Worming Your Way to Success

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Worming Your Way to Success

Vermiculture is the phrase that describes the process of using worms to convert kitchen and garden waste into a very valuable humus-rich product. For six years, my wife Denise and I have been using worms to compost kitchen waste. (We recently lost our worm bins to a remodeling project and an overzealous contractor, but we’re back in the game.) There are extensive government worm farming programs going on in developing countries like India and Cuba. They cannot afford to import expensive petrochemical fertilizers and hope to turn waste into usable products through worms. In a project in India, around 1,000 farmers are now using vermicompost in their orchards and have reduced their use of chemical fertilizers by 90%. India now produces more than 5,000 tons of vermicompost per year, and they have only been produced since 1985. Cuban scientists have discovered that vermicompost contains more nitrogen than traditional aerobic composting. The British and French governments are also actively exploiting the power of the worm.

We all know how valuable worms are in our gardens, and most of us are more than happy to find them while digging in our beds. They promote bacterial growth, aerate compacted soil and aid in the breakdown of organic matter. Plus, since they’re 60 percent protein, they add even more protein to the soil when they die. There are 3000 species of worms. Of these people, it turns out that there are really only two basic types that concern us, and they divide their world into two environments. Eiseniafoetida (red worms) may be familiar to you as red nematodes, dung worms, fish worms, dung strip worms and even apple skinks. These are “humus formers” that live on or near the surface in highly organic places like manure piles. Their diet consists of 90% fresh organic matter and 10% soil.

The second group, the kind you’re most likely to encounter in your garden, are the “humus feeders.” These are deep-digging (up to three feet vertically) creatures, and their digging habits make our soils more porous. They leave behind humus as they leave.

Humus feeders or Lumbricus terrestis (night crawlers) require large living spaces. Nightcrawlers don’t encounter their own kind very often, compared to the red wigglers who live happily on top of each other. As a child I was told that worms surface after rain to avoid drowning. wrong! Moisture is essential to their survival. They are really looking for a sexual partner and a convenient flat mating place. Wet surfaces are a big attraction because they need moisture to move, and this is where they can encounter other similarly inclined worms. One writer described it as “nature’s singles bar”.

So why should you get involved with the Red Swingers up close and personal? I’d heard that the virtues of their final product had been touted for a while, so shortly after we started producing the bins that ended up being filled with castings, we field-tested them. We bought six packs of annuals (petunias, if I recall) and planted half of them in our garden in our usual way. This is the control group.

Our experimental group consisted of the other half of the pack planted in vermicompost-rich soil. We still water. Since they are both grown side by side in the sun, the environments are pretty much the same. But by the end of the season, the plants are very different. Vermicomposted plants were noticeably larger and had more abundant flowers. We are convinced that every new plant on board is introduced into the vermicompost-rich environment.

It’s easy and fun. We present to you our new pet worm. Many of our friends are too squeamish to really look inside the worm box, but quite a few (gardeners) want some worms for themselves. While doing research for this publication, I learned how this all works. Thomas J. Barrett writes in Harnessing the Earthworm:

…they actually act as colloid mills to produce intimate chemical and mechanical mixtures of fine organic and inorganic matter that form their castings. During the mixing process that takes place in the earthworm’s digestive tract, the ingested substances are chemically transformed, deodorized and neutralized, so that the humus produced is actually a neutral humus, rich in water-soluble plant nutrients and immediately available for plant nutrition .

In short, they convert waste into humus. How important is that? Humus and the humic acid in humus can do a lot of things that benefit plants.

Experiments have shown that even in the presence of small amounts of humus, plants are stimulated to grow beyond what would be expected from normal nutrition. Beyond that, heavy metals that are harmful to plants (and you and me) are often found in sludge, crop residues, and manure.

Humus has the ability to “fix” the metal so that the plant doesn’t absorb more than it needs. It then releases the heavy metals when the plants need them. Finally, humus helps in some way when the soil is too acidic or too alkaline. In other words, acid-loving plants can still grow well in alkaline conditions if the soil contains a lot of humus. So where do we get this humus? Composting is a great place to start. Converting various plant materials into humus is what it does. Vermiculture is simply a more efficient way to end up with a humus-rich product.

Vermiculture containers need to be strong enough to let air in, keep out light (bloodworms hate light.) and prevent moisture from leaking through the bottom. A 2′ x 2′ x 2′ box should be enough to hold a family of two’s kitchen waste, but I find larger boxes are easier to empty and maintain. It’s hard to predict how much trash you’ll be generating in a given week because most of us can’t weigh! No matter what size box you end up using, be sure to punch holes in the bottom and/or sides for ventilation.

Many worm farmers advocate keeping litter boxes indoors. I did it in our basement for a month. When fruit flies start appearing in large numbers on the third floor, it’s time to move the litter box outside. The basics of the inside of the worm box have to do with the ideal temperature that the little ones like. Ideally, the temperature range should be 550F – 780F. Survival range is more like 900F heat, no lower than 320F. Like me, their activity slows down when it gets too hot or too cold. Some research has shown that worms can be frozen solid, and if the freezing is slow and they don’t thaw and refreeze often, they can still survive! If you live in a cooler area, try insulating the box with straw bales or other material to prolong the worm’s lifespan.

In the Pacific Northwest (USDA zone 8), our worms survived well in the shade during summer and most of winter. However, after some winters we did notice a decrease in numbers and even disappear once or twice. However, if you’re not too attached to your particular worm, they’re not too difficult to replace. These worms are pretty much everywhere. If it’s not sold in your neighborhood, there are several mail order suppliers. As a rule of thumb, you need to start with two pounds of worms for every pound of trash you hope to produce per day.

Bedding can be just about anything organic. Straw, wood chips, peat moss, compost, shredded cardboard, and newspaper will all work. I live in a city, so I called a company that shreds paper for the office, and was able to get a big bag of shredded paper for free. I mix it 50-50 with damp peat moss. Since I don’t use peat these days (see mulch section), I’ll probably use dry manure which I can buy by the bag next time. The moisture content should be about the same level as a wrung sponge recommended for compost piles. Worms consume a lot of water. They produce 60% of their body weight in urine every day. Of course, urine is a great source of nitrogen, which you can provide to your plants after the process is complete.

Food is what you would normally put in the trash for disposal. No animal products such as bones, meat, dairy or fats because of their bad habit of spoiling and smelling. Some worm farmers advocate leaving litter on the surface, thinking the worms will come up. I buried it below the surface myself, thinking I might fool a fruit fly or two into not paying attention.

If your worm bin is smelly, you may be doing something wrong. Stop feeding, agitate the box to let air in, check and clear out the air holes, add dry ingredients and it should return to its original sweetness. This is again the old aerobic versus anaerobic exercise. Worm cardio.

Remember, worms don’t have teeth. Moisture in litter or bedding softens their food so they can swallow it into their guts, which start to grind. If you really want to make the worms happy and speed up digestion twice as fast, chop up the junk in the food processor before feeding. It’s also a good idea to throw in a few handfuls of sand or a small shovel filled with dirt every now and then.

If you provide your worms with a decent environment, they will be motivated to start a family. It takes only six weeks for the hatch to mature. They can reproduce three times a week for the rest of their lives, which is about a year. The babies are hungry too. Bloodworms consume more than their own weight in food on the day of birth and every day thereafter. In most home systems, adults consume about half their body weight per day, but given ideal temperatures, ground food, and moist bedding, they can consume their body weight per day.

The finished product is easier to collect. I usually use a strategy of letting the worm do the work. When it becomes apparent that you have a large number of castings to collect, about the first two or three months, imagine the box as having two halves. All food is now placed on the left only. Move any blocks you see on the right. Considering the size of their brains, these worms are surprisingly smart. They find that the food is no longer on the right, and either they go looking for it, or a curious, exploratory worm returns and tells them to look to the left now. So within a month or less, nearly all of the worms had moved to the left side of the bed. Empty its finished right side and replace the padding. Any worms that happen to still be around are probably too dumb or genetically damaged, and I’d be happy to eliminate them from the gene pool. Now you only feed on the left side for a while, and the worms will move there, allowing you to change the litter on the right sight as well. From then on until the whole box looks finished again, you can feed on both sides.

One suggestion: you are only limited by your imagination. However, be careful. The final product is so rich that some authors feel that it should not be used unless diluted. Personally, I’ve never had a problem using it directly. Vermicompost is a great potting soil. However, it works much better when mixed with other materials such as coir (a coconut waste that is now entering our market). Use it in your fall plantings and your plants will be better equipped to handle the challenges of winter.

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