"The Best Farmhands with No Hands": a Note on Worms in the Classroom.

"Camp Wormdeful" was my favorite session at the WV School Garden Symposium, in late September, this post is all about the "farmhands with no hands", WORMS.

Composting with worms, also known as Vermicomposting is a neat way to incorporate gardening into the classroom. Worms are the easiest classroom pet to manage (and there's no need to send them home with students over winter break, or worry about them on snow days) and they produce nutrient rich fertilizer (aka worm castings, worm poop, the new black gold) from food scraps, comparable to your standard bagged fertilizer. They also prefer darkness, so they will be just fine in a room without windows or with North-facing windows.

Grow Ohio Valley's Kate Marshall, uses worms to engage students.

Grow Ohio Valley's Kate Marshall led the Camp Wormdeful session, she brought thousands of worms with her; a few earth worms and night crawlers but most of them were, the work horse of worms, the red wriggler.

Earth worms are not red wrigglers, so if starting a vermicompost in the classroom, order worms online, or ask another vermicomposter rather than digging up the school yard.

The night crawlers she brought primarily for comparison, night crawlers are not ideal for worm composting but they are gigantic compared to red wrigglers. Night crawlers like to move vertically through the soil, squirming up and down, they help to aerate soil (and have been known to crawl deeper than six feet). Put them in a small container in a classroom and they will be sad and miserable.

Red wrigglers on the otherhand, like to move horizontally through the soil, making them ideal for small containers in classrooms. While she recommended the book "Worms Eat My Garbage" as a reference (available online as a PDF or from your favorite bookseller), Kate called us to action: "THE EASIEST WAY TO LEARN ABOUT VERMICOMPOSTING IS TO DO IT" - So we did! During the session we created the perfect worm habitat. Kate gave us a head start and had the bins set and ready to fill with the ideal red wriggler worm habitat: damp, shredded newspapers from yesterdays (excepting the glossy ad sections), peat moss, cornmeal, a handful of scrap vegetables and fruits (buried deep to avoid attracting fruit flies), and then we added our worms.

Kate and a finished worm bin, full of castings.

Worm bin essentials:

  • two totes (not too large, remember, with time, the worms will fill the top one with castings, making it heavy)

  • drill (or something to make holes in bins, to allow air movement)

  • newspapers

  • water

  • peat moss

  • cornmeal or sand

  • scrap fruit or vegetable pieces (No dairy, meats, citrus, or onions) (Coffee grounds, and crushed egg shells will help the worms grind up the food scraps)

  • red wriggler worms

Commercially produced worm bins are available but tend to be expensive ($80-120) for the typical on-a-shoe-string school garden budgets. Purchasing 2 totes from a box store will cost $10, peat moss $5, cornmeal or sand $2, and (1000) red wrigglers around $20; making the entire project possible for under $40.

Off to the races, worm races, that is!

Before we created a habitat for the red wrigglers, Kate asked the kids in attendance to help her hold a Worm Race, on a small box - with a finish line and everything! The kids who attended this session were ecstatic about these worms racing. Kate used this race as a way to teach us about what worms need to be happy: dark, damp, oxygen, and food. Near the finish line, she placed a damp paper towel, a refuge for these worms in broad daylight.

Alignment with Standards:

See North Elementary's first grade "Worms and Lettuce" Curriculum. (Lessons with worms can be easily incorporated to other elementary grade standards.)

At the middle school level, worms are great for comparative anatomy. Their bodies are very different from humans. They "eat" food by grinding it up, much like chickens, they have a gizzard to grind food before it travels to their intestines. Talking reproduction is also a hit - after just 3 months, worms become grandparents! Red wrigglers also take their space and available food into consideration when reproducing; they slow when space is limited, or food supply is low.

Warning: As an educator, be sure your administrators and janitorial staff are on board and know you're moving red wrigglers into your classroom, especially during the first few weeks as the red wrigglers get used to their new home and the class learns how to care for their new pets. If you overfeed your worms, do not cover the food well enough, the bin will attract fruit flies. On the otherhand, if the worm bin is too wet, red wrigglers may seek drier grounds (and end up dried up on the classroom floor). Support from administrators and janitors will help the class and red wrigglers through this period of adjustment.

Full disclosure: I have thousands of worms living with me, in my home. They keep my trash from smelling and attracting unwanted pests, and supply me with plenty of fertilizer for my garden. Additionally, in the past, I've incorporated red wrigglers into special education classrooms at the middle school level.

Photos Courtesy of Emily Landseidel.

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