and gross, but good for your garden
Kasey Johnson, 8, of Hailey, holds up a bucket of worm ‘tea’ — water infused with the nutrients from worms’ waste — before pouring it into a recycled water bottle to sell. Hailey Elementary School second- and third-grade classes use the worms as part of multidisciplinary learning, and proceeds from the sale of the nutrient-rich liquid go to charity. ARIEL HANSEN/Times-News

HAILEY — To an 8-year-old kid, what could be grosser than a hundred worms oozing across each other under a moldy banana peel?

For students in the second and third grades at Hailey Elementary School, worms are a part of daily life — the kids feed them scraps, monitor their health and, once a week, pour water through the worm bins to collect nutrient-rich “tea.”

Teachers Iliana Sandoval and Lisa Thilmont first got the idea of bringing worm bins into the classrooms at a Boise conference, and they quickly persuaded their principal to fund a multidisciplinary project around the bins.

“It was a great way to integrate all the subjects,” Sandoval said, describing how the students have applied math, vocabulary, biology and environmental studies, among others, to the red wiggler worms. The school district is moving toward project-based learning, she said, so this was a good test of how it would work in a classroom.

The bins were in Thilmont’s classroom for the first semester of the year and now sit in a corner of Sandoval’s, with plastic party cups under each bin’s spigot to help catch leaks.

“It’s gotten to a point where they (the kids) do the whole process; I just observe,” Sandoval said.

Of course, the students did have to get over that initial “gross” factor, and there are still parts of the process that get their noses wrinkled up.

“You want to faint when you smell it,” said Gustavo Perez, 8, of Bellevue, talking about the worm tea. He’s not wrong; it’s a pretty pungent odor for the few moments that the liquid — which contains a few of the tiny worms that filter through with the waste nutrients — is open to the air.

Perez volunteers facts about the worms’ diet: “They can eat bananas and lettuce, but no oils or meat, no mayonnaise. … If a worm dies, another worm will eat the worm.”

Many of the kids have taken bottles of worm tea home for use on houseplants and, now that the weather is warm enough, vegetable gardens.

“The first day, it (the plant) was like this,” said Cearter Strope, 8, of Hailey, bending his knees and crouching, “and the second day it was like this,” he said, straightening to his full height with a flourish.

The worm tea is poured into plastic water bottles rescued from the recycle bin, and labels hand-decorated by the kids are taped on. The tea is sold to parents and other visitors to the school for a donation of a dollar or two per bottle, and the proceeds go to a charity that helps those affected by the earthquake in Haiti.

“My mom used it to make her plants big, and now she keeps buying more and more,” said Yasmin Torres, 8, of Hailey. “Instead of throwing out the peels of bananas, we can use them to make more worm tea.”

Worm tea isn’t the only useful thing that comes from worm bins, said Mario de Haro Marti, a University of Idaho Extension educator at the Gooding County office.

“Worm castings are the top organic natural compost and fertilizer; they are better even than normal compost if they are done properly,” he said, describing the waste the worms leave behind. “Some people use the tea, which has bactericide and insecticide properties, to make the plants grow.”

De Haro Marti is trying to put together an association of local producers of worm castings so the supply will be consistent enough to sell it on the Internet. Separately, students at Gooding High School are running a worm and composting process to support the school’s greenhouse program. “The idea is to run some trials at the school on tomatoes at the greenhouse, to show the students and the public this is the difference,” he said.

Growers using worm castings or worm tea can expect a 20 to 30 percent increase in the size and productivity of their plants, and the bins are affordable enough to be used even on a small scale. “It can be done at a house level, or up to municipal level or institutional level,” de Haro Marti said. “It provides not only nutrients but acids, and it stimulates the microorganisms to work better in the soil.”

And they aren’t as gross as 8-year-olds might assume.

“The worm bins you can get today are so user-friendly and they don’t smell,” said Jill Metcalfe, owner of G’Day Care in Hailey, who bought a bin to teach her preschoolers about recycling after purchasing worm tea from the Hailey Elementary students. “Kids today need to know the cycle of life and where we get our food from and what happens to our leftovers.”

Next year, the elementary school kids will be taking that cycle a step further, with the first grade growing a vegetable garden — for which the second and third grades will supply worm tea and castings.

“It would be a beautiful world if every single room had a worm bin,” Thilmont said.

Ariel Hansen may be reached at ahansen@magicvalley.com or 788-3475.

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