A Diet of Worms

Located in the small northeast Iowa town of Decorah, Luther College is an undergraduate liberal arts institution of about 2,500 students. At Luther, the belief that sustainable thinking is a tool for examining complex modern crises is central to campus thought. Luther enacts sustainability by greening its campus operations, reaching out to support local cities and businesses, and teaching students through academic courses and campus life that creating a sustainable society is the responsibility of each individual.

Ask Luther College students, “What is the Diet of Worms?” and they may explain it was the assembly in 1521 in Germany at which Martin Luther refused to recant his writings, stating: “Here I stand. I can do no other,” and inspired the Protestant Reformation.

Or they may say “fruits and vegetables.” 

Luther College students have started disposing of fruit and vegetable waste in worm composting bins installed by students from the Luther Sustainability program in mid-January in seven of Luther’s residence halls. 
Students are asked to place their fruit and vegetable food waste, as well as shredded newspapers, paper receipts, and old class notes in the compost bins, where red worms will convert the materials to organic matter that will become rich, black loam soil in the Luther Gardens.   

The Friendly Earthworm Moves In
Vermicomposting, the process of using earthworms to turn organic wastes into very high-quality compost, was first explored in 1941 by George Sheffield Oliver. His ideas, presented in his book Friend Earthworm: Practical Application of a Lifetime Study of Habits of the Most Important Animal in the World, are only now being fully explored and confirmed a half century later.   

Pre-made, specialized worm composting units, such as Can-O-Worms, Worm-A-Roo, and Tiger Wormery can be purchased, but the Luther Sustainability program created their own worm-composting units using Rubbermaid containers to hold the moist shredded newspaper and moist bedding for the worms.   

Luther students Abby Benson, Maddie Ford, Sonja Birthisel, and Adam Voss have been designated as “worm keepers” for the bins in their residence halls. Their principal jobs are to make sure the worms have the proper amount of food and bedding. They will also educate their peers about the composting bins.   

“My responsibilities as worm keeper involve monitoring the compost bin: turning it periodically, adding more carbon sources when needed, and ensuring the worms aren’t overfed,” said Birthisel, worm keeper in the Ylvisaker Residence Hall. “I’m also excited to promote the project, letting people know the worms are here, and they want to be fed.”   

Food for Worms

Food for the worms can range from coffee grounds to tea bags, stale bread to houseplant trimmings. No metal, foil, or plastic may be placed in the bins, and keepers are warned to be cautious of citrus fruits, onion, dairy products, and meat.   

Bedding for the worms can include newspaper strips, shredded paper, leaves, spoiled hay, and wood shavings. 

“The project is exciting because it raises awareness among Luther students about composting and the value of “waste,” said Adam Voss, worm keeper for the Brandt Residence Hall. “Response to the program has been surprisingly and overwhelmingly positive, and it is exciting how quickly the project was implemented after it sprouted in the mind of students.”   

In ideal composting conditions, the red worms can eat at least their own weight in organic matter in a day. After consuming the compost, all pathogenic bacteria is killed in the worms’ digestive system, and the worms release casts full of microorganisms necessary for plant growth.   

Out to the Garden
The worm casts also contain five times more nitrogen, seven times more phosphorus, and 11 times more potassium than ordinary soil; nutrients that are essential for healthy plant growth. 

Luther will use the vermicompost as fertilizer in the Luther Gardens. Vermicompost can be lightly tilled into the topsoil, or it can be used to make “compost tea,” a liquid fertilizer rich in nutrients for plants in all stages of life.   

“Feeding the worms provides a fun way for students to engage with their waste,” said Maren Stumme-Diers, assistant sustainability coordinator. “Many students are excited to know their apple cores, banana peels, and shredded papers are becoming the basis for rich compost rather than finding a permanent home in a landfill.”   

For more information about vermicomposting, visit http://www.journeytoforever.org/compost_worm.html