting, also called vermicomposting, differs from regular backyard composting in a few ways. The biggest difference? Worms. These little creatures devour the compost in your bin, churning through it, and they produce rich compost.
Unlike a regular compost pile, vermicompost can live inside your house. Outdoor piles grow to enormous sizes. The bigger the pile, the more insulated the inside gets. The heat in a traditional compost pile helps break down the components, but that kind of heat would kill worms in a vermicomposter.
Worm composters still require the same primary ingredients as compost piles. You’ll need leaves, shredded paper, or something similar to act as “bedding.” Your food scraps add additional nitrogen.
Interested in vermicomposting for your own home? You can find a full transcript of this week’s show below. We’re on TikTok, Instagram, and everywhere else. If you want to connect with Cathy, she’s on Twitter!
Looking for other ways to save the Earth? Use our guide to find everything you need to know about rain barrels.
Read a Transcript of the Worm Compost Episode:
This is Frugal Living. <music> When I started a garden, I also started a compost bin. And as I’ve talked to more gardeners, I realized it’s a pretty normal part of the process. You don’t need to pay someone for soil amendments if you could make them yourself. But what if you don’t have a garden? Or what if you live somewhere like I do where it gets too cold to comfortably compost during the winter months? That’s why I reached out to Cathy Nesbitt. She’s an expert at vermicomposting, and she founded Cathy’s Crawly Composters. Here’s our conversation. <music>
I’m Cathy Nesbitt. I’m a worm advocate and founder of Cathy’s Crawly Composters.
And that is the reason I wanted to talk to you today. It is so rare to find someone as excited about compost as I am. I love compost. And you are an expert with a 20-year-old composting business. Congratulations! Twenty years in this business. Tell me about it. Tell me about what got you interested in compost.
Yeah. Thank you, Jim. I mean, I think composting is a magic process, I mean, even without worms. So I’ve added in the worm part. But you know, just composting on its own. I mean, it’s like composting is nature’s, kind of, alchemistic process.
You know, where things you rec–that you recognize–your carrots and potatoes, whatever–are converted into soil. What? How can this be? Cool! So you can grow more food. Wow! What? And so I was excited about that whole process. Then add in the worms. It even makes it more magic and accessible to way more people because it’s done inside.
That is a really good transition here. So I’m in Illinois in the US and composting in the summer–just normal, kind of, traditional, throw-it-in-the-pile composting–is awesome in the summer. But in the winter, if you don’t have a giant pile, that process slows down. And it’s very difficult to compost outside when there’s snow covering the ground. Can you tell me a little bit about indoor composting and, and what vermiculture is?
Absolutely. Yes. So vermicomposting is the same idea as outdoor composting. No special equipment is required, right? When you’re composting outside, you have a pile or you have a composter or there’s all different systems. This is the same idea except it’s done inside with worms. And the worms that we use are called red wiggler worms. They’re the optimum composting worm. There are thousands of types of worms.
Only four that are optimum for vermicomposting–Red Wigglers, European Nightcrawlers, African Nightcrawlers, and Perionyx (which is a tropical worm)–that have been identified so far. I mean, there may be others that we haven’t discovered as yet.
Is it because of their size, or the amount that they eat and decompose, or–? What makes these four uniquely qualified for this?
Yes. What they eat and where they live. So, they’re surface dwellers. Versus when it rains, the worms that come out when it rains, those are dew worms or Canadian Nightcrawlers. And those worms–I mean, they’re cousins. I’ll actually talk about those two worms for a moment. They’re cousins, all earthworms. The Canadian Nightcrawlers or dew worms live below the frost line. So they go four to six feet below the surface, come up at night to draw their food down into the borough. So that’s those guys.
The red wigglers only go four to six inches, making them ideal to live in a container, in our house, in our school, in our business, wherever we need to have worms. And they have a different diet. The nightcrawlers eat mostly carbon, or leaves. And the Red Wigglers require carbon and nitrogen. So the carbon is the bedding: the shredded paper, leaves, straw, cardboard. And the nitrogen is our food scraps. So, these are things that we have.
We don’t need to purchase anything. Well, the worm. But as far as materials, so, you know, again, the bedding is the shredded paper. The worms don’t have teeth. So the more we chop it up or shred it up, the faster it breaks down, the more the worms can eat. Same with our food scraps.
And I’ll talk about the food scraps for a moment. So it’s all of your potato peels, carrot peels, lettuce, cucumbers, so all your veg, all your bananas, apples, pears, all your fruit. So here’s a list what can go in your worm bin. All of your fruit and veg, coffee, tea, pasta, rice, beans, grains, plant clipping, cereal. It’s endless what can go in. So let me tell you what stays out. Much shorter list. No meat, no dairy, no sauce, no greasy stuff.
If you’re not sure, leave it out. And again, the worms don’t have teeth. So the more you chop it up, the faster it breaks down, the more the worms can eat. Even for your outdoor composter, the more you chop it up, the faster the outdoor process will work as well.
I love this idea of being able to compost year-round and being able to compost in smaller spaces. If you live in an apartment or a condo, you don’t have a yard. I love it for that. What kind of considerations do you need in terms of a container? If you wanna have it inside, are you going to be worried about the smell? Do you wanna have a lid on it? Does it need to breathe?
Those are great questions. Yes. And usually the objections. Thank you. So container: Any container will do. It’s creating the right environment. So there are wonderful systems, and I’ll talk about the wonderful one that I have. But any container. So for the do-it-yourselfers, a Rubbermaid container, or I would suggest a plastic container just because it’s easy to move around.
You know, we generally will have some kind of a container around, so you don’t–Again, you don’t need to buy something. You can use something you have. So you need to create the right environment. So three key elements are temperature, airflow, and moisture. Temperature: 60 to 80 Fahrenheit, 16 to 25 Celsius.
Airflow: You need to have holes in your bin. So if you’re using, um, Rubbermaid, again, you’ll wanna poke some holes in it. And then moisture: Your bedding, about 75% humidity. And you don’t need to measure, you know, anything. For temperature, if we’re comfortable, the worms will be comfortable. Room temperature is fine.
Air holes: So you can do this outside spring, summer, and fall. In the winter, of course would need to be brought inside. If you’re gonna be putting your bin outside, I would suggest not poking holes in the top. Like, not in the lid because if you’re putting it outside and it rains, then your bedding may get too wet. So you would have your holes around the side. I do suggest leaving it inside year-round, by the way.
Sure. It sounds like it might be easier to get your kitchen scraps and everything in there if it’s easier access inside anyway.
And putting it outside, you may attract outdoor bugs inside. You know, when you get some spiders crawling in there or, you know, the sow bugs, the little wood lice, they may crawl in there. You know, they’re just decomposers as well. So they’re gonna break down the material for the worm. They cohabitate quite nicely. They just kind of bug us, right? Because they’re bugs. Right? And we don’t want those in the house.
Because once it’s in the house, then they could crawl out of the holes as well. And we don’t want that. So what did I say? Temperature, moisture, airflow. And you’ve got your bedding. When you add your worms in, when you’re feeding the food scraps, you pull back the bedding and add your chopped up food in the hole that you’ve made and make sure that it’s covered. So you don’t get fruit flies.
And people say, “Oh, fruit flies! What?” The fruit flies did not come from your worm bin. The fruit flies come from the fruit. And we bring them in on the banana peels. You know, they’re on all the fruit. But we will generally wash the apple or the pear. Where the banana, we just peel it.
We don’t wash that banana. So we peel the banana. The eggs are intact on the peel. And then if we then put that in our worm bin, as it starts to get speckled and ripened, the perfect environment for the eggs to hatch and fly around and bug us. Fruit flies do not cause any harm to humans. Just that they bug us. They’re an annoyance. They’re just helping the worms. They’re decomposers. <music>
This episode, as always, was brought to you by Brad’s Deals. There’s a community of people here scouring the web for the best deals on everything. The site is B R A D S D E A L S.com. <music>
Insects in general. Like, we should probably be celebrating these insects in general inside and outside. It’s their world too.
It is. And they outnumber us by far. So something you can do: Any of the fruit that you don’t generally wash–bananas, orange, melon–give it a quick rinse. That will wash off the fruit fly eggs. And then if you add your scraps into a container and let it start to, kind of, rot for a couple of days before adding it into your worm bin. That’s gonna speed up the process. As the material breaks down, the juice gets released. So you can pour off that extra juice before you add that food into your worm bin. So I talked about just, you know, a container.
Now, once your container, if you just have a Rubbermaid or whatever, once your container fills up, it’s maybe three to five months. You’re adding food, you know, once or twice a week. You’re adding in paper, you’re adding in your food scraps. The worms, eat it all. And they convert it into compost or soil, fertilizer that we can add back into our garden. Beautiful.
So how do you harvest your worms? If you have, again, just a single bin, you would dump everything out on a plastic sheet. Hopefully you’ve timed it so you can do it outside, you know, in the colder climes. Spread out a tarp, dump everything on the tarp in a big pile. And then you put it small little piles. You know, kind of just bunch it together.
So then the worms just need to escape from the light, right? So they’re gonna go down into the pile. You’re scooping off the top, scooping around the sides. Maybe an hour to do ’em in that size. Once you get your worm separated, set up your new bedding, add the worms back in, and use that black gold for your plants.
Fantastic. So it sounds like you’re only doing this maybe three or four times a year.
Maybe once or twice.
Oh, once or twice. Okay, sure.
If you have that kind of bin. Now there are tower containers, tower systems. Not everybody wants to have, you know, a Rubbermaid bin under their kitchen table. People like to have a system or something that looks attractive, right? You’re doing this in the house. So there are several.
I’m gonna talk about the one that I have, which is super cute. It’s called the Living Composter. It’s made in Canada. And it’s a stool. It’s a functional piece of furniture, which is beautiful. It comes in four colors so it matches decor. So with the tower composters, they all kind of work pretty much the same where there’s holes in the bottom of each tray. You’re only feeding one tray at a time.
When the tray fills up, you take out your empty tray, place it on top with your new bedding. And you have to make sure that the bedding is on the operating tray. The bedding is touching the holes in the next tray up. So the worms can easily squirm up to the next layer. They’re gonna be following the food. So some of them will be like, “Yay, new adventure!” And upstairs they go. Some will be like, you know, kind of like people, “Oh no, we’re good. We know what we have here. You guys go ahead. We’re gonna stay right where we are.” Which is great because they will continue working the process.
The worms will consume the material up to six or seven times to get the nutrients out. So each time they consume that compost, the pieces get smaller and smaller and smaller and more condensed. And it just becomes this magic, super-rich material that we can grow. Like, it’s nutrient-rich soil. You know, Jim, when I started my worm-composting business, I thought it was as a waste-management tool. You know, our landfill closed.
For Toronto area, largest city in Canada, six million people, half live in condos without space to do outdoor composting. And although Canada is the second-largest country in the world, we couldn’t find a place for a new landfill. And I’m sorry about this, but we started exporting our garbage to the U.S.
I heard about that. You had mentioned in another interview, they were exporting to Michigan. Is that right?
Correct. Two hundred garbage trucks, Monday to Friday, a thousand trucks a week. You know, and that was simply a business exchange. Like, we were giving the garbage and we were paying a lot for that privilege, by the way. So Michigan was making money, but also filling their landfill. And, you know, I like to let people know, you know, it seems like, “Oh well, what’s the big deal?” The big deal is that we only have one planet. There’s only one environment. We are the environment.
I have an expression and it’s “Without awareness, action is impossible.” And I, kind of, came up with that because of my worm business. My goal is a worm bin in every house, every school, every business, worms everywhere. So we don’t have to truck it around anymore. So people can save money.
You know, this compost industry is not regulated, folks. It’s not, at least not in Canada, not completely. Like, we think, “Oh, I’m buying a bag of triple mix. What’s in it? We don’t know. So why not make your own? You’re saving money, you’re saving the planet, and you know what’s in it! So the challenge is, Jim, this was, composting used to be, mainstream. It used to be something everybody did because we didn’t have money to spend on buying triple mix and whatever. Having the dump-truck-load of soil brought in. You know, like, we didn’t have the extra cash for that. So we just made do with everything.
And then, in comes convenience. You know, we’re too busy. How could we be too busy to take the banana peel outside? I think that marketing makes it seem like such a great thing. We can just go and buy this thing and we won’t have to worry. We can’t save more time than just chopping up that banana peel and tossing it under the kitchen table into the worm bin. I mean, it’s right there. We really have a lot of work to do.
And I think that this cuckoo time has allowed us time, a pause. And when–at the beginning of this time, my business was so busy. My phone was ringing off the hook because our schools were closed. So there were the kids home, people were home from work, everyone working from home, learning from home.
And so people were calling me saying, “Okay, the kids are at home. We’re homeschooling. We’re looking for a project. So we’re gonna get a worm bin. Won’t this be fun? You know, what do I care? Yes, let’s get a worm bin for the kids who has a project. Perfect.”
And then as time went in–Our schools were closed for much of 2020. The longer we were closed in… You know, in Canada, we import 60% of our food. So as we were closed in, you know, when you’re, when our borders are closed and we’re not importing food, the shelves get empty pretty quick.
And people start thinking about food. So then I think what happened was people were thinking, “Oh my gosh, yeah, cute little project for the kids. We better start a garden.” So then it’s like, “What do we need? We need soil. How do we get soil? Oh, the worms are soil makers. Yes.” Right?
So it kind of kept coming back to the worms. And I believe the worms are gonna play an ever increase in, in waste management, soil production, and, therefore, food security. This time was a gift for us to slow down, to figure out, “What do we want? What is important? Who are the important people in our life?” Yeah. So I think this time has really allowed us to decide what is important. And growing food is very important.
Absolutely beautiful points. And I agree. I was lucky enough to start a home garden for the first time since I was a child in the past two years. And it’s one of the most fulfilling parts of the year is managing that garden. And for the rest of the year, it’s planning and thinking about that garden. It’s a wonderful thing.
Oh, gardeners are so hopeful. You know, you plant a seed one day, but it’s not–it might be two months, three months, depending what you’re growing–until you reap your reward, until harvest time. Gardeners are hopeful. And here’s a beautiful thing about gardening. There are actually antidepressant microbes right in the soil. Gardeners are happy people.
I had a garden last summer that was, by gardener standards, pitiful. But I was so proud. And my neighbors, you know, just across the driveway, they came over and they’d pick radishes. And now this season, they’re going to have a garden of their own in their front yard. And it’s incredible. Like, it’s incredible that seeing that you can do this in your community inspires others to do it.
I just wanted to say, you know, there’s an old proverb, I think Confucius or something–about, you know, the idea of the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. Second best time, today. I would like to say the same for composting. Like, if you, you don’t compost yet. “Oh, I’ve lived in a, a condo for 20 years and I didn’t comp–.” Good. It’s okay. You can start today. You know, it’s never too late. <music>
I like vermicomposting because it’s an easy way to make soil amendments without going outside to drop off your food waste. It doesn’t take much more work than the kind of composting I already do. And it’s pretty easy to get started. Special thanks to this week’s guest, Cathy Nesbitt.
Today’s episode was edited by Genny Blauvelt, and I’m Jim Markus. Remember: Reviews are a huge asset for us. If you like this episode, please leave us a review on iTunes. Or, share the episode with a friend. <music>
More About Frugal Living With Jim Markus
Frugal Living is a podcast for smart consumers. How do you spend less and get more? The show, sponsored by Brad’s Deals, features interviews, stories, tips, and tricks. Jim Markus hosts season five, out now.