NEW HAVEN — Just days before Christmas break, New Haven Elementary School was infested with a thousand worms.
Exterminators were not called in, however, and the worms, “red wigglers” to be exact, were given their own hut in which to reside.
The earthworms are a part of an after-school program on permaculture gardening, taught by Debra Russell. The worms will not only be used in the after-school program, but by classroom teachers throughout the school, as well.
Russell said she began the class through the school’s “Patch” program after reading about an edible schoolyard project. The project involved students in all aspects of farming a garden, and preparing, serving and eating food as a means of awakening their senses and encouraging awareness and appreciation of the transformative values of nourishment, community and stewardship of the land.
Russell said in her class, the students are not only learning science in the garden, they are also learning to make healthier food choices and to appreciate the land. She cited childhood obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer as being conditions that can be improved with proper nutrition.
“Not only can a well-rounded gardening class help the children eat more vegetables, but it can give them the skills to provide some healthy food at home,” Russell said. “Urban gardening techniques will be taught so the kids in town can learn to grow where they live.”
She added that financial difficulty is another reason healthy food is sometimes not provided at home. The students will be starting seedlings in school to grow at home over summer break.
Russell said the earthworms are an intricate part of their program. One thousand earthworms were ordered and placed in a hut in the same room as the school’s “Trout in the Classroom” project, which has been ongoing for a number of years.
Tunnels made by the worms allow oxygen and water into the soil. They digest by-products from a number of items and leave a rich, organic fertilizer in their path called “worm casting,” Russell stated.
“There is no better fertilizer available,” she said. “Worms are invaluable to our earth as wonder gardeners. They nourish our plants and earth by their constant digesting and burrowing.”
Russell said the worms can be used at home, too. She stated they can eat green food scraps and even junk mail, thereby reducing materials that normally end up in landfills.
The worms at school were given banana skins and shredded paper to sustain them during the break. When the students return, the worms will be fed vegetable leftovers, shredded paper and cardboard, and even used coffee grounds from the teacher’s lounge.
The worms fit perfectly into the three principles of permaculture, Russell said, which are earth care, living in a way that helps all living creatures; people care, helping your friends, family and others have a healthy life; and fair share, not using more than you need and recycling what’s left.
Russell did admit that even though 1,000 worms were received by the school, not all of them made it to their hut.
“As I said, they were housed in a room with trout and catfish,” she said. “I guess it was only natural, boys seeing worms and fish within three feet of each other, their minds could only come to one conclusion. But the upside to the worms’ tragic end was some very happy catfish.”
Mindy Kearns is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing who lives in Mason County.