It used to be that the early bird would get the worm, but households, schools and even prisons can now have the invertebrates delivered free to their door – if they get a wriggle on.
A Nottingham-based initiative, the Urban Worm Community Interest Company (UWC), is on a mission to “worm up” the UK by kickstarting an urban worm farming movement that can create high-grade fertiliser from banana skins and old socks.
The social enterprise has received a £50,000 grant from the national lottery to send out 1,000 packs of composting worms – known as tiger worms because of their red skin – to anybody with a DIY worm farm ready to house a population of 100.
“Using worms to manage organic household waste is happening at scale all over the world, except in the UK,” said Anna de la Vega, managing director of the UWC. “The reality of climate change, natural resource depletion and mass urbanisation presents unprecedented threats to global food security and the survival of humanity.”
As far as natural waste managers and fertiliser-producers go, worms are unmatchable: they can eat up to half their body weight in organic waste a day and reduce the volume of that waste by 90% in two to six months.
“The process particularly lends itself to the urban environment with small-scale indoor, low tech and low cost systems,” De la Vega said. “With 83% of the UK living in cities, an urban worm farming movement is essential for future food security and provides easy solutions for our kitchen waste.”
The worm castings – or worm manure – they produce is grade-A soil, rich in the 14 nutrients that plants need to thrive: just one tablespoon of worm manure per plant is enough for each growing season.
For those who are still squeamish, De la Vega is quick to assure them that worms don’t smell – although the “wee” they produce, drained out of the bottom of the worm farm, is so powerful that it needs to be diluted before being used to fertilise the garden.
A DIY worm farm can be made in anything that keeps the light out: the UWC website has videos showing how to dig deep and transform a plastic box, a chest of drawers and even a bag for life into a new, earthy home.
Worms don’t even need your waste food: find a box, fill it with some damp, shredded paper, some cotton socks, an old wool jumper and you’re off. “Worms just want to eat and mate. If you give them enough food and space, they won’t try to escape,” said De la Vega.
“If you don’t want them multiplying, don’t give them loads of food. They’re really clever: they’re hermaphrodites, so they can all lay eggs. But they don’t lay unless there’s enough food and space to sustain an increase in their population.”
De la Vega has already sent worms to 26 schools across the country and one prison. She is particularly pleased about the prison. “Worms clear toxins out of the earth and leave it completely clean and richer – helping plants to grow," lei disse. “That’s a message of rebirth, regeneration and forgiveness that I think it is nice to take into a prison setting.”
De la Vega will help 1,000 lucky worm farmers to nurture their new pets: alongside videos on the UWC website, they will be sent another video a few months after starting their worm farm to instruct them on harvesting their fresh fertiliser.
If the two-year scheme is a success, the national lottery has said it will plough another tranche of funding into the programme. “Of course they are keen to keep funding the project,” said De la Vega. “It’s because it’s worms; they’re interesting. They’re niche.”
The benefits of worm farming
Tackles climate change: rotting food waste releases the greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide, which are 13 e 310 times stronger than carbon dioxide.
Worms for all: low cost, low tech and perfect for the city. You don’t need a garden to keep a few worms. They will be very happy under your kitchen sink.