"A friend of mine suggested I get some worms that will “eat my garbage”. Will they really do that, and are they messy?"
What you are referring to is called vermiculture, a composting technique that uses an appropriate species of worm, such as the oft-used and durable red wiggler, to break down kitchen scraps into worm castings for your garden.
While you can buy specially made worm composting systems, it’s quite easy make your own worm bin at home. One DIY setup involves a plastic container with a lid, shredded paper, red wiggler worms, and your “green” kitchen waste. A manageable container will be around twenty-four inches long, eighteen inches wide, and eight inches high. To get started, fill the bin partway up with a layer of moist, shredded paper, such as newspaper with soy-based ink, for bedding. Add the worms to the bin and then green kitchen waste (raw fruit and vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, tea bags, etc.). Avoid meat, dairy products, citrus rinds or cooked foods. To avoid adding too much or too little, regularly check on the worms to monitor how quickly the scraps are getting broken down. Loosely cover the container with a lid that has plenty of air holes so oxygen can circulate.
It will take 3 to 5 months for the worms to fully process your kitchen waste into worm castings. At that time, the worms will have created a nutrient-rich vermicompost that can be used as a high-quality soil amendment or fertilizer. The challenge is separating the worms from the compost to extract it for use. Begin this process by pushing all of the composted worm bin contents to one side of the bin. Then put fresh bedding and food scraps in the empty half of the bin. Over the next 2 to 3 weeks, the worms will move over to the side with new food and bedding, conveniently leaving the vermicompost behind.
If you experience any common issues, such as attracting pests or worm die off, contact the Infoline for troubleshooting assistance.
UNH Cooperative Extension Master Gardener volunteers share information about home, yard, and garden topics with the people of New Hampshire. Got questions? Master Gardeners provide practical help finding answers to your questions through the Ask UNH Extension Infoline. Call toll free at 1-877-398-4769, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., or e-mail us firstname.lastname@example.org.