Digging deep for the planet

Vermicomposting is good for your garden, the environment and fascinating for kids


A handful of red wigglers. Photo Courtesy The Box of Life


In 2017, Akil Mesiwala was looking for a way to make his life more sustainable.

After researching indoor composting and vermicomposting, he bought some red wiggler earthworms and put them in a plastic tote — his first worm farm — which he kept in his Boston apartment. “I was hooked,” says Mesiwala, the founder of Ottawa-based The Box of Life.

Once seen as a fringe activity of the crunchy set, vermicomposting — a process that uses red wigglers to decompose organics — is going mainstream thanks to people like Mesiwala and environmental educator Christine Gillard.

An avid lifelong composter — she currently has nine composting spots in her yard, each receiving a specific matter, such as grass clippings, finished plant matter and kitchen scraps — Gillard began vermicomposting in 2009 as a new staffer at Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Gillard, who recommends vermicomposting for classrooms, offices and apartments dwellers, explains one of the differences between composting and vermicomposting: the latter is more like having a pet. They have very specific requirements, including temperature and eating only certain compostables, she says. “My favorite difference though, is that vermicompost can be much faster to break down.”

Ottawa has a green bin composting program, but some may still consider having a composter at home, says Sarah Coulber, education specialist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation. “I would consider vermicomposting a parallel step to the green bins,” says Gillard. “Green bins are great as they can take things you wouldn’t want in a home compost: like meat, bones, dairy, etc., but a vermicompost can help keep important plant nutrients in your house.” For Gillard, this also means never having to buy soil or put organic waste to the curb. “There’s also a carbon footprint to having a truck come to the house to pick up the (green bin). By keeping the nutrient cycle in your own yard, you help to minimize this.”

Green bins are important because they encourage people to reduce their household waste and keep it out of the landfills, agrees Deborah Clark, executive director of Green Action Centre in Winnipeg.

Composting at home also creates a great soil amendment that is going back into the ground, which in turn “greatly improves plant growth, soil structure and biodiversity,” Mesiwala says. “When compost is added to our soils, it can absorb and lock in atmospheric CO2 helping fight against climate change.” 

The latter was the reason why Mesiwala started vermicomposting. “If I divert organics away from landfill,” he says, “I am reducing my own GHG emissions and making this planet is little less trashy.” Before vermicomposting, more than 60 percent of his trash consisted of food scraps, which “would stink” and “become a pain when my newly adopted cat would topple it over looking for treats.” The worm farm, on the other hand, had no smell and did not interest the cat.” He soon upgraded to a stacking wooden system, which made it easier to get worm-free harvests of castings every few months — similar to the one he now sells at The Box of Life.

Before he began vermicomposting, Akil Mesiwala’s cat Purrcy used to dig in the trash._Photo Courtesy The Box of Life

Those not concerned about aesthetics can get set up with a minimal investment. Only a tote bin, shredded paper, organic scraps and worms are needed, says Clark, who for nearly a decade, has been contributing to a community vermicomposting venture. The compost is used to amend community garden plots and to top-dress houseplants and new plantings.

Whenever Gillard shows off the botanical garden’s vermicompost bin, curious onlookers ask whether there are really worms inside. “I think people expect the bin to be smelly and gross-looking, with a lot of flies around, which is of course quite the opposite,” she says. “Most people are very intrigued and when they do see the tiny red wigglers, they find them very cute — especially the eggs and babies.”

Mesiwala gets similar reactions. “There are people who make a disgusted face, crinkle their nose, and walk away in fright when I tell them that there are worms in the box,” says Mesiwala, but most are curious about how it works. “People are really fascinated the first time they come across a worm farm in real life. Not many adults want to touch the wormies, but almost all the kids will give me their palms when I ask them if they want to hold one.”

While most people who do vermicomposting are concerned about the environment or gardeners — “for plant people, worm castings are the gold standard in natural fertilizers,” says Mesiwala — the bins are great tools for parents to teach young children about soil, bugs and natural ecosystems.

“Vermicomposting can be an interesting way to see nature in action,” agrees Sarah Coulber of the Canadian Wildlife Federation. “This is especially true if you have children in your life as they get to experience their so-called waste materials become transformed into what is known as gardener’s gold,” she says. “Not only will they see for themselves nature’s way of recycling organic materials, but many will find it fascinating and will feel good at taking part in a family job or caring for the living beings that are doing this important task.”

Climate change is happening, and we all have to do our part to prevent further damage, says Mesiwala. “Vermicomposting is a way to rebuild the biodiversity of our soils and create closed loop food systems, and an individual solution to reduce our personal carbon footprint by avoiding sending food to landfill,” he says. “It is just such a simple way to be less wasteful.”


A worm in compost. Photo Courtesy MUN Botanical Garden


Experts answer your most pressing worm questions

Does it smell? “Vermicomposters will only smell if there is too much acidic organics and not enough paper,” says Deborah Clark. Although Akil Mesiwala says that anything once living, including meat and dairy can be composted, he doesn’t add it to his indoor bins because it can smell during decomposition.

Who should try it? Vermicomposting is great for people who live apartments, or don’t have access to the outdoors for composting but want to use compost as their amending agent for their gardens and plants, says Clark.

Is it a lot of work? “Vermicomposting is a passive kind of composting,” says Clark. “The results — which need only to be harvested once or twice a year, depending on volume of organics and paper — can be used immediately as the worm castings are safe to handle.”

I’m scared of worms… “For the most part, learning more helps to reduce any fear they may have had,” says Christine Gillard. “As far as creepy crawlies go, red wiggler worms are relatively slow-moving, can’t bite and do their best to hide away from you.”


“I often tell people that a well-maintained compost smells like playing in the forest when you’re seven years old. It has a rich earthy smell.” — Christine Gillard


The benefits of composting  

Waste diversion Use of landfill space can be significantly reduced when organics are recycled.  

GHG emission reduction Methane emissions are reduced through the composting of organics rather than landfilling. 

Biodiversity Soil health and productivity is dependent on organic matter — the essence of compost — to provide the sustenance for the biological diversity in the soil.  

Carbon bank Compost’s return to the soil serves removes carbon from the atmosphere. 

Water quality and conservation Compost binds pollutants to the organic matter and prevents them from entering our lakes, wetlands, streams and rivers. Soil erosion is mitigated, and water-holding capacity improved through compost’s enhancement of soil structure, binding soil particles together.  

Source: Compost Council of Canada