Science Cafe Concord digs into the world of composting

  • Mmmmmmm. Courtesy—Joan's Famous Composting Worms

Monitor staff
Monday, April 17, 2017

There’s something about composting that seems like magic: Turn smelly garbage into lovely rich soil, without lifting a finger!

Awesome. And if worms are involved, extra awesome – or so says at least one of three panelists at Tuesday’s Science Cafe Concord.

“People really pitied me in the beginning. ‘Oh, poor Joan, she’s reduced to selling worms. ... But people that mocked me, now they walk up and say ‘Joan, can I buy some worms?’ ” said Joan O’Connor, gloating just a little bit as she recounted the history of Joan’s Famous Composting Worms, her Henniker-based business that is nearing 25 years of operation.

O’Connor will be one of four panelists at Science Cafe Concord, which welcomes the arrival of warm weather by discussing the science of composting. Also scheduled to answer our questions are UNH Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Bonnie Ensinger, because nobody loves compost more than a gardener does; James Meinecke, farmer in chief at Lewis Farm in Concord, which does composting on a scale that requires tractors rather than trash cans; and Ann Whytemare of FoundWell Farms, who teaches plant biology and eco-geeky classes at NHTI.

They’ll talk about the realities and possibilities of composting, because despite this column’s introduction it does actually require lifting a finger, doing some planning and having some understanding of what’s happening. Phosphorus/nitrogen balance, anybody?

As always, the session is free and starts at 6 p.m. upstairs in The Draft Sports Bar, 67 S. Main St., Concord. Get there early if you want a good table and bring your questions.

I’m not sure whether O’Connor will bring any worms – the health inspector would probably prefer she didn’t – but I am sure she won’t be shy about urging everybody to embrace what is formally known as vermiposting (“vermi” is Latin for worm).

“Worm (manure) is the best of all the manures – beats out cow, horse, pig, goat,” she told me using a more colorful term.

O’Connor got started with vermiposting out of frustration in maintaining an outdoor compost pile in New Hampshire.

“I got tired of falling on the idea with a bucket of garbage all over you – and the (compost pile) sits there frozen, disgusting for months until spring,” she said. “I wondered, how can I get a composting system year-round without a disgusting garbage pile in my house?”

O’Connor said that adding red wigglers or other worms to your compost mix can break down the organic material so quickly that it won’t stink up the house if you bring it indoors.

“From Thanksgiving until about now, you can do this in your basement or a hall closet, a utility room, you do it under your bed – you do it anywhere you want, on top of your refrigerator,” she said.

There are limits (no meat, no dairy, no citrus, nothing greasy) but it can keep a lot of crud out of your trash can and generate some nice soil.

I am lucky to have enough outdoor space to do passive composing behind the barn, but one winter I also tried vermicomposting to see how it went. It worked fine, but there is one creepy aspect: On quiet nights you can hear the worms chewing, like the sound effect of a bad monster movie.

Science Cafe is having this conversation partly because composting has shifted from a dirt lover’s oddity to being a bigger player in the overall environmental picture, trying to replenish the soil and cut down on food waste.

This summer in Vermont, as part of a rolling effort to create what it calls “universal recycling,” all transfer stations and landfills must begin to accept food waste, and most restaurants and other large food producers will be forced to compost rather than discard their organic material.

By 2020, which isn’t as far away as it sounds, everybody in Vermont will have to compost rather than trash their food waste.

Hmmm; is it too late to buy the Green Mountain State franchise for Joan’s Famous Composting Worms?

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)