When it comes to making great compost, it's hard to beat a bunch of red wigglers.
Red wigglers are the preferred species for vermiculture - a system that uses worms to break down garbage into natural, nutrient-rich fertilizer.
"Worms are very good eaters," said Leonard Bruso, 21, who lives in Agawam. "They break things down very quickly. This is a quick process."
How quick? According to Bruso, in one week worms turn the same amount of food waste into compost that would otherwise take a year in a typical, passive, backyard compost pile.
Bruso researched vermiculture systems last semester as a student in Professor Kate Maiolatesi's Sustainable Agriculture I class, inspired by the documentary "No Impact Man," about a New Yorker who decides to live a more environmentally sustainable life. Earlier this semester, with the help of classmates in Maiolatesi's "Politics of Food" class, Bruso put together a vermiculture system to make compost for HCC's Sustainability Garden.
"Cooking does create a lot of food waste," said Bruso, a dual major in Business Administration and Sustainability Studies. "This could be a way to utilize that to help soil."
Bruso's system is simple and cheap. He decided on a two-box setup using $3 plastic bins from Walmart. One box sits inside the other. Air holes in the top allow the worms to breathe. Holes in the bottom of the top bin allow processed compost to fall through and excess water to drain out into the bottom bin. He added soil and red wigglers to the top bin, dumped in a bucket of vegetable scraps and covered that with shredded newspaper moistened with water from a garden hose.
"The idea is to make it affordable," he said. "Anyone can do it in their home, and you can do it on a bigger scale."
While the idea of having a bin full of worms in your house might not sound too appealing, experienced vermiculture practitioners say it's not so bad.
"I thought it would be disgusting and smelly with fruit flies in my kitchen," said Leigh-Ellen Figueroa, 32, a liberal arts major in the Politics of Food class. "But it wasn't. They just sit in there and eat garbage."
Figueroa noted to her classmates that the red wigglers don't seem to like egg shells or citrus fruit. They do like coffee filter and tea bags, however, and they are also unlikely to try to escape. "They will stay where it's dark and where there's food," she said.
Maiolatesi said vermiculture is a great idea for people who live in apartments or just don't have room for a compost pile.
"It's so simple," she said. "You have the worms. They're in the bucket and they do their thing. It keeps organic matter out of the trash, eliminates the smell in your trash and breaks it down into nutrients you want in your garden. It just means you don't waste all that organic material."
Besides the compost, the water that drains through the bins comes out as a nutrient-rich, compost tea that makes a great fertilizer itself.
As far as the choice or worms goes, Maiolatesi said red wigglers are preferred for vermiculture systems because they have voracious appetites, reproduce quickly, and stay in the box. You can also buy them on line for about $20 per thousand.
"They can break down the compost the fastest," she said. "The compost is far richer cause it has worm castings" - worm manure - "in it. It's the best compost there is."
Photos: (Left) Leonard Bruso sets up his vermiculture system with the help of classmates in his Politics of Food class. (Right) Bruso holds up a clump of soil and red wigglers.