Melodie Kennedy, who lost her job as a customer service technician last November, has started a business using worms to create what she said is a healthier fertilizer for houseplants and gardens. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Melodie Kennedy watches her red wigglers devour a banana peel in a two-by-two-foot composter, saying proudly that they are the best composting worms to be had.

Kennedy, 59, who lost her job as a customer service technician at an industrial equipment company in November, needed something new to do. She ran across the worms, which can grow up to 4 inches in length, on the internet.

She ordered 100, but that proved to be far too few, so she ordered another 1,000, and finally 6,100. She soon saw how they noshed on discarded banana peels and watermelon rinds, which are two of their favorite foods, along with molasses water. Within a few weeks, the food waste they eat will break down into castings, or poop, that fertilize plants.

Kennedy launched her Topsham-based business Friday at ClimateWork Maine’s inaugural economy and climate change conference attended by about 400 people at the Augusta Civic Center. She is counting on a gardening boom fed by inflationary food prices and the impatience of many gardeners to gather food waste and turn it periodically in a yard bin for sales of her ready-made fertilizers.

Red wiggler worms, known to be proficient composters, nosh among banana peels, watermelon rinds and coconut shells. Their poop will be used to make fertilizer for gardens and houseplants. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

“We throw away a lot of food scraps,” she said. “We will make worm castings that you can put into your garden or houseplants for slow release.”

Worm castings are what is left over when the red wigglers digest and excrete the food scraps. The worms can eat about half of their body weight each day. Composting with worms is a longstanding practice in the organic gardening community.

Kennedy will sell the fertilizer in two forms. One is as finely ground castings resembling coffee grounds that purchasers can dilute and steep in water for 24 hours, then put into soil. The other is as a pre-mixed solution that she calls “worm casting tea.”

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension program in Orono is testing the products. Kennedy plans to start selling them in a few weeks. She has not yet set pricing, but she wants to keep sales local to curtail the carbon footprint of her business. That means selling at farmers markets and other local venues.

The products, which do not contain industrial chemicals, will compete with other commercially available fertilizers that are diluted in small amounts in water. Kennedy claims her natural products, which are not yet certified organic, do not burn plant roots like commercial products can. They also do not have the carbon footprint of traditional yard composters, which she said release carbon when the compost pile is turned.

She plans to advertise the worm casting products on Facebook, and figures they will appeal to existing and new gardeners who picked up their shovels during the pandemic and rise of inflation.

“The price of food is crazy,” she said.

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...