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The Toronto Star

August 13, 2010


Trash Talk - In praise of worms

Alf Holden's condo balcony is profuse with flowers and greenery, thanks to busy red wiggler worms that digest vegetable scraps an indoor composter.

Photos and article by: Ellen Moorhouse
(Special to the Star)


The blue jays love Alf Holden’s eighth-floor condo balcony in Toronto’s Annex.

“They’re very much part of the eco system,” says Holden, who edits the Sunday Star’s Insight section. “They fuss a lot, and they keep the pigeons away.”

The birds bury peanuts and acorns in plant pots, returning later to dig them up.

The lush vegetation on the 400-square-foot outdoor space, facing north and west, might explain the avian attraction. This year, juncos joined the guest list, and some gold finches dropped by this week.

The feathered visitors can thank a resident crew of red wigglers for all of the greenery. These worms, which live indoors in their simple box composter during the winter and outdoors on the balcony in warmer weather, produce poop, rich castings, which make the best kind of fertilizer.

“The thing about the garden, it’s fed by the worms,” says Holden. “They consume virtually all of our vegetable kitchen waste.”

Holden and his partner Michel Laverdiere, an education officer in Ontario’s education ministry, installed the worms about three years ago, purchasing a basic composter and starter worm supply from Cathy’s Crawly Composters (

The experience hasn’t been without its challenges.

Fruit flies can be persistent.

“Sometimes,” admits Holden, a little sheepishly, “we have resorted to Raid.”

A sheet of newspaper spread on top of the composter’s contents tends to discourage the flies. And since they come into your home on fruit you buy, worm expert Cathy Nesbitt — who owns Cathy’s Crawly Composters — recommends making sure banana, orange and melon peels, not normally washed, are rinsed before feeding them to the worms.

Putting the composter out on the balcony in the summer removes the nuisance for Holden and Laverdiere, and during the winter, the worms are sequestered in a little-used bathroom in the 900-square-foot condo. For odour control, they don’t feed the worms onions, which have a strong smell when they decompose.

Dealing with worm juice, the moisture that drains from the composter through holes in the bottom, has also presented a learning curve. At one point, Holden and Laverdiere would set the composter over the bathroom sink and let it drip, leaving an unpleasant residue. Now Holden catches the liquid in two baking trays set under the drainage holes, and waters plants with it.

Sometimes the worms become uncomfortable if their quarters become too acidic, and demonstrate their malaise by crawling up the sides of the composter and onto the underside of the lid. That means it’s time for a dose of chalk, which Holden and Laverdiere pick up in dollar stores. Two to four eggshells a week also help keep the pH factor in balance and the worms happy.

Once or twice a year, Holden and Laverdiere should empty the composter onto a plastic sheet to harvest the castings and give the worms a fresh start, but Holden admits to neglecting this chore. Nevertheless, the worms soldier on.

A more elaborate style of composter sold by Nesbitt, the Worm Chalet, eliminates most of the challenges of the basic box, offering stacked trays for the worms to migrate upward and a small tap at the bottom for drainage. In fact, the chalet is so trouble-free that it’s making inroads into offices (the City of Barrie has bought six).

For Holden, though, the benefits of vermiculture far outweigh any inconvenience.

He and Laverdiere can feel virtuous that they’re diverting organic waste from the dump, since their condo, where Holden serves on the board, has no city green bin service yet.

And they have their marvelous worm-fueled paradise on the L-shaped balcony, where a hammock, chairs and small tables are surrounded by pots of flourishing plants. The species are so numerous, Laverdiere must consult his flower guide: snapdragon, spider flower, morning glory, petunia, sunflower, strawflower, salvia, ageratum, amaranth, angel’s trumpet, blanket flower, coreopsis, cosmos, fuchsia, gazania, heliotrope, hollyhock, licorice plant, marigold, Mexican sunflower, million bells, sweet potato vine, nasturtium, nicotiana, prairie gentian, verbena and more.

Indeed, the worms and the composter have reminded Holden of what most of us lose sight of in our urban environment:

“People have great phobias over decomposition, but witnessing it over time, you begin, actually, to take comfort in it,” he mused in an email. “Nasty things are transformed, made odourless and benign; you then see the flowers and beauty and come to appreciate the cycles of nature.”

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